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Mary Zimmerman and Her Creative Process

Director and playwright Mary Zimmerman seems to operate at two speeds—full-force ahead and resting. Today she’s in the midst of overdrive as she rehearses at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. When she’s working on a project, Zimmerman’s frenetic schedule includes rising at two in the morning, writing until 6 a.m. and then getting a few hours of sleep before going into rehearsals. After leaving the theater, she writes some more.
    “It’s periods of intensity, and then I don’t do much,” says Zimmerman, a member of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, an artistic associate of the Goodman Theatre and a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, where she earned her PhD. “I like to read books. I like quiet. I’m actually kind of a hermit. I like to be by myself in a dreamy way. I spend the day walking my dog. I like not having any deadlines. I go to an island off the coast of Maine—I have a place I built with a set designer. I go there in the summer, sometimes in the winter. It’s quite rural. You have to drive 11 miles one way to get a newspaper. There’s no Internet.”
    The quiet part isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Zimmerman is in New York to direct Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti, an opera that premiered in 1835 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Like everything she does, this will have her signature imprint.
    “I read a lot when I was a child—a lot of it was children’s versions of classics,” recalls Zimmerman, whose parents were both university professors. “I read the The Odyssey and the myths of Ovid, both before I was 10. All the stuff I encountered at a very young age. I feel like I’ve been mining my childhood reading for the last 30-something years.”
    Unlike most directors, Zimmerman doesn’t start rehearsals with a script. Instead, she waits until the actors are all together and then begins adapting the plot to fit their personalities and her vision of how she sees the production unfolding.
    “The time pressure is enormous,” says Zimmerman about her creative process. “I don’t really work well when I’m not under pressure. I usually haven’t written a word until the performance date is set. I do all the writing, and I do it in the hours before rehearsals. There’s a huge misconception that I write with my cast, but I don’t. It works because a lot of the actors I work with, I worked with for over 20 years. They’re very much part of the process. I don’t write a play and then cast it. I write for the people. I do [the play] in four weeks. When I’m in
production, in rehearsal, there’s very little in my life except how to tell the story.”
    Known for her highly creative and imaginative sets, Zimmerman says the sets have to be conceived without the script.
    “I may know I want a pole they can climb and certain things to fly through the air, but I don’t know where or when,” says Zimmerman. “It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about it. It’s not like I’m making it up because it’s there in the text I’m adapting.”
    Zimmerman says that since starting directing, she has always worked this way, though in the beginning, it was on a much smaller scale.
....“I’m having an incredibly intense time directing at the Met,” says Zimmerman, who grew up in Nebraska, but has called Chicago home since beginning college as an undergraduate at Northwestern. “But it’s pretty different working in opera and the theater, especially [in] an opera house that has 26 operas a year. The rehearsal schedule at the Met is very fragmented, not as organic. The whole building isn’t singularly focused. Because there are six operas at any given time, we’re sharing our time and a stage, so it’s very different from time in a repertory theater.”
    Her total commitment to her craft and her creativity have led to a myriad of awards, such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, as well as more than 20 Joseph Jefferson Awards for her work. In 2002, she was honored with a Tony Award for Best Direction for Metamorphoses, an adaptation of the Greek poem by Ovid. Zimmerman adapted the epic poem as a string of vignettes, some of which had contemporary characteristics.
    “I’ve always loved fairy tales,” Zimmerman is quoted as saying on www.mccarter.org. “I think they perhaps led me to theater rather than the other way around. As a child I wanted to invent a machine that could record my dreams, so I could watch them in the morning; or hire someone to draw the things I had in my head, because I knew I didn’t have the skill to do it myself. Theater is that machine. I can make these images come to life and actually walk around inside them for a while.”
    Instead of inventing a dream machine, Zimmerman creates plays that are often dreamlike. She’s drawn to the classics, not only because of her early love of them, but also because of their extraordinary stories and how easy they are to adapt to the stage.
    “Stuff happens,” Zimmerman says. “Birds turn into mist. All of those stories predate the written word. They’re stories told in the oral tradition, passed on. The Grimm brothers didn’t make the stories—they recorded them. And that’s why they slip easily into the theatricals, because they were told.”
    But even given the strong oral traditions of these classics—and, as Zimmerman says, the need for her stories to be told—her creative process sometimes needs a kick start.
    “You get stuck all the time,” says Zimmerman about her creative flow. “I just have to come up with a solution or cut it. I have to keep going. I really have strong faith in the power of these stories to find their path out. I feel like I have to get out of the way of the stories. Musicians talk about this all the time, that they become the way for the music to get out.”
    Zimmerman also looks to her students for creativity.
    “It’s a very creative place,” she says of Northwestern’s performance studies department. “Teaching helps keep ideas coming that inspire me. And students are very creative human beings. It’s unbelievable how much energy they have. They’re very inspiring.”
    But the director playwright doesn’t see creativity as limited to a few.
    “Everyone is creative, but some people [pay] more attention to it,” Zimmerman says. “We all dream. We all have imaginary stories on our head.”
    As a respite from her long days and nights, Zimmerman turns to the 19th century for escape.
    “Right now I’m reading [Anthony] Trollope’s The Way We Live Now,” she says. “It’s sort of saving my life because I have these very physical rehearsals that can be draining, and he releases me.”

Published: October 14, 2007
Issue: November 2007