Born in Waco, Texas, to white, middle-class, Protestant and southern parents, Robert Wilson attended high school in his hometown. A gangly, shy, but likable young man, he had a speech impediment that was “cured” by a dance teacher, Mrs. Byrd Hoffman, who simply made Wilson realize that he could “take his time” to express himself. Following his early impulse to be a visual artist, Wilson studied at the University of Texas and privately in Paris, graduating from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1965. During these years, his patience with and sympathy for learning disabilities led him to work with autistic and disturbed children in Texas, where he discovered not only a unique talent for helping them but also a personal metaphor for his own anguish at the virtually universal inability to communicate that is part of the existential condition.
After several striking visual projects such as “Poles” (an “installation” of more than six hundred telephone poles in rural Ohio) and the creation of giant puppets for Jean-Claude van Itallie’s experimental play America Hurrah (1966), Wilson found that performance art offered the best medium for self-expression. Several small works in which Wilson was the primary performer were followed by increasingly ambitious projects, incorporating more and more “actors” (many of whom were untrained laypersons drawn to Wilson’s charismatic personality) and more and more special effects, stage props, and scenery. By 1967, he had gathered a group of friends and theater experimenters into the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds (named in honor of the woman who helped Wilson in high school) and began an impressive series of long performance works, first in the modest studios of downtown New York, then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and finally throughout Europe, where the combination of his genius and the more benign attitude of political and cultural...
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