RADICAL CHEEK: Director Peter Sellars

In 1979, Robert Brustein left Yale for Harvard and brought with him the nucleus of the Yale Repertory Theater, which he’d founded 13 years previously, to create the American Repertory Theater (ART). The ART’s first season included two classics from the Yale company’s repertoire – a Midsummer Night’s Dream that interpolated Henry Purcell’s score for The Fairy Queen (a 1692 operatic version of Dream) and Brecht/Weill’s Happy End – and the world premiere of Mark Leib’s Terry by Terry

The star of ART’s first season, though, was 23-year-old Harvard undergraduate Peter Sellars, whose astonishing production of Gogol’s classic comedy The Inspector General yanked off the cloak of Soviet realism and left the play standing naked and shivering on a blank, Beckettian landscape. Gogol’s story of a bunch of bumbling, small-town bureaucrats who mistake a visiting nerdball for a government inspector was played on a stark white set (shades of Serban’s The Cherry Orchard) that looked like an ice floe. Entrances and exits were made through trapdoors, and any essential set pieces skated in on tracks, as did numerous extraneous, startlingly absurd images – most notably, a giant pineapple, which made several silent and unacknowledged passes through the play’s background. 

Sellars’ staging was outrageous and visually striking throughout. The second act began with a candlelight procession and kazoo recital by the bureaucrats, dressed in black-and-white formal wear, like figures out of Magritte. And when the imposter Khlestakov left the village, having extracted cover-up bribes from the townsmen and a promise of marriage from the Mayor’s daughter, he did so a la Peter Pan – flying up into the sky, still clad in his nightshirt.

Sellars was interested in more than pratfalls and picture-making, however. Midway through the second act, he composed a tableau that made Gogol’s political satire much more explicit than the author could under the tsarist regime. After squeezing his payoffs from the guilt-ridden bureaucrats, Khlestakov (played by Mark-Linn Baker with a modern Richard Dreyfussiness that was just right) turned a deaf ear to two women who had legitimate complaints to offer instead of bribes. Suddenly a picture formed – Khlestakov downstage counting his money, the two women in half-light with palms outstretched, and against the back of the stage in the dark a row of beggar men behind a vinyl scrim slowly waving in unheard supplication – that suggested the dreadful truth: that the imposter might as well be the real government representative, that instead of a beneficent, merciful provider the government is really a petty, money-grubbing bureaucracy indifferent to real human suffering. This tableau held for a minute, maybe two, then dissolved, but in that one picture, Sellars told the whole sad story of the play. 

Although he is the only new element in the ART season (not being a Yale holdover), Sellars is hardly a Brustein discovery. Before ART had even opened its doors, this wunderkind had already directed some 40 productions at Harvard, including Antony and Cleopatra around a swimming pool, King Lear arranged around an onstage Lincoln Continental and a version of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken in which the taciturn protagonist was played by a pile of newspapers. Most of this activity took place in the Explosives B Cabaret, which he founded in a dormitory basement. But last summer, as the university’s undergraduate dramatic club’s last hurrah before the advent of Brustein’s company, Sellars was given the Loeb Drama Center (Harvard’s handsome, modern theater facility) and $90,000 to do as he pleased. He chose a series of four plays – Much Ado about Nothing, Wedekind’s Lulu (Earth’s Spirit and Pandora’s Box combined), Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug and Wagner’s Ring cycle condensed into one four-hour evening – that was ambitious if not totally successful.

I found The Bedbug a fascinating mounting of an unproduceable play, but The Ring seemed puerile to me and far inferior to Charles Ludlam’s Der Ring Gott Farblonjet, though Sellars’ version was very popular with both critics and audiences and probably was responsible for his being hired by Brustein for The Inspector General. What’s most impressive and encouraging to me is that given his biggest challenge so far (directing professionally for ART), the biggest budget and the best actors he’s ever had, Sellars has done his best work.

I was curious to meet this guy – I’d never met a wunderkind before. He arrived at my apartment in the West Village, knapsack on back, a shrimpy guy with a bulbous nose, a nervous laugh and a dizzyingly relentless line of theatrical shoptalk. I’d caught him, he confessed, at an interesting time. He’d just graduated from Harvard. In November, he’s setting off to Russia, Japan and Bali on a traveling fellowship, but before that he’s directing Don Giovanni in New Hampshire and a puppet opera in Paris. Between those two things, he has six weeks in which he might direct something in New York, and he’s been entertaining all sorts of offers.

“It’s not been pleasant at all,” said Sellars, who seems a strange cross between an earnest student and a hard-bitten impresario. “You have to decide where you fit in. Am I going to go start a theater in the basement and do a pet project like the complete journey plays of Strindberg with a company of six and an audience of 15, or am I going to do a commercial show in a large off-Broadway or Broadway theater? Do I get an agent, or do I go to a farm in Vermont? I haven’t decided. I’m happy that I have this year to travel.”

Born and reared in Pittsburgh, Sellars walked into a local marionette theater when he was 10 and signed up as apprentice. In three years, he’d learned the basics of design, direction and performance, and he started doing his own puppet shows with his sister and a next-door neighbor. In prep school at Andover, he found it too difficult to teach fellow students to run puppets so he started doing plays with people, though he did direct a mainstage production of The Tempest featuring life-sized puppets with heads based on Picasso sculpture.

He spent his summers putting on children’s shows at an amusement park in Denver where he did his first Ring cycle, largely because the theater was two blocks from what’s billed as “the largest Woolworth’s in the entire world” and the store’s Wagnerian scale inspired him to design Valkyries out of kitchen utensils and Mylar.

His experience and resourcefulness served him well at Harvard, where he was shocked to discover no drama department. He invented his own major in “Dramatic Theory and Practice” (“it mostly consisted of getting into courses I was not qualified for”) and set about indulging his penchant for pageantry wherever he could find some actors and a space. He more or less taught himself as he went along – after all, there was no one to tell him no, and as he told me, “I’m a great believer that all the most important advances, particularly in modern art, are due to lack of skill.” He followed his interests, which led him to Mayakovsky, Verdi, Hitchcock (an unholy trinity of mentors), and pursued his research and experimentation with an odd mixture of frivolousness and scholarship. 

“People think I dream things up for fun, which I do, but also that they have no connection with the play,” Sellars said. “Not true. It’s all linked to the text. Like the pineapple. I got it from a Mayakovsky verse: ‘Eat pineapple, guzzle grouse/ Bourgeois, your day is up.’ In Russia, a pineapple is this exotic thing you hardly ever get. At the same time, it does represent and looks exactly like the women in the play, prickly on the outside but so sweet inside. And the sheer obliquity of it is what’s wonderful for that play. The Gogolian universe is a sort of pregnant openness in which at any minute something unexpected and threatening or funny will come and then go away, and you will have no idea where it came from or where it’s going.

“People don’t understand that the best way to show up a text is not to mirror it, ‘cause that means you just see the same thing twice. And seeing the same thing twice doesn’t make you think twice, it makes you think less than once because you don’t have to work as hard. Frequently I will do not that but a counterpoint: the play goes this way, and I go that way. Suddenly, the play is thrown into very sharp relief, and you have to sit back and figure out how everything got there.”

“Think Twice” – Sellars probably doesn’t notice it, but it’s an expression that pops up again and again in his conversation. It’s the nature of theater; it’s what he most wants the audience to do. It’s not bad creed, and it’s one he’s proven himself capable of practicing. But will he be able to keep the faith when he gets to the big time? He’s fully aware that he had a sheltered situation at Harvard, and prospects of competing in Gotham are “scary.” But his talent and intelligence are obvious to any observer, and if he sustains the same energy he’s shown already, in two or three years the New York theater might become, like real estate, a Sellars’ market.

Soho News, August 6, 1980