Richard Foreman Interview
February 7, 2003
NF: Your first theater was attached to the alternative film scene that was going on at the Cinematheque building.
RF: My first theater was given to me by Jonas Mekas when they closed down at 80 Wooster Street. He had a film theater but the fire department closed it down. He didn’t have a license to show films. So he said to me, “Well, we can’t show films, but they didn’t say anything about plays. So why don’t you take it over and do your plays.” So for three years I had that space rent free to do plays.
NF: So that’s how you got started.
RF: Yes. Well, I had gone to school. I had been a member of New Dramatists, a member of the Actors Studio Playwrights Unit. But I didn’t have any credentials. I did write one play when I got out of Yale that actually got optioned for Broadway by this rich lady, but nothing came of it finally. Then I started because I saw these underground films and that inspired me to rethink everything that I was doing in theater.
NF: Specifically, like the film “Flaming Creatures”?
RF: Oh a lot of things, “Flaming Creatures,” the films of Michael Snow, “Wavelengths,” a lot of people. For about five years, I and my first wife would go to screenings literally every single night. So that was our world for three or four years. And she became a film critic.
NF: That must have been in the late sixties.
RF: Well, in the mid-sixties.
NF: So you’ve been doing plays ever since, once a year?
RF: Well, I started doing plays in ’68. And in those days, for the first 15 years or so, I would do two or three plays a year. I would also do plays for other producers and so forth. At a certain point, my second wife, Kate, who was the leading actress in my theater for about 15 years, got very very sick. And she didn’t want to act anymore anyway. So it became, and still is, very difficult for me to leave New York for extended periods of time. Now I can’t go around the world doing plays as I used to. And Joe Papp died, and he used to ask me to do plays from the classical repertoire. So I’ve fallen out of that world. I occasionally do other things – I have some other plans — but I can’t be as active as I used to be.
NF: What for you has changed over the years? America, in the mid-sixties, was the center of a counterculture. Now, thirty years later, America represents a dominant culture.
RF: Oh yes. Well, I grew up in the fifties. And I grew up sort of hating America. I went to Europe for the first time when I graduated from college and it was a total revelation. For about 10 or 15 years, France was the great love of my life. And then I went and did with Kate about 7 or 8 productions in Paris, because Kate grew up in France. Her father was a translator and during the McCarthy era he went to live in France and never came back. Kate didn’t come to America until she was 26. So I almost moved permanently to France. But I then finally realized I was an American and I had to fight my battles here. So during the 60s was the only time that I felt good about America. I and my friends really believed the world was totally changing. Then, beginning in the 80s, everybody started glorifying the 50s again which was horrendous. And now I feel as alienated from America as I ever have. And I find it very difficult now. I mean, I am sort of established now, so I get a miniscule amount of funding that allows me to do my plays every year. But I feel very adrift. I feel that the arena, the context in which I do my work had dissolved, is meaningless. I really don’t know anymore for whom I’m doing this work. I used to sustain the illusion that I was participating in a dialogue with the whole tradition of Western culture — serious, modernist, Western hard avant garde culture. I deeply sense that that possibility does not exist. We live in a corporate world of the bottom line, and I think that deeply affects everybody’s psychology, everyone’s mentality. I do these plays and I don’t know why I’m doing them. But I’m very unhappy about being here and doing them in the context that I’m doing them. But I can’t figure out what else to do.
NF: Are they in a way a counter to the dominant culture?
RF: Well, I’ve always made a work of art into which I could disappear, but it gets harder and harder to sustain that illusion. In the last two years also, the audience, I must admit, is less. I can’t quite figure out why. I just don’t know. In a sense, I would like to do more radical, but admittedly, modernist work. Modernist work belongs to the past. We’re obviously moving into something else. In a way I feel slightly guilty for making my own contribution to a kind of disassociated, super-fast, super-complex art that, in a sense, has led to MTV and all kinds of things I don’t really approve of. But I see how there are certain suggestions of that in my work. So I’m totally confused about that.
NF: You’re a theater artist who, more than most today, have continually studied, pondered and disrupted “process” — whether it’s the process of writing or the process of staging theater. Where are you now with that? I imagine you’re still doing that.
RF: Yes, but as you get older, it’s harder and harder to do it. Like, every year I think, “oh, in this one I’m going to trash everything I’ve done, make it totally different.” And I start out that way, but then it doesn’t reverberate in my soul in the right way. So, whereas each year I think I’m going to take a six-foot step forward, as I’m working on it, in order for it to seem emotionally correct to me, it ends up I think being a one-foot step forward. Maybe that’s not a bad way to proceed. What people are doing now involves a lot of media, a lot of technological stuff. I find it very hard to get into that area. It does not seem to me to speak to the notion of the complexity of the human soul that I inherit from the modernist period, the modernist orientation. I think we’re producing a race of people who are paper-thin – almost pancake people – who cover a lot of territory. Like the Internet. And our psyches cover a lot of territory, but to me it’s sort of pancake-thin. That may in the end produce something totally different, and totally interesting and totally justifiable. And I have certainly dabbled in that. And I have my tendencies to that. But in the end I still have a spiritual center that I find hard to deny and hard to have my work deny.
NF: You’ve referenced alchemy in talking about your process. Seeing the staging of your work reminds me of an alchemist laboratory perhaps — the different props and scenery. I wonder if you could talk about that.
RF: I don’t think about that much anymore. It was very influential upon me when I started my work, in ’68 or so. I was reading books about alchemy, about techniques, and down through the years when I feel dry, when I need some inspiration, I’ll often go back and look at some of the illustrations of those old texts to get ideas. But these days there’s so much that I’ve been through intellectually, and that is part of the past – it’s not something I think about these days — but I can clearly see that is one of the strong sources of my beginnings and it still influences me.
NF: You have two different processes, directing and writing. Do you put a limitation on either of those – either in time or ambition?
RF: Well, there’s been a change in trajectory. I began as a writer. Well, when I was a kid I began making scenery for local high school productions. And I went to Brown as an actor. But I started writing plays because my friends were and I thought I could do it well. So I then went to Yale Drama School as a writer. And I think of myself as a writer. I only started directing plays because nobody else would do my plays. As a writer when I began in the 60’s I wanted to start from scratch. I hated the manipulative kind of playwriting that was American playwriting in those days. So I pared down the language and I wrote plays that only registered the kind of physiological things going on in the body in very primitive language. Then I began to feel that I wanted my writing to be richer. So, somewhat under the influence of back in the early ‘70s reading Barthes and some of the other French theorists, my work became verbally much more complex. And all these people were saying, “Well, Foreman’s a pretty good director but the texts, they could be the kitchen sink, they could be the telephone book.” And I always thought that wasn’t true. I thought that I was a good writer and that I was basically a writer. So I consciously sort of wanted to prove that I could write. And my texts became much more complex, much more multi-layered, much more aphoristic. And I think I finally proved to the world that I could write, because I started getting awards as a writer. And about 2 or 3 years ago, I started getting disgusted with writing, feeling that good writing was almost, in Barthes original terms, writing that belonged to a political class, made certain political manipulations. And I got sick of writing well. There was so much good writing that I admired in my life and that I had tried to do and it no longer did it for me. So two years ago I started doing some plays in which there was very little writing, just aphoristic phrases coming over the loudspeakers – maybe 40 or 50 sentences in the whole play. I’ve done that for 2 years, started to branch out a little, and starting next year I may return to writing, but that’s the arch that I’ve gone through. Who knows. So the writing always comes first. I amass these texts. They’re written at random moments. Pages from different years, different months, are combined in various ways. I then go into rehearsal with these texts. And nowadays I rewrite a lot as I think I’m going into rehearsal. In the 80’s I didn’t rewrite a word. I felt sort of like Kerouac: What comes is the evidence of your spiritual state and you musn’t touch it; you must confront what’s come out of you. Then I started rewriting. I rewrite now a great deal in rehearsal also. I have no hesitation about doing major rewrites in rehearsal in response to what I hear the actors doing, what seem to be the actors’ strengths. So the plays are now half written in rehearsal even though I always go into rehearsal with finished texts. I always felt that I had more courage as a writer than as a director and that as a director I was a little bit reactionary because I was concerned with trying to make these massive, impressive machines; whereas as a writer, I was open to letting come whatever crazy impulse would come. It’s also very hard for me as a director to stand in front of a group of 20 people and act as stupid and as empty and as not knowing as I can do as a writer. Faced with all those people, my personality is such that I want them to think I’m in charge that I know what I’m doing. And I look upon that as a mixed blessing. I think there are problems.
NF: In your current play “Panic” you’re sitting in the audience with your sound board directly involved in the pace of it.
RF: I’ve done that from the beginning.
NF: Sitting in the audience?
RF: Sometimes sitting in the back. It depends on the play and where I feel I can experience what I have to experience.
NF: It was very interesting. I was sitting right next to you, and because of the lighting on the audience and other alienating techniques, as an audience member I was not only conscious that I am “watching a play” but also that the playwright/director is also an audience member sitting next to me, whose recorded voice occasionally comes out over the loudspeaker.
RF: In the early days, I even used to – 50 times throughout the performance – and in those days sitting in the front of the audience – shout out, “Cue! Cue!” to make people do different things.
NF: You’re just one degree removed from being an actor in the play. So as a theater artist, you are a playwright, director, designer, theorist and actor of your plays and productions. Is there any hierarchy in that? I’m interested in how you think the history of theater is passed on from generation to generation and how you fit into that history of theater.
RF: I have no idea (laughs). I always had a love-hate relationship with the theater. I got into the theater as a young kid because I was very shy. It was a way to live out a fantasy life, to relate to people, that I couldn’t do in real live. So at a very early stage I began to find the theater not very interesting and the other arts, other disciplines, always much more interesting. After the initial phase of responding to the glamour of the theater, I began to use the theater much more consciously as a kind of therapy, therapy for myself and therapy for those members of the audience who wanted to engage in this process of trying to perceive at a slightly different rhythm – trying to process ones perceptions at a slightly different rhythm. And to me, I think that’s what I’m doing. So it’s therapy, not so much in a psychological sense but more like somebody’s meditative practice (laughs).
NF: I’m reminded when I first started reading Gertrude Stein years ago, the initial frustration and finally the understanding that it wasn’t reading in the normal sense. It became more a meditation on the act of reading.
NF: I have a similar feeling when I see your plays. I’m so conscious of watching myself watching, watching others watching the play. What’s left after you and I and the audience leave your play? Going back to Gertrude Stein, the act of reading there, was the act of meditating on one’s life also – moment to moment applying it to the reality of one’s emotional or psychic life. So what’s left when we leave one of your plays?
RF: I can’t answer that. I make something that I need. I find life not very satisfactory. I find the world we live in not very satisfactory. And I make paradise for myself. I make the world the way I want it to be. And that world has something to do with some concrete objects being there in the present, the way your consciousness is dealing with it, the way you are handling what in the present moment you are given. And there is a certain activity in the present moment that I want to be able to perform that the life within which I live, in the 21st century of America, does not provide. So I make something that I’m desperately hungry for. Having made it, I guess I can only hope that it stands as an example of some alternative possibility that might to some people seem denser, richer, more interesting, more desirable and then they make of it what they will. I work totally out of instinct, even though after the fact I theorize a lot, try to help people understand what I’m doing or where I’m coming from. None of that informs the work. What informs the work is a feeling in my solar plexus and just continually saying, no, that’s not dense enough, that’s not clear enough, just keep changing it until something clicks and I can’t really say what it is, even though because I read a lot, I’m then able to relate it to a lot of intellectual traditions, but that’s after the fact.
NF: If we think of a certain theater tradition in the last century that starts with Jarry and moves, say, through Artaud, through you and now into the next century. Let’s say Artaud was the big disruption. Many times people put Grotowski or the Living Theatre as the inheritors of this tradition that’s come through Artaud but have left you out. Could you speak to that?
RF: Again, that’s hard. I rarely think of my work in terms of theatrical tradition. I think of my work in terms of other philosophical, poetic, spiritual traditions. Now I can see a certain relationship to certain things in Artaud. I read Artaud back in school in the late ‘50s early ‘60s and certainly I responded to certain levels of it. And I occasionally look at Artaud again. I think that, by the way, the Living Theatre manifested Artaud back when they were doing things like “The Brig” and “The Connection” way back then. I don’t think they were manifesting it later in their more popular period, when they came back from Europe and did all those things. Now, Grotowski is not somebody that I respond to at all. I think that at the beginning of my career indeed I said that what I wanted to do was “Artaud in the Bronx,” in other words, Artaud in terms of bourgeois living room settings – that the cruelty of life is in these little moments of awkwardness and stumbling, and miscommunication that are also openings to a whole other world, not just symbols of our isolation as they are in something like Chekhov or Pinter, but are really opportunities to see a cosmic energy pouring through which is why Ontological is one of the two names of my theater. So, for years, when I was a young man, I thought I wanted to be like Artaud, but I thought, “yeah, but I don’t want to end up crazy and committed ” (laughs). And I have a little problem with Artaud, the glorification of Artaud, because it’s the glorification of a man who was insane. And I don’t say that in a negative sense (laughs). He was also in touch with energies that very few other people were in touch with. But a lot of times the promoters of our Artaud forget “but at what cost? At what cost?” So how does one who does not want to be that troubled make contact with similar energies? That’s the real problem.
NF: It seems like in this play you’re moving towards an exploration of death.
RF: Yes, I think so. But I always have been.
NF: Does that have anything to do with age?
RF: No. I’m 65 now. But death certainly has been featured in my plays. I think almost the whole time. Twenty years ago I started saying that the basic theme of the theater was death. I thought the theater was death — it wouldn’t be in Artaud’s theater – but any theater like mine, which is most theater, where things are repeated night after night, you shun death somehow. And for 20 years my work always featured a lot of skulls and that has been an obsessive theme in my theater I guess.
NF: You use both actors and non-actors.
RF: These days I use actors. I used non-actors in the beginning, but I haven’t for quite a while.
NF: What are you looking for in an actor that another director might not be looking for?
RF: I always hated actors basically, in the sense that most actors, understandably, want to be loved. I want performers who are willing to withhold themselves. I was very influenced in the beginning by Bresson’s use of actors in films, where he asked people – he used non actors – and he wanted to use them as models he used to say, because he didn’t want them to try to manipulate the audience, try to develop empathy with the audience. And that’s always been my tendency because I want to make something confrontational. And I hated this American theater where we’re all supposed to be friendly and, in a very superficial way, to look into each other’s eyes and say, “hey, I like you” basically (laughs). No, I want to be challenged by people, I want to be awakened by somebody who looks at me and says, “I see through your shit.” (laughs). I mean I don’t say I want it because it’s tough. It’s tough. But in making art, it’s that kind of feeling that I want from the performer. I don’t want that kind of desire for puppy love which I think is at the root of the actor’s craft. I also don’t want, like Grotowski, a release into a kind of organic body of orgasm that suggests a sensory, sensual way that the audience can identify with that kind of release. Because that is escaping for me also the real problem, whatever that is. The fact that you have to share this planet with other people that have minds that function much like yours. Yet you want to maintain your individuality and that person sitting across from you, basically, when it comes down to it, wants your food, wants your air (laughs). You are constituted as a human being to wants your own food, your own air, even though your mind probably is going through many similar processes and you may share on some level the same mental consciousness. And it’s that kind of problematic that I’m interested in. So I want actors who can suggest the intensity of that problematic.
NF: There’s a sense of almost evil innocence on your stage, as if bad kids are playing at this forbidden game and then staring back at their parents insolently saying, “I’ll do whatever I want.”
RF: I think we’re all kids. I have known very few adults in my life. (laughs)
NF: Getting back to the actor/non-actor thing, for a long time in your career you did work with non-actors. Now you’re working with actors but you’re asking these actors – I talked with Elina before coming here – basically to be in service of a painting you’re making on stage.
RF: The compositional reality would be the big reality. I was going to mention Elina because she said during rehearsal, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because you want to take everything away from me. You want me essentially to become a non-actor.” And I do in a sense. I do in a sense. I do want something real to be going on. I want some real energy, a real commitment to be there. But I don’t want any of the normal rhetorical emotional tricks that the actor grows up learning and using.
NF: When do props in your plays go to then next level of becoming something else, talismans maybe? You have a tomb on stage for instance and a phallic thing suggesting maybe two poles within the play. When are these props or talismans brought in? Before you begin your rehearsal?
RF: I have a script which essentially I write and rewrite listening to some music trying to get it right in my head. Then I design a set and I look at the script. And — in about an hour – for every page, I read the text very casually and I get some ideas for some props. Just pop into my head from nowhere. I just jot them down and I end up with a list of like 50 props. Then I go through the play one or two other times, again thinking about it and throwing some of those things out and getting a few other ideas. But then we make those props. Then in rehearsal – we rehearsed for 14 weeks this last time – props get thrown out, changed. The prop guy – this year we had a student form down south making my props – he was going crazy: “My god, I worked for 2 weeks making this beautiful thing and then he throws it out, it doesn’t work and instead he wants this.” So again, it’s all intuitive. I have no answer.
NF: I have a designer friend who worked with you twelve years ago on “Eddie Goes to Poetry City.” She said she worked real hard on this detailed poster you had her make. She brought it in to you and you cut it into a bunch of pieces, Xeroxed it and pasted it all over the set.
NF: You must often run into some resistance. Well, the people are there to work with you, but they must constantly question you on what you are really looking for. You continually disrupt the creation of the product to bring everything back to the process. It seems that if you had unlimited time that you would continually cut out what’s funny or what “works” – that you would keep the process open and never get to a finished production.
RF: No. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. It’s hard to explain to somebody else. But I’m waiting for a certain click that it seems right to me – that it has the right density, that it goes in seven different directions at once and yet still seems clear – I’m waiting for that. And I’ve tried to build for myself this situation where I can work the way that I work, continually trashing things. Now I don’t throw out things that work. Now, I throw out things that seem one-dimensional, or too simple minded or too easy. And I trash my own material as much as I trash things that other people do. I’m constantly saying, “Oh my god, that line of dialogue is stupid, throw it out; this staging, this scene, throw it out.” Other people are saying, “Oh this is going pretty well; this big dance number it’s good.” No. I just know it’s not good enough. It’s not quite sharp enough. I also used to work in situations – and still do occasionally – where I don’t have 14 weeks. Not for my own work. But if I do other people’s plays? Yeah, I can do a play in 4 weeks like everybody else. But to me, that does not allow the uncovering of the real gold that is hidden somewhere in this stuff.
NF: Towards the beginning of the interview, you said we are producing a race of people who are paper thin – pancake people. What can theater do to counteract that? Of course, you’re going to try to do that. But what are some projections you might have of where theater could go?
RF: I have no idea. I’m waiting for somebody to show me. I’ve been claiming I want to get out of the theater for the last 15 years, believe me. But I don’t know what else to do. And I need it. I just psychologically need it. But I have no clue. I feel very much at sea. I still can make this little islands for myself, and I was very happy making this play this year. I was less happy when we opened and we had to worry about audience and so forth, but it is still totally satisfying to me to make these works of art. That’s not to say that there aren’t frustrating moments in making it, but I can always sort of blindly forge ahead into the unknown. I don’t know. I’m always waiting to see what someone else might do. I haven’t seen anything that I really believe is a tremendous breakthrough to the next step. Not that I go to the theater very much. But I’m aware of what people are talking about, the current explorations. I’m always looking for things. Like in the last year I discovered a filmmaker who blows me away. But it’s not the next step. He’s 92 or 94 years old – this Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, one of the great artists of our time that I didn’t know about until about a year ago. But that’s not the future I guess (laughs), although I don’t know; I don’t know. So I really don’t know. People my age rarely know.
NF: What do mean by that?
RF: Picasso put down all the abstract expressionists. Most artists reach a certain point where they can’t really understand what is alive and productive in the work of younger artists. That doesn’t seem to belong to their world; that doesn’t seem relevant. But it might turn out to be the important thing.
NF: Did Elina give you that little book by Genet [“What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet”]
NF: I found that interesting. I read it thinking of your work.
RF: I found it very interesting.
NF: What remains of your work after it has been cut into four equal pieces and flushed down the toilet? I think what Genet was getting at is that there was a change going on in Rembrandt as a person, a spiritual change, that brought him almost full circle to a child again. Everything superfluous in his personality was gone. Rembrandt was merely at the end of his life, a hand and an eye moving back and forth between the paint and the canvas. Has there been an inner journey within you that is not reflected necessarily in your work unless we look at it as closely as you look at it?
RF: Yes. Yes. I think it’s easier for a painter who does not have to deal with a mass audience. Because even if I don’t have thousands of people in my theater, I’m still dealing with groups of people. That makes it hard. There’s no question, when I started I thought of myself as very cerebral, making intellectual theater. At about 40, I read Jung, who said that when you get about 40 there’s a big choice. You either become a dried up, scholastic, bitter man, or you make contact with some other river of feelings that is there to pick up upon. And I said, “well, I don’t want to be one of those bitter, dried up men. I’m going to recontact some kind of archetypal, mythical source.” And I did that sort of consciously. I think that has informed my life. I think, however, there has been a current in my work that is terribly humanist, terribly poignant in dealing with the issue of death, in dealing with the issue of the childish aggressiveness in all of us that is just a hunger for meaning, for love, what have you. I’ve already expressed my frustration about being in the arena of current times. I feel tremendous frustration of not being able to, I suppose, have the courage to make plays that would be as minimal and as true to a certain kind of maturity in older age, as somebody like Beckett did. Now, I’m not a tremendous admirer of Beckett. But I’m a tremendous admirer of the fact that he did exactly what he wanted to do. And if he wanted to make a ten-minute play with just a mouth, he would do it. Now I’m corrupt enough, that I find it difficult to entertain the notion of making that kind of totally abstract theater that just says the one thing nakedly that I want to say. Because I think, What’s the point? I would only be talking to a few converted people and the activity of doing that… The activity of writing that seems to me ok. I write things like that. But the activity of getting people together and rehearsing them to make that into a reality, I don’t have the chops for it in a certain sense. I want it to be more of a circus. I’m decadent enough. I’ve been corrupted enough that I still want that circus. But it bothers me. It bothers me because I think maybe I lack the courage to escape the circus aspect of the theater.
NF: Have you ever thought of theater from the perspective of either a written or oral tradition; how often are your texts picked up and done by others?
RF: More and more people are doing that. I make all of my raw material available on my web site. All of my notes. There’s been a definite increase each year in the number of people that pick up on that. But my plays are out there and I am convinced – maybe not the last two years; my plays have been so minimal in terms of language – but from 1980 through 1996 or 7, in my deluded way, I’m absolutely convinced that some people will realize that these are great plays, these are great texts. And I think of myself as operating specifically in the tradition of Moliere and would hope that some years from now, people would pick up on that and do them. And people do do them. Not in huge numbers. But I think of myself, certainly up until the things I’ve done in the last two years or so, as definitely continuing in the tradition of Western written theater.
NF: If you picked up an old play of yours, would you be coming to the same production choices as when you first did it?
RF: That’s hard to say, because I don’t want to do my old plays because I have new material that I’d rather do. But people suggest that I do my old plays. Maybe someday I will. But until I do it I won’t know.