Helga Davis: You wake up in the morning and then what happens?
Helga: Oh, put your headphones on Peter.
Helga: Oh yeah. Come on. Put your arms around.
Peter Sellars: I want to hug you and hug you and hug you some more right through all these microphone cables.
Male Speaker: Go ahead.
Female Speaker: I know I'm in the right time, in the right space.
Helga: Do you feel that?
Helga: I'm Helga Davis.
Helga: I always say, "Helga, who's driving the car today?" That's the question I ask myself before I leave my apartment, especially when I have one of those moments when I know that my brain has been in overdrive. It's like, "Who's driving this car today?" And the answer is always in my body. I have to move my body, I have to breathe, I have to talk, I have to get in connection with someone.
And so part of what I do when I leave my apartment is I just start talking to people. I say good morning to every person whose eyes I can catch on the way to the subway. Whether or not they respond to me, I don't care. I begin in that moment to make contact. That's part of what was so exciting and what is so exciting for me about being able to just sit across from someone and look at them and be nervous and wring my hands and look into their eyes and ask the question, "Who are you?"
In discovering who that person is, naturally, I discover something about myself too, about who I am. And it's my hope that through these conversations you also discover something about who you are. On the first day of rehearsal, one of the things that an actor or performer is looking for is direction.
So what do you do when you walk into a room with a director who doesn't say anything, who sits behind a table, who smiles, who hugs you? That was my experience with Director Peter Sellars. For a whole week, we were in a room together working, watching, and I waited for him to say something. Today, here with me in the studio, we get to talk about that and so many other things.
Helga: Introduce yourself. Oh, put your headphones on, Peter.
Peter: Oh my God. We're gonna go all the way.
Helga: There we go.
Peter: Oh my God.
Helga: Headphones too.
Peter: Is this is like a radio? Wow. It's bad weather out there, so it's better to be in here probably. But I admire your commitment. Thank you.
Helga: There's an orchestra, a young orchestra here called 1B1. And I went, and I sat in on their rehearsal today, and I was listening to the things that the conductor was saying to them. And he kept saying, "Breathe, release, anticipate your next phrase. Let go, have the patience." That was the other thing he said to them. And I started writing these things down because I thought he was also talking to me.
Helga: That's what it-- that's what it felt like, right?
Helga: So I think I'm going to sit in the rehearsal, and I have a score in my lap and I'm gonna cross my arms. And I'm gonna count the measures and beat the times, like, "No girl, you're gonna sit down and get a lesson in what to do with yourself in this moment." And it feels-- it feels true for sure. And sometimes I think, "Is this really happening right now like this?"
Helga: And the answer is always, "Yes, it is." [chuckles]
Helga: "Pay attention." And-and there was my lesson for the day and my lesson for sitting across from you. And you think it's okay to just sit and talk to people, right? Like, "Where's the drama there?"
Helga: Except that I feel nervous and-- "Well, why do you feel nervous, Helga?" Because the thing that I want more than anything, which is what I always want, which is why I always feel nervous, is that I want to connect. That's my-my deepest wish, right? And so you put yourself and your heart and your work and your thing there, and you wanna connect with someone. Now, that's not so difficult with you because you've come packaged in a very particular way which makes it-- [crosstalk]
Peter: [laughs] Or rather, with all the wrapping off.
Helga: Oh, here we go.
Helga: And it-it makes it easy. And I'm not at all surprised that things have happened the way that they've happened and not surprised at all how okay I feel with all of it.
Peter: Well, you know, the actual script of your life is way better than the script you wrote.
Peter: What you had in mind is just not interesting compared to what happened. And always what happened is way deeper. Way, way more challenging in one way, but way more pleasurable in another because you do have to surrender and you just have to enjoy falling forward and not being able to catch yourself.
Helga: Yeah, that's- that's a good one. No, but it's-- you know the--
Peter: No, but it's-- you know the-- at a certain point you actually realize it's all that's happening and let the free fall begin. And-and-and trust. I think the biggest thing is, you know, people just don't trust the experience and you just wanna say, "No, no." Trust that life is coming to you in living color and full of everything you need and what you're looking for. And not in the form you were looking for at all, but content, yes.
Peter: And content, way deeper. And of course, that's one of the, you know, things with crazy classical music. People got attached to the form, not the content. And so they were looking for a certain form and you're looking for it to look a certain way and behave a certain way. And of course, it just doesn't anymore.
Peter: And, you know, you always try and explain to people that you don't wanna keep your grandparents alive on artificial support infinitely when they can't respond or understand anything. Look in the eyes of your grandchildren. That's how your grandma decided to come back. And she's here, and she'll be here for a while. And nobody's really leaving. You know it-it's all back, it all continues, it's all a flow through. And yes, it takes a different form, but that's because it's more fun for your grandmother to be a little girl now.
Peter: And so you just have to allow that it's just gonna be a different picture. But in fact, just keep looking and the content is actually beautifully linked.
Helga: Well, Peter, you just said at a certain point you get to that. What's the certain point? Do you feel like you-you got there 30 years ago, 40 years ago? Do you feel like that's a thing secretly or more intentionally you've always known and that's the way that you've always lived? Or did you really have that moment when you just said, "Okay, I'm going to fall forward and let go?"
Peter: Well, there's no moment. I mean, when I was young, of course in high school, I directed 40 productions. And you're doing a production a week or every two weeks or something. I don't know, it's a lot. And you're working just all the time for fun and you enjoy it. And there's another deadline coming up in one second. And you can either like panic about it or just totally take pleasure in the fact that something's gonna happen that you cannot control. And, [laughs] that is so nice.
And of course, during that time, I worked in radio and I love that idea of just showing up every day and something will happen. It always does. And you just trust that. And radio was a total liberation for me. And to this day, when I'm directing, I'm always imagining I'm making a radio play.
I want to create something where the soundtrack and image track are different. And where the fact that they're different means that you have to listen because it's the-- soundtrack is not being illustrated by the image track. And the soundtrack is not theirs, background music for the image track, but in fact each have their own interesting, you know, um, adult relationship-
Peter: -where they can like go in and out of each other's existences and agree or disagree like adults. And so that sense that, you know, the world is rich exactly because of, you know, point and counterpoint because of agreement and divergence. Because you know, this is something we know and this is something we don't know.
Peter: Those are beautiful things, and you want them all present simultaneously.
Helga: We came so close. to working together. We came so close. Do you recall? And here's- here's what I took away from that experience. I don't know what happened and why it didn't happen, and it doesn't matter. But I have never felt that way in a process before. I felt like we were being asked to take certain kinds of risks that we weren't necessarily, uh, being protected.
Uh, once being asked to take those risks, you know, I had a moment when I just said, no, I'm not doing that. Um, but here's the thing that I remember about that process too. We would speak to you in the morning or after break or after lunch or something, you hugged every single person in the room, and every single person in the room hugged you.
And some of the musicians who are not at all accustomed to that kind of contact, who think of the theater beings as kind of touchy-feely, and they mean that in a very slick and pejorative way, were suddenly overcome by this physical contact that they didn't even understand they wanted or needed. And though you never said a word, not one word in those rehearsals, I knew that you could see everything.
And that was one of those situations where I felt talk about let go and fall forward, it was fine. I knew it was fine. I knew it was fine. I knew it was fine. I knew it was fine. I was very sad that-that, um, we didn't continue that journey forward together, but then, I got to be in the Armory twice last year, and I was there for St. Matthew's Passion, and I wept the entire time for how beautiful it was, and I was there for Flexn which also had another kind of impression on me.
And it can't be lost on anyone either how important it was, and I know for me and for many of my other friends of color, it meant something that-that show was in that space so unapologetically for all of us. And that you were there to walk through that experience with those dancers. And I think that that part of what is so touching and what was, even so, touching about St. Matthew's Passion was that I didn't feel like you did something.
So I-I understood that it was directed and that it was crafted and that people moved from point A to point B, that-that there-- [chuckles] that something happened, but that there was not the-the-the fist upon it. And it allowed the audiences to be in exactly this thing that I'm- I'm after myself, which is to be in connection with the work, with the ritual, with the people, with the experience. And, um, and so I'm wondering if you would talk a little bit about-about those two processes.
Peter: First of all, I just wanna hug you across the studio, right through all these microphone cables. I mean, just please, I wanna hug you and hug you and hug you some more. You know, I mean, the deal is, first of all, we do things we love every day with people we love. So just please, let's just start with that. That is the fact, that is the given, and so let's deeply be grateful for that, and let's deeply acknowledge it.
We actually are responsible for creating our own heaven and our own hell, and why not choose heaven or why not actually notice that hell is actually a branch of heaven correctly viewed. [laughs] And so, you know that, in fact, the path to heaven goes straight through hell, it always does. And so, if you're missing some hell, you're probably missing some heaven.
There's no wrong answer, there's no disaster. In fact, a lot of my shows, if we don't get to that crisis point, I think, "Oh, that's too bad. This show's just not gonna be very good." You know, you have to actually go through the-the difficult and the painful part and the soul searching part and the part where everybody has to reexamine who they are and what we're doing, and is this ever gonna work? And if you don't get to that place, then nobody ask the hard questions. So for me, crisis is super positive. And-and so, there's no downside to the process.
Peter: So that's why I can be very-- I can enjoy it every day, even when it's very difficult because you know that, until it's difficult, it's not gonna be deeply beautiful. And in the case of the St. Matthew Passion, they're both about the same topic. You know, they're both about putting your body where your belief system is and putting everything you believe in on the line, not just as a nice idea or beautifully formed phrase as your body. And your body is where your courage is. Your body is where your spiritual existence is.
And of course, the dancers of Flexn is incredible, incredible group of people from Brooklyn and East New York, uh, who have created an art form in the last 10 years that takes the best of Krump and, you know, this just huge intense reaching into yourself and getting your own most toxic emotions and getting them out there so they stop killing you and other people.
Peter: And that you can deal with it 'cause you're looking at it, and you're dealing with it by lifting it out of your body with the most incredible strength and courage. That kind of superpower dancing, meeting the Michael Jackson thing which is gliding and being smooth and actually being cool and making the whole thing light, you know. And of course, with Michael, the problem was that the light was also a little bit of a cover rather than, um, a reveal, you know, that was covering so much unhappiness.
So how do you make it light but not dishonest or not deceptive or avoiding something? And of course, these Flexn dancers have this genius, which is to move in such a way that you move through obstacles, and it's about in a world that is so crude. You have grace under pressure. You actually are the coolest ever in the uncool moment.
What was so beautiful in Flexn was watching those dancers bring all of their cool into uncool situations and just triumph through sheer spiritual grace and physical courage because they're doing things to their body. You think this should not be possible, and it said like, what? Hold it.
Helga: This isn't for most of us. It's okay.
Peter: No, a human body does not stand there-
Peter: -and you're not in that direction. And no, the arms cannot go back there. And, you know, none of that is possible and, of course, these people are saying, okay, to be Black in America and in these neighborhoods, it means that you're superhuman in order to be human. And so, this beautiful, beautiful, beautiful virtuosity, which is what day-to-day life and survival call for.
That sense that you are responsible for your own mobility and your own trajectory and your own way to move through complexity and to counter the complexity of the world with your own counter complexity, uh, just means that these dancers are exhilarating. But of course, yes. You know, it's the way of the cross. It's Jesus, it's- it's-- you know, take a walk with Jesus, you know. And it's not an enjoyable walk, those 15 stations. And at the same time, we're going past enjoyment, and we're going to something that is exhilarating and that high energy, high danger-
Helga: Yeah, danger.
Peter: -is actually the place that life was meant to be. You know, there was no health and safety department when the world was created. And-and, you know, you're not mostly meant to be safe. You know, safe is, uh, a pretty relative term, and if you lean too heavily into it, you're in a very bad place.
Helga: Well, this brings me-- and I'm glad you're saying this because I-I found this thing that you said about how glad you were that the 20th century was over because, uh, because we were so absorbed in psychology and the self. And I'm wondering if that somehow speaks to what you're saying about living in this place of free fall and danger and not safety.
Peter: Well, I mean, I think the-- step one is trusting other people.
Peter: Step one is actually realizing that, you know, human beings all are looking for the same things and, you know, whatever, it's masked behind. In fact, you know, people who are behaving really badly are just hurt people, and they're responding out of that. And they're trying to cover it, and they're trying to look like they're fine and all that stuff.
And so you just-- you have to always just not react to any of that. And you have to make a space. Well, you know, the way I kind of think of it is most of us are not the person we would like to be or imagine ourselves to be most of the time.
Peter: We just don't measure up to our own internal idea of who we would be. And of course, then you realize that's actually true of every person you're meeting.
Peter: And so, when you're reacting to how, you know, irritating they are, you know, you're not getting the-- they're not happy with that either.
Peter: And so, the task is to invite everybody into the self that they would like to inhabit and make it possible for each person to step into the person who they imagine themselves to be. And that's-- um, my theater was invented-- [crosstalk]
Helga: It looks that the Buddhist thing is-is to be, uh, to be medicine, right, and not poison.
Peter: Yeah. Well, I mean, and-and the Buddhist thing is also just radical acceptance.
Peter: You know, you-you just, you know-- uh, but it's not just Buddhist. It's like, judge not that ye be not judged, just calm down. Nobody needs to judge anything. And of course, that's one of the big things that people think about, directing is that you're busy judging things all day. And it's really the opposite. It's, you're treasuring everything.
Peter: And you're actually recognizing all of its treasure, all of its treasure. All of it's gonna lead you somewhere. Every single thing is leading you somewhere. Every single thing is like the Quran says, it's a message. You just don't know how to read. But when you learn to read, you realize every single thing happening in your life is not a thing. It's a message. It's an invitation. It's a challenge. It's a reminder. It's a- it's a-- it's taking you to your real self.
And so again, there's no good or bad, and there's no positive or negative about it. It's just all there for you to engage. And-and the more you engage with the difficult stuff, obviously, the richer your whole experience is. And so, um, and that's again just not Muslim. It's not Buddhist. It's, you know, Jesus said, you know, please love your enemies. You know, anybody can love people who love them. You know, like, what do-- like, no, excuse me.
Peter: Pick the person you truly don't like and deal with them with love now and as an equal. You know, for me, the big, big project in this life and in this country is equality. What does equality mean? What forms could it take? Could we invent more structures for equality that actually demonstrate the reality of equality? Because the world is holding in front of us super unequal images constantly. In fact, that's all we're presented with.
Peter: So what does it mean to understand the actual basis of equality? And that's of course why the arts are here, is to insist on equality and across an entire spectrum. So I think one of the- one of the great things about, uh, about, you know, being able to work with the Flexn community is just this powerful sense of equality of people who are mostly treated so unequally and who, uh, created their own form of excelling.
Helga: And their language.
Helga: Their own language.
Peter: And I think one of the most beautiful things, we had entire performances of Flexn that were attended by kids from, uh, from the Bronx and from Brooklyn high schools. And--
Helga: They could finally see themselves.
Peter: Well, what was so cool was, you know, in the big public performances, the audience was really loud and some people were going with it and sort of that-that kind of thing. What was so cool was, when it was time for the high school kid per-- performance with high school kids, the place was silent.
Peter: It was like their Shakespeare, they were reading it. They were reading it for every detail, every new walls. They were soaking it in. They were just drinking that as nectar. And they knew that that was valuable, and they were getting the real stuff. And the same kind of intensity of listening that you get from, you know, a certain audience listening to John Gielgud.
You know, this-- these kids from the Bronx, they knew the real deal, and they knew the people on stage were putting it out for real. And so, the respect factor and the mutual satisfaction went to this place of sign of recognition.
Peter: And then at the end, it went crazy.
Helga: Right. [laughs]
Peter: But when it hap-- when it was actually happening, people didn't- didn't wanna miss anything, and they wanna be on top of everything. And the focus was 120%. And that is, um-- you know, when you suddenly in front of a language that you recognize and you can read it, then, you know, you're going to amazing places.
And of course, uh, you know, for other people, the Bach Matthew Passion, again, is a-- just, is a- is a language that once you- once you recognize it, it takes you so deep. And that's another, you know, piece where, you know, the depth of silence was the most beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing except for the sound of people crying and crying and crying. And the peace is totally meant to make you cry. Bach starts out by saying, ?Come, daughters of Jerusalem, help me weep."
Please, let's help everybody weep. Stop acting like you're not touched. Stop acting like it doesn't matter. Stop acting like you can push this away. Just break down. Just lose it. Just cry. And Bach opens the Matthew Passion with the chorus split into two groups. And chorus A says, "Please, please, please come help me weep." Chorus B will not bite, will not move, does not respond. They perf-- they answer in one syllable short angry words.
Peter: And it's this type of grief that just shuts itself down.
Peter: And won't talk to anyone and locks the door and pulls down the window shades and doesn't pick up the phone. And what it means to just, let's all help each other weep. Let's go to that unbelievably vulnerable place where you admit that you just don't understand most of what's happening, and you-you don't know how to deal with it. And that's the opening.
Helga: You have brothers and sisters?
Peter: I have an amazing sister.
Helga: Older or younger?
Peter: Two years younger.
Helga: Why is she so amazing?
Peter: Well, there's a long list of things, but at the moment, she's, uh, she runs a-a dance machine arcade for teenagers in Las Vegas.
Helga: Oh, wow.
Peter: And, uh, she's made just the coolest place to be a teenager.
Peter: And they're-- she has super beautiful vintage Japanese machines from the '80s. And they have tournaments and-- international tournaments and national tournaments, and people show up from all over the place 'cause the whole community is online. So her place is the destination and, uh, and she just makes it the best place to be a teenager.
Peter: Yeah. No, she's an amazing person.
Helga: And-and you grew up in Pennsylvania?
Peter: [laughs] [unintelligible 00:29:00] Pittsburgh.
Helga: Little Pittsburgh. And so, you're a kid and you're making all these plays. So let's go back before you're even organized enough to do that. You watch TV, you don't have TV, so your imagination is-is more free. How come you-you are this way?
Peter: Oh, you know the-- [laughs] you know, I'm-- you know, my life is just-- because I've been surrounded by such astonishing people forever.
Peter: And when I was really young, I was working with very high-powered people who just invited me into things I could never have myself imagined. And I would say, "No, no, let's do this." And they would just really nicely say, "Well, Peter, maybe not, maybe we could do this instead." You know they were just-- you know, people were just truly lovely with me.
I mean, when I was 10, I started apprenticing at a mar-marionette theater in Pittsburgh called the Lovelace Marionettes, and they did lots of, uh, you know, fairytales and so on with Marionettes, but they set their productions in all these different parts of the world. So Rumpelstiltskin was in the Arab world, and Beauty and the Beast was in Japan. That was a garage in East Liberty, which is a very special neighborhood in Pittsburgh, a really interesting super integrated neighborhood, very, very working class, Black and Eastern European and Syrian, very, very powerful place.
And there were puppets and masks from all over the world on the fuchsia walls of this place. And the woman who ran it, Margo Lovelace, every year went-- every summer went to the Yucatan, went to Moscow, went to Osaka, and learned an art form and came back and taught it to us in Pittsburgh.
Peter: And so it was an amazing point of contact with the world. And she would say, you have to go to La MaMa in New York City where Andrei Serban is directing, you know, Greek plays. Or she would hand me a book of sonography from Czechoslovakia to grow up with an expanding and expanded world and, uh, with music from all these places. And, you know, that was just a-- it was, uh, thrilling, thrilling, thrilling.
And then I-I-I went to high school at-- a boarding school, uh, at Andover. And again, these just incredible range of people and influences from around the world. Uh, so it was very, very, very rich, and-and they were-- when I was there, the faculty had just been through the '60s, and they said, okay, let's get with it. So I never took a class, an English class ever. I only took classes with titles like perception and expression and contemporary communications.
Peter: You know, and so when I was 16, they just handed us Fi-Finnegans Wake and said, now, this term, we're going to work on ambiguity. And so give kids the most advanced, thrilling, complicated, challenging material because that's what's gonna shape their lives. And-and it was very exhilarating. And then my mother moved our family to Paris when I was 18. And so, suddenly, I was in the world there, a whole other universe, and I had nothing to do but go to museums all day and the cinema tech and go to eight operas and concerts a week in the theater.
And, um, and of course in the '70s in Paris, there were Cambodians, there were Indonesians, uh, the-the-the range of culture that was represented in that city was just astonishing, and of course, the American avant-garde was living there in exile.
Peter: So I saw most of the coolest, you know, people in New York, the-- you know, Meredith Monk and Bob Wilson and Nabu Mines and-and the Bread and Puppet Theater in Paris for the first time. And so, it was a really cool thing that the American avant-garde was hanging out in-in-in Europe.
And-and so all of that was, you know, deeply beautiful and exciting. And, um, and then when I graduated from college, my mother moved to Japan.
And so, I had a place to stay in Asia, and I could become comfortable with many different Asian cultures and artists and-and so on. So it's, you know, my life has just been, you know, an invitation-
Peter: -to get real about so many things with the realest people ever. [chuckles]
Peter: And, you know, there's nothing more thrilling than to spend life with Flexn dancers. You know, Flexn dancers are just the coolest people and, you know, and fearless and, uh, and living life to the full.
Peter: To the just full lives. And so I-I would just say, um, you know, it's-- the invitation is there every day for everyone, and, um, all you have to do is take it.
Helga: I'm thinking again about this rehearsal that I was in this morning and, again, this invitation to breathe to-- um, one of the other things he said is have the courage to overplay.
Peter: [chuckles] Right, right. You know, I mean it's just-- it's truly, um-- one of the things is it just doesn't help anyone to be timid. You just gotta put it out there.
Peter: And at the same time, you know, it's easy to pull it back, but you can never get anywhere until you've really put it out there. And-and so, you know, step one is just to get people to, you know, stop being polite and-and go to this place where, again, your own real powers start to be unleashed. And, you know, so many composers have written something that just invites you to put something out there in-in-- with credible levels of honesty.
And other composers are really interested in the way you can process it and not just have it raw and out there, but use it to then create these just incredibly delicate, delicate, delicate, delicate cascades of meaning and realize that your suffering or your joy or all of that, in fact, is holding meaning. So don't just treat it as a big lump, but work with it and realize how many shades, how many beautiful levels of infinite detail that are in each one of your feelings.
Helga: You wake up in the morning, and then what happens?
Peter: [laughs] Uh, I wake up fast 'cause I don't sleep very long and--
Helga: You mean like three hours, four hours?
Peter: Well, if you can get three REM cycles, four and a half is good.
Peter: Uh, but in production, three is pretty often the case. Nonetheless, uh, in California, I-I'm up at 5:00 in the morning 'cause it's just the most beautiful time to be up in California. In Europe, the morning doesn't exist. So you just work through the night [laughs] because there will be no morning. [laughs] That's why they figured out the cafes were really important 'cause there-there will need to be a transitional state. [laughs]
But-but the, uh, but in fact, uh, again, just because a lot is going on and my life is happening on many continents, so there's always communications happening, you know, to Australia or Asia or Africa or New York from California or whatever. There's just, uh-- you know, so you're in communication with people, and that's a really great thing to start the day by just connecting to a lot of people and--
Helga: So no sit, no meditation, or anything like that? You really-- or is it all a meditation and so you-you keep moving?
Peter: Yeah, I mean that's not a special occasion for me. It's- it's actually a pretty-- you know, the spiritual practice is just-- is-is-is what you're doing all the time, as they say, pray without ceasing. You know, it's just-- you know, you can just-- [laughs]
Helga: Ooh, I haven't heard that for a long time here.
Peter: You know? Well, you know, I mean, it's just like once-once you go to that place-- [laughs]
Helga: Ooh, I'm having a flashback of my Pentecostal roots.
Peter: Yeah, well, there you go. And, uh, well, but you know, they-they mean that, and it's true. It's just-- you get, again, it's all- it's all divine. It is all, uh, again, a spiritual dimension. Planning the Los Angeles Festival, uh, one of the great things that happened was, you know, we had a steering committee of 24 artists from across the city. Incredible people from South Central, from-from all over the city. But rarely in Los Angeles did people get together from across geography.
Uh, one of the group members was, uh, a guy named Paul Apodaca, who's a great Navajo activist and has been really particularly amazing at getting bones of his people out of museums so they could be properly buried. And, um, and one of the big ideas of the festival was to say, okay, because Los Angeles people just never get out of their cars and don't really know what's out there. And the freeways are designed to make sure you won't know what's out there.
So we had a special concert series called Sacred Spaces and where we invited, you know, the Armenian Orthodox Church to open its doors, you know, second Baptist, where Martin Luther King preached on Central Avenue. And there are amazing places in that city. And they opened themselves to communities that were not neighbors, but we had a big debate about-about making this, uh, program, and Paul said to us, "Excuse me, what place is not sacred?"
Helga: Hmm. Right.
Peter: And you go, "Oh, right." You go-- [laughs]
Helga: There's the question and the invitation.
Peter: And you're just say-
Helga: And the invitation.
Peter: Oh, right. Of course, it's all sacred.
Peter: And you know, yes, we have our sacred spaces and the things we identify as sacred, but actually, stop for a minute and just recognize. And one of my other great masters is Jean-Luc Godard. Um, and I apprenticed myself to him, uh, making a film of King Lear. And he made this feature film that's one of the great, most difficult movies ever made, but a great movie. I mean difficult, yes. Great, yes. He shot the whole thing in 10 days with a crew of two people. And watching Godard work, we were at this amazing lake outside of Geneva with scenery that is so breathtaking. And he's just [unintelligible 00:40:17] turn the camera around and didn't point it at the beautiful view ever. And he pointed the camera at everything not previously considered scenic and at something you would never look twice ever. And he said, "No, no, this is- this is the shot." And then you start to look.
Helga: Is your path in your work this also?
Peter: Well, you know, the usual thing is anything that's being ignored is gonna be powerful. [chuckles]
Peter: So-- I mean, that's by definition. And by definition, you know, I mean-- and that's simple. You know, in your own life, the most important things in your life are everything you don't have time for. That's how you know what's important.
Peter: And so, you know-- so it's a pretty good rule of thumb.
Peter: That if something's not being focused on, then you should focus on it. At the same time, obviously, what you do want is, you know, these opposites to meet and you want-- you wanna create projects that are both really simple, so anybody gets it. It's just immediately clear to anybody and they go, "Oh, of course." It's like stuff your mother told you but you never believed till now. And then-- and it's not new information.
Peter: It's something you've carried your whole lifetime, and it just became true in the last 10 minutes for the first time.
Peter: That-that's a really deep thing, is working with the stuff that you know deeply, but you still don't properly value. And then the other thing is, uh, complexity and just getting comfortable with complexity, which is what advanced music of all cultures is about. Is just, you know, please, complexity is not a threat, it's a pleasure. And find your pleasure in complexity.
Peter: So for me, those are the two assignments, is to make something completely simple and super complex at the same time.
Peter: And those are your favorite works of art that are just immediate and overwhelming in their impact. And at the same time, the longer you look, you go, "Oh, my God. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute." The longer you listen, you're just taken way beyond that first impact into whole other places.
Helga: What else do you wanna do?
Peter: Well, that's a-a question I can't actually answer because I do feel that everything I'm doing is not really what I'm here on earth to do. I feel this, oh, something else. I do not know what it is. I'm-
Peter: -waiting for it. I'm open to it, but at the moment, I-I-- don't get me wrong, I-I love what I'm doing.
Helga: Yes, yes, yes.
Peter: And I-I love the people I'm doing it with and I-- you know, and I have a real sense of purpose, and there's a body of work, and it's-- you know, it can be recognized as a incredible, you know, long and committed path. But I do feel that, um, yeah, other things await us. And none of us really know what we're being prepared for.
Helga: And do you feel that way, you, Peter Sellars? Even in the- in the presence of-of all that you have done and are doing, that there's-there's something else awaiting you to--
Peter: Completely. Very deeply.
Helga: That's awesome.
Peter: Yeah. And I'm-- Again, I'm grateful for everything that comes into my life every day and for the people that come into my life. So I'm not, uh, I'm not saying, "Oh, my God, I've gotta change all this." But you-you know, there's something larger.
Helga: The reason that I'm- I'm kind of silent, you know, sometimes you-you lick the edges of that thing too, right? Like you can taste it. It's--
Peter: Yeah. And, you know, not just lick the edges of it. I mean, it's like, chew on it. [laughs] Go ahead. [laughs] You know, I mean, I-I-I think-- I think, uh, um, you know, the first step of everything is just humility. And the other thing is just always to remember you can't do it yourself. And you know, in my line of work, there's not one thing I do myself. I don't do anything alone ever.
Peter: Everything that I do begins when other people come in the room. And, uh, and as soon as nobody's in the room, there's nothing happening. I have no illusions about that. I do realize that. So that itself is very, very liberating.
And, um, what the Matthew Passion and Flexn at the Armory have in common is, you know, the Matthew Passion [unintelligible 00:45:37] Berlin Philharmonic, and Flexn has the most amazing, amazing group of dancers from Brooklyn. And they're both the best in the world at what they do. You know, and they're living life with their own standards of excellence.
Peter: And so, for me, that's unbelievably exhilarating to be in a room with those folks every day and to taste people who are, um, every day on a path to transcendence. And you know, both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Flexn dancers are not satisfied with any rehearsal ever. The Flexn dancers are-are busy trying things out and filming each other with their phones and then reviewing everything scrupulously.
And then, the only question any dancer has coming off the stage for me is how do I make that better? You know, that's the only question. And the Berlin Philharmonic is also just insatiable. They just won't stop. They say, "No, no, we can do better here. This has to be more. Can we--" You know, this sense that, um, you're-- you really are engaged in this long-term search.
Peter: And, uh, and that we can do more than we've done is pretty, pretty beautiful.
Helga: And not to feel despair at-at that prospect also that it-it feels that it can always be better. No, it's-- it is a conversation, isn't it?
Peter: Yeah. And again, um, I also just-- you wanna honor the despair too. 'Cause whenever there's despair, it's when the deepest things happen, you know. The great art is not made in nice times by nice people for nice situations.
Peter: The greatest art came out of horrible, horrible moments in human history, and people facing things that were unbearable and finding a way to face them and not push them away. And so, for me, the-- you know, despair does go on the list of essential ingredients. 'Cause if you don't have any despair, what are you doing singing the blues? If you don't have any despair, how are you gonna sing Gospel music?
Peter: If you don't have any despair, how are you actually gonna play a Mahler symphony? Oh, cut it out. You know, you know, like, don't- don't waste my time. If you don't have any despair, I have a problem with you 'cause clearly life hasn't touched you.
Peter: You know, and so-so the despair is actually an enabling ingredient, right? And I think a lot of young artists, they just say, "You know, if you're upset or feeling, you know, at loose ends or, you know, go farther with that." Just, you know, like, please, for goodness sakes. Until you hit bottom, nothing's gonna happen. And so, it's also as an artist, but also as a human being, knowing how to hit bottom and knowing that hitting bottom is finally gonna allow something to happen.
Peter: And, uh, uh, and again, I don't mean that depressed people sing the blues 'cause the-the depth of the blues is that it's to be sung joyously, you know? And-and it's not-
Helga: In the face of [unintelligible 00:49:12]
Peter: -an occasion of self-pity. It's the opposite.
Peter: Like, and that's when you-- you know, like really bad blues performers don't get that at all. And you just go, "Oh, this is horrifying." [laughs] Get over your cheap self, please. Grow up. Pick yourself up and act like an adult, you know. [laughs] And you say, this is not about poor you. And-and, you know, it's like, no.
Peter: Uh, you know, it's this other thing, and it's again, that this despair is the elixir of life, you know, and you need to get it in concentrated form. And, um, you know, and that's where the-the drugs and alcohol stuff is always just a little sad because you wanna give people something more helpful than those things-
Peter: -uh, as a place to put their sorrow. And as artists, we have a place to put that stuff.
Helga: That's true.
Peter: Most human beings don't.
Helga: They don't.
Peter: And so, alcohol and--
Helga: And sugar and-
Peter: A bunch of things.
Helga: -a bunch of things, yeah.
Peter: A bunch of things just present themselves as the, uh, kind of surrogate whatever. And-and of course, as artists, we take everything that's poisonous, and that's what you make the healing brew out of.
Peter: You-- actually, that is the healing material, and-and it is poison. And you have to know how to handle poison and, um, you know, not kill people by having people drink it 'cause you have to work with it. It needs to-- there's alchemy, and, uh, before you can serve that to people and before it's healing. But it is healing, and-and you can't be a healer until you've been through it. But the arts were invented as--
Helga: Places to create those spaces.
Peter: Yeah. And-and where you take your own-- everything in your life you're not proud of and work with it until you can honor it.
Helga: The thing that-that I-I wanna say to you too is that, you know, some part of me feels like it belongs to you. Right? It has nothing to do with the fact that we didn't have the chance to work together. We are working together on so many levels and so many ways-
Peter: I just want to say [unintelligible 00:51:50] like, hello.
Helga: -without having seen each other for over a year and--
Peter: Well, that's the internet before the internet part of things. My, you know, joy at being in your zone is so total. And-and again, you know, we have people we both know in common-
Peter: -who we love very deeply. And, you know, we have paths that are super intertwined and, you know, my-my rule is anyone you're meeting, you're not meeting them by accident.
Peter: And anybody who's coming in your life, there's a reason for that, even for a few minutes.
Peter: And so-so from my point of view, again, I mean, that's why, you know, so many shows start or don't really happen, but they'll turn to something else. I used to get so upset when certain performances didn't happen, particularly early in my life, but even later. Uh, I-I was fired by things, fired all the time from all kinds of projects, and I became very, very well-known when I was young for being fired. And-and you know what, it's kind of a-a nice thing because people recognize you stand for something.
Peter: And they realize that, oh, okay. He didn't cave. And so, that became a-a kind of beautiful thing where, even though it was very painful and it always is painful or being unbelievably attacked in the press-
Peter: -which I am all the time, um, a lot of people say, oh, that is-- there's some integrity there. And people recognize it.
Peter: And I've learned over the years to just not get upset when the thing you wanted to happen doesn't happen because something else is gonna take its place in some other way, or it's gonna lead to something that-- or something was not its time. And you know, so often, a project gets canceled and you're just devastated. And then 10 years later is the moment.
And all the things come together and you say, oh, right. It couldn't happen then. And you thought it was some, you know, stupid political or financial thing. It turns out it was like your guardian angel saying, this is not the time, Peter.
Peter: And realizing that we all have guardian angels. And the project that didn't materialize is your guardian angel saying, step into this helicopter now. We're getting you out of here. [laughs] And-and-and-and also, so often, emotions or ideas or things you're working on in your life, you need to live with for years before it can be shared.
And I think that's one of the deepest things about this thing they call classical music, which I take to me in every form of music, which is just the longer you live with it, the more it has to say and why I really treasure music that you live with across a lifetime. And that means more over the years and you can articulate differently over the years.
And so, some of my favorite things are productions that I've done at different times in my life. And you-- the production feels very different and has all these new emotions or different understandings because you just-- you're live longer.
Peter: And meanwhile, the world is not the same world. And so-so I actually respect the things that I have to wait for their day.
Helga: Peter Sellars, thank you so, so much.
Peter: I go other way. Can I just say what a beautiful thing it is to finally sit with you since, uh, those rehearsals those years ago and, uh, where--can I just say, what you brought into the room was body and soul in the most beautiful, beautiful way? And I just totally hold those weeks as something special in my whole life.
Helga: Thank you. You're not supposed to make me cry.
Peter: Uh, for me, it's just totally from the job.
Helga: Oh, wow. The first is always the first. It's- it's the anticipation. It's the wanting. It's the- it's the first. That's why it's the first. I'm so happy to have had this first conversation with Peter Sellars. I feel completely inspired and-and just enthusiastic about how we move forward together in these conversations. I hope you do too.
I would love to hear whether or not something in this talk resonated with you. I wanna know if it changed how you see yourself in any way or see someone else, and most importantly, your creativity, your own creativity. Where are you with that? How are you feeling? In what ways are you creative? Share things with me. I wanna know, I wanna hear from you. You can always email me at email@example.com or follow me on Facebook.
Female Speaker: This episode of Helga was produced by Julia Alsop and executive producer, Alex Ambrose, with help from Curtis McDonald and original music by Alex Overington. Special thanks to Cindy Kim, Lorraine Maddox, Michael L. Cesar, Jacqueline Cincotta, and John Chow.
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