On this episode of World of Ideas, Bill talks with director Peter Sellars. Sellars says it’s fine with him if people hate his controversial theatrical work, and many have taken him up on the offer. But he’s also been called brilliant, exciting and innovative. He set a Mozart opera in New York’s Trump Tower and Shakespeare in a swimming pool, and he even conceived an opera about Richard Nixon’s trip to China. At age 25, he was selected as a MacArthur Fellow and also took over as artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company. At 27, he was named head of the Kennedy Center. Fired two years later, he is now director of the Los Angeles Festival.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Peter Sellars is one of the most creative figures in the world of dramatic arts. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he produced Shakespeare, Beckett, Mozart and Pushkin. At the age of 26, he became artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company.
Creative, yes. But he is also one of the theater's most controversial figures. He conceived an opera about Richard Nixon's trip to China. Hired at 27 to direct the American National Theater Company at Kennedy Center, he was fired two years later. But now he's back, this time as director of the Los Angeles Festival.
Los Angeles, for him, is the future. From its mixture of races and languages a new world is being born, and Sellars thinks artists are its godparents. He wants to weave its many customs and cultures into the artistic fabric of the 21st century. We talked in his studio in Los Angeles.
[Interviewing] The popular image of Los Angeles to outsiders is Hollywood stars, freeway shootings and gangland wars. Now, you've been here two years. Have you found that image holds true?
PETER SELLARS: Actually, that image is so out of date, it really is not the picture here. The shocking thing is, even people who live here have that image of Los Angeles.
BILL MOYERS: I know.
PETER SELLARS: I mean, but-and the shock is, most people who live in Los Angeles don't get their images of this city from actually living here in their own direct experience.
BILL MOYERS: Where do they get it?
PETER SELLARS: TV. They turn on the television every night, and they see 24-hour gang war, or Beverly Hills Cop. In the meanwhile, you know, on the way to work, they drove on a freeway, which meant they went through no neighborhoods; they saw no other living human being. They parked their car in the garage and they took the elevator up to their office. You know, the point is, most people in Los Angeles are living such isolated existences in a very narrow band of the city, that most people here don't have a sense of the geography, don't have a sense of who's here, what's here, what's really happening.
BILL MOYERS: What have you found here? What has turned you on about Los Angeles?
PETER SELLARS: When I got here I realized this is the first place in America, southern California, that has a white minority. Now, that's already going to be interesting. That already means we're on the cusp of a new identity for the whole country, and it's starting right here. What's interesting is that if you just look at the demographics, the largest Korean population outside of Korea is here. The largest Filipino population outside of The Philippines is here. The largest Iranian population outside of Iran is here. The largest-I mean, we can go down the list, Burma, anything you like. It's all here, in the largest numbers. More different types of people are living here now than have ever lived in any city in the history of the world.
BILL MOYERS: But is there a center of gravity to this profusion of nationalities, and languages, cultures?
PETER SELLARS: Well, it's interesting. I think the idea of a center is perhaps exactly what Los Angeles doesn't have. And that's interesting. That's useful and may be why it starts to be, you know, the city of the future, now, and the way most cities are going to start looking, increasingly. The fact is, right now at this point in America there is no more mainstream. You know, what was mainstream is basically marginal in the lives of most people. And-
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
PETER SELLARS: Well, that is to say I've always taken a somewhat dim view of what is known as "the mainstream." Everybody's always saying to me, you know, "Oh, you're very high-minded and you're constantly putting forward this big art that's difficult for people..."
BILL MOYERS: Opera and things.
PETER SELLARS: "You know, really, what people want after a hard day at work is to - come home and have some entertainment, no big deal, you know, have a beer, and watch something that doesn't challenge them too much." And it's been the big Hollywood line, you know, Hollywood has said, "We're just giving people what they want, and what they want is not some difficult, dangerous, weird thing.
In fact, giving people what they want is a very bad idea most of the time. [laughing] not only in the arts but in many other lines of work.
BILL MOYERS:-It's what they pay for. It's what they will-
PETER SELLARS: It's what they pay for.
BILL MOYERS: -will pay for.
PETER SELLARS: If I give you -- let's put it this way. If you care about somebody, if you really care about somebody, if you love them, you won't just tell them what they want to hear.
BILL MOYERS: But do people go to the theater, do they go to the movies, do they turn on the television set to "be helped," to be told the frank truth about the ugly realities of the day which somehow they have a sense are there, because they run up against them?
PETER SELLARS: See, interestingly, I think of Norman Rockwell a lot, you know, who presented an image of what people wanted America to be, but not really an image of what America was. I think of Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving Dinner. You know, we all looked at that, and we all say, "That wasn't what our family's Thanksgiving dinner was like at all." And-
BILL MOYERS: That's what we wanted it to be, though.
PETER SELLARS: -right. And it's this strange wishful thinking. But in fact, that that image alone takes a ferocious toll. It's an interior toll, but I think, you know, any-any pastor will tell you that they spend more time talking people off bridges at Christmas, you know, when everyone's supposed to be happy, and supposed to be feeling warm. The problem with Norman Rockwell images and these images that pervade television, pervade most people's lives, where you really are told that your life will be better if you have the right shampoo, that, you know, you will be happier if you use the correct shampoo, and you see images of people who are very happy because they use the correct shampoo. Shampoo commercials and Norman Rockwell paintings are about basically mitigating against an interior life, denying that there's an interior life. And Americans are taught again and again that life is based on a series of externals, a series of surfaces. Finally, what happens is, inside we feel inadequate. We feel that we don't measure up to these images. Our family wasn't that harmonious. Our surface is not that smooth, but also, our interior life is conflicted. And yet these images that we are surrounded by show no-no traces of conflict, show no residue of conflict. We have no place to put this conflict. And so what happens is, the conflict keeps getting internalized, and provokes two things, a kind
BILL MOYERS: Why?
PETER SELLARS: Because -and I think this is what art is -art is a question of you take a human being and you remove everything, where they went to school, their clothing, their house, everything. What's left? What's left when you take a human being and strip it all away? There's got to be something left that is more important than where they grew up or what economic bracket they're in.
BILL MOYERS: Isn't there something else to it, though, that in the dance, the moral relationship grows with the community, that no dance in Eastern Oriental culture that I am familiar with, no dance occurs in a vacuum or alone or in solitary isolation from the community? So they would start a dance company, I presume, to create a [crosstalk]
PETER SELLARS: As a collective gesture of collective power, and a collective statement of identity. And again and again, we come up with this question of identity. What is our identity as a human being in a complex world, where again and again you're a credit card number, you're, you know, an income tax return, you're-we're told every day, you know, and you buy the same toothpaste as everybody else, you get the same shampoo as everybody else, so what is it that is you? What is just you? What is something that could be called an identity?
BILL MOYERS: And you think that comes from their own native art, their own tribal art?
PETER SELLARS: I think so. And I think that art not only speaks to a connection of the ancestors, I mean, art, unlike most commerce, you know, is not just a statement about the present. It's a statement about the past, it's a direct link to the ancestors.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, Peter, but the irony is that so many of them have come for political reasons, fleeing persecution, but some have come historically in this country for the very consumer life that is easy to denigrate.
PETER SELLARS: Absolutely. Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: And it will be, for many of them, as in New York, with the Korean stores, it will be commerce that lifts them from their penury.
PETER SELLARS: You now, and again, please, I'm not anti-commerce. I think, you know, business makes the world go around, three cheers for business. But, if business is all you're interested in, that's a very narrow life. And the fact is, what happens in business is, you know, the rug tends to get pulled out from under you every once in a while, and then what? Then where are you? What do your children still have? What's a real issue, for example, here in Koreatown in Los Angeles, is that last generation of parents who have both parents working, and each parent has two jobs, just to make it, didn't see their kids for 15 years. Their kids are now growing up, and realizing that they had no home life. They didn't see their parents. And all their parents can offer them is economic. But in the meantime, what other dimensions of their life did they miss? That's a very real question in families of first-and second-generation immigrants at this moment.
BILL MOYERS: You said that whites are now a minority in Los Angeles. You're a white, you're in the minority. What are you doing with the arts festival that's coming up? I mean, how do you work with the community groups that are so variegated and so different?
PETER SELLARS: It's a long, involved serious process. And of course, it's not me personally that does anything. I mean, one nice thing about being a stage director as a profession is that you have no illusions about your own capabilities. You-everything you do is the product of everybody's work. And your show is good not because you're good, but because you've got good actors, because you've got a good designer, you've got a good playwright. You know, all-I've got a great composer. All of those things make a good show. It's not just that you're in the room. And the thrill, in fact, of being is director is that you can invite the most interesting people into the room to begin to participate in some level of dialogue, some level of interaction that does begin to generate sparks. I think what we're doing in the Los Angeles Festival is inviting people into the room, people in many cases, who have not previously been invited.
BILL MOYERS: So the Thais will be represented in the Los Angeles Arts Festival in the fall?
PETER SELLARS: They will.
BILL MOYERS: And the Koreans? And the Cambodians? And the Blacks? And the-
PETER SELLARS: Absolutely. We'll have 75 different presentations, with a colossal range, of just who lives here, because when I got here, it became clear. Everybody said, "There's no culture in Los Angeles, you know, if there's anything there." Well, what's interesting is there's no East Coast culture there. There's no European culture there. But there is something else that doesn't look like that and doesn't smell like that and doesn't act like that, and therefore, for most East Coast people who come here, it's right off their radar screen. You know, there's just no place that they would even begin to recognize it. And I think most of the ethnic communities in Los Angeles, as in most areas of this country, are necessarily insular, because they've had to turn inward to create the support structures that would just keep them going. At the same time, that has not, in most cases, tended to any larger notion of civic participation, politically, socially or certainly artistically. And Los Angeles is right now the most segregated city I've ever lived in, in my life. And-
BILL MOYERS: More so than Boston, where you lived? Washington, where you lived?
PETER SELLARS: Yeah. I mean, interestingly, you know, there really were-in Boston and Washington, there was commerce that really had to cross the racial lines. In Los Angeles, this freeway system has so been designed that you never have to go near south central L.A.
BILL MOYERS: Where poor people live?
PETER SELLARS: Coming from the airport, people will make this wild 90-degree angle just to avoid having to make a diagonal that would put them in the middle of that neighborhood. And the results, of course, are socially catastrophic, and Los Angeles right now doesn't have a political identity in that regard. I mean, it isn't a city yet. It is, you know, neighboring city-states, you know.
BILL MOYERS: Ancient Athens.
PETER SELLARS: And, you know, with hostile border regions. And that is a crisis, of course, that must be moved through. I mean, I have to say the Los Angeles Festival-it's odd, in any city in the world, I could have come and just, you know, put a staff together and done a festival. Here we had to do two years of research, just to find out who was living here. Because it hadn't been done. You know, we got to town, and you know, these things weren't widely known.
BILL MOYERS: And you found?
PETER SELLARS: We found a Thai temple in the valley [laughing]. You know, nobody living in Los Angeles knows there's a Thai temple in the valley, much less have they visited it. And it's, you know, there it is, you're driving along on the freeway, and suddenly these miraculous silver and gold gables are rising above the freeway, with this-tongues of flame rising to the sky, and you say, "What is that?" It's a Thai temple between two gas stations and a mini-mall. And it's a place where the Thai community have come together to create something that is their own.
BILL MOYERS: You said Los Angeles is the most segregated city you have lived in. Is it also one of the most racist?
PETER SELLARS: I would say the two, of course, feed each other. Clearly, one of our tasks, though, I must say, is to circulate the work, is to make sure the work, you know, is that in East L.A. the Thai show is also playing, not just in the Thai temple.
BILL MOYERS: That's the black area of
PETER SELLARS: The Hispanic-largely the
BILL MOYERS: -that's Hispanic.
PETER SELLARS: -largely Latino Area. And, or in south central
BILL MOYERS: South central.
PETER SELLARS: -that we're presenting Japanese work, you know, and that it's exactly mixed up. I mean, if I had my druthers, of course, we would send out all the tickets for the festival, and send everyone the wrong tickets to the wrong events, and have people showing up at things they never wanted to see [laughing] .
BILL MOYERS: But do you really-do you truly believe that art can undermine segregation and racism?
PETER SELLARS: Yes. I have to say-
BILL MOYERS: And as you described the opening of the festival, I had images of the Olympics-
PETER SELLARS: -yes.
BILL MOYERS: -with the nations represented
PETER SELLARS: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -with the flag and the varied colors and yet that didn't really make a difference.
PETER SELLARS: Well, okay, but this is a different spell, we're not allowing any flags in this festival.
BILL MOYERS: Don't you-
PETER SELLARS: This festival is not about flags. This festival is not about borders. This festival is about people. This festival is about what goes across borders, not about the borders, not about the passports, not about the restrictions that make one country different from another. And in that sense-you said one thing a minute ago that I just lost. What did you just-
BILL MOYERS: Segregation, racism, breaking down.
PETER SELLARS: Right. Thank you. I really have seen it work. I was at a festival last August in Australia. Now, last year was the Australian bicentennial. The aborigines took a dim view of the number 200. They felt 40,000 was more like it [laughing].
BILL MOYERS: Five hundred years of Columbus is not exciting to Native Americans.
PETER SELLARS: Exactly. Excuse me, write me a letter. And so-and so what happened was, they mounted their own counter festival.
BILL MOYERS: The aborigines.
PETER SELLARS: The aborigines. Now, we got there on the first day of this festival. And Townesville is a little white redneck town above Brisbane, below Cairns, in the middle of nowhere. Queensland is the Alabama of Australia. It is truly-it's a wild and remote place. The festival organizers had no money, you know. Certain tribes walked 300 miles to get to the festival. The townspeople of Townesville did not want to see this festival. They drew the short straw in the bicentennial year. You know, other people got the expo, they got the festival where the black people were going to come sleep in the parks, you know. This was not good. And the opening day of the festival, the Townesville Bulletin, banner headline was, "Festival Fiasco." And there was this giant, you know, the editorial page was filled with letters, "If these black people want to have a festival, why don't they go away and rr rr rr."
And the opening day there was a procession of festival participants down the main street of Townesville. And you saw these Townesville residents on their front porches just glowering, practically, you know, reaching for their rifles, as these people in feathers and body paint walked down the main street of that town. And on the opening day of the festival they had a performance staged at the main downtown shopping mall. And so on the stage, you know, there were people with drums, playing dijeridus and again, the body paint, the feathers, the shells. And those Townesville residents were at that shopping mall to shop. They walked right past that stage and did not even look. They were going to shop if it killed them.
What was interesting was, from that degree of hostility, five days later in that festival the headline in the Townesville Bulletin was, "Wow, What a Festival!" There was an extra supplement with human interest stories about all kinds of participants in the festival, and that stage at the downtown shopping mall, you had to get to an hour if you wanted to get anywhere near it. It was packed with people.
BILL MOYERS: What had happened? What had happened?
PETER SELLARS: The work itself has transformed the social relation. The work itself was so openhearted, was so honest, put forward such an intense humanity that would not be denied, that the residents of Townesville saw black people in a completely different light. The Rockpool performance site had thousands of Townesville families by the end of that week, bringing their kids, bringing their dinners, to see work by people who before were non-people. And the statement of pride of the aborigines, stepping forward and showing who they were, and stating it not only for themselves, and not only for the people of Townesville, but for their fellow peoples of the Pacific, was an occasion that was tremendously moving. And filled with honor and hope. And a fair amount of rage, let it be said. But again, the rage is part of the human picture, so please, bring it on.
BILL MOYERS: So art, to be political, doesn't have to be political.
PETER SELLARS: It's in fact best.
BILL MOYERS: It speaks to something-
PETER SELLARS: It's best when it's deeper than - because the real- art becomes political only after its first profound. And that's why our job the arts is constantly to worry the surface, to, as it were, pierce the veil, to cause a breakdown, to cause, you know, everything to come screeching to a halt. And some place where, in this collapse, some little bit of the surface peels up, and we then are forced to look there, because the surface itself no longer holds up to any kind of scrutiny.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From his studio in Los Angeles, this has been a conversation with Peter Sellars. I'm Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 24, 2015.