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Experimental Theater Director Robert Wilson Speaking at Rice, Says Actors Must Learn to Be Still

Innovative stage director and playwright Robert Wilson -- most famous for collaborating with composer Philip Glass on the five-hour, no-intermission opera Einstein on the Beach -- is giving the Campbell Lecture Series at Rice University this week with three lectures on three nights.

In last night's first part, Wilson covered his early work. Tonight (March 27) he'll cover his work in the '70s and '80s and on Friday (March 28) his more recent work. A gifted storyteller and superb mimic, Wilson uses his rich sense of stagecraft to hold his audience as he illustrates his theatrical beliefs.

Last year, a touring production of Einstein on the Beach (written in 1976) was booked in London and won the Olivier Award as Best New Opera.

In the opening lecture, Wilson stated his belief that lighting is the most important character onstage, and that lighting should be the first step, followed by movement, and only then by text.

This of course is the polar opposite of actors beginning a production by sitting around a table and discussing the meaning of the text, as is often done.

The origin of one of his early works, Deafman Glance, first produced in 1970, was discussed by Wilson; this work is a seven-hour opera with no spoken words. It ran in Paris for five months, in a theater seating well over 2,000, and sold out every night. It was inspired by a 13-year old African-American youth whom Wilson saved from incarceration when his deafness was misperceived as being intractable behavior.

Wilson is an iconoclast, shattering conventional thinking through his productions and his widespread influence, though honored more in Europe than the United States. Though Wilson has produced throughout the world, his home is in the United States. He was born in Waco, has lived primarily in Manhattan, and has established a cultural center in Watermill, Long Island.

He is famous for his attention to detail, including props, and this is illustrated by some slides, although Wilson speaks primarily behind a lectern, stepping away from it to drive home a point.

He recounted how a recording by the brain-damaged Chris Knowles at 13, helped to inspire The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin--a production that involved eight-and-a-half months of rehearsal with 126 performers, running for 12 hours, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., a very precise, wordless production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Wilson mentored Knowles, who had spent 11 of his 13 years in institutions, as Wilson recognized that there was a hidden mathematical symmetry to his speech. Knowles is now a recognized poet and painter, is self-reliant, lives in New Jersey, and has a girlfriend and a blue Buick - the precision of this description documents Wilson's attention to detail.

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Wilson stated that the most difficult thing for actors to learn was how to stand on stage. He quoted John Cage as saying, 'There is no such thing as silence" and Martha Graham as saying "There is no such thing as stillness." (Laurence Olivier, perhaps sensing this, said: "Acting is in the pauses.")

The most intriguing moment for me was Wilson describing ten minutes alone in a German zoo, just before closing, as he sat motionless without looking at but near to 14 wolves, both man and pack simply listening - a haunting and memorable vignette.

Wilson is truly a renaissance man, with a degree in architecture, who has worked as a choreographer, performer, painter, sculptor, video artist, and sound and lighting designer. He has collaborated widely, and is now working with Martin McDonough, the brilliant Irish playwright, and with Lady Gaga, whom he describes as "an amazing actress, brilliant, with a depth of emotion". Those who attend Friday's lecture will learn more about these projects.

The lectures take place at 6 p.m., with doors opening at 5:30 p.m., in Rice's Media Center - the acoustics are great, but, paradoxically, Wilson is poorly lit - perhaps this will be corrected in the second and third lectures. The Media Center can be located on the complex Rice grounds by entering Gate No. 8 on University Avenue, at Stockton Dr., second building on the right-hand side. Admission is free, though reservations must be made at 713-348-6072, as seating is limited.

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