Where the Deafman Glanced -- How the UI helped Jump Start a Career

With Robert Wilson visiting Iowa in a few weeks to give a performance (Jan. 31) in advance of the opening of his VOOM PORTRAITS exhibition at the UI Museum of Art and CSPS (Feb. 2-March 30), this is the perfect chance to take a look back -- and discover how the UI played a really important role in Wilson's early career.

It was 1970, and due to combination of cultural forces and energetic personalities, the University of Iowa was the place to be for artistic people. A matching grant from the Rockefeller Foundation had recently helped to created both the Center for New Music (1966-present) and the Center for New Performing Arts (1969-1970). Owen and Leone Elliott of Cedar Rapids offered the University their extensive collection of 20th-century paintings, prints, antique silver and jade on the condition that a Museum be built to house their gift -- so along with the University's existing fine art collection (which included works like Jackson Pollock's Mural), the Elliott collection found a home in a new building adjacent to the School of Art and Art History. The music complex that includes Voxman Music Building, Clapp Recital Hall and Hancher Auditorium was also built around this time.

Numerous new programs, building initiatives, and monetary donations such as these led to a flowering of unprecedented support for artistic experimentation at the UI in the 1970s. This was an environment in which the arts -- and artists -- thrived.

Enter: Robert Wilson. Born in Waco, Texas, this young artist had made his way out of the south to New York, where he studied architecture, design and dance, among other things, and began to develop an innovative interdisciplinary approach to theater. And in 1970, he was invited to be a resident with the Center for New Performing Arts at the UI.

Mel Andringa, currently the producing director of Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids, was an graduate intermedia student in the School of Art and Art History at the time, and because of his theater background, he was assigned to aid Wilson while he was in town.

Wilson's main project while he was here was to produce a theatrical work called Deafman Glance. The production was called a silent opera — through a string of non-verbal pictures and stories accompanied by music, Wilson presented a view of the world through a deaf man’s eyes.

Much of Wilson’s inspiration for Deafman came out his work with Raymond Andrews, a deaf-mute black boy who Wilson adopted in 1968 after rescuing him from an altercation with the police in Summit, New Jersey. He began encouraging the then-11-year-old Andrews to communicate through drawings and body language, and these images and movements eventually formed the basis for Deafman Glance.

To find actors for the production, Wilson cast his net much wider than to just theater majors. Part of Andringa's job was to help Wilson in this venture, a bit of an adjustment to how he had previously viewed theater.

"The job was a much more enveloping kind of occupation than a work study would have been," Andringa said. "Wilson was wandering around the city finding waitresses to be in the production...Wilson’s style of performing was very communal. He was treating everybody the same, including non-trained actors. He was working outside the normal ways that opera and theater were made. I had to give up pretty much all of my own notions about what theater was."

Deafman Glance debuted on the stage of E.C. Mabie Theatre -- which Wilson will return to for his Jan. 31 performance in conjunction with the VOOM PORTRAITS Robert Wilson exhibition at the UIMA Feb. 2-March 30. Deafman went on to win Robert Wilson international acclaim, earning him praise from critic Louis Aragon as the culmination of Surrealism. "This is not Surrealism at all," he wrote in 1971. "It is what we, from whom Surrealism was born, dreamed it would become after us, beyond us."

And Mel Andringa? Well, he continued to travel and work with Wilson for a number of years. We'll be hearing from him about his experiences next week!

Photograph of Robert Wilson: © 2007 Lesley Leslie-Spinks

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