During undergraduate film school, we were teamed up to work on narrative features. As each treatment was presented for review, I noticed the well-practiced diplomacy of our professors. I had the sense that my life experience at 18 years of age was not yet that of a feature-length film, and attempting one would be to repeat whatever conventions I had been exposed to. Derivation has its place when learning how to do something, but I couldn’t afford the amount of film stock it would take anyway. Like many creative young souls with no financial backstop — I had to find a different way.
I did know how to take decent photographs. Making them move was how I would create a sense of place and tell a story without the pressure of narrative structure at 24 frames per second. I made short documentaries, and most were shot by combining my limited film stock with the unexposed leftovers of my feature-oriented peers. I worked in the equipment checkout to offset my tuition and would collect what remained in the cameras when they were returned.
Professor Paul Monaco was the department head and thankfully saw something in my work. I was awarded a study abroad internship in Berlin at the end of my senior year which landed me briefly at Wim Wenders studio, where making a scenic element for a single shot he needed (for Wings of Desire), meant that anyone versed in paper mâché had vital importance for a few frantic days. The rest of the term was for learning the complete history of German cinema, and schlepping on various productions.
While in Berlin, Prof. Monaco wanted us to attend a theater production that was appealingly entitled Death, Destruction and Detroit II. We bemoaned that 5+ hours at a theater (of all places) would be sacrificed from our cinematically all-important time. “You will not be able to see this man’s work in the United States unless you are in NYC on the right day, in the right year, and it will never be this production,” he said and went on to explain the significance placed on the arts in Germany. His invitation was for us to experience something outside of our known interests. Only two of us showed up.
The play was by Robert Wilson and for me it was life altering.
On that night in the scarred and impossibly divided city of Berlin (1987), I had zero inkling that my work and Robert Wilson’s would later converge into a now decades-long relationship. One that is due to Philip Glass, Linda Brumbach, Elisabetta di Mambro, the Watermill Center and countless artists that Bob has cast, collaborated with or championed.
In Bob’s own words, “You can’t explain theater. You have to experience it.” And I think that for theater-goers this is the very crux of what makes our now dormant “seeing places” (Greek meaning) so excruciating. Yes, we gratefully have access to drama and comedy and story through our books, cinema, television and episodic streaming and hallelujah for much of it (especially if we are talking about Sundance Institute and our film colleagues who knock it out of the park in the vision and perseverance department). But theater, as it is conceived and made to move from the page (or sketch) to the stage, is created to be experienced as theater. Which is precisely what we miss.
If that essence could be as effectively achieved through another form, it would have been taken up a long time ago. But the beautifully enduring fact is that it cannot, because it is a lived practice in a collaborative engagement between people in real time on a stage of some sort or another. The theater resists efficiencies in full-throated preference for finding what it uniquely is, and that is why its conveyance cannot just readily pivot to a screen in someone’s pocket or on someone’s desktop.
As we support the theater as an experience, we support its lived lineage – its artists, designers, technicians, actors, directors, playwrights, puppeteers and creative producers. And for the time being, we can access the archival documentation from theater-making histories that are being generously sent out into the digital world in the hope of finding us. This gives us another chance to retain it in our collective rapport and appreciation. What has already been made carries weight and value.
There will also be incredible creativity arriving on this virtual stage in the near term, made for that way of experiencing what theater makers are thinking about. Supporting them online and at home, is also to say that we are going to be there for their eventual return to the stage — and with gusto! Perhaps less concerned by the lobby line at the bar during intermission — having relearned something in what is now, truly, the longest intermission ever — we’ll acknowledge how deeply we value the astonishing artistry and humanity of the theater.
The show will go on.
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance