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David and Art - “From Waco to the White House”

Last month the internationally renowned artist Robert Wilson was honored at the White House. His name may not be immediately familiar but several years ago the New York Times described him as an “all-around avant-garde Renaissance Man.” Around the world he’s most famous for the distinctive and creative vision of his theatrical productions.

His name should really be known in central Texas. Wilson was born in Waco in 1941. His father was prominent in civic life, and there are still locals today who remember the family well. At home, he was always directing his sister in plays he made up, having her dance and sing. But in public he was shy and didn’t excel in or even like school, in large part because of a severe stutter.

Nothing seemed to solve his speech impediment until he met a Waco dance teacher named Byrd Hoffman. Not only was Ms. Hoffman his first real experience with an artist but she also counseled him on his stutter and somehow her advice worked wonders. It made him a believer in the power of art to effect profound transformations in people’s lives.

Wilson graduated from Waco High in 1959 and, at his father’s urging, went off to study prelaw at UT in Austin. It was a poor fit and he soon left Texas to study art in New York City. One of his earliest staged productions came when he was back home in Waco for a visit in 1965. He produced an avant-garde play using ten 10-year-old delinquent boys. The reviews were mixed, to say the least. His unimpressed father called it “abnormal.”

In 1968 back in New York he formed an experimental performance company which he called “The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds” in honor of the woman in Waco who helped him overcome his stutter. Since then, he’s mounted productions that have toured the world and has worked with artists like Philip Glass, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Lady Gaga, and David Byrne, who once said that Wilson’s work “makes 98 percent of the other theater look hopelessly old fashioned.”

He’s also a sculptor and his monumental six-ton “Waco Door” is in the collection of the Art Center Waco. His work isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. His productions can strike viewers as overly long, confusing, or tedious. But any art — even something as time-tested as the theater — can lose its power when it always takes the same form. Like his work or not, Wacoans should know the name Robert Wilson and be proud of his ties to our town. Those who strive to invigorate the arts scene here can take inspiration from this native son.