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The key to Robert

The key to Robert


His brilliant theater defies explanation--yet it's all based on his life. How did a gay kid from Texas become the high priest of the avant-garde?

Don't bother looking for Robert Wilson's gay sensibility onstage: The controversial queer king of avant-garde theater has built an oeuvre of works so surreal that parsing them for gay undertones is almost beside the point.

Although he has certainly had his share of lovers over his four-decade career, Wilson has never drawn attention to the fact that he is gay. So it comes as a surprise to hear him say wistfully in Absolute Wilson--the New Yorker Films documentary about his life and work--"There hasn't been a great romance in my life."

Not that he's worried. Bounding into the cafe of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, neatly attired in a gray suit, the Texas-born Wilson, 65, sits down to chat with the elegant ease of a homegrown Noel Coward. "I guess in the early part of my life I was very much looking for a relationship and trying to make it work," he admits. "But like the Chinese say, 'Don't run after your horse; it will come back of its own accord.' Maybe it's a bit like that."

Judging by the evidence in Absolute Wilson and its accompanying coffee-table book,Wilson's most passionate love objects have not been men but art and fame. "Robert always really wanted to be famous," his friend Susan Sontag comments in the film. Among theater cognoscenti, particularly in Europe, Wilson has been a rock star for years. Now--with Wilson doing things like photographing Brad Pitt in his underwear for the cover of Vanity Fair--the U.S. mainstream is getting the idea.

Wilson's '70s masterpiece Einstein on the Beach (a collaboration with composer Philip Glass) made him one of the most sought-after theatrical craftsmen on earth. He's unmatched in his ability to reorganize theatrical space with light, color, and startlingly surreal images. And then there's the almost glacial pace of his productions, which holds spectators in a quasi-hypnotic state akin to waking dreams.

Wilson's dreams hark back to Waco, Texas, where he was born in 1941, the son of the town's most prominent political figure. He didn't fit in, of course. As a child he had a severe stutter. Byrd Hoffman, a local speech teacher, taught him to overcome his impediment through "slowness"--a technique he would later apply to his art. Still, it was the idea of a "normal" life and how in the world he would manage one that troubled Wilson.

He came out to his father and then left home to study architecture in New York City. The move was so overwhelming that Wilson retreated to Waco, attempted suicide, and was briefly institutionalized. A sympathetic psychiatrist helped Wilson see that being gay didn't worry him as much as his father's feelings about it. The young man moved back to New York City, and this time he found his way.

America Hurrah, an absurd farce by out performance pioneer Jean-Claude van Itallie, with sets and costumes designed by Wilson, ran for a year off-off-Broadway. Wilson followed with mind-bending works of his own. The King of Spain is famous for its set with a pair of gigantic cat's legs hung over the proscenium.

Deafman Glance, staged at the Brooklyn, N.Y., Academy of Music in 1971, is a dream spectacle involving an Egyptian pyramid, a rain forest filled with waltzing "mammy" dolls, and giant bunny rabbits who danced to "We Belong to a Mutual Admiration Society."

The show's surreal imagery put Wilson on the map. Yet Deafman Glance was based on something very real: the imagination of Raymond Andrews, a deaf and mute African-American boy whom Wilson rescued from a police beating and in 1968 legally adopted.

"One morning Raymond made a drawing of a frog sitting at the head of a table drinking martinis, and a man with one eye. Then he did a larger portrait of this man with one eye, and one of a woman with a bird on top of her head. She was sitting at the table with a plate of bones. And that was all in Deafman Glance. God knows where that came from." Raymond appeared onstage in the production, seated on the branch of a tree.

"There was a film made of it," Wilson tells me, "and a journalist who saw the film and learned about my adopting Raymond said, 'This is a long time before Brad Pitt and Madonna started adopting black kids.' I hadn't thought of that. I was the original Angelina Jolie."

Wilson didn't adopt Christopher Knowles, another young man who made his way into Wilson's work, but this autistic youth, who was about to be institutionalized, became Wilson's chief collaborator in the early '70s. Together they coauthored--and Knowles starred in--A Letter to Queen Victoria and several dialogues, which Knowles and Wilson performed together as a kind of avant-garde vaudeville act. It was the seemingly abnormal behavior, like Knowles's obsessive chanting of the phrase "Emily likes to watch TV," with different words emphasized each time, that fascinated Wilson.

As when he himself was younger, Wilson rejected the idea that Knowles should be shoved into a box called "normal." "With Chris, [therapists] were 'correcting' him,"Wilson says. "I just took what he was doing and put it in a play and encouraged him to do more. So it wasn't therapy or trying to teach him. His mother was concerned that he would be unable to lead a normal life. I said, 'Barbara, what if he's not? What if we have to support him all his life? Does he have to be like you and me? Don't put him under that pressure.' So we took him out of the institution, he stayed with me, we wrote A Letter to Queen Victoria, and he performed it. And what happened without trying to make it happen--he did become independent."

Wilson has built his own great success on the same premise. For all his soigne sophistication, Wilson remains a big kid himself. And, like a child, he has learned to live with contradictions. "It's very strange how our lives end up full of opposites," Wilson says toward the end of Absolute Wilson. "I say I like to be alone, yet I am always surrounded by people. My theater is slow and calm, yet my life is fast and hectic, going in all directions. Yes, I've been in love, but I guess I'm too involved with myself and my work. I think I'm in love with my work, and I'm in love with the people I work with."

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