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Artist Mary Zimmerman visits Saint Mary’s for speech on metaphors in imagery

| Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Saint Mary’s hosted Tony Award-winning director, playwright and adapter Mary Zimmerman on Monday evening in the Moreau Center for the Arts for a speech about creating metaphors in images.

Earlier in the day, Zimmerman conducted events with Saint Mary’s theatre majors and local high school students. The visit was a continuation of the annual visiting artists series, which is made possible through the Margaret Hill Endowment.

“Through the generous gift of SMC alumna, the late Margaret Hill, we in the theatre program are able to bring Mary to campus, have her conduct a three-hour master class with our theatre students [and] allow [them] to have a private lunch with her where [they] can ask questions about her career, her craft or her advice for young actors, directors, playwrights or other theatre practitioners,” theatre professor Katie Sullivan said in an email.

The students participated in a range of activities in the masterclass, which was followed by personal feedback from Zimmerman.

“Mary [introduced students] to her storytelling techniques, dividing [students] in small groups with some props and instructions and guiding [them] into developing a story,” Sullivan said.

Communication studies, dance and theatre department chair Mark Abram-Copenhaver introduced Zimmerman before she came on stage for her speech.

“[I] had the hardest job tonight: briefly introduce Mary Zimmerman,” Abram-Copenhaver said.

In her speech, Zimmerman explained the process she uses in creating adaptations. She likes to work on “adaptations of non-dramatic texts” — texts not originally written for the stage.

Usually working with myths or fairy tales, Zimmerman acknowledged the significance of these texts. Even though these texts are older, they have “persistent relevance” to today’s society, she said.

While these texts will reflect a great deal about the world, Zimmerman said there is difficulty blocking scenes from fantastical texts because theatre gives a “fixed perspective” to an audience.

Her solution is using metaphors to express that of which cannot be easily translated from text to stage.

“The audience can finish an image [based on universal knowledge],” Zimmerman said.

Because of this, an image can still be metaphorically portrayed on stage.

Zimmerman explained how she created metaphors in her own productions by showing images from her own shows. She attributed the inspiration behind her image development to the research and travel she conducts ahead of production.

Zimmerman finished by showing a picture of the last scene in her adaptation of “The Jungle Book.” Several years after the production ended, she discovered that she staged Mowgli in almost an identical fashion to a photo of her mother she had never seen before.

“[My work is based] on the stories that I love,” she said to conclude the lecture.

In an interview with The Observer, Zimmerman discussed her interest in adapting myths, crediting her love of reading as a child.

“I think if I had to describe myself in one word, it wouldn’t be writer or director, but reader,” she said. “And in childhood, I was obsessively interested in those fantastical tales, which, after I sort of exhausted all the fairy tales, I started reading actual grown-up myths which felt very dark and grown up to me but were sort of like fairy tales.”

Even with her passion in adapting, when Zimmerman attended Northwestern University for her undergraduate degree, she was hesitant to major in theater.

“I didn’t major in theater because it seemed so out of reach, or so impossible or so not what I could do,” Zimmerman said. “So I went in as a comp lit major, but I actually transferred into theater like a week later because … I was so attracted to it.”

Zimmerman participated in many productions while she was in college and saw herself primarily as an actor. However, when she entered her graduate studies, she saw her emerging role as a director.

“And as soon as I wasn’t in [productions] and I was only directing them that was like, very immediately ‘I love that,’” she said. “I think I realized consciously or unconsciously that making things and making theater, rather than necessarily just performing in it, was where my interests really lay.”

In her graduate work, Zimmerman was inspired to develop her unique narrative style.

“[My professor] taught performance from a very poetic and psychologically-oriented perspective … I was so entranced by that work and felt it to be very powerful and very emotional,” Zimmerman said.

Even when she was finishing grad school, Zimmerman was being recognized by major players in the theater world. After seeing her work, the Goodman Theatre invited her to be its artistic director. The Looking Glass Theatre Company also encouraged her to work with it, eventually making her a member.

Zimmerman continued to receive accolades for her productions. She found out from a friend that she was being considered for a MacArthur Genius Grant, which is awarded to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication to their creative pursuits,” according to its website.

Before she received the award, Zimmerman put on a production of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” with her students at Northwestern.

“I was always sort of proud that that was the thing immediately before I won — a show with students that have sort of come out of school,” Zimmerman said.

Though she had experienced many successes, Zimmerman admitted she struggled to believe in her abilities.

“I wasn’t thinking I’m making a career,” she said. “It’s just like, ‘I’ll just do this one more show. I’ll just do this one more show before I stop and figure out what I’m going to do with my life. I’ll just do this show.’ But it eventually … became the thing that I did.”

Zimmerman advised current theater students to do as much as they can while in school.

“And if there aren’t enough shows to be in or you’re not in the major show … go ahead and put one on yourself and make something up,” she said.

Zimmerman recalls the lasting relationships she made while she was in college.

“The relationships you make at school … can be the lifelong artistic relationships that you make,” she said. “They have been for me. I met my set designer who does almost everything for me. [He] was a graduate student when I was a young professor. So just take advantage of all the resources that you have.”

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