Sellars: The best part of theater is what happens after you leave

Peter Sellars loves the stage. But he scorns the ``agreed-upon clich'es'' that - in his view - make up most contemporary theater. To prove it, he has developed his own controversial approach to stage directing and earned an international reputation in the process.

Two of his most recent achievements have been featured in this season's ``Next Wave'' festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

His production of ``Nixon in China,'' an opera by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, is at the academy now through Thursday, after earning enthusiastic reviews in its Houston Grand Opera premi`ere.

It was preceded by ``Zangezi,'' his restructured version of a Russian theater piece dating from 1923. Described as ``a supersaga in 20 planes,'' it epitomizes Sellars's view of theater as a ``vertical'' experience in which metaphors and allusions, piled atop one another, are more important than a ``horizontal'' story line.

Neither production is the sort of show that's likely to pop up on Broadway next season. Sellars is a rebel, and he admits that audiences are often ``upset'' by this and other works he has concocted in such important venues as the Kennedy Center in Washington - where he served as artistic director - and now the influential ``Next Wave'' festival.

What's so unsettling about his approach? Sellars says it's his refusal to provide neat, easily understandable experiences.

``Most people have a sense that they have to answer 20 questions on their way out of the theater,'' he says ruefully. ``If they get 19 right, then they had a good time.''

But, he continues, plays that give simple answers to life's questions are not true to experience. As he sees it, ``the surface of life consists of a series of delusions and traps and whatnot, where basically the facts are not known. And humanly, they are unknowable.''

So he chooses to challenge spectators - and himself - instead of doling out easy gratification. ``My productions are all about not being able to sum it up on the way out,'' he says.

While he knows his approach is radical, Sellars sees elements of it in the classics, including Shakespeare's plays. In them, he says, ``Existence is construed poetically. You finally have to realize that a human life is a metaphor, in a way, and a play is a metaphor. It's not the thing itself.''

Sellars sees theater as a way of breaking through assumptions we hold about the world, and about ourselves.

``Most theater is so materialistically oriented,'' he says with a frown. ``A chair's a chair, a table's a table, and a character can be defined in a two-sentence Hollywood synopsis. ... What I do in my shows is take these material things and force them to come out of themselves ... so the roof of an apartment can also be a temple on the Ganges ... and 15 other things.''

If this is an unconventional aim, so much the better. ``The point of drama, historically, is to turn the world on its ear,'' he says.

Sellars's work represents a quest for expression that's ``above and beyond'' the mundane world. Yet this mustn't be considered a substitute for religion. ``The purpose of art is to indicate that there's another level,'' he asserts. ``The purpose of religion is to live on that other level.''

In seeking to ``indicate another level'' of reality, Sellars's method is to work ``very intensely with the surface of something'' until he begins to sense new and unexpected meanings in it.

He likens this process to ``the way Albrecht D"urer draws a rabbit. By the time he's done, it's the most realistic rabbit drawing you've ever seen. But the drawing isn't about a rabbit. It has ... an intense spiritual value, because of the time taken to render it in such detail. Moving into the detail is the only way you can then move past it.''

In keeping with his philosophical approach to the stage, Sellars says that ``the least important part of the experience is what happens while the audience is in the theater. You're planting a seed there, and what matters is how it grows later. ... It's all the same to me if they love it or hate it, because one way or another it enters their lives, and it's something they won't forget.''

Sellars knows such ideas won't always endear him to audiences or producers.

``I've been gnawing at the edge of theater for a while now,'' he says, describing his position. ``Because of the way I work, I will constantly be [considered] either the most important director in the world, or not even able to get arrested.''

Encountering his energy and enthusiasm firsthand, one senses that Sellars rather likes being an outsider.

He shares this attitude with aesthetic gadflies like filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and stage director Elizabeth LeCompte, who share some artistic traits with Sellars and recognize their position on the fringe of ``mainstream'' culture.

Like them, he is committed to expressing radical ideas in radical ways.

``People have this notion of rational comprehension of the world,'' Sellars says, ``and a whole series of rational [concepts] have been set up to explain things away. But that's not really the way most people take in the world.''

What fascinates Sellars are things ``lurking just on the edge'' of theater and of life - ideas suggesting that, in his words, ``maybe there's another structure behind the structure in this world.''

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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