Mary Zimmerman Doesn't Read Her Reviews

So What Else Is New

By: - Oct 06, 2011

Zimmerman Zimmerman Zimmerma

Charles Giuliano How did you become so involved with music?

Mary Zimmerman I’m not a musician at all. For every show I’ve ever done I’ve hired a composer. Each show should have its own music. Not to say that they were musicals. But they always had some songs and a lot of incidental music. A lot of the shows I do, these adaptations, as you pointed out, have a lot of transitions and locations. Moving from somewhere to another. Music is always helpful in that.

The opera is something I was asked to do. I was given the offers and thought it was very challenging. Yes, I can follow along in the music but I am not a musician.

CG Did it intimidate you?

MZ Of course. At the Met I am working with the greatest singers in the world. On the planet. They also know these operas intimately. They have been singing them since they were eighteen in school. They have a lot of knowledge about them. I’m pretty good in French. My sister lives there. She married a Frenchman. I didn’t have any Italian and had to cram that into my head as best I could. Constantly translating and constantly asking.

The scale of opera and the schedule in which you rehearse is really difficult. There’s not much time. You have almost no time with the chorus. When you do have time with them it’s extremely pressured. The doors open and 80 people come in. You have them for two hours with a twenty minute break. You have to accomplish so much with them so fast.

With La Sonnambula I said I’m not doing this unless I have more time with the chorus. They gave me a week of extra time. That opera is so much about the village. How the village is responding. In my production it’s about that room. The village is in the rehearsal room and I needed a lot of time with them. I love choruses and I love the Met chorus.

Over and over I hear from theatre people that they do not read reviews. I am compiling a catalogue of answers to that question. As a critic I find it somewhat insulting as it tends to negate what we are doing. At its best criticism serves as a connection between the artist, the work and the audience.

MZ Would one read a critic on one’s wedding? Would you read a review of your wedding?

CG I would love to read a review of our wedding. It was an amazing event with all kinds of fascinating and hysterical subplots. It was in our back yard. The minister was stuck in traffic and an hour or more late. I got roasted by my best man and dissed by my sister. The  kids we hired to serve just sat around and acted like guests. They never turned the oven on to serve the food from the caterer. We ended up with the lasagna I baked and the catered food went to the guests as doggie bags.

MZ Even if you knew that the critics were going to be unbelievably vicious, nasty and uninformed?

CG That would only make we want to read it all the more. Our wedding was so unusual and unique that I would love to see a review. Not just a review I think our wedding would make a great movie or play.

MZ Well we’re different people because I feel protective of the people I love. I feel protective of my best friends who I work with. Who I have worked with for twenty years. I don’t want to see them called names. Why would I do that?

CG Perhaps there’s a learning curve.

MZ No, there’s not a learning curve. I can articulate better for myself what’s wrong with my show. What’s right with my show. The moment we open I’m on a plane the next day. I’m not working on it after that.

CG Then why are you talking to me if I’m the enemy?

MZ I thought you were just interviewing me for an article.

CG Yes, but I’m a critic.

MZ Of course and you’re a nice human being. Of course, of course.

But if you can’t understand it I don’t think I can explain it.

What I’m about in my practice is the practice of it. The doing of it. I know this is going to sound absolutely insane. I’m not interested in the success of it. I’m interested in its success on its own terms. To me. And the feeling I know of rightness. Of being completely overwhelmed in rehearsal and performance. And to see it suddenly described from another point of view. Even if it’s very laudatory. Because I get that too. It’s not what I’m doing it for.

The point about language in my head is interfering. When I’m in rehearsal it needs to be me, my colleagues, the text, and what we’re doing. I can’t have that outside eye. That outside eye can’t know what I’m doing. It can’t hear what’s in my heart and what I’m working toward. I imagine that you’re sneering at that thought. That it’s cowardly. Or arrogant of me. People who spend their lives making up different worlds. In theatre, paintings, novels and songs do that because the real world is a little overbearing for them. It’s a little too much to take. We’re making a different world in which we’re safe.

CG Trust me I’m not sneering at all. I am a critic so of course I am interested in critical thinking.

MZ I’m interested in critical thinking too and I definitely do it about text. But I don’t feel I have to publicly express that as an opinion in a condemning or evaluative way.

CG What happens when you change hats? When you are in a classroom teaching?

MZ  Isn’t it Shaw who said “What is the artist trying to do? Did he do it? Was it worth doing?” Those are the three critical questions. The most difficult is what is the artist doing? To be able actually to describe that. To be honest I find that most critics don’t have the slightest idea how to describe that. I’ve read sentences in major publications about other shows that I would not tolerate in my sophomore’s writing. “The lights were intense and rapid.” Something like that. Here’s the thing. I’ve taken a lot of airplane rides. I would not tell the pilot how to fly the plane.

CG Often critics do that. They tell the director what should have been done.

MZ Of course. Which is why we do our best to pay no attention. We’re busy driving the plane.

CG Thanks for nullifying me.

MZ I’m not nullifying you. I’m sorry. You asked me. It’s a very useful discussion for people who know nothing about a play. You’re absolutely valid and correct to say it bored me. I hated it. I loved it. All that I can’t have any argument with. But when the critic says here’s how to fix it that’s when we get into telling the artist how to fly the plane. Criticism is an art and it does take skill and experience. It takes a long time to get good at it.

CG When we were in Boston we saw the movie Contagion which was very absorbing. This morning when I was getting ready to talk with you I read a review of the film in The New Yorker. It was a wonderful review which allowed me to relive the experience. It brought out the relevant details of the film and helped me better to focus on my own experience.

MZ Fantastic. I’m all for that. You get me wrong. I’m not trying to ban reviewers. You should review to your heart’s content. But I don’t feel compelled to read them about my own work. I don’t feel compelled to read them myself about my own work.

CG Do you read reviews of work other than your own.

MZ For years and years I didn’t. Not only did I not read mine I promised myself that I would read none. I would read about movies I guess but not about the theatre. I know what it takes to put on a play and I know what these people have sacrificed. Even at their worst I don’t want to read about them made fun of.

CG Thanks for providing another chapter for my book.

MZ As long as I get credit. What’s your book?

Based on interviews I could write a book on why artists particularly theatre people do not read critics. It’s something I hear over and over. Because I’m a critic it’s a subject that fascinates me.

MZ There’s an apocryphal story about Pollock and a film that was made of him painting that had the result of destroying him.

(Hans Namuth shot the film. The incident is alleged to have started him drinking after a period of sobriety.)

When you are working on something deeply you can’t be trying to predict what someone will say about it. Don’t mistake that for me saying that I don’t care if the audience likes it or not. I’m really working hard to make it the best show which everyone will love. I will only do that by listening to myself in a non distracted way.

Leonardo wrote about what to say when you’re painting and people come up and make comments. His advice to artists is to nod politely and pretend you don’t understand. That will get rid of them.

I am my audience. I can only do what would please me and hope that because I am also a human being it will please my audience. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m happy when it does and sad when it doesn’t. It makes me feel why am I so different than other people if it is so pleasing to me and to other people it is not.

As a director it’s not like painting a picture or writing a novel. You’re leading a team of upwards of hundreds of people. They follow you. At the Met it’s not a hundred it’s more like 1,700. If you count the staff of that building. The backstage crew is 85. On stage you’ve got 120. Then the orchestra. You’ve led them down a certain path and persuaded them. We’re all on board. You want that to be a happy sail for them. You want it to be worth their while.

CG How daunting is that?

MZ It’s very daunting which is why not many people do it.

CG What does it take?

MZ Compulsion. Neurotic compulsion. To create worlds that are plausible and beautiful as well as alternate. It’s a drive. For me it’s a drive for certain stories, adventures and certain romantic epic tales. I love them. All my life I’ve lived half in them. To the degree that I have to embody them I have to live inside them. My make believe world has to become material and dimensional.

CG It sounds like a bit of madness.

MZ Of course. But if you are truly crazy you can’t do it. There’s so much practical consideration and people skills. In the theatre in particular there are a great deal of practical considerations. Theatre is just a box and you have to figure out how to do something in it.

CG I don’t know much but talking with you I feel that now I know more. For me the artist is always the primary source for coming to know the work.

MZ For a critic that’s a good position to take. From the artist’s point of view we often feel “The critic doesn’t like me.” I love Anthony Tommasini. He always says “To my taste” or “To my mind.” “Other people love this but I don’t care for it.” He acknowledges that this is my opinion or my point of view. Some critics eliminate that and they speak as though they are St. Peter at the Gate.

CG When I come to the theatre I can’t say that I understand Candide. It’s complex and multi valent. It functions on many levels. I would be false to claim that I understand it or even have a handle on it. It mystifies me. I grapple with it and would like to convey some of that sense of struggle to the reader. Bad theatre I too readily understand and I feel that I know too much about it.

You’re ahead of it and just bored by it.

CG I’m not reviewing Candide because we attended a preview (not open to review) and I am instead doing this feature. But if I did write a review I would say I haven’t a clue what Candide is about but it’s a beautiful production and go see it.

You really don’t have a clue what it’s about. I could tell you what it’s about.

CG There are levels and levels and levels. Of course I could give you a synopsis and plot summary. But for me the larger question cuts back to why Voltaire terrorized Europe. What was so threatening about Candide then that we don’t so readily comprehend today?

When you see a film or play set in the 18th century if there is an attempt to present the woman as rebellious we find her reading Voltaire. It’s a thumbnail way of conveying that she’s outside the box. It is interesting to learn that Marie Antoinette had a plain bound volume of Les Liaisons dangereuses which she read in secret because it was a controversial book. The aristocratic women were extraordinarily literate and they read Voltaire. They were expected to be well read, knowledgeable, and witty. The prize guest at her salon was Voltaire.

But for many reasons that’s very French. By comparison the 18th century in England is a bore. The British had Magna Carta where France was ruled as an absolute monarchy. So all of the power and intrigue revolved around the court. It created an entirely different social and political dynamic. The British aristocrats resided on their estates and came to London in season when Parliament is in session. The French aristocrats resided in small apartments at Versailles under the eye of the king. The day revolved around the levée et coucher.

MZ History comes down to us through very select documents. It’s just a keyhole that we look at it through.

Yes but we read those documents with a careful and critical eye. If you really want to know the 18th century in France you have to read the letters of the women.

MZ There’s some famous travel journals like the wife of the ambassador to Turkey. I have read those.

CG How do you think Voltaire was seeing the world? In Candide he provides all those snap shots including El Dorado. He must have read on travel.

MZ I suppose but on the other hand it was a work of the imagination. It is said that Dickens’ London never existed. I sort of feel that way about fictional texts. They create a world of their own. They are definitely of the world. They relate to the world and share with the world. But in a fictional text there is no obligation to be really accurate.

Zimmerman on Opera
Zimmerman Directs Candide
Jungle Book Interview