NOT EITHER/OR BUT AND: Fragmentation and Consolidation in the Postmodern Theatre of Peter Sellars
Peter Sellars is a pivotal figure in contemporary theater. His work is both a product of 20th century avant-garde theater and a departure from it, overleaping the high-tech obsessions of his immediate predecessors for a more classical vision of theater.

Born in 1957, Sellars began his stage career at the age of 10 by apprenticing with a marionette theater in Pittsburgh, where he learned as much about French surrealism and Oriental theater as about Jack and the Beanstalk and Rumpelstiltskin. After high school, he spent a year in Paris, where he encountered the work of Giorgio Strehler, the Bread and Puppet Theater, and Andrei Serban's Fragments of a Greek Trilogy, all of which had a powerful, formative effect on him. He launched his professional career while still an undergraduate at Harvard, and within a decade he had created a remarkable and influential body of work without ever having a major production in Manhattan. An assiduous student of theater history as well as of such admired peers as the Wooster Group's Elizabeth LeCompte and Robert Wilson, Sellars has applied his extraordinary energy and erudition to mounting radical productions of Shakespearean tragedies and Mozart operas as well as lucid productions of lesser texts by Brecht and Sophocles, not to mention outright obscurities such as Velimir Khlebnikov's Zangezi.

By the time he began his career as a mature artist in the early 1980s, the innovations and the groundbreaking of the older generation of avant-garde artists were a fait accompli. For him tradition was not Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, and Broadway musicals but the Wooster Group, Robert Wilson, and the Bread and Puppet Theater. His aesthetic is based less on innovation than on applying innovations from the

recent past to the canon of theatrical literature. In that respect, what New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce wrote of his erstwhile collaborator, choreographer Mark Morris, could as easily apply to Sellars: "He's the clearest illustration we have, at the moment, of the principle of succession and how it works...each new master assimilates the past in all its variety and becomes our guide to the future."

In the evolution of art, every period of intense innovation is a response to -- a revolt against -- established tradition. And this response is always followed by a period of consolidation, in which a sort of cultural triage takes place: classical culture is reevaluated in the light of recent developments, and the value of recent experiments are weighed against the truth and usefulness of art that has remained vital across centuries and continents. The collage that results is the basis of a new tradition, against which future innovators will inevitably rebel. The cycle is as simple (and violent) as nature itself.

For instance, after World War II there occurred a leveling of the cultural landscape -- a Hiroshima of the arts. Reinterpreting Marcel Duchamp's dada dictum "Anything can be art" for postwar America, John Cage declared that the purpose of art was "not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake [us] up to the very life we're living." Cage's influence inspired countless experiments which effectively reduced art to the tiniest increments of human activity, glorifying everyday behavior. This was the logical and perhaps inevitable extension of modernism's quest to locate the essence of each art and to express only that essence. But minimalism transformed the notion of purification into a reductive impulse, and that impulse could go too far and often did.

Oppressive as a tradition, minimalism did leave a clean slate for artists. Just as computerization found a way to convert all forms of information into bits of electronic "memories" that can be stored in and quickly retrieved from a magic machine, modernism broke down the individual art forms into a pool of elements available to all artists. It was originally performance artists who took up the challenge of recombining speech, song, images, movement, and modern technology in new ways. It could be said that the real tool of performance art is "the media," more powerful in today's society than any one art form, but that would be underestimating the importance of the human presence activating the performance. On a microcosmic level, performance art acts out the 20th century struggle between man and machine. This metaphysical struggle takes place, however, not on Beckett's barren landscape -- the stark, post-apocalyptic terrain inhabited by minimalist composers and choreographers in the '60s and '70s -- but on a rich, dense, lively technoscape capable of yielding entertainment and information as well as destruction.

More and more, the use of media technology (film, video, sophisticated sound equipment) has become a hallmark of experimental theater, which has merged the visual discipline of performance art with the verbal discipline of drama into something that might be called mediatheater. The works of mediatheater artists such as the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, Meredith Monk, and Ping Chong exemplify a new art form (with antecedents in 20th century avant-garde art) that demands from its audience a peculiarly modern mode of perception -- an ability to synthesize visual, verbal, and aural material in new ways. All contemporary mediatheater has been influenced to some extent by the theories of postmodern criticism and the practice of performance art, as well as movies, television, and rock music.

Performance art and other reflections of the postmodern impulse toward cultural collage could be said to mark the beginning of an era of consolidation -- a period of assimilating the lessons of modernism's minimalist last gasp. And its completion can be seen in the work, for instance, of Mark Morris (in dance), the Kronos Quartet (in music), and Peter Sellars (in theater), who apply their creativity to consolidation rather than innovation -- not to suggest that there's nothing new under the sun, but to establish that there's value in drawing attention to old things.

In contemporary American theater, Peter Sellars represents the demise of the either-or proposition. The previous generation of great theatermakers -- the Michael Bennetts and the Tommy Tunes, the JoAnne Akalaitises and Elizabeth LeComptes, all in roughly the same age and talent bracket -- had to make vast choices early on that defined and in some way limited them: working on Broadway vs. off the beaten path, being "popular" versus "avant-garde," art vs. entertainment, and all that implies. Sellars recognizes no such constraints. Given a choice, he is most likely to embrace both options, and of all the work he has done in the professional theater, there is no better example than Hang On to Me, which was produced at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1984. A literal translation of Maxim Gorky's 1904 play Summerfolk, into the text of which Sellars introduced 16 songs by George and Ira Gershwin (mostly from Lady Be Good and Treasure Girl), Hang On to Me was both a play and a musical. It took place simultaneously in the past and the present, in Russia and in America, and it was entertaining as well as highly experimental, not least because the 26- member cast ranged from avant-garde stalwarts David Warrilow (a founding member of Mabou Mines) and Priscilla Smith (the leading actress of Andrei Serban's Great Jones Repertory Company) to Broadway veterans like Susan Browning and Marianne Tatum.

The connection between Gorky and Gershwin can only be called a poetic one. That mating had its origin in the year Sellars spent preparing the Broadway musical My One and Only, an adaptation of the Gershwins' Funny Face, before he was dismissed as director. The Russian connection came partly from Sellars' delight at the similarities in playfulness and sentimentality between Mayakovsky's populist poetry and such Ira Gershwin lyrics as "You've got/A lot/Of personali-TNT" or "I'm feeling/No fooling/I'm falling, dear/I fell at the moment I found you." Unable to put the Gershwin material to rest and obsessively agitated that the Gershwin theater songs "have always been seen in a dramatic context that barely comes up to their ankles," Sellars cast about for a Russian play to couple it with and found not only Gorky but a chance to make a more urgent political connection between Russia and America.

Summerfolk, a 1904 work by the father of Soviet realism (best- known for The Lower Depths), is an almost slavishly Chekhovian portrait of middle-class professionals on vacation, who spend four virtually aimless acts drinking, arguing, having love affairs, mounting amateur theatricals, and discussing Life. Written the year before the first Russian revolution, the long-winded and unnaturally eloquent speeches by one character after another nonetheless sounded in 1984 astonishingly contemporary in their concern for the responsibility toward children in a society whose future is uncertain, the polarization of the classes, the widening gap between elitist and popular art, and the failure of political activism.

Just as he wouldn't think of doing Gershwin without giving it a social context, Sellars made Gorky fun with the Gershwin music; the songs corrected the play's cerebral talkiness by letting the characters voice the romantic sentiments that spur the real moon-June- spoon action going on amid the philosophizing. But Sellars didn't indulge the entertainment value of the production at the expense of the very real, immediate concerns at the heart of his adaptation of Summerfolk. Upstage where you usually would find birch trees in a Russian pastorale stood a line of huge cutouts of peasants whose looming presence made the lounging summerfolk seem like complaining children. And around the back of the theater on the audience's side were huge election-year posters of various presidential candidates (as well as Mao and Nixon). No verbal reference was made to these two rows of figures, but they sent a sort of electrical energy through the theater, giving the play a heightened physical-political context. And there was just as much political content in Sellars' insistence on staging scenes in the aisles or leaving the house lights on: he wanted the audience to feel alive in the theater, good practice for being awake in the world.

The jumble of pop, classical, and avant-garde references in Hang On To Me epitomizes Sellars' theatrical palette. Both before Hang On To Me and after, he has never gone very far in one direction without making a gesture in the opposite direction. His career is littered with mixed signals and multiple ambitions, a sense of two roads travelled at the same time, a dilettante's restless imagination and curiosity as well as a burning intellect's desire to know the world. At Harvard's American Repertory Theatre, he made his professional directing debut with an extravagantly visual production of Gogol's well-known comedy The Inspector General and followed it the next year with a rarely performed uncut version of Handel's opera Orlando. In the wake of his disappointing experience with My One and Only (he was fired before previews began of the Broadway tryout began in Boston), Sellars returned to the theater by inaugurating the newly opened La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego with a production of Brecht's The Visions of Simone Machard, but not before staging Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. His first experience of running an institution involved an archtypically provincial theater, the Boston Shakespeare Company, where his own productions included both Pericles and Peter Maxwell Davies' chamber opera The Lighthouse and those by guest artists ranged from Tim Mayer's adaptation of Mother Courage starring Academy Award-winning actress Linda Hunt to the Wooster Group's L.S.D. (...Just the High Points...).

After one year at the Boston Shakespeare Company, Sellars accepted the directorship of one of the most august artistic institutions in the country, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Exercising his trademark eclectic taste, he mounted productions of two familiar classical works -- an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' hoary melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo and a new translation of Chekhov's The Seagull (which Sellars and his translator, Maria M. Markof- Belaeff, in a somewhat pugnacious but linguistically justified gesture, renamed A Seagull) -- and two surprise choices not from the standard theatrical canon, Robert Sherwood's Idiot's Delight and Sophocles' Ajax. During the same period, contractually barred from producing opera at the Kennedy Center, Sellars embarked on a major cycle of operas -- Handel's Julius Caesar and three by Mozart, Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, and The Marriage of Figaro -- which he directed at the Pepsico Summerfare in Purchase, N.Y. At the same time that he was immersed in staging these opera house staples, Sellars was engaged as a crucial collaborator on Nixon in China, an opera composed by John Adams with libretto by Alice Goodman and commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera that was received by critics and audiences with the kind of immediate enthusiasm rarely accorded contemporary operas. Shortly after the world premiere of Nixon in China in Houston, Sellars' production appeared as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. Not content with mere popularity, Sellars was also represented in the same festival by his staging of Velimir Khlebnikov's Russian Futurist poem-play Zangezi, which he originally created for the opening of the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Never the familiar without the obscure; never the avant-garde without the mainstream. Not either/or but both/and.


Certain crucial influences provide important keys to Peter Sellars' work. He has always cited his exposure to puppetry as a major influence, both his own involvement in the Lovelace Marionette Theatre as a child in Pittsburgh and his observation of the Bread and Puppet Theater, whose four-hour performances in Paris he saw six times. These imprinted on him the value of visual design and music to the theater experience. It was while working with the Lovelace Marionette Theatre that Sellars encountered The Scenography of Joseph Svoboda: "Suddenly, I was doing all these wild, abstract things, these sets that were all white when I was 13 or 14, Rumpelstiltskin with a very modern unit set based on Svoboda's Romeo and Juliet." (from an interview with the author) In an interview with Ron Jenkins published in Theater, Sellars described the experience of staging Jack and the Beanstalk in department store windows: "That's when I first learned that music is one of the main keys in figuring out the level of which drama is lyrical and has musicality as its center. When it comes to the chase down the beanstalk, [you learn that] "Night on Bald Mountain" will help. You learn that words only connect in a certain way, and that beyond the words there has to be this musicality, or you have something that is exactly what it says it is, which isn't much." Music plays a role, often a central role, in nearly every Peter Sellars production. His Kennedy Center productions of The Count of Monte Cristo, A Seagull, and Idiot's Delight all prominently featured live musicians onstage, as did Hang On to Me, Pericles, and Ping. (It's worth noting that Sellars' use of Alfred Schnittke's String Quartet No. 2 for dramatic underscoring in The Count of Monte Cristo predated by nearly two years any major American recognition of the contemporary Soviet composer.)

Throughout his work, Sellars has pursued a policy of casting black, Asian, Latino, and other actors in non-traditional ways. He's certainly not the first to do so; he had seen and admired works by Peter Brook and Andrei Serban that employed multi-racial, cross- cultural casts. But he once cited (in a conversation with the author) a specific turning point in his thinking about actors: the opening scene of Meredith Monk's Specimen Days (performed at the Public Theater in New York during the 1981-82 season), in which each actor was given a costume which signified gender and an armband which signified race. "The way the white person with the black armband enacted the suffering of a black person represented how we're all alike at heart." Sellars assembles racially mixed casts for nearly everything he directs; he has, for example, employed the classically trained black actor Ben Halley, Jr., in such disparate roles as a French poodle in V. R. Lang's I Too Have Lived in Arcadia, the title character in Pericles, and the title character's teenage brother in The Visions of Simone Machard. But Sellars' multi-racial casting cannot be said to be "color-blind." He frequently casts non-white performers specifically for the cultural references they invoke, be they theatrical, musical, or political. That is to say, it was no accident that Carmen De Lavallade, who played Hang On To Me's militant doctor and moral spokeswoman, bore some resemblance to Coretta Scott King; Sellars surely intended for the audience to make the connection between Gorky's character and a contemporary figure representing social responsibility to all races and classes. Similarly, the casting of Zakes Mokae, an actor closely associated with the plays of Athol Fugard, brought to The Count of Monte Cristo a sense that the drama might reflect the present situation in South Africa. Sellars has also made it a point to hire actors of different professional backgrounds: avant-garde actor David Warrilow and Richard Thomas (best-known as John-Boy from the TV series The Waltons) both appeared in The Count of Monte Cristo and Two Figures in Dense Violet Light at the Kennedy Center.

Non-traditional casting was crucial to one of Sellars' most important productions, the staging of Sophocles' Ajax which ended his tenure at the Kennedy Center and later toured to the La Jolla Playhouse and several festivals in Europe. Sophocles' play portrays the decline and suicide of the Greek hero of the Trojan War who, feeling insufficiently rewarded for his efforts, goes crazy and attacks a bunch of livestock, having been deceived by Athena into thinking they are his fellow generals. Robert Auletta's adaptation, commissioned by Sellars for the American National Theater production, set the action in the very near future, after an American military victory in Latin America.

The setting was explicitly the Pentagon, a military hearing presided over by Athena, who appeared in a slinky blue gown and whispered into her hand-held microphone like a disco deity. Tecmessa, Ajax's foreign "spear-won bride," was Vietnamese. The chorus consisted of five actors -- three black, one Asian, one white -- in camouflage fatigues who also double as Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Teucer, and the Messenger. Most startling, Ajax was played by Howie Seago, a leading actor with the National Theater for the Deaf, whose signing was translated by various members of the cast. (This bit of casting clearly recalled The Gospel at Colonus, Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's mating of Sophocles with black church music, which featured blind gospel star Clarence Fountain as Oedipus.) Sellars' copious program notes illuminated the connection between a deaf actor's signing and Greek choral dancing and explicated his allegiance to the Greek ideal of theater as public discourse. Ajax premiered at the Kennedy Center just two months after Robert Wilson's staging of Euripides' Alcestis had its debut at Harvard's American Repertory Theater, and the contrast between these two productions further defined the degrees to which Sellars followed and departed from avant-garde theater traditions. Both productions were formally stunning and visually splendid. Yet in Wilson's aestheticized distillation of the Greek myth the contemporary references were exclusively private -- even cryptic - - rather than public, while Sellars insisted that every interpretive choice have political resonance.

Translation, both as a literary form and as a method of critical interpretation, is one issue of concern to postmodern critical thinking that has influenced Sellars significantly. Perhaps the strongest influence has been the work of the Wooster Group under Elizabeth LeCompte's direction, with its stripped-down, highly interpretive deconstructions of such classic American texts as The Cocktail Party, Long Day's Journey into Night, Our Town, and The Crucible. Director Elizabeth LeCompte's ability both to boil down these works to their essence and to recast or reinvigorate their meaning through radical and often deeply personal theatrical juxtapositions has clearly emboldened Sellars in his staging of classic plays and operas. The mixture of classical music (Debussy and Beethoven) with pop music (five blues songs by Elmore James) in his staging of Pericles seems directly influenced by the Wooster Group's Route 1 & 9, in which a piece by Charles Ives ("The Housatonic at Stockbridge," from Three Places in New England) carries as much weight as Thurston Harris' gritty rhythm-and-blues dance tune "Little Bitty Pretty One." In the "Fascinatin' Rhythm" number from Hang On To Me, Sellars had a band of amateur theatricals played by children pantomime a 30-second version of The Three Sisters -- a witty tip of the hat to the Wooster Group's Nayatt School, which featured an excerpt from T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party enacted by children. And George Trow's The Bob Hope War Zone Special, the mad satyr play that Sellars attached to Ajax (and pulled after opening night in Washington), openly emulated L.S.D. (...Just the High Points...) in its irreverent satire and its frenzied performance style.

Though much is often made of the bizarre anachronistic scenery in Sellars' work -- the King Lear staged around a Lincoln Continental, Handel's Orlando set in Cape Canaveral and on the moon, Julius Caesar ostensibly set in contemporary Beirut -- there is a distinction to be made between this work and the kind of conceptual theater production that "updates" a classic play to the present or moves it from one historical period to another. Sellars is careful to avoid making glib associations or one-on-one correspondences when making anachronistic references; he's prepared to utilize whatever scenic devices are necessary to set up the spiritual or philosophical or intellectual journey the work offers, but finally his productions don't take place in any specific time or place beyond the given moment. Most important, perhaps, he doesn't replace one set of references with another but usually finds a way to let the original stand alongside the updated version -- supplying to the audience for his Julius Caesar, for instance, both his own detailed production notes and a facsimile of the bilingual (English and Italian) libretto given out at the first performances of Handel's opera in London in 1724.

Sellars' production of Wagner's Tannhauser at the Lyric Opera in Chicago in 1988 received much media attention on the basis of its concept. Wagner's hero, the knight and minstrel who must seek redemption from the Pope for the sin of sensual passion, was played as a contemporary televangelist involved in a sex scandal, as Jimmy Swaggart recently had been. But as the production played itself out, it went beyond the jokey concept to reveal the underlying drive of Sellars' scenographic method of translation. He set the final act of Tannhauser in a deserted American Airlines terminal, where Elizabeth - - Wagner's representative of pure human love -- waits for the return of Tannhauser, and the mating of the banal setting familiar to every sophisticated operagoer with Wagner's psycho-spiritual anguish elevated the former to Wagner's plane of inquiry and gave the latter the poignancy and urgency of real life.

Liviu Ciulei once described Peter Sellars as "a director who writes poems with stage elements." His search for objective correlatives and his critical approach to a text manifest themselves in clear, even corny gestures that are like puns taken to their most theatrical extremes. He uses bold lighting effects (almost always designed by key collaborator James Ingalls) to transform conversation- stopping monologues into soliloquies by isolating the speaker in a pinspot, and he makes pictures that dredge up the psychological subtext of a scene. The multi-racial casting of Ajax led to a striking image of Ajax's death attended by a black goddess, a black angel, and an Asian musician -- a tableau which, intentionally or not, suggested the symbolic death of the white man, the end of white hegemony in world power, the recognition that colored peoples make up most of the earth's population.

Possibly the most important influence on Sellars' work was his visit to the Taganka Theatre in Moscow in early 1984, shortly after the dismissal of Yuri Lyubimov as the theater's director. Sellars, who witnessed some of the last performances of Lyubimov's productions before they were removed from the Taganka repertory forever, has said, "This was the most important theater I have ever seen in my life." In an interview with Mark Bly published in Theater (Spring 1985), Sellars minutely described Lyubimov's productions of The Master and Margarita, Crime and Punishment, and The Three Sisters, among others, noting at least three elements that have since turned up frequently in his own work.

a. Expressionistic lighting. "At various points in the evening when Lyubimov thought it was appropriate, special banks of lights permanently trained on the audience would be brought up just to let us know that we were in this too and to acknowledge that there was one room, and we were all alive at one moment in what was reality." Sellars uses this particular effect in many productions -- Hang On To Me, Ajax, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte, to name a few.

b. Referential density. "One of the examples of Lyubimov's stagecraft that I like to cite is the moment when there is a pounding in Raskolnikov's skull. It starts as a knocking on the door and becomes a pounding in his skull. He is terrified and doesn't want to answer the door, but the pounding becomes overwhelming. Meanwhile, Lyubimov has the landlady making soup downstairs (borscht) and two or three people passing on the street. Suddenly, Raskolnikov works up the courage to open the door, and with a supreme moment of intensity, hurls himself at it. At the same moment, something terrifies the people in the street and the landlady. The soup flies out of the woman's hand, and as Raskolnikov flings open the door, there is borscht dripping down the front of the door, looking just like blood. Then he slams the door shut. Typical of Lyubimov, it all happens in seconds. That is the way in which Lyubimov layers images and adds a kinesic immediacy to the novel. I think it is rather interesting that, as a rule, he doesn't direct plays; he directs prose pieces. His sense of time and space operates on many levels simultaneously and most playwrights can't accommodate that vision. Those levels of diachronism are typical of the novel."

Sellars' production of The Count of Monte Cristo can be seen almost as a direct response to Lyumibov's Crime and Punishment. The text that Sellars staged was James O'Neill's adaptation of an English translation of Dumas' play, into which Sellars interpolated not only excerpts from the King James Bible and writings of Lord Byron but string quartets by Beethoven and Alfred Schnittke. In addition, almost every aspect of the scenically extravagant, multi-racial production conjured references that had associations to some, if not all members of the audience. Some references were political (Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, Jacobo Timerman), some were literary (Othello, Endgame, Threepenny Opera). Others were entirely theatrical: the makeup recalled Kabuki, the choreography Einstein on the Beach, the lighting Lee Breuer's staging of Lulu, the set Harold Prince's productions of Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures. Whether self-conscious quotations (in the manner of contemporary appropriation art) or homage to Lyubimov, these references gave the piece the dramatic sweep and density of an epic novel. Although Sellars' technique in making these references in Monte Cristo resembled pastiche, they had a cumulative effect through the evening so that successive images began to overlay one another, achieving the simultaneity of Lyubimov's work.

c. Religiosity. Probably the most important influence on Sellars was Lyubimov's open presentation of religion, not nearly as acceptable on the Soviet stage as social or political commentary. "In Crime and Punishment, Lyubimov had Dostoyevsky onstage the whole evening, setting scenes up for the characters, trying to help them along, and most movingly praying for them. To watch the author praying for his characters' futures and his nation's destiny was one of the most immensely generous and heartbreaking images. Somewhere one hoped that maybe our Author was praying for us."

American theater is equally squeamish about the sincere treatment of religious drama. Sellars himself, a practicing Christian Scientist, is one of the few major theater artists whose work betrays explicitly Christian imagery again and again. His staging of Das Kleine Mahagonny linked Brecht and Weill's song cycle to a series of Bach church cantatas; he seems fond of works which deal with resurrection (Mayakovsky's The Bedbug, Pericles, Zangezi, The Count of Monte Cristo). And just as his production of Idiot's Delight ended with a group of mortally fearful luxury hotel guests singing "Onward Christian Soldiers," his staging of Mozart and da Ponte's Don Giovanni for Pepsico SummerFare zeroed in on the opera's morality-play essence. The scenic design placed the characters on a street corner in Harlem: Donna Elvira appeared in leopard-skin tights and a punky hairdo, Don Giovanni put on a ski mask to pass for Leporello (played by a black actor) in the dark, Donna Anna shot up with a syringe during her aria, and Don Giovanni feasted on a last supper from McDonald's. But the most pertinent images that occurred periodically, insistently throughout the production, were a white neon cross over the neighborhood church and a spotlit red door, representing the struggle in Don Giovanni's soul between heaven and hell. At the stunning finale, the street opened up to reveal an open grave, a little girl appeared in the door of the church and walked across the grave, and pushed Don Giovanni, stripped to his underpants, down a manhole to hell. From the open grave, a chorus of naked souls drenched in red light rose up from purgatory to sing the final verses of the opera as the house lights came up, implicating the audience in the soul- wrenching drama.


However recognizable his influences may be, Sellars has digested them and recycled them in a highly idiosyncratic manner that has had a profound effect on his peers and his students. A chief characteristic of any Sellars production is its insistence that everyone -- including the director, the performers, the designers, and especially the audience -- rise to the challenge a work of art poses. Conventional wisdom says that if you're going to throw something difficult or scary at an audience, you have to give people something safe or familiar to cling to throughout the trip: a story, a star, recognizable furniture. Sellars tends to dispense with such niceties. His productions are sometimes like graduate seminars where the prerequisites might include a working knowledge of Russian culture of the revolutionary era, Shakespeare, Beckett, the Bible, Tantric imagery, and the landscape of downtown Los Angeles. The class may grumble at the workload and suspect that the teacher is only one step ahead on the reading list. But at a time when almost every kind of culture comes predigested for a demographically targeted audience, when the level of writing for the theater is so degraded that Neil Simon's tiniest departure from mechanical one-liners is hailed as a breakthrough in American drama, Sellars' theater demands and rewards an active intelligence.

Of course, there is a thin line between advocating awareness of history and other cultures for the purposes of combating ethnocentricism and merely shopping at what critic Elinor Fuchs calls "a Bloomingdale's of empty signs from ever more exotic sources recombined to create an artificial and dehumanized culture." ("The Death of Character," Theater Communications, Vol. 5, No. 3, March 1983.)

Sellars' career in the theater is instructive because it embodies several impulses that relate to other contemporary theater artists whose work similarly points toward the future. These include aesthetic concerns (a renewed interest in staging classics, the influence of electronic media on theatrical narrative) as well as practical considerations that have impact on aesthetics (the ease of air travel, the resurgence of interest in theater ensembles).

A. Renewed interest in staging classics. Because of the omnipresence of the media, any new development in contemporary theater gets pounced upon and dissected; there are no secrets; any promising artist's further development takes place under a blinding spotlight. So what's new swiftly gets old. It's one of the reasons that it seems that many of the most original, creative artists working in the late '80s embraced the classics, exploring a desire to connect with the history of the world through the history of literature. The work of directors such as Anne Bogart, Des McAnuff, Robert Woodruff, Garland Wright represent a reaction to innovation and a movement toward consolidation. The previous generation of theater makers, those who were seen to be moving the theater forward, had put a premium on creating their own work, taking at best a critical attitude toward classical texts. But the way Richard Schechner adapted, say, The Bacchae in Dionysus in '69 or the way Elizabeth LeCompte interpolated The Cocktail Party in Nayatt School was very different from a Peter Sellars' staging of Pericles or A Seagull. In contrast to theater's avant-gardists of the '60s and '70s, Sellars and others of his generation gravitated toward classics because they were starved for verbal eloquence and dramatic content.

"Our generation doesn't have anything to say because we've lost the ability to talk about things," says Anne Bogart. "I think I know why, too. It's specifically political -- it goes back to the McCarthy era, when artists were destroyed for being politically involved. We've been brought up thinking art and politics don't mix, so what do we have to talk about? Ourselves. I have this theory about plays, that they're little pockets of memory. Like a Greek play about hubris -- if you do it now, it's a chance to bring that question into the world and see how it looks at the time you're doing it. We've lost the sense that theater has this function of bringing these universal questions through time.. Now we think it's all about inventing, making something new. But how can you create something if you don't have anything to talk about but yourself?"

Similarly disturbed by theater's contribution to "the murder of language and the destruction of text," director Des McAnuff has analyzed this tendency in the context of American education. "Look at any paper's ads for private schools -- they won't talk about the arts, won't talk about the humanities, they'll talk strictly about computers. Increasingly, we're getting generations of young people who have not been given the vocabulary to appreciate art, music. Therefore, they've lost interest. In a sense, we've perpetuated that by discouraging ideas onstage and replacing questions either with simplistic ideological statements or simply images, pictures, laughs. We need to turn it around. We need to be discussing issues onstage, asking questions, encouraging people to think, to accept the fact that they don't have to sit there and like it necessarily, they can make up their own minds. There needs to be content in what we do. The times in which we live demand it."

The pull toward classics links young American directors like Sellars, Bogart, and McAnuff both to European masters such as Giorgio Strehler, Lucian Pintilie, and Liviu Ciulei and to new vaudevilleans such as the Flying Karamazovs, Bill Irwin, and Fred Curshack, all of whom are attracted to images but need them to speak. Their need/desire for Shakespeare is the search for a new voice/eloquence/articulation in response to the anti-narrative, non-linear work of the great avant- gardists of the '70s (Foreman, Wilson, Mabou Mines, Wooster Group).

B. Interdisciplinary collaboration. Sellars frequently hires artists to design sets, draws inspiration from Giotto frescoes and Bruce Naumann sculptures, uses Handel in one piece and Elmore James in another, and borrows ideas about lighting from Hitchcock movies. In doing so, he hew to the tradition of directors such as Wilson, Foreman, Lee Breuer, Elizabeth LeCompte, and JoAnne Akalaitis, all of whom embrace a vision of theater that depends upon cross-disciplinary exchange to battle the insidious effect that photography, film, and television have had. Television in particular encourages viewers to judge the value of art by its achievement of a literal representation of reality rather than some artistic expression of the human spirit. And the more theater focuses on the literal representation of reality, it has less room for collaboration with other art forms; American drama in particular has become very attached to living room sets. Thus it is that the best-known American theater of this century is the O'Neill-Miller-Williams-Albee strain of naturalistic drama, which relies in no crucial way on exchange with visual artists, composers, etc. Yet the most fertile periods of culture in the 20th century have involved artists communicating across disciplines: Russian futurist performance, French surrealist performance, and in America the Black Mountain College collaborations. In the '70s, mediatheater artists resurrected the Wagnerian ideal of gesamtkunstwerk. The influence of visual art on contemporary theater cannot be underestimated; it has emboldened directors of classical texts to tell more with compressed images and distilled poetry, a corrective in many ways to the logorrhea of television.

C. The effect of electronic media on contemporary notions of narrative. The continuous bombardment of scattered, splintered images and fragmented narratives have affected not only contemporary playwriting but also the audience's capacity for concentration. It's fascinating is to see playwrights who in another era, even ten years earlier, would have been writing extremely conventionally crafted dramas exhibiting the influence of avant-garde theatrical and literary techniques. The plays of A.R. Gurney, Jr., practically epitomize bourgeois dramaturgy, with their unit sets and familial concerns; yet the sly self-referentialism of plays such as The Dining Room, The Perfect Party, and The Cocktail Hour lodge them firmly in the postmodern period, when no picture accurately reflects contemporary reality without somehow pointing to its own frame. Likewise, Craig Lucas' works -- Blue Window, Reckless, Three Postcards, Prelude to a Kiss -- cross-breed superficially cheerful TV-style conversational dialogue with challenging theatrical techniques clearly inspired by experimental theater; in Blue Window, the set simultaneously represents six locations, and in Three Postcards a trio of women lunching in a trendy restaurant play themselves at every stage of life, from infancy to senescence, without changing clothes or makeup.

The influence of structuralist narrative can be seen in musical theater as well -- for instance, Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's portrait of pointillist Georges Seurat. Seurat's vision, of course, had exactly to do with creating from dots of color and light a whole picture, counting on human perception (eye and brain) to make the whole out of parts. The first act shows Seurat creating his masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte, ruminating in the show's finest song, "Finishing the Hat," on the irony of secluding oneself from the world to reproduce it in art, abstracting reality to see it more clearly. The second act presents a contemporary artist, the putative great- grandson of Seurat, who spends more time making deals than art; the irony is that while Seurat encountered resistance because his artistic vision was new, the present-day artist battles the craving for novelty and has to separate himself from the cries of "Do something new!" in order to rediscover the classical virtues of order-design-tension- balance-composition-light-harmony.

D. The resurgence of interest around the country in forming ongoing theater ensembles. In response to the decline of commercial theater production and diminished opportunities for well-paying work, theater artists have been banding together to produce their own work - - a practice popular in the countercultural '60s which didn't have much currency in the '70s. This movement has natural leaders such as Robert Brustein of the American Repertory Theater (formerly the Yale Rep) and Adrian Hall, founder of the Trinity Square Repertory Company, now director of the Dallas Theater Center, who have devoted their lives to the resident theater companies they founded 20 years ago. But it also includes less formal examples, such as the unusual gang of actors who've worked with playwright-director John Jesurun, the NYU students who flocked around Anne Bogart (before she entered the institutional theater as artistic director of Trinity Square), and the multidisciplinary performers associated with the works of Ping Chong. The word "ensemble" mean something different to these groups, though, than it did to the previous great wave of ensembles. In the Living Theater-Open Theater-Performance Group heyday, "ensemble" went hand in hand with "avant-garde." Ensembles rarely did conventional plays -- the work was collectively created, often based on group improvisations. Sometimes there was a verbal text sometimes not. There was also an implied political engagement with the Movement and the assumption of shared views on the Vietnam War, sex, drugs, and abortion. Above all, the avant-garde ensembles of the '60s were an alternative movement, rejecting the standards of mainstream society in general and mainstream theater in particular -- whether that meant Broadway musicals or traditional regional-theater productions of classics.

The '80s ensembles are all over the map, both artistically and geographically. In lieu of a common theatrical vocabulary or political solidarity, ensembles formed in the '80s share a healthy pluralism, a willingness to leave the options open, and an ability to synthesize techniques and aspirations that formerly were ascribed exclusively to Broadway, the avant-garde, or regional theater. "Professionalism," a dirty word to '60s ensembles, now describes a seriousness of commitment rather than a mercenary slickness. And "the mainstream" is no longer considered some bourgeois fraternity that one can only get into by compromising one's individuality -- it is the platform from which the leading artists in our culture can address the widest possible public, a situation to which most visionary artists aspire. To work only in mainstream theater, of course, might breed a tendency to embrace yuppie complacency; to stick to avant-garde theater would be to accept left-wing marginalism. Most theater ensembles seek a healthy balance, rejecting an either-or situation.

It's always interesting to note the difference between Peter Sellars' theater productions and his opera work. Many of his opera productions -- including all those presented at the Pepsico Summerfare -- the employed musical director Craig Smith and several of the singers such as Susan Larson, Sanford Sylvan, and James Maddelena who make up the Opera Company of Somerville, an informal repertory company that has worked together for years. (The name is an in-joke, Somerville being a working-class suburb of Boston.) Whether performing Handel or Maxwell-Davies, Mozart or John Adams, the singers achieve an autonomy within the performance -- based on their formidable knowledge of the music and the trust developed among longtime colleagues -- where even the most talented actors new to Sellars' work would be struggling simply to keep up with the director's ideas. Clearly, even a brilliant director like Sellars can get a certain kind of performance only in an ensemble situation.

The energetic eclecticism coming from a generation of young directors who refuse to accept conventional distinctions between avant-garde and mainstream theater, high art and pop culture. Companies run by directors in their twenties and thirties bring a vital eclecticism to the theater because it's in their blood. They represent a generation that grew up on rock, music, TV, and movies, as well as theater, and they don't recognize distinctions between high art and low art used to separated the cultured classes from the hoi polloi. They trust what stimulates them, whether it's Springsteen or Shakespeare, Prince or Prokofiev, the Greeks or the blues. When this collapsing of barriers occurs, audiences -- especially young audiences -- begin to realize that theater isn't a secluded art form shrouded in mystery and accessible only to the elite, the educated, the initiated, but something that can speak to them.

Published in Contemporary American Theatre, edited by Bruce King, Macmillan, 1991.

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