Peter Sellars walks from his Georgetown home every day to his office at the nearby Kennedy Center. It gives him time, he says, to notice things like the mist along the Potomac River, the changing morning light, the people and the world around him.
The 28-year-old director and chief executive officer of the new American National Theater is thirsty, eager and wastes precious few drops of time. With a five-year carte blanche from Kennedy Center chairman Roger Stevens, Sellars wants the ANT to be a catalyst in the development of modern American theater.
Sellars is a man in perpetual motion, prowling through the literary attic of theatrical treasures, gleaning ideas from the contemporary arts, observing the mix of high and low culture, absorbing everything like a new sponge, and fine tuning as he goes along.
"The input channels have to be on full, particularly at the rate I'm moving," he says. "The great European directors do a new production once a year, maybe twice. I'm just bang, bang, bang. I'm doing 10 shows a year and that means the output channels are really flooded all the time, so I've got to have a huge input or else it just dries up."
Sitting in his windowless Kennedy Center office, his feet propped up on table, the Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University has a refreshing joie de vivre that permeates his frequent staccato laugh. His hair resembles the bottom of a soft broom. He wears one of his short Japanese kimono jackets over a gray workman's shirt with the name "Edwardo" and "Entwhistle gas stations." He buys his prized collection of gas station shirts for 50 cents each in Boston. His well worn black leather Adidas shoes have Velcro closures and thick soles. "I have to run down the aisle a lot during rehearsals," he laughs. "We're on union time."
His productions draw on what inspires him: books, music, art, travel and people. He calls his current endeavor, "A Seagull"--his adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play--"the hardest thing I've ever done." The set designs for the play, which stars Colleen Dewhurst, take off from his memory of an exhibit of unlighted Mark Rothko paintings. The lighting and makeup are based on silent movies. He recently discussed one act with the play's cast in terms of a Mozart piano concerto. Moreover, he chose to adapt "Seagull," he says, because it was the first play performed by the Moscow Art Theater, which he visited a year ago. It was while visiting Moscow that he decided to take the ANT job.
"Everything does count," he says, "There is no wasted time. Riding on the subway is as crucial as the National Gallery of Art. The funny thing is that it all goes right into the mill and comes out in the work. It all just appears right away; it doesn't go through much of the digestive tract."
Sellars craves new experiences.
In a recent television episode of "Miami Vice" he was a doctor specializing in voodoo. "I had an imposing soliloquy about the toxins in certain Caribbean fish," he laughs.
He also directed Herbie Hancock's most recent rock video, "Hard Rock," is making a two-hour video set for a new opera this summer in England that is based on a Pasternak short story, and planning "a really official Hollywood type" film next year.
So far he's kept live theater apart from his film and TV interests. "I want to be on top of film and video," Sellars says. "If you work in the 20th Century, those are your paints. A decade from now I hope to be involved in some pretty complex video stuff."
Sellars says he has considered the possibility of putting some of his theater productions on video. "If I do, I would take it (the production) and reshoot it because theater is theater and what is interesting in my shows wouldn't show up on a videotape. I do theater that is only theater and it has nothing to do with video, except that what I'm doing is borrowing video techniques and borrowing film techniques and using them on stage."