Robert Wilson, master of experimental theater

Robert Wilson is a grandmaster of the imagination. No director has a more radical, more original, more visionary sense of theater. But ask this extravagant dreamer about the art of acting, and he may launch into his Jack Benny imitation. ``There was a great actor!'' he told me not long ago, his palm cradling his cheek in the timeless Benny manner. ``He had perfect voice rhythms, his gestures were so precisely timed!''

It was surprising to hear Mr. Wilson name a popular comedian as a favorite, given his own reputation for bold experiments in what has been dubbed ``the theater of images'' -- such as his epic about human conflict and brotherhood, ``the CIVIL warS,'' onstage now through March 17 at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

Nor did he stop at Jack Benny while extolling ``the great actors'' who have influenced him. He went on to name Buster Keaton and Bert Lahr and Charlie Chaplin, noting that all of them perfected their routines ``by doing them over and over until they became totally mechanical -- and then they could become totally free.''

In that last comment lies the connection between Wilson's stylized, deliberately dreamlike art and the vintage entertainment he loves. What fascinates him about vaudeville-trained actors is their formal quality -- their use of a carefully worked-out plan that glues each comic bit into a seamless whole. His own productions also blend the mechanical and the free, taking highly intuitive material (developed in workshops with performers) and placing it in rigorously designed visual settings, with obsessive care to the smallest details of lighting and composition.

So far Wilson and his sweeping, slow-motion spectacles haven't found the popular acceptance that his vaudevillian heroes achieved. Although he grew up in Texas and began his stage career in New York, he has worked most often in Europe during the past decade, finding production funds and adventurous audiences more easily there.

His schedule still calls for much European work, but his compatriots are seeing a bit more of him lately. Besides his current work on ``the CIVIL warS,'' a revival of his ``Einstein on the Beach'' drew rave reviews and cheering crowds at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) last December; and he plans to stage a more modest piece, ``The Golden Windows,'' there next fall.

Wilson's crowded international schedule makes him a hard man for the press to get hold of, but I have managed to track him down for interviews a couple of times over the past few years -- most recently during an ``Einstein'' rehearsal break at BAM, where he answered questions in his usual quiet, ironic tone between bites from an sandwich that would see him through hours of extremely technical stage-lighting sessions. In all his work, including the new ``CIVIL warS,'' light is the key element that holds everything else in place and perspective.

``What we see is as important as what we hear,'' said Wilson, explaining his endless fascination with light. ``A gesture can be more beautiful than a sound. But how do you make a gesture? People never think about it. Light is what helps us see and hear -- or prevents us from really seeing and hearing.''

In many productions, he continued, directors tend to light scenery more carefully than performers. This is a risky practice, because ``if you can't see an actor or singer, sometimes it's difficult to hear them, too.'' It also distracts viewers by drawing the eye to arbitrary places just because they're bright.

When treated as a visual element with its own importance, however, light can focus the viewer's attention in unexpected ways. ``I could light this glass,'' Wilson says, holding up a tumbler he's been drinking from, ``and the light would be like an actor then -- a part of the text, a part of what we're saying.''

These ideas grow from Wilson's conviction that every nuance of sight and sound can have a stunning theatrical effect. ``There's no such thing as silence,'' he says, citing John Cage's theory of music. ``And there's no such thing as stillness. There's always movement. Sometimes the less movement we make, the more aware we are of motion. Sometimes the quieter we are, the more aware we are of sound. It's always there. . . .''

Wilson's work has been called ``the theater of images,'' because it relies on elaborate stage pictures rather than story and dialogue. These pictures evolve slowly and organically during the course of a show, with each gesture framed and choreographed to suit the theater where the work is being staged.

``You have to measure to the back wall with your eyes, check where the exit lights are, and decide to fill that space,'' Wilson says. ``Each gesture must have a different weight. But you can't really explain to an actor how to texture space to make it alive and interesting. The actor has to feel it. It's mysterious. There's something magical when Brando goes to pick up a hat. It's something you're born with or discover. Onstage you can feel whether you're relating to everyone in the house. It's a certain sense you have. . .''

Wilson's theatrical ideas stem largely from his background in the visual arts. Trained as a painter and architect, he started putting on shows while employed as a social worker with handicapped clients, shaping his productions around patients and friends who wanted to be in them. He stayed with theater as an expressive medium because ``the images in my head were so much richer than what I could get on the canvas,'' as he told an interviewer.

Wilson's slate of future activities is crowded. Plans include ``King Lear'' workshops in California and Canada for a 1986-87 production in Hamburg; a show suggested by the life of Franz Kafka late this year in West Berlin; a production of Gluck's opera ``Alceste,'' with Jessye Norman, late next year in Stuttgart, West Germany; a production of Wagner's opera ``Parsifal'' in the spring of 1987; the start of his first film, a French production of Wagner's ``Tristan und Isolde,'' with soprano Norman, late in 1987; and a new opera with composer Philip Glass in 1989-90. He is also considering a Broadway musical tucked in somewhere along the way!

And he maintains an active interest in video, after achieving brilliant results in ``Deafman Glance'' and ``Stations,'' shown on PBS and cable TV.

With so many projects going on, does the round of fund-raising and production details get in the way of simply being an artist? Yes, says Wilson, who has long handled business affairs through his own Byrd Hoffman Foundation. And even the hardest work can't solve every problem, as he found when he partly lost his battle to finance the complete 10-hour version of ``the CIVIL warS'' -- a multipart epic created in several nations but never assembled for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, as intended, because there simply wasn't enough money.

He has learned from this frustration, however, and is readjusting his methods. Portions of ``the CIVIL warS'' are being mounted separately, such as the three-hour Cambridge edition, which was originally staged in Cologne, West Germany, and Rome. And Wilson has ensured that his future works will be produced by outside agencies rather than his own foundation.

If this now leaves him free to do the dreaming that's at the core of his art, both his work and his audience should be stronger than ever in time to come.

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