the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured

when it is down

1983 - 2006




            Long before the CIVIL warS, I had been fascinated with Robert Wilson's use of source imagery as inspiration for his pieces.  This undated photo of Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer, below, in Spandau Prison was reinterpreted in his "Death, Destruction and Detroit," 1979.






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            Robert Wilson was always very precise in his designs for his pieces, first sketching his compositions in broad strokes on large pieces of paper, then building models of the sets and lighting before the set contruction and performance.  Below, two of his sketches, the model, and finally, a performance photo from "The Golden Windows," 1982.










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            I saw a production of "The Golden Windows" in Munich, Germany.  It was playing at the time of the month-long rehearsal -- called Workshop B -- for Wilson's next production and which was being held in Freiburg, Germany.

            The piece was called, the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down.  The subtitle is from Carl Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln; a reference to his being "best measured" after he was killed, and was another collaboration with Philip Glass, along with several other composers and writers.


            Below, in one of Bob's sketches for the CIVIL warS, that's Lincoln entering on the right and seeing an owl sitting on a tree branch (!).  




            I had been invited to work in the set department, where I began work under a real nice young designer named Tom Kamm, who was interpreting Bob's sketches and then drawing out the more detailed working drawings, before constructing the elaborarate set models.  Below, Tom's rendition of Lincoln and the owl.




            Every scene was carefully story-boarded.  Below, in the green hills of Japan, the Samurai warriors (!) are playing pool (!) on giant, green felt pool tables when two tall giraffes dip slowly in and out of the view.




            Here the large center curtain holds a map of the continent of Africa, slowly parts in the middle and then comes slowly crashing down from above.





            The models were quite detailed and large; the proscenium opening measuring some two meters wide by one meter high.  Plus all the flies and wings and lighting had to move up and down and sideways and all.  Here the continent of Africa splits in two and then comes crashing down.  It was a lot of work.






And yes, here comes Abe Lincoln to see the owl.




            I got along with the designer Tom Kamm quite well and we worked together a lot.  After a couple days I noticed that he was really under a lot of strain, doing all the sketches and story-boards and directing the model building and hanging the lights, etc.  I went to him and said, Look, Tom, you have too much to do.  Why don't you concentrate on the designs and let me be your model construction crew chief?

            Well, he said right away, Great, Bill!  Do it!  So I became the "informal" crew cheif of the model building department and would take Tom's drawings and instruct the construction crew of about six or eight real nice people on what and how to build them.  It was a lot of work but I greatly enjoyed it.

            I was pretty proud of the final look of the models, like the Jules Verne underwater scenes (!), below, as well as the giraffe pool table scene, of course.






            They liked the giraffe scene so much they used this color photo, below, on the back cover of Bob's big book, "Theater of Images," from 1984.




Below, in a performance in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, here comes Abe.



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On the CIVIL warS, sk dunn writes:
            ... in 1981 robert fitzpatrick, director of the olympic festival, spoke  to byrd about the possibility of presenting einstein on the beach as the opening event of the '84 olympic arts festival in L A.  byrd proposed instead, that he create a new work, produced by several countries, including the US, and then combining them together for a presentation in L A.  it would run for 12 hours and be called the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down.
            the olympic committee eventually approved his idea and in 1982 wrote the byrd hoffman foundation a letter agreeing to fund 10% of the $3million proposed budget, on the condition that the foundation had successfully raised the remaining amount.
            in the winter of '82 byrd asked me to work on the project and so i returned to the byrd loft after 9 years in california.  my task was primarily to make arrangements for a month long rehearsal/workshop that would be held in freiburg germany in june.  byrd asked jessie to participate and we asked bill to work on the sets and together they flew out from california to meet us in germany.  i spent some of my time finding housing for the group in freiburg and the rest of it going to meetings & rehearsals.  bill worked on sets & models, cindy lubar & i directed the knee plays - short one acts that connected the major sections - and jessie performed in the presentation that was given at the end of the session.  we had invited theater producers from all over europe and there was a large, rather stunned, audience for the all day run-through. it took place in a bare room with byrd's drawings on the walls and set models being demonstrated on tables and performers sometimes standing on chairs, sometimes holding scripts, and the famous german opera singer hildegard behrens.

            after the run-through, everyone was asking:  what is this all going to cost? good question. . .in addition to creating, directing, collaborating and talking producers from france, germany, holland, italy, japan and the US into funding productions in their countries, byrd still had to raise more than $2 million for the los angeles presentation. he spent 2 years flying from rehearsals in europe to meetings with ny & hollywood producers & corporate sponsors and so on.  by march of '84 he was still a million dollars short and even though the rotterdam section had opened to critical acclaim and was having a successful tour in france, robert fitzpatrick announced to the press that the CIVIL warS was cancelled due to lack of funds.



Below, the CIVIL warS, Rotterdam Section, September, 1983.



            it was heart-breaking. . .you can imagine.  byrd was broke.  the foundation was broke and he had to call all the people, all over the world, who had worked so hard and tell them that the show was over.  once again, he was unable to get support for his work in his own country.  byrd vowed never to produce again and returned to work in europe.
            after the olympics were over, it was announced in the press that they had a surplus of 150 MILLION DOLLARS. . . "lack of funds". . .right. . . lack of guts, he should have said.


            several of the completed sections were later presented in the US with great success. the 1986-87 knee plays tour included 14 cities in the US, 7 cities in europe and performances in japan & australia. it won the NY bessie award for dance in 1987. david byrne's score for the knee plays & philip glass's score for the CIVIL warS - rome section were both recorded and released on CD.
            in 1986 the pulitzer prize jury voted to award the prize for drama to robert wilson for the CIVIL warS - cologne section, which was presented in cambridge by the american repertory theater.  the pulitzer committee rejected the vote (it's not a play!).  after the jury voted for him a second time, the committee withheld the drama prize that year, and that was highly unusual.


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            Wilson has continued to direct lots of great work over the years, such as the stunningly beautiful "White Raven," with Philip Glass, below, in 1998.




            Below, from his collaboration with Tom Waits of George Büchner's play, "Woyzeck," at the Fall Arts Festival in Madrid, Spain, 2000.




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