Robert Wilson (director)

For other people named Robert Wilson, see Robert Wilson (disambiguation).
Robert Wilson
Born (1941-10-04) October 4, 1941
Waco, Texas, USA
Occupation Theatre director

Robert Wilson (born October 4, 1941) is an American experimental theater stage director and playwright who has been described by the media as "[America]'s or even the world's foremost avant-garde 'theater artist'".[1] Over the course of his wide-ranging career, he has also worked as a choreographer, performer, painter, sculptor, video artist, and sound and lighting designer. He is best known for his collaborations with Philip Glass on Einstein on the Beach, and with numerous other artists, including Heiner Müller, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Gavin Bryars, Rufus Wainwright, Marina Abramović, Willem Dafoe, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Darryl Pinckney and Lady Gaga.

Early life and education

Wilson was born in Waco, Texas, the son of Loree Velma (née Hamilton) and D.M. Wilson, a lawyer.[2] He studied business administration at the University of Texas from 1959 to 1962. He moved to Brooklyn in 1963, receiving a BFA in architecture from the Pratt Institute in 1965. He also attended lectures by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy (widow of László Moholy-Nagy), and studied painting with the artist George McNeil. Later he went to Arizona to study architecture with Paolo Soleri at his complex.[3]



Moving to New York City in the mid-1960s, Wilson found himself drawn to the work of pioneering choreographers George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and Martha Graham, among others.[4] In 1968, he founded an experimental performance company, the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds (named for a teacher who helped him overcome a speech impediment – a severe stutter – while a teenager). With this company, he created his first major works, beginning with 1969's The King of Spain and The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud. He began to work in opera in the early 1970s, creating Einstein on the Beach with the composer Philip Glass, which brought the two artists worldwide renown. Following Einstein, Wilson worked increasingly with major European theaters and opera houses.[5] For the New York debut of the opera, the Metropolitan Opera allowed Wilson to rent the house on a Sunday, but would not produce the work. The house sold out in two days.[6]

In 1972, Wilson's Deafman Glance, a long, silent play, appeared at the Nancy Festival, and later opened in Paris, championed by the designer Pierre Cardin.[6] The Surrealist poet Louis Aragon loved it and published a letter to the Surrealist poet André Breton (who had died in 1966),[6] in which he praised Wilson as: "What we, from whom Surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us".[7]

In 1983/84, Wilson planned a performance for the 1984 Summer Olympics, the CIVIL warS: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down; the complete work was to have been 12 hours long, in 6 parts. The production was only partially completed the full event was cancelled by the Olympic Arts Festival, due to insufficient funds.[8] In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize jury unanimously selected the CIVIL warS for the drama prize, but the supervisory board rejected the choice and gave no drama award that year.[9]

In 1990 alone, Wilson created four new productions in four different West German cities: Shakespeare's King Lear in Frankfurt, Chekhov's Swan Song in Munich, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando in West Berlin, and The Black Rider, a collaboration by Wilson, Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs, in Hamburg.[10]

Wilson is known for pushing the boundaries of theatre. His works are noted for their austere style, very slow movement, and often extreme scale in space or in time. The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin was a 12-hour performance, while KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace was staged on a mountaintop in Iran and lasted seven days.

In 2010 Wilson was working on a new stage musical with composer (and long-time collaborator) Tom Waits and the Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh.[11] His theatrical production of Lecture on Nothing, which was commissioned for a celebration of the John Cage centenary at the 2012 Ruhrtriennale,[12] gave its U.S. premiere in Royce Hall by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA in 2013.[13]

In 2013 Wilson, in collaboration with Mikhail Baryshnikov and co-starring Willem Dafoe, developed "The Old Woman", an adaptation of the work by the Russian author Daniil Kharms. The play premiered at MIF13, Manchester International Festival.[14] Wilson wrote that he and Baryshnikov have discussed creating a play together for years, perhaps based on a Russian text.[15] The final production included dance, light, singing and bilingual monologue.

Since 1999, Wilson has premiered nine theatrical works in Berlin; as of 2013, his last commission in the United States was 21 years ago.[16] He continues to direct revivals of his most celebrated productions, including The Black Rider in London, San Francisco, Sydney, Australia, and Los Angeles; The Temptation of St. Anthony in New York and Barcelona; Erwartung in Berlin; Madama Butterfly at the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow; and Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.[5] He also directs all Monteverdi Operas for the opera houses of La Scala in Milan and the Palais Garnier in Paris.[17]

Visual art and design

In addition to his work for the stage, Wilson creates sculpture, drawings, and furniture designs. He won the Golden Lion at the 1993 Venice Biennale for a sculptural installation. Exhibited in December 1976 at the Paula Cooper Gallery, Wilson's storyboards were described by one critic as “serial art, equivalent to the slow-motion tempo of [Wilson's] theatrical style. In drawing after drawing after drawing, a detail is proposed, analyzed, refined, redefined, moved through various positions.”[18]

In 2004, Ali Hossaini offered Wilson a residency at the television channel LAB HD.[19] Since then Wilson, with producer Esther Gordon (and among others Brad Pitt, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, Dita von Teese, and Peter Sarsgaard) and later with Matthew Shattuck, has produced dozens of high-definition videos known as the Voom Portraits. Collaborators on this well-received project included the composer Michael Galasso, the late artist and designer Eugene Tsai, fashion designer Kevin Santos, and lighting designer Urs Schönebaum. In addition to celebrity subjects, sitters have included royalty, animals, Nobel Prize winners and hobos.[20]

American pop singer Lady Gaga announced in 2013 that she would collaborate with Wilson as part of her ARTPOP project. He subsequently designed the set for her 2013 MTV Video Music Awards performance.[21]

Wilson also suggested that Gaga pose for his Voom Portraits.[21] Knowing he had an upcoming residency as guest curator at the Louvre, Wilson chose themes from the museum's collection, all dealing with death. They shot the videos in a London studio over three days, Gaga standing for 14 or 15 hours at a time.[21] Called “Living Rooms,” the resulting exhibition included two video works: one inspired by Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat, hung in the painting galleries, and another in which Lady Gaga brings to life a painting by Ingres.[6] In the Louvre's auditorium, Wilson hosted and took part in a series of performances, conversations, film screenings, and discussions.[22] The centerpiece of the residency is a room filled with objects from the artist's personal collection in New York, including African masks, a Shaker chair, ancient Chinese ceramics, shoes worn by Marlene Dietrich and a photo of Wilson and Glass taken in the early 1980s by Robert Mapplethorpe.[6]

In 2011, Wilson designed an art park dedicated to the Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala (1915–1985), situated in the Arabianranta district of Helsinki. His plans for the rectangular park feature a central square divided into nine equally sized fields separated by bushes. Each field will be installed with objects related to the home. For example, one unit will consist of a small fireplace surrounded by stones that serve as seating. The park will be lit by large, lightbox-style lamps build into the ground and by smaller ones modelled on ordinary floor lamps.[23]



Language is one of the most important elements of theatre and Robert Wilson feels at home with commanding it in many different ways. Wilson's impact on this part of theatre alone is immense. Arthur Holmberg, Professor of Theatre at Brandeis University, says that “In theatre, no one has dramatized the crisis of language with as much ferocious genius as Robert Wilson”.[24]:41 Wilson makes it evident in his work that what's and why's of language are terribly important and cannot be overlooked. Tom Waits, acclaimed songwriter and collaborator with Wilson, said this about Wilson's unique relationship with words:

Words for Bob are like tacks on the kitchen floor in the dark of night and you're barefoot. So Bob clears a path he can walk through words without getting hurt. Bob changes the values and shapes of words. In some sense they take on more meaning; in some cases, less.[24]:43

Wilson shows the importance of language through all of his works and in many varying fashions. He credits his reading of the work of Gertrude Stein and listening to recordings of her speaking with "changing [his] way of thinking forever."[25] Wilson directed three of Stein's works in the 1990s: Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1992), Four Saints in Three Acts (1996), and Saints and Singing (1998).

Wilson considers language and, down to its very ingredients, words, as a sort of “a social artifact”.[24]:44 Not only does language change with time but it changes with person, with culture. Using his experience of working with mentally handicapped children and enlisting the collaboration of Christopher Knowles, a renowned autistic poet, has allowed Wilson attack language from many views. Wilson embraces this by often “juxtaposing levels of diction – Miltonic opulence and contemporary ling, crib poetry and pre-verbal screams” in an attempt to show his audience how elusive language really is and how ever-changing it can be.[24]:44 Visually showing words is another method Wilson uses to show the beauty of language. Often his set designs, program covers, and posters are graffiti'd with words. This allows the audience to look at the “language itself” rather than “the objects and meanings it refers to.”.[24]:45

The lack of language becomes essential to Wilson's work as well. In the same way an artist uses positive and negative space, Wilson uses noise and silence. In working on a production of King Lear, Wilson inadvertently describes his necessity of silence:

The way actors are trained here is wrong. All they think about is interpreting a text. They worry about how to speak words and know nothing about their bodies. You see that by the way they walk. They don't understand the weight of a gesture in space. A good actor can command an audience by moving one finger.[24]:49

This emphasis on silence is fully explored in some of his works. Deafman Glance is a play without words, and his adaptation of Heiner Müller's play Quartet contained a fifteen-minute wordless prologue. Holmberg describes these works stating,

Language does many things and does them well. But we tend to shut our eyes to what language does not do well. Despite the arrogance of words – they rule traditional theatre with an iron fist – not all experience can be translated into a linguistic code”.[24]:50

Celebrated twentieth century playwright Eugène Ionesco said that Wilson “surpassed Beckett” because “[Wilson's] silence is a silence that speaks”.[24]:52 This silence onstage may be unnerving to audience members but serves a purpose of showing how important language is by its absence. It is Wilson's means of answering his own question: “Why is it no one looks? Why is it no one knows how to look? Why does no one see anything on stage?”.[24]:52

Another technique Wilson uses is that of what words can mean to a particular character. His piece, I was sitting on my patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating, features only two characters, both of whom deliver the same stream-of-consciousness monologue. In the play's first production one character was "aloof, cold, [and] precise" while the other "brought screwball comedy… warmth and color… playful[ness]".[24]:61 The different emphases and deliveries brought to the monologue two different meanings; "audiences found it hard to believe they heard the same monologue twice".[24]:61 Rather than tell his audience what words are supposed to mean, he opens them up for interpretation, presenting the idea that "meanings are not tethered to words like horses to hitching posts".[24]:61


Movement is another key element in Wilson's work. As a dancer, he sees the importance of the way an actor moves onstage and knows the weight their movement bears. When speaking of his "play without words" rendition of Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, Wilson says:

I do movement before we work on the text. Later we'll put text and movement together. I do movement first to make sure it's strong enough to stand on its own two feet without words. The movement must have a rhythm and structure of its own. It must not follow the text. It can reinforce a text without illustrating it. What you hear and what you see are two different layers. When you put them together, you create another texture.[24]:136

With such an emphasis on movement, Wilson even tailors his auditions around the necessity of it. In his auditions, "Wilson often does an elaborate movement sequence" and "asks the actor to repeat it".[24]:136 Thomas Derrah, an actor in the CIVIL warS, found the audition process to be baffling: "When I went in, [Wilson] asked me to walk across the room on a count of 31, sit down on a count of 7, put my hand to my forehead on a count of 59. I was mystified by the whole process".[24]:137 To further cement the importance of movement in Wilson's works, Seth Goldstein, another actor in the CIVIL warS, stated "every movement from the moment I walked onto the platform until I left was choreographed to the second. During the scene at table all I did was count movements. All I thought about was timing".[24]:137

When it comes time to add the text in with movement, there is still much work to be done. Wilson pays close attention to the text and still makes sure there is enough "space around a text" in order for the audience to soak it up.[24]:139 At this point, the actors know their movements and the time in which they are executed, allowing Wilson to tack the actions onto specific pieces of text. His overall goal is to have the rhythm of the text differ from that of the movement so his audience can see them as two completely different pieces, seeing each as what it is. When in the text/movement stage, Wilson often interrupts the rehearsal, saying things like "Something is wrong. We have to check your scripts to see if you put the numbers in the right place".[24]:139 He goes on to explain the importance of this:

I know it's hell to separate text and movement and maintain two different rhythms. It takes time to train yourself to keep tongue and body working against each other. But things happen with the body that have nothing to do with what we say. It's more interesting if the mind and the body are in two different places, occupying different zones of reality.[24]:139

These rhythms keep the mind on its toes, consciously and subconsciously taking in the meanings behind the movement and how it is matching up with the language.

Similar to Wilson's use of the lack of language in his works, he also sees the importance that a lack of movement can have. In his production of Medea, Wilson arranged a scene in which the lead singer stood still during her entire song while many others moved around her. Wilson recalls that "she complained that if I didn't give her any movements, no one would notice her. I told her if she knew how to stand, everyone would watch her. I told her to stand like a marble statue of a goddess who had been standing in the same spot for a thousand years".[24]:147 Allowing an actor to have such stage presence without ever saying a word is very provocative, which is precisely what Wilson means to accomplish with any sense of movement he puts on the stage.


Wilson believes that, "The most important part of theatre" is light.[24]:121 He is concerned with how images are defined onstage, and this is related to the light of an object or tableau. He feels that the lighting design can really bring the production to life. The set designer for Wilson's the CIVIL warS, Tom Kamm, describes his philosophy: "a set for Wilson is a canvas for the light to hit like paint".[24]:121 He explains, "If you know how to light, you can make shit look like gold. I paint, I build, I compose with light. Light is a magic wand".[24]:121

Wilson is "the only major director to get billing as a lighting designer" and is recognized by some as "the greatest light artist of our time".[24]:122 He designs with light to be flowing rather than an off-and-on pattern, thus making his lighting "like a musical score".[24]:123 Wilson's lighting designs feature "dense, palpable textures" and allow "people and objects to leap out from the background".[24]:123 In his design for Quartett, Wilson used four hundred light cues in a span of only ninety minutes.[24]:122

He is a perfectionist, persisting to achieve every aspect of his vision. A fifteen-minute monologue in Quartett took two days for him to light while a single hand gesture took nearly three hours.[24]:126 This attention to detail expresses his conviction that, "light is the most important actor on stage".[24]:128


Wilson's interest in design extends to the props in his productions, which he designs and sometimes participates in constructing. Whether it is furniture, a light bulb, or a giant crocodile, Wilson treats each as a work of art in its own right. He demands that a full-scale model of each prop be constructed before the final one is made, in order "to check proportion, balance, and visual relationships" on stage.[24]:128 Once he has approved the model, the crew builds the prop, and Wilson is "renowned for sending them back again and again and again until they satisfy him".[24]:128 He is so strict in his attention to detail that when Jeff Muscovin, his tech director for Quartett, suggested they use an aluminum chair with a wood skin rather than a completely wooden chair, Wilson replied:

No, Jeff, I want wood chairs. If we make them out of aluminum, they won't sound right when they fall over and hit the floor. They'll sound like metal, not wood. It will sound false. Just make sure you get strong wood. And no knots.[24]:129

Such attention to detail and perfectionism usually resulted in an expensive collection of props. "Curators regard them as sculptures",[24]:129 and the props have been sold for prices ranging from "$4,500 to $80,000".[26]:113

Private life

Wilson is gay.[27][28]

In 2007, Wilson was evicted from the Vestry Street loft he had lived and worked in for 34 years by developer Aby Rosen.[29] That same year, he signed a lease at 111 Front Street.[29]

In 2011, New York-based company International Flavors & Fragrances created a new scent, titled Black Rider, in Wilson's honor on the occasion of the director's 70th birthday.[30]


Extensive retrospectives have been presented at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1991) and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (1991). He has presented installations at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam (1993), London's Clink Street Vaults (1995), Neue Nationalgalerie (2003), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.[31] His tribute to Isamu Noguchi was exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum and his Voom Portraits exhibition traveled to Hamburg, Milan, Miami, and Philadelphia.[5] In 2012, Times Square Arts invited Wilson to show selections from his three-minute video portraits on more than twenty digital screens that lined Times Square.[31][32] In 2013 he participated at the White House Biennial / Thessaloniki Biennale 4.

Wilson is represented by the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York City.

Legacy and awards


DVD (Operas)


  1. John Rockwell (1992-11-15). "Staging Painterly Visions". The New York Times. p. 23 (sect. 6).
  2. "Robert Wilson", Film Reference
  3. Rima Suqi (September 21, 2011), Robert Wilson, Director, on His Passion for Chairs The New York Times.
  4. Robert Wilson American Center France.
  5. 1 2 3 4 "Robert Wilson, Deafman Glance": Video Installation, September 24 – November 13, 2010 Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Rachel Donadio (January 3, 2014), Paris Embraces Einstein Again The New York Times.
  7. Design Museum. "Robert Wilson: Theatre Director + Designer". Retrieved 2010-03-06.
  8. John Rockwell (June 20, 1990), "Critic's Notebook; Robert Wilson Wins A Faithful Following, But It's in Europe", The New York Times
  9. Mel Gussow (Jan 6, 1994). "At Home With: Robert Wilson; The Clark Kent Of Modern Theater". The New York Times. p. C1.
  10. John Rockwell (June 20, 1990), Critic's Notebook; Robert Wilson Wins A Faithful Following, But It's in Europe The New York Times.
  11. "New Musical From Tom Waits On The Horizon". Anti Records. 2010-02-02. Retrieved 2010-02-03.
  12. Robert Wilson Ruhrtriennale.
  13. Mark Swed (October 16, 2013), "Review: Robert Wilson finds the poetry in 'Lecture on Nothing'" Los Angeles Times.
  14. Jansch, Lucie (2013). "The Old Woman Robert Wilson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Willem Dafoe". Manchester International Festival. Manchester International Festival. Retrieved 2014-11-23.
  15. Wilson, Robert (2014). "Cal Performances University of California, Berkeley Playbill" (PDF). Calperformances. UC Berkeley. Retrieved 2014-11-23.
  16. Patrick Barkham (August 22, 2012), "Robert Wilson takes a walk with angels in Norfolk", The Guardian.
  17. MIF13: Robert Wilson Manchester International Festival.
  18. Einstein on the Beach: Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Lucinda Childs, Christopher Knowles, Andrew de Groat, September 12 – October 20, 2012 Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.
  19. Ali Hossaini. "Merging Art and Television" (PDF). p. 25. Retrieved 2007-04-20.
  20. Bob Colacello (December 2006). "The Subject as Star". Vanity Fair. Condé Nast: 318.
  21. 1 2 3 Amy Serafin (December 12, 2013), "Robert Wilson's macabre video portraits of Lady Gaga" (12 Dec 2013) Wallpaper.
  22. The Louvre invites Robert Wilson – Living Rooms, November 11, 2013 – February 17, 2014 Louvre, Paris.
  23. Clemens Bomsdorf (June 28, 2011), Helsinki to get new art park The Art Newspaper.
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 Holmberg, Arthur (1996) The Theatre Of Robert Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge UP ISBN 978-0-52136-492-8
  25. "Director's Notes" in a program for Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts, quoted in Sarah Bay-Cheng (2004) Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein's Avant-Garde Theater, p. 135, New York: Routledge ISBN 978-0-20350-302-7
  26. Gussow, Mel (1998) Theatre On The Edge, New York: Applause ISBN 978-1-55783-311-2
  27. Gold, Sylviane (2006-10-22). "Austere, Enigmatic Innovator. And Charming Fellow, Really". The New York Times.
  28. Ehrenstein, David (2007-01-29). "The key to Robert Wilson". The Advocate.
  29. 1 2 S. Jhoanna Robledo (November 18, 2007), "Byrd Hoffman's New Dumbo Nest", New York.
  30. Andrew Russeth (July 27, 2011), "Capturing the Essence of Director Robert Wilson" The New York Observer.
  31. 1 2 Robert Wilson: Video Portraits, May 1 – 31, 2012 Times Square Arts.
  32. Hilton Als (September 17, 2012), "Slow Man: Robert Wilson and his first masterpiece", The New Yorker.
  33. V Europe Theatre Prize / Reasons Europe Theatre Prize
  34. The piece was staged in 1986 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in 1987 at the Staatstheater in Stuttgart. See Weber (1989, 94) and Brockett & Hildy (2003, 550).
  35. Robert Wilson, Parsifal, Wagner Operas
  36. Classical Music and Opera, The Guardian, 10 November 2003

Further reading

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