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Mary Zimmerman Genius at Play
Mary Zimmerman above left, directs actors in rehearsal for 1993 Goodman Studio Theatre Production of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. It's impossible to know exactly how any playwright works, of course, but it's possible to conjecture, based on her own remarks about her method, and to imagine that the smoldering process that occurs in Mary Zimmerman's mind goes something like this --

The first spark is a visual image: a king and seven princesses in different-colored towers, for instance; or a scrawled "To Do" list that includes everything from ideas for inventions to groceries; or just a chair in a pool of shallow water.

The image or images glow in Zimmerman's brain and within hours, burst into flame, throwing off single words, then phrases, and finally, long smoke trails of entire sentences. Before they dissipate, Zimmerman, assistant professor of speech and performance studies, types the sentences into her computer, working late into the night.

(When she's working on a play, Zimmerman told Chicago magazine in 1992, "I virtually stop sleeping. I feel completely caught by the ideas. They won't let me alone.")

The following day, she brings the freshly captured script to rehearsal. Actors say the lines, move around, discuss their own thoughts. All of these send further incendiary sparks shooting across Zimmerman's mental landscape. That night, she goes home and again waits for the images to spark into words.

And so on, until an entire script is completed.

Is that description too luridly extreme? Maybe, but Zimmerman regularly inspires critics and other observers to reach for extra adjectives, urgent phrases, vivid clauses. She "invents idiosyncratic, almost weird concoctions from her well-read, intelligent mind," the Chicago Tribune declared in a recent laudatory, though grammatically vague, phrase. Her career is built on "theatrical daring ... combining spoken words with strong visual images, music and sensual movement," said the New York Times last year.

"Those starved for entrancing evenings of theater should try hard to see this world premiere production," gushed the Wall Street Journal two years ago, about a Zimmerman theatrical piece titled S/M, based on the writings and life of the Marquis de Sade.

She "blends strong visual images, sensual movement, music and poetry to create stimulating, compelling and momentous theater," said the MacArthur Foundation last summer, explaining why it gave her a $240,000 "genius" grant to continue her work.

In the last 10 or so years, Zimmerman (S82, GS85, 94) has created more than a dozen plays based mostly on very old myths or other texts - a Persian poem, for instance, or a Greek tragedy. She also directs the work of others - Shakespeare is a particular favorite - teaches performance at Northwestern and is an artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre. But she has gained the most renown for adapting and directing her own material, which has been seen at the Goodman and other regional theaters and at New York City's Lincoln Center.

She is known for stripping literary source material to its basic themes, then representing those themes with the most elemental images she can find. Ironically, she usually dislikes images of herself, regularly opining that she's not attractive enough to be a featured actress. (Actually, she's quite pretty, with an evanescently alluring manner.)

She almost never likes the photos of herself that appear in newspapers and magazines. But maybe that's because she can't control those images. The ones she does control are frequently memorable. Roche Shulfer, the Goodman's managing director, can't remember the name of the first Zimmerman work he saw - it was several years ago at Chicago's Lookingglass Theater - but he does recall that it had a single light that was turned on or off to illuminate some of the scenes. "It was very simple, but remarkable," Shulfer says.

Last summer - to call up a remembrance of things more recently past - Zimmerman staged seven novels from Western civilization's most obsessively detail-oriented and voluminous author as a sort of literary progressive supper in a production called Seven Rooms of Proust. It was held, of course, in seven rooms - of a Chicago Park District building along Lake Michigan.

This fall and winter, Zimmerman put on several myths from Ovid's Metamorphoses at the Ivanhoe Theater, using what may be her most symbolically versatile and economical prop yet: a 24-foot-square pool of water. The myths all involved metamorphoses of one sort or another, from the legend of King Midas to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.

And the presence of the water helped tell every tale. It "is itself transformative," Zimmerman says. "It is corrosive and turbulent. It symbolizes drunkenness, lust, tears of grief and speech. ... To me, that's why [the work is] a piece of theater and not a radio play."

A prescient person might have foreseen Zimmerman's eventual career and strong focus on images years ago. As a 5-year-old, Zimmerman was given a camera by her parents. Though she grew up mostly in Lincoln, Neb., her father, a physicist, was a Fulbright Scholar, and the family traveled regularly to London. (They also spent time in Paris because her mother was a literature professor who specialized in French women authors.)

Camera in hand, Zimmerman got on her bicycle and rode, taking photos everywhere. She still has them. "There's lots of pictures of alleyways and guinea pigs. Literally rolls of guinea pigs," she says, because a neighbor raised the creatures.

Her photography continues to this day, though she's out of her guinea pig period. "She has always liked to take pictures," says her best friend, Sonia DaSilva, a Lincoln pal who's now in Chicago. In high school, and on through college, Zimmerman photographed her productions. "They were good," DaSilva remembers about pictures Zimmerman took in high school. "At the time, I thought she had a good camera, but now I realize she has a good eye."

A prescient person might also have drawn inferences from the amateur plays Zimmerman staged in her backyard as a child. Unfortunately, no known photos remain of these, but they were "always thrilling," she jokes.

Growing up in Lincoln wasn't an experience that offered much exposure to the arts: For fun, Zimmerman says, she and DaSilva drove her 1967 Dodge Dart to the airport to watch planes take off. For even more fun, DaSilva quips, they'd drive to Omaha - the "big city" that is an hour away - and go shopping for vintage clothes.

But the Great Plains town wasn't entirely bereft of culture. A movie house on the University of Nebraska campus showed art films from Morocco, Poland and Russia, Zimmerman says. She remembers seeing the movie Madame Bovary. And her mother had an extensive library of literature.

It may have been in high school that the seeds of Zimmerman's interest in ancient texts were sown. A course in Greco-Roman history was "inspirational," Zimmerman remembers. "It was a real classical class," and the teacher, June Williams, "was a wonderful lecturer."

Whatever the stimulus, DaSilva says that cruises in the Dodge Dart were filled with great conversation - about Bogart's movies, Godard's films, Ionesco's plays, novels by Nabokov, Colette, Dostoevsky.

"She had all these ideas about things she read, what they meant, what her theories were about them," DaSilva says. "We were just talking about what we liked, but it was always interesting."

Both girls were involved in theater, though their options were limited: Neither was in the popular crowd. "Who was popular was who could sing," DaSilva says. "They were in the musicals."

Instead, the two put on works by Ionesco and productions of Tom Jones, Don't Drink the Water and No Exit, among others.

It was enough to convince Zimmerman she wanted to be an actress. Her senior year, she applied to two schools, Northwestern and Washington University in St. Louis. Northwestern offered $200 more annually in scholarship money, so she enrolled. She entered as a comparative literature student but switched to acting before the first quarter was over.

Zimmerman obviously remembers not only the subject matter of her courses but the admirable qualities of her professors. In her own classes - she teaches several graduate-level performance-related courses at Northwestern - Zimmerman is somehow opinionated but not judgmental, insightful but not omniscient, accessible but not wishy-washy, all at the same time. She pays attention to everything.

Graduate student Leslie Buxbaum says a seminar with Zimmerman gave her "an awareness of how absolutely everything you do is noticed in one way or other and read into the meaning" of a performance. You learn, says Buxbaum, "to cut to the essential and look for really effective simplicity."

They're the same sorts of things Zimmerman learned, though remembering some of her work makes her laugh now.

She vividly recalls a performance art class in which one assignment was to stage a myth using just "three images and light, but no language," she says. "I always cheated," using extra images, "but that didn't matter." For this class, Zimmerman chose the myth of Leda and the swan, in which Zeus, seeing the beautiful maiden Leda bathing, takes the form of a swan to be with her. Their offspring: the war-inducing Helen of Troy.

Zimmerman used a big bedsheet and her cat. She flapped the sheet to represent the swan. The cat stayed hidden in another room until its big moment, when Zimmerman popped it into a pillowcase and held it up before the class to represent "the monstrous fetus" that would later cause world destruction. The cat scratched and clawed inside the fabric. "It was pretty effective," she says. "You couldn't really tell what was inside."

Until she let the cat out of the bag.

While she was still a graduate student, Zimmerman began creating the works that the Tribune would later call her "idiosyncratic, almost weird concoctions." She liked to try to "stage the unstageable."

The first work during this period was a 20-minute piece based on the story of Lady Godiva. The second was a play taken from the Pygmalion myth. The third was her first version of the 500-year-old notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, a 90-minute work derived from about 5,000 pages of notes and drawings.

Zimmerman says the notebooks attracted her as visual representations of how disorganized the mind is. "On one page, he'd have maybe a drawing of an angel, a mathematical calculation in one corner and his grocery list in another corner."

True, the narrative one usually looks for in source material was missing, but is that strange? "You never think your own tastes are weird," Zimmerman says. "These things always seemed natural to me." Besides, she adds, because she had had considerable experience in performance art - a discipline in which self- mutilation is not unheard of - "I was used to things even more bizarre."

Zimmerman never starts a production of one of her own works without knowing when it has to be ready. She also never begins with a script, a method that is unusual in traditional theater but more common in the more experimental performance field. The show often builds from a single image: Zimmerman knew she wanted to stage a 12th-century Persian poem, which became the Mirror of the Invisible World, after reading a book jacket text that described a king and his seven princesses, each of whom was ensconced in a separate tower.

For Metamorphoses, Zimmerman says that on the first day, cast members practiced lifting each other and talked about what a shipwreck would look like.

That initial period is important, she says, because "those first few days are when I'm just using the cast" to create the images needed to spark creativity.

This method has its disadvantages. Zimmerman can't afford writer's block because so much depends on her regular output. But, she says, "I have kind of a good internal clock of where we are and where we need to be." So far, every play has opened on time.

She also has less time to revise than a playwright normally would, although that factor has produced regrets about only one play, S/M. "That one I just feel like, if I had had more time, I could have been more attentive to it structurally," Zimmerman says. "I love the piece, but if I did it again, I could really sharpen what it's about."

Sharpening what it's about, capturing the essence, is the goal, of course, and that might explain her frustration with her own image as it has frequently appeared in the media. Many pictures portray her in the standard, static manner that is more like what she's not about than what she is.

That would explain why Zimmerman does like the pictures of her that appeared in the Chicago Tribune Magazine last November. They were taken at the end of a long photo shoot on the pool of the water-dominated set of Metamorphoses. Zimmerman could sense that the photographer wasn't pleased with the way things had gone.

There was a chair in the middle of the shallow pool, and, she relates, "I said, 'Why don't I sit in the chair?' Because I knew the light was good there."

She did so. The photographer snapped away. The resulting two images seem to freeze Zimmerman in mid-motion - gesturing with both arms in one; tossing her hair coquettishly in the other. Both images are very Mary.

"I think I look pretty playful," Zimmerman says, "which is the way I feel."

Kevin Johnson is the Chicago correspondent for the Life section of USA Today. He is also Webmaster of the Spizzerinctum Page, an obscure-word Web site.