Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Peter Sellars

The same clump of flowers

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I really intend to set up most of my [opera] productions so that people have very different experiences on the same evening. Part of that is just technical—I make too many things happen at once so you have to decide what you’re going to look at, and whatever you’re looking at, you’re not looking at something else. Someone else may be looking at that, and I deliberately set up confusing situations sometimes so that the audience is making their own choices. I like that. It’s what separates live theater from TV or film. In television or film, your gaze is always channeled. You are not consulted; you’re told where we’re going to look next. What I love about opera is that your mind wanders, and my job is to set up an interesting landscape to wander in. No two people come out having smelled the same clump of flowers…

I don’t like to watch people think onstage. I like to watch people do things. I don’t want to know what I think Nixon’s thinking. If I can get Nixon to do the things that Nixon does, then it’s up to the audience to decide what he’s thinking. That’s where it gets interesting. If I say, “Nixon is thinking this,” and stage it accordingly, then it blots out any possibility of interpretation on the part of the audience. So I just say, “Here’s a person who’s done the following things. Now you tell me what he’s thinking.” Then it gets interesting, and the range of reaction becomes wonderful. In theater, psychology is overrated…My way of direction is extremely simple. If I say, “Go over here, pick up the glass of water and drink it,” that’s what I expect.

Peter Sellars, in an interview with Bruce Duffie

Written by nevalalee

July 9, 2018 at 7:30 am

“Look up!”

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The Delphic Sibyl by Michelangelo

You can go into the Sistine Chapel, and believer or nonbeliever, you get the picture. Michelangelo sees to that. And at some point, the place at which we all believe is illuminated and opened, in a genuinely breathtaking way.

Start with the fact that Michelangelo is very insistent that there’s only one direction you can look, which is up. You’ve spent your whole life looking at your feet, and now, guess what? Look up. That’s very beautiful. That sense of lifting people out of their usual sense of their own cosmos, into a higher vision of what’s going on up there, is an artist’s strategy.

You feel it physically, in the back of your neck, as you stand in the Sistine Chapel. It’s exhausting. You can’t look that way for a long period of time, and suddenly you realize how out of practice you are, in terms of living in that stratum of experience. It’s a strain…

As soon as you acknowledge that you may not be here five minutes from now, or five days from now, you ask yourself, “What is important to do?” Death is the best guarantee against wasting time.

Peter Sellars

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2013 at 9:50 am

Reflections in a googly eye

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Last night, my wife and I caught a performance of Stuffed and Unstrung, the decidedly R-rated improv comedy show featuring puppets from the Jim Henson workshop. The evening was fun but uneven, like all improv, and I’d say that the cast was significantly better at puppeteering than at improvisation—but I still had a blast, and I left the theater full of admiration and envy for the performers involved. I’ve always had a certain fascination with puppeteers, especially of the Henson variety, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand why. As the wonderful documentary Being Elmo makes abundantly clear, not only is this a challenging art form in its own right, but it’s an emblem of what all the other arts should aspire to be—a medium where all you need for creative expression is a few dollars’ worth of fabric, some googly eyes, and the willingness to work at it for the rest of your life.

A novelist, as I’ve said before, needs to know something about everything, but that’s nothing compared to the skill set that a puppeteer has to master. A few minutes at the touring exhibition of Jim Henson’s Fantastic World is enough to fill you with awe at the range of Henson’s abilities—in addition to his more famous talents, he was also a gifted animator, illustrator, graphic designer, and experimental filmmaker—but he’s only the most illustrious exemplar of a vocation that encourages every performer to be a jack-of-all-trades. Even on the professional level, a puppeteer can be expected to write his own material, build his own puppets, sew his own costumes, design sets, handle camera and sound equipment, and draw alternately on the various skills of the actor, clown, acrobat, voiceover artist, singer, comedian, and mime. And it’s a job that continuously challenges the performer’s inventiveness: many great routines or characters begin as solutions to technical problems, only to evolve into something singularly beautiful and weird.

It’s no surprise, then, that even the earliest surviving performances by Henson, Frank Oz and others are bursting with ingenuity—this is a medium where you need to try everything once, often under considerable constraints. These can be constraints of money, space, or even time: Henson’s big breakthrough came with his commercials for Wilkins Coffee, which had precisely ten seconds each to tell a joke and deliver a pitch. And such limited resources can lead to surprising solutions. Henson made the first version of Kermit out of one of his mother’s old coats, and there’s a long tradition of creating puppets from whatever happens to be lying around. In short, it’s the most economical form of theater there is, and as a result, it often flies under the radar, as in the former Soviet Union, where, according to the director Peter Sellars, the most subversive and experimental drama was being performed in the puppet theater.

We’re left with something close to art in its purest form, at least when it comes to the reactions it inspires. When I was a child, I don’t think I ever made a distinction between the Muppets on Sesame Street and the human performers around them: they were all just members of the same cast. Even today, it takes a special mental effort for me to picture the puppeteers standing just below camera range. (At Stuffed and Unstrung, much of the action unfolds on two video monitors to either side of the stage, so even with the performers right in front of you, it’s easy to forget that they’re there.) A bit of felt and foam rubber, in the hands of a skilled performer, turns into real person, with its own personality and emotions. The more I think about it, the more amazing this seems, even though it’s not so different from what all art hopes to do. In the end, we’re all puppeteers. It’s just the lucky ones who get to do it for real.

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2012 at 10:13 am

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