The Old Globe to explore the ‘Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci’ in words, movement, music and more
Adapter and director Mary Zimmerman has revived the 90-minute theater piece that made its professional premiere in 1993
For more than four centuries, scholars have puzzled over the nearly 6,000 notebook pages left behind by Leonardo da Vinci, the 15th-century Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, scientist and theorist.
Written in backward “mirror” script, the sepia-toned pages contain a mix of artistic and anatomical sketches, theories on visual perspective, observations of the natural world, mathematical equations, technical drawings for futuristic inventions, flying machines and weaponry, shopping lists, doodles, and questions about the world and our place in it. Although Leonardo may be better known for his paintings “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” his notebooks have revealed him as a polymath and a genius.
They also provided the inspiration for writer-director Mary Zimmerman’s first self-produced theater piece. In the late 1980s, Zimmerman borrowed $800 to adapt the notebooks into the wildly creative 90-minute piece “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” which made its professional debut in 1993 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Early last year, she returned to this early work and revived it with a new production at the Goodman, which traveled to the Shakespeare Theatre Company theater in Washington, D.C., last fall, and opens next week at the Old Globe in San Diego.
Zimmerman is world-famous for her eye-popping and imaginative use of theater, music, movement, song, dance and opera to re-examine classic texts, ranging from “The Arabian Nights” to Homer’s “Odyssey” to Shakespeare’s canon to the life of 16th-century astronomer Galileo. Zimmerman is a 1998 recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” and the winner of a 2002 Tony Award for the direction of her semi-aquatic mythology-inspired “Metamorphoses.” One of her more recent pieces was adapted from a Chinese fable, “The White Snake,” which was presented at the Old Globe to great acclaim in 2015.
Last week, Zimmerman talked about her work and the revival of “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.” Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Q: What inspired you to write “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci”?
A: I was working on a performance art piece and wanted text having to do with the eye. While watching “Civilization” on PBS, I saw a (drawing) of an eye and it was Leonardo. I was astonished to find that more than 5,000 of his notebook pages remained. I thought the writing was beautiful and it was so astounding in its breadth. There are little hints of personality, though it’s not a diary. There are two reminiscences that are well known. One is his first memory of lying in a cradle and a falcon flying in and striking his mouth with its tail, like an annunciation. Then there’s him being a boy wandering the hills and he finds the mouth of a cave and he’s frozen on the threshold, intrigued and frozen in terror. Those images are really potent to me.
Q: The notebooks are difficult to read and non-narrative. How did you craft a theater piece from them, and what can audience expect?
A: I’ve staged stuff in water. I did Proust in a warehouse. I did “Steadfast Tin Soldier” that has no speaking. I do like a challenge. I do. I just committed to only using Leonardo’s words. You do lose a sort of traditional plot line and storytelling. It’s a series of vignettes, but you’re forced to come up with a structure that makes sense and creates an emotional journey. I love those experiments. I don’t want people coming in with the wrong expectation. This is Leonardo’s words in direct address. The vignettes attempt to bring the voice of the notebooks themselves to life. And the notebooks have a lot going on in a single page. There’s an angel’s face, a math formula, a to-do list and doodling, so we have multiple things happening on the stage in an attempt to mimic that crowdedness on the page. It’s a work of theater, but it’s not a play. All eight actors play Leonardo.
Q: What do you hope people will learn about Leonardo from this piece?
A: Unlike a lot of people, I think he was a human being. We are all Leonardo. Any time you wake up out of your routine and notice there’s snow on the ground here and how it changes the quality of the light indoors, that’s Leonardo in you. The genius of him is he was always that way. He was never bored by the world. He never stopped asking himself the questions, like why is water in the lake blue but it comes out of the faucet clear? It’s so profound that he was trying two paths, the artistic and scientific. His artistic eye helped him be a better scientist.
Q: What’s the creation process like for you when you develop these theatrical adaptations of ancient texts?
A: Casting is very important. The way I work is I start with no script. Everything I’ve done was this way. When I did “The Odyssey,” I’d start with no script, and every day I’d come in with more script. I was only one day ahead of them. That means I’m making the script from the people I have. That involves a lot of trust on their part and mine, and they have a great influence on the writing. If they can sing, I do a song. If they move in a different way, I make the script fit the performer. In San Diego we’ll have the same cast we had in Washington, D.C.
Q: What led you to revive the piece a few years ago?
A: I always loved it. It was one of my more original and unique pieces and one I had not revived in a long time. I’ve done “Metamorphoses” as recently as 2018, but there’s something unusual about “Notebooks.” It’s a unifying piece. It’s so much about the world and how we do have access to it if we’re only awake to it.
Q: Have you made any changes in this revival production?
A: There’s a new biography of Leonardo by Walter Isaacson where I found some little bits, and every now and then some new (notebook) pages are discovered. So I took these bits and I did add a line or two, and I also clarified some things, rewrote them or found translations that were a little cleaner. And every time I do it with a different cast, we improvise some of the movement and it’s new every time we do it.
‘The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci’
When: Opens Jan. 21 and runs through Feb. 26. Showtimes 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
Tickets: $33 to $116
Phone: (619) 234-5623
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