The Ontological – Hysteric Theater
Permanent Brain Damage (1997)
Regarding the theme of the play Permanent Brain Damage, Foreman says:
“ . . . very truthfully, I’m trying to describe my own state of mind at this point: I feel oh, sort of bored with everything. I’ve read everything, seen everything and none of it quite works for me any more. This play is about that state of exhaustion or semi-depression even though in the staging it’s not a sad event, it’s a highly energized event. Nevertheless, the root source is this exhaustion that says – well, maybe if I can really live through this to its depths something will emerge from it.”
The following two-part radio profile produced for Artbeat/NPR (1997) features excerpts from my interview with Richard Foreman at his loft in Soho, New York, actualities recorded in rehearsal/performance and insightful comments from Arnold Aronson, Professor/Theater Historian – Columbia University School of the Arts and actor, David Patrick Kelly.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
What follows are selected excerpts from our extended interview (not included in the Artbeat profile).
Dolores Brandon (DB): You’ve been quoted saying – my plays are about paradise. For me that does shine through; there’s an underlying optimism to the work even though , as you say, this current play – Permanent Brain Damage – comes out of the depths of your own personal depression and exhaustion.
Richard Foreman (RF): I think that the world is terrible just terrible, but I am an optimist. I think there must be a reason it’s that terrible. There’s going to be some good result because of all that terribleness.
DB: Well, you’re also willing to have fun.
RF: My ideal is to be able to manifest somehow, the most esoteric, contemporary thought on stage in such as way that it’s as enjoyable as a circus.
DB: I was wondering how you work with your actors? One of your plays is included in a book by Bonnie Marranca THE THEATER OF IMAGES. Are you bringing a painter’s perspective to the work?
RF: No. My theater is about the dialectic between images commenting on what is being said and what is being said transforming images. I’m not trying to make beautiful pictures.
It’s more related to the way a choreographer might work with his or her dancers. I do carefully block every moment of the play, but I’m trying to physicalize on stage something that reflects the kind of continual, yes, no, well, maybe that’s going on in my mind as I perceive life, as I perceive anything that I’m presented with. I am trying to make a kind of continual burble of activity that reflects my emotional tendency to go toward something, then to pull back, then to redirect my attention. It’s really a more rhythmical, more of a danced kind of thing.
DB: The word collaborator comes up in various published articles on your work – definitely in terms of your work with your wife, the actress Kate Manheim. What does that mean, to collaborate with the actors?
RF: Well, it was very different with Kate, who stopped acting ten years ago (1987). Kate would have a lot of input – because of our relationship. She would come home and say, I don’t want to do that. (Laughter) What could I do? Usually I’d say okay. I never make an actor do something they’re really uncomfortable about doing, that’s for sure. But no there isn’t much collaboration. Now sometimes there are accidents, and sometimes things will happen, but the actors don’t do a lot of improvising. Many directors in the theater today [do improvise]. I don’t.
I’m interested in art. I want to know what the world seems like from some one else’s head. I think that’s the way to make art. I’m well aware that that doesn’t go down too well with other people in the theater who think that theater is supposed to be a collaborative art, but I am not interested in that.
DB: What were some of the most satisfying experiences you’ve had working with other playwright’s work?
RF: I thought my production of Woyzeck was very good at the Hartford Stage a couple of years ago. Don Juan which was here in New York. We did it in the park: most critics thought I was trashing Moliere which I was horrified at: I think Don Juan may be my favorite plays of all time. I thought that it was a tremendous production and I was very depressed when it got bad reviews; that was one of the times, I mean at that point I sort of said to myself – well, I can’t do any better than that so, I’m going to go off to Paris and work in Paris. (Laughter)
DB: What is it with America? Anti-intellectualism?
RF: Yes, but I will say that a lot of the people who don’t like my work certainly think that my pretensions to create an intellectual theater are ludicrous because a lot of people are continually saying – well he’s just interested in meaninglessness, he’s trying to destroy meaning – which I’m flabbergasted at because the only thing I’m interested in in life is trying to figure out what things really mean.
On some other level, you know perhaps irrational impulses enter into the equation. Many people in America when they think about what serious intellectual theater could be it’s this kind of Masterpiece version with those kinds of concerns treated in an elegant Tom Stoppard kind of way. But I think that that is not the main trend of interesting 20thC art: you know, Mallarme, or Rimbaud don’t function like that and those are the kind of people I would look to.
DB: John Simon (New York Magazine critic) has been pretty harsh in his assessment of your work.
RF: Oh, boy. He has said I’m the worst director in the American theater, which is not too unusual, but he’s said much more amazing things. For instance, when he reviewed The Three Penny Opera: at the end of that production we had these little horse heads rising up around Macheath. Simon ended his review saying I certainly didn’t understand what those four horse heads rising up around Macheath were supposed to be unless they were the horse heads that belonged to the horse’s ass that directed the whole production. (Laughter)
And again when I got an Obie for Rhoda In Potatoland: they announced my name as winner and I started walking to the platform; as I neared the front I hear this loud BOO, BOO. I look over and there standing on his feet, his face contorted, cupping his hands BOOING as loud as he can towards me is John Simon. (Laughter). He hates everything I’ve ever done.