A stage for Garrincha
A Brazilian hero goes through Robert Wilson’s assembly linePaula Scarpin
Translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux
“Chora, desabafa o teu peito,” crooned an Elza Soares in a dress bristling with red feathers, an enormous red turban atop her head. The six people in the nightclub fell silent. At the height of the song, “Pranto Livre” – “Quem não teve amor nunca sofreu” – the microphone cut out and the other half of the stage lit up. A barefoot Garrincha, wearing a Botafogo jersey sans club crest, began dribbling an imaginary ball in swaying motions that looked for all the world like capoeira moves. It was five o’clock in the afternoon, and at that moment a tall, grey-haired man came through the side door of the theater and interrupted the rehearsal.
The director of the play had just come in from the airport. There were ten days to go before the premiere of Garrincha – Uma Ópera das Ruas, and Robert Wilson, better known as Bob Wilson, had stepped out for a week. He’d had to go to Louisiana for an event honoring an artist friend and to the Salone del Mobile, in Milan, for the release of a light bulb that he had designed.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” said Wilson, standing at the center of the auditorium in the Teatro Paulo Autran at SESC Pinheiros, in São Paulo. “Boa tarde a todos,” assistant director André Guerreiro Lopes translated. The actors murmured a shy boa-tarde and quickly returned to their marks. Still standing, silent and inscrutable, Wilson stared at the stage for ten minutes straight. Then he gave precise instructions to the set designer and his co-director. While she carried a chair onstage and he altered the position of one of the actors’ hands, Wilson headed over to the lighting console. “Let me see the light on Garrincha. Let me see the floor where Garrincha is. Too cold. No fluorescents. Forty percent. Let me see the carousel at twenty percent.” For the next three hours, not a single line was rehearsed, and only the director’s voice was to be heard. Wilson seemed to be painting a landscape.
The director has been such a constant presence on Brazilian stages that he’s almost become a part of our theater scene in his own right: Garrincha is his ninth production in Brazil in the past seven years. Unlike the previous ones, however, this play has a Brazilian cast, a Brazilian score, a Brazilian production team, and, above all, a Brazilian subject.
By the end of the day on that Thursday, Wilson had made countless tiny alterations to the costumes – one actor was given a pair of sparkly gloves, one actress’s shoes got bigger bows – as well as to the arrangement and even the shape of most of the furniture onstage. The production, with 56 people under Wilson, has a workshop set up in the theater’s basement, set up and ready to build and dismantle furniture. He asked the tech crew to write down everything he had done and make the necessary adjustments. After a quick break, he went through the scene with the actors, recommending modifications to their facial expressions or the speed of their gestures. The dribbling of the imaginary ball, for example, would now be in slow motion.
Robert Wilson was born in 1941 to a conservative Texan family. A dyslexic child with a stutter, he was only able to express himself better when his mother enrolled him in a ballet school. Thanks to the persistent advice of his teacher Byrd Hoffman – “Slow everything down” – his communications skills took off. But Wilson was never a good student; he wasn’t drawn to any subject in particular. Upon graduating from high school, he enrolled in business administration at the University of Texas to please his father. When he started having suicidal thoughts, he dropped out and began studying architecture at the Pratt Institute in New York. Just then, that was the most daring choice he could think to make.
His professors at Pratt remember him more for his extracurricular activities, especially in dance groups, than for his aptitude for architecture. Albeit eclipsed by the dizzying experimental scene that Wilson would be exposed to in New York – in the 1960s one could still see a piece choreographed by Merce Cunningham and scored by John Cage, based on I Ching divination – architecture still offered up many tools for developing his art. On the eve of opening night for Garrincha, over dinner at one of the few restaurants in Jardim Paulistano still serving food at midnight, Bob Wilson said that when structuring a play, he still falls back on a technique taught to him by German urbanist Sibyl Moholy-Nagy. The professor, who had fled the Nazis two decades earlier with her husband László (one of the founders of the Bauhaus School), asked her students to draw a city in three minutes. “Structuring is boring, but without it I’m lost. Rules bring freedom,” Wilson said. “Many actors just don’t realize that.”
Without the support of his family since dropping out of business administration – and hence in need of a job – Wilson wound up working at an institute for children with cognitive problems. He had been hired to encourage the patients to speak, and found that he had a knack for communicating with them. His salary went towards hiring a loft, which was immediately packed with friends, turning it into a sort of polyartistic residence with a cultish air. Wilson dubbed it the “Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds” in honor of his ballet teacher.
One day in 1967, as he was leaving work, Wilson saw a police officer about to hit a black boy and decided to step in. The officer, alleging insubordination, was about to take the boy into the station. Wilson, used to taking care of children with all sorts of handicaps, soon realized that the boy was deaf – that’s why he wasn’t obeying verbal orders. The policeman didn’t seem convinced, however, and Wilson went down to the station with them. He ended up taking legal responsibility for the boy; since this wasn’t his first run-in with the police, the child would be sent to a shelter if no guardian appeared. Wilson took the boy back to his house – which, he found, was overcrowded and ramshackle – and then, on an impulse, offered to adopt him. The family didn’t think twice.
At the loft, 11-year-old Raymond Andrews was warmly received by the Byrds and soon joined in their performances. His adoptive father, struck by the boy’s nonverbal communication, created the play Deafman Glance. In the play, which premiered in March 1971 in New York, a woman in Victorian garb impassively stabs each of her children; the crime is only witnessed by her deaf son, played by Andrews in early performances.
Met with no little acclaim in intellectual circles – Susan Sontag would claim to have seen it at least a dozen times – the play went to the Nancy festival in France. After seeing it, the surrealist Louis Aragon published a letter to the then-late André Breton, proclaiming Wilson to be Breton’s heir and saying that he’d never seen anything so beautiful in all his life.
Wilson’s first Brazilian production came not long thereafter. In 1974, actress and producer Ruth Escobar invited him to put on The Life and Times of Josef Stalin, which had just premiered, at the first Festival Internacional de Teatro in São Paulo. Since the play had no lines, the dictatorship’s censors could only object to the title – and the director had no problem in putting on the play at the Theatro Municipal as The Life and Times of Dave Clark. “They thought I was some sort of a subversive,” said Wilson with an ironic grin, helping himself to more red wine over dinner in Jardins.
In the book Os Processos Criativos de Robert Wilson [The Creative Processes of Robert Wilson], Luiz Roberto Galizia devotes an entire chapter to this first Brazilian production. Since the entire cast, more than a hundred strong, couldn’t all come to Brazil, interested locals (actors or no) were invited to join the project. Then studying theater at the Universidade de São Paulo and fluent in English, Galizia split his time between interpreting between Americans and Brazilians and preparing for his own performance. In the book, he wrote that not everyone was thrilled about the collage of movements and dances driven by Wilson’s obsession with aesthetics. “A group of about 15 actors decided to call a meeting to question the validity of the play. They felt that nobody knew anything about what the play they were putting on was about. One young professional actor suggested that the group was being used as ‘puppets,’” Galizia wrote.
At twelve hours long, the play gave rise to jokes and tall tales among artists in the city. One told the story of a couple who supposedly met in the audience, went out for dinner, got a room, swore eternal love, and then came back to the play, which was still going on, where they got into a fight. By the next morning, they left the theater never to see one another again. But at least one spectator did have his life changed over the course of those twelve hours: the playwright Antunes Filho. With twenty years of directing experience under his belt, Antunes insists that Stalin was a watershed in his career. “I thought that theater was one thing, with a certain framework, a degree of realism. And it was Bob Wilson who taught me that it could be done another way,” he told me one April afternoon, sitting at the back of the auditorium in SESC Consolação, which has housed his Centro de Pesquisa Teatral [Center for Theater Research] for over three decades.
Although he continues to follow Wilson’s work assiduously, Antunes doesn’t feel that it has remotely the same impact. “He kept on with the same mode of expression. It’s difficult to change things up, you know? And I know that I’m very demanding when it comes to him. Because I depend on him, in a sense. He showed me a path, and he’s not showing me where I end up,” he said. “I go, ‘Go,’ and he stays put. I do the same thing with myself: ‘Go, Antunes,’ and I stay put. We’re so narrow, so limited. You want to be broad, but you just can’t.”
With just over a week to go before the premiere, Antunes Filho was quite curious about how Garrincha would turn out. “He’s got a huge problem there. I want to see how he’s going to get out of it,” he said. “There’s a sacred air around what he did back then, and now he’s down to earth. His Stalin was something else, but now he’s messing with our everyday life, in my vices, my realism. It’s very close to home.”
The first contact between SESC Pinheiros director Danilo Miranda and Robert Wilson came in 2009. Miranda had been named the Commissioner of the Year of France in Brazil, and one of the attractions proposed by the French was Heiner Müller’s play Quartett. Starring Isabelle Huppert and directed by Wilson at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris, the production had been a hit with critics and audiences alike. Enthused, Miranda sought out the director’s production company, Change Performing Arts.
Behind his desk at the regional administration offices for SESC, in the São Paulo neighborhood of Belenzinho, Miranda said that the pitch had been to bring Wilson closer to Brazilian theater. Similar work had been done with Ariane Mnouchkine of the Théâtre du Soleil, Robert Lepage, and Tadashi Suzuki, of France, Canada, and Japan, respectively. The 2010 partnership between SESC and Change laid out a series of showcases for Robert Wilson’s work. That year would see an exhibition of his Video Portraits at SESC Pinheiros, with life-size video portraits of models varying from a panther to Brad Pitt. His theater would only arrive in 2012. “We planned a series: first a performance featuring Bob himself, with Krapp’s Last Tape [by Samuel Beckett]; then plays using his casts, like The Threepenny Opera [by Bertolt Brecht] with the Berliner Ensemble; then a play of his with Brazilian actors, which we did with Lady from the Sea [by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Susan Sontag], with Bete Coelho, Lígia Cortez, and Luiz Damasceno – and finally a fourth production, which would be something with a Brazilian origin, with the topic, all the discussion, everything arising here.”
Danilo Miranda hedges when asked about the costs of a production like Garrincha. “Whatever figure I give you, be it 1, 2, or 10 million [BRL], it’ll certainly be higher than whatever I spend on any given playwright who’s working here. So it’ll look like I prefer to spend money on people from abroad, but that’s a very superficial way of seeing it: yes, right now I’m working with Bob Wilson, but in my day-to-day work I’ve got Antunes, I’ve got theater productions being put on every single day in each of [SESC’s] 36 centers, from Bertioga to Birigui.”
In 2015, the São Paulo SESC had a total budget of R$1.6 billion – a sum larger than all funds distributed by the Ministry of Culture in the same year. Miranda is quick to say that he spent much less on Garrincha than when he brought 90 members of the Théâtre du Soleil, who came along with 12 shipping containers of set decorations, and that the cast and production team for the play are Brazilian, which brings down costs and stimulates the local economy.
This wouldn’t be Wilson’s first play on commission. His Life and Death of Marina Abramović, for example, created in 2011 at the request of the Serbian performance artist, garnered no little fame. Racking his brain in search of other examples, Franco Laera, the Italian-born director of Change Performing Arts and Wilson’s producer for the past 25 years, recalled Letter to a Man, based on the autobiographical writings of Vaslav Nijinsky and created for Mikhail Baryshnikov. “People kept asking Misha to play Nijinsky, but he decided that he’d only do it if it were in a play of Bob’s. Because he knew that Bob wouldn’t make him imitate Nijinsky,” Laera explained.
When SESC extended an invitation to him, Laera insisted on having a Brazilian on his team. He immediately thought of ceramic artist Maristela Gaudio, a friend of his wife’s who had just returned to São Paulo after 33 years in Milan. At age 70, Gaudio had never worked on anything like Garrincha, but Laera was certain that she’d be perfect for the job. “When they told me it was going to be a production with a Brazilian topic, I felt an enormous responsibility,” she said one April afternoon in her apartment in Jardins. With a white Chanel bob and thin-framed glasses, Maristela Gaudio is the kind of woman who would exude elegance even in her pajamas. “If the result were a politically incorrect play, I might even enjoy it, but I’d never forgive myself for a culturally incorrect play,” she said.
Gaudio took it upon herself to find a topic. She recruited informal advisors from amongst her friends, including anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and Francisco Achcar, a professor of Latin and Brazilian literature. Over the months of brainstorming with SESC’s advisers, suggestions had tended to coalesce around putting on a Brazilian play, such as Nelson Rodrigues’ Vestido de Noiva, or adapting some canonical work of Brazilian literature. “Machado de Assis, Sousândrade, Oswald de Andrade, nothing seemed to fit,” Gaudio recalls. Deep down, both she and the SESC director were flirting with Macunaíma. They feared causing a diplomatic incident with Antunes Filho, however, whose most successful play had been precisely an adaptation of Mário de Andrade’s novel in the late 1970s. Their fears were justified: when he was informed of the possibility, Antunes said that the choice would have been “enormously inelegant,” and that he would have refused to see the play.
The idea of having Manuel dos Santos as the main character came from Danilo Miranda. Born in the state of Rio de Janeiro, he had seen Garrincha flit past the defenders of Fluminense, the team he supported, countless times. Gaudio was intrigued, and delved into biographical research on her own. She read, reread, and annotated Estrela Solitária, the biography of the player written by Ruy Castro – but was only truly convinced by an excerpt from an essay by poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade entitled “Mané and the Dream,” published in the Jornal do Brasil three days after the player’s death, which described him as follows: “Playful, spontaneous, and impetuous, with an innocence that was not immune to flashes of Macunaíma-esque tricksterism.”
In 2013, when she found out that Robert Wilson would be stopping by São Paulo, Gaudio decided to speed things up. She scheduled a meeting with SESC higher-ups and, with the help of executive producer Ricardo Muniz Fernandes, put together a 20-minute video featuring a variety of scenes from Garrincha’s life – in one segment, taken from Marcelo Masagão’s film Here We Are, Waiting for You, Garrincha’s dribbles are intercut with Fred Astaire’s soft-shoeing. “While everyone watched the video, I watched Bob,” Gaudio said. “Let’s do it,” the director pronounced when the lights went back on again. Once the decision had been made, Wilson fit Garrincha into one of the projects to be developed the following summer at the Watermill Center, his complex in Southampton, Long Island.
Robert Wilson’s research center is housed on a 3.5-hectare plot purchased in 1991. The main building, with nearly 2,000 square meters of floor space, was lying empty, and the director looked to turn it into a residence for young artists from across the world. The space, baptized Watermill, would also host him and his collaborators every summer so that they could develop projects to be produced in the following year. The idea only came to fruition a decade ago, when Wilson hit upon a way to make his dream come true without having to charge the young participants. Once a year he and his team put on a gala in which millionaires can explore his collection of chairs and African masks, see performances, visit the installations and sculptures spread around the building and the garden – and leave hefty checks that keep the place going until the next benefit.
In July 2014, two SESC coordinators attended the workshop at Watermill, armed with a collection of volumes of
Brazilian literature, art, and photography. Maristela Gaudio joined them and suggested that SESC hire a consultant for the project. Her recommendation was Carlos Augusto Calil, a film professor at the University of São Paulo. In 2012, when Wilson’s Macbeth was performed at São Paulo’s Theatro Municipal in a coproduction with the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Calil was serving as the city’s culture secretary; the professor’s erudition wound up winning Gaudio over.
In Watermill, the four of them would work with the collaborators that Wilson had selected for Garrincha. Gaudio said that a massive white tent was set up in the gardens of the center, sheltering a variety of workstations. Each was host to a team developing a different project, and Wilson flitted from one to the next.
One incident in particular made an impression on Gaudio: at a certain point, Wilson sat off to the side and began drawing furiously, passing his doodles to Annick Lavallée-Benny. The Canadian set designer, 32, has been working with Wilson for the past eight years on such projects as The Life and Death of Marina Abramović and Pushkin’s Fairy Tales. Among her many skills is a notable knack for interpreting scribbles. She was once given a piece of paper with nothing more than a circle in the middle – and correctly read it as a reference to a certain ball that had caught Wilson’s eye weeks earlier. Like an engineer called upon to erect a building dreamed up by a mad architect, Lavallée-Benny puts together Wilson’s visual suggestions to form landscapes on the computer and figure out what materials and mechanisms will be necessary to translate them to the stage.
Under the tent, the director put together a structure for each spectacle as quickly as he had drawn a city back in architecture school. Garrincha, apparently for no reason in particular, was divided into five acts with a prologue and epilogue. Wilson had been struck by a photo of the player’s car, totaled after an accident in which he drove drunk and wound up killing the mother of his wife, Elza Soares. The director declared that the incident would be the centerpiece of the play, with the other scenes distributed symmetrically around it. And thus it was.
When Robert Wilson and minimalist composer Philip Glass teamed up to create the opera Einstein on the Beach – which remains the most famous work on either man’s resume – they soon decided that the piece would have four hour-long acts. Wilson had worked with historical figures before: in 1969 he had put on The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud; 1973 brought Stalin, and the following year saw A Letter for Queen Victoria. Now he wanted yet another historical figure whose story was so familiar that it wouldn’t need to be told. Before settling on Einstein, he considered Chaplin, Hitler, and Gandhi. The title was inspired by a photo of the physicist on the beach, although no visual references to beaches were included in the play.
In an interview in the book Robert Wilson and His Collaborators, by Laurence Shyer, Philip Glass said that as soon as they chose the character, he delved into the biography of Einstein written by Ronald W. Clark. “I had offered the book to Bob a number of times but he would never take it,” the composer recalled. “Bob has his own way of doing research which is quite different from mine. His way was to collect photographs of Einstein and to talk to people about him. He said to me once, ‘I don’t want to know any more than what everyone knows about Einstein.’”
To write the book, Wilson called on a young man diagnosed with autism. The son of friends of a former professor of Wilson’s at Pratt, Christopher Knowles had already worked with the director, acting in A Letter for Queen Victoria at age 15. He and Wilson developed a performance between acts, dialoguing in syllables composed of random letters, like children playing with alphabet blocks.
In the documentary Absolute Wilson, by Katharina Otto-Bernstein, the director reveals that when he showed a notebook of his to Knowles’ mother, she was struck by how similar his drawings and doodles were to her son’s. “When I first met Chris, he was in an institution for brain-damaged children. Everyone in the institution was trying to correct the child – he was making ‘writings’ on a typewriter, inventing things. I found it very beautiful, as an artist, and was shocked to see in this school that it was being corrected. I thought we should support it.”
One of Wilson’s fiercest critics, John Simon, a former contributor to the New York Times – who had already called the director’s plays utterly meaningless – wrote that Wilson had taken advantage of a child with cognitive limitations. During dinner on the eve of the premiere of Garrincha, Wilson confessed that the comment had rattled him, but said that he never brought it up with Knowles or his parents. Today, now 56, Knowles is represented by a gallery in New York, has pieces in the MoMA collection, and continues to work with Wilson.
Recently, Knowles recorded audio to be used in Wilson’s second radio play, Tower of Babel, released last month. Wilson played the excerpt for me, right there in the restaurant. The recording opens with a series of numbers declaimed in different tones of voice: “Twelve. Forty-seven!” Then, at a certain point, Knowles says: “Punish John Simon.”
“I was surprised,” Wilson said. “I never imagined that Chris was aware of his criticism.”
Arnold Aronson, who teaches theater at Columbia University, sees Christopher Knowles as crucial in reconciling Robert Wilson with language: by deconstructing words, Knowles presents them as sound. For Einstein on the Beach, Knowles created lines such as “It could get some wind for the sailboat” – this being a play without a sign of a sailboat.
German theorist Hans-Thies Lehmann, who coined the expression “postdramatic theater,” turned to productions from the late 20th century to define the concept – and Robert Wilson’s work is one of its pillars. In short, the postdramatic consists of the destruction of the hierarchy that places the text (or drama) above the other elements that make up a production. In Wilson, the text (when there is text) is neither more nor less important than the light, set, or costumes. This is a break with all of the known Western theatrical tradition, which has been studied as a literary genre since Aristotle.
In his book Postdramatic Theatre, Lehmann says that, though Wilson represented “most far-reaching ‘response’ to the question of theatre in the age of media,” “in his later works the theatrical means that had once, in their freshness, revealed an epochal theatre dream [have] los[t] much of their magic, as they become predictable and are employed, at times, in a merely craftsman-like, slightly mannerist fashion.”
In 2012, the Rio-based newspaper O Globo published quotes allegedly taken from the event “Gerald Thomas Speaks and Listens,” held at the Teatro Poeira in August of that year. At a certain point, Thomas says: “Don’t force me to go to the theater to see something, for God’s sake. Not even Robert Wilson – especially not Robert Wilson, actually, because he asks me what I thought and I tell him the truth. He’s plagiarizing himself for the thousandth time; he’s not even there at the rehearsals. Robert Wilson used to interest me very much, but nowadays I’ll pay not to go.” When interviewed by piauí over Skype, Thomas put a new spin on things: “That’s the magic of Bob’s work, repeating himself. Mozart repeated himself, Wagner repeated himself. Do you believe what O Globo says?”
Gerald Thomas started out in New York in the 1980s, where he had both influences and collaborators in common with Robert Wilson – among them Philip Glass, who has worked steadily with both men. In his third production in Brazil,* in 1986 – Heiner Müller’s Quartett, translated to Portuguese by Millôr Fernandes – Thomas was criticized by the Estado de S. Paulo’s Ilka Marinho Zanotto in the following terms: “There it is: the lateral lights shining harshly on the figures who move extraordinarily slowly, in a horizontal line – all of it copyrighted by Bob Wilson.” Comparisons between the two have always been frequent.
Years later, in a controversial interview with Época Magazine in 1998, José Celso Martinez Corrêa, director of the Teatro Oficina, called Wilson “a great artist who gets rivers of cash to make people fall asleep in the theater,” with a backhanded compliment: “Although I do understand the contribution he’s made, especially to Gerald Thomas’s work.” Thomas, irritated, hit back in a column in the Folha de S. Paulo, saying that Zé Celso was only repeating the fusty middle-class view of Wilson as an incomprehensible artist. “I love Bob, but I don’t see anything in common between my theater, where the actors sweat, and his, where the figures are completely static. I won’t stand for such a shallow, stereotypical reading,” he wrote.
Whether coincidence or not, two out of the three actors that Wilson called up for The Lady from the Sea and Garrincha, Bete Coelho and Luiz Damasceno, have had careers intimately tied to Gerald Thomas’s plays. When I asked Thomas if he had been in touch with his former collaborators about the experience of working with Wilson, the director responded as follows: “I’m not in touch with them. I’m not in touch with my grandmother who died in 1980. Susan Sontag’s dead, and I’m not in touch with her either.” Days later, he posted a video on his Facebook page with the following caption: “Even good actors / actresses like Bete Coelho need to be ‘guided’ well, as we show in this passage from Hamlet (1989), from the good old days of the Cia. de Ópera Seca.” The video, recorded with a cell phone pointed at a computer screen, is entitled “Gerald Thomas – Hamlet – Bete Coelho being ‘guided by me’ 1989.”
At the end of our conversation, Thomas drew a single comparison between his work and Wilson’s: “I never work on commission. I only do my things. I’ll never take on a topic that I’m not passionate about. I don’t work for money.” Then he turned threatening: “Are you recording this? Because I am. If you twist my words, I’ll kill you. I know people in Rocinha. You’ll be done for.” Finally, he reflected that artists that he admires, like Philip Glass himself and Pina Bausch, created works on commission. Thomas, saying he was quite depressed, confessed that no art has touched him since Bausch’s death. Shortly after hanging up to go to a rehearsal, he remarked: “I’m just another fool.”
Playwright and poet Heiner Müller, a disciple of Bertolt Brecht’s who passed away in 1995, the jumbling of theatrical codes was Wilson’s most important contribution. “It is very nice that the elements should be really autonomous. […] In the last analysis it is Brecht’s dream, in a way, that Brecht himself could not achieve because he was too European and also too literary,” he wrote in 1994. An improbable partnership brought Müller and Wilson together on the production of the CIVIL warS; later, Wilson would put on Müller’s Hamletmachine. Among Müller’s many contributions to Wilson’s theater, the collaging of excerpts from literary works is one of the most significant.
Robert Wilson invited writer Darryl Pinckney, a long-time collaborator of his, to write the book for Garrincha. Pinckney, who contributes frequently to the New York Review of Books, may be seen in the film directed by Martin Scorsese in honor of the magazine’s 50th anniversary. In the portion of the interview selected by the director, Pinckney speaks about his difficult relationship with the works of another black and gay writer, James Baldwin. The author said he avoided the issue for many years, and was only able to finish his first novel, High Cotton, at age 38.
“There’s something in Bob that makes people want to work with him. Take me, for instance. If I see a door marked ‘Bob,’ I’ll always want to go in,” he said a week before the premiere, in a Peruvian restaurant near SESC Pinheiros. That afternoon, during rehearsal, upon realizing that an actor had yet to memorize his lines, the director had announced over the microphone: “The text doesn’t matter. I just want you to say ‘blah, blah, blah’ and then hiccup.” I asked Pinckney how his ego dealt with seeing his writing manipulated that way. “It’s a relief,” he replied promptly. “Working with Bob is like taking a vacation from myself and my commitments to my literature.”
Darryl Pinckney welcomed the literary references that Maristela Gaudio and Carlos Augusto Calil sent his way. A haiku by Nicolas Behr, turned up by Maristela, is sung in the prologue and the epilogue: “Not all that’s crooked is wrong/Just look at Garrincha’s legs/And the trees of the cerrado.”
Pinckney, for his turn, chipped in foreign writers’ impressions of Brazil, such as the writings of Elizabeth Agassiz, who went along on the Thayer Expedition to Brazil, and anthropologist Ruth Landes. “It’s a piece by foreigners about Brazil, so it’s natural that there be some inclusion of the foreign gaze,” Calil would later comment.
For Calil, however, not everyone at Watermill was pleased to have the Brazilians at the workshop. “We were there in that role, looking to ground things, especially when it came to cultural matters,” he said. The Brazilians’ suggestions were ignored, for example, by costume designer Carlos Soto – who insisted on outfits that Calil referred to as “Carmen-Mirandistic.”
On one afternoon early in the rehearsal stage, Soto made it known that he, like Wilson, prefers to work with a minimum of factual references so as not to curb his creativity. As he removed the orange appliqués from a pink sequined dress, one by one, Soto said that he first came into contact with the director in 1992, when he was 15. After seeing Wilson’s Alice, the adolescent Soto decided to write to him, criticizing several aspects of the opera. “I was even more arrogant as a teenager,” he laughed. To his surprise, Wilson not only responded, but also invited him to apply for Watermill. Noticing his interest in clothes, Wilson hired him as an assistant to his costume designers, and Soto eventually came to take on the job solo. Soto designed the costumes for the 2012 production of Einstein on the Beach, among other works.
Back at the workshopping stage for Garrincha, it was Soto’s idea to include anthropomorphized birds in the play. Wilson had shown interest in punctuating the piece with scenes involving birds – after all, “garrincha” is the name for a type of wren. As a boy, the player hunted birds; later he raised birds in cages, and near the end of his life he let them all go at once. A duo of avian commentators became one of the most striking elements of the production.
The only person to leave the Watermill workshop empty-handed was Hal Willner, the music producer for practically all of the greatest stars in English-language rock, from Lou Reed to David Bowie. It was Tom Waits who introduced him to Robert Wilson, during the development of The Black Rider, based on a German folk legend. Waits composed the songs, William S. Burroughs wrote the text and Willner, who was a friend to both, coordinated the music production. This would be the first of many collaborations with Wilson.
Having worked as the sketch music producer for Saturday Night Live since 1981, Willner, now 60, says he’s been taken hostage by a job that he invented. As the man behind the sound effects and soundtracks of the sketches, as well as the person responsible for suggesting acts to perform live on the show, he’s a walking encyclopedia of artists and musical references. Willner was already familiar with much of the music brought up during the workshop, but he was really interested in discovering a band that could create the appropriate effects for the score. “I wasn’t worried about deciding right away. These things just happen,” he said in early April, in a bar in Vila Madalena famous for its football-dominated décor.
With disheveled white hair, his abundant belly covered by a striped T-shirt, and wearing thick acetate frames and royal blue Nikes, Willner is cool incarnate. Over dinner, he praised the band playing that night. “They’re really good. Do they normally have jazz musicians this good here?” he asked, taking out his cell phone to record a video, later posted to Facebook. At the end of the meal, he got up and began scanning the walls for references to Garrincha.
After the workshop, Robert Wilson set the calendar: since the play would run for a month, from the last week in April to the last week of May 2016, he would make a preliminary trip to São Paulo in November 2015 and rehearsals would start in March of the following year. Anxious about the yearlong lapse and worried about the final result, Gaudio convinced producer Franco Laera that part of the team should travel to Brazil as well, for “additional research.”
In September 2015, Maristela Gaudio and Ricardo Muniz took Darryl Pinckney to Rio de Janeiro, where they saw a football match at Maracanã Stadium, attended a samba school rehearsal, went to the Feira de São Cristóvão (an open-air market featuring products and dishes from Brazil’s northeast), the Botafogo club headquarters, and the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura. And they paid a visit to Ruy Castro. Already familiar with Wilson’s aesthetic, the biographer received them warmly. To Gaudio’s relief, he said that he wasn’t expecting to see his book onstage, nor would he be taken aback by a dancing Garrincha.
Tied up with Saturday Night Live, Willner didn’t make it in time to explore Rio de Janeiro. The SESC team, however, had drawn up a list of suggested attractions in São Paulo, particularly recommending one ensemble that made its own instruments, in the so-called “ABC” region of the metropolitan area. The producer enjoyed listening to the band but didn’t think that they would work as the backing group. Though his trip was coming to a close, he didn’t seem worried. Unhurriedly following along with the list, he went with the team to the Ó do Borogodó. The bar, run-down to an almost picturesque degree like so many in the neighborhood, is known for the high caliber of the musicians who play there. On any given night, Beth Carvalho or Yamandú Costa may show up – in the audience, to listen to the bands. On that Tuesday, the group playing was Choro Rasgado.
“I noticed a table of old gringos, but that’s normal around here,” guitarist Zé Barbeiro recalled one night at the Ó. “A week later, they got in touch to see if we were interested in some theater thing.” An award-winning choro composer who plays the seven-string guitar, José Augusto Roberto da Silva adopted his former profession as his artistic name – he only stopped working as a barber after age 40. Now 64, Barbeiro can make a living with music by playing nearly every night in São Paulo – always alongside his son Fábricio Rosil (a surname created by fusing the first syllables of “Roberto da Silva”). “The money was good, so of course we said yes,” he explained.
Barbeiro had never heard of Robert Wilson, much less of Hal Willner. “Hal’s a great guy, isn’t he? Now, Bob’s kind of serious, a big German of a guy, with that B-flat of a belly,” he said during a break in the show, filling up his beer glass again. “The other day I made a real fool of myself: I told a friend who knows a lot about theater that I was working on a neat international play, but I said the director was Bob Nelson,” he said, burying his face in his hands. “And what’s worse, then he said, ‘But isn’t Bob Nelson a singer?’ He mixed him up with Willie Nelson!” Soon thereafter, shortly after Barbeiro had picked up his guitar again, Darryl Pinckney and Carlos Soto arrived at the bar. They’d become regulars at the Ó do Borogodó.
Last November, part of the team came to Brazil for Stage A, which is a long test period. The Teatro Paulo Autran was being used, so they set up a prototype for the stage in a warehouse at SESC Belenzinho. This was the first time that Robert Wilson saw Annick Lavallée-Benny’s set designs. Covering all her bases, she presented him with mocked-up set models so that he could approve them. The set for the prologue would be the same as the epilogue: a parapet or false-front house (casa de platibanda, in Portuguese) inspired by Anna Mariani’s photographs of the Brazilian Northeast. No matter that Pau Grande, Garrincha’s hometown in the mountains of Rio, had no such houses. Lavallée-Benny also drew inspiration from painter Alfredo Volpi’s colorful flags and a photo by Thomaz Farkas of a backlit goal.
Just then, the first casting calls were being held. In 2013, even before the characters had been decided on, Wilson had called up three actors who’d worked on the Brazilian production of The Lady from the Sea, just months before: Bete Coelho, Lígia Cortez, and Luiz Damasceno. But in order to bring Garrincha’s story to the stage, he had to find a cast that would be mainly young and black. This was not a first in Wilson’s career.
Theater critic Hilton Als was one to note the frequent presence of black actors in Wilson’s plays. In an article in The New Yorker, Als wrote: “When Robert Wilson chose the brilliant black performer Sheryl Sutton for his 1970 show Deafman Glance, he was doing more than following his penchant for strong casting: he was purposefully incorporating blackness into America’s primarily white avant-garde theatre.”
“You have no idea how difficult it is to find a casting call that’s looking for black actors, especially in prominent roles, that doesn’t have anything to do with slavery,” said Jhe Oliveira, chosen to play Garrincha. A native of Ilhéus, Bahia, Oliveira can be seen in the role of Negro Fagundes in the latest telenovela adaptation of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon in 2012. Shortly after the show ended its run, Oliveira decided to move to São Paulo – where, as he saw it, the theater scene is more interesting.
One morning in the week before the premiere, in his apartment in the São Paulo neighborhood of Santa Cecília, Oliveira was baking a cake to take to his fellow actors. He said that he knew just as much about Wilson as he did about Garrincha –i.e., practically nothing – and that he only decided to show up for the call on the last day, after his housemate, a fellow actor, insisted that he go. It was only after he had been chosen that a few coincidences came to light. Just like Garrincha, Oliveira has indigenous origins – although he descends from the Tupinambá, not the Fulnio. And while Garrincha wouldn’t make a move without consulting the pai-de-santo Alberto, the actor is the grandson of one of the best-known mães-de-santo in Bahia, Ilza Mukalê. At his grandmother’s recommendation, he went to Pau Grande to ask Garrincha’s permission to play him onstage. In his bedroom, Oliveira had put up photos of his character on the walls, alongside indigenous paintings. In a corner of the room, a white candle burned alongside a bowl of popcorn.
In rehearsal on the eve of the first show, as he waited for the endless light adjustments to be made, Oliveira tugged up the hem of his shorts and examined his legs. He was doing his utmost not to imitate Garrincha – from the very first audition, Wilson had told him not to crook his legs. Nor did the director want Naruna Costa, the actress playing Elza Soares, to imitate the voice or the style of the singer.
Late one night a few days later, having just turned down dessert, Robert Wilson emphatically rejected naturalist aesthetics. “If you do that kind of theater you think you’re reproducing reality, but that’s impossible. A stage is always artificial.” Wilson said he was satisfied with the cast of Garrincha, despite their manifest difficulty in acting with the hyper-controlled gestures called for by his formalist style. “On the other hand,” he reflected, “they have an amazing ability to improvise. I’d say, ‘Do some sort of movement to get across the stage,’ and they already had something marvelous in mind. It’s impossible to work that way with German actors.”
The next day, an aura of apprehension hung over the premiere, felt by Brazilians and foreigners alike. The least preoccupied feared some sort of technical problem during scene changes, given the play’s complex, detailed set design. Those who had lost all hope, meanwhile, mulled fleeing the country while there was still time; some groused that, like Garrincha in his twilight years, Robert Wilson had become a caricature of himself. Among the elegant and famous guests plucked from the São Paulo intelligentsia, an unobtrusive trio went unnoticed during the performance: three of Garrincha’s daughters (out of the fourteen that we know of) accepted SESC’s invitation to the premiere. “I only came because it was something about my dad, ‘cause I’m missing out on one heck of a feijoada back in Madureira,” said Maria Cecília dos Santos, the only one of the sisters who no longer lives in Pau Grande.
Despite the apocalyptic predictions of much of the production staff, the audience seemed to generally enjoy the play. Bete Coelho and Lígia Cortez got laughs as the duo of commentating birds, and the band garnered enthusiastic applause. But when Jhe Oliveira as Garrincha sang an axé that went “My nanny-goat sure was hot, but the girl’s even hotter,” one older woman got up from her seat in tears, muttering, “They can’t do this to a national hero.” As is the rule in Brazilian theaters, the audience gave a drawn-out standing ovation. Outside, however, few were willing to praise the play. One woman who said she’d followed Wilson’s work said she was expecting something more minimalist. Some felt that the play lacked football, and others complained about the clichés. “Puppet theatre starring Zé Carioca,” as one young man put it, to a smattering of laughs from his group of friends.
Luiz Damasceno, who had gotten some of the most enthusiastic applause that night, was of a similar opinion. “Where did you see Brazil here? The music? The parrots?” The veteran actor, who had taught two of the younger actors at the University of São Paulo’s School of Dramatic Arts, said he’d had particular difficulty with the text. “The playwright is American. He may have used idiomatic expressions that, when translated, don’t have the same meaning for us. I say: ‘I see your head’s done for! Your neck has a huge mouth.’ I say that because it’s there [on the page], but I don’t understand it. Did the neck swallow the head? When you cut the head off, you’re left with a neck with a big hole in it? It’s almost abstract.” One of the founding members of Gerald Thomas’ Companhia Ópera Seca, Damasceno sees many similarities between the two men’s work, especially when it comes to the precision of bodily movements. As he sees it, the actor plays a much smaller part in Wilson’s works. “He’s a painter, and I behave like paint. Or a couch. The text is just a sound coming out of my mouth.”
The Santos sisters – Maria Cecília, Rosângela, and Terezinha – loved the play. Garrincha’s three daughters, who were setting foot in a theater for the first time, were unanimous in saying that they’d found everything beautiful. “Especially the clothes,” said Rosângela. “Look, isn’t that an actor from [telenovela] The Ten Commandments?” Maria Cecília asked. Upon taking a selfie with the actor, she revealed herself to be Garrincha’s daughter, setting off a frisson in the foyer. Maristela Gaudio quickly materialized and took them to the afterparty in the basement, where a group of actors was jostling around Robert Wilson, yelling, “Bobby! Bobby!” When she spotted Jhe Oliveira, Rosângela dos Santos ran to him, calling him “Daddy.” Taken by surprise, the actor cried in her arms; by the time he left, he was promising to visit them in Pau Grande. Robert Wilson set off the next day for Oslo, ready to start a new project.
*Corrected in relation to the print version
 “Go on and cry / Unburden your breast”
 “Only those who never loved never suffered”