The Black Rider: Press Articles

(The New York Times. Review/ Theatre. By Stephen Holden. November 22, 1993)

The vaudevillian ghouls who strut and skulk through "The Black Rider" are literally born in a trunk. Or is it an enormous coffin? As though summoned by the Ghost of Show Business Past, they emerge one by one out of a 10-foot-tall black box, jerking and writhing across the stage like ventriloquist's dummies to form a hideously jovial chorus line.

Leading the revels is Pegleg (Dominique Horwitz), a white-faced Kabuki devil, oozing an icily hospitable cheer. As magician, ringmaster and host, Pegleg suggests a fiendish descendant of Joel Grey in "Cabaret" as he sings the show's title song in a high mocking voice. "We'll have a gay old time," he carols gleefully. "Lay down in the web of the black spider/I'll drink your blood like wine."

So begins the Robert Wilson-Tom Waits-William Burroughs pop opera that had its first American performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House on Saturday evening. Although this nastily funny adaptation of Carl Maria von Weber's folk opera, "Der Freischutz," runs for nearly three hours, it is an exceptionally lively, visually captivating entertainment. And it is performed in a mixture of English and and German (with supertitles) by the Thalia Theater of Hamburg, Germany, with a sizzling zest.

"The Black Rider" uses the skeleton of the 1821 Weber opera to relate a darker modernist fable that can be read in any number of ways. With a downbeat ending that departs sharply from "Der Freischutz," it is a tale that seems particularly close to the heart of Mr. Burroughs, who wrote the text. In his script, the author of "Junkie" and "Naked Lunch" offers punning, gallows-humor parallels between a reliance on magic bullets and on drugs. Although it would be foolish to belabor the parallels, "The Black Rider" can be read as a parable about drugs, or indeed about any uncontrollable addiction, including guns and violence. It could be read more broadly as an antiwar satire.

In the story, Bertram (Gerd Kunath), a rough-hewn forester, insists that his daughter Kathchen (Annette Paulmann) marry a hunter, even though she has her heart set on Wilhelm (Stefan Kurt), a mild-mannered legal clerk. Wilhelm, when handed a gun, couldn't hit the broadside of a barn. But determined to marry his true love, he gamely goes into the forest to practice shooting. Wilhelm is hopelessly inept until Pegleg appears and offers him a stash of bullets from hell that will hit their marks no matter how the gun is aimed. In a scene staged as pure farce, Wilhelm giddily knocks off a gallery of deer-head silhouettes, shooting sideways, between his legs and from behind his back.

All seems well until Wilhelm runs out of ammunition. Despite ominous portents and warnings, he returns to the forest where Pegleg presents him with one last bullet. On his wedding day, to prove his marksmanship, Wilhelm must a shoot a white dove. But instead of hitting its target, the final bullet takes a long, circuitous path that ends in his bride's heart. Wilhelm goes insane and is carted off to an asylum.

Dark as it may be, this fable is played largely for farce in a production that suggests a surprisingly easy, almost casual creative synergy among the show's three principal collaborators. While the cynical, wisecracking tone of the work is pure Burroughs, Mr. Waits's clanking folk songs, which the composer has called "bone music," at once bolster Mr. Burroughs's vision of human beings as infernal machines and contradict it. The clunking percussiveness of Mr. Waits's music has always evoked a stark picture of the human being as a shivering, grunting, rattling sack of bones, a living scarecrow. But unlike Mr. Burroughs, Mr. Waits honors the emotional lives of his humble characters. His lyrics and his blunt, foreshortened tunes express what might be described as a primal sentimentality. His heart bleeds for characters who cry out their needs and dreams in songs that sound like reassembled fragments of tunes learned as a child.

In his own recordings, including his album of "The Black Rider" songs, Mr. Waits's gruff, hacking-in-the-gutter delivery lends all his material a quality of down-and-out desperation. But as arranged for an eight-member ensemble by Greg Cohen, the songs have been stretched into a rainbow of moods and textures. Echoes of turn-of-the-century American parlor tunes converge with old Irish ballads. At other times, the music suggests a blunter, more scraggly Kurt Weill meeting 1920's jazz. Among the instruments that help give the music its old-time flavors are a pump organ, a trombone, a tuba, a banjo and a singing saw.

Even more than the arrangements, which are razor precise and beautifully amplified, the German singers transform Mr. Waits's songs by turning their sweetness back on itself. Declaiming the tunes with a cartoonish ferocity, the company uses a vocal style that is a freewheeling German Expressionist gloss of American vernacular music. The inflections range from Al Jolson vaudeville to Brecht-Weill speech song and occasionally reach toward the operatic level of "Wozzeck." The most extreme performance is Miss Paulmann's Kathchen, who sounds like a cross between Kate Bush and Cyndi Lauper caterwauling in a state verging on hysteria.

The production makes extensive and witty use of novelty sound effects, and when characters walk across the stage, their footsteps are often synchronized with the kind of amplified tick-tocks that preface comic pratfalls. Now and then, Mr. Burroughs's grimly patrician voice is heard commenting on it all. When one character tells the story of Ernest Hemingway selling "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" to Hollywood, Mr. Burroughs quips, "Confucius say, 'He who hang happy ending on story about death, shall likewise take a hangman's rope.' "

In the final scene, a bullet whistles noisily from the front of the stage and around the perimeter of the opera house in a spectacular quadraphonic journey.

Mr. Wilson is the production's master illustrator. Far from the esthetic philosopher of "Einstein on the Beach" searching for the ineffable, in "The Black Rider" he is more of a puppeteer and conjurer of spectacular special effects. His overall visual concept evokes a playful union of German Expressionism and Japanese Kabuki with American vaudeville, musical comedy and silent-movie clowning.

In typical Wilson fashion, the story is imagined as a sequence of exquisitely designed and lighted visual tableaux separated by the so-called "knee plays." As is to be expected in a Wilson production, the scenes employ slow motion and visionary lighting that dissolves majestically from mood to mood. Props appear unexpectedly from the ceiling and the wings, and symbolic objects take on a magic glow and sometimes unexpectedly and grandly levitate. For a change, this stagecraft is executed at a pace that is closer to musical comedy than to opera.

When it's time for the show to end, the 10-foot trunk re-appears. Without any visible regret, the players one by one parade back into the box. As this carnival madhouse levitates, the curtain falls on the best-looking cosmic vaudeville show to hit New York in many a year. The Black Rider Book by William S. Burroughs; music and lyrics by Tom Waits; direction and sets by Robert Wilson; musical direction by Greg Cohen; musical arrangement by Mr. Waits and Mr. Cohen; costumes by Frida Parmeggiani; lighting by Heinrich Brunke and Mr. Wilson; sound by Gerd Bessler. Next Wave Festival. Thalia Theater of Hamburg. Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Lichtenstein, president and executive producer. At 30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene. Kuno, Old Forester . . . Heinz Vossbrink Pegleg . . . Dominique Horwitz Kathchen . . . Annette Paulmann Wilhelm, Clerk . . . Stefan Kurt.


(ArtForum International Magazine Inc., February 1994. By RoseLee Goldberg)

Robert Wilson's The Black Rider, 1990, is a delirious journey through a vivid theatrical landscape dotted with the signposts of vaudeville, cabaret, circus, and opera. A rousing and even bombastic overture--of horns and electric piano, drums and found pipes--sets the stage for an evening of splendid artifice. In the opening scene we watch as a larger than man-size black box rises slowly from its horizontal coffinlike position on the floor, to an imposing vertical one. (Is this becoming Wilson's signature motif which first appeared in his earlier work Einstein on the Beach, 1976?) Like so many iridescent scarves from a magician's hat, a cast of 11 actors is pulled out one at a time from the black box by Pegleg (Dominique Horwitz), an unctuous master of ceremonies. White-faced with a gash of red mouth and darkened eye sockets, glistening black hair, and a train of spiked extensions that descend to the dragging tails of his evening jacket, he moves with a rhythmically sexy limp to center stage. Knees pinched together, the toes of his high heels kissing, he leads the chorus singing through his nose: "Come along with the Black Rider/We'll have a gay old time." That the singers' melody is a hybrid of musical themes--part Flinstones, part Cabaret, part Threepenny Opera--is not beside the point. Their emphatic familiarity is utterly seductive and we float willingly from our seats into Wilson's unbelievable imagination.

The text that we bump up against, and that jostles and jiggles the actors with their deadpan painted faces, wide eyes and splayed fingers, held, marionettelike, at or above shoulder level, is pure, uncut William Burroughs. Based loosely on the German folk tale that inspired Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera Der Freischutz (The free-shooter)--the story of a simple clerk, Wilhelm, who must learn how to shoot (he doesn't want to) in order to marry his sweetheart Katchen and who makes a pact with the Devil toward that end--it is given a sardonic twist by Burroughs who compares the magic bullet in the original German fable to heroin. Like most operas however, the narrative merely provides a flimsy line upon which to hang overscaled and stylized theatrical devices that the extraordinary Thalia Theater company executes with manic precision. Meanwhile Tom Waits' throatily sung music--with its lyrics of absurd death and profane love--swoops along with the text, coaxing tenderness from its freakish impulses. It is entirely consistent with the real focus of the work--an extended essay on the popular genres of cabaret, vaudeville, and mime, from Christopher Isherwood's Berlin to Charlie Chaplin's Hollywood. Wilson's painted theater is supremely elegant. Gashes of Expressionistic scenery project us into the midst of something resembling Dr. Caligari's Cabinet, 1919, and onto angled beds that have the dizzying flourishes of Czech Cubist furniture. His fragile illusionary architecture, layered with diffused and neon lights, and punctuated by costumes that extend from the actors' bodies like papier-mache skirts over wire frames, is a superb container for their bold sculptural presence. Bustled and waist-coated in purples, blues, grays, blacks, and reds--a palette of 19th-century high drama--each actor, toward the end, wears white; drained of color these ghosts of theaters past file singly back into the black box. Only Pegleg remains to eulogize the art of theater in a final song about his rose garden.


The Black Rider The Casting of the Magic Bullets
(BITE Barbican International Theatre Events. 2004)

Monday 17 May - Saturday 12 June 2004
Press night: Friday 21 May, 7.45pm

Originally produced in German in 1991 The Black Rider is a milestone in theatrical history. This long awaited production of The Black Rider is the first show to be produced by the Barbican, in association with Cultural Industry, and the first time the original collaborators have staged their English language version.

Based on the original story that inspired Weber's nineteenth century opera Der Freischutz, The Black Rider is a tale about a clerk who makes a Faustian pact with the Devil and accepts magic bullets in order to win the heart of his beloved in a shooting contest.

The Black Rider features magnificent imagery from the visionary theatre director Robert Wilson, evocative music by composer Tom Waits and words by legendary Beat writer William Burroughs.

Robert Wilson has been at the forefront of theatrical innovation for almost four decades and has mounted numerous large-scale productions across the world. In addition to his work with Waits and Burroughs, Wilson has collaborated with a number of acclaimed artists, writers and musicians including Philip Glass, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Susan Sontag and Jessye Norman. Past productions include Deafman Glance (1970), Einstein on the Beach (1976), the CIVIL warS (1983-85), Hamletmachine (1986), Parsifal (1991), Madame Butterfly (1993), Time Rocker (1996), and Lohengrin (1998). His most recent works include Woyzeck with Tom Waits, The Temptation of St. Anthony with Dr. Bernice Reagon and B�chner's Leonce and Lena with German singer Herbert Gr�nemeyer.

Recognised as a major American songwriter in a career that spans four decades, Tom Waits has delved into recording, theatre and film (as both composer and actor), live performance and literature. His music, critically noted for its innovative arrangements and orchestrations, has ranged from country, blues, cabaret, waltzes and field hollers to gospel, polkas and marches. He has recorded over 20 albums, including last year's Alice and Blood Money, both based on songs and music from past collaborations with Robert Wilson.

William Burroughs is regarded as one of the leading writers of the Beat movement and synonymous with other members of the post-war literary circle that includes Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. His novel, Naked Lunch, remains his most famous and he was an active writer until his death in 1997.

On Sunday 23 May Robert Wilson presents an animated lecture which charts his prolific output from 1967 - 2004.

To complement The Black Rider, Andrey Bartenev, a leading figure of the post-glasnost Russian avant-garde has been commissioned by the Barbican to produce a multimedia installation. Being Robert Wilson is a 'portrait' of Wilson's visionary world. Incorporating costumes, photographs and videos as well as a variety of objects from Wilson's own art collection, Bartenev will re-create Wilson's surreal world in his neo-constructivist style in the Barbican Pit Theatre from May - June 2004.

There is also a complementary film season including documentaries about Robert Wilson and his work, films of past Wilson productions, and a programme of clips and archive footage featuring material by Marlene Dietrich, the 'Fred Astaire of Harlem' Charles 'Honi' Coles, and other artists and performers who have inspired Robert Wilson over the years.

The Black Rider The Casting of the Magic Bullets. Barbican Theatre

Direction, set and lighting by Robert Wilson
Music and Lyrics by Tom Waits
Text by William Burroughs
Original musical arrangements by Greg Cohen and Tom Waits
Dramaturgy by Wolfgang Wiens
Produced by BITE:04 in association with Cultural Industry
Co-produced by ACT, San Francisco and Sydney Theatre Festival

Monday 17 May - Saturday 12 June 2004 (excluding Sundays) 7.45pm Also at 2.30pm on 22, 29 May and 5, 12 June 2004 Press night: Friday 21 May, 7.45pm

Running time: 120 mins with interval


With its drunken piano, pocket trumpet, and musical saw, The Black Rider is obscure instrument heaven.
By John L. Walters
 (The Guardian - London. May 21, 2004. Guardian Unlimited � Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004.2004)

The songs of Tom Waits are inherently visual not just in their words and themes, but in the way they sound. Just as film footage of a lake, or a country house acquires mystery and glamour when underscored by a chugging Nymanesque riff, images of cheap house fronts and dusty streets take on extra gravitas when accompanied by Waits's ragged tracks. Check out Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and Night on Earth, or Francis Ford Coppola's fabulous One from the Heart.

The band currently playing in the [Black Rider] pit have the challenge of recreating Waits's distinctive instrumental timbres every night. "There are certain things you need to play his music," says associate musical director David Coulter, chatting backstage [at the Barbican in London). "There's upright bass, of course, and pump organ and drunken piano; lots of things that are slightly out of tune with each other, or 'sour', to use Waits's own word."

Coulter, a musical saw virtuoso who plays another 20 instruments, is the man who put together the band for The Black Rider. Given the palette of sounds needed for Waits's idiosyncrasies, the band has to have a wide range of sounds, styles, and skills at their fingertips. Led by musical director Bent Clausen, who plays drums, keyboards, and marimba, the eight piece group has the tough job of capturing the spirit of Waits's messy, freewheeling music while sticking to all the dramatic cues in this demanding, visually rich production. Clausen is a Waits veteran who played on the albums Alice and Blood Money, and worked with Waits and Wilson on Woyzeck.

So the musicians' pit looks like a downtown pawnshop, packed with arcane and/or beautiful instruments: bass clarinet, toy piano, pocket trumpet, accordion, Stroh violin, mandolin, ondes Martenot, glass harmonica, cristal Baschet. The last three are specialities of Thomas Bloch, whose [r�sum�] includes Messiaen's Turangalila and sessions with Radiohead. Kate St. John (Dream Academy), Caroline Hall, Jack Pinter, and Terry Edwards (Scapegoats, Lydia Lunch) play on a huge variety of wind instruments. The ensemble is underpinned by bassist Rory McFarlane, looming out of the pit's seething activity like a mariner clutching the mast of a boat.

If you've heard The Black Rider [album) (Island), you'll have some idea what to expect. Except that Waits's studio recordings are more like miniatures lovingly made "bigatures" with Waits taking all the parts himself. The [Black Rider] band has to fill the theatre with a Waits like sound and accompany a dozen diverse performers, singing, speaking, raging, howling, or mute.

This is neither [Broadway] musical nor hardcore music theater. Rather than developing motifs in a compositional way, Waits transforms his material through extremities of sounds. This is hard to notate. In the words of Coulter (who, like Waits himself, doesn't really read music), it's more "organic."

The musical language for the show is established early, with an introductory circuslike theme that jumps in every other bar, as if transcribed from a scratched record. For another scene the ensemble boils menacingly, with little bubbles of free improv escaping from the sonic soup, while a hallucinatory three note flugel phrase floats overhead. Another potentially static segment derives its richness from the harmonic complexity of Coulter's didgeridoo.

Out in the hall, the mix was superb, its unholy instrumental alliance sounding entirely natural. Many featured instruments Swanee whistle, musical saw, trombone can stray far from the diatonic path. The ensemble sections have the requisite sourness. Yet it's a disciplined, professional sound, a swanky showbiz version of the microtonal explorations of Frank Denyer or Harry Partch.

And whether the band is required to rock or swing, play sentimental ballads or demented burlesque, they never step out of character the buffing, puffing fantasy band created from Waits's rugged templates.


Acclaimed Director Robert Wilson's Collaboration with Tom Waits and William Burroughs.
(Copyright � 2004 American Conservatory Theater. All rights reserved)

SAN FRANCISCO - American Conservatory Theater presents the exclusive North American engagement of Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, and William Burroughs's magical and deeply funny music-theater piece The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets at the Geary Theater August 26 - September 26, 2004. Press nights are August 31 and September 1, both at 8 p.m. The first Wilson theatrical production to have a full-scale theatrical run produced by an arts institution in the Bay Area, The Black Rider is presented in cooperation with Cultural Industry and London's Barbican Theatre, and will feature Cabaret star Matt McGrath and iconic singer Marianne Faithfull as Pegleg, the devil incarnate.

Maverick director Robert Wilson, music legend Tom Waits, and literary rebel William Burroughs first put their heads together to create a music-theater piece in 1991 for Hamburg's Thalia Theater. The German-language production of The Black Rider subsequently played in Vienna, Paris, Barcelona, Genoa, Amsterdam, and Berlin before ending its tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in 1993. The new production will mark The Black Rider's English-language debut and will begin performances in London in May 2004 before traveling to San Francisco and Sydney, Australia.

In The Black Rider, Wilson, Waits, and Burroughs give us a theatrical wonderland, a musical fable of love, evil, and human folly steeped in the folklore of the past and bursting with the art of the future. The Black Rider is Wilsons homage to German Expressionism, with the distorted perspectives of Expressionist painting and the exaggerated and comedic gestures of cabaret and silent movies incorporated into its visual landscape. Based loosely on the German folktale underlying Carl Maria von Weber's opera Der Freisch�tz, The Black Rider draws from German culture throughout and aspires to the Wagnerian theory of Gesamtkuntswerk, in which all aspects of artistic creation are brought into total unity in one multidisciplinary production.

The plot centers on Wilhelm, an intellectual young clerk who must learn to hunt in order to marry his true love, a woodsman's daughter. He strikes a deal with the devil for magic bullets that never miss their mark, but in the world of The Black Rider, nothing is what it seems: the devil sings, animals talk, the walls become woods, and bullets have a mind of their own.


Back To The Source
(The American Conservatory Theater Performance Program, The Black Rider. Encore Arts Programs August/ September 2004. Volume 11, Issue 1)

The Black Rider is a story about making a pact with the Devil, about what people will do when they want something too badly. This tale has a long history in Germanic folklore, and obvious connections with the archetypal ambition of Faustus. Whoever sells his soul to the Demon Hunter receives seven magic bullets, which will not fail to hit their desired mark. If the bargainer finds another victim for the Devil, he will receive a fresh supply of magic bullets; if not, his own life is forfeit.

As "Der Freisch�tz" ("The Free-Shooter"), the story first found literary form in the Gespensterbuch (The Book of Ghosts). This collection of uncanny tales written and collected by Johann August Apel and Friedrich Laun (1810) became a central text of German romanticism. In this version, the heroine, Agathe, is shot by the marksman, who is thereafter confined to a lunatic asylum.

Der Freisch�tz's scenic and musical possibilities immediately attracted the interest of German composers. Carl Maria von Weber first considered an opera based on the story in 1811, and returned to the idea in 1817. His completed work was triumphantly premiered in Berlin in 1821. The opera tapped into a swell of German patriotism, particularly following the defeat of Napoleon, but was also performed and translated throughout Europe. Weber largely follows the story as set forth in the Gespensterbuch especially in the demon-infested conjuring scene of the stone circle in the Wolf's Glen. In Weber's version, however, divine intervention prevents Wilhelm from killing his bride and the opera ends with an exorcism.

The story also appealed to British Romantic authors. In 1816, Lord Byron and Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley were in Geneva. "The season was cold and rainy," Mary recalled, "and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends ... and myself agreed to write each a story, founded on some supernatural occurrence." The German stories were from the Gespensterbuch, and the response they inspired from Mary Shelley was, of course, Frankenstein.

Another remarkable British author, Thomas de Quincey, wrote a version of the tale called "The Fatal Marksman," which was published in Tales and Romances of the Northern Nations in 1823. It is this version, with the tale told in the Gespensterbuch, that provides the source material for The Black Rider. The collaboration among Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, and writer William S. Burroughs premiered in 1990 at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg. Burroughs made the tale his own; as Waits explained, "Burroughs found some of the branches of the story, and let them grow into more metaphorical things in all of our lives every day that, in fact, are deals with the Devil that we've made. What is cunning about those deals is that we're not aware we've made them. And when they come to fruition, we are shocked and amazed."


Once upon time there was an old forester who lived with his wife and his daughter. And when it came time for his daughter to marry he chose for her a hunter, for he was getting old and wanting to maintain his legacy. But his daughter was in love with another and sadly he was not a huntsman, he was a clerk, and the father would not approve of this union. But the daughter was determined to marry the man she loved so she said to him, "If you can prove your marksmanship as a hunter, my father will allow us to marry." And so the clerk went out to the forest and he took his rifle and he missed everything he aimed at and only brought back a vulture. The father disapproved and it seemed hopeless, but the clerk was determined to triumph. So the next time he went to the forest the Devil appeared to him and offered him a handful of magic bullets, with these bullets he could hit all the game he aimed at even with his eyes closed. But the Devil warned him that "some of these bullets are for thee and some are for me." And as the wedding day approached, the clerk began to get nervous as there was to be a shooting contest and he was afraid he needed more magic bullets. Although warned that "the Devil's bargain is a fool's bargain," he went to the crossroads and the Devil appeared as before and gave him one more magic bullet. On the day of the wedding, the clerk took aim at a wooden dove, and with the Devil looking on, the bullet circled the crowd of guests and hit its mark. Not the wooden dove, but his bride, his only love, and the clerk ended up in an insane asylum stark raving mad and joined all the other lunatics in the Devil's carnival.


Robert Wilson's Theater of the Future
By Jessica Werner
(Source: The American Conservatory Theater Performance Program, The Black Rider. Encore Arts Programs August/ September 2004. Volume 11, Issue 1)

Susan Sontag has famously described her first experience of a Robert Wilson performance - the 1971 European premiere of his seven-hour Deafman Glance at Theatre de la Musique in Paris, the production that catapulted Wilson to international acclaim - as eliciting "a shock of recognition." Years later she recalled: "I was enraptured. I had never seen anything like it before, but it was what I had always longed to see without knowing it. I needed to experience theater with that rhythm, that intensity, that beauty." Reactions to work as Visually daring and epic in scale as Wilson's can vary widely, yet this oft-repeated sensation of being at once overwhelmed by the heightened stylized beauty and bold originality of Wilson's stagecraft, and also, incongruously, at home in his bizarre aesthetic has become a hallmark of many first-time Wilson audiences.

This power to simultaneously surprise and enthrall may help explain the unrivalled artistic influence and enduring appeal of Wilson's work. More than 35 years into his career, he has single-handedly done more than any other contemporary American artist to change the way theater looks and sounds, and to challenge conventional notions of what is in fact conceivable within a proscenium. Even in late 1960s New York, where Wilson absorbed the experimental aesthetics of such artists as Merce Cunningham and John Cage and staged his own "silent operas" and "dance plays" (his terms), his work was already heralded as a harbinger of the theater of the future. Richard Foreman wrote in the Village Voice of The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1969): "In this new Aquarian age, or in whatever new era we're coming upon, this is the kind of theater we need." Wilson was then just 28 years old. When his landmark opera Einstein on the Beach (a five-hour multimedia collaboration with Philip Glass that remains Wilson's most famous work) premiered in 1976, theater critic Robert Brustein described it as "launching the theater into the unknown and the unknowable, in a way that makes our contemporary domestic plays look like ancient artifacts of a forgotten age."

Today, with more than 100 original productions to his credit, Wilson is still questioning the limits and possibilities of performance, still searching for new ways to confront life's mysteries through art, and to express art's mysteries through life itself. Wilson himself has said: "The reason we work in the theater is to ask, 'What is it?' Not to say what it is."

Even in today's increasingly multimedia world, Wilson's work remains marvellously unclassifiable, yet instantly identifiable. New York Times culture critic John Rockwell has written that "within the universe of avant-garde theater, at least, the term 'Wilsonian' means something almost as distinct as 'Brechtian."'

Defying traditional categories, Wilson's vast theatrical oeuvre represents the development and refinement of a new kind of hybrid stage work: one that showcases a rich and arresting visual vocabulary, an obsessive attention to light and shadow (Wilson likens his stage direction to "painting with light"), an emphasis on time as the primary influence on perception, and a nonlinear, associative approach to storytelling. He stands, according to Guardian theater critic Michael Billington, "at the tip of a large iceberg" - alongside such experimental performance giants as Peter Brook, Robert Lepage, and Pina Bausch - venturing forth to create the theater of the 21st century. Working with images on a grand scale, collectively their body of work remains theater's most sustained and spectacular argument against the text-bound limits of realism. "What [these artists'] success shows is that audiences are hungry for outsize experiences," says Billington, "something in which language, music, movement, and images coalesce to produce an event that works simultaneously on the ears, eyes, and emotions."

The theatrical wonderland that is The Black Rider - arguably Wilson's most accessible and popular show to date, a twisted musical fable created in collaboration with fellow American visionaries Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs has all the trademarks of a genuine Wilsonian epic: an utterly seductive visual landscape aflame with saturated color, high-tech wizardry, mordant wit, distorted perspectives of line and gesture, and archetypal characterizations of our struggles with love, evil, and human folly - lit throughout with the hallucinatory intensity that is unmistakably Wilson's own.

"Listen To The Pictures"

By his own description primarily a fine artist who works in theater (his drawings, paintings, and sculptures are shown in museum and gallery exhibitions around the world), Wilson's complex career is a direct expression of his manifold talents: He is a director, scenic and lighting designer (in fact the only top-tier American director to receive equal billing as a lighting designer), painter, sculptor, architect, video artist, performer, choreographer-and in his own theater productions often all of them at once.

Labeled as something of a one-man campaign to keep alive Wagner's dream of a Gesamtkunstwerk (universal artwork) that would demolish the borders between the discrete arts, Wilson has crossed and recrossed the boundaries that once separated the visual, musical, and dramatic arts with such fluidity and clarity of purpose that Rockwell has written, "The term 'theater artist' almost seems to have been coined for him.... It defines a director/ designer signer so powerful that his vision overshadows all else onstage."

"I never understand how one can just be a director," Wilson has said, "because being a director you have to know something about lights, about dress, about makeup, you have to know something about a chair, about architecture, about music, literature, and history, so that one thing leads to another. It's all part of one concern."

Not surprisingly, given his omnivorous mind, Wilson has commented that "the world's a library," indicating that ideas for the panoply of images he creates onstage come to him from sources as sundry as his window, his travels, his collaborators, his history, his memories, and even his fantasies. Indeed, Wilson's stage pictures establish themselves with the incandescent power of dreams: unexpected, indisputably original, and charged with personal, rather than objective, meanings.

Lauded as the successor to the Surrealists, he has produced some of modern theater's most defining and potent images: the two uneasy Victorians in Einstein on the Beach who, incarcerated in a carriage, slide across the stage to the sound of Glass's arpeggios; the blood-red medieval figure of Death creeping slowly across the dazzling white backdrop of heaven in his ballet Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien (1988); or the final moments of his 12-hour, 150-member-cast The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973) - a line of apes emerging from a shadowy forest, watching in awe as a human couple dressed in silver 18th-century finery appears, the woman's parasol literally on fire as the curtain descends.

Wilson has said he deliberately creates such images to force audiences to view theater - and experience time- in a new and different way. His kind of theater encourages audiences to muse, reflect, and daydream, rather than follow a narrative thread. He admonishes theatergoers to "Go as you would to a museum, as you would look at a painting. Appreciate the color of the apple, the line of the dress, the glow of the light ... the feelings they all evoke. Listen to the pictures."

Wilson scavenges for inspiration from innumerable cultural deposits: theatrical classics, newspapers, opera, pop songs, advertisements, and, increasingly in recent years, from world myths and fables: The Black Rider, which premiered (in German) at Hamburg's Thalia Theater in 1990, begins a trilogy that yields clues to his literary imagination, progressing from German Expressionism to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Alice, which premiered in 1992 at the Thalia, also with lyrics and music by Tom Waits), and finally to the H.G. Wells - inspired time-traveling odyssey Time Rocker (1996, with music by Lou Reed).

Creating Patterns In Time And Space

Robert Wilson - who once said, "I hate the word 'religious' and I hate to see religion onstage; my real religion is light" - was born in 1941 in the Southern Baptist stronghold of Waco, Texas. By all accounts a rather withdrawn and strangely self-possessed boy, Wilson was clearly destined for something quite different from the southern life his God-fearing parents may have wished for him. At the age of 17 he was cured of a debilitating childhood speech impediment by an eccentric Waco dance instructor named Bird "Baby" Hoffman, who would become the inspiration for many of Wilson's early works and the namesake of his first communal performance troupe (the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds) and his nonprofit arts organization (the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation). ("She was probably the first artist I ever met," Wilson has said.) Wilson's offbeat creative streak and penchant for nonverbal communication were in evidence early. At Waco High School, he remembers submitting a silent piece to a drama competition: "Two people in white sat in a room. Now and then there would be a knock on the door. One of them would get up and open it, but there was nobody there. That was all. It became a key piece; I keep going back to it."

After three years studying business administration (to appease his father) at the University of Texas in Austin, Wilson quit the South for New York in 1962 to study design and architecture at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. He had also discovered an interest and aptitude for working with brain-damaged and autistic children, whom he would tutor in various capacities for the following decade, and who would greatly influence his early theater. Wilson was unimpressed by the mainstream theater he encountered in New York: "I went to see the Broadway plays and musicals, and they didn't interest me at all. I went to the opera and it wasn't interesting either. And then I went to the dance and I liked it, particularly Balanchine and Cunningham's work. I think what interested me was that they were architectural patterns arranged in time and space." His visual idiom began to evolve within this context of 1960s New York cultural experimentation - minimalism, performance art, and happenings provided a fertile ground for artists, like Wilson, who shared such ambitions as smudging the barrier between art and life, exploring words as sound, and replacing fictional characters with everyday people performing ordinary activities, all according to new rituals of their own design. "There was an energy in New York then," Wilson has reminisced, "certain things going on that everyone fed off - painters, poets, writers, dancers, composers, directors. [John] Cage liberated all of us."

Many aspects of the visual vocabulary Wilson discovered then still survive in his work. He directs almost entirely visually and intuitively, communicating mostly through drawings, and what he calls a "visual book," which is tantamount to the score in a Wilson endeavor. "Our theatrical language has been limited by literature," he told New York Times culture writer Mel Gussow. "That is not to say that words are unimportant. But the 'visual book' doesn't have to be subservient to what you hear."

An American Abroad

One notable - and, to many American fans, discouraging - aspect of Wilson's theater career, that has only begun to change in recent years, has been the remarkable dialectic between Wilson's near cultfigure status among European theatergoers and relative anonymity among even sophisticated American audiences. He is probably the most prolific theater artist in the world, routinely presenting up to a dozen new projects every year (directing and/ or designing them all), in what many consider to be a deeply rooted American aesthetic and yet he works almost entirely on the other side of the Atlantic.

Such a discrepancy has been predicated on the very different political circumstances governing American and European arts funding. As culture budgets have been slashed in the United States, Europe's ambitious programs of public- sponsored theater have continued to back the leading experimenters and innovators of our time. Given the oversized environments Wilson creates onstage, and the time required to rehearse and design to his meticulous specifications (for example, a crew of 56, working three to four days in advance, are needed at every staging of Einstein on the Beach), European theater and opera houses have embraced - and funded - his work far more consistently and generously than their American counterparts.

France and Germany, in particular - both countries with state subsidized theaters that are the envy of the world - have nurtured Wilson's talent ever since the French government first embraced his work (in the form of a $250,000 gift) in 1976, enabling him to present Einstein on the Beach that summer at the Avignon Festival. His first German residency followed in 1979 (to create Death, Destruction & Detroit) at West Berlin's Schaub�hne, and over the following 15 years some of his best work has been commissioned by Germany's venturesome public theaters, who at times even vie for the latest Wilson premiere.

Wilson has always been a devoted collaborator, and some of his finest works to date are the result of fruitful relationships with fellow explorers into the far reaches of visual and musical experimentation. Perhaps an unlikely trio at first glance, Wilson, Waits, and Burroughs found in each other kindred spirits for the fanciful journey through German Expressionism, Faustian gambles, and surreal whimsy that are the heart of The Black Rider.

Pitched somewhere between a vaudevillian nightmare and a cabaret fun show, with a plot based on Carl Maria von Weber's landmark 1821 opera, Der Freisch�tz ("The Free-Shooter"), The Black Rider is a contemporary (and thoroughly Wilsonian) retelling of this granddaddy of German Romantic operas. With its forest setting and tale of a forester who accepts magic bullets from the Devil to win the hand of his beloved in a shooting contest, the Bohemian legend possesses all the right elements to inspire Wilson's dreamlike idiom, Waits's wry, grungy sound, and Burroughs's drug-addled allegories and Beat reverence for the unexpected.

Come On Along With The Black Rider

The Black Rider at A.C.T. marks the triumphant culmination of several years of international planning, casting, rehearsing, and staging. With an international cast of actors and musicians hailing from five different countries, The Black Rider is one of the most ambitious, multinational productions A.C.T. has ever launched. A coproduction with London's Barbican Theatre, where the show enjoyed an acclaimed run earlier this summer, The Black Rider will travel to Australia's Sydney Festival following its San Francisco performances.

The first major Wilson work to receive an extended run in San Francisco, The Black Rider's grand scale and international collaboration team is representative of an adventurous career that continues to cross boundaries between art forms, ideas, and cultures themselves. Wilson's overriding emphasis on the emotional power of images, rather than language, may in fact enhance his work's intrinsic international appeal, allowing it to reach across borders and into wildly disparate cultures much more easily than most language-intensive theater.

At age 63, Wilson is still relentlessly busy, with numerous projects simultaneously in various stages of development all over the globe The past eight months are emblematic: La Fontaine's Fables at the Comedie Fran�aise in Paris (January 2004), Puccini's Madame Butterfly at Los Angeles Opera (February/ March); the 14th-century Indonesian epic I la Galigo in Singapore, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Lyon, Rome, and New York (May - July), a Giorgio Armani retrospective installation in Rome (May), The Black Rider at the Barbican (June), and China Moon, his 11th annual summer fundraiser gala (July) at the Watermill Center, Wilson's six-acre property in eastern Long Island and home to his nonprofit arts laboratory, where multidisciplinary artists from all over the world convene every summer to study and inspire each other's creative process.

Watermill (also, ironically, funded almost entirely by non-American sources) has served as the birthplace of all of Wilson's theater projects for the last several years and, as he envisions the center's significant role in preserving his legacy after his death, it may be, of all his projects, the one closest to his heart. When asked to explain his vision for Watermill, and thereby his perspective on his trailblazing career's present and future, Wilson is fond of relating a story from his days as an architecture student at Pratt, in his favorite class, taught by Sibel Moholy-Nagy: She said one day, "Students, you have three minutes to design a city. Ready, go!" I drew an apple, and inside the apple I put a crystal cube. She asked, "What is that?" I said, "A plan for a city, like a medieval village where you had a cathedral in the center." The crystal cube was the core and could reflect the universe. I've often gone back to think about that, about how our cities need centers where people can go for enlightenment, education, pleasure. The most important thing I learned from this class was how to see the big picture quickly. Theater, like design, has to be about one thing first, and then it can be about a million other things.



By Paul Walsh
(The American Conservatory Theater Performance Program, The Black Rider. Encore Arts Programs August/ September 2004. Volume 11, Issue 1)

On October 7, 1955, the American cultural landscape shifted with seismic abruptness when Allen Ginsberg took the makeshift stage of San Francisco's obscure Six Gallery on Fillmore to recite from his new American epic, Howl. Inspired by a peyote fed hallucination of the red eyed monster Moloch wreathed in smoke on the upper floors of the St. Francis Hotel, Ginsberg raved in a new kind of poetic rapture about the realities of despair and the possibility of beatific joy. Ginsberg's friends and sometime lovers Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady stood in the back of the room, chanting affirmations and tapping time on a jug of cheap red wine. "Yeah, man, go." This was the birth of Beat, or rather, its apotheosis. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books published How/ the following year, it was met by a protracted pornography trial that brought notoriety and solidarity to this new school of American poetry whose only credo was "tell it like it is."

By this point, the handful of East Coast writers who had given birth to the Beat generation Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, and William S. Burroughs had been hanging out together and writing for over a decade. In 1955 Burroughs was in Tangiers and had been for over a year, strung out on Eukodal, a synthetic form of codeine. He had been a sort of perverse criminal father figure to Ginsberg and Kerouac when the three patrolled the gritty environs of post World War II Times Square together in the late '40s, searching for drugs and stories and sex. In 1951 Burroughs had killed his second wife at a drunken, drugged out party in Mexico while acting out the story of William Tell. He shot her in the side of the head. Later he acknowledged: "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death." He published his quasi autobiographical docufiction Junky in 1953 under the pseudonym William Lee, and his hallucinatory novel, Naked Lunch, in 1959.

Kerouac published his epochmaking novel, On the Road, in 1957. It became an overnight success and was followed in quick succession by a half dozen more "stream of consciousness" novels, including The Subterraneans (1958), The Dharma Bums (1958), Doctor Sax (1959), and Visions of Cody (1960). Each espoused the beatitude of spontaneity and the metaphysical wonders of marijuana and Benzedrine.

Howl (1956), On the Road (1957), Naked Lunch (1959): these were the seminal works of a new generation and a new movement that was decidedly and outlandishly American. And it is to the decidedly American traditions of this movement that Robert Wilson turned when crafting the libretto for The Black Rider, anchoring this German folk play and tribute to German Expressionism in the renegade traditions of mid 20th century American fiction.

Burroughs's personal legacy of bullets and lifetime of experimentation made him a natural to write the libretto for Wilson's Black Rider, though he was living out the final years of his life in sober seclusion in Lawrence, Kansas. And the angelic yearnings and gravelly voice of Tom Waits made him Burroughs's ideal collaborator. Though of another generation, Waits, like those who came before him, celebrates the beatific visions of down and out late nights in America's outlaw streets. Deviant pleasures and discarded revelations speak of a humanity caught between atornization and apocalypse. Waits's songs are revelations, bemused prophecies, mystical adventures into the heart of an elusive America on the run from the stark realities of daylight. Like Burroughs and the Beats, Waits celebrates the madness of life in an exquisite pairing of words and visions that rebel against their meaning.

The Beat vision of mid century America, and of those who followed after, was one of urban gambles strung together by miles of highway a striking contrast to the ancient agrarian story of Black Rider, of the hunter and the devil and his silver bullets. This story, which had spawned opera in the European mold, now gives birth to a new kind of musictheater with a decidedly American flare and sound and feel. The contradiction between the openness of the wide and wild American road and the constrained darkness of a Teutonic forest creates a skewed and jagged dynamic that threatens to burst the borders of this makeshift backyard cabaret.

Here the postwar American aesthetic of unrestrained candor and freshness that grew up in the face of cold war bureaucratic speak, celebrating at the altar of spontaneity and preaching that "the first thoughts are the best thoughts," proves how reminiscent it is of the inventive rawness and immediacy of the Expressionist poetry that dominated the German avant garde in the years between the wars. Among the young radicals of Germany in the years between the wars, as among the Beats in the years following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, expression was everything and immediacy was all. Old assumptions and rules were thrown to the winds. Artists sought to give shape to what lies dormant within them, exploring extreme psychological states and disorienting emotional excesses in the quest for spiritual transcendence and hidden meaning. Created by people displaced within their own country and their own social order, Expressionist poems, plays, and films radiated a sense of mad disorientation and impotent rage. In this the Expressionists followed in the footsteps of the Symbolists, searching for a clue to the hidden meaning of the universe; and after them, by way of Abstract Expressionism, followed the Beats.

When he died 1997, Burroughs was eulogized in Wired News as a "junkie faggot, interdimensional voodoo tactician, and antediluvian comedian" and as "an icon of apocalyptic hipster cynicism." The epitaph is fitting. Nearly half a century earlier, in his poem "On Burroughs' Work" (1954), Allen Ginsberg wrote:

A naked lunch is natural to us,
we eat reality sandwishes.
But allegories are so much lettuce.
Don't hide the madness.

The aesthetic that Burroughs exemplified and Ginsberg extolled in his poem was one of "actual vision & actual prisons, / as seen then and now." It is a vision extolled by others of their generation and of generations before and later. It is this that gives particular vibrancy to the darkly enigmatic story within the story of The Black Rider: a German fable for all ages told in a decidedly American vocabulary.




("Words On Plays: Insight into the play, the playwright, and the production. The Black Rider." American Conservatory Theater, 2004)

GLASS HARMONICA. Glasses filled with varying amounts of water so as to alter the pitch of the sounds obtained by striking them with sticks were already used in early times by the Persians, the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Arabs (the tusut was first mentioned in 1406), but the technique took a decisive turn in 1743 when an Irishman, Richard Puckeridge, had the bright idea of standing the glasses on a table and rubbing the rims with wet fingers. Benjamin Franklin first saw that instrument, which was also played by the composer Gluck, at a concert given by the English virtuoso Delaval. It was called the "angelic organ," the "musical glasses," or "seraphim." Franklin, fascinated by the "soft and pure sound of the musical glasses," modified them so as to increase their possibilities. He dubbed his new invention, created in 1761, the "glass Armonica." The glass harmonica (as it is now known) was very popular from the start. Some 400 works were composed for it, some unfortunately now lost, and probably about 4,000 instruments were built over the course of some 70 years. The instrument, adored or hated, roused passionate responses. Paganini declared it to have "such a celestial voice"; Thomas Jefferson claimed it was "the greatest gift offered to the musical world of this century"; Goethe, Mozart, Jean Paul, Hasse, and Th�ophile Gautier all praised it. Some, however, claimed that its haunting and ethereal voice drove its players insane. A dictionary of instruments, for example, mentions that the sounds "are of nearly celestial softness but ... can cause spasms." In his Traite des effets de la musique sur le corps humain (Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body), J.M. Roger in 1803 said that "its melancholy timbre plunges us into dejection ... to a point that the strongest man could not hear it for an hour without fainting." It is true that some performers of the instrument ended their lives in mental hospitals, among them one of the best, Marianne Davies. In his Anleitung zum Selbstunterricht auf der Harmonilka (Method of Self Instruction for the Harmonica), published in 1788, however, Johann Christian Muller answered objections: "It is true that the Armonica has strange effects on people.... If you are irritated or disturbed by bad news, by friends, or even by disappointment from a lady, abstain from playing, it would only increase your disturbance." The Armonica was accused of causing such evils as nervous problems, domestic squabbles, premature deliveries, fatal disorders, and animal convulsions. The instrument was even banned from one German town by the police for ruining the health of people and disturbing public order (a child died during a concert). Franz Anton Mesmer, a Vienna doctor known for using hypnosis to treat his patients, used the glass harmonica in his treatment. He was forced to leave Vienna after a blind pianist, Marie Paradies, recovered her sight but to the detriment of her mental health. Rumors of this kind contributed to the demise of the Armonica, which in 1829 had been considered "the fashionable accessory of parlors and drawing rooms." Although Karl Leopold R�llig in the late 18th century had tried to add a keyboard to the glass harmonica in order to avoid the possible danger caused by rubbing the fingers against the glasses, few later composers were interested in the instrument. The increasing intensity of the sound of orchestras deterred musicians from using a fragile instrument with such a delicate sound. Yet, there were two outstanding exceptions. In 1835 Donizetti used the glass harmonica in the mad scene of his opera Lucia di Lammermoor (soon replaced by two flutes), and Richard Strauss wrote for it in the last act of his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, first staged in Vienna in 1919. Thanks to the German performer Bruno Hoffmann, who played a Glasharfe (glasses standing on a table), and to the German born master glass blower Gerhard Finkenbeiner, who settled near Boston in the United States, a new generation of performers, composers, and instrument makers has rediscovered the glass harmonica since 1982. The Magic Bullets band features the unusual talents of Thomas Bloch, a specialist in rare instruments, including the glass harmonica and its relative the cristal Baschet, both heard in this production of The Black Rider. Bloch is one of only two professional glass harmonica players in the world today.

CRISTAL BASCHET. The cristal Baschet was invented by the French Baschet brothers, Francois and Bernard, a sculptor and an engineer, respectively, who since 1952 have collaborated on creating sound sculptures and inventing musical instruments. Their original aim was to get closer to the new tones born in the early 1950s. Their visually striking instruments, which they call "structures sonores" ("sonorous sculptures"), are often crafted out of steel and aluminum and amplified by large curved conical sheets of metal. A close cousin to the glass harmonica, the cristal Baschet (sometimes called the "crystal organ") is composed of 54 chromatically tuned glass rods, which are rubbed with wet fingers. In the cristal Baschet, however, the vibration of the glass is passed on to a heavy block of metal by a metal stem, the variable length of which determines the frequency of the vibration (and therefore the pitch of the sound). Amplification is obtained by fiberglass cones fixed on wood and by a tall cut out metal piece in the shape of a flame. "Whiskers," placed under the instrument and to the right, increase the volume of high-pitched sounds. Born at the same time as "musique concrete," electro acoustic music, and early synthesizers (like the MOOG), the cristal Baschet is their close relative, but completely acoustic, without any electric amplifying device.

ONDES MARTENOT. Designed and built in 1928 in France by Maurice Martenot, the ondes ("waves") Martenot is an electronic keyboard instrument with some unusual performance features, among them a finger ring attached to a ribbon that can be pulled to achieve certain pitch bending effects, a lever located under the keyboard to control timbral change, and a volume controller to the left of the keyboard. Music for the ondes Martenot was composed by Oliver Messiaen, Darius Milhaud, Edgard Var�se, Pierre Boulez, and other well known composers. The ondes Martenot (also played by Thomas Bloch in The Magic Bullets band) became the first successful electronic instrument and the only one of its generation still used by orchestras today.

MUSICAL SAW. The musical saw (played in The Magic Bullets by David Coulter, who also performs on the Stroh violin, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, and didgeridoo in this production) is often a standard, manual wood cutting saw. Professional "sawyers," however, often opt for a custom made musical saw, which tends to have a longer blade for a greater range and thinner metal for sweeter notes. The saw is played seated, with the handle squeezed between the legs, and the far business end held with one hand. The player creates sound by bending the saw into a lopsided s shape the top curve is imperceptible and drawing a bow across the bottom curve. The note produced depends on where one draws the bow, and the shape of the curves. It is also possible to play the musical saw by tapping it with a mallet rather than drawing a bow. However produced, the sound made has an eerie, vocal quality.

STROH VIOLIN. When music recordings were made in the early 20th century, the sounds made by a performer were directed at a single large horn. Those of a normal violin were neither sufficiently loud nor directional to record well. Working in London between 1899 and 1901 John Matthias Augustus Stroh therefore invented a new kind of violin with built in amplifying "horns," which incorporated elements of the gramophone. Stroh replaced the violin's usual wooden body with a metal resonator to produce a louder, more penetrating sound. The body of the Stroh violin consists of a long narrow piece of wood, the upper surface of which serves as the fingerboard. An aluminum horn at the end of the fingerboard directs the sound either into the recording horn or into the ear of a singer. The performer places a smaller aluminum horn at his or her own ear in order to hear what is being played more distinctly. The Stroh violin was manufactured in London by Augustus's son Charles Stroh from 1901 to 1924, and then by George Evans until 1942. The Strohs also produced a few violas, cellos, guitars, mandolins, and ukuleles based on the same principle.


(Blognote outtakes. Jake Thornton official site. August/ September 2004)

August 19, 2004: "For those who don't know me, I am an actor. I trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. I am currently on the world tour of a show called 'The Black Rider'. The show is written by beat poet William S. Burroughs (The Naked Lunch), with music by Tom Waits (Mule Variations), and is directed by Robert Wilson (Orlando, Hamlet Machine). I came into this job from the wonderful position of not knowing who any of these people were. Some people can't believe that, but it's true. I am actually very glad, as I think I would have been completely overwhelmed by the history and great wealth of work that these three people have behind them. We rehearsed in London at Sadlers Wells and the Barbican Centre, before starting a 5 week run at the Barbican. The show was received with mixed reaction. I always described this piece as "A marmite show." People were either gonna love it or hate it! And it was true. Nothing quite like it had ever been seen on the London stage before. Burroughs' great text, filled with drug related imagery, Waits' score with its fantastic mixture of never combined sounds, and Wilson's visionary direction all combined to make a most interesting piece of theatre. The cast includes Marrianne Faithful (Broken English) and Matt McGrath (Cabaret, Hedwig and the Angry Inch.). Burroughs own influence during his life obviously had a great part to play in the creation of this piece. A Heroine addict, he accidentally shot his wife while under the influence. It is no surprise that the protagonist of the show is called Willhelm. Indeed Burroughs text leans toward this feeling of constant addiction: "Somehow he got into the Magic bullets, and that leads straight to devils work. Just like Marijuana leads to heroin......." The run in London finished in June. We have had all the summer off, and we are now in San Francisco until October. We are performing in the Geary Theater which is run by the American Conservatory Theater (ACT). The theatre is absolulty beautiful and I can't wait to start work in it. We start re-rehersals tomorrow (Friday 20th) and we have our first preview next Wednesday 25th."

August 20, 2004: "The tech in London took forever. We spent 3 days doing the first five minutes of the show. Seriously. We were going mad. The Director, Robert Wilson, is slightly autistic. This gives him an incredible sense of space and detail, but his sense of time is dimished. He has a great eye for what we are doing on stage and has a great vision for what the piece is, but spends so much time on tiny little almost insignificant details that we really got held up in London. However, he is not out here yet. He will be joining next week. Instead his assistant, Ann Christen Rommen, is taking the tech. She really wants to get things moving on. We will have to as our first preview is next Wedneday and we will need to get there. In London, we were nowhere near as prepared. Our first preview was also our first dress rehearsal. The show came down at 11.30! We have new make up artists who are trying to create very complicated stuff on our faces. Robert is so into his makeup for the actors. It takes its inspiration from the German Expressionist movement. Our faces are entirely white with heavy eye makeup and square mouths. I'll post a picture in the gallery when I have some images to show you. The make up artist hasn't got it quite right yet. She's quite nervous at the moment and someone has obviously put the fear of Bob in her. It took two weeks for my make-up artist in London to get it quite right. Whenever we would show it to Bob on stage he would go "No. No. No. This is completely wrong. Go back and do it again". I have been trying to get back into the physicality of the show. The show is heavily physical and Bob likes his actors to move in a certain way. It took me ages in London to get this down. Robert always talks about not anticipating movement with the body. He says the mind and body should move at the same time. Sounds easy? Oh no! We spent a long time just trying to walk without anticipating what we are doing. Don't move with the mind first and then the body, but move both at the same time. Also he has this thing about keeping tension in the body. Not the kind of negative tension, but active tension that is engaged in what one is doing. Even while one is standing still, one should be entirely present and active. He says that standing still on stage is one of the hardest things to do. He's right. To maintain presence and action while merely standing still is difficult. Because it's not just about standing. It's about standing and being ready to react at any moment. My tutor, Patsy Rodenburg, at Guildhall always called this "being on the front foot". What Robert does is talk about the inner tension, the inner dynamic within the actor. We must push down with the legs, and pull up in the chest. So there's kind of an inner pull. He also talks about being aware of the space behind you. This, he says, supplies the energy out front. He often used the example of imagining that there was a gunman behind us with a gun to our head. Our awarness of the space behind us and our pressence in that moment was greatly heightened. Also in terms of stage gesture, he talks about the gesture going both ways. So, if one has to move ones arm up, it also travels down as well. The energy of this gesture goes both ways. I'll write more on Bobs working process in later logs.This is all very simplified here. We talked a lot about it in London and it took me a long time to give in to his tightly controlled way of working, but then found an incredible freedom within that framework."

August 21. 2004: "I have already gone on for one of my parts today. Young Kuno is the young version of the father of the forrester who is Katchen's father. We see Young Kuno in a flash back and see that he made a similar pact with the devil when he was young. So the death of Katchen is not only Willhelm's fault, but also the fault of her grandfathers as no debt to the devil remains unpaid. The costumes for the show are quite incredible. They are meant to look as if they have been made out of coloured paper. Young Kuno's suit is entirely made out of purple crumpled paper (It's actually a kind of plastic, but don't tell anyone). It is very difficult to walk quietly backstage in them, but you learn how to after a while. We have also been spending a long time re-lighting parts of the show. Bob always designs all the lights for his shows with his assistant Heinrich. "The lights", he says, "are almost like characters within the piece. The lights also help the audience hear better." An odd idea, but it actually works. Matt McGrath, who plays Willhelm, always jokes at Bob's booming voice that comes from the auditorium via a microphone. "I can't hear you Bob, because I can't see you!".

August 24. 2004: "Tom Waits joined the show today but isn't with us for very long. He sounds just like he does on his records. I was watching him work with Matt McGrath. He moves around the auditorium checking out how it sounds from all different places. Then he sits down and rocks in his chair. He lives totally in sound and has an amazing attention to detail. The band in London was sometimes too loud and I think it is important for us to get the right balance. Anyway, he's really cool and will be with us again tomorrow so that should be fun. For the rest of the day we are singing through all the songs from the show in mics. Feel like a proper actor today. We were all sat on stage, with our individual bottles of water singing through the show with a whole band. The band are fantastic and totally unique. The instruments we have in it are bizzare: The toy piano, Dijeredoo, Glass Harmonica, Musical Saw to mention but a few. They're all really great people and am glad to be working with such talented and unique musicians. The musical director, Bent Clausen, has worked with Tom Waits before, so knows the kind of sounds we are trying to create each night."

August 25. 2004: "Well, today was our first dress rehearsal. We were called in at 1ish to finish the tech. Luckily we managed to get through it all. Then we were into a brief break and then straight into running the show. The problem with tech periods is by the time you get back to running it, you can't remember the notes you were given at the begining! All went well from the performance side of it. But one would expect that as we have done the show before. technically there were a few hiccups, but it's a first dress and that is to be expected. There was an added pressure in that Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan were watching tonight. There was also a large contingent of press, some doing various articles on the show before it opens next week. This was nice in one way as it gave us an audience to play to, and not just the crew. Some may consider Wilson's way of dictating to the actor the exact way of performing quite limiting. In reality it is not. It can be quite freeing. One just has to have the right mentality for it. At first when I began working on the show in London I found myself getting very vexed by this new method of working. Wilson would dictate everything to us from the stalls via a microphone. He would tell us exactly where to stand so we could be lit correctly and create a stage picture. He would tell us where our weight should be. Where the tension in our body would be. He once spent tweny minutes instructing me how to take three steps. However, he creates this form so the actor doesn't have to worry about where or how he stands. That is totally out of our control. We can focus on putting our real work into filling this form. One of the Barbican producers, Louis Jeffreys said "The stronger the character of the actor playing the part, the more it comes through this mould that he has set". It has been a very interesting time for me as an actor. Tom gave us notes after the show: "Yeah. I finally understand what this show is about now. Because before it was all in German..... I really dig it!.... It needs tightening like a guitar string or a puppet, but its nearly there.... When me and William [Burroughs] and [Robert] Wilson got together it was all like an experiment. We played around with things and made lots of mistakes.....this is definitely alive now...... Whenever I watch one of Roberts shows I always think it is like going to the aquarium. Like watching these fish swim real slow and cool and you notice everything about them. It's the same with this. You see every foot, every elbow, every eye movement.... you bring the audience with you until it's quite normal to be doing it at this Wilson speed. If someone were to come on in regular time it would be totally wrong. Just as if someone were using Wilson time on a regular show." Tom picked up on lots of sound notes. Mainly its about balancing the band. Many in London felt it was too loud. The band are doing great though and Marianne said: "Even if the audience don't like what's going on onstage, they can still feel like they're coming to a really good concert."

August 26. 2004 "Yes, the show is living like an onion according to Tom Waits today.Today was the first preview in front of a real audience. The ticket sales for TBR have been great. The first day that the tickets were on sale to the public broke all records for ticket sales for ACT. Pretty impressive. Anyway, the preview went well. Again a few technical glitches but nothing we had to stop the show over. After the show went down to the bar to listen in on the notes that Tom was giving the band. I reiterate what I said yeserday. He lives in sound. He lives in feel and mood of music. All the members of the band find him truly inspirational. I was talking with two of them on the way home about their experience of him. They love his sense of humour and how he almost seems to know all their thoughts about what they are playing and what they want to do with it. Tom said: "I can't stand that sentimental bullshit. Give me false sincerity. I love false sincerity. I grew up on that" I think he's reall cool and individual. I guess that serves my developing argument that all 'cool' is is just being yourself and enjoying it. Everyone's really enthusiastic about the show and I think it's gonna be a big success over here. Feeling very proud to be part of it now, after a long time of perhaps being quite ashamed of being part of such a wierd show."

August 27. 2004: "Well into previews now. Came in for notes during the afternoon. The notes were interesting. Bob still isn't here, so the notes were conducted by Ann Christen. I seem to have lost the 'Bob Wilson walk'. Bob is very specific, as I've described previously, about how his actors move on stage. One must push down with the legs, and pull up with the chest. This really creates a great sense of length within the body and creates an interesting dynamic within the body. Then when one moves, the audience should never see the first move coming. It should always be a surprise and the mind and the body should move as one. Then when one moves, the body should be filled with the kind of tension one has as if one were moving through a strong current or through mud. There is a resistance to ones moves. He also talks about the energy behind you. He put his hand behind my head and said "This is man with a gun". The awareness of the space behind you is greatly increased and somehow that supplies the energy out front. Anyway, I've lost the walk. I think I'm concentrating on it too much. Ann Christen thinks that this is the problem and that it appears disconnected. It sounds so stupid to be held up by a small thing like a walk. But it really is an important part of how we are moving on stage."

August 28. 2004: "The press that were in earlier this week to watch the dress rehearsal have been going nuts over the show. Matt is on the cover of the equivilant of The Sunday Times Arts section over here. And there is loads of press attention. How exciting. Found out today that Francis Ford Coppola is coming to the opening night party. Must get something cool to wear. Thinking white shirt, light trousers and a white trilby? Think that'll do! Evening show was also fine and we have found out that Bob Wilson is joinig us tomorrow for the evening show. If I thought we were having big notes now, wait till he gets here. One of his most bizzare notes ever was: "Jake, breathe" "I am breathing Bob" "No, breathe through your face" What?! As oposed to through my ears or out of my arse?! Laughed about it at the time, but now appreciate the note. It's not just about breathing, but allowing the face to breathe. Another great note he gave me was: "Listen with your eyes" Sounds stoopid but actually a good note when one has nothing to say on stage. As I do. A lot."

August 29. 2004: "Bob Wilson arrives..... Well we're all a bit on edge today because Bob is joining us today. Don't know why we're so nervous but we are. I think because now we know that he will pick out everything that is wrong (or right) with the show. He worked us like little slaved bunnies in London, and I guess I'm afraid the same will happen here. Anyway, the show started and the news was that he hadn't even arrived yet. I'm not surprised. He was 40 minutes late for his own lecture at the Barbican centre in London. Anyway, the show went well. Tom had changed some of the music before the show. Nigel's big Crossroads song is now different. Rather than having a Latin feel to it, it's now more Germanic and square. And the second Crossroads music is also different, now being played on wooden beat instruments. Jack Willis was very angry that we hadn't had the chance to rehearse it and found it deeply disrespectful that we as actors should be made to go on stage and perform something that we had not rehearsed. We had a few notes with Bob and Tom after the show. I was quite nervous but: "I think this is the best I've ever seen the work" was Bob's first note. Hurrah!!! Some more notes: "The most important thing in theatre is to listen. When you are listening the audience hear better" "You are not competing with eachother so much" "A few dynamics and structural moments of the piece are missing" He talks about the colums of the piece. What points in the show keep it up? Also talks about structural line through a piece. "There is more rapport between the audience and puppet' Resent being called a puppet, but hey. The best thing he said though was "Remember to have fun" Oh yeah. Tom said: In graveley deep voice "Yeah it's great. Musically there are more dynamics. It's like pistons which I love" "It stands up on it's own" "Remember that you are all equally important" Hurrah. Hurrah. Hurrah!"

August 31. 2004: "Well down to work with Bob. He's being a lot more supportive this time round and feel that he is being much more human and approachable. In London I kinda felt that he was inaccessable and distant. this time he's being quite friendly, although I still doubt that he actually knows who the hell I am. Whenever he looks at me I get this kind of 'are you in this show' kinda look. Anyway, he gave us lots of notes. Here is a summary: It's much better. You are not competing so much so we as the audience listen better. Music and stage realtion is good. Keep it dangerous, alive and tense. We must earn pauses. We must create this dynamic of going very loud and then earning the silences. Build to a silence. Nigel Richards piped up about the change in music in the Crossroads section. He doesn't feel supported by the music and I have to agree. The new music Tom wrote just doesn't work as well as it did. The symbiosis of actor and music has been broken and it no longer works as effectivly. Bob said he would call Tom and talk it over with him."

September 23. 2004: "We had a student matinee today. This is basically a show entirely for 13 - 17 year olds. I was slightly nervous about performng to a group this young with a show this different. I was worried that their attention would waiver, mobiles would go off, and that there would be a stoney silence throughout the show. It was one of the best performing experiences I've ever had. They totally dug it. They got all the humour and they could appreciate the fact that it was different, rather than hold that against it. It was good that I got to do my understudy part in front of this group, as it gave me a real lift. At the end they went bananas! It was so good to feel that there was this youthful energy keeping the whole play alive."

November 7. 2004: "The final performance was great, and all had a fantastic time. I really feel that the company bonded in a way that it didn't in London. We were all way from home (even the Americans) and that really made us pull together as a great unit. Truly fantastic to be part of such a group. I doubt Sydney will be the same. So one thing ends and another begins. I learnt a lot in SF. Not sure I can catagorise them here. I'm sure they are the kind of lessons you can put names to, but I feel like a richer person. Seeing the world is defintily a good thing. To be among different people keeps you're mind open to different things. Everyone at ACT was great. The crew were one of the best I've ever worked with. And they went mad for the show."


A Musical Fable
(Copyright Sydney festival. 24 May, 2004)

Direction, Set and Lighting by Robert Wilson
Music and Lyrics by Tom Waits
Text by William S. Burroughs
With Marianne Faithfull and Matt McGrath

"A wonderful Wilsonian eclecticism." The Guardian
"Fantastically macabre carnival." The Observer (London)
"The event all of London's been waiting for." The London Theatre Record

Sydney Festival is the proud co-producer of The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets which opened on Friday night as part of BITE:04 at the Barbican Theatre in London.

The Black Rider is the cornerstone work for the 2005 Sydney Festival, a darkly comedic and groundbreaking music theatre piece from visionary director Robert Wilson, music legend Tom Waits and literary rebel William S. Burroughs.

The Black Rider is based on the original folk tale that inspired Webers 1821 folk opera Der Freischutz and tells a unique and ghoulishly funny tale touching on grand themes of good, evil and human folly. Marianne Faithfull, the legendary singer/songwriter and actor leads an international cast playing the devilish character of Pegleg, the black rider of the title.

Considered a milestone in theatrical history, The Black Rider was originally premiered as a German text production by the Thalia Theater in Hamburg in 1990. Now the Barbican Theatre, Cultural Industry, ACT San Francisco and Sydney Festival have collaborated to create a new production of this extraordinary work, reuniting the unique talents of Robert Wilson and Tom Waits.

Festival Director Brett Sheehy said, "During my time at Sydney Festival I have had the privilege to be involved with the creation of what I believe are several major art works for the 21st Century canon - both national and international. Of these the largest is the new production by the great directorial auteur Robert Wilson of The Black Rider. It will be the first time Wilson's work has ever been seen on a Sydney stage.

When the Festival gave Sydney the Australian premiere of Theatre du Soleil in 2002 it was viewed as a landmark theatrical event. I believe this stunning work to be no less so - and arguably the most significant musical theatre creation of the past 25 years. This presentation will be exclusive to Sydney, London and San Francisco. I believe such an extraordinary collaboration by Wilson, Waits, Burroughs will prove utterly irresistible to Australian audiences."

Direction, Set and Lighting by Robert Wilson
Music and Lyrics by Tom Waits
Text by William S. Burroughs
Costumes by Frida Parmeggiani
Original Musical Arrangements by Greg Cohen and Tom Waits
Music Adaptation by Bent Clausen
Dramaturgy by Wolfgang Wiens

Produced by BITE:04 Barbican Theatre, London and Cultural Industry.
Co-produced by Sydney Festival and ACT San Francisco in association with The Black Rider Circle.


(Daily News - Los Angeles area (USA). By Evan Henerson. April 23, 2006)

By Evan Henerson

The whiskey-over-nails rasp is near unmistakable. It's Tom Waits, California's back-roads troubadour, on the other end of the phone, and he's singing an occasional verse and tossing off references to obscure musical instruments, da Vinci (the man, not the code) and three-legged dogs.

More than 15 years after Waits first teamed up with director Robert Wilson and Beat Novelist William S. Burroughs (who died in 1997), the trio's folk opus, "The Black Rider": The Casting of the Magic Bullets," arrives at the Ahmanson Theatre for its L.A. premiere.

Waits, "Black Rider's" composer/ lyricist, is arriving as well, from his home in Petaluma, to work with the Magic Bullet band. Before his arrival, he called us from up north. Call it "Tom Waits, Reloaded."

Q: So while you're in town, will you sit in with the Magic Bullet band during one of the performances?

A: I've done that, but mostly I'm just going down and checking tempos. I get to bring a lot of instruments from my own collection of stuff, like these Balinese instruments that are like three shakers united on a frame, and they're both metal and bamboo. We have a saw player; that was exciting, and a pump organ. I think a pump organ is appropriate on just about anything.

Q: On one of these instrument lists, I read something about a "drunken piano." What in the heck is that?

A: I would say probably a piano that's severely out of tune. Yeah.

Q: This version of "The Black Rider" is essentially identical to the one that played London, San Francisco and Australia last year. Yet you're coming back to put in more work. Is your work on this never done?

A: The thing about theater is it's like putting a child in the living room and coming back five minutes later expecting to find it in the same spot. It doesn't happen. It always gets into something. That's the hell of that and the great part of that. It's always evolving and it's always kind of a three-legged dog. I don't mean that in a negative way. I own a three-legged dog and I love my three-legged dog.

Q: Wilson is quoted as saying that theater is "in your blood." Meaning in your, Tom Waits', red and white cells. Is he right?

A: Gee, I don't know. Hey, if Wilson said it, I'll take it. Because I love Bob. We're very different people, which is probably why we appreciate each other. There's a part of Bob that's a scientist, like he's working in a lab, mixing things. I'm much more like I kick around the yard, and see what I can dig up and find. Wilson's the best. You can't work with Wilson and come away from it without being changed in some real significant way as an artist.

Q: You've now done three projects with him. How have those experiences changed you?

A: Well, I think I'm probably a little less uptight with things. I've learned to be a little more playful and not get so hung up on the permanence of it all. We're making a record, and ultimately you want to make this thing be the same way you left it 20 years later.

Q: Take us back to the 1980's. What was going on in your life when "Black Rider" came together?

A: My life was in constant turmoil, I lived in about 12 different places over a two-year period, and I had two kids. My wife and I were bouncing around New York, and she thought I should meet Wilson. She'd seen "Einstein on the Beach" and was really moved by it. We met him, and he said something like, "I've got some time in, like, 2009," and he wasn't being facetious. He's really booked up into the future. But we wound up going to Lawrence, Kansas, and met with Burroughs. There was a little summit meeting out there, and it was really exciting getting this whole thing off the ground. Nobody knew what it would be or the form it would take. I remember Burroughs started singing, "Ain't no sin to take of your skin and dance around in your bones." For some reason, with him looking all skeletal himself, holding a drink in his hand and kind of doing a little jig in the middle of the floor, it was inspiring."

Q: How goes the new album?

A: We're doing a thing called "Orphans," a lot of songs that fell behind the stove while making dinner, about 60 tunes that we collected. Some are from films, some from compilations. Some is stuff that didn't fit onto a record, things I recorded in the garage with the kids. Oddball things, orphaned tunes. I think that's going to come out in the fall sometime.


(The Orange County Register (USA), by Paul Hodgins. April 26, 2006)

In 1989, gritty singer-songwriter Tom Waits teamed with avant-garde director Robert Wilson and legendary Beat writer William S. Burroughs on a new theater piece, "The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets."

Nobody was sure what would result from three such powerful and distinct talents.

Adding to the uncertainty, they were working not on an American subject but a German one: a folk tale about the Black Rider, best known outside Germany as the source of Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera "Der Freisch�tz."

Needless to say, the trio Americanized the Faustian story of a young marksman and his meeting with a devilish stranger whose magic bullets improve his hunting prowess in superhuman ways.

Burroughs' libretto turned it into a dark comedy with roguish Yankee touches: Hemingway-esque dialogue, metaphors about drugs. Inspired by Burroughs' adaptation and Wilson's visual ideas, Waits wrote the songs, using an unorthodox band that includes such oddities as toy piano, pocket trumpet, Stroh bass (it has hornlike attachments to amplify its sound), ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument) and glass harmonica (water-filled jars that vibrate when stroked).

The result was an instant hit when it opened at Hamburg's Thalia Theater in 1990. But "The Black Rider" has remained relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic. The Ahmanson staging is only the second North American production; the first was in San Francisco in 2004.

We talked to the elusive Waits about the experience of working on "The Black Rider," the slippery nature of the creative process, and whatever else entered his perpetually roving mind.

Orange County Register: Your original band for "The Black Rider" used a mixture of classical and street musicians. How did that work out?

Tom Waits: The musicians we chose were either from classical music or they were playing in a train station. At first there was a little conflict in the orchestra. There were folks that didn't read (music) and folks that had played in the Berlin Symphony; they were a little uppity.

OCR: Tell us about the strange orchestration.

Waits: I like unusual sound sources. I remember at the time I had a circle of friends from this more experimental musical world, and so I tried to write some of that into it. There were Stroh basses and cellos. The sound is captivating. And of course they look really cool, too.

OCR: What was the collaborative process like?

Waits: Wilson sets up a long table in the theater. It looks like Cape Canaveral. Low lights and machines. There's something really scientific about the whole environment that I really liked. You don't understand a thing you're hearing. I didn't really know what I was doing. With the songs, I was thinking, "How on the money do you want it to be?" You don't want to land on every turn in the plot. (You want to) give the audience some credit for being able to see where it's going.

OCR: What was the initial public reaction like?

Waits: It really caught on over there. It became kind of an underground version of "Cats" or something. It went all over the place, in high schools and colleges, and (it was) done by a lot of different theater companies.

OCR: How did you and Burroughs collaborate?

Waits: He wrote most of his words at his place in Lawrence (Kansas), and he'd send piles of material. Our dramaturge (would) edit and paste and cut and find the right spot for everything. Burroughs was just coughing up all this stuff, not writing in any linear way. Sometimes I would take something he wrote and turn it into a lyric. Sometimes we'd collaborate, like in "Just the Right Bullet." "To hit the tattered clouds you have to have the right bullets" - that's all Burroughs. "The first bullet is free" - that's me.

OCR: Are some of your influences from musical theater?

Waits: God, yeah, sure. I love Gershwin. Man, that second (piano) prelude (he sings its first phrase).

OCR: You've got wide-ranging tastes. I hear you also like Liberace.

Waits: It's really the arpeggios; it comes down to that. He was the poor man's Artur Rubenstein. He was playing in vaudeville houses. His act said, "Look at all these jewels, all this fur. So you left your little cold apartment to come to the theater? Look what I can do for you!"

OCR: What about Captain Beefheart?

Waits: Beefheart, he's in a category all by himself - he came out of the ground like a turnip. I think once you hear him you're earmarked. Of course when you hear somebody like that, you're hearing everything they ever heard. The odyssey is one of discovering your own voice: something you fashion yourself, hopefully some portion of your own unique spirit land.

OCR: What's your theory of songwriting?

Waits: Songs are hard, 'cause if they're too obvious they go right out the other ear. If they're not obvious enough they never go in. Nobody listens to a song like they're reading instructions. It's going in like someone who's telling you (his) dream. You're listening to it and connecting it up to your own dream and listening to the story in somewhat of a dream state yourself.

OCR: What was it like teaching other people to perform your songs?

Waits: Some people kill a good song and others take a weak song and strengthen it. Some people, everything they touch turns to gold. If you can sell a tune, you're a winner. Nobody gives a (crap) who owns it. Sometimes they're helping you because maybe the song is weak in your own throat and stronger in theirs.

OCR: Your career took a sudden turn in 1983 with the release of "swordfishtrombones." What happened?

Waits: I got married, fired my manager, and my wife and I produced a record. I had never done anything like that before. She put a fire under me. I was trying to discover what my voice really was. Up until that point I was trying to put my head on somebody else's body. I knew what I loved but hadn't really gone down deep in myself. What happens is you have all these irreconcilable musical influences that you don't really know what to do with. You love Charles Boyer and the Yardbirds. What do you do about that? So that was my deal. She kind gave me the guts to say, "Why can't every song sound a little different, like a compilation?"

OCR: Early in your career you were almost as famous for your raffish persona as your music. You've said that created some problems for you.

Waits: With most (performers), there's onstage and then there's backstage. I kind of grew up in public; I was 22 when I made my first record. I was falling down the stairs. I didn't know what I was doing, but I knew I was gonna be in music. Some people come out fully formed, like an egg. Not me. I was gathering things as I moved forward. A stage persona is very different from who you are. In fact, a persona is basically someone you don't believe you are that you're trying desperately to convince other people that you are.

OCR: You've often described songwriting as an almost mystical act.

Waits: Making up songs - like Bob Dylan says, you don't really write them, you just write them down. They're in some kind of stream over your head. And then you're receptive and open and you're vibrating at the right place, you can just pull one right down, you know. Just grab it by the legs like a chicken, pull it right down.


The full range of Robert Wilson's artfully hallucinatory style can be seen in the striking, if trying, "Black Rider" at the Ahmanson. By Charles McNulty, Times Staff Writer.
(The Los Angeles Times. Theater Review. April 28, 2006)

No one does pretty like Robert Wilson. No one does creepy like him, either. Under his directorial wizardry, misty moonlit nights give way to green-hued forest days only to be transformed into withering winter deadness. Cerulean vistas explode with the unnatural colors of an atomic blast. And illuminated objects and faces blanched with pancake makeup fall into gracefully geometric patterns of spiking menace.

"The Black Rider," the ultra-decadent Faustian cabaret with book by William S. Burroughs and music by Tom Waits, offers a virtual catalog of Wilson's signature scenic brilliance. This English-language production, which had its American premiere in 2004 at ACT San Francisco and opened Wednesday in a somewhat belated remount at the Ahmanson Theatre, hasn't yet entirely come together.

But for those who want to experience one of the foremost innovators of contemporary stagecraft, performed by an ensemble that, at its best, exemplifies the rigor of his hallucinatory vision, this isn't a bad place to start. Let's be clear, however, "Black Rider's" undeniably eye-catching aesthetic isn't for everyone.

Wilson's style can paralyze his storytelling. The glacial pacing can infuriate. And the theatrical vocabulary he's patented - so distinctive in look and motion, so influential in extending the possibilities of an integrated stage beauty - can seem annoyingly repetitious, disconnected from dramatic significance and tediously self-indulgent.

I owe Wilson for some of the most spectacularly beautiful moments I've had in a theater; I also owe him for some of the dullest.

"Einstein on the Beach," his groundbreaking collaboration with Philip Glass, will always be a watershed moment in my theatergoing, as surely as it has been a landmark for the late-20th-century avant-garde. But I've felt increasingly impatient during my last few encounters with Wilson's work. I loathed "The Days Before: Death, Destruction & Detroit III," his distastefully fanciful collage on apocalypse that left me grumpily catatonic. Nor was I an admirer of his exquisite but shallow handling of B�chner's "Woyzeck" (at UCLA Live in 2002) or his soporific fantasia of Strindberg's surreal and apparently unplayable "A Dream Play." Trusted friends told me that I would have thought more of his "Madama Butterfly," which I caught earlier this season at the Los Angeles Opera, had I experienced it during its freshly minted American premiere here in 2004.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I'm not exactly a member of Wilson's cult. Yet I have a weird lingering fondness for "Black Rider," which was first introduced to me 15 years ago on video by an Austrian dramaturge who saw the work's premiere in Hamburg in 1990 and who delighted in the fretful European concern over whether this darkly fun expressionistic cartoon could (perish the thought) be considered kitsch. By the time the German-language production reached the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1993, it was possible to simply enjoy the work for what it was - a rare and successful foray for Wilson into a more accessible (if not quite popular) entertainment that, irony of all ironies, represented a better meld of subject and style than the bulk of his loftier endeavors.

Inspired by an old German fable, which was the basis for Carl Maria von Weber's opera "Der Freisch�tz," "The Black Rider" revolves around a pen-wielding clerk named Wilhelm (Matt McGrath), who is prevented from tying the knot with his love, K�thchen (Mary Margaret O'Hara), because her father insists that she marry a hunter.

Enter the devil. Well, actually, the devil's been hanging around the whole time as a kind of emcee, which is part of the depraved joke. To get the girl of his dreams, Wilhelm cuts a Faustian bargain with the diabolical Pegleg (a game Vance Avery), who grants him a supply of magic bullets that will never miss their mark - that is, until the tragic end, when the debt finally comes due in the most perversely unfair way.

Wilson's approach to the old German folk tale is colored by the different sensibilities of his collaborators. First, there's the sumptuously designed Weimar-era cabaret with Kabuki inflections that Wilson has made one of his specialties. Then there are the undercurrents of Burroughs' adaptation, which register the author's perennial themes of addiction ("My hand feels for the bullets, like a junky groping for his stash") and marital violence (echoing Burroughs' own murder of his common law wife in a debauched game of William Tell). Finally, there's the gravelly jazz of Waits that combines stark Brecht-Weill attitude with more directly emotional American lyricism.

The end result is an update of an old morality tale for an age that has long since lost the necessary innocence to play it straight. The stylization, though filled with Wilson's usual exasperating ticks, is not mere window dressing, but part and parcel of a perspective that recognizes the difficulty of separating good and evil in a world in which straitjacketing convention has all but banished the authentic. No wonder magic-bullet escapes have become so sinfully alluring.

But enough with interpretation already. The production, though hampered by atrocious acoustics and the dizzying logistical challenges of the Ahmanson's ill-suited stage, provides a Wilsonian feast for the senses that doesn't, for a change, crowd out all intelligent sense.

Patience and a little adventurousness are required. But the effort isn't too demanding given some of the fiendishly bold talent on board.

The standouts include Nigel Richards, as Georg Schmid, a howling foreshadower of Wilhelm's plight; O'Hara as the zany ing�nue who practically stops the show with her delirious rendition of the macabre love ballad "I'll Shoot the Moon"; and the elastic-spined McGrath, who physicalizes his doomed protagonist's journey with a dancer's agility.

Not everyone will be willing to commit their souls to "The Black Rider." But for those prepared to open their minds to a different kind of theatrical language, the temptation may suddenly creep up on you.

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.


By Anne Marie Welsh
(The San Diego Union Tribune. May 2, 2006. � Copyright 2006 Union-Tribune Publishing Co)

LOS ANGELES - When geniuses collide, anything can happen. If last fall's collaboration between dance-maker Twyla Tharp and Bob Dylan in "The Times They Are A-Changin' " sounded unlikely, imagine Robert Wilson teaming his austere and elegant theater of images with the earthy, restlessly experimental, Dylan-influenced songs of Tom Waits.

In 1993, Waits first released the music to that Wilson collaboration on "The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets." But only now is the American version of the stage musical - a demented cabaret with a text by William Burroughs - making the rounds of a few American theaters. Stunning, surprising and brilliantly performed by an international cast, the work now at the Ahmanson Theatre fuses visual, musical and tonal elements so discordant that its unity shocks all the senses awake.

At one level, the piece looks like "The Munsters" re-imagined by a Vogue photographer. At another, it trafficks in the kind of jokes and shtick and even crossovers to mask scene changes that have fueled popular entertainments from low-comedy vaudeville to decadent German cabaret to the Kander and Ebb "Cabaret." Yet each scene is as precisely staged as a huge abstract canvas. And the story of "The Magic Bullets" is a Faustian morality tale, based on German legend, and deeply related to the old American myths of how the blues was born at a crossroads where the devil conned a music man into selling his soul for the sound.

In the Wilson-Burroughs-Waits retelling, the doomed hero (named Wilhelm and played by the versatile and appealing Matt McGrath) is a pen-and-ink man, a writer. The woman he wants to marry (Katchchen, played with Yoko-like strangeness by Mary Margaret O'Hara) can only have him if he becomes a hunter, a straight-shooter like her game-loving father, Bertram (played as Dopey by Dean Robinson).

The competitor for Katchchen is a madman of a hunter, Georg (Nigel Richards). His hair cascades down one shoulder, his black-lined mouth is always open, and the sounds he emits veer from bone-chilling howls to an impressively operatic and lyrical bass. Pegleg, a gorgeously sinuous and seductive Vance Avery, is the devil who provides the glowing, white rifle and the magical bullets with which Wilhelm will bag the stags whose bloody corpses come to fill (before intermission) the stage.

This description suggests that plot and character are conventionally conveyed in "The Black Rider," but in Wilson's world, they never are. Costumer Frida Parmeggiani works in bold, geometric blocks of color: Each character becomes a visual icon whose makeup, posture and style of movement fits into the overarching vision.

In the end, Wilhelm marries the girl, only to have his devil-steered bullet stray and kill her in an operatic ensemble that sets off the gradual disappearance of the cast. They had arrived in a self-propelled black box, a kind of coffin that spilled forth this troupe of traveling players as if out of a medieval wagon or a clown car. The devil has the last word, singing Waits' rueful sendup of an Edith Piaf torch song about the last rose of summer. And with that, Pegleg steps back inside the box, having seduced the audience (at least the large portion that stayed past intermission), too.

Other standouts in the cast include John Vickery as a sublimely creepy narrator, Old Uncle, modeled on the witch in "Snow White" in this Wilson piece; and Richard Strange as a godlike Kuno, speaking Confucian wisdom from a frame above the action.

Waits' wide-ranging instrumentation (played by a nine-piece, jazz-rock band on instruments, both traditional and unconventional, such as sax, marimbas, saws, glass harmonicas and didgeridoos) creates sounds that feel brand-new. Still, he penned off-beat show songs too: "The Briar and the Rose" for the young lovers, a cracked Kern-like ballad for the warbling bride, "I'll Shoot the Moon," and a couple of Dixie Chicks-go-downtown country tunes.

Wilson has found greater acceptance in Europe than in the U.S., where the sheer beauty of his imagery has not compensated many theater-lovers for his slow-motion, cerebral techniques of storytelling and his abstract approach to character.

"The Black Rider" remains a wonderful anomaly in the Wilson canon - both quirkily entertaining and widely accessible, thanks to the borderless sonic imagination of Waits. The troubadour's songs inject Wilson's aesthetic with juiciness, a warmth and wit that links his museum-quality stage painting to vaudeville, cabaret, circus and Broadway. The effect is one-of-a-kind and well worth the trip to L.A.

Direction, set and lighting: Robert Wilson. Music and lyrics: Tom Waits. Text: William Burroughs. Musical arrangements: Greg Cohen and Tom Waits. Costumes: Frida Parmeggiani. Music director: Bent Clausen. Cast: Matt McGrath, Vance Avery, Sona Cervena, Virenia Lind, Joan Mankin, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Robert Parsons, Nigel Richards, Dean Robinson, Gabriella Santinelli, Richard Strange, Monika Tahal, Jake Thornton, John Vickery.


By Ed Kaufman
(Reuters. May 2, 2006. � Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved)

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - With a score by Tom Waits, text by William S. Burroughs and an overall concept by the imaginative Robert Wilson, "The Black Rider" is an extraordinary, exaggerated, captivating, eclectic piece of musical theater.

Subtitled "The Casting of the Magic Bullets," it's a blend of German expressionism, surrealism, folklore, Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill antecedents, Kabuki theater, silent comedy, vaudeville, cabaret, morality tales, circus and opera. "Black Rider" is wonderfully realized onstage through the unbelievable imagination of Wilson, who not only directs but also created the expressionistic sets and vivid lighting.

Filtered through the hip sensibilities of the songs of Waits and the words of Beat poet Burroughs, "Black Rider" (which has a long history in Germanic folklore and was the source of Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera "Der Freischutz") is updated to include drug-related metaphors, a conversation with Ernest Hemingway and even a voice-over recording of the late Burroughs reading his rambling, sardonic poem "That's the Way."

"Black Rider" is about making a pact with the devil and having to pay the price, much like Christopher Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus," among many other such tales. Wilhelm (Matt McGrath), a naive and aspiring clerk, loves Kathchen (Mary Margaret O'Hara), daughter of the forester Bertram (Dean Robinson) and his wife, Anne (Joan Mankin). Kathchen also is being courted by the hunter Robert (Nigel Richards). Kathchen insists that they hold a marksmanship contest to determine the finest hunter, hoping that Wilhelm might have a chance to win.

But klutzy Wilhelm cannot hit the broad side of a barn -- until he is approached by a "dark horseman" named Pegleg (Vance Avery), in reality a sinister and conniving Satan. Pegleg agrees to give Wilhelm some "magic bullets" -- except for one bullet, which Pegleg earmarks for his own purposes. Before it's all over, Wilhelm winds up raving mad, a victim of one of Satan's pranks on the gullible and greedy. Or as Wilhelm's Old Uncle (John Vickery) and Kuno (Richard Strange) the old forester tell us: "Any bargain with the devil is a fool's bargain."

The "Black Rider" cast is absolutely splendid as they move about like stylized marionettes controlled by some higher source, always in sync with the vision of Wilson, the songs (folk, blues and rock) of Waits and the fragmented words and Anglo-American implications and allusions of Burroughs. Credit Monika Tahal, Gabriella Santinelli, Sona Cervena and Jake Thornton with outstanding support in an assortment of roles.

Cast: Wilhelm's Old Uncle: John Vickery. Pegleg: Vance Avery. Robert: Nigel Richards. Kuno: Richard Strange. Anne: Joan Mankin. Kathchen: Mary Margaret O'Hara. Wilhelm: Matt McGrath; Bertram: Dean Robinson. Director/ set designer/lighting designer: Robert Wilson; Music/lyrics: Tom Waits; Text: William S. Burroughs; Costume designer: Frida Parmeggiani.


Robert Wilson's bleak cabaret. By Steven Mikulan
(LA Weekly. May 3, 2006. � Copyright 2006 LA Weekly, LP)

"Curtain goes up and you have a black box . . . 10 seconds. The box goes vertical . . . 12 seconds. The devil, Pegleg, will come out of the box and introduce the company." Robert Wilson is sketching out on paper the storyboard for The Black Rider, his 1990 spectacle that is in revival at the Ahmanson Theater, where he has just concluded a rehearsal. He's dressed in a black sports coat, blue jeans and loafers, and looks younger than his 64 years. Wilson's office has no windows; a bouquet of Easter lilies sits wilting in a vase.

The pop opera, based on a German folktale, involves a young man who bargains with the devil for a handful of magic bullets that will ensure him victory in a shooting contest - and marriage to the love of his life. Most people know the story from Carl Maria von Weber's romantic opera Der Freisch�tz. Wilson's nearly three-hour production incorporates images from German Expressionism and the sounds of cabarets and carnivals, with some wildly captivating pictures. In one scene, the lovers sing to each other suspended above the stage; in another, actors move about the skinned carcasses of game animals littered onstage. But it's all about that black box.

Taking a pencil and sheet of paper to draw miniature images from his projects is something the director-designer has done before for interviewers. As Wilson's left hand traces across the page, he withdraws into the effort, as though in a trance. I try to interrupt, but he continues to describe the progress of the large coffinlike prop until it disappears in the show's finale: "The black box will fly away - let's give it some smoke." He ends by scribbling a graphite cloud under the square.

"This is what I do," he says in a deliberate voice that could belong to a high school wood-shop teacher or driving instructor - to anyone who understands the importance of clear instructions. "My participation as an author is in putting together a visual book, and it's usually the place from where we start. I stage it all silently and videotape it, and then they can work with the videotape."

"They," in the case of The Black Rider, were Tom Waits, who composed the music and songs, and the late William S. Burroughs, who wrote the show's book. It wasn't an overnight process.

"We put the text in later - almost a year later," says Wilson, who then searches for a description of his method. "This visual book becomes, uh, this, this - it is the text. Like, uh, what? Well, no one really works this way in theater."

Inside America's hermetically sealed arts world, the creator of Einstein on the Beach and the CIVIL warS has been lionized by colleagues and the culture press, although the blogs of some individuals who have worked or auditioned for him describe a cold, cerebrally aloof figure barely aware of their existence. Some attribute these traits to an awkward upbringing in Waco, Texas, just as Wilson's automatous voice has been traced to a severe speech impediment that he overcame in childhood. Whatever its sources, Wilson's impersonal persona makes his few flashes of emotion all the more vivid.

He remains an artistic contradiction because, while his involvement in every aspect of his projects links him to the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk tradition of the auteur, Wilson doesn't walk alone. Instead, he invariably seeks high-level collaborators like Waits and Burroughs for his operas and theater events.

Wilson begins to cough and asks an assistant to put on a teakettle. As Wilson begins to violently hack, the assistant brings some bottled water, which, in a baroquely hospitable gesture, the gagging Wilson offers to me first.

Many people will recognize The Black Rider even if they are unfamiliar with the story, because it is a spectacle pulsing with arresting imagery and declamatory text that add up to nothing. For about 30 years, auteur-driven stage works have been the most celebrated theater events, and while that has sometimes produced emotionally engaged monologists like Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian or Danny Hoch, more often it has become synonymous with multimedia bombast. On the sawdust end of this spectrum lie Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group, while its more intellectual proponents are people like Wilson, George Coates, Peter Sellars and the late Reza Abdoh. These last names are probably better known in Europe, where state-subsidized operas and performance festivals have nurtured big-picture artists hailing from an America of shrinking theater budgets.

Over the years, Wilson and others have built careers on commissions and festivals supported by the francs, marks and pounds sterling of arts-friendly countries. It would be foolish to paint Wilson and the others I've mentioned with the same brush, because each has a distinct political temperament. Still, they all prefer long, languorously staged productions (Einstein ran five hours, while Wilson's earlier The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin clocked in at 12) that rely upon aphoristic scripts and dissonant imagery, and for which "narrative" is the other N word.

When I ask Wilson why he chose The Black Rider, he replies, "I think this piece William and Tom and I made is something very special." Wilson's not being evasive - this is his answer; in other words, it's not the story that matters but the process of putting up the show. Although a fastidious controller, Wilson is also the collaborator par excellence and fondly remembers working with Waits.

"Tom and I are completely different men. We dress in different ways, we have different lifestyles. I'm much cooler in my sensibilities, he's more romantic. The two of us together are stronger than we are separately." Hearing this, one feels that The Black Rider was chosen almost randomly, as was the sheet of paper on which Wilson jotted down his storyboard. Actors, themes and sets are all little boxes that can be sketched in, made bigger or vertical with the stroke of a pencil.

The Black Rider's source material is a straightforward Faustian tale, but while Wilson's production can be viewed in any number of ways (anti-gun, anti-war, pro-tolerance - even pro-vegetarian), he avoids suggesting any messages. In this sense, Wilson's work, like that of many spectacle auteurs, fits snugly into the postmodern canon - productions whose ideas and spare dialogue seem to emerge from stage fog double-dipped in irony.

"I don't talk about interpretations," Wilson says. "Interpretation is not the responsibility of the director. It is not the responsibility of the actor. It is not the responsibility of the author. Interpretation is the responsibility of the public."

By illustration he recalls, as he has elsewhere, an outdoor trip to British Columbia.

"A bear broke into the cabin. I hold a torch on it for half an hour and it doesn't move. My arm begins to ache. An hour passes. I still hold the torch. The bear still doesn't move, but I can see he's relaxing. I am relaxing. Then he turns around and leaves. If only the audience could be like that bear."

This may explain his insistence that actors shun interpreting his work.

"I try to tell the actors to not assign a specific meaning to it," he says, oblivious now to the teakettle's whistle, which continues until his assistant returns to the office after running an errand. " 'I don't care what you think - think the opposite.' To attach a meaning to it would negate the possibility of all the other ideas."

Possibility is everything for Wilson - nothing is ruled out.

"One plus one is two. But two is one. And we often forget about that." Then, perhaps sensing his interviewer's confusion, Wilson simplifies things, displaying the same kind of hospitality he did when offering the bottle of water. "Summer cannot exist without winter. Heaven can't exist without hell."


Walking out is hard to do, especially in live theater. But that hasn't stopped audience members from leaving the offbeat musical 'The Black Rider.'
By Mike Boehm, Times Staff Writer
(Los Angeles Times. Stage. May 27, 2006. Copyright Los Angeles Times)

For an instant during one of the first L.A. performances of "The Black Rider," actor Matt McGrath thought he might be witnessing another heart attack in the audience. Like that time on the East Coast, in a different play, when they had to stop the show and call in the medics.

But it soon became apparent that the three people causing the commotion in the Ahmanson Theatre's front tier were merely sick of what they were seeing. With the first act still in progress, they got up and walked out.

Such interruptions are rare in live theater, so this was a statement - and a harbinger of more early exits to come. As playgoers continue to abandon seats costing as much as $95, a night with "Rider" has turned into the showbiz equivalent of red states versus blue, two camps seeing the same thing and reaching polarized conclusions.

The highly unconventional musical, which runs two hours and 35 minutes, including intermission, is the concoction of writer William S. Burroughs, songwriter Tom Waits and director Robert Wilson - famously nonconformist figures from literature, pop music and the stage, respectively. The storytelling is largely oblique and nonlinear, the visuals dazzling and surreal, the songs and dialogue sardonically macabre. The show is playing through June 11 in a 2,100-seat house - scaled back to 1,600 for this run - where the 30,000 subscribers are most accustomed to Broadway musicals and revivals of middlebrow comedy.

"Rider," in all its cracked-cabaret strangeness, is at the Ahmanson because Michael Ritchie, Center Theatre Group's artistic director, loved it two years ago during a wildly successful stand in San Francisco. He admired how it attracted a diverse audience, including the younger folks theaters covet as they fret over how to replenish their older subscription crowds. "I thought, 'That's the kind of audience I want in my theaters,' " recalled Ritchie, whose average subscriber in three CTG houses is 51 years old. To draw them in, the company launched a separate website for the show,, and distributed leaflets in rock music clubs.

But what about keeping them there from curtain to curtain? Sales were 70% of capacity through the first 3 1/2 weeks, about 1,120 per show, according to CTG figures. After last week, with attendance declining beyond the run's halfway mark, the overall average had dipped to 66%. Nightly attrition winnows the audience further.

Walkouts "happen on every show, some more than others," Ritchie said. He prefers to dwell on the positives: "I'm more compelled by the new people we're bringing to the theater, and by the strong and devoted audience who are loving it."

Halfway through the run, there had been 15 requests for refunds, said CTG spokesman Jason Martin, compared to the five to 10 that the Ahmanson box office typically fields during the course of an entire run. "It's more, but it doesn't seem like a huge number," he said.

The show had a smoother ride in San Francisco, where it played the American Conservatory Theater's 1,050-seat Geary Theater, kicking off the 2004-05 season.

"It was one of the biggest hits we've had here," said Scott Walton, ACT's director of marketing and public relations. That production, which included Marianne Faithfull as the devil, played to 98% of capacity for a run that was extended two weeks to meet demand, and helped ACT triple its usual rate of new subscriber sign-ups. Still, it wasn't walkout-free. "I won't lie to you," Walton said. "Some of our subscribers absolutely hated it; people were saying, 'What was that all about?' "

ACT's audience is used to a mixture of classics and new plays much closer to the Mark Taper Forum's style than the more conventional Ahmanson's.

That makes it "really a plunge into the unknown for a lot of the audience" seeing "Rider" at the Ahmanson, said David Sefton. As director of the UCLA Live performance series, he annually programs an International Theatre Festival stocked with challenging works. "It would be nice to think this helps the theatergoing audience of Los Angeles be more relaxed about this kind of work, and accustomed to thinking that things can be done in different ways." But, Sefton added, "I'm not banking on it."

Two UCLA Live presentations of "4.48 Psychosis," Sarah Kane's uncompromising excavation of suicidal depression, mapped the boundary line that adventurous programmers tread between challenging and taxing an audience.

In November 2004, playgoers were enthralled by a three-actor version in English, toured by the show's original producer, London's Royal Court Theatre. Less than a year later, in the same Freud Playhouse, there were numerous walkouts when Isabelle Huppert offered her solo interpretation, in French, with minimal movement and sparse English supertitles.

At the Ahmanson, actors in "Rider" say, most of the house is on its feet during final bows - but by then many other pairs of feet have voted themselves out the door. Most of the walkouts are more discreet than the three McGrath noticed last month during one of the first performances. On a recent Friday night, 10 or 20 people with seats in the front half of the orchestra withdrew under cover of darkness just 20 minutes into the show, availing themselves of a blackout for a scene change. Many more waited until intermission, the polite way to bail on a show.

Based on a German folk tale, "Rider" has a simple enough plot, but the devil here is in the details and digressions. It centers on McGrath's character, a foppish, outdoorsmanship-challenged clerk named Wilhelm who makes a Faustian bargain so he can take rifle in hand and effortlessly plug every wild animal in the neighborhood. Wilhelm loves a girl, and she loves him, but her daddy, a buffoonish forester, will not abide a son-in-law who can't shoot.

So forget about such conventions as an uplifting ending and characters you can root for; the dramatis personae are all made up like comically ghoulish refugees from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." As for comprehensibility, attendees who don't get it are in the same boat as a reviewer who assessed more or less the same production two years ago in London for a British publication, the Stage: "Great set, great lights, great costumes, great music, no idea what was going on.."

Rather than stomach the second act of a show they couldn't fathom, Dalia Farkas of Beverly Hills, an Ahmanson and Taper subscriber "for umpteen years," decided with her three 60ish companions that digestion would be the better part of valor. They were off in search of dessert when buttonholed across the street from the theater.

"I'm disappointed," Farkas said. "I liked the music very much, but I did not expect it to be like Halloween night. I didn't know where I was. I love musicals and theater, but this was odd."

They had considered exiting while Act 1 was in progress, she said, "but we owe it to the actors, out of respect, not to make them feel bad." Farkas found nothing so distasteful in "Rider" as to jeopardize her commitment to the Ahmanson. "In every season there's always one bugaboo, when you say, 'Hey, what were they thinking?' "

Others abandoned the show at halftime with more of a shrug than a frown. "It was good, it was funny, but almost too offbeat for me," said Peter Vellenga, as he and his wife, Kim, a couple in their early 30s, strolled arm-in-arm toward their car. "Too long," said Kim.

Bill Strauss, a goateed Tom Waits fan from Van Nuys, said he and his friends gave the show a shot because "we usually like things that are offbeat. The staging was neat and all that, but there wasn't anything that caught me up into it."

Later, however, one could encounter fans who, taking the invitation in Waits' opening refrain, had "come on along with the Black Rider" for the entire trip and were dismounting energized and happily abuzz.

"It takes a folk tale and makes it into high, high art," enthused Lisa Derrick, a magazine editor from Los Feliz, whose black gown, black pearl necklace and red shawl had her sartorially in tune with the production's primary colors. "What shocks me is when people don't have the patience and sophistication" to hear a play out. "This is not like Podunk. This is Los Angeles."

Having experienced overwhelming adulation in San Francisco, actor McGrath, who has homes in West Hollywood and New York City, is able to take partial rejection in L.A. philosophically.

San Francisco, he said, offered "the quintessential audience for this piece. People were just eating it up and loving it, so I know that the show does work."

John Vickery may have a unique perspective as he cavorts through "Rider" as what seems to be an adjutant of the devil - the actor himself isn't exactly sure, and says director Wilson didn't consider the character's precise identity a big deal. In any case, he's the one made up and outfitted like Nosferatu, or - Vickery's comparison - the embodiment of Death who plays chess with Max von Sydow in "The Seventh Seal."

While he was on Broadway originating the role of Scar, the villainous uncle in "The Lion King," the veteran actor says he used to have fun pointing and snarling from a promontory whenever he spied that rarity, an empty seat. But last year Vickery witnessed a fair number of early exits while playing a stuffy Brit who was the lone quasi-familiar character in the premiere of "Princess Marjorie" at South Coast Repertory. Noah Haidle's play may have been the most bizarre major-theater show of recent years in Southern California, with young male actors simulating masturbation under the blankets and peeping-Tomming their way through a goofy portrayal of tumescent arrested adolescence.

Among the "Rider" cast, Vickery said, "it bothers us in a general way that we're not getting bigger houses, but the people who do stay really seem to enjoy it. And actors love shows that audiences either hate or love, so I guess we don't mind that voting-with-your-feet that much."

Vickery and Vance Avery, who plays Pegleg, the devil, duck out a side door during intermission for a cigarette, and they can't help but notice the procession to the parking lot. "We fantasize about chaining them to their seats," Vickery said with a laugh. "It means you're getting a passionate response, and if art is about nothing else, it's about the audience response."