A rare moment together |  Federico Leon and Robert Wilson

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA and LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK |  It was a puzzle.  Why did the iconoclastic American director Robert Wilson choose an Argentinian dramatist Federico León as his protégé in 2002?

Wilson, hailed as an avant-garde explorer in the uses of time and space onstage, is better known for his imaginative decor and unusual (yet predictable) lighting effects to create unconventional, often surreal productions that juxtapose the unexpected and ignore time strictures.

What could Wilson possibly know about writing — in Argentinian-Spanish language? The pairing puts you in a querulous mindset when it comes to suitably matching mentor with protégé.

“I thought that Federico was in some ways the least likely of them [possible protégés],” said the American director who is still well-known for the landmark opera Einstein on the Beach (1976), which he created with composer Philip Glass. “First I said to myself: ‘No.’ Then I thought that with him I’d be taking the biggest risk. It’s exciting when you really don’t know yet what will develop.”

Mentoring “is not learning in the conventional sense. It’s really the idea of interacting. Two artists meet and interact,” says gifted Argentinean director Federico León of his year of collaborating with his mentor, the legendary director and artist Robert Wilson

Insight into a different approach?
Federico Leon

For logistical reasons it was understood from the outset that Wilson, 62 (at the time), and León, 27, would meet chiefly on Wilson’s turf. For most of 2002, Wilson’s philosophies and Wilson’s work-in-progress provided the principal substance for their dialogue. León entered into this asymmetrical arrangement with eyes wide open.


A playwright, director, actor and producer whose work is slowly gaining recognition in his native Argentina and beyond, León had written four plays by 2002 — three of which he has directed. One of the plays Mil quinientos metros sobre el nivel de Jack (1500m Above the Level of Jack), proved to be popular. In effect, it was his calling card. León also wrote, produced, directed and appeared in the 2001 feature film, Everything Together. “I think the kind of theatre I create is closely related to cinema art,” he explains.

Though his prior exposure to Wilson productions had been limited, León said that he had seen enough to recognize how seamlessly Wilson integrates a panoply of different artistic “languages” (notably that of light) within a single scene. How exactly are such results achieved? León was curious to find out.

Residence at Watermill Center

León had his first good look at his mentor in action at the Watermill Center, a bucolic retreat on eastern Long Island, New York, founded by Wilson in 1992. In the words of his website, the centre was created “as an international facility for new work in the arts, conceived to foster communication and innovation.” Among other things, Watermill serves as the test kitchen in which Wilson spends summers cooking up his productions for the coming year.

In residence there, León witnessed (and was drafted for) Wilson’s assembly-line techniques, applied on this occasion to Georg Büchner’s prophetic comedy Leonce und Lena (1836). As is his custom, Wilson gathered whoever happened to be around (civilians emphatically included), worked out his movement schemes on them, and captured the results on videotape. That tape, in turn, would serve as a reference for the German actors of the celebrated Berliner Ensemble.

Were there lessons for León in what he saw at Watermill? Initially the answer was an unequivocal “no.”

Yet asked again at the end of their year together (around 2003) whether the mentoring encounter with Wilson had affected his thinking, León was less certain. “This has been an experiment. No result was necessary or expected. It has had a result, but what’s really important is the experiment. Right now, I don’t consciously see any effect. But at a certain point, I began to understand.”

Professional contacts

León’s meetings with Wilson provided him with opportunities to develop new contacts in Paris, Berlin, Geneva, Brussels and Amsterdam, all in the midst of an intensive period of preparing his play El Adolescente.

Our approaches are different in many ways,” León says. “For me, it was very interesting to see someone working in a world very different from my own. The reward was the accumulation of impressions. At a certain point, I began to understand. One day, the penny drops.”

Wilson defines his philosophy as follows: “Our responsibility as artists is to ask questions, that is to say WHAT IS IT and not WHAT IT IS for if we know what it is we are doing there is no need to do it.”

In other words, Wilson got the better end of the deal. The language incompatibility and occupational differences allowed him to be a largely hands-off mentor who did not have to be present all the time. — cultureofoneworld.org



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