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Playwright: Treasure Island

By Don Leavitt

There is something whimsical in the way Mary Zimmerman describes her work. Zimmerman, the Tony-award winning director who adapted Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic Treasure Island for the stage, prefers to produce her work organically, building in stages until the completed work feels right. “I have an unusual process that I’ve somehow just gotten away with for the last however many decades, and it’s that I don’t start with a script,” she has said. In the program book for Lookingglass Theatre’s Chicago production of Treasure Island (2015),Zimmerman tells literary manager and company dramaturg Marti Lyons that she writes and refines throughout the rehearsal process, using her cast and designers to tailor her adaptation to their unique strengths and experiences. “What I’m really doing is problem-solving and figuring out how to manifest something onstage which wasn’t originally intended to be onstage,” she said. “One of the greatest joys is trying to stage the impossible” (“In Conversation with Ensemble Member Mary Zimmerman,” http://fliphtml5.com/qzps/ybfk, p. 3).

The result is a deliberate attempt to have “a child’s openness and imagination.” In describing this approach, Zimmerman has paraphrased Willa Cather: “‘I’ll never be the artist I was as a child.’ I love that quote. It is a statement of my own belief that I’m at my best when I’m unselfconscious and using what’s in the room” (“Mary Zimmerman’s Life in the Theater,” www.mccarter.org/education/secretinthewings/page9.htm).

 It is something Zimmerman feels strongly about, but it is not careless, haphazard, or immature; rather, she describes it as “a long, groping process.” When asked why she starts without a script, Zimmerman says, “I can only answer that my imagination doesn’t work that way; text is not separate from image for me. . . . Working this way doesn’t allow for much strategy. You pretty much have to let go. . . . The pressure is so intense it just cracks you open and you go with your secret, strange ideas, because you are desperate and don’t have time to think up any polite ones.” It is deliberate, intense work that tries to respect the fun of it. “They don’t call it a play for nothing,” she said. “We think of ‘play’ as a noun. . . . We forget that it’s also a verb” (“Mary Zimmerman’s Life in the Theater”).

 For Zimmerman, the lifelong pursuit of childlike imagination and spirit is what led her to theatre, and not the other way around. “As a child I wanted to invent a machine that could record my dreams, so I could watch them in the morning,” she said. “Theater is that machine. I can make these images come to life and actually walk around inside them for a while” (“Mary Zimmerman’s Life in the Theater”). Her goal is to engage the audience’s imagination, “to make them believe or at least simultaneously see what you are doing. . . . The kind of backyard solutions we all employed as children to create entire worlds is what I’m still working with” (“In Conversation with Ensemble Member Mary Zimmerman,” p. 4).

Zimmerman arrived at this intersection of childlike imagination and theatrical artistry at a young age. Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, she spent a great deal of time in both London and Paris. “My parents were both professors, so we spent significant time overseas when I was a child,” she said. In a May 2014 Chicago Tribune article by Jenniffer Weigel, Zimmerman described her first encounter with the stage: she was five years old and “stumbled upon” an outdoor rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in London. “At the end of the scene, Oberon ran off, and they all started laughing, and I think it was the joyfulness and seeing adults play like that [that] was as galvanizing to me as the enchantment and the fairy world. I was absolutely fascinated by it” (“Mary Zimmerman, theater director,” www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-remarkable-mary-zimmerman-20140518-story.html).

She attended Chicago’s Northwestern University and dreamed of being an actress—a very brief stint as a composition and literature major lasted only two weeks. She earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre before joining a graduate program that helped her discover “the act of directing, creating and making theater—without being in it.” Zimmerman went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees in performance studies, where she focused on “how to use the elements of staging” and “collaborated on adaptations of everything from Dickens novels to contemporary parodies” (“Mary Zimmerman’s Life in the Theater”).

While at Northwestern, Zimmerman also began working with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and helped develop the Lookingglass Theatre. Today, she is an ensemble member of Lookingglass, the Manilow resident director at Goodman, and a professor of performance studies at Northwestern. Her directing career has spanned more than twenty years: her numerous adaptations include Treasure Island, The Secret in the Wings, The Jungle Book, and Metamorphoses, for which she won the 2002 Tony for best direction; she is also a respected director of opera and the 1998 recipient of the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship.

Unlike most of her adaptations, Treasure Island is notable for not being “a great childhood favorite.” In fact, Zimmerman didn’t read Stevenson’s novel until just a few years ago. She discovered the book’s magic in an almost perfect setting—at a vacation home on an island off the coast of Maine. “The moment I started reading it, I was completely smitten by it,” she said, “and in an unusual way; instead of experiencing it in the filmic way one usually has when reading . . . I was very much seeing it on a stage—in a room, in a theatre” (“In Conversation with Ensemble Member Mary Zimmerman,” p. 3).

Still, she was hesitant to adapt the classic, particularly in light of the approximately fifty previous adaptations that have already been made. “It discourages me because I realize it isn’t a very original idea to dramatize this story,” she said, “but it encourages me in that many people have similarly found it or thought of it as stage-worthy” (“In Conversation with Ensemble Member Mary Zimmerman,” p. 3).

It is a tribute to Stevenson’s gift as a writer that his first truly successful novel should be so universally loved. Born in Scotland in 1850, Robert Louis Stevenson never had any real interest in the “family business”—lighthouse design—and instead pursued what was considered a life of adventure, including frequent overseas travel. By age twenty-five, he knew he wanted to be a writer; his early published works include numerous essays and travelogues, but it wasn’t until 1883, at the age of thirty-three, that he published his first work of fiction.

Treasure Island was inspired, in part, by a map that Stevenson drew with his twelve-year old stepson on a particularly rainy day. The map sparked an idea, and Stevenson began to write a grand adventure story which first appeared, in serialized form, in a children’s literary magazine under the name, The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys. It was, in fact, Stevenson’s editor, Mr. Henderson, who discarded the original title and replaced it with Treasure Island when the story was published as a complete work in 1883. It was an astounding success, launching Stevenson’s successful career and making him something of a celebrity. He went on to write some of the world’s most loved stories, including Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Often in poor health, Stevenson died in 1894 at his home on the island of Samoa at the relatively young age of forty-four.

It seems ironic that a woman who values childlike wonder and imagination and employs it regularly in her career, should not discover a story, intended specifically for children, until well into adulthood. In his essay, “My First Book: ‘Treasure Island’”, printed in “Essays in the Art of Writing,” Stevenson declared, “It was to be a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone.” Even as he developed his story, Stevenson seemed to grasp the power his writing would have to engage childlike imagination. “I had counted on one boy, I found I had two in my audience. My father caught fire at once with all the romance and childishness of his original nature . . . in Treasure Island he recognized something kindred to his own imagination; it was HIS kind of picturesque; and he not only heard with delight the daily chapter, but set himself acting to collaborate” (ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/Stevenson/Robert_louis/s848aw/part5.html).

It is a sentiment that Zimmerman clearly shares. “Children play in order to survive,” she said. “They’re practicing at life in order to cope and survive later in life. Plays do the same thing. They’re teaching us how to cope with situations…And we can sit back and observe” (“Mary Zimmerman’s Life in the Theater”).


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