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The legendary Robert Wilson (Einstein on the Beach, CIVIL warS, The Black Rider) is one of the most visionary theater artists of our time. Filmmaker Katharina Otto-Bernstein's richly provocative and moving portrait delivers a surprisingly candid look at Wilson's troubled and lonely childhood, his early learning disabilities and his fascination with the downtown New York avant-garde scene of the late '60s. What emerges is a life full of impressions, colors and rhythms, revealing how Wilson's early hardships ultimately shaped his groundbreaking aesthetic vision. Features a lively mix of interviews, including musician David Byrne, writer Susan Sontag, singer/songwriter Tom Waits, composer and collaborator Philip Glass and opera star Jessye Norman.
 

 Waiting for Mr. Wilson
      

“How long is this going to take?,” Bob Wilson asked impatiently, after making me wait for two hours (eight months pregnant) before embarking on our first interview. At the time, we both would have been surprised at the answer—“It will take seven years.”

When you work with Bob you wait a lot. He is a notorious workaholic who constantly overbooks his schedule and then forgets his appointments. It is not unusual for him to direct 18 different theatre productions, worldwide, at the same time. Consequently, he is never stationary; like a shark, he is always on the move. His home is the stage and international airports are his backyard. He is famous for missing planes and being tardy. In fact, having a shooting schedule is a sheer waste; you are better off carrying a camera at all times, so you are ready when the maestro is in the mood.

In “Wilson World,” ordinary life is instantly suspended and everything takes on a surreal quality. Bob doesn’t distinguish between life and art. Even our first encounter was most bizarre.

What are the chances of meeting one of the world’s leading stage directors in your own bathroom? Pretty slim, but that is how we met, eight years ago—Bob and I. “Hi, I am Bob Wilson,” he said. “Do you have a cigarette?” I had a cigarette, back then.

As a European, I grew up with the name Robert Wilson. I saw his productions of The Black Rider and Time Rocker in high school and it is fair to say that once you have witnessed a Wilson production, you will never forget it. Our drama teacher at the time also told us that Robert Wilson was some kind of mystery man who never explained his work. “I make theatre, not meanings,” I believe was the famous quote.

Eight years ago, however, I was more interested in solving the mystery of what Robert Wilson was doing in my bathroom. He didn’t look very mysterious; he actually looked rather nice and friendly. He lit the cigarette, made himself comfortable on the rim of the tub and explained that a friend had brought him along. “So, what are you up to?” he asked me. I blushed and mumbled something about researching a project on artists and their muses. “Oh great,” he said, “you should make your film about me. I have the best muses.” The autistic Christopher Knowles and the deaf mute Raymond Andrews were the inspirations for such milestone productions as Einstein on the Beach and Deaf Man Glance. Some theatre historians have argued that Wilson is presenting them as his alter ego on stage, since he himself didn’t speak until the age of five. “I heard you don’t talk about yourself,” I replied. Wilson responded, “I don’t, but maybe I should. Let’s try and do something.” This is how our journey began—so casual, so impromptu and so surreal.

Five hours after the first interview, my subject had to drive me to the hospital, where I delivered my first child. Fourteen months later, number two arrived. Needless to say, Bob and I have talked a lot about children and childhood since then. We also talked about America, about expectations and careers, success and compromise, creativity and courage.

Who could have anticipated that the sensitive, learning-disabled son of the mayor of Waco, Texas, would emerge as one of the dominant forces in international theatre today? Who would have anticipated that Robert Wilson, the mystery man, would reveal his extraordinary tale to a casual “bathroom acquaintance” and who can believe, that one of the greatest Ambassadors of American culture, a man who is celebrated as a genius around the world, is hardly known in his own country—this is truly a mystery and very surreal.