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Theatre Topics 8.1 (1998) 73-91

Robert Wilson and the Actor: Performing in Danton's Death

Ellen Halperin-Royer


Like many postmodern artists, Robert Wilson is frequently misunderstood by those who are not familiar with his creative process. Influenced early in his career by artists, composers, and especially modern dance choreographers--Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Meredith Monk, and Alwin Nikolais--Wilson places great emphasis on visual imagery and movement. Wilson's productions in the 1960s and 1970s were generally abstract performance pieces that utilized sound, movement, and visual images to stimulate the audience's imagination. 1 Particularly notorious examples of Wilson's experiments with performance time and space include Deafman Glance (1970), a seven-hour "silent opera" inspired by Wilson's friendship with Raymond Andrews, a deaf boy, and Ka Mountain (1972), a single performance that lasted 168 continuous hours on Haft Tan Mountain, Shiraz, Iran. In these and other early works, Wilson made use of the nonprofessional performers who were part of his group of dedicated followers. Such a practice, combined with Wilson's interest in the creation of breathtaking images, perhaps furthered a commonly held impression that Wilson could work with robots as easily as actors. Although Wilson has worked with professionals since he directed Einstein on the Beach in 1976, the majority of these performers have been vocalists and dancers from the European opera companies with which he has collaborated.

Since the mid-1980s, Wilson began to explore the adaptation and staging of canonical plays. Thomas Derrah, who performed in the CIVIL warS (German Section) (1985), Alcestis (1986), and Danton's Death, described the development in Wilson's work as follows:

The work he was doing then (during the CIVIL warS) was less linear, less verbal, more or less a pastiche. . . . It didn't have a great deal of narrative. It was ramblings, free associations, and sounds. The next thing I did was Alcestis which, although close to Euripides, it was overlaid with a ten to twelve page sentence [Heiner] Müller wrote called "A description of a Picture" that [was] spoke[n] throughout. So the text was again sublimated to the visual aspect of it. And a kyogen play, The Birdcatcher from Hell was added to the end . . . I think his shift toward text is a very important one, [End Page 73] his development in his own work to actual narrative. To my knowledge this [Danton's Death] is the most narrative of the projects so far, at least that have been constructed in this country.

Along with creating new challenges for Wilson as a director, this shift to working with canonical, narrative texts created fascinating challenges for his company of actors. While working on productions in which the text consisted of nonlinear sounds, Wilson and the performers were free to concentrate on creating striking visual images. However, while creating Danton's Death Wilson and the actors had to communicate the characters, ideas, and emotions found in Büchner's script to the audience.

Despite this recent narrative trend, some question remains as to whether or not Wilson's work actually requires highly skilled acting technique. In order to better understand Wilson's creative process and its effect on the acting company, I inquired about the possibility of observing rehearsals of Wilson's production of Danton's Death. In 1992, the Alley Theatre allowed me to sit behind the table of directors, stage managers, designers, and other artists who collaborated on Wilson's production of Danton's Death to observe a three-week workshop followed two months later by a six-week rehearsal period. Interested in learning about the way Wilson interacts with actors and how actors understood and processed their work with Wilson, I interviewed all but two of the cast members.

Many of the actors were concerned that Wilson would not value or appropriately use their skills; all of them entered the rehearsal process with some degree of cynicism. The attitude of Jon David Weigand, who acted in Danton's Death, was typical in this regard:

I had never seen his work until the Ibsen play [When We Dead Awaken] at the ART [American Repertory Theatre]. And I had been at ART all through the rehearsal process and felt his presence in the building. Everybody bowed down. He got whatever he wanted. There were new lights put into the dance studio. And I was a bit skeptical about all this, but I really went expecting to be blown away by it, and I fell asleep. I hated it. I thought it was a big farce. I really was angry at how much money was invested in something that I felt wasn't even theatre. I mean why did they even use actors? He's a sculptor and they shouldn't be calling it theatre. (emphasis added)

Weigand finished his story by adding, "I didn't go back and see it again and I regret that a lot. A lot of my friends did go back and see it again and really grew to respect it tremendously."2 Similarly, many of the actors in the company of Danton's Death changed their opinion of Robert Wilson. Bettye Fitzpatrick, a veteran Alley company member who played a drunken jailer, aptly quipped, "I think several of us who may have come to scoff have stayed to pray."

As the actors gained firsthand experience working with Wilson, their preconceived notions about this notorious director changed. My close [End Page 74] observation of the rehearsal process showed that most of the misgivings actors brought with them to rehearsal were based on misperceptions: specifically, 1) that Wilson's actors are mechanical puppets who need not relate to other actors or production elements on stage; 2) that Wilson would not collaborate with his actors; 3) that Wilson would not interpret the text nor want his actors to engage in imaginative script analysis; 4) that Wilson is an intuitive, inarticulate director who would not explain his choices to the actors; and 5) that Wilson would not want his actors to connect emotionally to the text. Most importantly, any notion that performing in a Wilson production required something less than masterly acting technique was quickly dispelled during the rehearsal process of Danton's Death. Despite some element of truth in the actors' initial misperceptions, this essay shows why and how the actors' ideas about working with Wilson changed during the rehearsal process.

Before turning to interview results, it may be helpful to briefly summarize the play's primary features and immediate reception. Robert Auletta's adaptation of Danton's Death streamlined Büchner's epic romantic drama revolving around the passive, existential figure of Danton, a man who wishes to die in order to escape the horrors of the French Revolution. 3 Auletta eliminated characters and combined scenes, but he did not change the story, omit the philosophical monologues, or minimize emotional elements. Danton's wife's suicide, Camille's wife's descent into insanity, and the contrast between Danton's passivity and his friend Camille's excitability all remain.

Reviews of the play were generally positive. John Rockwell from the New York Times described the production as "one of the director's finest achievements." The reviewer continued:

Again, as usual, the essence of Mr. Wilson's vision is visual: extraordinarily cool, sensuous, elegant stage pictures that he says are inspired by David but look archetypically Wilsonian. What makes this production more potent than some of Mr. Wilson's recent work, however, is how the formalism contains and contrasts with the passion of the play and of the actors, and the especially beautiful impact of the images Mr. Wilson has conjured.

As Rockwell's comments may indicate, Wilson's minimalist aesthetic greatly influenced his rendition of Büchner's script. Throughout much of the play, the actors were lit only by follow spots. The black stage was frequently bare, and the back wall consisted of a series of black screens that moved to create a variety of geometric designs. In the second scene, when the audience first meets the tumultuous street mob, Wilson had one actor, James Black, play the entire mob. The actor developed a separate dialect and physicalization for each character in the mob. The dialogue was delivered as the actor moved from upstage left to downstage left on the bare stage. Upon Robespierre's entrance, one of the upstage center screens that formed the black backdrop rose, creating a doorway of light that framed Robespierre's black figure. While both actors faced downstage, Robespierre, speaking from upstage center, convinced "the mob" [End Page 75] to join him at the national assembly. In the following scene, Robespierre addressed the national assembly while standing on a pedestal center stage. There were no other actors onstage. The lines spoken by members of the assembly were only heard on tape. Only assemblyman Legendre appeared in the flesh, and he spoke from a side-stage located halfway back in the house. These are some examples of how Wilson deconstructed the text into penetrating visual and aural images that captured the essence of Büchner's play.

Many Danton's Death performers believed that the acting company influenced Wilson as much as Wilson influenced the acting company. The cast ranged from highly trained performers with MFAs from Yale or Juilliard to actors with a great deal of professional experience but no degree at all in theatre. Veteran actor Richard Thomas played the role of Danton, while other actors were still in college with few, if any, professional credits. Although a few actors had worked previously with Wilson or other avant-garde directors, most were only superficially familiar with Wilson's work. As it turned out, the actors' previous backgrounds greatly affected their response to Wilson's rehearsal process.

As noted above, most of the actors began the workshop and rehearsal process with misconceptions about how Wilson works with actors. Alley company member John Feltch said, "There was a lot of reinforcement of the idea of puppet master, tyrant, all of that. I did go in, not dreading it, but feeling I was going to end up in a fight--all of us talking, saying who's the first one up against the wall." In addition, many actors believed that Wilson would not want actors to express emotion. Feltch remarked, "We lived in terror that if he heard a hint of feeling we were done for." Marissa Chibas, who played Danton's wife, explained:

I thought I was going to be told exactly what to do at all times. . . . Even after the workshop I thought now he's going to tell me what to do. And then I realized that he is waiting for me to do my work, and I'm not going to be told what to do. He may not say anything, but I have to keep doing my work.

In a similar vein, it was a revelation to Chibas that Wilson expected her to create her own character. Even more surprising was that Wilson encouraged her to collaborate on script interpretation. Chibas recalled:

I knew something (in the scene) was missing . . . and I was waiting for him to tell me what it should be and he said, "Is there anything you'd like to try?" My heart started racing like crazy and I said, "Yes" . . . and I thought just see what happens, let whatever impulse you have go . . . and he said, "Fine, that's good."

Contrary to the myth that Wilson's performers do not need to be masters of their craft, I found that only those actors with the strong sense of self that [End Page 76] comes from a combination of formal training and experience were able to remain focused on creating a character in the high pressure environment that permeated Danton's Death rehearsals. Although Wilson was always cordial, never raised his voice, and never reminded the cast either verbally or nonverbally of his prestigious reputation, he was still the internationally renowned "Robert Wilson." Often surrounded by an entourage of benefactors and assistants, he frequently made calls to Europe and Japan to discuss projects in progress at other locations. His unprotected charcoal renderings of the "Danton" set, which later sold for $5,000 each, were mounted around the rehearsal hall. In addition to the high-profile environment, Wilson himself is a somewhat formal, elegant person in his dress, manner, and overall presentation. Furthermore, Wilson is not schooled in actor training and therefore does not share the vocabulary actors use. For example, during rehearsals Wilson often used abstract, painterly language such as, "this scene needs more air."

Integral to the rehearsal process of Danton's Death was the presence of Wilson's long-time assistant director Ann-Christin Rommen. Many of the actors felt they would never have been able to fulfill Wilson's vision without her help. Rommen's understanding of Wilson's work is so thorough that on productions of Wilson revivals, she often rehearses alone with the cast and crew until Wilson's arrival during tech week. Rommen's personal style and demeanor complement Wilson's own. During rehearsals of Danton's Death Rommen was warm and nurturing, and spoke to the actors in terms they understood. Whereas Wilson spent most of his time sitting behind the director's table, speaking softly to the actors through a microphone, Rommen walked over to each actor individually and had private conversations.

On the first day, Wilson described the workshop phase of the rehearsal process as "creating the visual book" and explained his belief that the "visual book" is as important as the "audio book" or the text. For Wilson, movement should not illustrate the text. The "visual book" has its own significance, carries its own weight and its own meaning. To illustrate the text with the movement would make the performance predictable, literal, and boring. 4 Wilson began creating the visual book by reading and discussing the first scene of the play and then letting the actors improvise movement. Here the audience meets Danton, his wife, and some friends as they talk, drink, and play cards. Danton's allies interrupt the gaiety to warn him of the continued slaughter at the guillotine and rumors that Danton will soon be arrested. Most of the actors responded by moving very slowly because of their belief that Wilson does everything in slow motion. Wilson encouraged the actors to vary the pace of their moves, to think abstractly, to consider doing the opposite of what they think is proper. He prodded them by giving a few specifics and letting them try it again. One woman moved a card towards her slowly for a few beats and then giggled and quickly put it down. Yet, for a long time the scene remained very slow and serious. Wilson stimulated actors' imaginations by adding sound effects of people laughing, cards shuffling, and playful music. He worked in [End Page 77] this manner for at least five hours and then discarded everything and started over.

The actors never again read and discussed a scene. Since the work in the first scene had progressed at a painfully slow rate without satisfactory results, Wilson spent the rest of the workshop using a much more prescriptive method. He began working on scenes by placing the actors in initial positions, dictating to them a series of movements, and assigning a number to each movement. Rommen wrote these movements down in shorthand, and the actors then memorized the numbered movements. Once the movements were learned (usually the following day), Wilson rehearsed the scene by having either the dramaturg or a production assistant read the text while the actors executed each movement at the moment Wilson called its number. A few times Wilson mixed up the sequence of the numbered movements, calling out "one, two, three, four, three, four, five. . . ." The stage managers wrote every number Wilson called out into the script. The actors then memorized the word corresponding to each numbered movement. The actors practiced performing the movements at the correct time as the text was read from the director's table until the movement was mastered; finally, the actors spoke their own lines while performing Wilson's movements on cue.

Derrah, a veteran Wilson performer, described his first encounter with Wilson's "number system" during his audition for the CIVIL warS:

I was terrified. . . . People would come out and be utterly perplexed and they would say, "Well, he had me walk across the floor in 20, then sit down in 15 and put my hand to my neck, then tilt my head up in 12" and everyone would write that down . . . so I went in . . . and he said walk across the floor in, I don't know, arbitrarily I'll say 59 and sit down in a chair in 42, put your hand to your head in 12 then your hand down to your lap in something. There were 6 or 7 moves. And when I got done he said, "Yes, you're the only one so far who can count."

Wilson acknowledged that this work was difficult. He fondly recalled the story of a "diva" soprano who, by the seventy-fifth move, broke down screaming in frustration at having to remember all these numbers, sing these notes, and make these movements all at the same time. Danton's Death sometimes had as many as fifty-four moves within three pages of text. Far from the myth that a puppet could perform successfully in a Wilson play, learning Wilson's "visual book" or "form" demanded strong discipline, focused concentration, and acute physical awareness. Richard Thomas, who had never worked with Wilson before, was remarkably quick at learning the movements and connecting the movements to the text. A few actors executed the moves in a robotic manner throughout the workshop and were later dropped from the cast. Others were able to make emotional connections between the numbered movements and the text almost immediately. Generally, actors who had strong training in dance or movement enjoyed working this way because it provided a physical approach to the character. [End Page 78]

IMAGE LINK=Figure 1. A production assistant videotaped everything that happened on stage throughout the workshop and rehearsal process in order to precisely document the "visual book." Wilson sometimes stepped onstage to demonstrate movements for the actors that he could not describe (see fig. 1). Since Wilson could rarely replicate these movements, actors who needed to study or copy these movements consulted the videotape. Similarly, if an actor did something that Wilson wanted to retain, the actor could then refer back to the precise image using the video recording.

There was a three-month gap between the three-week workshop and the six-week rehearsal period. During interviews, cast members used phrases like "what a luxury" (Annalee Jefferies) to describe this workshop/break/rehearsal format. Some had been skeptical about the break because they were afraid they would lose momentum and spend much of the rehearsal time trying to remember what they did in the workshop. However, the actors universally found that the break gave the material and the style time to sink in, even as they worked on unrelated projects. Gage Tarrant, who played a small part in the production, explained:

I like it a lot because it's such a different style. It gave you a gestation period between the workshop and rehearsal to process it all and let it sink [End Page 79] in over a period of time . . . what he was going for . . . and you can look back and go, "That's what he meant when he asked me to raise my arm, that's what I was doing wrong." You need the introduction to his style before you start rehearsing.

Jennifer Arisco, who also played a small role, explained, "I thought it was a really good idea because if we went away and didn't think about it for a month, it's still in your subconscious and you're much more familiar with it."

Wilson was out of the country rehearsing another production during the first week of the rehearsal period. During that week, Rommen used the videotape to help actors recreate the "visual book." Upon Wilson's return, the work became more and more like the rehearsal process of any other play. Songs were choreographed. Pacing and flow were major issues because the script consisted of many short scenes. Stop-and-go scene work was interspersed with run-throughs followed by notes. Many of the notes Wilson gave were no different than comments directors frequently make while directing a traditional play: "Pick up your cues without picking up the pace"; "Find the headlines in the monologues"; "Make sure you're projecting to the back of the room"; "Make sure you're responding to the incidental music"; and "Make sure you're listening to the other actors on stage."

These "traditional" notes about listening to other actors and incorporating the music into the actors' performance discredits the belief that Wilson's actors are mechanical puppets not expected to respond to other actors or production elements. To the contrary, Wilson frequently encouraged the actors to find what he called the "edges" in the play--edges, or contrasts, between the last scene and the present scene, between different actor's voices, and between what was happening in the music and the movement. Willis Sparks, who played Legendre, explained what "edges" meant to him:

Edges really just means tension. For example, in the crowd scene when I was marching . . . the natural instinct is to march in the same rhythm [as the music], but you shouldn't do that because there's no tension. So I try not only marching in different rhythm, but to change the speed as you go, faster, slower, for no other reason than it's more interesting to look at. If it doesn't change, you don't have to watch past the first few seconds.

Such work demanded total awareness of the actor's environment, the other actors on stage, what happened before the actor's entrance and after the actor's exit, as well as a command of the actor's vocal and physical instrument.

Though many of the cast members, such as Weigand and Feltch, had not expected Wilson to collaborate effectively with actors, all had, by the end of the project, changed their minds. Wilson collaborated intensely with his performers, and many actors felt that Wilson intuitively drew upon their natural abilities. Weigand explained: [End Page 80]

I think he collaborated with my spirit . . . I found it erotic in a strange way, being with someone who is that controlling. Because the freedom I found was a different kind of freedom than I found working with someone like Anne Bogart or someone who depends so much on my impulses. I was required to fill out what he sketched, and I think it's exciting.

In a similar way, Alley company veteran Annalee Jefferies explained how Wilson's detailed physical form was liberating rather than confining: "Something magical happens with his movement incorporated into what I had. When he gives certain boundaries like that, I'm free. I'm free within those very strict boundaries. I like that. I like the challenge of making them mine."

Wilson encouraged the actors to speak up if a move did not feel right, and he usually agreed to modifications requested by the actors. Richard Thomas frequently discussed the "form" with Wilson. For example, Thomas sometimes combined two moves into one in order to make the movement more elegant and economical. Once he slightly changed the timing of a move to avoid illustrating the text. Danton said, "--in a few hours he will be asleep in the arms of glory"(54) and the actor moved his arms as if rocking a baby. Thomas suggested that the rocking gesture occur before the line, rather than on the line, and Wilson agreed. Wilson often thanked Thomas for his input and seemed to appreciate that Thomas understood his aesthetic well enough to add his own contributions. Wilson occasionally allowed actors to make up their own moves. After prescribing a list of moves, Wilson sometimes said, "now do something else." While rehearsing a scene in which a jailer informs members of the revolutionary committee that prisoners are dying, Black jokingly added a soft shoe move. Much to his surprise, Wilson said, "Good, keep it." Black and Fitzpatrick, who often provided comic relief, were frequently directed to choose their own movements that then became codified into the form.

IMAGE LINK=Figure 2. The widely held belief that Wilson would not interpret the text, nor invite his actors to engage in imaginative script analysis, was also dispelled during the rehearsal process. One striking example involved a suggestion made by Jefferies, who played Marion, a prostitute Danton visits early in the play. According to Jefferies, Wilson asked her what she thought of her scene. In response, Jefferies related how she understood her character as similar to the mythical Persephone. In her scene with Danton, she saw herself on Persephone's throne as she helps others through their passage into the underworld. She saw a huge sheet on the floor and herself in one corner wrapping herself in this sheet, very slowly pulling it around her, so that it was bound around her by the end of her speech. The next day Jefferies suggested that if there is a moment when Danton is grappling with death, she might be in the background to provide tension or somehow remind Danton of what her character said earlier in the play. Wilson used this idea in act 2 when Danton was walking alone in open country and flirting with the idea of death. While Thomas moved frenetically in a box of light downstage, Jefferies moved very slowly and [End Page 81] beautifully (Wilson choreographed every muscle of her body) across the back of the stage in a luminescent space. Jefferies, wrapped in a translucent fabric that trailed behind her as she made her way across the space, provided one of the most compelling images in the play (see fig. 2).

Unlike the assumptions discussed thus far, the belief that Wilson is an intuitive director incapable of explaining his choices proved, in some ways, to be true. Although the director was almost always able to provide a clear explanation for a specific choice of movement or staging, his use of abstract words that are outside traditional acting lingo often makes him appear enigmatic. The term "edges" is a good example of his idiosyncratic vocabulary. Another is his use of the term "surprises." Wilson wanted the actors to make surprising movements, do surprising things with their voices, and find surprises in their characterizations. Wilson believes that if the audience can predict what the actor is going to do next, then the performance will be boring: if an actor knows he is about to turn left on stage, he should think about turning right, so [End Page 82] the turn to the left will be a surprise. Wilson explained that in the theatre we make a "vocabulary" with the audience of movement, sound, and images. Once this vocabulary is understandable to the audience, we must "destroy the code," a deconstruction that leads to the creation of a new vocabulary.

Wilson also told the actors not to be too musical with their voices: "Don't be in love with your voice." Wilson explained that if the voice is too musical, the audience will listen to the sound of the voice and miss what the actor is saying. During the workshop some actors responded with a flat, monotone delivery. Wilson then complained that he did not understand what the actor was saying. Just as Wilson did not want movements to be executed mechanically, without emotional connection to the character, so too did he look for vocal "surprises" to be motivated by character. Weigand, who played St. Just, a particularly bloodthirsty figure from the French Revolution, was unusually successful at motivating Wilson's vocal "surprises." Wilson told the actor to insert a screeching sound in specific points in the dialogue. The actor was at a loss about how to incorporate this idea into his performance until he decided that these screeches were the "goodness" trying to come to the surface of this evil person. The screeches allowed St. Just to choke back his "goodness" or his conscience. Weigand's ability to find a motivation for Wilson's directions provides an example of the adaptability, imagination, emotional depth, and vocal technique necessary to imbue Wilson's form with meaning.

Another difficult direction for actors was Wilson's demand to "sustain the line, the line only continues." In other words, an actor should not think in terms of taking two steps and stopping; rather, the line of movement continues through the stillness so that when the actor begins walking again, the movement is simply continuing. Wilson, who dislikes the stop and start quality he observes in most productions, spent rehearsal time teaching actors how to walk while maintaining a smooth line. Another common rehearsal note: "You must never drop the tension." Actors were asked to sustain the emotional line as well as the physical line. Several actors misinterpreted this concept and were constantly holding physical tension in their muscles. Wilson said they looked "constipated" and instructed them to find the point of relaxation. Weigand explained, "I've been working with the point of relaxation inside of this work, inside of myself. And for me it can be relaxing just my chest and keeping the rest of my body really involved, which can really open up a lot more things for me." Derrah said that Wilson's concepts of tension and relaxation had a lot to do with anxiety: "The easiest solution to that was to not forget to breathe . . . You can forget (to breathe) because you're remembering where this hand goes, and that count, and trying not to be a robot, so that you forget the most basic things that keep it alive." Chibas compared Wilson's concept of "sustaining the line" to yoga: "When you hold a position in yoga, your body is relaxed but you're sending energy through the body." For Fitzpatrick, "sustaining the line" and "keeping the tension" meant the following: [End Page 83]

Bob said, "I'm not interested in the ping-pong game where I speak, you speak, I speak, and we're batting verbiage back and forth over the net." People like [Alfred] Lunt and [Lynn] Fontanne could do it brilliantly, a very fine career about batting ping-pong balls back and forth at each other. But I'll bet you if you stripped them down and you said how do you maintain that--they keep the line. They continue the line. They're doing exactly what Bob's saying to. They keep the thought alive.

Matthew Rippy, who played a nonspeaking guard throughout the thirty-minute preshow, found the concept of sustaining the line very useful:

Wilson says as you're exiting the stage, imagine that your body is staying there, or as you enter the stage imagine you're already there . . . I tried to have that image in my head, of my line continuing out there. He would say imagine the sound is coursing through your body and it's everywhere. It's in your toes. Say the line from your elbow, the sound in your knee cap. And so I would sometimes imagine it that way, and other people's lines as well coming through me.

John Feltch explained this concept slightly differently. "A lot of that stillness for me is absolutely informed by an internal energy. . . . I'm trying to make a connection to the audience that is very visceral in that stillness." Sustaining the line, even in stillness, and sustaining the tension were internal, mental concepts. Later in the interview Feltch confessed, "I have aches in places I've never had them before because trying to sustain, trying to have the kind of poise that he requires . . . it is hard to give the kind of coldness and tension that he wants in the work and [to] relax."

Although Wilson's idiosyncratic use of language frequently made him difficult to comprehend, it is not entirely accurate to describe Wilson as a director who cannot explain his choices. The actor playing Lucille, Camille's wife who is driven crazy by the cruel violence happening around her, was given a rocking motion to perform. Since rocking was not literally connected to what was going on in the scene, the actor asked for Wilson's reasoning behind the move. Wilson explained that the character was continually hitting her head against a brick wall, an image the actor found perfect for explaining what the character was experiencing on a subconscious level. Many of the actors discovered that watching other scenes in rehearsal and hearing Wilson use his unique vocabulary with other actors helped them interpret Wilson's lexicon. Willis Sparks, who played Legendre, explained:

Not only did I see some other people [who] had a handle on it . . . but [I was] watching people who didn't have a handle on it. . . . Then all of the sudden you have a reference point. It's so hard when you're onstage to have any objectivity at all. You're just trying to please him in the moment so you can get offstage. But when you're out in the audience, relaxed, no one's looking at you, [you can] get into his mind a bit and see what he's getting. That's when you learn this or any other process. For example, [End Page 84] watching Annalee even as far back as the workshop made me realize that what she was doing was not mechanical. She was still a person, yet [there was] a complete lack of sentimentality. Yet she was still talking almost like a human being. You knew what she was saying. She had a character history, like any other character, but still there was something not quite finished about what she was doing, in a good way, that made you keep watching.

Perhaps the most harmful preconception actors brought to rehearsal was an assumption that Wilson did not want the actors to connect emotionally with the material. This assumption was reinforced on the first day when Wilson stated that he hates naturalism, that to act naturally onstage is a lie. Wilson explained his preference for a formal, more distant theatre in which the audience can enter at will and actively interpret the images onstage. Far from telling the audience what to think or feel, Wilson wants to ask provocative questions for each audience member to answer individually. Wilson spent a good deal of rehearsal time telling actors not to be "precious" or "sentimental." Another frequent statement was, "You don't need to cry, you want to make the audience cry." Wilson went beyond the common director's note that "less is more" regarding emotion. He told the actors to give a "cold, hard, flat" delivery of the text. This reinforced the fear that, as Feltch said, "If he heard a hint of feeling we were done for." To help the actors become less "sentimental" in their line delivery, Wilson sometimes told the actors to describe the room ("this is a table, the floor is white, this chair is blue") and then say the next line. Similarly, he would instruct an actor to pretend to be ordering fast food ("I'd like some fries and a coke. . . . ") and then say the next line.

The most frustrating moments for some of the actors occurred when Wilson would say a line the way he wanted it (cold, hard, flat) and have the actor repeat the line until it sounded right to him. This could go on for ten minutes at a time on a single phrase. After the third or fourth repetition, no observable difference could be heard between what Wilson was doing and what the actor was doing. Afterwards, the actors confessed to being helplessly confused, trying every reading they could think of, hoping something would make him stop. Wilson's statement, "It's how you feel within the form that makes it special," only added to the actors' dilemma. He insisted that despite the specific physical form, the actors could not simply execute the form mechanically. Wilson told the actors to fill themselves one hundred percent with emotion and then control that emotion, sharing only ten percent of the emotion with the audience. Melissa Bowen who played Camille's wife, Lucille, explained how she interpreted this concept: "The emotion is so overwhelmingly powerful in your body, no matter how cold and flat you do your voice the feeling behind it will come through. You don't have to explain to the audience 'this is what I'm feeling.'"

Most actors found it difficult to synthesize Wilson's antinaturalistic statements with the creation of a truthful character from Büchner's emotional script. For some company members, it was only after working alone with [End Page 85] Rommen during the first week of the rehearsal period that they realized they were supposed to create a character. Many actors commented that things went much better once this realization occurred. Sparks recalled how he learned to distinguish between Wilson's use of the term "sentimentality" and "emotion": "If the play has good emotion, he says it's tender or poignant. If it's bad emotion, it's sentimental. The more you work with him the more you learn the code words." Chibas played Julie, Danton's wife, who commits suicide. This role was particularly challenging in terms of creating an unsentimental character that still fulfilled Büchner's script. She resolved the dilemma brilliantly, using her "cold" delivery to create a character who was strong and determined in her decision to die, rather than act a clichéd version of the helpless, grief-stricken lover. With intelligence and imagination, Chibas demonstrated the flexibility needed to adapt to Wilson's unique directoral style.

Scott Rabinowitz, who played Danton's friend, Camille, also had a difficult time reconciling Wilson's aesthetic with Büchner's text. In previous work with Wilson on Hamletmachine, Quartet, and Salomé, Rabinowitz had little difficulty being "cold, hard, flat" because the texts of those projects consisted of nonlinear sounds. He found it considerably more difficult to adhere to Wilson's aesthetic to create Büchner's emotional character. Whereas Chibas was able to find a motivation for her "cold" delivery, Rabinowitz had to settle for an uneasy compromise between Büchner and Wilson. Although his performance was strong and consistent, Rabinowitz knew he had succeeded only when he stopped receiving negative notes from Wilson. When asked if he felt he had successfully created a Camille who was not "sentimental," Rabinowitz said, "If I knew the answer to that I could have saved myself weeks of torture and annoyance. I still don't know. I wish I could answer that. You tell me, does it come across as emotional?"

Only Richard Thomas never struggled with the challenge of portraying an emotionally dynamic character in Wilson's play. Thomas never let Wilson's instructions or assigned movements prevent him from creating a truthful character with a large emotional range. Although his work was rarely over the top, he did not hesitate to shout, growl in anger, or display any other emotion that made sense for the moment. Interestingly, Wilson never gave him the "cold, hard, flat" direction, nor did he have this actor repeat phrases, or recite a laundry list and say his next line. Particularly during the workshop phase, Thomas seemed to be in a completely different performance style than the rest of the cast, roaring and whimpering while other actors gave flat, nonemotional performances. During the rehearsal period, however, this difference in style disappeared as the cast came to match Thomas's emotional range. After working alone with the actors for the first week of the rehearsal period, Rommen warned the cast that Wilson might pull back some of the "naturalism" that had crept into the actors' characterizations. This never happened. To the contrary, Wilson himself seemed to change direction. Just as Chibas began to solidify her interpretation of Julie, Wilson told her, with great trepidation, that at the end [End Page 86] of the scene where she sends a lock of her hair to Danton, just as the lights are coming down, she should shed one tear. He quickly added that he had never said that to an actor before.

By the time review week arrived, Wilson noted in an almost confessional manner that the whole production could bear a little more emotion. He was afraid to say this, he admitted, because he was concerned that the cast would take this note too far. Wilson also admitted that he did not quite know how to direct in this vein, that it was foreign territory for him. He added that he was surprised by the way Danton's Death had evolved. He had expected the play to feel like a Magritte painting, but instead the production was more emotional.

Derrah speculated that Wilson's work with narrative text changed the way he worked with the actors.

In the past, with any question like "What does this mean," his response was always, "What do you think it means?" But now in this rehearsal process you're hearing words like "subtext," like "motivation," [which is] Stanislavskyan. . . so saying things like "listen to your other actors"--it's surprising to hear him use terms like that.

Chibas agreed: "I think I've told someone that Bob is the ultimate 'method' person." Whatever technique the actors used, connecting to the characters to convey a sense of truth was as necessary while performing in Danton's Death as in any other play. If anything, it may have been more difficult to respond emotionally to the character while remembering which numbered move goes with which word, or while executing physical gestures that were unrelated to text. Similarly, it took more emotional depth, not less, to share only ten percent of the character's emotional experience and still have the audience respond to that emotion. Even though Wilson articulates his choices, collaborates with the actors regarding both script and character interpretation, creates a polite atmosphere during rehearsals, and employs an assistant director who communicates more clearly than himself with the cast, acting for Wilson requires technique, experience, and skill.

The actor who struggled the most, to the point of stumbling over lines on opening night, Lou Liberatore, had the least experience performing in period style plays that require vocal and physical technique. Although Liberatore, who played Robespierre, was a very experienced actor, having received a Tony nomination for his Broadway performance in Burn This, virtually all of his experience was with naturalism, and he did not have conservatory voice and movement training. The role of Robespierre, meanwhile, consisted almost exclusively of long monologues containing anything from political diatribes to philosophical soliloquies. The actor found it very difficult to progress beyond the flat, monotonous delivery of these speeches, the norm during the workshop phase, even after Wilson urged him to find the different colors in the text and to establish a visceral connection to what he was saying. As Liberatore's anxiety [End Page 87] level increased, so did his difficulties in both memorizing his lines and saying them without stumbling. Both Rommen and the vocal coach, Deborah Kinghorn, worked repeatedly with him on text analysis, vocal variety, and finding surprises.

Liberatore never acknowledged that his lack of training or experience with stylized theatre hindered his work with Wilson. To the contrary, he felt the fact he was not classically trained was a help: "I had no opinions of how people should act or walk or talk or any of that stuff . . . I think [Wilson] liked the fact that I was not sullied by Juilliard or Yale or whatever, and I had done nothing but naturalism." The actor blamed his difficulties on other factors including the lack of run-throughs during tech week, the paucity of stop-and-start rehearsals (versus run-throughs with notes), and Wilson's unspoken expectation of performance-level work during rehearsals. The closest Liberatore came to accepting responsibility for his difficulties was the following comment:

A lot of it is how you do homework. And my monologues and me are sort of foreign. I haven't done many of them and I always look at them differently. They always say, "Oh, what an opportunity to be onstage all that time." But I'm like, "Yeah all those words." Maybe I've been in LA for too long or something, but it's just homework and discipline and I don't think I was very good as far as school. I always relied on what I brought into rehearsal and that's where I do most of my work.

It is not a coincidence that the actor who had the most difficulty fulfilling Wilson's vision had little formal training of any kind, no intensive voice and movement training, and very little experience outside the realm of naturalism. Indeed, of the twenty-one actors interviewed for this essay, seventeen specifically stated that either their movement training, voice training, style training, or some combination of the above was critical to their ability to perform successfully in Wilson's Danton's Death.

In terms of vocal training, Jefferies said that she was able to achieve the "cold, hard, flat" sound while creating interesting vocal surprises because of her vocal training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Feltch credited his success to his training with Cecily Berry. Many of the actors recognized that their dance or movement training helped them achieve the technique needed for Wilson's work. Jefferies and Chibas agreed their yoga practice helped provide the discipline, concentration, and physical awareness necessary to execute Wilson's "form" while being completely connected to their inner selves. Peter Webster and Black, two members of the Alley's acting company who had little formal training, both acknowledged that they had developed their vocal and physical skills by performing in Shakespeare and other classic plays. Webster was particularly emphatic about the necessity of technique in order to perform in a Wilson play: [End Page 88]

One of the things I've learned from being through this process is that if you're not a good actor and you're not well trained your deficiencies show up even more sharply. . . . You have to know the range of your voice. . . . You have to know the dynamics of your range. You have to have exquisite speech. . . . You would almost have to have angels. . . . You'd have to have extremely skillful actors, or people who were so natural that they could be made, not molded, like clear water that is put into many different shaped vessels that are all transparent. . . . I think what he's asking is that you sandpaper yourself so thin that you're still wood, you're still steel, but whatever is inside you comes across. It's very, very difficult. You cannot waste anything. It has to be a high-powered bullet shot by a blind man that hits its mark unerringly. I'm using Zen terms but it's exactly right. You have to have infinite technique to do it.

Sparks also discussed the importance of classical training as preparation for working with Wilson:

If you're not classically trained maybe you're not as aware of your body as another actor . . . maybe you don't go straight to the point of the scene. Maybe you're listening to your voice, or paying attention to your body more than you should. One of the ways classical training helps is you are aware of your fingers, your toes.

Several actors felt that working with other physically-oriented, avant-garde directors helped them understand Wilson's ideas. Weigand, Derrah, Fitzpatrick, and Black talked about working with Anne Bogart. Derrah described the difference between Bogart's and Wilson's approach to movement, saying that Bogart starts with the text and then adds the moves: "You start with emotion and add things to it. And that works OK too, but that system is more traditionally choreographical." Webster and Sparks referred to their work with Tadashi Suzuki. Sparks observed the parallels between working with Tadashi Suzuki and Robert Wilson: "The physical control you have is similar, the tension in the work is similar."

The actors interviewed unanimously agreed that their experience with Wilson would help them in future projects. Several actors commented that they hoped to bring the sheer level of concentration, discipline, and focus demanded by Wilson to future projects. A few actors hoped to preserve their newfound ability to find the "spaces" in the scene, the time between the moments. Several actors felt they had heightened their physical awareness as a result of working with Wilson. Many actors hoped to continue to find interesting nuances in their characters by experimenting with abstract vocalizations and movements that may even seem contradictory to the scene. Most stated that the principles Wilson talked about applied to naturalism as well as to postmodern work. Derrah concluded:

The cardinal rule of acting is not to illustrate. So you learn that to the extreme and it can only help you. If you're doing in opposition to what [End Page 89] you're saying or feeling it only makes for a richer layering, even in an O'Neill play or an Odets play or any super-realistic, kitchen-sink drama. You have to do that to be interesting.

Like so many Alley company members, Jeffrey Bean was prepared to dislike working with Wilson. At the end of the project, however, not only was he grateful for the opportunity to perform in Danton's Death, he was determined to use the technique he had developed in the future. He explained:

You have in the abstract a freedom to express an inner thought, an idea or a concept about your character which naturalism does not allow. This is so because the gestural language has no relevance to realism. I think I feel much like an ancient Greek actor hidden behind a mask but using his whole self to express something heightened from the everyday.

There was finally no question among the actors that Wilson's aesthetic demanded accomplished acting technique and that their previous training or experience had prepared them for this project. If the research conducted into Wilson's rehearsal process for Danton's Death proves anything, it would be that only those highly skilled in the art of acting can fully realize Wilson's unique vision.

Ellen Halperin-Royer is a freelance writer and consulting scholar to Miracle Theatre/Teatro Milagro in Portland, Oregon.


1. The author wishes to thank the Alley Theatre and Robert Wilson for permission to observe rehearsals of Danton's Death; Michael Wilson for writing in support of a leave of absence to complete this project; the actors who agreed to be interviewed; and Judith Zivanovic, Harold Nichols, and Jim Symons for their help on this article.

2. See Laurence Shyer for a good general introduction to Robert Wilson's working process and aesthetic.

3. Robert Auletta created a new translation of Danton's Death for this production. Auletta was also present at many of the early rehearsals in order to refine the adaptation. References to the play in this article are based on the 1992 copyrighted working script for the Alley Theatre production.

4. Robert Wilson, comments during rehearsals for the workshop and rehearsals of Danton's Death, June, Sept., and Oct. 1992. Subsequent quotes and paraphrases from Wilson are based on written notes taken by the author during rehearsal.

Works Cited

Arisco, Jennifer. Personal interview. 20 Oct. 1992.

Baquet, Peter. Personal interview. 19 Oct. 1992.

Büchner, Georg. Danton's Death adapted by Robert Auletta. Unpublished script, 1992.

Bean, Jeffrey. Personal interview. 18 Oct. 1992.

Black, James. Personal interview. 3 Nov. 1992

Büchner, Georg. Danton's Death. Adapted and trans. Robert Auletta, 1992.

Bowen, Melissa. Personal interview. 4 Nov. 1992.

Callahan, Jamie. Personal interview. 20 Oct. 1992.

Chibas, Marissa. Personal interview. 22 Oct. 1992.

Derrah, Thomas. Personal interview. 17 Oct. 1992.

Dickerson, Glen. Personal interview. 21 Oct. 1992.

Feltch, John. Personal interview. 23 Oct. 1992.

Fitzpatrick, Bettye. Personal interview. 19 Oct. 1992.

Jefferies, Annalee. Personal interview. 7 Nov. 1992.

----. Television interview with Marion Kessel. Visions of Robert Wilson: Danton's Death, Wilson X4. KUHT, Houston, 1992.

Liberatore, Lou. Personal interview. 5 Nov. 1992.

Mylius, Wade Alan. Personal interview. 21 Oct. 1992.

Pew, Katherine. Personal interview. 25 Oct. 1992.

Rabinowitz, Scott. Personal interview. 22 Oct. 1992.

Rippy, Matthew. 1992. Personal interview. 25 Oct. 1992.

Rockwell, John. "Robert Wilson Tackles The French Revolution" New York Times, 3 Nov. 1992: C13.

Shyer, Laurence. Robert Wilson and His Collaborators. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1989.

Sparks, Willis. Personal interview. 19 Oct. 1992.

Tarrant, Gage. Personal interview. 22 Oct. 1992.

Webster, Peter. Personal interview. 25 Oct. 1992.

Weigand, Jon David. Personal interview. 6 Nov. 1992.

Wilson, Robert. 1992. Notes to cast members during workshop and rehearsals for Danton's Death. June, Sept., Oct. 1992.

York, Emily. Personal interview. 19 Oct. 1992.