Landscape | Fall 2019 Issue

UCLA’s Defiant Peter Sellars

Defiance as a theory of theater and life

By Joshua Heath

American theater director Peter Sellars is known for his iconoclastic staging of masterpieces. He has lent his vision to “King Lear,” “Don Giovanni” and other classics. And rather than present these works in their ancient form, he has updated them to address contemporary political issues: the Iraq War, racism and drug addiction. Some audiences have been scandalized, others thrilled. It has garnered Sellars international renown, the MacArthur Genius Grant and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Sellars teaches, too, and his approach there is equally defiant. He conducts a UCLA class on creativity and social change, and infuses it with his singular worldview. There are no exams, everyone is promised a high grade, and students are encouraged to do the assigned reading when they have time.

Lectures take place in one of the large auditoriums on campus, where during a couple hours a week, Sellars, sporting his trademark neck beads and mohawk hairdo, expounds. He speaks quickly and evocatively, like a jazz musician or a gifted actor.
The goal, he says, is to liberate young people from worrying about their GPA and get them to focus on the course content, which boils down to one predominant theme: How do we create a better world and live meaningfully?

In an interview with Blueprint, Sellars elaborated further on his approach. UCLA students are already talented, he explained; they don’t need to write another term paper or ace another exam to prove that. It is far more important, he said, to expose them to social injustice and the need for new humane structures to replace those that have failed.

“The United States is … founded on the promise of equality,” Sellars said. “When you look at mass incarceration, when you look at the vast numbers of poor, at the war on drugs, it is clear that we have strayed far away from that notion. And my class is a place where we ask: ‘How can we turn things around?’”

At the same time, Sellars believes students must think about how they can act with goodness and purpose in their everyday lives, because meaningful change must start with a revolution from within. The course readings are drawn from ancient Buddhist texts, the Koran and contemporary scholars studying pressing issues in America and other hot spots around the world.

“I have the honor and privilege of teaching at UCLA,” Sellars said. “I’m teaching the next elites. And I want them to be better than the current elite that has only looked out for itself and put us in a place where the planet is going to fall apart if we don’t dramatically change course.”

Sellars emphasizes the function of art and the need to think creatively in order to solve problems — even in a technical, administrative profession like government. To note just one example: Bureaucrats, not artists, are charged with developing innovative reforms for the welfare system that recognize the dignity of poor families. Having experience with literature, drama and poetry can ignite the moral imagination in those responsible for such programs.

This fall, Sellars’ main theme is climate change and how the young generation will preserve the Earth — or, at least, humanity’s place on the Earth. How will man’s relationship to nature have to adjust? What will be the role of government, industry, community?

For Sellars, climate change is the test of a principle: Preserving the planet for humanity requires more than an ordinary commitment; it demands visionary approaches from disparate leaders. Corporate CEOs will need to produce new business models; engineers and scientists will be called upon for innovation; politicians will be forced to set aside allegiances and embrace legislation that sometimes offends special interests. Traditional teaching has brought the world to the brink of disaster; new methods are called for.
And so, the rising generation must be taught to be imaginative and envision the future.

Most courses revolve around tests, and students study for them. They aspire to internships, look for letters of recommendation. Sellars urges students to train their sights toward far more ambitious goals, to see themselves as leaders tasked with pursuing what’s never been done before. In terms of how different that is from mainstream thinking, he is decidedly a radical. And yet this approach also embodies an ancient tradition toward the proper role of youth.

“Your old men shall dream dreams,” the Bible states. “Your young men shall see visions.” And it adds: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Sellars is in search of vision, fighting off extinction by attempting to awaken creative energies and courage. It’s a tall order, an act of conscience and theater and moral commitment.

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Joshua Heath

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UCLA’s Defiant Peter Sellars

Defiance as a theory of theater and life