“It is style that makes us believe in a thing—nothing but style,” opined Oscar Wilde. And whether it comes to a tragedy by Aeschylus, an opera by Wagner or Handel, or a comedy by Coward or Wilde or Marivaux, stage director Stephen Wadsworth doesn’t just endorse Wilde’s dictum: He believes in it ardently, passionately, with a conviction and vigor that may make him one of the most influential American stage directors of the 21st century—or one of the last devotees of a theatrical aesthetic doomed for extinction.
Wadsworth’s reverence for style has radiated from the richly handsome and revelatory mountings of the three 18th-century comedies by Marivaux he has translated, adapted and initially staged (to wide acclaim) at New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre. His unique sensibility also imbues the arboreal vision of Wagner’s Ring cycle, which he is directing for the Seattle Opera over the 2000 and 2001 seasons. And a seamless assurance of style helped make his sparkling rendition of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband a held-over, sold-out hit at both Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre.
But the much-in-demand, Seattle-based Wadsworth doesn’t equate style with a slick veneer of period decoration or ironic erudition. Far from it. Rather, his inventive classical outings at regional theatres and opera houses around the country offer a rare blend of historical fidelity, choreographic rigor, aesthetic refinement and startling jolts of psychological intensity. His productions are widely praised as both exquisite and immediate, steeped in period research yet intrinsically contemporary and highly musical—even when not a note of music is sung or played.
“To me,” Wadsworth declares, “style and content are often the same thing. You have to understand that elements of style in gesture, speech and posture are equivalent to emotions. Somehow, I’ve found that hooking up the complexity of emotional interactions with aesthetic particulars leads to heat-seeking work.”
Wadsworth’s sui generis explorations have generated a few complaints from those who find his compositions overly mannered and lacking in spontaneity, his sensibility retro. Often he will instruct actors to address the audience directly, to push their gestures and comic reactions to extremes, to “come on very strong.” But many of the director’s peers and producers openly marvel at his oeuvre, and take inspiration from it.
Some see him as an extension of the American tradition of classicism that surged in the ’50s and ’60s, through such directors as Ellis Rabb, Tyrone Guthrie and William Ball. Others believe he is utterly unique—or part of a quieter, more diffuse neoclassical regional theatre “movement” that also includes directors like Garland Wright, Mark Lamos and now Daniel Fish and Bartlett Sher.
“A lot of directors will just slap a coat of faux style on a classic,” observes Wadsworth’s longtime friend and theatrical mentor Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter. “But Stephen’s sense of style comes from deep inside, as if he’s lived it and totally understands it. He’s really a quiet radical. Whatever he does may look like it’s a perfectly classic, textbook rendition. But it actually contains layer upon layer of meaning, and turns out not to be traditional at all but truly revelatory.”
Suggests Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Tony Taccone, who is co-directing with Wadsworth an ambitious new version of The Oresteia that opens in Berkeley this month, “Stephen brings a meticulous sense of beauty, intelligence and elegance to all his work, and to the whole scene. Combined with his pursuit of emotional truth, that can be a poignant, powerful and lethal combination.”
Lethal? Radical? On the face of it, Wadsworth would hardly fit the role. Raised in a cultured household near suburban Pleasantville, N.Y., where his father was an editor for the books division of Reader’s Digest, Stephen Wadsworth Zinsser—he uses his middle name professionally—was educated at prep schools and (briefly) at Harvard University. The lean, bearded, exuberant director is an outgoing and cultivated charmer who would seemingly be typecast as an opera fop or a Wildean aesthete.
In fact, Wadsworth did portray the foppish Algernon in a student production of The Importance of Being Earnest at Harvard—”a very crucial experience,” he calls it. After dropping out of the Ivy League and moving to Manhattan, he took a job as a writer and editor at Opera News magazine—because, Wadsworth recalls, “I had all this silly encyclopedic opera knowledge inside my brain that I had to do something with.”
But Wadsworth was never the stereotypical opera snob who rejects his own generation’s pop culture. Indeed, he speaks as fervently about the profundity of the rock music of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin as he does about the scores of Handel, one of his favorite classical composers, or the classicist philosophy of director-theorist Michel St.-Denis. And the Wadsworth career path has followed an unorthodox trajectory: from his youthful stints as an amateur actor and would-be classical singer, on to journalism and opera production, and (uncommonly) from opera direction to triple-threat artistry in the parallel universe of spoken theatre.
Moreover, Wadsworth is neither a postmodern deconstructionist nor a literal-minded conservationist of the classical stage literature he painstakingly excavates. Instead, he burrows in and takes residence inside a classic, investigating it artistically and intellectually while exploring critical points of personal identification.
“Classical art became a lifeline for me when I was young,” explains Wadsworth, whose youth was marred by a series of family tragedies—mental illness, divorce, a bitter custody battle, the untimely death of a sister in a car crash. “As my world shattered around me, looking at complex aesthetic statements and artistic searches was about survival. And it was about sanity.”
Yet while his erudition is wide-ranging and his directorial choices can be (he admits) “very aggressive,” Wadsworth also considers himself a populist. “Maybe it’s unfashionable, but I am unashamedly interested in reaching the audience. I actually love the audience, and I really believe the specificity of the work, the clarity, will make it accessible. That doesn’t necessarily make me the Barry Manilow of stage directors—I’m into the highest common denominator, not the lowest. But commonality interests me more than anything else in the world.”
Commonality matters to Wadsworth, but also communion—with his audience, as well as his close collaborators, the quick and the dead.
One of his first artistic comrades was the late Leonard Bernstein, whom he met in 1981 during an interview for Opera News. Wadsworth, then in his late twenties, was surprised that the famed American composer and conductor, then in his sixties, was so engaged by him that he urged Wadsworth to pen the libretto for A Quiet Place—a sequel to an earlier Bernstein opera, Trouble in Tahiti.
“I was a complete novice, which was borne out in the result,” recounts Wadsworth wryly. “But Lenny and I had both suffered major losses—his wife and my sister—and we really connected. And to be mentored by this man of fabulous talent and experience, this intellectual companion nonpareil—that was amazing. Lenny was the first person to recognize that I knew things and looked at things in certain unusual ways. And he said, ‘Go forth and do, and never apologize for it. Do things fully and freely, and things will happen.’”
Those words were prophetic—even if the premiere of A Quiet Place, at the Houston Grand Opera in 1983, garnered its young librettist withering reviews. Wadsworth can still quote them verbatim: “I remember one German critic ended his notice with, ‘Whoever this Stephen Wadsworth is, he should go home, lay down his pen and die.’”
Fortunately, by then Wadsworth was already embarked on an opera-directing career that would send him to Milan’s fabled La Scala Opera House (to stage a less maligned version of A Quiet Place) and on to a modest hall in Milwaukee where his confrontation with the classics began in earnest.
The Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee was a shoestring company quartered in a cozy 249-seat venue, with an orchestra pit roomy enough for a dozen musicians. “That suited me fine,” Wadsworth says. “I had to learn my craft as a director, and learn it in a way that wasn’t presumptuous.”
From 1984 to 1989, Wadsworth and Francesca Zambello (another up-and-comer who also became an internationally respected opera director) served as pro bono artistic heads of the Skylight. “It was a swell lab for us,” Wadsworth says, “where we could really learn how to direct and produce.” It was there that he mounted sparkling chamber renditions of neglected but important works by Monteverdi and translated and staged luminous versions of the George Friederic Handel operas Xerxes and Alcina.
“Doing the Handel, which are the greatest theatre pieces to come out of London during the 18th century, was a really important investigation. It brought me into first-hand touch with the art of the early Enlightenment, when a new spirit of intellectual inquiry emerged. It was the beginning of my very committed relationship with that period.”
As his reputation expanded, Wadsworth also staged Mozart operas and other works for larger opera institutions beyond Milwaukee. But the next collaborator to rock his world was another rising maverick, the choreographer Mark Morris.
Remembers Wadsworth, “We did Gluck’s Orfeo together for the Seattle Opera in 1988. Mark was a tremendous collaborator, an incredibly musical person, who casts his net wide in terms of understanding the mechanics of movement in many different styles of dance. I learned so much from him about the actual disposition of bodies on stage, how they move through space, and how terribly emotional that is. It liberated me. I think it really led me to my own aesthetic.”
Orfeo also brought him into professional contact with some of the kindred-soul designers he has since worked with repeatedly—costumer Martin Pakledinaz, lighting artist Peter Kaczorowski and set designer Thomas Lynch. “The Orfeo with Morris was a brilliant production,” remembers Pakledinaz, a recent Tony-winner for Kiss Me, Kate. “I learned very quickly that Stephen understands and loves style. And more than any director I know, he has the facility to look at what you give him and use it—really use it. He wants what people wear to be beautiful but also real. That means as a designer, you can’t cheat.”
In 1991, after directing at New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera and many other major American and European opera houses, Wadsworth accepted the invitation of his Harvard pal Emily Mann to stage his first play, at the McCarter. That set off another important set of collaborations: with producer and artistic confidante Mann and with 18th-century French playwright Pierre Carlet de Marivaux.
Wadsworth had discovered Marivaux, a prominent figure in France, while immersed in the world of Handel. The writer’s romantic comedies were deeply informed by the more refined permutations of commedia dell’arte and by the economic and social tensions in the historical period that precipitated the French Revolution. His nimble, suggestive, idiosyncratic wordplay (dubbed “marivaudage”) had been considered largely untranslatable into American speech, but Wadsworth crafted his own fluid adaptations of the scripts, working first from a literal translation of The Triumph of Love by Nadia Benabid. “What I’m personally drawn to,” he stresses, “is material that’s both funny and emotionally dire—things that live on that razor’s edge of hilarity and heartbreak. These Marivaux plays are so extreme, so envelope-pushingly modern in that sense, I simply could not resist them.”
As Wadsworth immersed himself in Marivaux’s time and theatrical epoch for The Triumph of Love, he confronted the new challenge of communicating his vision to theatre-trained actors rather than singers. “Suddenly Stephen was really working with actors on a text, and able to dig for the truth of each moment,” Mann recalls. “He loved it. But he had a rocky beginning, and it wasn’t until opening night that we realized this would be a sensation.”
In opera rehearsals, Wadsworth was accustomed to giving highly detailed physical direction—down to the wag of a pinky, the arch of an eyebrow, the swish of a skirt: “Singers often want you to tell them exactly what to do because they lack acting vocabulary and training and have to concentrate so much energy on their singing. Many theatre actors have a lot of training, but are used to working from the inside-out. I work from the outside-in, as well as the inside-out.”
For Triumph of Love, he had “just three-and-a-half weeks from first rehearsal to opening night to create this fully developed, 18th-century universe. That was hard on the actors, I know. They went into previews feeling they hadn’t ‘solved’ some scenes. But I’d tell them, ‘Look, you have lots of things working for you here that aren’t your own work—I’m talking fabric choice, color, physical composition, Tom Lynch’s amazing set, Marty’s terrific costumes, down to the period undergarments, the gestural language. All you have to do is animate the character and hone the style, and within that you will find the truth.’”
Wadsworth laughingly reports that John Michael Higgins, the adroit actor who played Harlequin in Triumph of Love (and expanded on the same role in Wadsworth’s subsequent adaptations of Marivaux’s Changes of Heart and The Game of Love and Chance), wondered on opening night whether the cast and their elaborate lazzis would be booed off the stage.
But today Higgins terms his work with Wadsworth, which brought the actors and director rave reviews, “a very deep collaboration that allowed us to give Harlequin a heavily structured but improvisatory feeling. I actually find Stephen refreshingly detail-oriented. Working with him is like being given a big box of chocolates. As actors we are starved for work that’s so rich in style, in beauty, work that’s unhobbled by trendiness and topicality. We’re usually asked to exercise only a thumbnail’s worth of our abilities. But Stephen makes you use everything you have.”
Some actors, Mann acknowledges, “can’t handle Stephen’s approach.” Even Francesca Faridany, a veteran of seven Wadsworth productions (including the Berkeley Rep Oresteia) says it took her a while to appreciate Wadsworth’s precision-tool directing.
“He gave us all this incredible, very specific choreography for Changes of Heart, but then you had to go away and make it your own,” she advises. “There were times I felt like I was a puppet in a beautiful box, and there wasn’t a great deal of the actual me in there. But I eventually discovered it was quite the opposite of losing your freedom. He gives you so much to work with, it all becomes boundless.”
For his part, Wadsworth’s goal is a distilled performance style that “blends hardcore American naturalism and emotional honesty with highly stylized, highly theatricalized picture-making.” But at the core of the matter, he insists, “is the play itself. I’m a big old personality and bound to get all over everything I do. But my largest concern as a curator is to serve the vision of the creators.”
In addition to Marivaux, over the past decade the prolific Wadsworth has “served the vision” of Oscar Wilde, in twin productions of An Ideal Husband; Carlo Goldoni, in Mirandolina (his fresh adaptation of La Locandiera, for the McCarter); and Noël Coward, in the ubiquitous comedy Private Lives and the lesser-known Design for Living. “What’s important about doing Marivaux, Wilde and Coward is that, despite all the high style and hijinks, the emotional stakes are terribly high,” he suggests. “Coward is very easy to shoot down. Like Wilde, the biggest thing firing his sensibility was his gay identity, which he kept closeted in a homophobic age. But I love plays that are inextricably grounded in cultural, political, sexual and emotional issues, that speak to their own time in a deep way. And Coward’s do.”
Design for Living, mounted first at Seattle Rep and later at the McCarter, had a special significance for the openly bisexual Wadsworth, as a 1930s study of the triangular romantic relationship between two men and a woman. “I understood all the ambivalence. And there’s an anxiety there that isn’t just sexual. It’s also about the Depression, about being between world wars, about class. All that isn’t the subject of the play, but does fuel its energies.”
To capture the tenor of the piece, Wadsworth pressed his actors to “play out—speak fast, make the choreography very edgy and cubist. There was a kind of jagged angularity about it that seemed right. You know, this is not fun, rollicking comedy. It’s a spiky, angry, dangerous play that sets out to hurt.”
“The audience was sometimes very uncomfortable during Design for Living,” comments Seattle Rep artistic director Sharon Ott, a friend of Wadsworth since their Milwaukee days and his frequent producer in Seattle and Berkeley. “Of course, they also sensed the highly attuned craft there, the depth of detail and scholarship. And Stephen has a wonderful sense of comedy.”
But the discomfort, suggests Tony Taccone, is an essential ingredient in Wadsworth’s elixir, too. “His work is all about yearning, really, which is why every one of his productions ends on a bittersweet note. It’s a yearning to be more available, more open, more conscious and connected—which is as relevant to his Coward and Marivaux as it is to his Aeschylus.”
As Wadsworth’s star continues to rise, and he generates more enthusiastic audience interest along with increased critical recognition, 2001 is shaping up to be a banner year for him.
His Seattle Opera presentation of Wagner’s Ring will be completed and on the boards this summer, with powerhouse soprano Jane Eaglen again starring as Brünnhilde.
When the first two works of the epic cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, premiered last year, music critic Melinda Bargreen praised Wadsworth in Opera News for “bypassing every opera cliché to create vivid, compellingly natural theatre.” (The cycle’s final two installments, Siegfried and Gotterdämmerung, open this summer, and play in rep with the first two works.)
Wadsworth contends that his earlier experiences staging Wagner’s Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman helped prepare him to tackle the composer’s crowning achievement and bring the behemoth down to a human scale. “Most of all, this had to be a Ring about people,” he states, “because what directing is always about is people and their relationships. Concept? I have no concept—just Wagner’s concept, my own version of what he imagined.”
The main achievement of Wadsworth’s Ring, suggests Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins, “is that it brings modern acting into settings and a theatrical context which realize Wagner’s own ideas and intentions. Wagner couldn’t do that fully in his own time because he didn’t have the theatrical technology. And as far as I know, it hasn’t been done anywhere else before Seattle.”
Some memorable moments in this engrossing Ring: the blithe spectacle of the ethereal Rhinemaidens “swimming” through the air; the hearty, back-slapping camaraderie of the female warriors, the Valkyries; the subtly inflected dynamics within the family of ancient Scandinavian über-god Wotan; and such poignant intimacies as the instant when the doomed Siegmund tenderly pulls a ribbon from the hair of his beloved Sieglinde.
Pakledinaz, who created the costumes for Seattle’s Ring in tandem with Lynch’s mossy-green, Northwest-woods- and-Grimm’s-fairytales-inspired settings, considers that latter gesture to be pure Stephen Wadsworth. “It is such a beautiful, telling moment. The way Stephen used a few cents’ worth of red ribbon was just astonishing. I’m not sure he always knows consciously what he’s doing, but his instincts are impeccable.”
Says the director, “I love the moment before the big moment, or the moment just after it—those little interactions between people at delicate junctures of their lives.”
Though Wadsworth has occasionally staged a classic in modern dress, he claims he’s “no longer very interested in that.” The modernity of a production, he believes, will emerge through “the post-Stanislavskian, post-Freudian” awareness that is inherent in contemporary theatre artists. And by rooting classics in the visual aesthetic of their original period, a provocative dialectic between past and present becomes possible—”without disrespecting the author’s text or original intentions.”
This approach may be sternly tested in The Oresteia, another totemic dysfunctional family saga that Wadsworth links directly to the Ring. Both, he argues, “are about the nexus of family, government and issues of moral power, as well as the creation of a national identity. Wagner was doing that for Germany; Aeschylus was urging his own Athens toward a non-punitive idea of justice.”
The ancient Greek epic by Aeschylus is inaugurating Berkeley Rep’s new $20-million, 600-seat second theatre facility. Audiences will see the trilogy in two installments: first comes Agamemnon, which depicts the post–Trojan War return of the titular character, who is avenged by his wife Clytemnestra for the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia. Next comes The Libation Bearers (about the reunion of Agamemnon’s son Orestes and daughter Elektra, and their vengeance on Clytemnestra) and The Eumenides (Orestes’ trial for matricide before a jury of Athenians).
Here, historical fidelity is almost impossible. “We know next to nothing about how these plays were first done,” Wadsworth muses, “and there are lots of things that make them impenetrable. One is Aeschylus’ language, which among scholars is famously ambiguous, and dense enough to throw you off the trail constantly within a single speech.”
On this occasion Wadsworth is sticking to an existing English translation by the esteemed Princeton University professor Robert Fagles. And for the first time in his career Wadsworth is sharing directorial duties—with Taccone, an artist who has co-directed before (with Sharon Ott and Oskar Eustis, among others) and who is known to have a more spontaneous, democratic approach to staging.
“A lot of people who know us are wondering, ‘How will you guys pull this off together?’” admits Taccone. “Stephen likes to micro-engineer his shows and set very specific movement patterns, while I like to see what comes to the table with the actors. But we both realize we have something to learn from each other. Someone said that it’s like Stephen comes to the party in a tux, and I come naked. And that’s about right.”
Though the two men don’t agree on every aesthetic choice, Taccone insists they “share a profound sense of mutual respect, and are both very interested in storytelling—and believe me, the stories in The Oresteia are bizarre, powerful and mysterious enough to get to you in any case. What this project really requires from us is lots of trust, respect and love.”
It also has required a big chunk of time, by regional theatre standards: a nine-week rehearsal period with the 18-member cast, preceded by a 1999 preliminary workshop of the script in Berkeley. Wadsworth has been in “close, enormously helpful consultation” with translator Fagles, conferring with him often on textual edits and clarifications.
If they see the brutal but very human psychological dynamics as one entree point into the House of Atreus, Wadsworth and his cohorts are also captivated by the plays’ political and social reverberations. “This is one of the most vital, living monuments of world theatre,” declares Fagles. “It’s where tragedy begins, and where democracy begins.” Adds Taccone, “For me the issue of moving a society, a nation, a planet from reliance on revenge and savagery to a new possibility of governance is still desperately relevant. And the most radical thing is that we’re addressing this without irony. Irony and cynicism are the prevailing attitudes of our time, but they’re really not in Stephen’s artistic nature.”
Which may be one of the most remarkable aspects of Wadsworth’s aesthetic. In an age when cynical irony is paramount on one end of the cultural spectrum and reactionary sentimentality holds down the other, he seeks a sophisticated yet sincere rapprochement with zeitgeists past and present.
“The challenge is bringing the artists and audience into a fluid conversation with dense works of art that are seemingly remote to us,” Wadsworth elaborates. “Ancient Greece, the Age of Enlightenment—these aren’t just parts of Western civilization, they’re moments when the collective mind opened.”
And what classic plays will Wadsworth take a swing at when he’s next up to bat? He is preparing a new version of the rarely performed Don Juan by Molière, commissioned by Seattle Rep (where Wadsworth has a TCG National Theatre Artist Residency Program grant, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts), possibly for a 2002 premiere. And Wadsworth envisions some close encounters with the plays of William Shakespeare. Somewhat surprisingly for a fervent classicist, he has staged only one of the Bard’s works—a rendition of As You Like It, at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre.
It has not been for lack of encouragement or invitations that he has not yet had an extended rendezvous with the Elizabethans. “I think Stephen can, as his art grows and expands, move in any direction he’s drawn, and Shakespeare is a great place for him to go,” opines Mann. Ott agrees: “He brings so much consciousness and beauty to what he does—anything he does.”
As for Wadsworth, he speaks of the Bard with a customary mingling of earned confidence and endearing humility. “I’ve been very interested in the works of Shakespeare for a very long time, but just haven’t been ready to go there yet.” He pauses. “Now I’m ready.”
Misha Berson is theatre critic for the Seattle Times and a frequent contributor to this magazine.