’ve always lived with one foot in an imaginary world. I’ve never grown out of that,” Mary Zimmerman says. When she was a child, her academic parents took her along for stays in England and France. A British teacher read to her from Homer’s Odyssey, and Zimmerman, at age 5, was captivated. Returning home to Nebraska, she found her mother’s copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.
“I could tell that these were fairy tales and adventure stories of a different order, a very serious, adult, mysterious order,” she says.
Zimmerman now lives in Chicago where she teaches theater students at Northwestern University. The MacArthur “genius grant” recipient is also a renowned director working at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and beyond. She spends time in the world of opera, too: Cincinnati Opera’s roundly praised production of Galileo Galilei last summer at SCPA is a work she created in 2002 with composer Philip Glass. She’s directed at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. But her fame is particularly rooted in her playwriting — works based on fables and myths.
This week the drama program at the University if Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) presents her 2002 play Metamorphoses (Thursday-Sunday at CCM’s Patricia Corbett Auditorium). The show, based on Ovid’s retelling of classic myths from 2,000 years ago, will be staged with CCM acting students, directed by D. Lynn Meyers from Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati.
The work started with a group of students at Northwestern in a piece called “Six Myths,” which used an onstage pool of water as its setting. It evolved into Metamorphoses and presented on Broadway in 2002, earning Zimmerman both Tony and Drama Desk awards. When the Cincinnati Playhouse staged it a year later, Zimmerman oversaw the local production.
The theater program at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) is readying a production of another of her mythic creations, Arabian Nights (Feb. 20-March 2). The show, created in 1992 for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, derives from ancient folk tales from Persia, India, Egypt and Mesopotamia, stories Zimmerman read as a child. It centers on Scheherazade, who prevents her violent husband, the king, from executing her by plying him with tales of sex, greed and revenge. NKU faculty member Brian Robertson is directing; he worked with similar material when he staged A Flowering Tree for Cincinnati Opera in 2011.
I tracked Zimmerman down recently in Milan, at the La Scala opera house, where she was staging a production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Via email, she told me that virtually all her output as a playwright, “was originally an oral tale that predated — by centuries sometimes — the print version that comes down to us.”
“They were fluid texts,” she says, “performed by solo performers who adapted the story according to the audience, the situation, the performer’s own strengths and desires. It has always seemed obvious to me that these stories belong ‘in the air’ — in the voice. They are told tales, meant to be witnessed communally.”
Unlike most playwrights, who write in solitude then bring a script to a workshop or a stage for initial production, Zimmerman follows a unique process. “I begin rehearsals with no script,” she says. “Every night, in between rehearsals, I write for the next day. I build the text piece by piece inspired by what my designers and I have come up with, what the cast can do and what they are like, what is happening in the world during our production period.”
“It isn’t as crazy a leap in the dark as it might seem — I am very, very familiar with the original text before beginning: I have ideas of what I’m going to do, and the set is already determined and being built. But it is during the course of the rehearsal period (in between individual rehearsals, not during them) that I make the text of the play. The rehearsal period is preceded by a year or even two (or a lifetime) of knowing the text rather intimately, of travel (sometimes) to the country of its origin, of constant dreaming in a kind of dialogue with the text and my design collaborators.”
For Metamorphoses, her inspiration was to tell those mythical stories in an aquatic setting. “It’s such a maritime culture and story, these Greek and Roman myths,” she said in a program note for another theater’s production in Washington, D.C., and that with this work, “it’s so much about transformation and change and water.” The onstage water, she believes, is both real and metaphorical, a “fluid” medium that can convey grief, sensuality or playfulness.
But it’s the themes behind the myths that attract Zimmerman to ancient tales. “It’s what has made them endure and endure worldwide. They speak to what it is like to be a person, to experience the fundamental things all people experience. They may be dressed up in different costumes, they may reflect different cultural traditions, but they are speaking from the human heart to the human heart.”
“One of the things that … these ancient tales have taught me is that human beings all experience the same joys and sorrows. You are a child, then you aren’t anymore,” Zimmerman elaborates. “You lose your parents, you try to find your way in the world. You know that one day you will sicken and die, and you find some way to cope with that. You seek connections, you fail, you make mistakes. You learn the limits of your power in the world. You find a way to embrace the passage of time or to escape it. Fortune comes and it goes and sometimes comes again. You try to understand what the meaning of your life is.”
Zimmerman continues to generate works based on these mythic inspirations: Most recently she adapted The White Snake, an ancient Chinese fable, for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She’s mounting it again for Chicago’s Goodman Theatre (May 3-June 8). After experiencing her shimmering Metamorphoses and her inventive Arabian Nights, you might feel that an odyssey to the Windy City is in order. That’s the power of storytelling.
CCM presents Mary Zimmerman’s METAMORPHOSES Thursday-Sunday. Tickets: 513-556-4183.