LA JOLLA — "It's a terrifying image of death in the 20th Century," says Peter Sellars. "You have to lie there gasping as everybody's debating your reputation."
Sellars chortles perversely. He's describing the last scene in his Kennedy Center production of Sophocles' "Ajax" (coming Sunday night to the La Jolla Playhouse), but he may be thinking about his own situation. After two stormy years as artistic director of the Kennedy Center's American National Theater, Sellars has been given a year's furlough and ANT been put on hold.
Sellars describes his hiatus as a long-planned "vacation" from the Kennedy Center, giving him the chance to direct his first film ("On the Road") and to write his first book, a meditation for Harper & Row on the idea of a national theater."Roger (Stevens) wants me to come back. He's been very blunt about it."
But Sellars' sabbatical could turn out to be permanent. Over the phone from Washington, impresario Roger Stevens affirms that Sellars will always have a place at Kennedy Center, but adds that ANT has some major "regrouping" to do.
And over the phone from Denver, Sellars' other boss, Donald Seawell of the American National Theatre and Academy, is quite severe:
"I'd be less than frank if I didn't say that we have not been satisfied with Peter's productions so far. We have taken a beating artistically as well as financially. (A ballpark figure for ANT's losses would be $3 million, Seawell said.)
"Peter is an absolute spellbinder as a person. But we weren't pleased with the shows. And the lack of attendance indicated the public wasn't either. We were hoping for at least 60% and we didn't even get that. Perhaps we should have put Peter on the stage, instead of the shows.
"Certainly there's a future for Peter at ANT, in one capacity or another. But more mature direction of the company may be called for."
So Sellars, as he sits with a reporter under a tree during a rehearsal break from "Ajax," is either a young man on the brink of the best vacation of his life or a young man who has just been canned. Either way, he remains articulate, sure of his gifts and full of beans. At 28, life can be alarming but not necessarily serious.
What made you choose "Ajax" for Washington?
I read it a few years ago and was stunned by its dangerous modernity, its trick edges and odd shapes. Then something happened this spring--I think it was Libya--that was so outrageous that I felt an imperative to respond to that sort of militarism in theatrical terms. It was a civic gesture.
We added an afterpiece, "The Bob Hope War Zone Special." Featuring Miss Teen-Age American Mother, the King and Queen of Sweden and the Infant Heroes. Unfortunately, I just didn't have time to get it off the ground. Oh, it was . . . truly grotesque. And hilariously funny. Washington especially hated it.
Maybe Washington isn't your town.
It's hard to know what's wanted there. It's hard to read the temperature. Politics isn't the main topic. It's promotional skills. On the other hand, it's not easy to run a court theater anywhere. The king and his people want to hear certain things, and not hear other things. They want theater to be easy on the digestive system after dinner. Or during dinner.
That doesn't sound like "Ajax." Who did your adaptation?
Robert Auletta. What I like about it is that it's filled with anachronisms. The point is to mix the imagery, in the way that T. S. Eliot mixes imagery. In fact, the only way you can discuss mythology is through some contemporary thing. It's interesting that when the Greeks wanted to think of themselves heroically, they thought of the past. When America thinks mythologically, it thinks of the future, as with "Star Wars." So I update the play to a point some years from now when a sort of weird cultural aphasia is setting in. The military uniforms are like people remembering what military uniforms used to be like, but getting it just a little wrong. It's that little tension that I like to explore in shows.
You use a deaf actor, Howie Seago, to sign the role of Ajax.
Deaf actors have this crucial, crucial urge to communicate, no matter what. You see that, just burning, with Howie. The other thing is that it was said of the greatest Greek actors that they spoke with their hands. Those long passages are an excuse for this gigantic pageant of signs. So what Howie's doing is historically accurate.
Looking back on Washington, what were the low points and what were the high points?
The very highest points were the shows we did upstairs at our Free Theatre. We presented Steppenwolf, Wisdom Bridge, Meredith Monk, Squat Theatre, and we had absolutely mixed audiences, ranging from real theater nuts to inner-city kids who had never been in a theater in their lives. A very pure exchange can take place without money in the middle.