Skip to Main Content

Past and Present

Mary Zimmerman & the 1993 Goodman production of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Photo by Liz Lauren

Mary Zimmerman revisits a personal and
professional triumph, 29 years after its debut

Mary Zimmerman has never been one to take the easy way. Although she’s directed such straightforward fare as The Music Man, she is best known for playing outside the box, diving deep into classic texts—Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Homer’s Odyssey—to create pieces driven as much by engaging visuals and dynamic movement as they are the spoken word. The long-time Manilow Resident Director of Goodman Theatre, Zimmerman returns this season to one her earliest hits with the company: The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. As she headed in rehearsals just days into the new year, she stopped to talk a bit about a show she holds dear.

THOMAS CONNORS: Was Notebooks the first show you created that was staged at the Goodman?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: Yes, although I had done an early version of it by myself when I was a graduate student at Northwestern in 1989. In 1993, I had
become an artistic associate at the Goodman and had directed a
production of Paula Vogel’s Baltimore Waltz. Then Michael Maggio, who was
the associate artistic director of the Goodman at the time, said to me, “Why
don’t you do that Michelangelo thing?”

TC: The success of the Goodman production really propelled your career, didn’t it?

It was kind of an overnight sensation, rather surprisingly. That same year,
I did The Arabian Nights at Lookinglass Theatre. Those two together were
really successful and my name began to be known.

TC: You staged Notebooks at a number of theaters after its Goodman debut, from Seattle Rep to Second Stage in New York. Are you doing any special prep as you get ready to tackle it again?

Well, the scholarship on Leonardo continues and so in the last few
months I have read Walter Isaacson’s biography. But I did so with a sort of
squint, because I didn’t really want to find out things that nail him down
biographically too much. The show is really a portrait of a consciousness,
sourced only from the notebooks. It’s meant to be a manifestation of those
sheets of paper, which are crowded with very many different things—a
shopping list, drawing of an angel, geometric formulae, architectural notes.
The incidents of his life are present in the show to some degree, but it’s
really about that ever-probing, ever-curious, ever-wondering consciousness.

TC: You haven’t staged Notebooks since 2002. Are you revising the show at all for this latest production?

I have been reminded, in going back to the sources I originally used, of
things that didn’t make it into the show originally—certain phrases, certain
moments of the notebooks—and so I have made a couple of little additions.
And there’s a lot of movement in the piece which I, in part, leave to the
performers to come up with. As we only have one original cast member,
Chris Donahue, a great deal of the detail of the movement will be new.

Pictured: The 1993 Goodman production. Photo by Liz Lauren

TC: A whole new generation has come of age since this show debuted, a cohort accustomed to the visual velocity and sound bite brevity of social media. Does this give you pause as you prepare to remount this show?

MZ: I think it is the very fact of that visual velocity that may make the show
so vital now. Where Leonardo’s singularity lies is in his radical ability to
attend to the abundance of the actual world around him. To pay attention.

TC: You have drawn from richly varied sources to create your work. What drew you to Leonardo?

MZ: He demonstrated that a mind can stay awake for a lifetime. That’s really
his genius. He never got dulled to the world and how it works, his curiosity
just never stopped. Those questions you ask when you’re little—why is water
in the lake blue, but clear when it comes out of the tap?—eventually we give
up on those. He did not; he never stopped marveling.

TC: Looking back these 29 years, what does The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci say about who you were as an artist at that time?

MZ: That I had nothing to lose. I remember during a rehearsal, one of the
actors was crossing the stage in the middle of doing a scene when he
turned me and said, “Man, I don’t think people are going to get this.” And I
said, “No one is going to like this!” I didn’t think anyone would like it. It was
strange. It was so idiosyncratic to my own love of the notebooks. It was
metaphoric, non-narrative, so glancing towards its subject. I didn’t think
anyone would like it. But I was so compelled. And to this day, it is a favorite
with me. It really is.

Thomas Connors is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the Chicago Editor of Playbill.