© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Take Five: Robotic control in Pulitzer's 'Buddha'? Agnes Wilcox discusses unique insights

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 27, 2012 - You might not expect to see theater -- much less past prison inmates -- inside an institution dedicated to the visual arts. But ticket-holders will see both for the next couple of weeks at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in Grand Center. But the collaboration has been done to critical acclaim at the Pulitzer before with “Staging Old Masters.”

Former prisoners and the homeless are joining veterans to act out their relationships with, and responses to, the Pulitzer’s exhibit, in a series called “Staging Reflections of the Buddha.” Passes for each of the 13 free performances are already reserved but you can contact The Pulitzer to get on a waiting list. And you can still view the “Reflections of the Buddha” exhibit through March 10.

In preparation for “Staging Reflections,” 16 actors spent five months working on their presentations in collaboration with the Pulitzer, Prison Performing Arts (PPA), St. Patrick Center and Employment Connection. The 45-minute shows, followed by question-and-answer sessions, take museum-goers through several galleries for unique contemplations on nine “Buddha” works.

Some “pretty wild” insights are in store for the audiences of “Staging Reflections,” according to Agnes Wilcox of PPA.

Beacon: Can you give some examples of how the performers bring their personal experiences into the production?

Wilcox: We were doing an analysis of sacred numbers in Buddhism; one is the number three. There is a triptych by Hiroshi Sugimoto [in the exhibition] which of course is three pieces. One actor counted all the statues visible in each of three panels and found there are 36. Then he noticed that 36 times three is 108, which is also a sacred number in Buddhism, which I found to be a thrilling scholarly discovery.

Almost all the actors are not educated in visual arts so they can see things that someone who’s taken art history could never see. Again, in the Sugimoto piece, they looked at the tiny Buddha that was in a headdress of one of statues and saw the statue as a robot and the tiny Buddha in the headdress as the controller of the robot, which someone said was in the movie “Men in Black.” 

How does the public benefit from hearing these kinds of interpretations?

Wilcox: I would not have ever imagined that a tiny Buddha in a headdress could be controlling the statue wearing it, so my imagination has really been expanded. I hope the same thing happens to the audience members.

Many audience members won’t have had the opportunity to meet and speak to someone who is formerly homeless or has been prison inmate; and it helps the audience to see that we’re all just the same; our circumstances may be different but just because someone has made mistakes or is down on their luck, they still have great imaginations and intelligence and heart.

How do the participants benefit?

Wilcox: They learn the skills the performing arts can offer: job skills and life skills, focus and concentration, being on time, critical thinking, working as part of a team and being tolerant of many different kinds of people. 

“Staging Old Masters” took place in 2009, featuring the same population examining the Pulitzer’s “Old Masters” exhibit. How is this presentation different? 

Wilcox: “Staging Old Masters” dealt with Western art, and it dealt with narrative art so the actors recognized many of the saints and their stories and the Bible stories.

We as a group, the actors and I, have very little knowledge of Buddhism so what we have to offer the audience is an entirely new way of looking at the work. Rather than comparing our stories to the [Bible] stories of the work, we’re saying, ‘Consider looking at it this way.’

How are “Staging” events a good fit for The Pulitzer?

Wilcox: It’s a way for everyone -- audience and actors -- to see the creative person in each of us. And we hope it lets audience be extremely free with their own interpretation of what they see, which is a Pulitzer thing, actually. [At The Pulitzer] there are no labels on the walls, so when a person is there, no one is telling them what to see or think -- and this is an extension of that.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.