Conversation: Mary Zimmerman’s ‘Metamorphoses’

BY Jeffrey Brown  March 1, 2013 at 3:17 PM EDT

Mary Zimmerman, a member of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and a professor at Northwestern University, started working on her adaptation of “Metamorphoses” back in 1996. Based on the classical mythology by Ovid and notably set in a pool of water (a nod to the ancient maritime cultures), the play earned her a 2002 Tony Award and a claim as one of the theater world’s leading directors. Zimmerman has now returned with ‘Metamorphoses’ in a production at Washington’s Arena Stage.

Zimmerman joined me for a conversation at our studio:

Read the transcript after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to you.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to take you back. Do you remember the original excitement and challenge of doing this?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: I do, absolutely. I had this idea of doing myths in water. You know it’s such a maritime culture and story, these Greek and Roman myths, and in this case with “Metamorphoses,” it’s so much about transformation and change and water.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you thought about the water early on?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Oh, yes. It was sort of myths and water. Actually, originally it was “The Odyssey” in water, but I went on to do that on dry land. And then I ended up doing this, at the time, little school show at Northwestern called “Six Myths” in a way to just test out that water. But I do remember the first time the students got in the water, going home that night and just being sort of vibrating with excitement about it. And also feeling like I might be in trouble because it was so sexy. They were my students, and it was just so very sensual and sexy and beautiful. And I remember when we first professionally produced it with Lookingglass Theater, during what are called technical rehearsals, when we add the lights and costumes and stuff like that — a whole night during that that I didn’t sleep, with the excitement of like, I cannot wait for people to see this. There is a moment where a woman’s lying asleep on the shore. She’s in very shallow water and her reflection is mirror-like and perfect. And I just remember I couldn’t sleep with the kind of overwhelming beauty of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really, so the sort of ah-ha moment came fairly early that this could work.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes. I mean the water is so real. And it helps the actors a great deal, it stands in for very literal things: They row in it and when the oars hit the water, that’s not something that’s a recorded sound or manufactured. It’s like actually happening. But then the water is also very metaphorical. So it stands in for grief — when they grief-stricken, they take handfuls of water and put it on their face and they look tear-stained. Or its very, very sensual. Or they dissolve into it. And then sometimes it’s just like a swimming pool, and then it’s very funny when it’s suddenly used literally. The audience really likes that late in the show.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is it is about the myths themselves? And you’ve gone to other classical texts in the past.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: You know all of— most of what I spent my career, as it is, doing is stories that were oral to begin with. And I believe that they belong in the air, they belong as told events.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not the way that most of us experience them

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes. And it’s not just a conspiracy of classicism, English professors, that they’ve remained with us. It’s because they speak to something fundamental about being a person. And these myths are sort of impenetrable. There is something that always remains mysterious. You sense a symbolic and psychological content, but what that is is shifty and unknown a little bit. They pull me in very deeply that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you are doing something else — and I’m thinking back, I saw a production you did of “Pericles” at Shakespeare Theater here — so when you are doing something else that isn’t based on that myth, do you require some other challenge or some other way into those?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Well, that’s Shakespeare. And I love— you know, “Pericles” is a very epic tale, it’s up my alley. It involves sea voyages, which I always like.

JEFFREY BROWN: The water.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: And mistaken identity and lost children and found— you know all of that. It has an epic quality.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it has a text and it has—

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes, it’s a text.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s Shakespeare.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: And it’s an entirely different approach. I mean the way I do my shows is unusual. I start with no script and I write just a day ahead of the actors and I bring it in every morning, every morning a little bit more, a little bit more.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes. I do that in the same timeframe that most just normal plays rehearse in, so it’s a very pressured situation. So I feel like when I’m directing something that’s already achieved, such as “Pericles” by William Shakespeare, in the evening I can go to a movie or go out to eat or actually have a thought about something else. But when I’m in this process, there is no other thing but figuring out what I’m going to do the next day and how to get the story told. It’s not a complete leap in the dark, because I have a text it’s based on. In this case though, I had my choice of all, all of the myths of Greece of Rome. So I’m trying to structure an evening. And it’s not like I’ve done the Odyssey, which has a beautiful structure that’s given already. I’m trying to find the structure, as well as just the individual incidents — how am I going to stage them? Because these were not conceived conveniently to be staged. You know, how are you going to do sea battles, and so forth?

JEFFREY BROWN: But if you are doing it this, I don’t know, frantically down to the wire, so you literally come in the next day and here is what you are going to do, and then if that doesn’t work you’ve got to redo it quickly, down to a deadline.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes, yes, I do. Down to a deadline. And it’s— I’ve done it so often and for so long that I’m pretty confident on it and I work a lot of the time with the same people, and like I say, there is a text that we’re working from something that’s being adapted, so it’s not a total leap. The set is also already designed because just in the way practically how it works it has to be being built by the time we’re in rehearsal. And so the set actually helps me make the script. In this case, I chose myths that lean into the water, that benefit from the water, that can use it symbolically, that are amplified by the water, that have something to do with the water. And that helps me, that helps me shape the show actually.

JEFFREY BROWN: So here you are back with “Metamorphoses,” and you did it in Chicago, and you are doing it here in Washington. Is it like remaking it again, or what happens?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: You know, it’s undergoing its most radical change in a way here in D.C., because we’re at the Arena and it’s in the round — or in the rectangle — and that has been really, really challenging because some of our little tricks are more difficult to—

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, because people can see them.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes. There is nowhere to hide. I keep saying it’s like being in the Roman coliseum, but less lions. You know, but we are sort of exposed. And they are all around. And the pool imposes certain constraints. And wanting to share equally, side to side, imposes other constraints. So it’s been challenging but that’s but I wanted to do it. Like I don’t need to go around the country and keep doing Metamorphoses the rest of my life. But this was a unique, the space seemed to invite it. Everyone’s looking down on the water, it’s intimate and it just felt like a great welcoming space for it. So we wanted to bring it here.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in fact I want to ask you about the new thing you are working on.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes?

JEFFREY BROWN: “Jungle Book.”

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes, I am.

JEFFREY BROWN: A new challenge. One that people have in their heads, again.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes, they do. It’s a double-edged sword. I haven’t met a human being that doesn’t say, “oh, I’m coming to see that,” which they don’t say when you say I’m doing the myths of Greece and Rome or “The Notebooks of the Leonardo Da Vinci,” or “In Search of Lost Time.” They actually don’t say that believe it or not? But when you say ,I’m doing Disney’s “Jungle Book” or Kipling’s “Jungle Book,” everyone is “I’m there, I’m there.” Which is great. You feel like the production is born on third base in a way, but also terribly frightening because it can’t be the film and it can’t be the books. It’s something in between.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, that’s “Jungle Book” in Chicago in June.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes, it’s the summer show at the Goodman Theater.

JEFFREY BROWN: And right now at Arena is “Metamorphoses.” Mary Zimmerman thanks so much.

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Thank you.