Director Zimmerman finds source material in unlikely places


By Anne Moore
Crain’s Business Chicago, December 19, 2011

As a child, Mary Zimmerman came upon a rehearsal of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the woods behind her parents’ home in Hampstead Garden, England. Music spilled from a gramophone. Oberon ran in circles beside the other characters, then stopped abruptly and asked, “How many times do I go around?”

The fourth wall had cracked open.

“That was marvelous to me,” Ms. Zimmerman recalls. “Primal.”

It would take Ms. Zimmerman more than 20 years to find her own place in the theater, adapting, directing and performing in “M. Proust” for a graduate thesis project in 1984 at Northwestern University’s School for Performance Studies. “That was the first huge validation.” Soon after, she gave up acting to focus on adapting and directing.

Ms. Zimmerman, 51, won the 2002 Tony award for best direction for the Broadway production of “Metamorphoses,” in addition to garnering 11 Joseph Jefferson Awards and, in 1998, a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” award. She has adapted Homer’s “Odyssey,” “The Arabian Nights,” Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and Voltaire’s “Candide,” among others. With composer Philip Glass, she created the opera “Galileo Galilei” in 2002. She has staged Shakespeare in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.; and for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, she has produced three operas since 2007.

Ms. Zimmerman is an ensemble member at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, resident director at the Goodman Theatre and professor of performance studies at Northwestern, where she earned a bachelor’s in theater (1982) and a master’s (1985) and a doctorate (1994) in performance studies.

The spark for her is always visual: the line drawings from Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology,” the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, an illustration of a king with his seven princesses in seven towers. Next, she meets with set designers to transform the printed page into a play. “These stories weren’t written for the stage,” she says. “You’ve got to figure out an analogy for flying or walking on water.”

Unforgettably, she staged Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” in a square pool of water that served as Midas’ swimming pool, the River Styx, the sea, a place of change. “Mary’s productions are extraordinarily beautiful,” says Les Waters, associate artistic director at Berkeley (Calif.) Repertory Theatre, which has staged six Zimmerman productions, beginning in 1996 with “Journey to the West.” “She creates a physical world you want to live inside.”

Ms. Zimmerman’s parents were academics: her father a professor of physics, her mother a professor of comparative literature. She calls Lincoln, Neb., home but spent chunks of her childhood outside of London and in Paris, where her mother pursued her studies of author Georges Sand.

Ms. Zimmerman lives in Evanston, except for two months every summer when she retreats to a home in Isleboro, Maine, that was financed by the Broadway receipts from “Metamorphoses.” She enjoys walking or riding her bike, with her dog at her side. A voracious reader—she admits to a taste for cheesy novels—she says she lives with “one foot in the fictive universe.”

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