Mary Zimmerman

Mary Zimmerman photo

Photo courtesy of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater

Mary Zimmerman: I really think that the power of the myths is that they tell us over and over and over, it was ever thus, it was ever thus; people have always gone through unwanted radical change; you can't be a human being and go your whole life without it; it’s not possible but the change produces and creates things; it’s how the world is made; that death is necessarily to life. That's over and over and over, the statement of these myths.

Jo Reed: That was the visionary director Mary Zimmerman talking about her play "Metamorphoses".

Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.

Mary Zimmerman is an acclaimed director known throughout the theater world for her visually arresting and innovative work. She rises to the challenge of staging work that seems impossible and shows us how it can be done. For example, in her adaptation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses", she places the action of the play in a giant pool that occupies most of the stage. There, the gods and mortals interact with the water containing and shaping the stories that unfold.

With her lyrical storytelling and dazzling staging of works like "The Odyssey," "The Arabian Nights," "The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci," she has consistently demonstrated her ability to make the imaginative leap from page to stage look effortless.

Mary Zimmerman has earned national and international recognition and received numerous awards, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship . She has received more than 20 Joseph Jefferson Awards for her creative work in the Chicago area and the 2002 Tony Award for Best Direction for her most famous work, ""Metamorphoses"."

"Metamorphoses" in currently playing at Washington DC's Arena Stage--which gave me the opportunity to speak with Mary Zimmerman. Aside from being a director who is usually working on multiple projects, Mary is also a full-time professor of performance studies at Northwestern University. I wondered how well she managed to juggle what is essentially two careers.

Mary Zimmerman:  Not very well. I feel like I’m always feeling guilty towards one or another side of my life. Feeling like I’m sort of tearing away from a student coming down the hall towards rehearsal or sort of vice versa, tearing away from rehearsal back to school. On the other hand, without doubt, the two have fed each other and in fact, "Metamorphoses" was started at school, it was a school play, and it wasn’t a workshop or anything, it was a full production, it was called "Six Myths" at the time, and you know then it’s gone on through a whole bunch of theaters and end up on Broadway, etcetera, etcetera and it was a school play. I was a professor directing students. I believe it was 1996 and then we did it two years later at the Looking Glass Theater Company, that was its first professional production in 1998 here in Chicago and it was meant to run about five weeks and it ran eight months. At that time we were an itinerant theater company, you know, we didn't have a regular season where the next show was coming in and the space was available, so it just kept-- it just kept running and then it went off in the next two or three years to I think three regional theaters and then it went to Second Stage in New York and then it went on to Circle in the Square in New York.

Jo Reed:  Well, I think we should take a moment to explain that "Metamorphoses" has a large pool as the physical and also thematic centerpiece of the stage.

Mary Zimmerman:  Yes.

Jo Reed:  And did a pool figure in the original 1996 production as well?

Mary Zimmerman:  The pool figured in with the conception of the show; I did not have the idea to do, you know, let’s do some Greek myths, hmm, how should we do it. It was I’m going to do Greek myths in water. I’d originally wanted to stage "The Odyssey" in water. I’d staged it on dry land but I’d always wanted to stage it on water. And then I was going to do something at school and I thought you know what, I’ll just audition this idea and I’ll just do this little show with my students; I’ll just make a little show with Greek myths, it’s the same maritime culture. "The Odyssey’s" very maritime obviously and it has everything to with the idea of change and transformation that all of these myths that are about and creation which all of these myths are about and so I’ll just try that and then it just took over; it became its own thing; it was so sort of obviously successful; the marriage between the idea of the water and the content of the stories and also because of the way I make shows, I don’t write a play in advance.

Jo Reed: Well, when do you write the play?

Mary Zimmerman: I only start writing once we’re in production, once we’re in rehearsal. The set’s already designed, it’s already cast and I go in with no script and I write every night in the small hours of the night before the next rehearsal. I’m not improvising with the actors, it’s the same act as playwriting, except its time frame is superimposed on top of the time frame of rehearsal and this is how I’ve done every show I’ve ever done except one.

Jo Reed: It's such a short time frame. Why do create the play this way?

Mary Zimmerman:  I do it that way so that there's a very strong marriage between the environment of the show, the physical production and how it’s imagined and the script. The script isn't the agent of design, it’s responding to design. It’s most true in "Metamorphoses", since I knew I was doing it in water, I picked myths that had something to do with the water or could be amplified by the water or had something to be brought out by the water that could use the water either in sort of literal ways as the ocean or as a symbol of overwhelming grief or sexuality, or a transformative property, the way water’s used cross culturally that way. The script was made in the shadow of the set, which is the opposite of the conventional way when you start with the extant script, you know, you start with a Shakespeare play, you see what the script demands and the set tries to provide it although it’s often reconceptualized and inflected in interesting ways, but in this case the setting is informing as are the performers. I write for them, for their particular personalities, for what they're good at; if they can sing, I do a song; if they're very funny I make sure they get to be very funny, it’s made for the circumstances that are actually already there and happening.

Now mind you, everything I do is based on a text; it’s based on a story; I’m not going in making up a plot; do you know what I mean, though often I have to figure out a plot and make it work on stage or work in two hours or whatever, but it’s not a free fall, I don’t just cast some people and say let’s make up a story.

Jo Reed: How do you cast the actors that you work with?

Mary Zimmerman: Well, I have to write some false auditions, they're called sides, little scenes, which may or may not end up in the show. They read just like they would for "Hamlet" or anything else, but then I have these little group callbacks where I have them in groups of 8 to 10 come in the room and I just go through a series of really silly things with them, physical things that I always feel every time I do it, okay that's the last time I’m ever doing that, I’m too old and it’s too stupid, but actually it’s so revelatory and it’s so helpful. But mostly it’s just to get them off their guard and to see what they're like in the room. It’s not a very competitive environment, it’s sort of hilarious the things that we do just to get them to relax and then after that they actually read again, have a proper, what’s called a call back, read a second time. But I must say that in every show I do, I have to have at least one person and really usually I have about two-thirds persons that have worked with me in this way before and because here in Chicago I work really exclusively with The Looking Glass Theater Company which I’m a member of or at the Goodman Theater which doesn't have a standing acting company but is here in Chicago. I've been working with the same people, over and over and I call them my old goats because I always heard that that racehorse, Sea Biscuit, to be less nervous needed this old goat in the stable with him. The new actors who have never done this process with me before and are often very, very game, they wouldn’t be there if they weren't, but they're very, very nervous too. They don’t know what’s going to happen or what they're going to end up sayin, you know or anything, having the presence of people who have been through this with me, now some of them, 12 or 15 different productions, is quite calming. They can go out for a drink afterwards and say, you know, was there something?  And they can get- they can get reassured. You know and just the energy of the people who’ve done it with me is so much calmer and normal and it reassures them.

There's not a lot of playing around or messing around; I think some people coming into the process or who’ve heard about my process think that it’s very carefree, and playful, and let’s roll around on the floor; it’s not at all. I make a play in four weeks, which is the time you're given to rehearse any play, except I’m writing at the same time. There's no time for that. In fact, I remember once coming in and shoving pages into people’s hands and then starting to say to them immediately and one of the actors said, "Mary can we read this through first?" I didn't even let them read through the three pages. Whereas normally when you're doing a Shakespeare play, it might be two weeks with some directors before you stand up from the table, you know, you're just sitting there, studying, talking, talking, talking but I feel like I’m trying to tell a story through image just as much as I am through words and so I'm always leaning into that and I often pick an episode or a chapter or a part of a poem or whatever it is because I know how to stage it, because I have an idea how to embody it.

Initially rehearsals can be very short; an hour, an hour and a half and the time I need in between rehearsals is long and then those ratios shift, you know, they cross each other through the course, the course of rehearsals so the rehearsals get longer and longer as there’s more material, I have less and less time in between, but there's less and less to accomplish as well.

Jo Reed: "Metamorphoses" happened to open in New York City right after 9/11.

Mary Zimmerman: Yes, we were in New York rehearsing for Second Stage and our first preview was September 16th, 2001 in New York. And you hear from school on the term catharsis as a theoretical construct and you don’t quite know if you've experienced it or if you believe it but twice in my life I’ve felt it and you know I believe catharsis is defined as the purging of pity and terror through identification with the character, the story and there were certain lines, certain events that happened in "Metamorphoses" that were so piercingly immediate that I was sort of shaking, you know, in the back row like here we go, what’s going to happen when they say these lines. Because the play starts on a fairly light or neutral sort of note but the first full story that is told  - "Alcyon and Ceyx" - you know, there’s man and wife who love each other very much and on a perfectly sunny day he goes essentially off to work; he wants to go consult in a far off oracle and the wife is a little apprehensive; she doesn’t want him to go, but then he’s sailing along and out of the blue sky, out of nothing, disaster; a storm and within moments he’s, he’s killed but then the really harrowing thing is that as he’s drowning he prays to the God just one thing, that his wife find his body and then we cut to her and she’s sleeping on the shore so she’ll see his boat return as soon as possible and she doesn’t know what’s happened of course and so the Gods take pity on her because she’s waiting and waiting and send a dream of her husband down to her in his form played by the actor who plays her husband of course and they have this encounter in the water where he tells her I’m dead and you, you have to let it go. So you know, the difference in being in New York on 9/11 and anywhere else in the world and I think anyone would tell you this or if you were there yourself is the presence of the search was all around; it was everywhere; the search. And the hope against hope; the hope against all knowing the truth that someone was going to walk back in the door and everywhere, everywhere have you seen, have you seen, have you seen, and overhearing conversations on the street, and being asked on the street and the little memorials and soon the search posters turned to memorials and all of that, so that was so in the air.

But I think the reason that the play works towards being comforting even though it presents tragedy and you know this is what the philosophers and Aristotle are trying to explain, there's something-- I don’t know how to say this. When you watch a show you're both inside it and outside it. Inside it, you're feeling it, you're- you're with it, you're experiencing that pity and terror, but there's this outside part that knows that this is a repetitive act and that it is going to happen again and again, and then I think that's triply enforced when it’s an ancient text and you know that this story has been told for 5,000 years and it makes you back up the lens of your life; it pulls you back from the tumult of the wave that you're in, of the surf that you're in in your life, to see that there’s the whole ocean carrying every wave to shore and then I think for me, to stretch that idea even a little bit more, the curtain call is a symbol of the resurrection and that's why it’s always only young people who deny an audience member a curtain call or are grim during the curtain call because they want to show how serious they are and how serious everything is. The smiling and the reappearance of everyone after the trauma, after the fiction, to show that the trauma was passing, was a fiction and the greeting and acknowledging of the audience is such a kind of reunion, a kind of ecstatic reunion and I think that works on a very deep level with audiences. I also think that that pity and terror and all that, it’s a communal experience, you are in a group of people who without words, because audiences are very polite and very silent and sit in the dark and face one direction and sort of do as they're told a little bit, and in exchange for that, they're offered an experience that's very immediate and vivid and hopefully very funny, and entertaining, and important in some way or provides idea, moves them but then there’s a release of that at the end where we’re suddenly in the same, in the same room together. But aside from all of that kind of fancy talk about that, I really think that the power of the myths is that they tell us over and over and over, it was ever thus, it was ever thus; people have always gone through unwanted radical change; you can't be a human being and go through your whole life without it; it’s not possible but the change produces and creates things; it’s how the world is made; that death is necessary to life. That's over and over and over, the statement of these myths. But I also feel that every single play you go and see or acts of representation always affirm life because someone or some group of people has studied it and practiced and rehearsed for you to give you this little simulacrum of life, of nature, and that's an act of devotion. That's, that's a worshipful act.

Jo Reed: As we said "Metamorphoses" Ovid's stories and you spoke about how you selected the stories that you adapted based on the imagery you could imagine and also on the cast you were working with. But what drew you to Ovid's stories to begin with?

Mary Zimmerman: When I was a child after I’d consumed every possible fairy tale book that I could I turned to my mother’s library and she had Edith Hamilton’s mythology sitting there. And I looked at those little pen and ink drawings which anyone who knows that book I’m sure remembers and they just held me. And myths felt to me like somehow serious and dangerous fairy tales, like real fairy tales. I sensed the psychological content and the adult content when I was very little. And there was another experience. Both of my parents were professors and we lived for a time in England and I had a teacher, I was in first grade, who read us "The Odyssey" which I’m sure was in a children’s version every afternoon, late in the afternoon. And she showed us pictures based on "The Odyssey". And I mean I was just so taken by that thing. And I theorized it sometimes and said, you know, I was an American girl far from home myself on an island but I don’t really think that’s it. I think it was all of the enchantment and the adventure. You know, it was just so, so gripping. And all of my life I’ve lived with one foot in that fantastical realm of voyages and adventures and transformations and years long waiting to return or lost loves and all of that. I so love that artful fantastical and entertaining world that I have to sort of make three dimensional for myself to inhabit. All of my joys and rehearsal and preproduction, I’m not, I know this sounds strange, I don’t feel like a theater person. I don’t like opening nights. I hate dressing up. I don’t like the competitive feeling in theater sometimes. I don’t like any of that. I don’t like any of that. What I really like is rehearsal. It’s figuring out how to stage something that’s impossible. I’m really drawn to staging things that are impossible to stage in a theater. Film can do it extremely well. Novels or you can draw anything in the world. You can say anything in the world and make that image. But that theater is so weighted in reality. It so is what it is that I love trying to figure out how to make that image happen. A storm at sea or someone turning into a bird or people flying or a parade of camels or any number of things, that’s just the catnip to me. And most of my solutions are super easy and really not much more sophisticated or as sophisticated as a child in the backyard. You know, Willa Cather, I’m from Nebraska so I’m a Cather fan, said, "I’ll never be the artist I was as a child." And I know exactly what she means but I try to be.

Jo Reed:  I’d like briefly to talk about "Eros and Psyche" which doesn’t come from Ovid and why you chose to include that?

Mary Zimmerman:  Yes. I wanted to do "Eros and Psyche" even at school but I couldn’t figure out how to do it because it really is filled with plot. There’s really a lot of action and a lot of incident. And if I were to sort of fully embody every moment of it, it would be disproportionately large for the show. So it’s the one difference, or one of a couple of big differences, between the original school show and then the form the show’s in now, was the addition of "Eros and Psyche" because I hit upon the idea, "Oh, I can just have people talking about it." And I can concentrate on the one thing that I want to get to which is based on that Edith Hamilton book line drawing of Psyche pulling the curtain aside and looking at him.

Jo Reed:  And Psyche was forbidden to see Eros?

Mary Zimmerman: Yes.

Jo Reed: Even though they were made to be lovers?

Mary Zimmerman: Yes, they're married. Yes. They’ve been lovers in the dark, et cetera. But she is not supposed to look at him. And then, of course, her curiosity and also her sisters tell her, "Well, he’s a monster, it’s a monster you’re married to."  So she feels she has to look at him.

Something about that moment is so galvanizing to me. And this idea in the myth, Psyche means, the word psyche means the soul. Why is it forbidden for the soul to look directly on love? I don’t even know what that means. I’ve been doing this show for however many years and off and on and the mystery of it still holds me. There’s something about it that feels very psychologically weighted and important and true but I don’t think I know the end of it. I don’t think I do. But I was galvanized by that image as a child, just galvanized by it. And I wanted to do it. I wanted to embody it. I wanted to see it embodied and I hit upon the idea I’ll have two people talking about what happened, and it sort of climaxes at the moment where she’s there at this little floating raft looking down at this winged, naked figure of Eros. Something about that is perpetually sad and beautiful and loving. I don’t know. It just, it just has always held me. So that’s why I went for it. I think I can say on a surface level, one of the things that myth is saying is that the appearance of things is deceptive. And the appearance of things in a way might actually prevent love. But when you’re really seeing with love, you’re seeing through surface.

Jo Reed:  It was so moving and so beautiful…

Mary Zimmerman:  And a lot of the ideas about Eros in there I have to credit very loudly James Hillman and an essay of his in a collection called "Blue Fire" about Eros. Those ideas,that explanation of Eros is from him. I’m like a little magpie, you know, and I go towards these little texts I love. Other shows of mine are much more my own idiom. But this is an early show and I must give credit to all of these thinkers and writers about these myths before me. I think of myself as primarily a director, more than a writer, I’m an adapter and I must give credit always to these really brilliant people who have enlightened my thinking for 20, 30 years about literary texts.

Jo Reed:  And as you say, there’s a reality to theater and there’s a practicality to it too.

Mary Zimmerman:  Yes.

Jo Reed:  What special challenges are there to having actors perform in water and having to do these quick changes often when they’re sopping wet…

Mary Zimmerman:  Yes. It is massive. I mean the theater has this material reality. Things are actually heavy. You know, if you want to bring something on stage it’s actually heavy and that’s true in all shows, all live production. But when you add, I don’t know how many gallons of water it is, this gigantic pool of water, you’re adding you know an exponential level of difficulty for just us little theater folk. You know, we’re not like giant Las Vegas spectacle folk. We’re just little theater folk. And you’re right. Well, let me put it this way, since the first time we did it in 1996, it’s traveled such a distance in how we manage the backstage and what we know about the backstage. The show was hellish to perform in the early days. We didn’t have doubles of costumes so they were pulling on wet clothes that they had warn earlier in the evening that were clammy and cold. We didn’t understand how to keep things heated back stage initially. We didn’t know how to keep the water clean and as warm as we now do and all of the methods and procedures for that. I mean the pool is…it’s tended during the day by a crew a little bit and it’s just monitored relentlessly for its pH content and its heat and we’ve just figured out all of these methods. The pool remains covered all day. It has a motor running that’s heating and filtering it. And then we pull that cover off literally ten seconds before we open the door for the house to come in because from that moment on we have to cut the motor because it’s noisy - from that moment on the pool is losing heat. We now have systems in place by it starts so warm that it’s absolutely fine through the end of the show. But in the early days we just didn’t have that powerful of a heater and stuff. We didn’t know what we were doing and it was just hell by the end of the show how cold they were. Imagine that and your acting, you know. And then back stage we have these walkways which are made of these rubber matting that sort of drains water away. It can get very slippery. The clothes, you know, you can’t just use any material that you’d like to build the costumes for "Metamorphoses". It can’t be anything dyed. It’ll just bleach out. It obviously has to be clothing that you can put in water which is really limiting. And that you can wash nightly and twice on show days and not just fall apart. And actually a lot of materials have advanced since we started this show that has given us a wider range of things we can use. You know, it’s not your mother’s polyester any more. And there’s like bamboo fabric and things like that that we can use.

Jo Reed: I have to also ask you about the opening of "Arabian Nights." I saw it, again, at Arena Stage…

Mary Zimmerman:  Mm-hm.

Jo Reed: …theater in the round.

Mary Zimmerman:  Yes.

Jo Reed:  And you come in and you sit down…

Mary Zimmerman:  Yes.

Jo Reed: …and you see this bumpy white canvas that’s taking up almost the full stage.

Mary Zimmerman:  Mm-hm.

Jo Reed:  And the way it begins is the canvas is ripped off and there are all of these carpets rolled up and it becomes this choreography of unrolling the carpets.

Mary Zimmerman:  Yes.

Jo Reed:  That had to be timed perfectly but it was amazing.

Mary Zimmerman:  Thank you so much. Yes, there’s endless pillow tossing and lamps lowering and coordination. You’re right it takes a ton of rehearsal. But if I may say, when we first did "Arabian Nights" which is even older that "Metamorphoses" that show, when the audience came in it’s true that the carpets rolled up in the center, but there was no white tarp over it and no bare bulb hanging down. When we returned to the show it was post-two-Gulf Wars. And I felt that the audience could not walk into a house that was all ready in this romantic version of, you know, old Arabi, you know what I mean? Like the fantasy, which is "Arabian Nights" it’s definitely even for Arab people has that quality, of course, it’s enchanted. But I wanted a starker beginning. And I wanted the act of making us go to that enchanted place to be deliberate and visible so that we see it is a creative fictional place. It’s not the contemporary geopolitical situation. It’s a created, fantastical place. And I wanted to name that and own that. So hence, this bare light bulb that’s hanging over it and the first thing that happens is two drummers come on and one of them puts one of those beautiful filigreed lamps around the contemporary light bulb and then they strike their drums and that thing raises up and other lanterns lower and we make that colorful world. But what you first come into is a gray and sort of white world, an empty and barren world. So that we see that it’s an act of construction. I don't want people thinking that we can mistake that fantasy world for the real world. I wanted to show it being, being constructed as a construct of human imagination.

Jo Reed:  Why do you think theater has the power to transform people?

Mary Zimmerman:  Well, it might be a kind of sympathetic response in that the actors are transforming themselves into other characters in order to tell stories every night. Maybe that’s it. I know it transforms for a while. I don’t know if it’s permanent or if it has to keep reiterating itself. And I do think you’re talking about personal transformation. You know, I think works of art, stories, cultivate empathy. I’ll leave it at that. You identify with characters with people from different from you and it’s a practice of empathy. I think it cultivates empathy. And I’m a little worried, that if reading is lost or going to plays which is a sustained kind of concentration and length of time with character, with story that that empathetic quality may be lost or not as enriched as it can and should be.

Jo Reed:  Yes, aside from empathy I think both reading and theater also demands an imaginative "we."

Mary Zimmerman:  Yes, you’re right. It’s an agreement. We’re going to agree to fall into this. And especially reading, you know, what’s in front of you are little symbols of black ink on a white piece of paper but you step through that surface. And, you know, every child I think when they understand that this sentence isn’t just a sentence, it’s a magic carpet to somewhere else is a very important moment. Rudyard Kipling who I’m working with now writes about that in his autobiography the moment that he understood that this is was a door, not a sentence, but a door into somewhere else and how reading saved his life and childhood. And I think it functions that was for a lot of people.

Jo Reed:  And just very briefly, in closing, what are you working on now?

Mary Zimmerman:  Well, I guess I’ve been talking around it. I’m working on a project, "The Jungle Book" which uses the music and songs from the Disney movie and then also is trying to inflect it with a little bit more of Kipling, although Kipling and the Disney movie are so far apart that it’s a bit difficult. And that’s produced at the Goodman Theater here in Chicago. It’s my next project. I go into in rehearsal the end of April and be over the summer.

Jo Reed:  Thank you so much, Mary Zimmerman…

Mary Zimmerman:  Thank you so much.

Jo Reed: I appreciate it.

Mary Zimmerman:  Thank you very much. Thank you.

Jo Reed:  You’re welcome.

That was director Mary Zimmerman, talking about her play, "Metamophoses."

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Mary Zimmerman discusses her approach to creating a play. [30:38]