Robert Wilson on the Wonder to Be Found in Time, Space, and Light
For each and every performance the theater director, playwright, choreographer, and sound and lighting designer Robert Wilson creates, time isn’t just of the essence—it is the essence. Perhaps best known as the director of the four-act opera Einstein on the Beach, which he composed with Philip Glass and debuted at France’s Avignon Festival in 1976, the incredibly prolific Wilson now has nearly 200 stage productions to his name. These include Dorian—which premiered last year at the Schauspielhaus theater in Düsseldorf and will have performances there, as well as at the National Kaunas Drama Theater in Lithuania, this fall—and The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, which opened at the Manchester International Festival in 2011. Other directorial productions of Wilson’s this year include Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Ivan Vazov National Theater in Sofia, Bulgaria; Giacomo Puccini’s Turnadot at the Opera Bastille in Paris; Edward Albee’s play Three Tall Women at the Municipal Theater of Piraeus in Athens; and Relative Calm, a collaboration with the dancer Lucinda Childs, at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris. Wilson is also the founder of the Watermill Center, an arts and humanities institution on New York’s Long Island, where this interview was recorded.
What stands out about Wilson’s work, among many things, is its rare ability to disorient viewers while also enchanting them. His performances can be puzzling, and that’s exactly the point: He wants to give people space to think. In his hands, time can expand and contract; depending on the production, he can leave people on their toes or cajole them into a sleep-like trance. Duration (or is it endurance?) is often another part of the equation: Some of the performances on Wilson’s résumé have ranged from seven hours to twenty-four hours to an astonishing seven days. Many critics, writers, and scholars have agreed that Wilson has completely reshaped the landscape of theater, vastly expanding its vocabularies and horizons.
On this episode, Wilson talks about his personal philosophies around silence and sound, the intersections of architecture and theater, and his enduring vision for the Watermill Center.
Wilson discusses his approach to silence and space in his productions, what he’s learned from raising his deaf-mute adopted son, and the seven-hour play that established his career.
Wilson reflects on the importance of drawing and mapmaking in his creative process, having developed the productions of The Ring of Wagner, King Lear, and Einstein on the Beach by sketching diagrams. He also considers how this time-and-space organizational technique played into the construction of the Watermill Center.
Wilson speaks to how his productions frequently defy clock time, particularly his longer performances, such as the 1972 production of Ka Mountain and Guardenia Terrace in Shiraz, Iran, which spanned seven days.
Wilson meditates on the relation between light and space in several of his productions— Edison, Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, Relative Calm, and The Golden Windows—and why he often plans performances beginning with the element of light.
Wilson looks back on his time growing up in Waco, Texas, in the 1940s and ’50s, and describes experimental plays he would put on as an adolescent in his family’s garage.
Wilson discusses the underlying foundation of the Watermill Center, both physical and metaphorical, including the four basic principles of the institution.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Bob. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
ROBERT WILSON: Thank you. Great to be here.
SB: Let’s begin on the subject of silence.
SB: You’ve said that the best way to hear anything is to listen to silence. Many writers and critics and thinkers have observed that the earliest silent operas you did—The King of Spain, The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, Deafman Glance—were effectively a form of giving structure to silence. How would you describe your relationship with and approach to silence?
RW: I was very interested, in the beginning of the sixties, in what John Cage said: “There’s no such thing as silence.” That there’s always sound. Sometimes, when we’re very quiet, we hear more carefully than we do when we’re making sound, but there’s always sound. As long as you’re alive, there’s sound. You’re breathing; there’s the heart beating. So it’s a starting point.
In the sixties, I adopted a deaf-mute boy. As far as we could measure his hearing in decibels, up to a hundred and ten decibels, he heard nothing. One evening, he was standing at the end of the loft that I had at 147 Spring Street with his back to me. We were about seventy-five feet apart. I cried out to him, in a high-pitched voice: “Raymond!” It was a loud scream, and he didn’t hear me. I knew if I would stamp my foot on the floor [stamps foot], he’d feel the vibration and turn around. But I did a very curious thing. I went, “Raymond, Raymond,” in the sound of a deaf person, and he turned around. He started to walk to me. “Raymond. How are you?”
“Raymond, how are you,” in the sound of a deaf person. He started laughing, like, “Hey, man. You’re talking my language.”
RW: It’s very strange. In a sense, he was hearing—what the body feels and hears. He was feeling the vibrations of sound that he was more familiar with than the hearing world’s language. Those were very important moments in my late twenties, when that happened with Raymond, and the reading of Cage and his book Silence, and then meeting Cage.
SB: I remember when we first met. It was a dinner in New York, and maybe a hundred and twenty people in the room. Before the dinner, you gave some remarks, and before those remarks, you left about maybe three or four minutes of silence. It was so powerful, because the whole room shifted from this—
SB: —cacophony, people drinking wine, getting ready for a dinner—
SB: —to feeling a different kind of vibration. I wanted to ask, what do you think happens in that moment when you make space or time for that silence?
RW: Well, if there’s a very loud sound…. [Claps hands] After that, the space of sound is very different. I could speak loudly, but if I wait for the [clap], now I speak, I can speak quieter. People listen more carefully. And the more space around anything, the bigger it becomes.
In the early nineties, maybe it was 1990, I directed Madama Butterfly—Puccini’s Butterfly—at the Paris Opera. For the death of Butterfly at the end, she stood on stage in a rather severe black dress. She held her right hand and arm up, parallel to the floor. Her death was [when] she moved only one finger, the index finger, down. That one moment, that tiny little moment at the Paris Opera, that tiny movement had such power. Usually in opera, the singers are so exaggerated and so big with their gestures and movement. It was very carefully lit, but it’s amazing how this one tiny gesture and that big house became bigger than the big gesture that we’d normally see of opera singers. Because there was more space around it.
SB: And if we’re talking about silence, we’re also talking about listening. You’ve famously advised actors and performers to listen to every moment, everything that’s happening, every movement. Your work in many ways is about providing space and time to listen. Or at least, that’s how I see it. I was wondering if that’s how you see it? Do you think about it as almost providing the space to listen?
RW: Well, I came from Texas. I had not seen theater. I hadn’t been to an opera. There was no chance to see opera in the community where I grew up in Texas. I didn’t really like it so much.
But I saw the work of George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, and I liked that very much. And I still do. I think the reason I liked it is that watching Balanchine’s ballets and how he had the performer approach a mental state of mind to perform, there was so much space that it gave me time to think. I realized that if you went on Broadway, everything is speeded up. You really don’t have too much time to think. The same with opera.
Etel Adnan, the author and philosopher and painter, came to see my first play in Paris in 1971. It was the Deafman Glance, Le regard du sourd. She saw it three times and she came back and introduced herself and said that she liked my work. I asked her, “Why?” And she said, “It gives me time to think and the space to dream.” So I think that was one of the reasons I made the theater…. I don’t know. It happened by accident.
I made this play that was seven hours long and it was supposed to be performed twice in the [World Theater] Festival of Nancy. Jack Lang had invited me. At the time, he was head of the festival. He later became the minister of culture. Pierre Cardin saw this seven-hour play in silence and said, “I’d like to show it ten times in Paris.” And we did. I couldn’t imagine the French would sit for a play that was seven hours long. It seemed more cerebral in my mind. I couldn’t imagine that a play in silence…. But we ended up playing five and a half months to about two thousand people every night and sold out. That’s what established my career. Then, people asked me to go to Berlin, to the opera. Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the Piccolo Teatro in Milano, and so on.
RW: Okay. You’re right. I’d forgotten about that. “Time to Think.”
SB: I think it’s something that is, more than ever, lacking, this ability to offer people that gift.
RW: I think so. Especially in cities like New York or Paris. City life is very hectic, and I think people are drawn to spaces where they can have time to think.
SB: This gets me to the subject of concentration. Marina Abramović has written, “The most impressive thing about Bob Wilson is his concentration when he works… When he enters a rehearsal space, his presence is one hundred percent.” What do you attribute to your level of concentration? Do you think this is something that’s inherent in you or have you trained it up?
RW: Well, I think, in part…. First of all, I don’t know. But my mother was a silent person. She didn’t speak very much and she sat in chairs beautifully. She was from a poor family and grew up in an orphanage, but she had a space around her that, I don’t know…. People were quieter. I think it’s something she was born with. I don’t know.
SB: Maybe it’s inherited?
RW: I think it is. More now, as I’m 81, I began to think about her. I think it had a profound influence on my thinking and way of being and way of…. I’m mostly known for my work in the theater, but my mother also was very good in observation. She said when I was about 9 years old, she was talking to a friend of hers and said, “Bob thinks by drawing.”
And it’s true. If someone had asked me how did I do The Ring of Wagner, how did I do King Lear, how did I do Einstein on the Beach—the opera I made with Philip Glass—I will take out a pen and a piece of paper and make a drawing. And it’s usually a very simple diagram that is in time and space. I can quickly see the whole by looking at this map.
SB: This diagramming idea is really interesting to me. And, this being a podcast that connects to time, I wanted to bring that up, because you’ve said that time is “something very personal: a line that goes to the center of the Earth, and goes to the heavens.” Basically, that space is this horizontal line and time is this vertical one.
SB: Could you elaborate on that, and also maybe share a bit about how that thinking came into your mind?
RW: I don’t know how it came to mind, but I quite early on became very interested in this cross of this vertical line and this horizontal line and how that equation, those lines, create space. I directed Wagner’s Parsifal. The center bar of music in Wagner’s Parsifal is at the end of the second act. Klingsor throws a lance to Parsifal and he grabs it. And in my production, he grabbed it and turned it vertically, and then slowly turned it horizontally. And he says, “Time becomes space.”
Right now, we’re at the Watermill Center, a center for creative thinking on Long Island. This building was built by Western Union scientists, not architects. They built a vertical building first in red brick, and later they added a north and south wing. I saw the building in the late eighties and was attracted to it. It had been on the market for thirty years. Western Union had left in the fifties.
I liked the organization of the building. The first building, built in the mid twenties, was vertical, and the north and south wings were added and they were horizontal. I thought, “Wow. There it is.” And so, I essentially cleaned up this building that had been built in the twenties.
They had the main entrance in the central building. They had it to the side. I opened it up and put it in the center of the building. So if you enter from the street, I don’t know, about five hundred feet away, or two football fields away, is the building. You can walk up a narrow passage and you can look all the way through the building to the west. The formal entrance is in the east. And then, if you enter from the parking area, which is in the north of the property, you can look all the way through the building to the south. And if you go to the roof of the central building, it’s floating. You cannot look down. You can only look up at the sky. So it was constantly reinforcing this horizontal and this vertical.
I don’t know. I see it in a painting of Barney Newman. He puts that black stripe down the center of the canvas. Or we see the drip of milk in the [“Milkmaid”] Vermeer painting. It’s surrounded by a horizontal. It’s how you stand on a stage. In Japanese theater, they say that the gods are beneath the floor, so the contact of that foot on the floor is essential.
And I worked with several opera singers. Jessye Norman told me that for her, to hit the high note, she felt it coming from below her and going up through the top of her head. With Jessye, you can see in her face this openness. Look at Martha Graham, the American choreographer and dancer. You can’t find a photograph of her where the face is closed; it’s always open. The way a baby…. Look at a baby’s face. It’s so open, the way they hear and the way they see. But again, it’s something…. I don’t know. It just took some years for this to come to mind. And it’s one of the basic things I talk about if I’m directing a play for an actor or a singer.
SB: Your plays and operas, in many ways, are contracting or expanding on clock time. You don’t feel like you’re in clock time when looking at one of your performances. We could talk about the slowly descending chair in Deafman Glance or the clocks in Einstein on the Beach. How do you think about the plasticity of time in your work?
RW: Well, time, for me, has no concept. People say, “In Robert Wilson’s productions, they all move slow.” If I take two minutes to take my hand from my waist to my head, it’s one thing. If I think that I’m moving slower than I normally do, it’s one thing. But if I don’t think about it and I do it—[makes scrambled, crunching sound]—everything is going on. The body is full of a hundred energies, thousands of energies. In one second, these energies are going on. It has nothing to do with a concept. It’s something you experience. And it’s not in the head, it’s in the body. Yvonne Rainer said, “The mind is a muscle.”
So it’s in the muscle [that] we understand what it is we’re doing, and the experience—it’s not an intellectual thing. Susan Sontag said, “To experience something is a way of thinking.” So if I watch a sunset, it’s something I experience. It doesn’t have to tell me something, but it’s something I experience. That is, to me, the most important [thing]. In theater—I’ve often said that my theater is non-interpretive, but I think it’s something that you experience.
I met Gregory—what was his name? Louganis, I think. The Olympic diver.
SB: Louganis. Yeah.
RW: Yeah. Thank you. I had been in Paris, and I watched him on TV, diving. There was something so special about when he dived and you saw him in the air. I couldn’t explain this. So I asked him what he was thinking about when he was doing it. He said for him to prepare, he knows everything technically he has to do. So he knows that, if he has thirty-two steps to walk up the diving board, he will start with his left foot. Left foot, right foot. When he is on the top of the board then, and walking out, he knows how many steps and which foot is going to be first, second. He said, “I must always be balanced.” He said, “I program my computer, my mind, before I do it. And then, I know I have to do it. If I think about it, I can’t do it. But now, I have to do it.” He said that his sensation when he was jumping off of the board, going into the water, is that he had the sensation he was going up, and not down. Every opposite needs its opposite. But I said, “Wow. That sounds like a formula for a great actor.”
I work a lot in Germany in the theater. And the German theater is very cerebral, for the most part. A German actor, their heads are always so heavy because they’re thinking all the time. But my work is more—it’s closer to animal behavior. So if you see a dog walking to a bird, the way his foot touches the ground, the way his back is listening, the way his tail is listening, the way the foot is listening…. As he walks, he is not listening with the eardrum only. It’s the body. If there was a grizzly bear here—
RW: —and he’s looking at you, he’s waiting for you to move. [Heinrich von] Kleist, the German author said, “A good actor is like a bear. He will never move first.”
I wrote a love letter to my cat a couple of years ago, when I was directing Dorian, based on [Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray], in Dusseldorf. Before going to Dusseldorf for a rehearsal, I’d watch my cat every morning. She’d walk in, walk through the kitchen, walk down the steps into the dining room. She would go over to one spot and lie down. And then, she would get up and she’d walk around the table, go back up the steps, in the center, and sometimes sit at the top of the steps. Sometimes she would just get up and run wildly. She was so playful. But she was following, pretty much, the same choreography every day. And she was so joyful and playful and going through this ritual.
SB: Well, part of what you’re talking about is this idea of timing. It makes me think of the movements of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. It’s not totally disconnected, the muscle memory. They must have—
RW: No. If you take Chaplin, in the films, sometimes there’s two hundred and seventy-five or three hundred takes of one scene. So if I take my hand up in the air and move it quickly and freeze it, take it down slow and then freeze it, and then put it back on my leg…. First time I do it, it’s very free. But for me to learn to do that again, it takes a lot of practice until I can be free again. Martha Graham said, in the first line of her autobiography, “I am a dancer, and I learn by practice.”
SB: On the subject of time, I wanted to bring up Time Rocker, from 1996, your piece of musical theater with Lou Reed. It took for its subject matter The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. I was wondering how you think about time in the context of that particular piece? It’s pretty on the nose, since it’s called Time Rocker, but I did want to hear that.
RW: Well, I did it on the anniversary of H.G. Wells. I had heard and met Lou Reed briefly in the mid sixties and late sixties. I saw him on different occasions. I didn’t really know him, but I somehow felt that Lou would be the right person to ask to create a musical stage work.
What I learned from Lou was how to appreciate the loudness in sound. And Lou had this enormous range in which he could be so quiet and tender with a song or with his music. At the same time, on the other hand, he could be the loudest. And I really began to appreciate the loudness in sound. We had a great collaboration because of that very simple thing. And one thing sets up another. Again, if I hear [claps hands], that space afterwards, it’s so powerful.
SB: If we’re talking time, I also think we should talk about duration. You were mentioning the length of one of your plays earlier. Some of these performances are staggering, from twelve hours to twenty-four hours to seven days.
SB: I did want to talk about the seven-day performance, which was Ka Mountain and Guardenia Terrace, from 1972, in Shiraz, Iran. You worked with five hundred local extras there. How on earth did you pull that one off?
RW: Well, I couldn’t write a play that was seven days long. I couldn’t rehearse the whole thing. I had a few months, but we had five hundred and eighty performers. What I did was to make a map. I had this grid of twenty-four hours divided by seven. So I had seven horizontal lines divided by twenty-four. So, let’s say, from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., we’re going to have these thirty people make an event, a play that is outdoors on this location in Iran. And the theme should be a flood. Whatever you want to do, you can write and direct. And it’s something that is an hour long.
And then, this group over here, let’s take another group of thirty, forty people. You do something from 9 to 10. And that also is based…. On day one, it’s a flood. Until I have the twenty-four hours divided by these five hundred people. They all had a time slot to create something based on a common theme. And then, the next day, there was another theme. The group that was working from 8 to 9, will come back, and they’ll make another event at that time. So it’s a little bit like a TV program or something like that.
And so, I made a megastructure. And then, I had everyone fill it in. It’s a little bit like [how] an architect designs a city. Paris is a beautiful city. It’s got a beautiful plan to it. So if someone said, “This is going to be an obelisk.” Or, “This is going to be an Arc of Triomphe.” You have these avenues, but you have this megastructure. Even today, Frank Gehry or whoever as an architect can build something, but you build it within the megastructure.
If you live in an apartment building, an architect has designed the building and you can live in the building. You have your own apartment and you can decorate it or design it to your liking. And I can live in it and live in my apartment and do it as I like it. We all can have our own self-expression, but there’s a cohesion because of the megastructure. That’s how I wrote the seven-day play. I worked with the megastructure, and then divided it to different people for their aesthetics. In the coming days, they decided what they wanted. In some ways, my job was easy.
RW: It went on for seven days and nights. I never saw the whole thing. When we opened, I was there at midnight and I stayed up almost three days. And then, I collapsed and woke up. I was in a hospital. I couldn’t figure out where I was. It took me some time to say, “Oh, I’m here in Shiraz, and I’m doing this.” Anyway, I had become dehydrated and I passed out. I got back on the third day and managed to see some of each day to the end, but I never saw the whole thing.
SB: There is a level of endurance, I suppose [laughs], to some of these performances.
RW: Well, Lincoln Kirstein said in the late fifties, “Modern dance will have no tradition.” I was very puzzled when I read that, but in a sense, he’s right. The work we were doing in the sixties and seventies, we called them “happenings.”
I did a play—the first play of the Festival of Autumn in Paris, a twenty-four-hour play. And it was announced that it was twenty-four hours long, and it would be one performance only. So there was something about being there. Whether you stayed up twenty-four hours or you even saw a few hours. It was never going to happen again. Never. That was what made it special. It’s like a shooting star. It happens once, and it doesn’t happen again. Your experience is different than if something is going to be every night, the same thing, more or less.
SB: I have to bring up light here, because I feel like when talking about and thinking about your work, light is another one of these elements that’s just so crucial. I was reading a little bit about the hours you’ve devoted to processing, thinking about, really curating your eye to the lighting. I read it took eighty hours to light The Golden Windows and a hundred for Madama Butterfly. How do you think about this time you’ve spent engaged with light and in determining how your plays and operas are lit?
RW: Well, without light, there’s no space. Einstein said, “Light is the measure of all things.” In my first year in studying architecture [at Pratt Institute], I was very fortunate that Louis Kahn came and spoke. The first line of his talk was, “Students, start with light.” Wow. It had a profound influence on me.
Now, in theater, usually what happens is that a playwright writes a play. And then, someone decides to direct it, someone decides to design it, and then they put it together and they rehearse it. And then, two weeks before they open, they light it. When I made Einstein on the Beach, the first thing I did was to start with light. I drew the light and made drawings of light.
There are only two lines in the world. There’s a straight line and a curved line. That’s all. You have to make up your mind. What do you want? Do you want a hundred straight lines or one straight line? I structured the four acts—it was four acts in three themes—I structured it with lines of light before I knew anything, before I knew what was going to happen on stage. Often, people are confused or laugh at me that I will go to a rehearsal and start with light in the rehearsal before I know where I’m going.
Light creates space. I’m wearing a black pair of pants and a black T-shirt. And if I look at my black T-shirt and my black pants, it’s one thing. But if I take this white paper [holds a sheet of white paper] and put it against my black T-shirt and my black pants, the white is whiter and the black is blacker.
How do you perform Medea, a woman who’s going to murder two children each evening in the theater? You have to find light. There has to be light in the darkness. I’ve done a number of productions of Medea. I did Euripides’s Medea. I did my own Medea. I did Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea. But that’s what I was always thinking about was, If she has to murder these children and you have a child in the audience, what do you do? How do you do it? There has to be light. Maybe Medea is an angel of death or something. I don’t know. Every opposite needs its opposite, as I said earlier.
Shakespeare is great. Tragedy is the…. King Lear. When the king dies at the end, if you can laugh a little bit, it’ll be much more tragic. And so, you need light, always.
SB: You’ve done several plays explicitly about light. Edison, I would say, is probably the most obvious [laughs], which was in commemoration of the centenary of the invention of the light bulb. But also, Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, Relative [Calm], and The Golden Windows. Tell me a bit more about this obsession. It seems like light is almost spiritual or religious or halolike.
RW: Well, I’m down looking at the corner of this room and there’s light coming in through the windows. And if you see it in an hour, the light is now at a forty-five-degree angle on the floor to the wall. In an hour or two hours, it’s going to be on the opposite diagonal. It’s a time machine. The universe is a machine, and that’s a machine of light.
I just did a work in Hamburg, H-100 Seconds to Midnight. It was very much thinking about Stephen Hawking. Hawking said, “The universe is a machine. Don’t look at your feet; look at the sky.” So the sky is a universe of time and space and light. And the difficulty…. Yesterday, someone was going over plans for a museum that they’re building in Saudi Arabia. To the young architect, I said, “Really, the challenge is, how do we balance between natural light and artificial light? Can you control that to some degree?” But it’s always, if you can with architecture, it’s necessary to have a mix. And that’s the trick of how you do it. If you look at the Menil in Houston, Renzo Piano’s building, is so beautifully done. They have a ceiling of fins, where the natural light can come in from above and it hits a semi-curved fin, bounces up and hits another plane, and then filters down through this fin. It’s a balance between natural and artificial light. You can close that somewhat from the light, from outside, of nature, or you can open it up. It’s very difficult to do to. In museums, especially. How do you have both natural and artificial light? Look at Gio Ponti, what he did with the museum in Denver. It’s so beautiful at night, because he thought about how it would look in light at night, and how does it look during daylight.
SB: I’m so glad you mentioned that building. I grew up in Denver.
RW: Oh! You did?
SB: That was probably the first piece of architecture I ever saw as a kid where I was like, “That’s not like the other buildings.”
RW: No. He was a genius.
SB: His only building in the U.S., actually.
RW: It is?
SB: Let’s go back to a young Robert, growing up in Waco, Texas, in the forties and fifties. Your father was a lawyer. Neither of your parents were interested in art. Yet, you found yourself, starting around 10 or 12, putting on plays in the family’s garage. I was wondering if you could share a little bit about how these plays came to be. Or some of these performances—what your memories are of them, if any.
RW: Well, I don’t really remember too much about what I did in those plays. I did one work. It was called Arville Pots and His 368 Dogs. It was about this character that had many dogs. The stage sets were fire hydrants for the dogs. [Laughs]
SB: I read that there was one in which you had wrapped a bunch of boys in Saran Wrap.
RW: Yes, that was later, when I was a teenager. I had ten or twelve nude boys with transistor radios strapped to their chests. Their bodies were bound by Saran Wrap and tightly wrapped. They could barely walk. And then, we had these transistor radios on, and they were on different stations, so that you would have a station. If you think of a clock stationed at 11 and 5, or stationed at 6 and 12, or stationed at 3 and 9. Those channels would line up with sound. [Chuckles]
SB: I want to mention your grandmother here, too, and your time with her. I found it fascinating to learn that, years later, after you’d long left Waco—and she had come to New York to see The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, your play—you cast her. [Laughs]
RW: After Stalin, I did a work called A Letter for Queen Victoria. My grandmother was living in Texas and I was showing the work in Paris. My grandmother was in Waco, Texas, right in the center of Texas. And I called her and asked her if she would like to be in my play, A Letter for Queen Victoria.
She said, “Yes. That would be nice.” And I said, “You could play Queen Victoria.” She came to Paris and she arrived at the airport and I met her and we were driving into Paris. And I said, “How are you?” She said, “Well, I’m pretty good, but you know, Bob, I’ve got to take nine pills a day to stay alive.” I said, “You do?” She said, “Without them, I wouldn’t survive.” She said, “Bob?” I said, “Yes?” She said, “Am I going to have to say anything in your play?” I said, “Well, grandmother, I think you can say what you just said.”
RW: Every night, she’d walk on stage dressed like Queen Victoria with a crown on her head and say, “You know, I have to take nine pills a day to stay alive, and without all those pills, I would just collapse.” She was a big hit in Paris.
SB: What an amazing way to spend time together.
RW: She was 90 years old. It was quite amazing.
SB: So, obviously, there’s a lot of terrain we could cover and we only have so much time. But I did want to touch on the Watermill Center and what you’re building here, this incredible space. I guess you could almost consider it a sort of magnum opus. It is really this total work of art.
I was hoping you might talk a little bit about the space, but also the collection you’ve built here and how you think about the across-time nature of it all. The five thousand years of objects. Everything from an Agnes Martin drawing to Marlene Dietrich’s shoes to Noguchi’s rocker from Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring.
RW: Well, I studied architecture at Pratt Institute, and Sibyl Moholy-Nagy at that time was teaching the history of architecture. And it was a five-year course. She said in the middle of the third year, “Students, you have three minutes to design a city. Ready? Go.” Most of us couldn’t even find a pencil, but she was serious. After three minutes, she said, “Turn in your papers.”
I drew an apple, and inside the apple, I put a crystal cube in the core. In the center. She said, “What are you thinking about?” I said, “I’m thinking about a plan for a city. Cities need centers. Something like a crystal cube to set the core that can reflect the world, the universe.” Watermill Center is a little bit like that. In 1967, I established the foundation, and it’s based on four principles. And it’s what has guided me through the years with the foundation.
The four principles are, one, it looks at the past as you go forward. What did man do in the past? One of the few things or the only thing that remains are artifacts. If we want to go back to the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Mayans, the Greeks, we look at artifacts, what artists have done. And so it’s important that we live with some awareness of the history of man, and we know the history of man through artifacts, through art.
At the same time, we’re a center for creative thinking, for new ideas, for producing new work by artists. So you have looking at the past as we go forward. And the other principle was that we must understand our community. I’m at the Watermill Center on Long Island. We have the Shinnecock Nation next door. The Shinnecock Nation were on this land before we were here, but even further back…. We must always be aware of the community around us. And that must be balanced with a look at the global community: What’s happening in Afghanistan? What’s happening in Bahia, in the jungle? What is happening with the Eskimos?
Here at Watermill, we operate on those four principles. We have about six thousand works in the collection, and they go back as far back as 5000 B.C. The summer program here, we have twenty-three nations represented. I have people from the [neighboring] community, but we bring people [from all over the world], whether it’s from Africa, whether it’s from China, from Latin America. We have some awareness of what’s happening in other cultures.
There is no door. The central building has an opening. So it’s like that crystal cube inside of an apple. If we look at a cathedral in medieval times—rich or poor, you could walk in. It was a place where artists played music, wrote music, presented music. A painter showed paintings. It was the highest point in the village. It was the center. It was that crystal cube inside of an apple. Simply, abstractly, that’s how I see the Watermill Center.
SB: So, you’re 81. You’ve done nearly two hundred stage productions to your name. What are you dreaming of next?
RW: Right now, I’m just trying to get my socks on.
RW: I like when Gertrude Stein—they said, “Ms. Stein. What will you do next?” She said, “I think I’ll have a glass of water.”
SB: Well, let’s end there. Thank you, Bob. This has been a pleasure.
RW: Okay. Thank you. Have a good day.
This interview was recorded in the archive room of the Watermill Center in Water Mill, New York, on August 1, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, Mimi Hannon, Hazen Mayo, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Lucie Jansch.