American director and producer Robert Wilson is being celebrated right now in Paris as a worldwide tour of his groundbreaking 1976 play “Einstein on the Beach” arrives there this week.
He’s also receiving the rare honor of having a temporary installation of his work at the Louvre. Described by The New York Times as an “all-around avant-garde Renaissance Man,” Wilson is famous around the world for the distinctive and creative vision of his theatrical productions.
Paris rolling out the red carpet for a renowned artist is hardly news. What’s far more unusual is for an artist of his stature to hail from Waco.Wilson was born here in 1941. His father was prominent in civic life, serving as city attorney for several years, with short stints as city manager in 1951 and 1952.
At home, Wilson was always directing his sister in made-up plays, having her dance and sing. But in public he was shy and didn’t excel in or even like school, in large part because of a severe stutter.
Help with speech
Nothing seemed to solve his speech impediment until he met a Waco dance teacher named Byrd Hoffman. Not only was Ms. Hoffman his first real experience with an artist but she also counseled him on his stutter and somehow her advice worked wonders. It made him a life-long believer in the power of art to effect transformations in people’s lives.
Wilson graduated from Waco High in 1959 and, at his father’s urging, went off to study prelaw at University of Texas. It was a poor fit and he soon left Texas for New York to pursue his education in the arts.
As he encountered many of the avant-garde movements in New York at the time, he remained interested in the capacity of art to connect with people in unique ways. In one project he undertook while still in school, he used theater and dance techniques to reach children who had suffered brain damage or who were considered discipline problems. One of his teachers noted he had an amazing ability with children. Indeed, one of his earliest staged productions was when he was back home in Waco in 1965. He produced an avant-garde play using 10 10-year-old delinquent boys. The reviews were mixed, to say the least. His unimpressed father called it “abnormal.”
After returning to New York City, Wilson took a job at a hospital, at one point helping people in iron lungs to communicate and interact with each other without words. Doctors had never seen anything like it. In 1968 he formed an experimental performance company —of which there were scads in New York — which he called “The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds” in honor of the woman in Waco who helped him overcome his stutter.
Since that beginning, he’s mounted productions that have toured around the world and has worked with artists like Philip Glass, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, David Byrne (who once said that Wilson’s work “makes 98 percent of the other theater look hopelessly old fashioned”) and, more recently, Lady Gaga.
His work isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. His productions can strike viewers as overly long, confusing or tedious. His creativity can also come across as simply odd. But it is the case that art — even something as time-tested as dramatic performance — loses its power when it always takes the same form.
Like his work or not, Wacoans should know the name Robert Wilson and be proud of his ties to our town. Those who strive to invigorate the arts scene here can take inspiration from this native son.
David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and a Cultural Arts of Waco board member, can be reached at davidasmith.net.