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Madama Butterfly

Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center

The master’s workshop

By Frédéric Maurin 24 August 2015


Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center

The theatregoer is a naturally curious creature who often wonders how a director has conceived and developed the production he attends. In the case of Robert Wilson, behind-the-scenes work takes place mainly at the Watermill Center, not far from New York.    

A Texan by origin and a New Yorker by adoption, Robert Wilson met with success in Europe during the artistic ferment of the 1960s - first in France, overnight, with Deafman Glance in 1971 and then in Germany - before steadily spreading his creative frenzy around the globe. He now fuels the repertoire of theatres and opera houses, putting on productions in many countries and in different languages, which then go on tour around the world. Because his visual aesthetic is so forceful that its speaks to everyone and needs no passport to travel, he has become the cosmopolitan artist par excellence. Although his roots are still discernible in his work, his global reach makes him virtually stateless. In the United States, where he regrets not being as present and recognized as elsewhere, he maintains one very special place, the Watermill Center, located on Long Island - in other words on an island in the Atlantic off the coast of America, even further east that West Egg in The Great Gatsby, two hours from that other island, Manhattan, where the offices of his foundation are located. It is a harbour where he comes and goes, a sort of "zone franche", a port of call from which he has has nevertheless slipped anchor.(1).

In 1986, Robert Wilson acquired a disused Western Union building in the town of Watermill. In 1992, he began to renovate it with the help of the trainees who come to work with him during the summer, but who are also required to weed, clean, demolish, build and equip. He opened the centre in 2006. It forms an imposing ensemble with its austere yet luminous architecture, geometric and clear like his set designs, surrounded by lush vegetation from which emerge totems, stone statues, centuries-old tombstones. Nowadays, during the year, twenty artists or emerging collectives are in residence, performances and lectures are presented, seminars take place; but it is during the summer especially that the centre's pulse beats fast and strong throughout the five weeks of the international programme involving around 80 young artists from different disciplines, who come from some thirty countries to work together, both on their own projects and those of Robert Wilson. There are two highlights to the period: in July a thematic charity event (in 2015, Circus of Stillness: The Power over Wild Beasts), accompanied by performances and site-specific installations, a cocktail, a dinner and an auction of works of art, a significant source of funding; then, after this truly social event covered by the local press and the New York Times alike (for the occasion Watermill is invaded by admirers, patrons, celebrity neighbours from their chic holiday resorts - the gilded youth of the Hamptons and a certain well-heeled older generation, shall we say...), an open house is held in mid-August to close the programme, providing a shop window on the activities that have taken place during the five weeks. The public visits the site, views the current exhibition, attends performances in the main building or in the woodlands of the property, as well as one or more rehearsals.

© Watermill Center

During the summer, the Watermill centre is a hive of activity cut off from the world, a utopian colony, an almost communitarian laboratory, "a factory for ideas, says Robert Wilson, a haven and a forum, a bubble and an incubator." Exchanges thrive, the arts and cultures of the participants interact, experiments are shared. The participants create and live together, from the ritual morning assembly until dinner. This is a new version of the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds' adventure that Wilson founded in his Soho loft in the 1960s! Back then illustrious fans would come to follow his movement classes and rehearse his first productions. But the centre also follows on from the very atypical Black Mountain College established in 1933 in North Carolina: Josef Albers directed the college after the closure of the Bauhaus and is famous for the summer sessions run in particular in the 1950s by Robert Motherwell or John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and for the very first "happening" in history that was presented there in 1952.

At Watermill, once the charity gala is over, Wilson devotes himself more to artistic work: firstly, he guides and encourages the young participants in their individual projects, whist being careful not to mold them in his image to the point of creating clones and, secondly, he creates, develops and rehearses his productions long in advance. Surrounded by his assistants and his longstanding or occasional collaborators, he sketches and draws, finding inspiration in pictures shown to him, texts read to him and music played to him, throwing out ideas and reacting to other people's suggestions. He runs several projects simultaneously, each at its own pace, all at different stages of completion, passes from one workshop to another, from the drawing table to the stage, indoors or outdoors under large canopies, taking advantage of the arrival of actors and musicians, juggling between preparing productions, videos, exhibitions or radio plays. Everything is intertwined, every part of the whole reposes on another. Ideas gradually take shape, dotted lines are filled out, sometimes from one summer to the next, certain projects reaching completion only far later or even not at all: in the case of Adam's Passion, created in tandem with Arvo Pärt, exploratory work began in 2012 and the first performance took place last June in Tallinn; and, although rehearsed, Death Car, based on the story of Bonnie and Clyde, should have been created in 2014 at the Copenhagen Royal Theatre if Tom Waits had not withdrawn from the project. Opera projects for 2016 or 2017 are already underway, for example, around the figure of Nikola Tesla to music by Phil Kline and a libretto by Jim Jarmusch. Robert Wilson is as prolific as the gestation of his productions is long:the process proceeds in fits and starts, interrupting and resuming in a long subterranean maturation. One understands better why his style is so recognizable: when so many projects are worked on in parallel, ideas and inspirations intermingle and are recycled.    

Workshop at the Watermill Center in the presence of director Jim Jarmusch for the Tesla in New York opera project.
Workshop at the Watermill Center in the presence of director Jim Jarmusch for the Tesla in New York opera project. © Watermill Center

Just as important as the conception of the productions themselves are the rehearsals - or at least the rehearsal of their sequences of movement. For this, Robert Wilson often calls on programme participants; with their help he imagines a genuine choreography, often in silence and fixing gestures and movements during the so-called Stage A. This singular approach may well be unique: the programme participants will not feature in the final casts of productions, the physical "score" they have helped to develop is filmed and noted down by an assistant who then forwards it to to the performers. The latter will certainly add their own personal touch, but above all, they will add the words, lyrics and song during the second stage of work entitled Stage B. This is the way in which were rehearsed, as early as 2012, the gestures for The Coronation of Poppea and Les Nègres (the first performances of which took place in Paris in 2014) and, in 2013, those of Rhinocéros by Eugène Ionesco (created in Craiova in 2014) and Pushkin's Fairy Tales (presented in Moscow in 2015); the process was identical for La Traviata, commissioned by Gérard Mortier for the Teatro Real in Madrid and prepared at Watermill in 2013 and 2014 and which, following its cancellation by Joan Matabosch, will open the season in Linz, Austria, in September of this year. Wilson's productions often bear the marks of this modus operandi: the lapse of time and the distance between the first rehearsals, strictly physical, and the final ones, necessarily more organic, extend into the divide between what Wilson calls "the visual storyboard" and the "sound storyboard": far from illustrating each other, these two layers overlap, keeping their distance, occasionally meeting. However what the ear perceives never duplicates what the eye captures. Robert Wilson's productions are both the mirror and the echo of his periods at Watermill.

œInscription on the wall of the Watermill Center's meeting room : Robert Wilson had all artist Jonathan Meese's 2008  installation effaced, excepting these mots :
œInscription on the wall of the Watermill Center's meeting room : Robert Wilson had all artist Jonathan Meese's 2008 installation effaced, excepting these mots :" Kunst ≠ Kultur Art ≠ Culture Art is no religion" © Watermill Center

The centre is both the alpha and omega for Wilson's productions. It presides over their birth and it conserves their memory. In addition it houses an extensive library and a large part of Robert Wilson's private collection – works of art and ethnological objects acquired during his travels, a true "history of humanity" in his words, but also personal sculptures and antique decorative elements - he is gradually setting up a digital archive. In this sense, it probably symbolizes the artist's treasure, his great work or his ultimate work, endlessly reformulated yet never completed, his sanctuary built step by step, stone by stone. Inventiveness is the watchword, limitless inventiveness in art as in life: "At Watermill, claims Robert Wilson, we have to do what nobody else does."

(1) See the watermillcenter.org site and the work directed by Jose Enrique Macian, Sue Jane Stoker and Jörn Weisbrodt, The Watermill Center : A Laboratory for Performance. Robert Wilson’s Legacy, Stuttgart, Daco Verlag, 2012.

(2) Wilson adapts the end of Ezra Pound's Canto 49 (« The fourth ; the dimension of stillness. / And the power over wild beasts. ») that he already quoted in the programmes of his first productions.

Frédéric Maurin is a lecturer at the Institute of Theatre Studies of Paris University III - Sorbonne Nouvelle. He is the author of several studies on Robert Wilson and more generally on contemporary staging in the United States and Europe, multidisciplinary bridges between the arts and the great forms and excess in the arts scene.

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