Sellars in Bolinas, California, 2007.
Robert Kiely, the longtime master of Adams House, a complex of undergraduate dorms at Harvard College, recalls how he gave a helping hand to a future genius of opera production:
A jolly personage came smiling up to me, shook my hand vigorously, introduced himself as Peter Sellars ‘80, and asked for twenty-five dollars from the Master’s Fund to clean up and paint an old basement storage room so that it could be used as a theater. At first I thought he was kidding, but it quickly became clear to me that despite deferential giggles and guffaws he was in earnest. So I figured, twenty-five bucks, what can I lose? But little did I imagine what Adams House and the college were about to gain! Within days, the dungeon-like space was cleaned, painted, and lighted. Not very well lighted, but there were a light bulb and two small dirty windows looking out at people’s feet passing up and down Plympton Street. Soon those feet were headed to Explosives B, the new Adams House theater, seating capacity a comfortable twenty or an uncomfortable forty sitting on mattresses left over from storage. The first production, if I remember correctly, was a Polish satire that involved an enormous hand made of plywood that kept entering menacingly from the only door. The performances, the concept (short plays, no admission charge, limited space, late starting times), and the unbounded creativity and imagination of the director and actors made the place a sensation. Everyone wanted to come! People lined up in Randolph Court hoping to squeeze in.
Theatrical talent and ideas rained down on Adams House. A new play seemed to appear every few weeks. Some were new and experimental, others old favorites. Nothing seemed too ambitious. I went to them all, but some still seem to have been impossibly terrific. Peter decided to do something Russian. Was it Boris Godunov? Anyway, it was a mammoth Russian opera cut down to forty minutes. Peter liked moving his audiences around, so it began in Explosives B, then, with the director leading us on like Puck, we moved to the billiard room where Boris or someone died on the green felt table, and then we all were taken (in a lightly falling snow) to the Lowell House courtyard where I swear he had arranged to have the Russian bells ring. Am I dreaming this? Some of the details may be wrong, but the picture is right. Other classics followed in various unlikely places: a thirty-five-minute Macbeth with three actors in the tunnels; Genet’s The Balcony utilizing the staircase of the Gold Room; and, most memorable of all, Antony and Cleopatra in the Adams House pool (audience sitting around the sides, Cleopatra enthroned on a raft in the middle of the water). They were some of the very best, most original theater I have ever seen at Harvard. Peter would sit in the dining hall, eyeing the crowd and then walk up to someone who had never been on stage, saying, “You would be a terrific Lady Macbeth.”
This is from an Adams House alumni newsletter called Gold Coaster. I should disclose that Kiely was my thesis adviser, and a extraordinarily generous counselor. He has a new book entitled Blessed and Beautiful: Picturing the Saints.