From Hilles Elevator to the ART

Peter M. Sellars ’80 once directed a show in the Hilles library elevator. At another point, he dressed actors in bug costumes with mops on their heads. In a third show, he dug up the floor of the Adams House basement.

Sellars directed over 40 productions during his time as an undergraduate, developing a controversial reputation for the eccentric, the unusual and the just plain wacky.

Sellars got an early start on directing at age 10, joining a Pittsburgh puppet theater he describes as a “fuschia garage with moss covering the walls.”

While at Harvard, he enjoyed the independence that came with the lack of a formal drama program.

“The reason I came to Harvard was because there was no theater department,” he says. “What you did was what you and your friends decided to do.”

And he and his friends decided to do whatever they wanted—like putting up King Lear in the backseat of a Lincoln and Mayakovsky in a supermarket.

Sellars directed Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in the Adams House Pool while it was still used for swimming, a move The Crimson’s 1978 review called a “vigorous, probing, playful approach to college theater.” The two lovers acted on floating rafts, with a strategically located phallic diving board. Cleopatra dunked the messenger who told her of Antony’s marriage to Octavia.

“If it frequently resembles a circus, it is an indisputably Shakespearean circus,” Crimson reviewer David B. Edelstein ’81-’82 wrote.

Sellars’ audience sat in a horseshoe around the pool and were frequently splashed by the actors. At one point, the actors led the spectators out of the Pool and into Rome—Adams House A-entry.

Edelstein seemed bemused by the experience in his Crimson review.

“Frankly I don’t have the vaguest idea what [these things] mean. Maybe nothing and maybe everything,” he wrote.

Drainage problems in the pool cut short Antony’s run.

Much Ado About Nothing starred mannequins and people in day-glo Renaissance wear.

“Watching Peter Sellars’ Much Ado about Nothing is like walking across a room blindfolded—it’s easy if you’re well acquainted with the terrain but painful and confusing if you’re not,” wrote Crimson editor Scott A. Rosenberg ’81.

Rosenberg described the production as self-indulgent and radically unconventional.

“Sellars might just as well have bounded on stage, done a headstand, cried, ‘look at me!’ before the curtain rose, and let the play proceed with a modicum of sensibility,” he wrote.

The same year, Sellars directed Vladimir Mayakovsky’s satire The Bedbug in the Loeb. Crimson reviewer Katherine P. States ’79-’80 grumbled that Sellars “winds his actors into near-epilepsy…the plot is barely intelligible in [his] frenzied production.”

Sellars used a supermarket motif to stage the show, complete with an “incessant procession of slides of dog food, toilet paper, peas and Burry cookies,” according to States. The actors wore bug costumes complete with mops on their heads and pushed shopping carts.

States seemed perturbed by the entire circus: “Assaulted by Sellars’ sound and fury, we feel confused, trapped, and embarrassed… Why does Peter Sellars have so much contempt for his audience that he goes so far out of his way to make things inaccessible?”

Sellars says he most remembers his 1980 Loeb Mainstage performance of King Lear.

Crimson reviewer David M. Frankel ’81 wrote, “Peter Sellars has balls. His King Lear drives Shakespeare’s poetry to a North Hollywood parking lot, yanks it from the back seat stabs it helter skelter while the gods guffaw.”

When the lead actor quit, because he was “unable to reach the level of intensity” his director sought, Peter Sellars himself stepped into the title role.

Frankel was less than impressed.

“Sellars flops to his knees, letting his words drool in an endless, barely audible stream. His tortured soul is senile, not mad,” he wrote.

Sellars used every inch of the stage, the halls outside the theater, and the wings in his show. Shakespeare’s Act III storm “wail[ed] for an hour amidst pendulous light bulbs, harsh spotlights, rolling rocks, flickering candles, blinking headlights of a sleek Lincoln Continental and the disturbing whine of steel cellos.” Four television sets showed everything from the results of the New Hampshire primary to Ajax commercials, Polaroid cameras flashed and the audience was blinded with spotlights “until [their] eyes tear or shut,” according to Frankel.

Frankel called the show “four hours of mechanical torture.”

For Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, Sellars dug up the Adams House basement floor in order to conduct a live burial of one of the characters.

His interpretation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters was over three hours long, stilted with maddeningly long silent pauses and random Chopin nocturnes.

He even directed a play in the Hilles library elevator.

Genius or oddball? Today many consider Peter Sellars one the world’s leading theater, opera and television directors. He’s been a part of more than 100 productions, large and small, across America and abroad. He’s served as artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company, and at 26 he became director of the Kennedy Center’s American National Theatre.

Sellars, for his part, says he never read his Crimson reviews.

—Staff writer Kristi L. Jobson can be reached at jobson@fas.harvard.edu.

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