When Mary Zimmerman was a little girl growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, she recalls, "Entertainment for me was: Get up. Open the screen door to the back yard. ‘OK, what’s it going to be?’" She occupied her days by using her imagination, making use of what was there, making metaphorical and wildly associative leaps. The author of "The Secret in the Wings," now playing at McCarter, has never stopped. Not as a student at Northwestern University, and then as a professor, and then as a busy adaptor and director who has won numerous awards, including a Tony for her Broadway production of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, as well as the prestigious "Genius" Award (a MacArthur Fellowship).
The child of two professors at the University of Nebraska, where her father taught physics and her mother taught English, Zimmerman, 44, grew up in a home without the near-universal American living room/family room centerpiece. The only television was a small screen affair that was relegated to the basement of the home. Interestingly, her play is set in a basement-like space where actors use "found objects" for whatever is needed in a particular scene. A snake is improvised from a tube that might have been intended as an exhaust line from a clothes dryer, with a sock added to make the snake’s head. A horse is "made" from a bent piece of wire. The costumes were collected from vintage shops and look to be things from a trunk that might be used by a child for "dressing up." They may be large on the actors; but so would be the remembered mom’s "unbelievably glamorous" prom dress, on a young Mary.
In May, 2003, in an interview with Bill Moyers, Zimmerman said, "The pleasure of theater is the tension between what you know is there intellectually and what you’re allowing yourself to believe." She also revealed that her imagination was jumpstarted in her childhood – which included several years in England while her father was there on a fellowship – through substantial exposure to sophisticated literature. She considered her time abroad to be an exile from Nebraska and fed on her teacher’s daily readings from "The Odyssey." She also read Edith Hamilton’s "Mythology" as a child. Early years steeped in richly detailed stories of wondrous, terrible, and much larger than life characters and deeds surely shaped her world view and provided a context for her work.
"The Secret in the Wings," a coproduction with Berkeley Rep and Seattle Rep, makes its East Coast debut on McCarter’s Berlind stage on Wednesday, January 12, and plays through February 13. Zimmerman’s design team has told her that the play will "sit best" in this intimate stage. Rehearsals fit the production to this site and shuffled a few actors, since some are returning from the Chicago revival last year. This staging played first in California and travels to Washington State after the Princeton run.
Rereading old fairy tales, Zimmerman has built her dream-like adventure/play on five stories, including "Three Blind Queens" and "The Princess Who Wouldn’t Laugh," with a bit of "Beauty in the Beast" as the framework. She feels the audience should experience a profound nostalgia as they revisit stories they may have heard and since forgotten. Admitting that the play is difficult to describe, she tries just the same, saying: "It’s kind of a collection of fairy tales and they’re held together by a framework, but the framing device keeps dissolving."
She reveals that this play is the most personal of the shows that she has done. (In addition to "Metamorphosis" on Broadway, Princeton audiences saw her "Odyssey" in the fall of 2000, and may have also seen other New York City productions, "The Arabian Nights" and "The Notebooks of Leonardo de Vinci.")
This adaptation isn’t autobiographical, but resonates with her personal feelings about childhood that aren’t all happiness and light. Her own childhood was happy enough, but she believes that no childhood, contrary to the ardent wish of modern parents, is without darkness. Says she: "No childhood is bliss." She considers these stories as cautionary tales. "I actually think there’s a kind of menace in childhood that’s largely ignored, particularly for girls," she says. Publicity material describes the play as "magical and dark stories" and advises that it is appropriate for ages 12 and up.
"The Secret in the Wings" had its genesis 14 years ago as one of the first productions of Chicago’s Looking Glass Theater, where Zimmerman is still an active member. At that time this group was gypsy-like, playing in whatever space was available. "The Secret in the Wings" often was performed late at night after another play had finished with the space. She describes it as a "secret favorite" of the company. So it isn’t surprising that last year, when they were planning the season to inaugurate a brand new theater home in Chicago’s Water Tower building, the company voted unanimously to remount "The Secret in the Wings." Zimmerman notes with pride that seven of the nine original cast members were still around to perform in the new version. In their 20s then, many of the company are married and have children. "So it’s a moving experience for us to go back to this piece" (from their more adult perspective).
Stories have been compressed and intensified, the through line clarified. And even with two stories added to the original, it still is an hour and a half in length.
As we talk backstage at McCarter, Zimmerman is still recovering from jet lag, having just flown in from Japan to begin rehearsing in the Berlind. Already working on her next project, she was researching a small village in northern Japan that is the setting for the novel "Silk" that she is adapting for the stage. It goes into rehearsal at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in February. "I made photos of hinges, doorknobs, and other architectural details – 12 rolls of film!"
Before she begins work on any of her adaptations, she absorbs as much as she can of the text, the setting, the background of the story that has been hibernating in her mind. She was a voracious reader as a child, so over the years she has accumulated quite a store of tales to be told. Northwestern University is noted for its performance art studies, a process for dramatizing text not written for the stage.
Especially important to her is the book "Chamber Theater," written by professor Robert Breen, a "how to" manual for dramatizations of text. Stories were written to be told. The aim was to preserve "what we love about the books we love." Zimmerman admits that she’s faster and looser with his guidelines, but she feels he would appreciate and understand her work. In addition to studying with Breen, she also credits other professors, who are now her colleagues: "brilliant human being" Frank Galati, Paul Edwards, who directed her in nine productions, and Dwight Conquergood, her dissertation advisor.
She begins each rehearsal with no script. Anyone who has seen her work will recognize actors who have been in many of her productions. These actors, along with the design team, are her family. At the first rehearsal, some of them sit in a circle passing the book around to read out loud the original text of the novel. The source material is almost always epic in length and scope. So the first thought is selection. The dramatization is on its feet almost immediately, with the script being written piece by piece by Zimmerman before and after each rehearsal.
"The way I like to stage things has very much to do with telling a story visually and on these particular bodies, this particular design and this particular space." Those ideas come to her during rehearsal. "I come in every day with new scenes." Working in this seemingly pressured fashion, she says, "solutions have to be found." Where the text has 100 people, she may have only six actors. "A person turns into a bird or a flying camel." She finds that the better results come from this rehearsal discovery period rather than conceiving everything in advance.
Though Zimmerman is known primarily for her adaptations, she also co-wrote the libretto and directed the opera "Galileo Galilei" by Philip Glass at its premiere last season at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Most recently she directed a production of Shakespeare’s "Pericles" at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C.
There’s hope that this production will have an "afterlife." Two earlier forays at directing Shakespeare, played in New York City as part of the Public Theater’s summer series in Central Park: "Henry VIII" in 1997 and Measure for Measure in 2001.
Zimmerman is a very busy artist, but let us not forget she is also a professor at Northwestern University, where her work includes classes in performance art and performance of poetry. She reports that the university is flexible and supportive. Northwestern funded a trip to Italy for her and her design team for the preparation for "The Notebooks of Leonardo Di Vinci." With this schedule, one wonders: does she have a life? "Well I have a dog." Her friends are the people with whom she works.
During her interview with Moyers, she cited a particularly resonant quote from fellow Nebraskan Willa Cather. "I’ll never be the artist I was as a child." I certainly wish we could time travel and meet that child! Wonder what happened when the screen door slammed behind her and she was "on stage" in her backyard.
Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place. Not suitable for small children. $28 to $48. 609-258-2787, www.mccarter.org.