Some of our most exciting events during the 2011-2012 season were the preview performances of Einstein on the Beach at the Power Center in January.
Widely credited as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century, Einstein on the Beach is a rarely performed and revolutionary work that launched director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass to international success when it was first produced in Avignon, France in 1976, with subsequent performances in Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera. It is still recognized as one of their greatest masterpieces. This year, nearly four decades after it was first performed and 20 years since its last production, Einstein on the Beach has been reconstructed for a major international tour.
Some our staff decided to see the production again this summer at Luminato Festival. We wanted to know what it’s like to see Einstein, again.
1. What was your experience/role during the Einstein on the Beach production in Ann Arbor? Why did you decide to see the production at Luminato?
Beth Gilliland: I had the opportunity to do some “lightwalking” during the rehearsal process here in Ann Arbor. I spent many hours onstage on the spaceship, at the judges’ desk, in the courtroom, and even as Einstein – wig and all! – sitting in the “Einstein Chair” downstage right. I did get to see the entire production here in Ann Arbor, but wanted to see it again in Toronto to have a little more perspective on the show – to be more removed from the intense rehearsal process and just see it for what it is. [Ed’s Note: Beth is also our IT master at UMS!]
Jenny Graf: I manage the Ticket Office at UMS so my time (and brain) was very consumed with making sure the ticket office ran smoothly for the performances. All of the Ann Arbor performances were sold out, so that added extra stress for me. In January, I attended only the second half of the Friday preview performance. We had two other performances, but I wasn’t mentally ready to go back to one of the other performances, to sit and take it all in. However, even just seeing the second half of the production was enough to interest me. About a week later, I started regretting not seeing the whole performance. I bought a CD of Einstein and listened to it often. When the opportunity came up to see Einstein in Toronto, I jumped on it! I needed to see what I missed!
Sigal Hemy: I was an Education intern at UMS during Einstein. I wasn’t directly involved with much of the production, but I did take a few of the musicians to U-M classes. Being involved in all the build up around those classes and in the office made me really excited to see the opera in Ann Arbor. When I did see the performance here, it affected me much more than I expected. The music and the choreography were challenging, but in a way that kept me very engaged and curious. I had unanswered questions after the performance, and hoped that seeing it a second time at Luminato would let me come away with a sense of greater understanding.
2. What did you think?
BG: Interestingly enough, my mind still wandered to all the activity onstage while lightwalking – its still not possible for me to separate my personal experiences with the show from the action of merely watching the show. I guess in a certain way, everyone in the theater participates in the show at any given point – and all performances are affected by what you bring to them. Overall, though, the show has really developed – it’s much more polished – some of the music has come together beautifully with the action onstage.
JG: WOW! I was in awe. To be honest, when I heard that UMS was going to be presenting Einstein on the Beach, I was not interested in the piece. I had listened to some of the music and seen some clips and it just didn’t seem to fit my taste. I hadn’t planned on seeing the performance. In the weeks leading up to the January performances, I started getting excited about seeing Einstein. Since I thought it was more than I could handle anyway, I thought seeing just the second half would be enough to capture the experience. It only took me about a week to realize that I was wrong. I needed to see it all. June couldn’t come soon enough! I was nervous and excited to see the work in its entirety. I had decided that I was not going to leave the theater until the end unless I absolutely had to. I’m proud to say that I barely even budged in my seat because I was so captivated. It’s hard to put it into words how I felt about it. (see below) I enjoyed seeing how the production had evolved since January.
SH: The second time I saw the performance, I was able to flow with the performance, rather than being overwhelmed by the relentlessness of the work. This allowed me to take in many more of the details and assign them some sort of significance. I think in a production like Einstein, where there is so much going on, being able to anticipate anything is hugely helpful. In my case, it allowed me to catch all the detail in the lighting and in the choreography that I had missed the first time in favor of listening to the music.
3. How much did this performance stir your imagination? Overall, how strong was your emotional response to this performance?
BG: I wouldn’t say I was lost in the ‘experience’ of the show, as much as I was lost in the ‘production’ of the show, but that is likely due to my previous experience and also training in technical theater. But having seen it, you really want the people around you to enjoy it – and I found myself sometimes wanting people to pay attention to certain parts that I thought were the most brilliant, and instead there were lots of people in and out of their seats – particularly during the knee plays, which were my favorite parts. But I will say at the point after the spaceship, when the scrim depicting the atomic explosion comes in, you could hear a pin drop – it was really moving. The music and visuals had climaxed at just the right point to achieve a very emotional effect. Hair raising, chills, lump in the throat kind of effect.
Photo: The spaceship.
JG: I had a very emotional response which was incredibly unexpected. The moment it began, I started to cry. Literally every time the music changed to a new idea, I started crying again! I was shocked at this response to the work. I’ve never been so emotionally involved in a live performance. It was all so beautifully done. One of the most beautiful moments for me was during Knee Play 4. Two of the actors are laying on glass tables and moving their bodies in interesting positions. In Ann Arbor, I was captivated by the way the lighting captured beautiful images on the backdrop of the stage that reminded me of rain water running down a window. In Toronto, Beth pointed out to me that the lighting also captured images on the backdrop of the stage below the tables that looked just like the way the actors moved their bodies in the chairs during Knee Play 2! I was blown away at that attention to detail (naturally, I cried more!). When it ended, I felt really emotionally drained. I had just witnessed something truly epic. I wonder if I’ll ever get to see it again but if I don’t, the experience I had in Toronto was amazing and I am thrilled to have been able to see it!
Knee Play 4:
SH: I think part of what made Einstein so interesting was the fact that it defied all of my expectations. As an audience member, I’m used to taking a certain amount of comfort from tropes and expectations that are always fulfilled. Einstein threw all of those things out the window, forcing me to continuously ask myself what exactly was happening. There was never a moment that my imagination was not engaged. While creating that much meaning for myself was difficult at first, I found it more and more exciting as the show went on. In fact, it was that very feeling of stirred imagination that led me to see it a second time.
4. Why do you think some arts experiences “stick”? [You remember them vividly later in life] And why don’t others “stick”? Do you think Einstein is sticky?
BG: Einstein is definitely “sticky” for me – maybe mostly due to experiencing it in Ann Arbor first – but also because it really is a “one-of-a-kind” event. Often in shows I’ve seen there are particular pieces of it that stick with you – for me a lot of them are technical aspects – or its a particular performance by a specific actor/actress/musician/dancer in the production. Its the shows that leave me feeling physically overcome at the end – emotionally drained – that I find stay with me the longest. The ones where you can’t even leave your seat when the production is over, because you’ve been that transported. And when you do finally come out of it, you find the nearest person and talk their ear off about what just happened. Einstein will probably stick with me for a long time, because of the emotional response to working on the production here in Ann Arbor, more so than the act of watching the show itself. But I certainly hope others had that same type of experience in the audience!
JG: Yes, I do think that Einstein is “sticky.” In the past few months, I have seen several UMS productions that drew my mind back to Einstein. Einstein on the Beach makes me want to slow the world down and “savor” moments more than I do. I’m not sure what makes it stick. It’s a piece that you know is from the 1970s and you can tell it’s from the 1970s yet it feels so modern at the same time. I think that the timeless qualities are part of what might make it sticky.
SH: I think that a performance sticks out in your mind when something about it is different. It could be anything from your personal circumstances on the day of the performance to the quality of the performance itself, but I think something needs to happen to prevent it from blending in with any other similar experience. In this way, Einstein is so different from any other classical performance that, for me, every single detail sticks out vividly.
5. How much did you feel a sense of connection to others in the audience?
BG: I also took the opportunity to step out in the lobby in Toronto during the performance (I watched the entire show in Ann Arbor). I was shocked at how many people were just mingling outside, some were reading, chatting, walking – it was a whole other performance just in the lobby! Fascinating opportunity to people watch, and imagine what they were thinking about the show. I didn’t talk to anyone directly, but I do remember the woman next to me in the audience would often just gasp, and say “Beautiful! Beautiful!” Most people seemed to be into it.
JG: I don’t think I really felt a direct connection with others in the audience. But I do like the notion that we shared an experience of witnessing something powerful. After the performance, many people stood outside the theater, perhaps not wanting to let go of the experience. I know that’s how I felt!
6. What questions do you still have about the production or for the directors or performers?
BG: The show is constructed in such a way that allows the audience to drift and meditate on other things outside the production, whether it be through the music or visuals or otherwise. With all the rehearsals and performances, I wonder if the performers ever get lost in the show itself – if they ever have that opportunity – or if it is too strict/technical of a performance to allow for those moments. While the experience of being in the show is I’m sure fantastic, do they feel like they’ve missed the opportunity to experience the production as so many others do? I’m also curious as to what the production is like from Jasper’s young perspective (The Boy — a child actor in the production).
JG: I wonder what the production would be like if Robert Wilson and Philip Glass weren’t directly involved in the remounting of Einstein on the Beach. Would it have the same magic if the creators weren’t putting their stamp of approval on the work? Lastly, is there going to be a new CD out of this remounting? If so, I’ll definitely add it to my collection!
Did you see Einstein in Ann Arbor, or another performance that’s”sticks” in your mind long after? What do you think makes some live performance experiences more”sticky” than others?