the CIVIL warS

the CIVIL warS

Robert Wilson: the CIVIL warS and After

While you encountered funding difficulties in a number of countries, there seemed to be solid support for the project everywhere but Los Angeles, which was to be the beneficiary of the production. 
Yes, basically the problem was in L.A.

Had the resources of the city’s business and arts organizations already been drained by Olympics-related events or were potential donors skeptical about the project and your ability to bring it off?
I think it goes deeper than that.  It has a lot to do with the way the Olympics were set up.  First, you can’t have an international arts festival with a hundred programs on a budget of five million dollars, which is what Times-Mirror (the festival’s official sponsor) allocated.  So what they did was get the host countries and guest companies to pay most of the costs, in some cases making contributions toward the presentations.1 It seems a little strange that in the richest country in the world they had to ask other nations to pay for something that was basically going to be seen in Los Angeles.  Anyway, I was told I would have to produce the work myself. 

While most participating companies had the backing of their city government or state cultural office, you were on your own.
Out of all the programs at the Olympics, this was the only creation.  I think they were afraid of it because it was a creation.  They were afraid to take the risk, even though the debt would have been mine.  Maybe they thought it would have reflected badly on the Olympics.  As Peter Ueberroth said from the beginning, “This Olympics is going to be run like a business.”  They were out to sell hamburgers and tennis shoes, not present art.  You know, Time magazine made Ueberroth their man of the year.  Why? Because he made $250 million.  This man will probably be President of the United States.

Do you think you got the proper support from the Olympics Art Festival?

Was any support encouragement forthcoming from the entertainment industry of L.A.’s film community?
No, though some of the people who are active in the fine arts were most supportive, people like Stanley Grinstein and Dick Sherwood, who’s the president of the Los Angeles County Art Museum.  But as far as the film industry goes . . . Lew Wasserman said, “ I wouldn’t touch this project with a ten-foot pole.”  Those are his exact words.  It was very difficult.  No one knew my work.   It’s another mentality out there.  Not many people go to the theater.  It’s also very difficult to find a sponsor for something that’s unknown, and the work is difficult to describe — if you say you’re doing Tosca, they know what that is.

Was it embarrassing having to explain the lack of American support to your foreign sponsors?
Yes, it was embarrassing — but they know what Hollywood is.  I’m always saying that what we need is a national cultural policy.   We’re the richest country in the world but we don’t do anything to support artistic creation.  You know, my father gave ten or twenty percent of all his income to the church. And so did his father.  It was a kind of commitment they had. Some people support the arts in the same way.  They give to certain artists and organizations because they’re interested in the creation of new works.  That doesn’t happen in Los Angeles.  It’s a young, nouveau riche community and there are very few people who have that kind of understanding of the arts.  They think of the arts as something to support for another reason — I mean, they may buy a painting because they think it’s an investment.  But the theater isn’t like that.  The theater is something that exists in memory.  A project of this kind is like a shooting star — it’s something that happens once and never again.  It was very difficult to convince that community that this was something to do.

Isn’t what you’re saying true of the whole country?
I think so.  We don’t have a tradition of supporting the arts.  I go to small towns in Germany and France, all kinds of people go to the theater and have been going for generations.

Theater doesn’t have much of a place in American life.

You made your reputation with “big works,” performances of almost unprecedented size and duration.  Does the collapse of CIVIL warS suggest that the day of “the big work” is over?
For the time being.  First, I have to pay the debts for this one.  I owe money everywhere.  I still owe $45,000 on the scenery for the Japanese section.  Now I’m paying to have it stored and I’ve got to decide whether I should continue to pay storage or have it destroyed.  And I still have to pay for having it built!  Now, that’s a tragedy.  I even owe money for the first workshop in Munich four years ago.

next page >


1 Apart from the CIVIL warS, this scheme proved a great success.  With comparatively little money, Fitzpatrick managed to stage what may have been the most ambitious and far-reaching arts festival ever held in this country.