Theater's one-man meteor. Behind Peter Sellars's `madcap' methods lies an elevated vision of mankind

HERE is the public Peter Sellars who stages ``Antony and Cleopatra'' in a swimming pool, dresses like a ``Mikado'' music-video rocker, and appears in print as clown prince of Wunderkind directors. Then there is the private Peter Sellars who has just been crowned head of the newly established American National Theater at Kennedy Center here. He may be as serious about theater as Hamlet was about the state of Denmark. That is the Peter Sellars who says ``We can sit here and do `Masterpiece Theater' or we can change the status of theater in America.''

Sellars was plucked from Boston's Shakespeare Company and given a $6 million annual budget to create a National Theater at Kennedy Center by its chairman, the venerable Roger Stevens. For his first number, Sellars cut ticket prices in half (top price $22) and announced the National Theater would open with scripts by Shakespeare, Mae West, and Alexandre Dumas. The National's first production, ``Henry IV Part I,'' opens March 29 starring John Heard (as Prince Hal) and Patti Lupone. A recently unearthed Mae West Comedy, ``Come on Over,'' follows -- and then Sellars's own production of ``The Count of Monte Cristo,'' which he is directing.

The backstage Peter Sellars sits for an interview in his Kennedy Center office and skewers the madcap image he's often had in the press. The real Sellars, he admits, is the serious one:

``Because theater is the art form where the work of art is not a piece of clay, or a piece of canvas, or a piece of paper. The work of art is man. And the question is, what is your highest conception of man, and that is the issue here, and so it's incredibly serious.''

Sellars is the one-man meteor who left a dazzling trail behind him as artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company and who is in his third year of a five-year MacArthur Foundation genius grant. He has staged Handel's opera ``Orlando'' in a Cape Canaveral Trailer Park, braided Gorki and Gershwin together in a four-hour Guthrie Theater Production of Maxim Gorki's drama ``Summerfolk,'' punched up with 16 Ira and George Gershwin songs, and staged Shakespeare's ``King Lear'' with Lear riding around in a kingmobile, a Lincoln Continental, and the last battle as a nuclear holocaust. Peter Sellars does not believe in clich'es. He believes in shaking the audience up. But there is a method to his madcapness, as he explains, the ``deep structure'' under his productions:

``In theater you want to set up a kind of metaphysical landscape where the mind can wander. And so I really hate to tie something down to a time and to a place, `cause that's exactly, it seems to me, what we go to a theater to realize, that we are not tied down in time and space.

``You want first to make the important and profound things happen that are happening and then afterwards, I can add any kind of detail that I want for fun. . . . [But] I spend my time on deeper issues. As we sit here today I honestly cannot tell you what `The Count of Monte Cristo' will look like.''

He is seated at what looks like a Jacobean pool table, and he is poring over one of the 19 illustrated translations of Dumas's ``Monte Cristo'' script he is researching for the contemplated play. He is also reading books on Napoleon, the painter Ingres, and studying French porcelain colors of the period, the 1820s. ``I never think I'm going to do anything wild with anything. I'm always sure I'm doing, you know, `The Historic Production of. . . .' '' He laughs.

His laugh is a series of exuberant whoops interspersed with Woody the Woodpecker motifs. It is an unforgettable laugh, and it is heard often because Sellars punctuates his sentences with laughter instead of commas.

But don't send in the clowns. Sellars has more serious things to say: ``I'm very structurally oriented, and I try and probe the deep structure of a piece.'' Because of his musical training at Harvard he approaches the script as he would a score, finding chords that must be joined or sometimes doing a counterpoint. ``Sometimes you can bring out a melody by . . . playing it off against another melody, which suddenly makes it shine. For example, he says, ``in playing a shy person on stage it's less interesting for the character to be mousy; a more interesting dramatic choice is to realize that the shy person is the loudest person in the room, that he's secretly shy.''

He calls dealing with opposites not something he does casually, but rooted in classic theater. ``The most profound Greek truth is that Oedipus is a king, but he only discovers his kingship once he's a beggar. . . . Drama is based on those incredible opposites in which we realize that the material world must be completely contradicted and shown to be a sham before we can begin to see through it. And that whatever we take for granted must be turned upside down, whatever we're comfortable leaning on must be taken away, and then we begin to discover truth. And so frequently I will work in strict opposites to a script [a modified whoop of laughter] and that inevitably causes the script to fight back and show its true colors.''

He is wearing a short black kimono with a red stripe-and-rice design as another man would wear a cardigan sweater. Under it is a heliotrope and black-striped shirt pinned down with a red-and-black-striped tie; dark blue corduroy trousers and navy shoes. The effect is of many things happening at once, rather like a play.

Sellars himself, apart from the costume, is boyish looking -- even for a Wunderkind -- in his 20s with thick, rumpled, light brown hair cut in a wedge shape, and a slightly sleepy-looking face with very wide-awake blue eyes. He is slight, with a darting, Peter Pan quality. He seems to have energy to burn. He will need it, with the momentous job ahead of him.

On his narrow shoulders sits the future of a first truly national theater at a time when, as he recently said in Boston, ``theater in America is dead as a doornail.'' Sellars himself has had a flop or two; he was fired as director from the original production of ``My One and Only. And in Sellar's last year at Boston Shakespeare, attendance was down.

But Sellars has a five-year plan for his innovative American National Theater, which includes the Kennedy Center's large Eisenhower Theater for major productions as well as the smaller Terrace Theater, regional drama from across the United States, and the Theater Lab, to be renamed the Free Theater for the pioneering productions to be shown free there. Sellars is also annually commissioning five leading writers, novelists among them, to turn out their first plays; his own script for Dreiser's ``An American Tragedy'' is slated for next season.

Having cut the top ticket price to $22, Sellars admits he has guaranteed that even standing-room-only hits will not make a profit. Where's the $6 million a year to come from? Congress chartered but never funded American National Theater Academy (ANTA) whose theater in New York has been sold for $5 million, with $1 million in proceeds yearly to be turned over to the American National Theater. Annual Memberships in the American National Theater will be sold for $75 and $100, giving the purchaser 4 or 6 passes to use separately or together for any play at any time.

Roger Stevens, Kennedy Center's fund-raiser extraordinaire, who has given Sellars carte blanche, talks of setting up a $30 million endowment for the National Theater. And Sellars himself is bubbling with media plans for raising money. Stage productions originated by the National Theater will be taken on location and shot as feature films. Some shows will start as record albums and then be developed as productions. And Sellars, who has already directed a music video (``Hard Rock'') for Herbie Hancock, plans to do music videos from Kennedy Center. Sellars, who tries to begin each day with a Bach cantata, says that he is not steeped in rock himself. But he believes it's necessary to include it at Kennedy Center, because ``there are certain performers I need to interest the audience of 16 to 25 year-olds who are supporting everything else in this country, who don't go to the theater. And they should. And that's one way of bringing them in.''

He explains, ``I want this place to be spearheading the efforts to find some total new work of art, which is that amazing synthesis of live action and electronics and painting and dance and poetry and theater and video. You name it.''

Laurie Anderson, a performer who epitomizes that, is on the American National Theater board, along with actor-director Orson Welles, singer Harry Guthrie Theater, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, and Ellen Stewart, founder of LaMama, the experimental theater club.

Sellars says the board is ``a great luxury for me. I pick up the phone and get advice and direction from all these people. (Some of whom will be mounting their own productions there.) It's terrific to be able to depend on them. Oh, there's a great deal of very exciting input here. I never feel alone, or that I'm having to do it all myself.''

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