Avant garde theater director Robert Wilson’s inspiration lab is a hub for unique and surprising artistic experiences.
—By Emily Weitz
Most people come to the Hamptons for the beach. But they’re often surprised to find not only tranquility but creative inspiration as well. Maybe that’s because artists, performers, and
musicians have been drawn to the light and salty air for generations—and they’ve built a legacy along with the institutions to prove it.
Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center is just such an institution. You might drive by it a dozen times before venturing in, but once you pass through the wooded entrance—dotted with inventive sculptures peeking between the trees—you’ll want to return again and again.
“Bob has a one-of-a-kind artistic vision that is clear and precise and plays out everywhere,” says Elka Rifkin, director of the center. “Whether it’s a theater production or placing objects in an installation or placing plants in a garden, he has a particular way of organizing the world.”
Wilson is considered a master all over the world for his avant-garde theatrical work, though his name is less well-known here in his home country. Through the Watermill Center, founded in 1992, he created a space where emerging artists come to work, collaborate, and share their creativity with the public.
Walking into the industrial building, once a Western Union research facility, the spirit of experimentation is palpable. Whether perusing Wilson’s extensive personal library or touching the ancient artifacts he displays without glass or protection, visitors are invited to really communicate with the art.
“It feels like a gallery,” says Rifkin, “but you won’t see text to describe the art. You will just have an intimate relationship with the artifacts.”
The heart of the Watermill Center is its residency program, which brings artists from around the globe together to create. In the off-season, this means diving deep into their own projects. Writers might plant themselves on a Gio Ponte chair to work on their manuscripts. Painters might set up in the gardens. The whole 10-plus-acre property is open for residents to find the space and time to create.
“What makes the Watermill Center unusual is that we love to bring artists from all over the world,” says Rifkin. “Artists from different parts of the globe interact with American artists and local artists to create an interesting cohort living and working here.”
Most of those in residence live on the premises in a dormitory that is at once austere and comfortable. Poured cement walls and floors make it feel industrial, but the art on the walls and the living plants everywhere, along with the cozy cushions and nooks designed for communing, make it feel homey.
In the summer, Robert Wilson returns home to Watermill Center. He lives in the building, in an apartment that feels like an extension of the rest of the space. Sixty-five artists, many of them performers, join the summer residency each year, and they work on Wilson’s upcoming projects. For example, in 2018 Wilson launched an Oedipus opera in the ruins of Pompeii. “That opera was incubated and workshopped here at the Watermill Center,” says Rifkin.
The Watermill Center places an emphasis on being accessible to the community, whether through programming for the local schools or the beloved Discover Watermill Day in August, when the grounds are open and play host to a variety of performances, workshops, tours, and family-friendly activities. (An annual gala in July raises significant funds to keep the other offerings either free or very low-cost.)
“Our purpose is to give artists time and space to create,” says Rifkin. “Bob wants to help younger artists in that way because he wishes someone had done that for him.”
But beyond just incubating art, the Watermill Center offers a space to share it. In the middle of their residencies, artists are asked to invite the public in for a reading, a show, or an open rehearsal. Through these exchanges, the artist gets crucial feedback and the audience gets to interact with art in an intimate way. This will happen more and more as the Watermill Center hosts Nights @ The Roundtable, frequently held wine-and-cheese evenings, during which the community is invited to join the staff, alumni, and special guests around a stunning round table designed by Wilson and ideally suited to collaborative conversation.
“Robert Wilson made a decision early on to create a space for emerging artists to work,” Rifkin says. “This was very forward thinking. He has created a theatrical legacy all over the world, but what he has created with the collection and the library and the phenomenally beautiful space at the Watermill Center is brilliant.”