For embattled Peter Sellars, an intermission. Avant-garde director plans a busy sabbatical

PETER Sellars, the embattled director of the American National Theater (ANT), has just gone on sabbatical after a backstage melodrama that rivals his own exciting production of ``The Count of Monte Cristo.'' There've been bravos and cheers, but hisses and boos, too, in a swirling drama that echoes some of his own staging: mysterious, full of light and shadow, hurtling figures, dark mirrors, intrigue, and faces painted red with anger or green with envy.

When the news that Sellars was taking a sabbatical, after just 18 months of a three-year contract, leaked out from Kennedy Center, home of the ANT, no one was quite sure whether it was curtains for Sellars or just an intermission. The creation of ANT marks the third time that Kennedy Center has tried to establish a resident theater company modeled on the subsidized National Theatre of Great Britain and the Com'edie Fran,caise of France. Sellars vowed to make ANT a progressive force, ``radically rethinking the way theater is done'' in America.

In a Monitor interview, Sellars gives a rare glimpse of his current thinking about ANT, of his ideas about playmaking, of why such controversy raged around his productions, and of what he plans to do next.

Sellars says he plans to be back next fall after his one-year sabbatical with a premi`ere of a new opera, ``Nixon in China,'' by composer John Adams, which he is directing in Texas for the Houston Opera Company, then at Kennedy Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He says, `` `Nixon in China' will be an important start, and then we'll see what happens from there. Roger [Stevens, chairman of Kennedy Center] and I are maintaining a strict open-door policy, shall we say.''

Sellars is sitting at a large Jacobean table surrounded by packing boxes. (All the ANT staff has been let go, as of this month.) The Sellars trademark black-and-white kimono is draped over the back of his chair. Later he'll sling it on over his turquoise and red plaid shirt, red and black striped necktie, blue jeans and sandals. His iconoclastic tan hair, which used to be cut in a picket fence style, has been edited down almost to a crew cut. Peter Sellars is packed and almost on the road.

Does his departure mark the end of the American National Theater?

Not in the least, says Roger Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center. ``The American National Theater is not out of business at all. ANT is going on with or without Peter Sellars. We didn't form ANT for Peter Sellars. We'd already formed it as a subsidy [house] of ANTA (the American National Theater Academy) long before Peter got here.''

Mr. Stevens points out that the joint ANTA and Kennedy Center budget for ANT was for $6 million for three years, and he rebuts rumors that ANT under Sellars may have gone $1 million or $2 million in the hole. ``You don't have losses in that kind of budget; you have subsidies,'' he says, referring to the fact that Kennedy Center launched ANT with the idea that it would not be self-supporting.

Stevens quells some other rumors: ``I have great admiration for his abilities. And we haven't had any arguments about anything.''

Sellars says of Stevens, ``In the darkest hours, when I was worried about maybe we're the wrong people at the wrong time in the wrong place, Roger has given unflagging support. At this table about two months ago he said, `Oh, my old high school football coach used to say quitters never win, and winners never quit.' ''

When Stevens is asked whether he considers ANT a failure or success so far, he says, ``I don't know how you judge that. When you're subsidizing work, it isn't a failure, because you're going in knowing you're not going to get the money back out of it.'' But I would think that we did many unusual things, . . . and that it was all for the good.''

Sellars is proud of the artistic level he has maintained at ANT: ``There have been no sops . . . no candy'' thrown to the audience. ``We've had very strong meat here the wholetime.'' He suggests that some professional jealousy may have arisen among local theater people, who felt ``threatened'' by what he's done. But his attitude, he says, is different: ``It's so important for people to understand that I don't want for my theater to flourish and all other theaters to vanish. My theater can only flourish in a context where theater, in general, is flourishing.''

The public's hostility to some of his productions springs from something else, he suggests: ``The world is always angry when you pierce its surface in some way. The world would like to say that the surface of materialism is all that exists, and that people's lives are entirely material, and that's the only world. And every one of my productions hammers against the surface of materialism and forces the audience -- either through total frustration, out of boredom, or whatever -- to have a reaction that goes beyond the mundane. Why it's so hard to do theater now is because theater is about this confrontation with existence. And confrontation is, needless to say, not popular at this period in America, not politically or any other way . . . .

``And part of my task in theater -- it's what gives my shows some of their difficult quality, obviously, for people is that finally I just exhaust the audience to the point where I eventually try to break through all of those shells, all of those layers, all of those defenses, to the point where somebody can have an experience that's not pre-fab, pre-conditioned, and pre-determined by some rote mechanism.''

What does Sellars, as a director, try to do in his work?

``You try and get a bunch of people together in a room who might otherwise not be in a room together and allow something exciting to happen that just doesn't imitate life, but that is life. And that adds to their lives -- all of our lives -- with something that wouldn't have happened to us otherwise. And when you have that sense of event -- of people meeting each other and knowing each other and interacting -- and you know that lives have been expanded, your life has been expanded. There's just nothing like it.''

Not everyone agrees. Sellars's critics have whispered for some time that he was on his way out because of some difficult, controversial, and uneven productions that turned audiences hostile and that folded early. The first season opened with an inauspicious version of Shakespeare's ``Henry IV, Part 1'' which had an aborted run. Sellars's brilliant production of ``The Count of Monte Cristo,'' his imaginative ``A Seagull,'' and Jos'e Quintero's powerful ``The Iceman Cometh'' were not dazzling box office hits for ANT. When Sellars directed a flawed ``Idiot's Delight,'' so few of the Eisenhower Theater's 1,300 seats were filled that later ANT productions were moved upstairs to the smaller Terrace Theater. Then, Sellars's contemporary version of Sophocles's ``Ajax'' played at the Terrace to lots of empty seats and closed early in its run.

A week before the opening of his last production, ``Two Figures in Dense Violet Light,'' a reading of works by Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, and Wallace Stevens, phones began ringing in newspaper and TV offices around town. The anonymous telephone callers reportedly said that the Kennedy Center board of trustees had met the night before and fired Sellars. The board had not met and had not fired him, but the incident was typical of a series of personal attacks via rumor and innuendo that had plagued Sellars's professional life here.

``As soon as you're given the biggest theater in town, tongues start to wag,'' he says. ``That's normal. Nobody loses sleep over that,'' he adds, with a burst of his staccato laughter. Sellars defends his track record, which also includes nearly a dozen-and-a-half avant-garde works either staged by ANT or brought in from regional theaters. Sellars says, ``Of the 24 shows we did in 18 months, I would say that two of them qualified as flops, which as a percentage is unbelievable.''

But a few of his plans failed to jell, including his announced script for an ANT production of Theodore Dreiser's ``Sister Carrie'' and a scheduled production of Mae West's play ``Come On Over.'' `` `Sister Carrie' is always with me,'' he says, but he decided to hold off for a year because it resembled another ANT production. He's also holding the West play for ``a distinguished female director, who's not available yet.''

Stevens apparently is putting ANT on hold until Sellars's return. ``The thing is, Peter's taking a leave of absence for a year or so,'' he explains. ``So he'll be busy as a bee, and the year will be gone before we have a chance to think about it.''

Sellars's plans for the year include making his film debut by directing Jack Kerouac's beat-generation story ``On the Road'' for Zoetrope Studio. He will also make his Metropolitan Opera debut, directing Bartok's ``Bluebird's Castle,'' Schoenberg's ``Erwartung,'' and Debussy's ``The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.'' He says he's also doing another new opera next year at Glyndebourne, Nigel Osborne's ``The Electrification of the Soviet Union,'' based on a Boris Pasternak novel. This December he'll be opening the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles with ``Zangezi,'' which he describes as ``a Russian constructivist play from 1921.'' He will also be teaching in the opera department at Juilliard this fall and plans to do another Mozart opera, probably ``Don Giovanni,'' at the PepsiCo Summerfare festival in Purchase, N.Y.

It is this critical mass of commitments, Sellars says, that has been a major factor in his decision to take a leave of absence. ``So, yes, there is a lot in the hopper, and I do need more time. Most of these projects are not new.'' He explains, ``The way a director works is: These things hatch over a long period of time.'' He says he's been working on ``Nixon in China'' for two years and on ``On the Road'' for 18 months. ``All these things are things that are at the back of your mind, and you work on over a period of time, and gradually the image is evolved.''

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