Director Sellars: 'You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet'

At first it's hard to spot Peter Sellars amid the glittering first-nighters at the opera. But then who would expect the director to be there, working the crowd, at the world premiere of "Nixon in China," which he not only directs but also dreamed up?

It's intermission. In the lobby at Houston Grand Opera's Wortham Center Oct. 22, the peripatetic Sellars is out there--lobbying.

With his distinctive shaggy porcupine hair framing his face like a Statue of Liberty crown, Sellars, standing just over five feet tall, is holding court under the chandeliers. In a blue Mao jacket and matching pants, he stands out from the black-tie and bejeweled crowd where oil executives mingle with the nation's music critics and a pair of Los Angeles Festival representatives.

Arms folded across his chest, face aglow, Sellars tells one cluster before flitting to the next: "Get ready for the second act. You ain't seen nothing yet."

Sellars--most recently director of the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington for three years and director of the Boston Shakespeare Company for a year before that--turned 30 on Sept. 27, one day after the announcement that he would succeed Robert Fitzpatrick as director of the Los Angeles Festival.

Sellars has been leapfrogging across the United States and Europe on a variety of assignments. And everywhere he goes he seems to polarize opinions about his work. He has been tagged as an enfant terrible or a Wunderkind, a genius (as a $136,000 1983 MacArthur Foundation Fellow), or a Cuisinart of contemporary theater (an American critic), brilliant or merely the latest flavor of the month (according to a London critic).

He has also been likened to another "Amadeus," possessed of child-like exuberances, an almost-manic energy and an artistic vision that may herald the future.

Get ready, Los Angeles Festival, for the second act under Peter Sellars.

Setting a 'Hot' Pace

The Los Angeles Festival under Sellars promises to be quite different from its initial venture under Fitzpatrick. The first festival ended its 24-day run (Sept. 3-27) in the black, after presenting 177 performances of 37 music, dance and theater productions by 352 artists from 11 nations at nine locations. About 80 performances were sold out. Overall attendance was about 150,000. Among the attractions were Le Cirque du Soleil, Peter Brook's "Mahabharata," Ingmar Bergman's "Miss Julie," Michael Clark and Company and a John Cage Festival.

Seventeen years younger than his predecessor, who quit to become president of Euro Disneyland, Sellars speaks about music videos as an emerging art form or Tibetan music with the level of enthusiasm Fitzpatrick reserves for the Royal Opera of Covent Garden. Sellars is an artist rather than an administrator/academician. He is ebullient rather than elegant, punctuating his lines with cackling laughter and energetic hands. He is "hot" rather than "cool."

More than a taste maker, Sellars is setting the pace, whether it's putting Mozart's 18th-Century operas into contemporary settings or dealing with current issues in entirely new work, like "Nixon."

"What I love about opera is that it's not off on the side," he says. "It's always central. It's in the big theater in the center of town and everybody comes together to deal with issues that are really central. Nixon struck me as a pretty central figure and China struck me as a really central issue. A lot of the issues are sitting around the edges of that opera--what is meant economically by capitalism and communism in this (period) when the stock market crashes and where (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and (Chinese leaders) are moving toward a capitalist situation. Suddenly those ideologies which were so rigid are opening up.

"The opening of China is a crucial event for the next 50 years. They're about to be a big player. We're really watching a situation where the Japanese are changing the way Detroit thinks, and that's a real Cultural Revolution. And I think Western culture meeting Oriental culture is one of the big turning points of our time."

Sellars has already revealed that Asian culture will figure prominently in the next Los Angeles Festival.

On the Run

The making of the second Los Angeles Festival began Oct. 26 at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Houston. "Peter had never been to NASA before and I was game for a ride," says Tom Schumacher, associate festival director who had flown in to see "Nixon" and Sellars. "We pulled up and he immediately became excited because they had these huge rockets outside." Sellars liked NASA so much, Schumacher said, that they came back the next day "and Peter became obsessed with Mission Control."

Sitting on the grass at the base of a NASA rocket and later in the NASA center's cafeteria, Schumacher traced festival history from the glory days of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival to the troubles of 1987. They discussed everything from high ticket prices and the decline of the dollar (which prevented Fitzpatrick from importing major German and Japanese theater companies) to conflicts with the City Council involving what was perceived as a lack of local ethnic programming.

They spent two days reviewing the nitty-gritty details of staffing, discussed collaborations, and flipped through a Fringe Festival catalogue. They talked about fund-raising, individual board members and programming.

On Oct. 28, Schumacher flew to the Cervantino Festival north of Mexico City to scout work for Los Angeles while Sellars stayed to oversee the shooting of "Nixon" for a PBS TV special that will be aired in April. Sellars' next stop was New York for the recording of "Nixon" for Nonesuch (scheduled for April release) and the Nov. 19 opening of "Zangezi," the avant-garde Russian verse play (which he had directed at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art last December) at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.

Next, Sellars went to Glyndebourne to direct the new British opera "Electrification of the Soviet Union," based on a Boris Pasternak novella, which was being shot for British television. Currently, he is in Brooklyn for the second run of "Nixon."

Although he officially took charge of the festival Dec. 1, Sellars, who has residences that he intends to keep in New York, Washington and Boston, plans to move to Los Angeles within the next three weeks. Meanwhile, he has been conducting festival business on the run.

"Nixon" is only one item on Sellars' overloaded plate. The opera opened Dec. 4 at Next Wave, goes to the Kennedy Center in March, on to Amsterdam in June, and quite possibly might arrive at the Music Center in Los Angeles on a date coinciding with the next Los Angeles Festival--that is, if the festival is in September, 1989. The opera, Sellars believes, "would be a nice calling card to start with."

But recently Sellars dangled the possibility of delaying the biennial event until 1990. Sellars says he posed this option to the festival board because he wants "to make sure that everything is set and set right," and probably won't know until February which would be best. There are potential collaborations with other Los Angeles arts institutions to mull over and other projects in the wings.

10-Year Plan

"My contract is for three festivals," Sellars says of the basically every-other-year event, "but the plans that I essentially presented to the board, the ideas, were couched in terms of a 10-year growth span.

"I really do not want people thinking of this as a one-off (alternate year) event anymore. 'OK, can we go get the next festival up, and then collapse of exhaustion?' And then say, 'Shall we now do another one? It's got to be that what we're doing has a long-term effect, long-term goals. What I'm planning now is not just for 1989."

He is sitting in a chair in temporary quarters overlooking downtown Houston, a pile of books on Nixon, China and Tibet on the table beside him. He is wearing his everyday uniform of chinos, sneakers and an orange Union '76 service station shirt with the name Tom above the right pocket. (Two days later for a second interview, he wears a blue Troiano Service shirt bearing the name Christian. )

"I really do think we can create a structure," says Sellars of the festival, "that will allow crucial contributions and new voices in the arts coming from ethnic strains, coming from the new-media electronics and video to enter the mainstream and no longer be marginal.

"Right now this country is changing in a big way. It's clear lots of things have to change whether we want them to or not, both politically and economically. I think the Reagan years have taken us to a certain extreme edge, and now a lot of other things are anxious to bust loose, and there'll be a whole new level of cultural stirrings. It's not that old culture anymore. There's another culture waiting to happen."

Sellars is sticking to the festival concept he offered at a Sept. 26 press conference: a heavy concentration of work from Asia and Latin America, reflective of Los Angeles' ethnic mix. Although a Latino-Asian festival had also been planned by Fitzpatrick, Sellars sees a third element--Africa.

"African dance and music are absolutely crucial and central," he says, "and nobody needs to be told about it, although people haven't seen much of it. But theater traditionally belongs to people on the underneath, who are for one reason or another oppressed, and it's their way of finding a national voice when they have no other alternatives. So you find theater that's made from scratch."

Tibetan music draws him as well as Mongolian voice. "One of the great attractions of the job to me is that now I can go to Tibet because Tibetan music really interests me and I want to find the right group. It's a beautiful old ancient tradition that has to do with the healing arts and is one of the really pure ethnic traditions left."

He also describes himself as being wired into Japan where he spent months visiting his mother who taught high school English there several years ago (now she teaches in Vienna) and where he trained with great kabuki masters.

In addition, he has also traveled extensively in the Soviet Union and, at Harvard, read the Russian dramatists. Like Fitzpatrick, Sellars longs to bring a group like the Rustavelli Theatre from Soviet Georgia to the festival. He intends to do more artistic exploring in China. However, Sellars adds a new element: cultural exchange.

"The Los Angeles Festival is a wonderful platform to initiate really significant cultural exchange from behind the Iron Curtain," Sellars says. "I don't know how quickly it can happen because the wheels grind fine and small in communist bureaucracies. There's a lot of Polish, Czechoslovakian work, Soviet work, there are a lot of Chinese, Vietnamese works--lots of things where I feel there is an obligation to learn more about those that are officially on the other side, and to go beyond the official redbaiting rhetoric. Excuse me, there are people there, and what are they thinking?"

"Theater really is the only place left for politics. In politics now, candidates really can't speak with much complexity. Everybody's simplifying the issues and pretending they're a little simpler than we all really know they are. Everything gets boiled down to a slogan. And what I can do in theater is present a political idea in its complexity again. I don't have to hope everybody loves me. It's perfectly fine if people disagree with me."

His "Nixon"--a "heroic work" based on President Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972--"pirouetted to mind" at a New Hampshire summer festival in 1982. Sellars was directing Haydn's "Armida," in which he suggested Vietnam with army fatigues and a Viet Cong poster. He had already done Handel's "Saul" alluding to Nixon and Watergate and was considering mounting one of the Cultural Revolution ballets. While "Nixon" was criticized for being too soft on Nixon, Sellars believes he didn't need to treat Watergate "because everybody dragged that in with them, so we could leave that offstage."

He paired minimalist composer John Adams, who was also in New Hampshire, with poet Alice Goodman as librettist. Then he had to convince Adams that such figures as Nixon and Chou En-lai, along with Pat Nixon (whom he views as a "classic long-suffering American wife"), Mao Tse-tung, Madame Mao and Henry Kissinger (whose character doubles as a sadistic Chinese warlord) were worthy of operatic treatment. Sellars had known Goodman at Harvard; both were in the Class of 1980.

Meanwhile, there is a second opera in the works by the Sellars-Goodman-Adams team, which now could centerpiece the next Los Angeles Festival. But Sellars says that 1989 would be a little soon for the new opera, whose theme he does not want to reveal, but "I would love to point them toward Los Angeles. Absolutely! That's irresistible."

Is the new opera also political? "Oh very, yes, " he replies with a broad grin. " 'Nixon in China' will seem extremely mild-mannered after this next one rolls around."

Its subject, The Times has learned, is the Middle East.

No Overnight Changes

As artistic director, Sellars intends to create his own work for the Los Angeles Festival. As he told the board's special search committee last summer, there is no reason why Los Angeles can't generate its own "Mahabharata."

He talks about tapping into the local ethnic communities--an idea whose time is certainly ripe considering council discontent with the last festival--and collaborations with major artistic organizations including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Music Center Opera.

"I really have to live there (Los Angeles) for a while," he says, "and that's why I can't even pretend I'm going to change the world overnight. Obviously I just don't want to arrive and deposit a bunch of things. I want to see what's germinating there first. The next festival will resemble the last one a bit just because things take time."

And that is the crux of the decision over when to mount the next festival.

As for previous festivals, Sellars calls them "a very impressive high-class selection. I have my disagreements with this and that," he says and then pauses. "That's fine, that's just taste. . . . Well, we'll have a few European imports (in the second Los Angeles Festival)." His own taste will be clearer in his second festival "when I really do shift emphases, and certain kinds of work you will not see."

There is a longer pause. "I must say I'm not interested very much by something that's 'official culture.' Basically the Royal Shakespeare Company is not exactly what I need when I get up in the morning. Thank God, that's done; people have seen it. . . . Theatre du Soleil has a very thrilling edge to it that puts it somewhere else. I tend to like things where you can really feel the heat of creation or you feel it was created under political circumstance. You feel that people are taking some kind of risks."

Sellars wants to present visual art next time around, give a larger voice to music, and offer film. "All I know is that (Los Angeles ) is the film capital of the world theoretically and to have something called the Los Angeles Festival without including film seems to me to be preposterous. I have about 500 ideas about how to do that," says Sellars, who has discussed the festival with "Blue Velvet" director David Lynch, with whom he has separate plans to do a movie, "but I haven't sorted them out yet at all.

"I have to take a few meetings," says Sellars, laughing with delight.

'Extremely Musical'

On Oct. 20, Sellars meets briefly with Music Center Opera general director Peter Hemmings, who came to Houston for the "Nixon" dress rehearsal. Music Center Opera is one of the "Nixon" presenters. On Nov. 16, Sellars has dinner in New York with Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "He has a readiness and excitement about doing a number of musical projects with us, which Fitzpatrick never had," says Fleischmann. "He's extremely musical."

Fitzpatrick pushed for Sellars' selection by the festival board: "In my mind he was always the most interesting candidate for the position. He is a genius. He has a truly original artistic vision, and an energy that is hard to find anyplace else. I also think there is a freshness about Peter. He hasn't done a festival before, but that is precisely an attractive quality. You don't want to simply recycle existing festivals.

Youthful Puppeteer

"Most people my age learned their craft in schools, in rooms with mirrors," says Sellars with obvious pride. "I was always in a room with an audience."

Well, almost. At age 6, in Pittsburgh, he wanted to be a conductor, so his father made him a baton and podium, and Sellars conducted, listening to Beethoven.

At 10, he was working weekends for Lovelace Marionettes, at the time the only permanent U.S. puppet theater. "I sold popcorn at intermission and sponged the lemon-blend off the floor after the show. Then I was promoted. I started getting $2 a weekend and pulled the curtain for a year. That's when I became so obsessed with curtains, and opening and closing them at the right time, and setting the emotional temperature. What was particularly great for me artistically, every summer Margot Lovelace would go to some distant corner of the world . . . so the first theater I ever tasted was actually quite a heady international mix. They were very plugged into a kind of avant-garde."

At 12, he was allowed to work a puppet. Meanwhile, he started his own pint-size puppet troupe with his younger sister, Juliet, and some neighbors, "so I was off and running."

As a preppy at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Sellars started doing shows with people. And for five summers he worked at Denver's Elitch Theatre, the nation's largest and oldest summer theater.

Sellars figures he did 40 productions at Andover and 40 more at Harvard. Between schools he took a year off to visit his mother on sabbatical in Paris. He wanted "to soak it all in."

At Harvard he made quite a splash. After a production of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" at the Loeb experimental theater, Sellars, a freshman, was "given for the first and last time in Harvard history" the Loeb main stage. His production of "Facade" (William Walton and Edith Sitwell) bombed. "Since the big event on the main stage of the Loeb that year was 'Oklahoma!,' I did it as sort of a corrective," Sellars says with a giggle.

A production of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" in his junior year marked "my big return to the main stage and I subsequently directed more on Loeb main stage than anyone in Harvard history. I stayed and ran the Loeb that summer, and (as a senior) did 'King Lear.' "

His "Lear," which ran a week, is still mentioned in conversations and articles about Sellars. The king, played by Sellars as a last-minute substitute, came on stage in a Lincoln convertible, and as the play evolved the car kind of came apart. "It was just that right image of that sense of power that's totally out of touch," says Sellars, "somebody who really spends his life riding in the back seat of a stretch limo with the windows up and the tinted glass who, when the tables are turned, ends up having to spend a rainy night sleeping underneath the car because he's locked out."

Sellars was a senior when Robert Brustein of American Repertory Theatre spotted him and had him direct Gogol's "Inspector General." "It was spectacular and was received very well," says set designer Adrianne Lobel, who worked with Sellars at the Yale Drama School and later on other productions including "Nixon." "It started us off."

In 1981-82, Sellars set Handel's "Orlando" in the Everglades near Cape Canaveral, Fla., and on Mars for the American Repertory Theatre. It ran for 40 sold-out performances and won him national attention.

In 1982, he was to have directed Vanessa Redgrave doing Jean Cocteau's narration of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But the symphony canceled performances, claiming it had received threats of violence because of Redgrave's pro-Palestinian views. Redgrave sued the orchestra and Sellars testified in court on her behalf.

In January, 1983, he was told privately that he would be a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant recipient. It came the week before he was fired from directing "My One and Only," and that, says Sellars, saved him from agonizing about his judgment.

"I think people were genuinely scared of what I was doing," Sellars says now. "Here was this 25-year-old kid directing this big Broadway musical, a $4-million deal."

In the spring of 1983 he staged "Mikado" for Chicago Lyric Opera with the curtain rising on a huge Northwest Orient Airlines sign, and the production, says Ardis Krainik, general director, did "phenomenally well." His "Mikado" also showed a Japanese board room, with men dressed in identical Brooks Brothers suits, Nikons around their necks, a plethora of Sony, Datsun and Seiko ads outside, and gave new meaning to the verse, "We are the gentlemen of Japan." "He's an absolute genius at political satire," Krainik said.

Sellars opened La Jolla Playhouse late that June with Brecht's "The Visions of Simone Machard." By that time he was also director of Boston Shakespeare Company.

Then the Kennedy Center and the American National Theater beckoned.

After three controversial years, Sellars and the Kennedy Center parted by mutual consent. Many expected a much longer run.

"I really decided I wanted to move on," says Sellars. "It was really my decision, because it just didn't feel like it was the right time or the right place."

Kennedy Center Chairman Roger Stevens says: "He was unhappy some of his stuff had not been well received by Washington audiences. He said to me, 'I have offers from all over the world and all over the country,' and I said, 'Why don't you take them?' "

A Busy Year

Sellars knew he would land on his feet, and with a grin on his face. Although his Kennedy Center contract ended in May, "This has been the busiest year of my life," he says.

"Nothing really has ever gone wrong. It always turns out the next step just presents itself. It's not investment banking where something's wrong if you're changing jobs a lot. That's what theater is about--constantly working with a new set of people, in new places doing things. That's sort of what Moliere did; he never did stay put too long."

Los Angeles Festival was a perfect mix, allowing Sellars to go on the road searching for groups to present while directing other projects, and giving him "stability. I'm 30 years old. And it's time to . . . settle down." Still, "my line of work is nomadic."

The next festival budget is far from settled. Despite the stock market crash and the fact that the $2 million that the Amateur Athletic Foundation gave to the 1987 festival was a one-time-only gift, Sellars seems to be setting his fund-raising goals even higher.

"I am really looking for a few heavy-hitters to put in $1 million apiece, and people who want to make large contributions to civic life, and then another set of sources that will fund individual productions, and another set of sources that can do more grass-roots-type funding. And I very much want to lower ticket prices and to have a free theater, as I did at Kennedy Center (at the Eisenhower Theatre he cut ticket prices in half). This last festival had to charge the ticket prices they charged just to make ends meet. Really! If you're having a populist event , please, it has to be populist! "

"I would love to have a series of events that are completely free of charge, and that seems to me an appropriate gift to make to a community and to have a community make to itself. Another thing: I'd like to see a little money go into places that weren't previously considered theaters, to fix them up and when we leave them, we leave a community with a new theater . . . in South-Central or East Los Angeles."

Fund raising is his top priority because "exciting work doesn't come cheap. One thing that just drives me crazy that keeps getting printed is that we lost $3 million when I was in the Kennedy Center. Excuse me, no , we spent $3 million, we didn't lose it; we got 25 productions for it. We paid for actors, we paid for playwrights, we paid.

"Excuse me, the arts were invented as a way to siphon off excess wealth from this society," Sellars says with a laugh. Giving to the arts is "not just going on a shopping binge where you do feel guilty afterward. It's not selfish. It's a wonderful thing for the whole community--literally a sharing of wealth."

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