Robert Wilson’s ‘Urinetown’ and the rituals of theatre

Written by LK, by Helen Watts and Robert Wilson, CNN

If you’re tired of the tropes and cliches of traditional theater, of recreating life on the grand scale, of performing life’s most dramatic and ubiquitous narrative events, there is a cure. It’s by no means an easy cure, but it can be achieved. If, rather, we still want to dance, call it conceptual art, but have a vision for the ultimate production of a play, then it doesn’t take much to say: you must embrace all the strange, nontraditional methods of expression, of varying in style and form.

It is in this characteristic sense that I had approached the production of “Urinetown,” my third show at the New York Shakespeare Festival. I had come to this play many years ago, at the request of a friend, Robert Wilson, who was then in London directing. Looking back, this play, in its original Broadway production in 2001, represents the genesis of our long relationship. At that time, when I started doing new and innovative work, there was a trend in the international theatre world towards the traditional use of video, shooting a live performance in video and then editing this together. For an artist like myself, whose work is formally free, and where I consider a history of experiment as a partner in whatever ideas I want to explore, it seemed to be a filmic crutch, not only for the argument of budgeting but also because it not only isolated me from the time taken to move to New York, but also ironically, removed from my vision.

Courtesy Robert Wilson

“Urinetown” is, amongst other things, a story about the fracturing of society. In Washington D.C., we live under a tough, harsh and untransparent environment. Compromised to a large extent, our politicians have not been able to resolve any of the serious problems of our time: education for our youth, equal rights, health care for all, corporate welfare, the prescription drug gap. A people who have spoken in great numbers about the possibilities of the future are instead berated by the powers that be, who will often argue against these ideals in the name of limited government — no one talks about the reality, but those who will claim to uphold an ideal are less likely to question their limits.

As the story unfolds, we follow the members of the 13th Ward, a band of performers in Washington D.C., who try their best to live out the vision of their founders and create a modern day utopia. Three community organizers, Lucinda, Avis and Truman, face the immense challenges of turning an idea into reality, but also have to deal with the monsters within their community. These monsters, they argue, will do or say anything to take hold of the local power structures that continually detest and sabotage their work and their hopes.

During the first reading of the script, I sat on my seat, watching Robert take that production, refined over the years, as an exception in a rather rigid industry. He brought to it not just a singular performance, but a distinct artistic vision. He presented it to the public with a high standard and never fell into formula. And it was precisely this experimentation with production and with technology that has helped make “Urinetown” so compelling, both in its subject matter and its presentation.

This was another way for me to experiment, to bring to the stage my directorial skill, as well as my relationship to the much revered authorial and textural DNA of Robert Wilson, who was perhaps the primary influence for me to adapt the text into my own form and vision. So, I suppose that the last words for this discussion of my inspiration and engagement with the stage are to the last words in the first half of the piece: I received a letter from Robert, in which he expressed the sadness of his work force, and the need to accept that we’d perhaps all lose our interest in making new work.

I once read an old report of Robert Wilson, in which he said he never wanted to do films again, he preferred to concentrate on stage and, of course, that little affection was best expressed in that larger form of expression that he loved, where there were fewer distractions, where one’s vision was so self-renewing, so extraordinary, that nothing could stand in the way of expressing it and presenting it to a larger audience. It was with such a sense of urgency and urgency, I wish that I could repeat the responsibility of producing this piece in order to preserve the perfect vision for each generation to contemplate.

Leave a Comment