WOODSTOCK – Mary Zimmerman has a talent for putting performances onstage that weren’t meant to be there. She specializes in adapting classic texts, such as “The Odyssey” and “Wonderful Town,” and directing them for onstage performances in a vision that’s entirely her own.
For more than 25 years, Zimmerman has made a career of seeing something for what it’s not and bringing it to life onstage for what it could be.
What is the secret to her success?
“I don’t know,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve gone my own way, I guess. I’ve done some pretty obscure and ancient texts. If anything, it’s that my feeling about those texts are genuine. I do them because I want to live among them for a period of time. Intensely. I’m not worried about whether or not they’ll be successful. I just do them. I have a long-standing team I’ve worked with, and we’ve done a lot together, which makes us able to tell a great story.”
Zimmerman is a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University and an ensemble member at the Lookingglass Theatre Company. She is the recipient of the 1998 MacArthur Fellowship and the recipient of numerous Jeff Awards. She writes and directs adaptations, as well as directs operas.
She began acting and directing at a young age, putting on shows in her backyard.
“I did it without recognizing that that’s what I was doing. I put on shows in the backyard all the time. It wasn’t until graduate school that I put credence in it and recognized it as a career,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman began her undergraduate education at Northwestern as a comparative literature major and transferred to the theater department a week after she began. She turned to directing, as she didn’t think acting was going to be path, although she loved it.
“I didn’t believe it at my core that I could be an actor. I had done it and loved it, but I didn’t believe I could be that in life, but I found that I wouldn’t be able to not do it for four more years in college as a [comparative literature] major,” Zimmerman said. “I discovered the department of interpretation, where they specialized in adapting things that weren’t meant to be plays into plays.”
Zimmerman received her Bachelor of Arts in theater and went on to receive her master’s and Ph.D. in performance studies. She has directed more than 17 shows; one of her proudest is “Eleven Rooms of Proust,” which was told in text and images on three floors and in 11 rooms of a 3,500-square-foot warehouse in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood.
“I love all of my shows,” Zimmerman said. “You can’t help it. You work so hard on them and give a lot to them and have such vivid and memorable times making them.
“ ‘The Proust’ production was done in an old warehouse with very large and small rooms. During the show, the audience followed the actors from room to room. We had two sets of actors and people entered the house each half-hour. While action was happening on the second and third floors, a new audience was entering on the first. I’m proud of it because it was the right way to do that novel and was very logistically challenging. The way we went about it was sort of correct in a sideways way.”
Zimmerman is the next speaker for the Woodstock Fine Arts Association’s 56th annual Creative Living Series event Thursday at the Woodstock Opera House. Her presentation, “Staging the Impossible: Visual Metaphor in Adaptation for the Theatre,” will expose attendees to how she is able to bring fantasy to life onstage using imagery and props, as well as the audience’s imagination, to result in a sort of visual poetry.
“I’m going to show images from shows I’ve adapted and directed and show how images that are poetic, not literal, can convey feelings,” Zimmerman said. “Many things I’ve done weren’t written with the stage in mind, so you have to ask yourself, ‘How do you show these things like sea battles and monsters?’ I’ll demonstrate how the imagination of the audience is used to fill in the image and how you can trick them into seeing what they’re not actually seeing, using their imagination in the same ways they did as a child.”
Zimmerman takes to the Woodstock Opera House stage at 10 a.m. Thursday. Tickets are $25 and can be bought online at www.woodstockoperahouse.com.