When director Robert Wilson and composer Tom Waits were scheming how to capitalize on their smash hit "The Black Rider" at Hamburg's Thalia Theatre, they hit on the idea of adapting Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland." Casting about for a literary collaborator, Mr. Wilson decided against William Burroughs, who'd provided the text for "The Black Rider," even though the Wilson-Waits-Burroughs team had proved a publicity bonanza. "Burroughs and Waits are very much alike. This time I wanted to do something different," the director says. "And I was looking for someone who would be a good complement between Tom and myself" -- that is, someone to serve as a bridge between his own austere visual orientation and Mr. Waits's carnivalesque vaudeville rock. So for "Alice," which opens October 6 for eight performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Mr. Wilson called on the services of his old friend Paul Schmidt, whose resume zooms from Russian scholarship and French translations to acting jobs in everything from classical repertory to "All My Children."

"Paul's a scholar who knows theater, and his background in literature helped a lot," Mr. Wilson explains. "It's very difficult to do 'Alice' because it's one episode after another, and the characters often don't reappear. How do structure the story to make an evening of theater? Because Paul saw Lewis Carroll not just as a writer but as a man of letters, as a mathematician, as a priest, we hit on the idea of seeing the show through the eyes of Charles Dodgson. I put together a storyboard, and Paul helped me fill it in."

Mr. Wilson was not the first major theater director to come calling on Mr. Schmidt. In fact, though the 61-year-old Brooklyn native received degrees from Harvard in Slavic languages, you could say as a theater artist he has majored in oddball projects by eccentric geniuses.

For the Wooster Group's "Brace Up!" (1990), director Elizabeth LeCompte asked him for a translation of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" that could incorporate dance sequences, television technology, and Japanese theater techniques -- and by the way, could he play Dr. Chebutykin as well? Translating the complete works of Velemir Khlebnikov, a little-known poet who died of malnutrition in 1922 at the age of 37, has been a lifelong passion for Mr. Schmidt, who talked the adventurous director Peter Sellars into staging Khlebnikov's "Zangezi" (seen in Los Angeles in 1986 and the following year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). Subtitled "A Supersaga in 20 Planes," this extremely idiosyncratic stage poem required Mr. Schmidt to convey into English scenes written to simulate the languages of birds, of gods, and of what the poet called "beyonsense." Similarly, when JoAnne Akalaitis mounted Jean Genet's five-and-a-half-hour, 100-character "The Screens" at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (1989), she asked Mr. Schmidt (who is perhaps best-known for translating the complete works of Arthur Rimbaud) to create a coherent American-language text out of the three different versions the French playwright left behind.


"When I went to school in the '50s," says Mr. Schmidt, sipping cappucino at a coffeehouse near his apartment in Chelsea, "there was much talk about being a Renaissance man. The ideal was to be well-rounded. But the same people who were telling you this, whether they knew it or not, were training to make good insurance salesmen out of you. In American terms, there's no point to being well-rounded. It was silly."

"On the other hand," he adds, "I did it."

Mr. Schmidt pursued an academic career first, partly because his father disapproved of theater as a profession. But while acquiring his scholarly credentials with a Ph.D at Harvard -- he wrote his dissertation on Russian director Vlesovold Meyerhold -- he fell in with the now-legendary circle of friends who produced summer seasons of plays at Radcliffe's Agassiz Theatre, including actors Lindsay Crouse, Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, and Stockard Channing (to whom Schmidt was married for seven years). The strongest personality in that group was Timothy Mayer, the fiercely talented and chronically underachieving writer-director who died of cancer in 1988. From Meyerhold and Mayer, Mr. Schmidt acquired the principles that he would apply throughout his work in the theater. Mayer stressed the importance of speaking to an audience in their own language. And Meyerhold, in opposition to Stanislavski's actor-centered idea of theater as a recreation of "real life," envisioned a "theater of spectacle" in which the primary creator is the director whose design, staging, and conceptual framework essentially rewrite the play. Meyerhold's example has fueled the work of the most imaginative directors in the contemporary theater, none more than Robert Wilson.

Mr. Wilson may be the latest genius Mr. Schmidt has worked with, but they've known each other the longest. They met on a street corner in 1960 when Mr. Wilson, just out of Waco High School, was studying business administration at the University of Texas where Mr. Schmidt, just out of the Army, was teaching French. They lived together in Austin for a year and have remained friends ever since. "Alice" is the beneficiary of their long friendship.

"With Bob, the genesis is always visual," says Mr. Schmidt. "He said, 'All I know is I want there to be two acts. And we should have either 5 or 7 scenes in each act, and somehow I see the middle scene in each act as different from the scenes around them but very similar to each other.' I went home with the Alice books and quickly saw there's not much to dramatize. She just goes from one incident to another. We picked out the scenes we thought would work best and tried to find a scenario to hold it together that wouldn't be just a children's storybook version of 'Alice in Wonderland.'"

Bringing the author into the picture, the scenario pivoted on the Rev. Dodgson's obsession with photographing little girls. "Nobody really objected to his wanting to take pictures of them in their underwear," Mr. Schmidt says, "but there was a point at which Alice Liddell's mother said to him it would be better if he didn't write her any more love letters." For the centerpieces of the two acts, Mr. Schmidt wrote monologues for Alice and Dodgson reflecting years later on their relationship and circling closer to the touchy subject of pedophilia than anything Lewis Carroll ever wrote.

To fit Mr. Wilson's visual scheme, Mr. Schmidt supplemented familiar scenes from "Alice in Wonderland," such as the Mad Hatter's tea party and Humpty Dumpty's dispensing advice to Alice, with classic Carroll nonsense verses ("Jabberwocky," of course) and even some of his word puzzles. "One thing that's special about Paul is he knew my work from the beginning," says Mr. Wilson. "I started out with works that were silent. Then I did plays that were texts of nonsense, where the words were just sounds. Later I did texts that made sense. But Paul has always been fascinated with the integrity of the word, not only with its meaning but with its sound and its musicality. That's something we share."

So in creating a text for Mr. Wilson, Mr. Schmidt knew how to feed him flavors that he liked? "Exactly."

New York Times, October 1, 1995

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