Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 1993
Call them slackers, posties, baby busters, generation X , twentysomethings or the 13th gen. They’re 40 million strong, lackluster inheritors of the Me generation, floating in uncertainty, blank, lost, hopeless and dispossessed. As “auteur obnoxio profundo” Brett Easton Ellis put it, “we are clueless yet wizened, too unopinionated to voice concern, purposefully enigmatic and indecisive.”
Matt Wilder is one of them. But you’d never know it. He fits by chronology (he’s 26), but not by ideology, energy or ambition. The young director is committed to the theater and to bringing his generation to it. “People my age think of theater as something very close to stamp collecting,” says the Yale alum, recent graduate of the MFA program in directing at UCSD. “My generation of theater artists is going to have to fall on the sword. We have to re-convince our peers that the theater is a place for art and not for diversion. We’re going to reclaim it as an art form, instead of it being the poor, crippled cousin of ‘ Jurassic Park ‘ or ‘Rosanne.’ We have to ask the most serious religious, political and philosophical questions, aim for the highest level of achievement and not accept anything other than that.”
Sure doesn’t sound like a slacker. And Wilder puts muscle behind his words. He’s directing the world premiere of Charles Mee’s “The War to End War” (September 5-26 at St. Cecilia’s on Sixth Avenue ). He’s chosen as his (most appropriate) partners in crime (i.e., co-producers) Sledgehammer Theatre, fellow genXers who’ve built their reputation on appalling, offending, transfixing and shocking a segment of the theater community that thrives on its outrageousness.
“It’s an absolutely impossible play,” Sledgehammer’s executive director, Ethan Feerst, says of “The War to End War”. “The demands of the script — in terms of time, cost and labor — are enormous. We’re certainly the kind of theater that premieres this kind of work and can do it effectively. But it’s massive; if we did it, we’d kill ourselves. Matt really wanted to take a bite of it. He’s lean and mean, down and dirty, rough and ready. And still, very skilled and talented. He’s prolific, resourceful, an entrepreneur. This project is his baby.”
The baby is being delivered under the banner of the California Repertory Theatre, a loose theater collective of Wilder’s colleagues and friends. For the last two summers in New York , they’ve done works by local playwright Naomi Iizuka. This is their first San Diego venture. Wilder brings in the tech team; Sledgehammer provides the space, press and publicity. Funding comes, enigmatically, from “friends of enlightened theater.”
And what exactly is it that they’re supporting? “The War to End War”, Wilder explains, was written in 1986-87, when the Cold War was still a reality. It has never been produced, probably because of its scope. “It’s a three-part play. Part one is set in the Palace of Versailles , after the signing of the treaty. The leaders of England , France , Germany and the U.S. gather in a room, trying to rationalize their actions in the first World War to a chorus of dead soldiers. Part two is a sort of Dada performance piece, basically an eruption of chaos. Part three is a poker game between four physicists at Los Alamos , the night before the Trinity Test.”
The idea of the piece, says Wilder, is “the old order, represented by Wilson and the 19th century Enlightenment view of the world as a rational place, fighting against the chaos, represented in a positive, anarchic way in the Dada piece and in a darker way through the image of the bomb and the destructive nature of war.”
Wilder sees New York playwright/historian Mee as “the greatest living American dramatist, someone who writes about world-scale events, the destiny of nations, not people having problems in their living rooms… Here, he asks critical questions about war. Like ‘How does one event have such a traumatic impact on the world that follows?’ And ‘How do people live together who absolutely cannot live together?’ ‘When the technique of war-making escalates to the potential to destroy ourselves instantly, what does that awareness do to us? What kind of psychic state do we live in? What do we do with the terror?’… In this piece, the first and third sections are quiet, melancholy, nostalgic, contemplative, Chekhov-like. They bookend the centerpiece performance, which I do with all women; it has to be a kind of shift to subversive energy that eats away at that aging world.”
Despite his youth, Wilder brings an impressive array of experiences to this work. He’s assistant-directed under the best of them, with four standing out as his inspirations: Peter Sellars, Robert Woodruff, Richard Foreman and Des McAnuff. Through the La Jolla Playhouse, where he recently directed a controversial production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape”, he received the 1993 Princess Grace Foundation-USA Theatre Apprenticeship. In addition to the $9600 grant, he gets to fly to New York for dinner with the royal family of Monaco . “Maybe they can show clips from “The Hairy Ape” and “The War to End War”,” Wilder quips. “They’ll rescind the prize.”
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.