Mary Zimmerman is the director of The White Snake, now playing at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. | Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
Updated: June 23, 2014 10:59AM
Director Mary Zimmerman has the magic touch when it comes to spinning exotic tales from every corner of world literature. Both a Tony Award winner and a MacArthur (“genius”) Fellow, she has brought her fluid storytelling and visually arresting sensibility to bear on everything from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” to “Arabian Nights,” from the Buddhist classic, “Journey to the West” to a musical version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”
Her productions have been seen at Chicago’s Goodman and Lookingglass theaters, on regional stages throughout the United States, and in such hallowed halls as New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and Milan’s La Scala. Her latest adventure is a poignant but often playful adaptation of “The White Snake,” an ancient Chinese fable that will run through June 8 at the Goodman Theatre and will move in September to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
Here are some of Zimmerman’s thoughts on the bright, the beautiful and the Buddhist:
Again and again, the things I’ve done on stage are overwhelmingly Buddhist in spirit. But I can’t call myself a Buddhist because I eat meat, and I have a dog who eats meat, so I don’t follow the essential precept of “doing no harm and taking no life.” And this is a big conflict for me because I’m a great follower of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk. And of all the philosophies in the world, Buddhism is the most appealing to me because it’s non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian, and doesn’t even claim to have answers. It has been an invaluable guide to living for me, giving me a way of being with other people, moderating my temper, my impatience, my striving. But I’m a terrible Buddhist.
My being calm in the rehearsal room is not altruistic; it’s the way to get things done. Plus, having worked in opera, and having dealt with the kind of intense high stakes and fear that opera always brings into a room, the only way to calm the room down — when everyone else is grabbing the available hysteria — is for me to grab something else. As a director I believe my principal job is to be consistently observant and present, and to watch and listen to the performers as deeply and lovingly as their mothers did in infancy.
I spent the first half of my life not really much in control of myself, and you can see it in my work — you can feel the drive and desperation. But as I get older it’s nice to try and float above a lot of that, and just let go a little.
As for the visual beauty in my work, to be honest, I think it comes from my never feeling that I myself was an exquisite visual. I learned that from an early age: I had bottle-thick glasses as a child, and when I said I wanted to be an actress, people looked at me askance because I was not an adorable little girl at all, and never have been, to this day.
I remember watching a scene from “Journey to the West” many years ago, when a group of my actors just lowered pine branches to music, and a voice in my head said: “That’s what you look like.” There was something in the composition and color that said, “This is your interior visual.” And I think that is at the heart of so many fairy tales, like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Princess and the Frog.” It’s the thing we try to teach children — about not judging by appearances or outer form, and that the essential thing is what’s inside.
In “The White Snake” it’s the reverse — she appears to be a beautiful lady, but she knows she’s really a snake. But it’s the same fear — that if she was seen as she really is, full of anger, bitterness, jealousy or whatever, she could not possibly be loved. That’s a common human anxiety, but this tale says it IS possible to be loved for who you are. Of course who knows if that’s true in real life?
In a real sense I’ve made my adult professional life out of the books I read before the age of 10 — “The Odyssey,” “The Arabian Nights,” fairy tales. My mother had a copy of Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” on her bookshelf, and I always thought those myths were fairy tales for grownups, with some thrilling sexual content. I grew up in Nebraska, but my parents were professors who taught in Cambridge, London and Paris at times.
I read a lot of those English children’s detective stories. I loved “The Secret Garden” and “The Yearling,” which is so beautiful, but might be too devastating to do on stage. And I read “The Lord of the Rings” about nine times by the time I was 12. I was a complete fanatic, even making the maps.
The central issue of my life is where to live, because the one thing they don’t tell you when you go into the theater is that you will have the life of a traveling salesman. I didn’t live in my Evanston apartment from last July to this February. And I don’t like hotels, so I always try to stay in apartments when I’m on the road. I do love my house on an island in Maine, and I had one of the best dinners ever there, with everyone cooking their specialties — marinated salmon, spicy potatoes, a salad and a raspberry pie that I made. It was all so delicious that no one spoke.