A director who runs toward conflict

Interview with theater director Peter Sellars

Peter Sellars is late, but he immediately disarms his potentially annoyed interviewer, who has never met him before, by greeting him with a big hug.

He's been delayed, he says, listening to the astonishing story of a refugee from Sudan, who now is dedicated to freeing others from slavery in that country.

Refugees are very much on Sellars's mind these days, as he prepares to direct the American première of "The Children of Herakles" at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., next month. Written by Euripides, the 2,500-year-old Greek play tells of refugees who arrive in Athens seeking asylum and the debate that follows over what to do about them.

Sellars is known for taking classic works of theater and opera and resetting them in modern contexts, challenging audiences to confront the issues they raise in a direct way.

He's also been a leading force in exploring new paths for opera, directing world premières of John Adams's "Nixon in China" in 1987 and "The Death of Klinghoffer" in 1992, two of the most notable new works of the past two decades.

And he's been asked to team with Adams again in the coming "Doctor Atomic," an opera whose unlikely subject matter is the development of the American atomic bomb.

"The Children of Herakles," which Sellars has already toured in Germany, Italy, and France, sticks to a 50-year-old English translation of the Greek text. But that doesn't mean the play will lack for innovation.

The performance begins with an hour-long discussion in which real, modern-day refugees tell their stories. The play follows, with some of those in the discussion acting as the Greek chorus, questioning the actors and their actions.

The play, he says, "transmutes" the discussion "to a higher moral plane, opening up so many things in your mind and your heart. The seeds that were planted in the first part of the evening are watered and given sunlight in the second part."

After another intermission, Sellars shows a feature film from one of the country's the refugees come from - not to pity the refugees, but to show the richness of their lives. "These are not problems, these are people," he says. "And their families are so close to your family, you just can't believe it."

Working with aid agencies and meeting refugees has made Sellars an articulate spokesman for refugees. Politicians, he says, have been "blaming all of our problems on these foreigners, and acting as though some swarm of locusts is overtaking us."

He sees most refugees as "courageous people" fighting for democracy against oppressive regimes.

"These are the future Nelson Mandelas," he says. "We need them as Americans, because the world will not really be safe until these people, who are the real peacemakers, are able to do their work."

Sellars is also excited about the way the play brings together two of the greatest gifts of ancient Greece.

"Theater was invented by the same people who brought you democracy. It's so great to be with the inventors!" he says with a laugh that often bubbles out as we talk sitting in a couple of center seats in the empty theater.

The Greeks, he says, "knew there had to be a place where very difficult things could be talked about in ways that were profoundly responsible.... And that's why all these Greek plays were about these unmentionable topics: parents killing their children, children killing their parents, how you treated the prisoners in the last war." Greek plays are about learning something from your most painful experiences. And in sharpening your ability to find truth.

In Greek theater, "the point wasn't just show business: 'Loved him!' 'Hated her!' 'Her costume was good....' Of course it was entertaining and powerful, but it was part of the total picture of your life, and was actually about opening up that picture of your life further."

But isn't a play about refugees a bit like having to eat your spinach, when today's audiences would rather escape their problems?

"I always find that escapist theater doesn't give much relief, because in the end you're just as worried about everything as when you went in," Sellars says. "The Greeks knew the actual release comes not from running away [from a problem], but from dealing with it."

Sellars says that, contrary to popular belief, he's not opposed to setting works in the past.

"Sometimes the illusion of this or that period is useful," he says. "Because we're so numbed by images of contemporary life that actually seeing [the play] in a different period under a different context opens up some imaginative space.

"What I prefer, though, is to take Mozart or Shakespeare or Euripides and invite them to sit down with us at dinner here and now and see what the conversation feels like.

"The whole point of theater is just one word: dialogue."

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