The plan was that, on a Wednesday morning in July, I would take the bus to Southampton, New York, where a publicist would pick me up and drive me to the Watermill Center about five minutes down the road. There I would interview Robert Wilson, the center’s founder and artistic director, from 1 to 2 p.m., after which I would have lunch with the Watermill staff before taking the 3:15 bus back to Manhattan. The reason for interviewing Wilson was that part of his private art collection had just returned from France, where it had been on view at the Louvre.
Wilson is 73 and the pre-eminent avant-garde theater director in the world. His admirers have included Susan Sontag, Samuel Beckett, and Heiner Müller (from whom he inherited the mantle of theatrical innovation) as well as celebrities from Tom Waits to David Byrne to Lady Gaga. An anecdote in the recent memoir of his frequent collaborator Philip Glass offers insight into his methods. Glass describes sitting with Wilson during auditions where Wilson would ask actors to simply walk across the stage, and know immediately whether or not he could work with them based on their movements alone.
His productions are slow and meandering, perhaps a function of a childhood stutter, which he got over when a woman named Byrd Hoffman, an artist in Wilson’s hometown of Waco, Texas, told him, “You should take more time to speak,” a story he recounted in a 2006 documentary about his life. Wilson named his theater company after her and went on to work with children himself, helping students with learning disabilities embrace simple movements of the body—looking at their right hand, for instance—and these kinds of gestures, often exaggerated to the point of absurdity, would later dominate his work. Many of his plays go on for several hours. In the case of Ka Mountain, Wilson’s 1972 production atop a mountain in Iran, the running time was seven days, and many performers were hospitalized for dehydration and exhaustion. He prefers nonprofessional actors and encourages audience members to enter and exit a performance as they please. His early productions were all silent. When he began working with text, he made Beckett seem wordy. He has a reputation for obsessiveness.
When I arrived at the center, there were about one hundred people on site, a combination of staff and artists from the center’s international summer program, which brings in around 80 people from all over the world to study with Wilson and his collaborators and work on performance projects to be presented at Watermill’s summer benefit. A handful of artists live for the season in small cubicles in a dormitory. The cubicles—two beds in each, with only partially constructed walls—offer no privacy. The center has purchased the lot next door and is planning another building, but for now people slept in these close quarters, as well as in rented houses scattered about town. Wilson’s guidance of these protégés takes on strange forms. During morning meetings, he’ll often lead the group in 30 minutes of silence.
In the woods behind the center, a number of people were on their knees, quietly digging in the dirt and rigging up electrical cords in preparation for the benefit. A power saw buzzed in a woodshop. In a large storage room inside the main building—referred to by the staff as “the archive”—Wilson’s collection was being sifted through, taken out of wooden crates and arranged on long rows of shelves and on the floor. There were hundreds of objects—ceramic vases, glassware, furniture, paintings, some of them thousands of years old and some of them new, all being dusted off and catalogued for Wilson to examine more closely later. Shoes are forbidden in most areas indoors. Every single person called Wilson “Bob.” He was the main topic of discussion. Walking the grounds felt like entering into one of Wilson’s plays. Everyone had a role in Wilson’s carefully casted life.
Around 1 p.m. Wilson’s agent appeared to tell me that Wilson couldn’t meet as planned; Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton had just arrived, and the two of them had to talk. Expecting to be sent home, I was instead asked if I’d care to join “Bob and Tilda” on a tour of Wilson’s residence. Feeling like I’d somehow faked my way into this situation, I tried to say “that’s fine” as if I were conceding some small defeat.
I was taken to the center’s main gallery, where Wilson holds the morning meetings. Swinton was standing there, barefoot, in maroon corduroy pants and an intricately patterned jacket in a dark purplish color. Her hair was not so much styled as it was turned on, an electric swirl of bleached blonde, almost white, which seemed to effortlessly slick itself back through its own sentient willpower. Standing alongside her was Sandro Kopp, her partner, who had a thick beard and a fashionably grotesque haircut. There were little monkeys on his socks. We all three waited for Bob.
What was so remarkable about Robert Wilson entering the room was how unremarkably Robert Wilson entered the room. He was not in the room, and then he was in the room, as if he had always been in the room. My impression of him was that he had a level of confidence that only a person who has been called a genius over and over again for several decades could maintain, and he seemed unapproachable. I felt nervous. He wore a black T-shirt and baggy black pants that went down to his ankles. He was pale. Swinton hugged him and kissed him on the cheek, as did her partner, and then Wilson slowly wandered off. The room’s remaining occupants looked around awkwardly until, moments later, Wilson’s voice could be heard in the adjacent gallery, loudly announcing, “This is the work of Paul Thek!” Everyone scurried to catch up with him, aware now that we should have been following his movements. He said again, softer this time, now that his audience had arrived, “This is the work of Paul Thek. I was with him when he died and he made me the executor of his estate.” He stood close to a beeswax sculpture of a piece of meat, encased in glass. “This is a wax meat piece in glass,” he said.
As we stood looking at Thek’s art, the film director Jim Jarmusch entered the room as casually as if the Watermill Center were his own house and he had been sleeping upstairs. Wilson’s acknowledgement of Jarmusch was, like every one of his actions I’d seen so far, severe, but muted. Swinton, who starred in the director’s most recent film, rushed up to Jarmusch and embraced him, saying with great earnestness, “It is so good to see you.” Jarmusch and Swinton had the same hairstyle. It looked better on Swinton.
The presence of Swinton and Jarmusch was not entirely random—they were working together with Wilson on a play about Nikola Tesla. Through some happy accident, all of their schedules matched up that afternoon, and they wouldn’t be able to meet again for a long time.
Wilson had by now walked us all to the stone garden under a brick archway that serves as a de facto threshold to Watermill.
“We have no door,” Wilson said. He was standing in the center of the garden and looking up at nothing in particular. “The Bible says, ‘Behold I have set before thee an open door!’ ” He had affected a deific voice to say this. Bringing his tone back to normal, he added, “So there’s an open-door policy.” We all then crammed into an elevator to look at his residence.
The interior of the center was filled with objects ranging from a Taiwanese headhunter’s jacket to an early painting by Dan Walsh. As Wilson would tell me later, there is no method behind his collecting, but he has an encyclopedic knowledge of every piece, and he rattled off facts as we walked, announcing each work as if his words alone brought it into existence.
“This is a chair I made for a play called Death, Destruction, and Detroit III.”
“This is a third-century mirror from Cambodia.”
“This is a fishing trap from Borneo.”
“This is an early drawing by Andy.” (Warhol that is. It was on the floor, leaning against a wall.)
“This is a harp from Nigeria.”
“My daughter plays the harp!” Swinton cut in, her tenderness leavening Wilson’s intensity, a frowning seriousness that Jarmusch seemed to share. Wilson nodded solemnly at Swinton.
“Does everyone know Christopher Knowles?” Wilson asked the group, standing in front of a small frame hanging on one of the walls of his bedroom. Wilson met Knowles in the early ’70s, when a young Knowles was living in a home for “brain-damaged” children. He’d been diagnosed as possibly autistic and Wilson took him under his wing, encouraging the way his mind worked. Knowles wrote the text for A Letter for Queen Victoria, a play directed by Wilson. Like most of Wilson’s work, there is no linear plot, but rather a series of elaborate set pieces, all tied together by a chamber music score and obsessively focused on Knowles’s deconstructed words and phrases, which are repeated throughout the play, as if in a binary code. Wilson looked at the frame, which displayed a passage of writing by Knowles.
“He called me when I was at this formal dinner recently,” Wilson said. “He said, ‘Hi, Bob. This is Chris!’ I said, ‘Hi, Chris.’ He said, ‘Guess what, I’m getting married!’ I said, ‘That’s great!’ He said, ‘Can I do it at Watermill?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ He said, ‘Great, thanks!’ and then hung up.” Everyone laughed.
We sat down at a round wooden table in a room near where Wilson slept. It was lined with masks from a variety of different cultures, resting on pedestals. Wilson proceeded to tell his life’s story, speaking with an actor’s grace. He gave the impression that he was making eye contact with everyone at the table at once. He talked about growing up in Waco, which he described as “racist,” and, offering a line I’d seen him use in interviews in the past, a place where it was considered “a disgrace that Abraham Lincoln died in a theater because the theater was a house of ill repute.”
“A disgrace for him?” Swinton asked, somewhat scandalized.
“For Lincoln, yes.”
Wilson brought up moving to New York, to a loft on Spring Street, where he developed his theater company, the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds. He discussed his first encounter with Raymond Andrews, a deaf child whom Wilson said he met by intervening as a police officer was about to strike Andrews with a night stick. Wilson eventually talked a judge into letting him adopt Andrews, who became part of Wilson’s stable of actors, and inspired his early works–including his breakthrough, Deafman Glance, a seven-hour “silent opera.” Wilson said that his most famous production, Einstein on the Beach, written with Philip Glass, had bankrupted him, and he lost his loft, after which he traveled constantly, staging productions around the world in an attempt to scrape together money. In the mid-’80s, he began renovating the building that would become the Watermill Center, a former Western Union research facility, and finally opened it in 1992 as a kind of replacement to the old loft in order to “get back to my roots,” he said. “I wanted to work with people who normally wouldn’t work together.”
“I have a question,” Jarmusch announced, his face unsmiling. “About Death, Destruction, and Detroit.” This was a three-part play that Wilson began production on in the 1970s. “Why Detroit?” Jarmusch, who made his last film in that city, asked. “What was the draw?”
“I just made up the title, Jim. The play had nothing to do with the title.”
His speech concluded, Wilson stood and walked over to a wooden mask. “This is Eskimo,” he said. Swinton asked if she could touch it. Wilson removed the mask from its pedestal and held it out for her.
After we left the residence, I stood at the bottom of a staircase, fumbling with my shoes. I heard Wilson’s deep voice echo through the stairwell. He said: “What’s your background?” I didn’t register immediately that he was talking to me, even though everyone else had exited the stairwell and was standing on the other side of the door. I looked around, confirmed there was no one else he could be speaking to and then realized I had no answer for him. This was the first time that afternoon that he spoke to me directly rather than in a group, and the level of potency with which he asked the question removed the meaning from the phrase and left only sounds. (“Language is the barrier of the imagination,” a famous saying of Wilson’s goes.) After a long pause I filled the silence by saying the name of a publication where I used to work. This hardly felt like the right response, and it was followed by another silence, which Wilson mercifully filled by saying, “You studied art history.” “English,” I muttered. To this, Wilson said, “Mm,” and walked past me.
Just then, on the other side of the door, a bell began to clang loudly. Wilson went into a hallway where Swinton and the others had gathered. A man in a yellow T-shirt was holding a small bell, and Wilson introduced him as Christopher Knowles.
“I’m the dinner-bell ringer,” Knowles said.
Knowles methodically introduced himself to each of us, and then returned to ringing the bell. It was time to eat.
There were two long communal tables outside and a third laid out with large trays of food. Most of the artists and residents and staff members were already seated. They were all respectfully silent, waiting for Wilson’s next move. Wilson took Swinton and company to fill up their plates. Watermill’s chef is a dancer named Illenk Gentille. In addition to being an impressive cook, he is also, Wilson said, the prince of Toraja, located in the South Sulawesi region of Indonesia and occupied by an indigenous mountain people. The moment Wilson had portioned out his own meal and sat down near the edge of one of the tables, everyone else abruptly lined up, and began chattering away.
Over the course of the day I came to understand that Robert Wilson is not one for small talk. After quietly eating for a few minutes, he cleared his throat, stood, and asked that everyone go around the tables and say their names, where they were from, and what they did. Everyone obliged. I enjoyed hearing: “Tilda, performer, Scotland.” When it was over and everyone had picked up their conversations, Wilson stood behind me and murmured, “You must want to talk to me.” Again, he spoke to me with what I can only describe as a Beckettian level of gravity. I said we should go to the archive and look at the portion of the collection that had just returned from France. He seemed to consider this heavily before going inside.
Wilson surveyed the archive like his entire life had been put on view, and he was taking stock. “I studied business administration at the University of Texas,” he began, looking around the room. He transferred to Pratt after three years to study architecture. “I really wanted to study painting,” he said. “But I knew my father would not like that. So I said I would study architecture to please my father. He’s from Texas and he said”—Wilson took on an exaggerated Texas accent—“ ‘Son, to study architecture is not serious! You gotta study engineering.’ So.”
“What did your father do?” I asked.
“My father was a lawyer. He came to see an early work of mine. He only saw two things. Well, maybe three. And after the performance, he said”—here was the accent again—“ ‘Son, not only is this sick, it’s abnormal!’ ” He laughed softly, but there was sadness in it. “He’d never been to the theater in his life.” Wilson changed the subject to the works in the room, which he counted off systematically. East German pots, which he said were suppressed by the communists for being black. A 17th-century bowl from Turkey. An 1836 Shaker chair (“They have these little cushions on the back legs, so when you sit, you get this little ease on the back,” he said, demonstrating). A 2900 B.C. Northern Thai pot. A pair of Mickey Mouse ears from Disney World in Tokyo. A portrait of Lucinda Childs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Marlene Dietrich’s favorite shoes (“She wore them when she fell off the stage in Australia”).
“Tom Waits,” he said, gliding past a small sculpture of Janus, hand-crafted out of clay. “He gave me this. You can see his fingers all over it.”
He examined a photograph by Lee Miller featuring a man in an SS uniform, his body twisted and spread out on the floor of a room in disarray. On top of him was a portrait with a hole in it, and out the window stood what looked like another human form. “Just after the war,” Wilson said. “Look at that.” He described the picture meditatively as he stared at it: “A dead Nazi, on its back, with a portrait of Hitler with the face punched out by a clenched fist, and the figure of justice out the window. How did she do that?”
We stopped at a framed, hand-written letter. “This is Heiner Müller,” Wilson said, speaking of the late German dramatist. Wilson staged a beloved production of Müller’s Hamletmachine in 1986 at New York University that Müller himself called the best interpretation of his work, something that Wilson mentioned elatedly. “His daughter’s with me this summer,” Wilson continued. She was working for the center.
That the daughter of Müller, the spiritual heir of Bertolt Brecht, was helping out at Wilson’s quirky summer theater camp instantly softened Wilson. This, coupled with his palpable disappointment when speaking of trying and failing to please his father, neutralized the persona I’d built up around him over the course of the day as an aloof genius. He was all at once surprisingly human.
“This is a letter Heiner wrote me,” Wilson said. “We were the odd couple. We were best friends. No one could believe it. He was this East German Marxist intellectual and I was Bugs Bunny from Texas. I didn’t know anything about anything, but we loved each other’s company.” Wilson seemed to grow more relaxed as he spoke, but he would have to leave soon to meet privately with Swinton and Jarmusch. I looked more closely at the letter. It was a poem:
Here’s Superman, the tourist
Stratford to Stratford
As I read this, I realized that I would not make my bus back to the city.
A week had gone by and I was sitting in my apartment one morning when Wilson called me unexpectedly.
“How are you?” I asked him.
“Still breathing,” he said. He waited a beat. “The day you were here was so chaotic, and I really wanted to spend some time talking to you and show you through the collection, but it was also the only time Tilda and Jim could make it out, and we were preparing for our summer benefit as well.” He was calling to apologize, and invited me back out the following week. I told him that the following week would be past my deadline. He offered to write a letter to my editor asking for an extension for me.
I imagined the great avant-garde director asking for a reprieve from my boss on my behalf. I said I’d see what I could do even though I knew the timing wouldn’t work. “But now that I have you on the phone,” I said, “maybe I can ask you some questions.” I asked him about Beckett. Wilson had recently directed and starred in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape, perhaps Beckett’s grandest statement on aging and death.
“Beckett came to see A Letter for Queen Victoria, which I wrote with Christopher Knowles,” he said. “Chris has a very special way of thinking and writing. He was writing these texts that were mathematically and geometrically constructed.” Beckett came backstage and told Wilson, “I love your text—it’s a whole different world for me.” They both agreed that Buster Keaton was their favorite actor. He told Beckett that he’d seen his production of Happy Days 20 times with Madeleine Renaud in the role of Winnie, a woman buried waist-deep in sand (neck-deep in Act II), acting as if nothing is wrong. “I’d just go every night,” Wilson said.
“When I first went to the theater I hated it,” he told me. “Too much thinking. These Broadway shows were so boring, and the opera was just as boring. It was horrible, painful, to see this behavior on stage. The costumes and makeup and direct expression—all horrible. And it still is, in my opinion.” He described his own work as “artificial.” “I think if you’re onstage and you try to act natural, it’s a lie,” he said. “If you accept it as something artificial, it’s more honest.”
I asked him who else had influenced him and he said George Balanchine. He said that at least a handful of Balanchine’s ballets would still be remembered and performed in a century.
Out of nowhere, he added, “I think my work will not be around 50 years from now.” He described his productions as “like a shooting star.”
“I don’t want anyone to try to re-create what I did in the future,” he said.
I had many questions about this. But he had to go now to a big meeting, he said. There were people waiting for him.
M.H. Miller is a senior editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 58 under the title “Waiting for Bob.”