INTERVIEW WITH KEN JORDAN, 1990
KJ: Let's start with your first experiences going to the theater when you were a young man.
RF: The first play I ever saw, my sister and I were taken by my mother -- I must have been about seven, eight -- to a revival of Victor Herbert's "The Red Mill." And the amazing thing is, though I only realized it in later years after I'd been doing my plays quite a while, the one thing that struck me about that play, was when he came to sing, 'Every day is lady's day with me,' [sings] both my sister and I poked our mother and said, "Mommy, Mommy, look! He's looking right at us! He's singing it right to us!" And that was my big thrill at that show, with the obvious reference to the performance style I used for many years where the actors were staring directly at people in the audience.
KJ: Did you go to the theater often?
RF: I used to go to theater a lot with my grandmother. She had a subscription to the Theater Guild; I used to go with her every Saturday afternoon. Then when I was fifteen, fourteen, a friend of mine and I from Scarsdale used to come into New York every Saturday to see a matinee on Broadway. From that time through the time I was a New Dramatist, when I was something like twenty-two, I saw absolutely everything in New York. Absolutely everything.
KJ: You were enchanted by the magic of the theater?
RF: Yes, I was enchanted. Sitting there, the lights on the curtain before the curtain went up. I was enchanted by the escape into that meticulous world that seemed real yet not ... well, it seemed not real, but very detailed and meticulous, bizarre. Even when I was young, I responded to what seemed bizarre. When, at fifteen years of age, I started going every weekend to New York, the plays that I loved were always the weird plays. I mean, one of my great experiences was Tennessee Williams' "Camino Real." I couldn't understand why everybody thought it was bad and obscure. Anything that in any way seemed surreal or strange, I loved. When I was thirteen, fourteen I read "The Skin of Our Teeth," and I couldn't believe it, with the walls flying up, and dinosaurs. It seemed wonderful to me because it was so phantasmagorical and surreal.
KJ: Were you involved with the theater when you were in school?
RF: In grade school I did lip synch versions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. When I got into junior high I started designing scenery, and immediately, because I made contact with the drama coach in the high school, John Hemerley, who was very sympathetic to me, I was designing scenery for little community theaters all around Westchester. My only concern was to try to do something far out, wild and surrealist. And I got ... I mean John Simon can never match the greatest review I got from the Bronxville paper when I did the scenery for a production of "Strange Bedfellows," which was a fifties fluffy comedy. The first sentence of the review was, "Cast and audience suffered alike last night from a set designed by Richard Foreman." [Laughs] It was a totally inappropriate surrealistic setting that had nothing to do with the play. The same thing with "Harvey." I did a set for "Harvey" for the Scarsdale drama group, and it was only after it had closed that the director said to me, "Richard, next time you know, you really should pay attention to the script when it says there's supposed to be three doors, and so forth, because if you don't give me three doors it's very hard for me to stage the play." That was the first time it ever occurred to me you had to make reference to these things indicated in the script. But at the same time, one of the very first plays I designed when I was in junior high-school, was, again, "The Skin of Our Teeth," which I loved so much. And John Hemerley, who was sort of my guardian, took my designs ... he was friendly with Sam Lev, a scenic designer in New York, and he came back and said to me, "Oh, Sam Lev showed your designs to his scenic design class, and told them, Now why can't you people be as imaginative as this," and so forth. So I thought I was great stuff. From the seventh through the twelfth grades, I probably designed and did a lot of the building for twenty or thirty productions.
KJ: Did you have any heroes from the theater that you looked up to as a young man?
RF: When I was fifteen I read "New Theaters for Old," by Mordeci Gorelick, which surveyed all the advanced trends of the last 200 years of the Western theater, and that was the first time I ever saw any reference to Brecht. There was very little available about Brecht in English at that point. But immediately, when he said Brecht created a theater that did not particularly appeal on the emotional level, but tried to have a certain clinical coldness so that the spectator could sit back detached and observe what he was seeing -- for me that was like the opening of a window. Because even at the age of fifteen, I used to go see all the Broadway shows and feel that they were sentimental, that they were pandering to the audience and trying to manipulate the audience. I had no use for practically any of the shows that were hits. You know, it still amazes me sometimes. Often I go to the theater and see all kinds of, oh, high powered movers and shakers, obviously successful businessmen or political men, or what have you, and they'll be sitting there at a play, and I'll be in the audience watching this really adolescent, childish stuff, and think: Ach, there's the equivalent of Donald Trump sitting next to me, and he's going out and making a world, and yet he is seduced by this absolutely childish nonsense. It's quite amazing to me sometimes to realize what goes on.
KJ: Did you ever do any acting?
RF: I acted in junior high in the junior high school group, and then when I got into senior high I was, you know, the main actor of the senior high school. At Brown I acted a lot. As a freshman, I tried out for "Death of a Salesman," and much to everybody's shock, I, a freshman got the part of Willy Loman. From then on I played major roles, up until my last year. In my last year I ... got disgusted. Because I was on the board of the theater organization at Brown and I wanted to do a Brecht, and the club agreed to do it, but the dean of the college stopped us, saying that he didn't want any plays by Communists done at Brown. So I quit and started my own little theater group, which people tell me has now become a major Brown institution, The Production Workshop. And actually, at that point, that was when I did my first plays. I wrote I remember two little sort of Yeatsian lyrical, very personal plays that I gave staged readings of at the Production Workshop. I originally became a playwright at Brown because I remember sitting around with my friends, some of whom were taking playwriting classes, and they would read me their plays. And I thought, "Oh, good Lord. I can do better than this." So I decided to do it because my interest in the theater was in trying to have the greatest impact, the most influence possible. For that reason, I was a designer for many years, and then I started acting. Then I thought, "Well, but a writer, he really controls the theater. He decides what's going to happen." So I decided to start writing plays, and went to Yale.
KJ: At Yale you studied playwriting with John Gassner.
RF: You know, actually, I went to Yale because I wanted to stay out of the army. I forget what stage it was in the Vietnam situation, I think very early, but if anybody could be paranoid about going into the army it would be me, no matter what stage we were in. I doubt I would have gone otherwise. But as it turned out I'm glad that I went, because I found Gassner a very rigorous teacher. Obviously not as interested in the far out as I was, but still very sympathetic to me, and he taught a kind of line by line rigor that I found inspiring, in its own way. And very useful. So, I wrote my yearly play at Yale. You had to read them in class, and the other playwrights commented. I didn't do badly, but I felt shy because there were one or two who seemed to please the crowd of playwrights assembled more than I did. I didn't like that too much. Gassner, however, was extremely encouraging. He said that I showed a lot of talent, and he told me that he didn't say that to too many people. I think he liked me. But he had one criticism: when I had a dramatic effect, I tended to go for that dramatic effect again and again and again, and to want to have the play always be at the same high level of dramatic intensity. It was only in later years I realized well, hey, maybe that's my style. Maybe I have to radicalize that tendency to want to be at a certain emotional pitch, a certain psychological pitch, and simply sustain and repeat that particular esthetic effect. And indeed, when I came to that realization, I think that's partially the key that released me into writing the kind of plays that I later wrote. Because at Yale, each year I was writing a play in a different style. Not that they demanded that, but I was searching as any young artist would be. I wrote an imitation Arthur Miller, an imitation Giraudoux, an imitation Brecht.
KJ: I would think that in a workshop environment like that he would emphasize the basics. Character development. Plot development.
RF: Absolutely. And I found that very interesting and rigorous. I mean, I never met anyone who could do it as rigorously as he could. And I certainly worked under his influence for a long time trying to be aware of all the classical rules of playwriting, things having to do with conflict, and other things of that sort. You know: building your conflict properly, making sure things were dramatized rather than talked about, everything along those lines.
KJ: And part of that whole approach to playwriting is to set up an outline, to write the play and see if it's "working..."
RF: Yes. I wrote an outline. I wrote a rough draft. And then I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. And that's the way you were supposed to write plays. I wrote one play about Simone Weil parachuting out of an airplane over Argentina and getting involved with an ex-Nazi who had escaped. I wrote another play about the first man with a private business making atomic bombs. I wrote a play about Caracello, the Roman emperor. I wrote a play that had something to do with an American tourist in Europe, a kind of Kafkaesque, surreal version. Because at that point, after my graduation from Brown, I'd gone to Europe for the first time, and that had a profound effect upon me.
KJ: Now, at a certain point you obviously turned away from this approach to writing plays.
RF: Yes, but only for one reason. Because I encountered the underground filmmaking movement and Jonas Mekas. While I was still at Yale, maybe the last year, I happened upon one of the earliest showings of their films -- at the Living Theatre's loft, as a matter of fact. And I was just amazed. It was like nothing I'd ever seen.
KJ: Do you remember what they were showing?
RF: It was an early film by Ron Rice, before "The Flower Thief," and before "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man." I think there were also two other films on the program. But I remember being very moved by Ron Rice and his use of music, and other things in the film. After that first night I started going back, and pretty soon I was spending all my time, many nights a week, going to see these screenings, because a lot of material started to come out at that point. And that changed, radically, how I saw everything. Because here were my compatriots, you know, young Americans like myself, making an art in which they were not shy about their American adolescent crudity. They didn't have to pretend they were sophisticated Europeans, and they were making wonderful moving things. They were able to exploit all kinds of rawness and roughness that I had spent my young artistic life trying to get rid of. Gassner taught us to write and rewrite, whereas all these young Americans were into the post-Kerouac thing of using what gets on the page, or in this case what gets on the screen, as evidence of where you're coming from. So their films are very raw. Lots of time you'd see the splices, you'd see the dots when the reel runs out. They used their friends as performers, and they exploited their friend's awkwardness, and they exploited the crummy film stock they were using. They were glorifying this kind of home made, hand made, cottage industry style art. Up till then I'd only thought, no, it's got to be slick, professional. I thought I was going to be a Broadway playwright, writing plays for big audiences. These films just reoriented me totally. I realized that I had to be honest about where I was, where I was coming from, and what I was trying to do. Eventually, I became friendly with everybody in the filmmaker's movement, because I worked for a while for Jonas Mekas trying to produce special projects for these filmmakers in the mid-sixties. And then I was hired to oversee the construction of the first permanent theater that Jonas built at 80 Wooster Street, in Soho. When the fire department closed it as a film theater, that's where I did my first plays. But for the first two years, I was in charge of booking in performance pieces once or twice a month into that theater. I presented the first New York concert of Phil Glass and Steve Reich, and that was the first time they'd performed publicly. We opened the series with a performance of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and it was the first time they'd been in New York. Trisha Brown also did one of her early pieces there.
KJ: Can you tell me which films made a strong impression on you?
RF: I was very impressed with two distinct trends in the ... well, in those days we only called it underground cinema. The sort of post-beat trend, that's the sloppy, letting it all hang out, home movie trend, which was represented by people like Ron Rice, and to a certain extent Jack Smith, and, oh even the Kuchar brothers in those days. I saw Jack Smith's "Flaming Creatures" maybe thirty times, and I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen in my life! Then I was also impressed by the more formal filmmakers that P. Adams Sitney called the structuralists, though they certainly have no relation to French structuralism. But by that he would delineate people like Michael Snow, George Landow, Ernie Gehr, and the early Warhol. Those films used seemingly simple formal strategies which would force you to refocus your perception so you became aware how you were orienting your perception and using your perception to watch the art event happen.
KJ: Can you give me an example?
RF: Yes. I remember going to see Andy Warhol's "Sleep," for instance, and being amazed at how it was only this slightly flickering image on the screen for fifteen minutes at a time. Each image. And you'd watch it for ten minutes, and all of a sudden something would click, and the gestalt of the image would reform itself in your consciousness, so all of a sudden it seemed organized in a different way. And after five minutes it would seem organized in a different way again -- even though it was still the same image. I remember being very impressed by Michael Snow's film "Back and Forth," which was the camera in a room panning at different speeds first to one side, then to another side, going through perhaps 180 degrees, and that movement suggesting a different kind of energy in the universe. It almost became a meditative experience. But I also enjoyed the way more realistic, earthly events, like somebody peeking in the window, which you just happen to notice as the camera swings past, would redeem that film from being too much of a purist exercise.
KJ: But at this time you were still writing a more mainstream, traditional kind of play.
RF: Ah, well, this was a period of transition. Because after I left Yale... I had one of my Yale plays done at the New Dramatists, the one about the man who invented the rockets, the atomic bombs, for himself. And it was terribly staged, and I was crushed.
KJ: Did they do a full production?
RF: No, they did a sort of workshop production. But it was terribly received, and I thought it was terrible myself. I didn't think the director was going to do a good job, and I was right. But he was a friend so I let him do it. However, at that point I had written another play.... I wrote this play called "Harry in Love," and that was the play.... At that time I was mostly supported by my family. My father was a lawyer, and he was bugging me all the time, you know, am I going to be a playwright or not? I told him I'd written a new play, and he said, "Look, Richard, I have a friend who is a lawyer for the Shuberts, and he'll pass it on to Alvin Cooperman," who at that time was head of the Shubert Organization. "He'll let you know if you have any real talent or not." Well, needless to say, I was horrified at the notion, and I told my father, "Look, these guys ... I don't write the kind of play they're interested in." But I couldn't very well say no, so with great trepidation I sent the play to the Shuberts, telling my father, well, he's not going to like it. My father said, "Okay, but he's an expert, he'll be able to give you some good tips." Well, lo and behold, the greatest thing that ever happened in my life, a month later Alvin Cooperman called back and told my father that I had tremendous talent! He wanted to arrange a production and he had a producer friend he wanted to give it to! Well, I was in business. [Laughs] He gave it to a woman, Helen Jacobson, who was a rich woman who had indeed produced a couple of plays on Broadway, and she bought the option on it. It was finally never done. For a while, actually, Alec Guiness seemed quite interested in it, but he wrote back saying that, though he liked the play, maybe he wasn't right to play a Jewish lumpen from the Bronx. [Laughs] I treasured his rejection letter and kept it for several years. But the real problem was that she had a friend who she wanted to direct it, and he did direct a staged reading, which had well known actors in it. Vincent Gardenia played Harry. But I thought the director was hopeless, and I told her that I didn't want him to direct the play, and I think that cooled her enthusiasm for the project.
KJ: What was the play about?
RF: It was about an awkward, overweight, Jewish, middle-aged, middle-class man whose wife was running around and he was going crazy. It was funny, but absurdist, full of his frustrations, in the style of the early sixties. I was sort of inspired by Murry Schisgal, who wrote a play called "Luv." L U V. It was in the, you know, Jewish tradition of sweating people getting into terrible, self-blocking, double bind states, and going crazy under that kind of pressure. This guy was doing all kinds of strange things, like making peep holes so he could spy on his wife. The dialogue was already kind of strange, almost Pinteresque, but more buoyant, in a way.
KJ: But how did you get from writing these more traditional kinds of plays to writing the plays which you first had produced, like "Angelface?"
RF: What really happened was one day I decided to write a new kind of play. After my experience with "Harry in Love," I came back to my loft, on a particular day, sat down, and said to myself, "Now wait a minute. If I walked into a theater tonight, what would I want to see?" And I'm slightly embarrassed to tell you what I saw in my head, but it did lead to my theater. I saw a particular static moment from my seat in the Circle in the Square where I watched a rather dreadful production of "The Balcony." And I remember seeing Shelly Winters, on one side of the stage, and Lee Grant on the other, and it was just a moment of stasis, and a moment of a kind of tension between them, and I just wanted to make a whole play that had nothing except that unresolved tension between them. And I wrote out of that. I said that's what I want in the theater, just that moment, and it doesn't develop into any of the other awful stuff, the psychological stuff, the narrative stuff, the adventure stuff that it always develops into. But it's just that. And taking off from that image, I started writing "Good Benny," which was the first real departure for me. Now, I showed "Good Benny" to Ken Jacobs, and I was crushed because he didn't like it. He thought the language was too full of Oscar Wildian elegant phraseology. Jonas, actually, was more positive about it. But none of these people ... they saw me all the time, but we never talked about what I did. So they were interested and surprised to see that I actually had these plays.
KJ: Why wasn't "Good Benny" ever produced?
RF: We actually did stage it, have a staged reading, twice. Allen Miller, who was my wife's acting teacher, rehearsed it with one group of actors in his acting class. And another group of actors from the Actor's Studio did it as well. So I did see it worked on, on it's feet, for a reasonable period of time. ANGELFACE (1968)
KJ: But the first play of yours that received a full production was "Angelface".
RF: Yes. For "Angelface" ... one summer, Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, their wives, and I and my wife rented a summer-house on Fire Island. And I was very friendly with these people, so I said: Look, I know you didn't like my last play, but read this one, see if it's any different. And, much to my delight, Ken and Flo and Michael and Joyce read the play and said, "Oh, well, this is very good. This is wonderful." So I was very happy, and I decided I would ask Jonas if I could stage it at the Cinemateque. This was before the Cinemateque was closed. And he said sure. So, I got six of my non-actor friends, and with simple scenery, which I built myself, I staged the play.
KJ: Why didn't you want to take it to another director this time, as you had with "Good Benny?"
RF: Because I realized that, first of all, nobody could really do it the way I wanted to do it. And, see, if I was going to do it in the Cinemateque, it would be cowardly not to do it as the filmmakers did and do everything myself. For the production of the play I decided that since I was using people who were not actors, and since I didn't want to rehearse for years and years and years, I would put all the language on tape.
KJ: All the dialogue.
RF: All the dialogue on tape, and we'd play the tape in performance. Then I thought it'd be interesting if the actor's repeated what they heard on the tape, but at a slower speed, so we'd get a web of language. Also it would facilitate rehearsals, make everything very simple. These people didn't have to act, because I wasn't interested in acting. As I told you, from the time I was fifteen, I thought the theater was too much involved with actors trying to make the audience love them, being over emotional. So I thought this was an answer, and a simple answer. That's basically why I started using these tape techniques, though I think that I was also led to that possibility by being very impressed with the sound manipulations I heard people like LaMonte Young doing at their concerts in the Cinemateque.
KJ: What were they like?
RF: Oh, just loud, continual noises, but it made one listen to noise in a different way. I thought it would be interesting to get that thickness, that kind of overlay of sound in language that I'd heard not only in Lamont, but especially in some of the works of Steve Reich, the early works that dealt with shifting pulse patterns. Get that in language as well as in music. But along with the input on the sound, I was also influenced by seeing one or two of the early events that Jack Smith staged, and his particular acting style which was based on having very little happen stretched over a very long period of time. That had an influence on the rhythmic articulation of the speech on the tape, and then the actors repeating it very slowly and in an uninflected fashion. Which again, I think, had something to do with seeing some of Jack Smith's early stagings.
KJ: At these performances you sat with the tape recorder behind a desk to the side of the stage, right?
RF: Yes. I worked the tape recorder myself because I also liked the idea of being able to conduct the performance, as it were, by starting and stopping the tape, and holding the pauses the way I felt for that particular audience they should be held. So I was really conducting the performance. It is important to reemphasize that the actors were asked not to express any emotion, but to just say the words as words, so you could hear the word quality ringing through the text, and not be dragged along by empathy with the performer's emotions. Because doing that, I felt, obscured the particular things that were happening in the language, on all the other levels, which I felt the theater had slighted for so long in favor of empathy for the performer.
KJ: But the dialogue didn't lend itself to a particularly emotive expression.
RF: Well, boy, you don't know actors. I mean, of course ... yeah, I suppose it's a little difficult. But I'm sure that actors could have found a way. [Laughs] I asked the actors always, for the first five, six, maybe more years, to speak the lines as if they were teachers in front of a class writing down lines for dictation for the students to practice their penmanship. There could be a sort of authority in the lines, but they must not reflect the normal emotional content of the line. Sometimes people departed from that, and I would or would not interfere. It just enriches the material to have certain contradictions emerge. But that was the basic given.
KJ: And then, how would you approach staging these plays? To take an example from "Angelface," the dialogue would be -- and this is fairly typical -- "Max: (from the darkness) Point to where you imagine Agatha." Pause. "See, Agatha doesn't' become visible." Walter: (Laughs) -- and I'm curious what that means, "Laughs" --
RF: I think that's the first two or three plays. Just this sort of nervous release of tension. That's what it meant.
KJ: That was on the tape?
RF: No. No. That was a stage direction. I don't think we ever did it. We found it too hard. You know, the actors that I had couldn't do it very well. [Laughs] When they couldn't laugh, that's when I came upon the idea of using these loud thuds to punctuate the plays. In other words, the dialogue was punctuated every few lines by these terribly loud thuds. I believe the laughs, initially, were to have the same function of being a sort of indication that: oh, we can't go any further now. You know, what more is there to say right now? It was like a wall ending discourse. And then there'd be a pause, and then you'd try again. But you'd hit yourself against a wall, again, and the laugh would indicate hitting against that wall. When I gave up the laugh, the loud thud would indicate the hitting against the wall.
KJ: How did you make the noise?
RF: Oh, I always worked to get a deep enough thud, which was very hard. I mean, I tried everything, hitting cardboard boxes with microphones inside.... I was trying to imagine what it would be like if the world's heaviest piano ... well, no, a heavy safe, falling from the top of the Empire State Building when it hits the ground. That was the kind of noise I wanted.
KJ: In these early plays, when the dialogue was all references to the physical states of the performers, like "I'm pointing towards her." or "Rhoda wakes." how were you staging this?
RF: My rule for staging for the first six years, at least, was to make the staging be an ex-ray of the text. Try to be as simple, to do as little as possible, and only to do what was really indicated in the text. I tried to clean the staging of any excessive or extra movement, they were very static. The gestures were wooden and still. Very determined, very controlled.
KJ: Were they an illustration of the text? When he says, "I'm pointing towards her," he would be pointing towards her?
RF: Yes. Absolute illustration. It was to be clinical documents. I wanted to be as simple and as rigorous as what in those days was minimalist art. You see, I thought of myself as making minimalist art like the music of LaMonte Young, or the paintings of Frank Stella.
KJ: So it was to strip all of artifice of the theater away.
RF: Just show the basic shape of the event. Not decorating it in any way. It was all very frontal, and, as I've said, since it's a stripped, x-ray of the text everything was set up there on the stage for maximum clarity and simplicity. It was really an attempt, as I see it now, to get back to the absolute basics. To be as primitive as possible. And, just as in primitive art you generally tend to draw people from the front, people were generally facing front.
KJ: Arms at their sides.
RF: Except when they had gestures. And they were often, most of the time, supposed to stare straight into the audience. I'm fighting saying, as if they were being puppets, because I was always accused in those days of using my actors like puppets. But they were not puppets, because at the same time I was interested in the idiosyncratic awkwardness of each non-actor on stage. I would not train them and scream at them to stand more neutrally. I would enjoy the fact that actor A, you know, slumped, and that he was scared to look at the audience so he would sort of look down. Perhaps I would tell him to look at the audience, so his eyes would sort of dart up towards the audience. The more awkward they were, the better. But, I asked them very easily to do these distinct physical tasks, to do them very simply. I was not interested in statistically training them to all be automatons. I wanted to see what the world of the army would be like if people were told to do things, but you didn't punish them because they didn't do them too well.
KJ: You mentioned once that somebody had remarked to you that the early plays were so demonstrational they were like taking a tour through a factory.
RF: Yes, I got a letter from someone who thought the analogy to my theater was the factory tour that some companies would give so you'd see: Here's where they mix the chocolate, here's where they cut it into squares, and here's where they wrap it up. I was doing a factory tour of a play, giving the same kind of demonstration of: Here's how somebody hits somebody else with a baseball bat, and here's how somebody holds the side of their head and says, "Oh, it hurts." It was all demonstrative in that way. Of course, it all had to do with this impute from Brecht, the notion of the performance as showing, as demonstration, along with this input from minimalism and alchemy, and everything else that attempted in those days to counteract the normal, seductive glamour in the theater. And yet, at the same time, I think that they were, as people tended to say, extremely sexual in a funny way.
KJ: Why was that?
RF: Because the bodies were so absolutely, physically present as being flesh in all its awkwardness before you upon the stage. So that you did not, as you do in normal theater, identify with the character's project, which helps you to see past their psychologically naked physical presence and imagine what's going to happen when their project confronts someone else's project, and confronts resistance or achieves success. No, there's no project to watch. There's only this physical person trying to manipulate his body in the universe, and there is a tremendous erotic quotient to that fact.
KJ: These early plays had an almost disruptive sense of extreme naturalness.
RF: Well they had extreme naturalness because what you were watching was a particular area of naturalness that had been banished from the theater. In other words, the theater works very hard to keep awkward, amateurish, wooden performances out of the theater. I was working very hard, along with a few other people, to bring that area of naturalness and reality into the theater. Simply because it hadn't been seen. See, when we go to a work of art, 90 percent of our reactions and our expectations are controlled by convention. We are used to seeing a certain kind of stylistic thing in the theater, and that becomes deadening, because once we are used to seeing it, it becomes a lie. It no longer speaks to us in a truthful way. Practically every important moment in the history of theater has not been "realer" or "truer" than the moment that went before, but it's been a cold glass of water thrown in the face to wake the audience up by showing what was not expected. Which implies that the real issue in art is the audience's response. Now I claim that when I make things, I don't care about the audience's response, I'm making them for myself. But I'm making them for myself as audience, because I want to wake myself up. And I assume that other people might be woken up by what wakes me up. But, you see, art is a kind of strategic maneuver. There is no work of art that has ever been made that is absolutely truthful about life. As Picasso said, "Art is a lie that tells the truth." And it's a lie that tells the truth because it is the choice of a strategic maneuver, which is not the truth. No art has ever been the truth, because it has to leave out 90 percent of life. And if you're not talking about all of life, you're not talking about the truth, you're talking about a distortion. So art is a perspective; all perspectives are lies about the total truth; so art is a lie that, because it is strategically chosen, wakes people up. The truth is in the audience's, the individual's, awakened perceptions. It's not in the work of art.
KJ: And your sets?
RF: Extremely minimal. I didn't want to interfere with the room in which we were operating...
KJ: ...which was this loft space.
RF: It started out at 80 Wooster Street, at the Cinemateque. I only built those elements of the set that the play made specific reference to. If somebody at one point looked out a window, I built some kind of simple window. And if they were supposed to be sitting at a table, I built a table. But I did no decoration.
KJ: You built a table?
RF: Yeah, I built everything.
KJ: Why didn't you just get a table?
RF: I thought that it would be more stylistically coherent if everything were built. I wanted everything to have a certain kind of look, which was the look of my awkward carpentry. And then everything was always painted in monochromatic color. I don't know why. To give it a kind of unity I just saw it that way.
KJ: And often you would direct the people to stand in tableaux.
RF: Yes, they spent a lot of the evening standing in tableaux. It would hold for five or six lines, and then there'd be a slight shift, and hold for another five or six lines. Another slight shift, five or six lines. And then a ludicrous, exaggerated action, like tumbling through the window. And as one tumbled through the window, then, holding an awkward position at the end of that tumble for five or six lines. So it was this continual static tableau, followed by slight adjustment, followed by occasional, rather spectacular, but awkward activity.
RF: For the first ten years people wore what they happened to show up wearing on the first day of rehearsal. If they had to be cleaned one day, I asked the actors to wear something similar, but all through rehearsals they wore what they were supposed to wear. And I felt that was very important because as I was staging the play, I was deciding where they would stand partially on the basis of what they looked like, and if they were wearing a red shirt one day and came in the next day wearing a green shirt I might make a different decision.
KJ: You just let the performers choose for themselves what they were going to wear on that first day?
RF: Yes, they were found objects.
KJ: How did you do the lighting?
RF: The lighting was no lighting. It was simple light that was turned on in the beginning, turned off in the end. No lighting effects, though there were often lamps in the play that would function as kind of mystical sources of energy, and those would be turned on and off. Practical real household lighting. But the theatrical lighting would not be changed.
KJ: Would you say that the plays had a rather informal quality?
RF: Well, at the time it seemed to me that there was nothing informal about it. It was workmanlike. It was terribly sober. I just wanted to think of every negative word I could and then make art out of that. I wanted it to be awkward. I wanted it to be uncomfortable. I wanted it to be static, stiff, not imaginative. Wooden. Rigor mortis. Funereal. I didn't think "funereal" in those days, but I realize now that it was funereal.... Hostile to the audience. I think that the hostility probably is what prevented it from being informal, right? Because the actors were often staring at the audience, holding positions for a long time. Informal to me means that there is a certain fluidity of relaxation in the body. And there certainly was not that, it was much stiffer. And aggressive and hostile. And the loud buzzers and the loud thuds that kept punctuating the end of the dialogue unit very loudly, so it was almost scary and unpleasant, that also increased the feeling of hostility and aggressiveness. So it was not informal.
KJ: So you might say that the early plays were a way of undermining many of the assumptions of the theater, which you had been pursuing for years.
RF: Yes. The early plays were attempts on my part to confront the fact that, even though I'd spent my life in the theater, I'd grown to feel that most of it was a dishonest manipulation of the emotional habits of the people in the audience. And I wanted to deny all of that. I wanted to find a way to return to the basic language of man's physical being in his environment, and how that interacted with the basic language of the fact of an actor present in front of other people, in front of the audience, confronting a few physical objects, a few noises, in a non-inflected, neutral laboratory kind of light.
KJ: I can understand your affinity with minimalists like LaMonte Young and Frank Stella.
RF: When minimalist art came in, in the world of painting, I felt, "Ah, here are people who seem to want the same thing, seem to be oriented towards life in the way that I am." I had not felt that looking at Pop art or Abstract Expressionism. But I felt the minimalists ... I can't even remember why, particularly, except they were so rigorously concerned with a program of "no nonsense." Let's try to strip away all the hypocrisy of delight. [Laughs] With which we ice the birthday cake of our art. And let's look to see what the ingredients are that, in their raw state, are mixed together to make this art. That was what I yearned for, because I found art so pervaded by all kinds of effected, romantic notions that got in the way of clear, awake perception. So I identified totally with minimalism.
KJ: Also there was an underlying interest in getting some kind of more basic spiritual grounding in that work by clearing away a lot of artifice.
RF: Yes. Because we lived in a culture that was ... at that point I believed, as I still believe, it's a pretty phony, misguided culture, as I suppose most cultures are. And I spent my life being very unhappy in my culture. I grew up in America in the fifties, the McCarthy era. I grew up in Westchester, upper middle class family. Good schools, you know. And yet, I felt that the world that I was living in was a living death, and the real energies were lurking somewhere down there in the depths, but nothing in my culture seemed to allow or recognize those energies. So the only hope was to strip away the facade of this culture that had been planted over the few genuine springs of spiritual feeling that I was sure must be down there, somewhere.
KJ: What kind of people were you looking for, for your performances? You mentioned before that they were non-actors, but of a certain kind of physical type, or characteristic?
RF: I was looking for people, I suppose, that on one level or another seemed to not fit the world, and yet had not developed a flamboyant, radical persona, as some people who don't fit the world do. And I was looking for that type because that's the type I was. So really, I think I was looking for people who seemed to be members of my spiritual family. That's all.
KJ: In one of the programs, there was an invitation for anyone interested in performing in your next show to leave his name at the door.
KJ: That's pretty open.
RF: Oh, yes. Sure. Well, anybody who wanted too, often that's about all it took. Because I ... you know, I'm not a very gregarious person, I'm not a very social person. So, it wasn't easy for me to approach people. It still isn't. I still hate the job, when I do my own shows, of having to go out and get actors and technical people, and actually make the overture to them. So, yeah anybody could have been part of it. [Laughs] I had musicians, filmmakers, people who became critics, people who did all kinds of things. A lot of people just disappeared and I have no idea whatever happened to them.
KJ: Another way you challenged basic assumptions about the theater was at the end of "Total Recall," when the stage direction calls for Leo to exit, then there's a pause. Then the radio starts playing music. After a while Ben and Hannah exit, and the music keeps coming through the radio until everyone has left the theater.
RF: Well, I was interested in provocation of all kinds in those days. We never had a curtain call. I think the first curtain call was because we were performing at the Public Theater and Joe Papp said, "Oh, you really ought to have a curtain call." So I said, okay, we'll have a curtain call.
KJ: What was the response to "Angelface?"
RF: Aside from my dedicated following, most of whom were filmmakers and people like that, it was terrible. For the first six years we knew that more than half our audience was going to walk out before the end of the play, and often within the first twenty minutes.
RF: Oh, we drove them away like crazy! I mean, no doubt about it. There were nights that we ended up with two people staying. That continued up through, certainly my first play in Paris it was the same thing. Within twenty minutes the audience would be half gone.
KJ: Were any of the reviews sympathetic?
RF: Oh, that was a very, very lucky thing. I think I would have been discouraged were it not for the fact that for my third play, a critic from the Voice came, Arthur Sainer, and I will be eternally grateful because for "Total Recall" he wrote a long review saying: Well, this is pretty hard to take, and I am against most critics who give consumer guides, and though I usually don't do this I've got to say you must go see this play because it's like nothing I've ever seen, and it's terribly important. People still kept walking out, of course. But he reviewed my plays for the next couple years, and was very favorably inclined. If he hadn't done that, I often wonder if I would have had the courage or the determination to continue, because I was a very sensitive young thing and, really, everybody walked out. Including ... I had a few friends like Annette Michaelson who would direct artists to see my plays, and I remember the nights that Richard Serra and Robert Morris walked out. And that crushed me. Later, when I got to be friendly with them, they told me, "Oh, well, yeah, in those days your work was so abstract, and I'm not really interested in abstract art!" [Laughs] But at the same time, though, we thought that we had the word, and obviously these... of course these people couldn't appreciate it, just like they couldn't appreciate Van Gogh, or whoever you want to name. So we felt quite heroic. And fortunately there were a few people who I really believed in who thought the work was magnificent. That was enough for me.
KJ: How long did "Angelface" run?
RF: We only performed it four nights. I remember the night my parents came. The play started with this loud, impossible buzzer that was supposed to go for like a minute because it was so beautiful when it went off. I mean, there was a certain kind of space, aural space created when this terrible sound ended. So five minutes before the curtain, we turn on the buzzer. We had one actor, and he still hadn't shown up, but we were sure he would. Well, those were the days of drugs. So we were all in agony, because twenty minutes later he showed up. But I certainly didn't want to turn off the buzzer that would spoil the effect. So, for twenty minutes there was this deafening buzzer going on, and I had to carefully explain to my parents afterwards, well, it wasn't supposed to be quite that unpleasant.
KJ: Obviously, "Angelface" was a real departure from the other avant-garde work that was being done in the theater at that time, because most of the experimental theater at that moment was Grotowski influenced.
RF: Yes. That's right. And I just hated Grotowski because, just like the normal theater, it was performance centered. You were supposed to, in one way or another, love and admire the perfomer and the performer's virtuosity. Your entry into the world of the play was through the performer, and that's not what I was interested in. Also, tremendously exaggerated emotional response. I just didn't trust emotion. I believed that emotion was habit, essentially. You were conditioned by life to have certain emotional responses to certain situations, and I think that the function of art is to free you of those habits, especially those emotional habits that keep landing you in the same traps in your life.
KJ: What about the elements in that work where they tried to break down the barriers between the performer and audience?
RF: Oh, well I hated that. But that's mostly I think just my psychological orientation, because I didn't like ... I was shy, and I certainly didn't like actors coming up to me and pawing me, and saying things in my face. I felt very uncomfortable with that. And I wouldn't want to put my audience through it.
KJ: Did you see the Living Theatre?
RF: I saw the Living Theater, and yes I was very moved by "The Connection," and then "The Brig." I was not nearly as moved when they came back with "Frankenstein" and "Mysteries" and all that work, because I thought that was too Grotowski influenced.
KJ: What was it about the earlier Living Theatre work that impressed you?
RF: It had an almost Brechtian clinical nature. And the fact that it confounded your notions of what could be done in the theater. I mean I liked the absolute crazy daring of "The Brig." That here was a play that was just this repetitious structure that was insane activity. And "The Connection," lord knows what I'd think today, but I remember it just seemed so real, and uninflected in any normal theatrical way, I was amazed they could get away with that. And I felt that I could not do that. I remember being at a party, at that time, and talking to someone, and saying that unfortunately the things I admire in art, what really moves me, are things which manage to do away with the more confrontational dramatic structure. But I myself can't do that. I am a creature of the sort that needs, and that automatically exudes that confrontational structure, that kind of tension. And that was true. All of my work, in writing plays, was an attempt to sort of heighten some kind of existential confrontation situation.
KJ: But wasn't "The Connection" also a confrontation? Wasn't it meant to provoke the middle class people in the audience by confronting them with the subversive values of the bohemian, Beat subculture?
RF: When I saw it, there weren't many middle class people in the audience. Because I saw it pretty soon after it opened, and it got terrible reviews. I only went because I remember Jerry Talmer saying it was great. And I was one of those bizarre people, that if I heard of something that everybody seemed to hate, and then there was one person who would say, "This is really weird," I would immediately rush to see it. In much the same way that in later years, I remember when Bob Wilson did his first play, there was an add in the "Voice" that looked so bizarre that I said, "Well, this I have to see." And I went, and there were five other people in the theater. And I was amazed that in New York City a bizarre add wouldn't attract lots of people just because it was such a bizarre add.
KJ: Were you interested in Artaud at all?
RF: I was interested in reading Artaud. There was a time when I certainly paid attention to what he had to say. In my early plays, I remember thinking that I was much truer to Artaud than Peter Brook or the Living Theatre and all the other official Artaud people, who were doing it in a Grotowski sort of way, rolling on the floor and screaming. One had a repertoire of psychological responses to that kind of aggression; one could take an attitude in response. I remember thinking that my cruelty was much more insidious, that my formal esthetic cruelty was really the theater of cruelty. My theater had a kind of aggression where there was no way to deal with it, so the only possible response is either to go with it or walk out. Which many people did. That was the real theater of cruelty. You know, if an actor approaches you and breaks through the third wall, you have a chance in a sense to fight back. But if I was aggressing you with a loud noise, or with an actor just standing there staring at you, what can you do? You can either just sit there and stare back, like a passive member of the audience, or you could leave. That's crueler. [Laughs]
KJ: So you didn't see yourself as part of the young, off-Broadway theater scene of the sixties?
RF: You see, all those people in the coffee house movement, in the La Mama movement, from my point of view they were still the theater, and I hated the theater. I rejected the theater. For instance ... in later years I became friendly with Charles Ludlam. But in the early days, I did a play at the Theater for the New City, and Charles was doing a play in another space there at the same time, and I remember he and his people peaking in once to watch one of my rehearsals, and then, later, when I was in another room, I heard them laughing and talking about, oh, in the most derogatory terms, this terrible stuff I was doing! [Laughs] Didn't bother me. I just thought, all the better, of course -- they're from the theater!
KJ: You were still writing these early plays the same way you were writing "Harry in Love?"
RF: No, not at all. Beginning with "Good Benny" I stopped rewriting, for instance. I'd never change what I had written because I thought it was dishonest. I thought of the writing as evidence of my mental, spiritual state, and I had to be honest about myself, the same as Kerouac or Ginsberg. There are plenty of precedents for that.
KJ: You never cheated?
RF: No, not in the early days. I cheat now. But, more than cheat, I have no compunction now about changing. But, no, I never cheated, though I tried to. Once or twice there were lines that were especially embarrassing to me, that seemed especially juvenile, and I would cut them out. But then I'd miss them, and I'd realize that there was something in them that was very strong, and I had to fess up to the fact they came out of me and I said such a stupid, adolescent thing.
KJ: So once you started a play, you wouldn't change anything in it, and you would write it straight through until it was done?
RF: That's right. And there were many false starts. I would start a play, and I just kept going until I could finish. It would take six months sometimes to get the play going, and if there was a page along the way I didn't like, I threw it out. An awful lot of plays never got finished. If a play kept writing itself, if I could add to it everyday until finally I got to the end, I didn't change anything. Everything in my notebook before the beginning of that play I would throw out. The play as written was not rewritten; it was not edited in any sense.
KJ: You were working from outlines?
RF: Just like Ibsen would write outlines, I would get an idea for a play and imagine a series of scenes that would interestingly develop and elaborate upon that particular situation. But what I would do is write against the outline. For instance, the outline for scene one might be: Max wants to go on vacation and his wife Rhoda doesn't want to go on vacation unless their friend Ben can come, and this makes Max angry. I might start by having Max say, "I want Ben to come on our vacation." And Rhoda saying, "I don't want Ben to come on our vacation." On the surface of the scene you would never know anything different, it would be the content of the scene. Now, I'm not saying I was expecting that the audience would psyche out irony was at work, and that in fact the situation was not as it seemed to be. I'm just saying that I would set up an outline that I would try to consciously write to escape from. For scene two, now remember Max doesn't want Ben, Rhoda wants Ben, in the outline for scene two they're on the road, and Ben is driving the car, and Max, when they reach the fruit stand, gets out of the car and leaves because he doesn't want to go on vacation. Well, I might write the scene: Max gets out of the car and Rhoda says, "Where are you going," and Max says, "I'm going to take a basket of fruit back to Ben's house." And that's the scene. Now, I was controlled in a funny way by the outline, but I wanted to write scenes that would in fact obliterate the outline. That program controlled my writing methods for the first five years, perhaps.
KJ: When did you stop working with outlines?
RF: I stopped working with outlines, I think, about the time of "Hotel China." That was the next stage, to still try to write whole plays, often throwing them out, but to stop writing from outlines. I'm a very conservative person, really, and it's been a struggle to get to the kind of freedom I have now. I'm sure most people think that I'm one of those sixties hippie types who, you know, damn all braces, fuck the rules; I'm just going to do whatever I want. [Laughs] But in fact, I can't work that way at all. I'm a very up-tight person. And each step towards total Cagian freedom has been a big challenge for me.
KJ: The thematic material in the early plays had to do with relationships...
RF: They were normal bourgeois theater, domestic triangle situations. That's why I called my theater "Ontological-Hysteric," because the basic syndrome controlling the structure was a classical, boulevard comedy syndrome, which I took to be hysteric in its roots. In those early texts there is always that kind of situation, and it is clear that the things I'm allowing myself to say within that situation are things that can only be thought to be going on, on another level of the character's being than the normal, psychological interaction. The characters were expressing themselves, in so far as they were expressing themselves, through a reference to their physical attitudes. I suppose that comes from the fact that for as long as I could remember, even as a young child, I was aware that much was going on in me which was not allowed to be expressed in society. I remember when I was a very young boy, riding in the car with my mother, and at one point saying to her, "You know, even when you're scolding me and I'm scared and unhappy, at the same time I'm singing a little song in my head." The fact that multiple states of being exist in us at all times is what I'm always trying to express. For me, the task in art has always been to be open to all the ambiguities, all the counter factors in a situation. The fact is that when you say "yes," you're also saying "no," and you're also saying a million other things. In general, the theater, the realistic theater, seems to me to have difficulty in suggesting this very basic fact about human existence. Even if your response to a situation is, "Don't shoot your rockets onto America," your "no" is perhaps conditioned by an unconscious longing, wondering what it would be like if the rockets exploded, because the rockets suggest an obvious phallic symbolism that has different reverberations in your psyche. If there was a twentieth century work that tried to suggest those myriad reverberations it would be, to use the most obvious example, "Finnegans Wake."
KJ: But "Finnegans Wake" suggests this through a very baroque technique, whereas your early work was very austere.
RF: Well, I suppose I did not feel confident enough, I did not feel I had any right to express any great, complicated spiritual insights. I wanted to get back to the basics. I wanted to say, "Look, here I am, living in miserable 1950's America," because even when I was writing in the sixties and seventies, I guess it was still coming out of the awful America of the fifties. So I was saying, "I'm supposed to be a well rounded person, I'm supposed to be nice to people, I'm supposed to be interested in automobiles and baseball. All the paraphernalia, the whole orientation of American culture, is where my head is supposed to be. But it isn't. I feel smothered by all of that. I'm not strong enough, I don't know yet, what I can propose as an alternative. But as a starting point I can just say when I'm supposed to be talking about baseball I'm not expressing myself honestly. And what I can say honestly is that I feel the pressure of my hand on this couch as I'm sitting here and resting my hand on the couch. And that is a more honest expression of what is going on in the life of Richard Foreman than offering my opinion as to who's going to win the World Series this year. Or, than responding in a fashion which you think is appropriate to your efforts to be friendly, or seductive, or whatever else you may be throwing at me, because of the social persona that you've chosen out of the limited repertoire of social personas offered by this society to choose from."
KJ: And this was reflected in the dialogue of the plays?
RF: The dialogue I was writing expressed things that could be going on in a character that would escape the iron control of limited choice offered by the society. I was looking for escape. I was writing the escape from the outline. I was writing the escape from character. I was writing the escape from the rules of social interaction of the society in which I found myself.
KJ: What about a line like -- I'm randomly opening the first volume of collected plays -- a line like: "The minute I threaten you I see these walls start shaking." Max: "They put me to sleep." Walter: "What."
RF: This is of interest to me. I had a particular program, a very rigorous minimalist program, and yet other turbulent forces, other romantic forces if you will, kept seeping into the work. You could see a certain kind of basic, psychological tension creeping in to influence those lines. And for that very reason, pretty quickly I began to realize that I wasn't as nearly minimalist as the real minimalists, and in fact I am a very romantically oriented artist, in the sense of the English Romanticism of the 19th century. I was always interested in a greater degree of complexity and texture than the real minimal artists were. But, at the same time, minimalism for me was electro-shock treatment that cured me of my neurotic and psychotic fixation to the rather dreadful society in which I found myself.
KJ: In the early days, critics discussed how the repetitive structures and other elements of the work reflected the influence of the writing of Gertrude Stein.
RF: Actually, somewhere along the time I wrote "Good Benny" I discovered the techniques of alchemy, though in a very superficial, distant way, and I was thinking about that a lot, and it informed the way I wrote in the early days. I thought of myself as reworking my material again and again like an alchemist. You see, it was not Gertrude Stein in the beginning. When I discovered Gertrude Stein, it reinforced and gave me the terms to talk about what I was doing, as so many things have down through the years. But what I was doing came about much more intuitively.
KJ: How did you first become interested in alchemy?
RF: Oh, at the beginning -- I've never revealed, because I've always been embarrassed to reveal where I first encountered a discussion of alchemy and its techniques, and now, for the first time, I will reveal: It was in a tacky book, a best-seller in France for many years that was translated into English called "The Morning of the Magicians," by Berge and Powell. One of them is now a sort of right-wing guru of "Figaro" in France. They published a magazine for many years called "Planet," which was, you know, the occult magazine in France. And their book introduced me to a lot of those things.
KJ: It was a crackpot kind of book, a popularization?
RF: It's sort of hard to say. They're in the same boat as, well, in the English tradition there are a lot of people who would call Colin Wilson a crackpot. I happen to like his books and I don't really consider him a crackpot, I think he's an interesting guy. Obviously, for many people he's on the far-out fringe, but I don't think you would call him a crackpot.
KJ: What was it about alchemy that interested you?
RF: The notion of taking very simple, primary material and reworking it again and again and again and again, in the belief that if you dedicate yourself purely to a process of continual repetition, something will happen. Your unconscious, or some other force, a universal force, will project into this material that has been softened up, as it were by your continual reworking of it, and it will rise, it will lift, it will transform itself into something else. And then you would work on it again, patiently. Indeed, my style in those days was, much like "The Brig," to go over and rework material like a character having an obsession.
KJ: But what was it that you thought you were reworking through the dialogue? You would take a subject...?
RF: No, no. It was always based on a physical confrontation. I would start with the psychological confrontation of say, a husband and a wife and a wife's lover, and I would try to find a very basic, wooden, naive response on the part of one character. For instance, the husband saying, "Oh, Larry's sitting in my chair." Pause. "Larry's sitting in my chair." Pause. "He's still sitting there." And his wife says, "Yes, he's sitting there." And the husband says, "He's sitting there." Pause. Then Larry says, "I'm sitting in this chair, Harry." [Laughs] And the wife says, "He's sitting in the chair." And the husband says, "Which chair? My chair." ... You know, so, essentially we proceeded at that rate, for hours on end.
KJ: But you did discover the writing of Gertrude Stein early on, and you became deeply involved with her work?
RF: Yes, yes.
KJ: What was it about Stein that was important to you at that point?
RF: Two things. Writing in a state of continual presence: Writing in the present, which of course feeds directly into what we've just described. And the notion of beginning again, beginning again. In my muddy understanding of surrealism in those days, I felt that what I was doing was different than surrealism because surrealism to me was entering into the flow of an image and being taken on a trip wherever that image, as it transformed itself, would take you. Whereas I thought I was working in the Steinian tradition of having a response to a situation, and the minute it started to exhaust itself, which generally would be after a couple of lines, you'd stop, there'd be a pause, you'd go back to that original feeling in the body again. Or to that original tension again, and try it again. And try it again. And begin again, begin again, as Gertrude Stein would say. Also, in talking about writing in continual presence, Gertrude Stein explained that she felt that she was writing the essence of the object, rather than its aura of cultural and emotional usage. And I also felt that, with this minimalist orientation, I was trying to get to the essence of the situation, and avoiding the particular coloration that the situation had been given by the culture.
KJ: Now I'd like to jump ahead a few years to "Hotel China" in 1971, when the productions began to get more elaborate.
RF: I remember thinking at the time that I was going to open myself up more. I remember in "Hotel China" thinking that my structures had been too closed, and I want to open it up and include more objects that don't seem at first to have anything to do with the play. I stopped working from an outline. I was letting props that I imagined lead me in whatever direction I wanted to go. And gradually, over the years, the plays became increasingly complex in numerous ways.
KJ: You had shifted your focus from the situational orientation to thinking of the objects as the center of the plays.
RF: I would begin by imagining intricate, strange objects that would suggest different ways that desire, working through the performer, could manipulate them. For instance, "Hotel China" had a little house on a pulley system, which was pulled, across the ceiling of the stage, but then it would drop to the floor. The actors would get in the house and look out the little window. They'd turn the house around so the backside, which was cut away, could be seen. You would see the actor crouching in the house. When the house was up in the sky, the performers would come out and look at it with telescopes. I would explore all potential uses of this house, and how each potential use would suggest a different psychological situation. I would build a world out of a particular psychological situation because the house lent itself to this particular manipulation. In that way, in a kind of early, almost structuralist sense, the play would suggest how the given materials of any particular world create what we tend to think of as archetypal situations, because they lend themselves to a series of possible manipulations. In other words, the situations which we think come from other sources, in fact come from the very physical possibilities which are built into the objects that we surround ourselves with.
KJ: You mentioned at one point that beginning with "Hotel China" you were allowing more fantasy material to enter the plays, while in the earlier plays you kept out fantasy material.
RF: Yes, because the manipulation of these objects would suggest those fantasies. If you have a house that comes down from the sky, well, that immediately suggests all kinds of fantasies. But in the earlier plays, the objects did not lend themselves to that kind of manipulation. They were simple objects in static situations, in a phenomenological sense, so that the lamp on the table said, "I am a lamp. I go on. I go off. Don't try to do anything with me that you should not do with a lamp." Now, when "Hotel China" arrived, some of the objects were more complicated, funkier, more idiosyncratic. My new, slightly different perspective upon the object meant that you might use the lamp in a way that the lamp said, "I am a lamp. But I can also be a projectile that you hurl at your enemy. I could also be something that you can lay on its side and put ketchup on and try tasting to see if it tastes any good." Take it from there. It could be any one of innumerable things. So that a world ruled by objects could also imply, "I am a lamp, and over there is a bookcase. What are the possible relationships between a lamp and a bookcase? Well, let me, lamp that I am, go over and sit next to a book on a bookcase. Can you read me like you can read a book? Is a book as bright as a lamp?" Well, all kinds of possibilities start to open up about the use of a lamp. "I am a lamp. Usually, when you go to bed at night you take a book and you read before you go to sleep. Tonight try taking me, a lamp, to bed, and hold me in your hands, and look into the light, and tell yourself the story that you see looking into the light."
KJ: So, with this new use of objects in the work, you were introducing a kind of metaphorical reading, a troping away from the pure physicality of the early plays.
RF: Yes. And it also meant the beginning of a slightly different use of the performer, because with this fantasy material that is arriving, we've just described this little scene where you take the lamp to bed. Well, obviously, you're going to have different bodily positions in relation to the lamp. You're going to explore different ways that you can relate your body to the object. And this starts to evoke a different performance style that is freer, more inventive, and more decorative.
KJ: You were projecting a lot of written material on legends.
RF: Well, that was definitely derived from Brecht. Just another way to comment on what was going on. In the early days, I often said that I wanted my plays to be like a reading experience, because to this day the only continually successful esthetic resource that I have is reading. I do that more than anything else. I'm addicted. I remember one legend that Annette Michaelson just loved around this time was when there were, oh, ten little wooden stands on the stage, each with ten rocks covered with handkerchiefs. At one point, somebody went and took off the handkerchiefs and for the first time you saw the rocks. At that point, the legend said something to the effect of "Do not pay attention to the rocks, but pay attention to the color of the stands." I enjoyed telling the audience to do something that I didn't think they were doing at that point. To indicate, again, that one can be free of circumstance, just as I wanted to be free of the circumstance of my life, or a particular culture. Just as I want my art to free me from circumstance and be an escape, so, audience, you should be aware of the fact that you can make different choices in this theatrical situation, which is quite different from what theoretically you are allowed to do in watching a normal play, where everything possible is done to make sure you are watching, and thinking and feeling exactly what the play producer wants you to watch and think and feel.
KJ: This was also around the time that you introduced the infamous strings?
RF: In "Hotel China" I used some strings that were attached to a character's forehead and then went out in a kind of funnel shape. Then objects that he desired were hung in this widening funnel from his head. That was one use of strings. I think there may have been a few others.
KJ: You mentioned that "Hotel China" marked the beginning of a movement towards increasing complexity in your work.
RF: I'd like to think I was growing. With the early plays I had regrounded myself with basic minimalist techniques that I thought would start the theater from scratch. Then gradually as the years went by, more and more material was allowed in. At the same time, there's no doubt -- partially because I started reading the French structuralists and post-structuralists -- I left a kind of phenomenological orientation and began to believe that all of these objects that I just wanted to get to the essence of, in a Gertrude Stein way, really had no existence in and of themselves. But quite contra Gertrude Stein, I began to entertain the possibility that the objects were just meeting points for inputs, associations from the culture. To use structuralist terms, they were just the interactions of different codes. That nodal points of all of these different forces of memory, association, cultural codes that momentarily would give rise to this object or that object, and in order to suggest that network of codes and associations, the plays slowly began to become a structure of complex rhythmical interweavings on the visual and aural and ideational level. And I think it's appropriate it started with "Hotel China", the subtitle of which was actually an anagram of the letters of "Hotel China" that read "HcOhTiEnLa". In addition, "Hotel China" to me suggests a place where you collect a lot of bric-a-brac. It does not suggest to me a hotel in China, but a hotel someplace in the west that says: Oh I'm Chinese, so I collect all these objects and artifacts to decorate my hotel. It was the first suggestion in my work of the very heterogeneous collection of materials that I think is the world we live in today, and it was projected into my work in a play that said: I'm not in a real place, I'm in this hotel China that is a collection of fantasies, a series of rooms in which different events transpire.
KJ: "Hotel China" was also the first play that Kate was in, though she didn't play Rhoda.
RF: Yes. And so you see, all these things happen with a kind of Jungian synchronicity. Because, I've just given an intellectual program for the increasing complexity, the increasing speed, the increasing eroticism of the work. Yet all of these things at the same time can be traced to her influence. Because I was living with Kate, and a lot of our own psychological sexual interaction and fantasies were plugged into the work because of her presence in the work. She wanted to take her clothes off, she wanted to dare that, and it was important to her as a performer to do that a lot, to be in sexual situations on stage. She wanted to be performing in a livelier rhythm. She wanted to do more dances, more eccentric things. So... at the same time, serving her needs and her desires took the work in the direction that could also be justified in terms of changing intellectual interests on my part.
KJ: How did she get involved with the plays?
RF: I lost an actress. Because all my friends were at the Cinemateque, which by now was called the Anthology Cinema, I went over there and asked if anybody wanted to be in a play? She had just started working there as a secretary. P. Adams Sitney said, There's a new girl upstairs, maybe she'd like to be in a play. I went up, I said hi, I'm looking for people to be in a play, you know. And I said, by the way, Kate Manheim, are you any relation to Ralph Manheim? She was very impressed, she said, Yes, he's my father. I'll be in your play. [Laughs] What I told her later was that I made a mistake, and I was really thinking of the famous German sociologist Karl Manheim, and not Ralph Manheim, who you know is one of the top translators from German into English. But for some reason I said Ralph by mistake. [Laughs]
KJ: Had she seen any of your work?
RF: No, she hadn't. She didn't have a clue. I gave her a script and she couldn't make head or tail of it, but she thought, Why the hell not? She also told me she was impressed by they way I entered the room, because to close the door I turned back to it so as I was closing it, it was to my face, and then I completed my turn to speak to her. That idiosyncratic way of closing the door she thought interested her. Of course that idiosyncratic way is related to the way I make actors perform all kinds of actions on stage.
KJ: Once you began working with her, the Rhoda character became much more of an icon in your plays, much more present. The earlier plays seemed to revolve more around Ben or Max.
RF: Well, I started writing more and more for her, and I started allowing her to do more in the plays, simply because I was living with her, and she said, I want to do more. I remember that Stephan Brecht was very shocked when I told him that the play we were doing, "Particle Theory," for one scene that was supposed to be Hannah's scene, when Kate wanted more I said, Okay we'll just cross out the name Hannah here and we'll write in Rhoda! [Laughs] And Stephan, when he heard about it, said, How can you do that? And I said, Well, its all contingent, and life is contingencies, and art is fed by contingencies. She wants to do more, so she'll do more. I did not consciously, however, think I'm sitting down writing material for Kate. Unconsciously, who knows what happened, because I knew she was going to play it. But I just kept writing what I thought I'd been writing up till then. I kept thinking I was going in a natural direction, developing naturally. But of course her planet had entered my universe, and the gravitational force of her planet I'm sure was pulling me in certain directions. I also think that, had she not been in my plays, clearly I would not have dared to put into the plays a lot of the erotic material, a lot of the demands for nudity and so forth. There was a brief nude scene in "Hotel China" that I asked her to fulfill.... It may even have been that the actress who left finally decided she didn't want to take her clothes off. Now, it was very innocent. The person in "Hotel China" took her clothes off to have her body compared to another physical object, but there was no real eroticism in it. But that was the beginning. And I never, never asked any of my performers to do anything they didn't want to do. I always made it clear to everybody what they would have to do, whether it was take their clothes off, if they felt comfortable, this that and the other thing. And Kate was somebody who, as I said, who wanted to do more and more of it. And so I'm sure that freed me to put a lot of that material in the play that never would have come in otherwise.
KJ: In your use of nudity and erotic behavior, there was a tension between that open sexuality and a coldness in the presentational aspect of the performance, which is opposed to a personality oriented theater where eroticism is framed differently.
RF: It was cold to make the fact of eroticism more present, more palpable, more shocking, in a sense. More something that the audience had to deal with. Because if you're involved with a romantic scene between two actors, the audience just sort of forgets that they are watching, and identifies with one of the actors and identifies with being part of that erotic scene. If the eroticism is presented in a more presentational, naked way, then the audience hopefully has to say, Do I feel awkward confronting this? What is my attitude towards this? Am I being titillated by what I see in front of me? And am I still able to function in the way that I want to function, using my head, and my esthetic sense, or am I swamped by my erotic response. And ... isn't that an interesting problem to work out that the play has given me?
KJ: So how would you direct lines like, Hannah: "I'm showing off my body too? Are the suitcases going to be attracted to Hannah, or are the suitcases going to be attracted to Rhoda's naked body?"
RF: I wouldn't have to try a lot of different solutions to that. I'd have a fairly ridged set. The characters would take a pose, which would try to show their bodies, and there wasn't a lot of invention about, for instance, showing different nude poses.
KJ: But what about the use of suitcases here? And the language is so... you know: "Naked body is always very appealing to people." Which is not exactly an erotic statement.
RF: [laughs] Right. But again, it's to heighten that sense of tension between the fact that you are watching, in this case, a naked woman, and yet language is going on in a way that expects you to be paying attention in another than erotic fashion. There's a war, hopefully, set up in you between the eroticism and all the other stuff, and you get to experience yourself as you feel that war coursing in your consciousness.
KJ: You got some flack from feminists at that time.
RF: Because of the use of the women as objects, yeah. I mean, a little later on it got a little more sophisticated, but the fact was that the women in the plays were generally passive. Things were being done to them. Rhoda was always being tortured, you know. In "Boulevard de Paris." "Rhoda in Potatoland," in most of those plays Rhoda was always put in the most awkward, degrading positions, in a sense. Not necessarily only sexual, but she seemed to be a victim, continually.
KJ: So how did you respond to the criticism?
RF: I said you're right. I realize that I've been conditioned by my society, and I realize I tend to think of women in those terms. I tend to somewhat objectify women, to think of women as powerless, and that is reflected in my work. What should one do? I'm reflecting honestly the way I've been made by my society. That was my response in those days. And I'm being factual and honest about what goes on in most twentieth century male minds at this point.
KJ: Kate didn't feel uncomfortable with this?
RF: You know, we didn't talk about it too much. And she ... well, I can't answer for her. But we didn't talk about it too much, and obviously she wasn't too unhappy with it, and in many ways it reflected ways that she understood that women were pictured, and she'd been pictured all her life by the society in which she existed. But of course I slowly changed, and a lot of those feminists who attacked me have been very pleased, or said they've been very pleased, in the last few years to see that the Rhoda character, and the other female characters seemed to be becoming much more willful, and much more dominant psychologically in the plays.
KJ: How did your approach to writing change from the time of "Angelface?"
RF: For the first few years, I'd have an idea for a play, and I'd start writing in my notebook, but usually after two or three pages I'd say, Oh, this isn't such a great idea. Or, after two or three pages, This is interesting, but I have nothing more to say about this, so then I'd start another play. I had all these beginnings of plays. But with "Rhoda in Potatoland" I simply said, Look, why am I throwing all this out? There's a lot of good stuff here that I'm throwing away. Why not just do this section of the notebook, from here to here? I didn't skip anything. I just said well, this looks like a good beginning, so I'll start at this beginning, and I'll go through and use this beginning, this beginning, this beginning, this beginning, and I'll stop, this looks like a good end.
KJ: You were still writing dialogue and characters, at this point.
RF: Yeah. It was always the same characters.
KJ: That must have helped to give all these fragments a sense of coherence when read together?
RF: Well, now I see that it would have, but before "Rhoda in Potatoland" I didn't see it that way. This was a big decision for me. I started out in "Rhoda in Potatoland" saying, from here to here, well, it's almost just like a play. I didn't see it before, but, you know.... I might have been trying to start different plays, but if you put them all together it makes sense. After that I increasingly chose sections of my notebooks that I said to myself, Well, from here to here, I mean nobody can stage this; this doesn't hang together at all. Can I stage this and make it hang together? I really got pleasure out of saying, I'm going to prove that I can take even this, though at first it looks like it doesn't make any sense and couldn't possibly be staged, and I'm going to find some way to put it on the stage and give it some kind of coherence.
KJ: And for these plays you were still writing stage directions?
RF: Less and less. Perhaps because, especially after I did my second play in Paris, I was in a milieu, and I was taken seriously by all these French writers I'd been reading, like Sollars, Foucault, Kristeva, and the people around them. And all of these people were so conversant with the possibility of generating literature with less conscious, external control, so I just think that gradually I felt a little more confidence in letting some of my old habits, like writing down character names and stage directions, fall away. I felt freer to just say, Well, I'm generating these texts, which I, as the director, will figure out how to stage somehow, even though these texts really aren't plays at all.
KJ: So coinciding with this movement to write less, was an increasing importance in your role as director?
RF: At a certain point, I really can't remember which play it was, but I finally went into rehearsal without knowing who was going to say what. Obviously, if I walk into rehearsal and I hadn't yet decided who was going to talk, I had to sort of improvise. So on the first day of rehearsal I started saying, well, here's this first line -- okay Kate, you say this. And so-and-so, you say this. Now, since I was just deciding that on the spur of the moment, I had to decide where people were going to stand. I didn't have the plan that I usually had, and since I didn't have a plan but was just deciding that moment, I felt much freer to change in the next moment my notions as to where they should stand and what they should do, because I was not counter-acting any plans I'd made. So I think it just happened in a kind of natural way, in that fashion. Actually, something, which contributed very much to that process, was a play I never opened, the last production in my theater on Broadway, called "Madness and Tranquility." I had cast it with a lot of actors from my movie, and it wasn't going well. I didn't open it because my theater had been sold and I had to get out at a certain point, and the production was not ready. It never seemed right to me. So I kept changing it, trying to make it right, and I think, actually, going through all the changes that I went through in that production probably opened me to the possibility of thinking of that as a normal way to work, to just keep changing things in rehearsal all the time.
KJ: So it was soon after you began to write in this more open style that you moved into the theater loft space on Broadway.
RF: At that time I was looking for a space, and George Maciunas suggested that we get a couple people together, buy a building, and I could use one floor as a theater. It was pretty cheap. I'd just gotten a ten thousand dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, as a playwright, so I used that money as my down payment for the loft. The space was rather idiosyncratic for a theater; the stage was 80 feet deep and 15 feet wide.
KJ: Did you find that problematic?
RF: No, nothing was problematic. Even from those early days I felt that the contingency of the situation would create the kind of art appropriate to that situation. So, with "Pandering to the Masses," I allowed myself to experiment more, because there were so many options. Should I have the actors really down front in this scene, or way in the back? Should I open the place to the back, or should it be in front? And the sets, which were built into that space, started to become much more complicated, with sliding walls and much more platforming. Since I owned that space, I wasn't afraid to spend much more time building complicated stuff, and I could do it because my play didn't have to open at a particular time, I could open it whenever I wanted. Then, with this much more complicated architectural setting, things would or would not look right the way I originally staged them, so I would start changing them a little. In later years I changed a great deal as a director, and now I'm always just thinking: how else could I do that, how could I do that differently? I think that in part it began because of the way in which this space suggested that there was more than one solution to a particular scene, as written.
KJ: You mentioned that you used sliding doors...
RF: Well, as I said, we had this stage that was very deep and narrow. From one side we had places where walls would slide in to cut that space down. Instead of being 80 feet deep it could be 12 feet. That was a big shocking effect. I was very interested in the shock effect of radically changing the space, and shifting from a vista that disappeared into mysterious darkness to my more normal, confrontational mode where you're in a very tight space with the actors right in front of you, staring at you. I was playing back and forth with that relationship. Not thinking about it thematically in terms of what was going on in the text too much, though obviously it must have had some relation to the way I saw the scenes that were portrayed in the text. But for the most part, it was just the joy of playing. The other day I was reading something which reminded me of Schiller's discussion of art, in which he said there are three kinds of men in the world: Men who focus on the structure of life, or a situation, or an art; men who focus on the content of a situation, in life or in art; and men who are artists, who function on the possibilities of play between elements inherent in the situation in life or in our case in art. And I think it is terribly significant, therefore, to say that faced with this space, this unique space, in this new theater that I had, I radicalized my tendency to play with the available elements, and that is what the spirit of an enlightened human being should do. He should be detached, to a certain degree, from the content and from the structure of the situation, but play freely with both content and structure, and find in that play itself the real, deep fulfillment of life and of the spirit.
THREE PENNY OPERA (1976)
KJ: It was while you were doing your own plays at this theater that you had your first big, aboveground success, "The Three Penny Opera" at Lincoln Center.
RF: Not really. You have to remember that the first production of "Dr. Selavy's Magic Theater," the musical I did with Stanley Silverman, was a big hit. It was one of the off-Broadway hits of the... whatever season it was, 1972 or something like that. After all, it was after that show that Lily Tomlin wanted me to direct her first TV special. [Laughs]
KJ: But "Three Penny" was the first traditional piece of theater you worked on, written by somebody else, and which you took and made into a more traditional theater production.
RF: Right. Correct. Exactly.
KJ: How did it come about?
RF: Stephan Brecht insisted that I direct it. He said that if Joe wanted to do it, then I had to direct. Stephan Brecht originally approached me after seeing "Dr. Selavy" about doing "Three Penny" at the Village Gate, and I said sure. That production fell through, but a couple of years later I got a call from Joe Papp saying did I want to direct "Three Penny Opera?"
KJ: It must have raised certain considerations for you about how to approach that kind of work, since you hadn't done that kind of thing before.
RF: Not particularly. I mean, I looked upon it as another chance to do something else. I certainly was very familiar with that piece; I had wanted to do it when I was in high school. And I had loved it when I had first seen it off-Broadway. So, of all the pieces in the world, it was in a sense the most appropriate piece for me. I had thought about Brecht all my life, so I was well prepared to deal with doing that play. And I felt very close to it in a sense, because the musicals I'd been doing with Stanley I felt were much closer to what I imagined about Brecht's theater than my own theater pieces were.
KJ: You had a good time doing it?
RF: Oh, it was a gas! You know, it was very glamorous. Of course, I always knew that that glamour was a problem. It was not a quality I thought should be an important human quality. But we're all victimized by it, so I was willing to be victimized by it! [Laughs] I certainly was aware of the fact that most of my friends who I took most seriously didn't think that the esthetic level of that production was as interesting as my own work downtown, and I think I tended to agree. Whether I was protecting myself by saying I agree or not, it's too far-gone for me to be able to know. But I think they were probably right. It was, and continues to this day when I do a production like that, to be a sort of vacation for me. Because it is a luxury to have a lot of other people working for me who take a lot of the responsibility that is totally mine when I am doing my own shows. That aspect, these days, after twenty-two years, or whatever it is, is less appealing than it was for a long time. But at that time, and for many years after, it was quite nice to do one or two productions every year where you have a lot of other people doing many of the tasks you usually have to do by yourself.
KJ: The play ended up being a hit.
RF: Oh, it ended up being a gigantic hit. And it only left Lincoln Center because the New York State Council threatened to cut off Joe's funding, because he was supposed to be running a repertory theater and he just kept the "Three Penny Opera" running there. It ran there I think nine months, and then we did it in the park in the summer. But it would of run longer, it was still selling out at the end of that nine months, and he wanted to keep it going.
KJ: After 3 Penny, you did lots of other productions of other people's texts. Did you see yourself, when you were doing "Angelface" as potentially doing these kinds of plays?
RF: I think so, yeah. I'm pretty sure. I mean not that I wanted to do that more than other things, but I always wanted to do both. I remember when I first talked to Bob Wilson, it was very clear that he thought that what he was doing eventually would be on Broadway, would conquer the world. And I thought that what I was doing never could, and therefore, because I was sort of interested in that too, I would try to do both things at the same time. I would try to do other plays that could be approved of by a wider public, and my own work I would keep pure and would know that it would never reach that wider public, and shouldn't. I enjoyed having a foot in both worlds, if only because I came from an upper middle class, Ivy League background, and so I'm part of that world too. Now I wanted to do better versions of what I thought were the bad versions of all these plays that I saw on Broadway and so forth, and I was convinced that a lot of these plays were better than they seemed in their productions, so I thought it'd be useful to have somebody like me do productions of plays like that [laughs].
KJ: And your own plays at this point, in the late 70's, were by now attracting larger audiences.
RF: Yes. And that's why I sold my theater, which everyone thought was crazy. I sold it because I thought it was getting too safe. I mean, I had this devoted cult-like following. There were fights every night, people trying to get in to see the shows. And we ran as long as it interested us, totally sold out all the time, and we just stopped because we decided to stop. And I just felt it was too safe, too secure. I wanted to put myself in a more precarious situation so I sold the theater.
MISS UNIVERSAL HAPPINESS (1985)
KJ: You'd say that your work reached its most frenetic point with the production you did of "Miss Universal Happiness" with the Wooster Group?
RF: Partially that was because the actors of the Wooster Group enjoyed and expanded upon any suggestion that they get faster and louder. Also, much of the dynamics came from the music.
KJ: It was loud?
RF: Yeah, loud. [Laughs] What can I say? But there were twelve of them, the actors, and they had worked together a lot as a group, so it made certain things a lot easier. In the staging of the piece I could indulge in asking for more violent physical activity. We built a set that had ramps leading up to walls, and people would run up the ramps and smack against these very solid walls. But generally, because they were used to a similar kind of work, in a technical way, there was no problem for them to adjust to my extremely choreographed direction. And since they threw themselves into it with a vengeance, the piece could get very fast. I remember once or twice when I started explaining motivations they would say, Oh come on, Richard, that's what you tell regular actors; you don't have to give us motivations, just tell us what to do. Of course, not every moment was loud, but there were a lot of explosions of activity and violence. And I think it was the first time that I got into using those song forms.
KJ: What are they?
RF: You know, they're repetitive kinds of lyrics that could almost be thought of as song lyrics, that the people recited to the loops. And since the Wooster Group people in one way or another were more into rock 'n' roll than my actors normally are, I think that also pushed them in that direction, because those song forms got very energetic and were delivered almost like big rap or rock numbers. It was also the first time that I used a lot of stand or hand held microphones, and that contributed to the high energy of the piece. Those songs were very important in the piece. And it may be that "Miss Universal Happiness" was the first play in which certain sections were written to the tape loops.
KJ: What do you mean by writing to tape loops?
RF: Taking some loops that I had made and put onto cassettes, and playing two of those loops at the same time while I was sitting down in my loft writing.
KJ: What kind of music would you make loops of?
RF: The same I always used in my plays, and there's no rule or reason to that. I'd turn the radio to certain stations I liked and hear things, and then I'd run over and try to push the tape recorder in time to catch what I thought was interesting in that it had a potential loop on it. Then I would take that tape and find a little section, three seconds or so that I liked, which I would make a loop out of, and then I would record that loop onto a cassette so that it ran for half an hour. And I would write to that... well, to two of them playing simultaneously.
KJ: What was it about the loops that you found so interesting?
RF: I enjoy listening to two different musics at once, just as I get a sort of high from situations when I am trying to carry on two conversations at once. Or when I'm directing and somebody's talking in my ear, and I'm trying to deal with the two different things. That kind of split of consciousness, which I think is echoed by the two different musics playing at the same time, just might make you, make me, by-pass the normal discursive brain that functions in its daily-life oriented way. It's sort of curious to me nowadays to notice how all of these New Age people are getting into different kinds of music that are supposed to do different things in the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere, because I think that I was dealing with a similar kind of technology, intuitively exploring the two brain structure that human consciousness seems to be, many years ago when I started operating in this fashion by having two activities, be it two musics or two levels of dialogue, going on at the same time. By two levels of dialogue, I mean when in the early days I recorded the dialogue on tape, and then actors repeated certain words at different speeds, which created a kind of doubling effect. What's interesting to me is the way that two loops, obviously not having exactly the same rhythm, obviously not being exactly the same length --it means that you are generating a world of continual change using the simplest elements, you see. Because the loops come into synch perhaps, what, every five minutes let's say, and otherwise their relationship to each other will always be shifting, so that you are creating a continually changing structure using the simple elements of this three second, or two second repeating loop. Which also appeals to me on a philosophical level as a discussion of how the world is generated from very basic building blocks. But as a sensory experience it's fascinating, because I am continually interested, in all levels of my work, in generating complicated structures from relatively simple building blocks in ways that I think echo the way life operates.
KJ: I would also think that writing to the loops would suggest a dialogue that doesn't move forward in a linear fashion, but would reflect the loop's continual, repetitive rhythms.
RF: Yes, and it also relates to my interest in alchemy, and the notion of a patient working and reworking of the same material. Eventually the material transforms itself through the slow influence of cosmic rays, or God's grace, or the unconscious, or whatever it is -- the basic repetitive pattern is slowly lifted and slowly transformed if one stays with the material that one started working on. Also the loops, as well as all of this non-narrative activity in it's many forms, have tremendous religious implications, in that you're working with structures that are outside of time, that are in sacred time, and that do not advance in the same way that the historical, socialized time of our written Western history seems to advance with all the climaxes and resolutions which seem to imply historical progress. No, in opposition to that, we're trying to be in touch with a sacred time outside of history that is the archetypal, mythic time.
THE CURE (1986)
KJ: You next play, "The Cure," you thought of as a departure from the more baroque, frenetic work of "Penguin Touquet" and "Miss Universal Happiness."
RF: "The Cure" I think was called "The Cure" because I thought of it the cure for this state of being driven into the most complex, frenetic, complicated, high-tech kind of theater that at that point I could imagine. I knew, after "Miss Universal Happiness," that I couldn't go any further in that direction. I had been thinking for a long time that I wanted to make contact with other, quieter, more archetypal energies, more mythic kinds of energies. Maybe it was just that I was getting bored with rock 'n' roll -- not that my plays specifically used rock 'n' roll, but through this period there was a lot of music of that sort, with that kind of energy. And I wanted to reflect the fact that I was getting older, and not pretend that as I got deeper into middle age I was still a rock 'n' roll kid doing rock 'n' roll theater, even though I may again do that in the future. But I wanted to move on to a different tonality. The point is that I knew I was getting older, and I remember years ago reading Jung saying that when you reach forty or thereabouts you either become a dry, rigid, old irascible person, or you make new contact with the roots, with the flow from the dark, subterranean rivers of your unconscious. I remember reading that and thinking, yeah, I know a lot of old people who clearly haven't made that contact, and I don't want to be like that. Everybody had said that my work was sort of cold, and clinical and so forth, and it was. And I knew that it was, and I thought that was fine. I had reasons for wanting it to be that way. But I said I'm getting older, and yeah, I want to make it more human. Well, perhaps not more "human," because humanism in the West does not imply something very healthy to me, but I wanted to make it more mythic, more in touch with the pulsating energies of life. And I very consciously tried to make myself open to that, which I think has introduced, in the plays since "The Cure," this different current in my work. I think that I also started to have a little more conscious faith in my own ability as a writer, though I still was warring, and still am warring, with the notion that good writing can in so many ways be a limiting, oppressive, totalitarian factor, because it keeps out certain kinds of energy that are not normally allowed into good writing. Nevertheless, there's different kinds of good writing that I've spent my life admiring, and so there was a constant war between trying to write good, and feeling that was socially, politically, morally not the right position to take. So sometimes the good writing would surface, and sometimes it would be suppressed.
KJ: Is that to say that you were more interested in bad writing?
RF: Yes, I was very interested in doing a kind of writing that allowed a human reality through that I had the feeling good writing did not allow through. I mean, even forty years ago, Roland Barthes in his first book, "Writing Degree Zero," examined pretty effectively how good writing is the product of a certain social class, and by implication if you want to be a good writer you have to think in the ways that class thinks, that exploitative class, and so therefore vernacular or bad writing might express all kinds of things that good writing cannot express.
KJ: But when Barthes thought about bad writing, he wasn't necessarily talking about an educated bad writing, or an informed bad writing. And you're coming from a very educated, informed perspective, and your bad writing, had you chosen to do it, could just as easily been good writing. As opposed to what Barthes was thinking of, which had more to do with people who did not have that option.
RF: Yeah, but I was exploiting bad writing in the sense that I was letting through what I thought were first thoughts, not fleshed out ideas. I was exploiting the sort of note-taking way of writing, the roughest of the rough first draft, which is not subjected to the control of a consciousness, of a well-schooled consciousness that would change the roughness of the first draft with its stutterings and false starts and mistakes into smoothly flowing discourse.
KJ: But it was bad writing that was often concerned with complex, informed intellectual ideas.
RF: Yes, yes. Or sometimes not. Sometimes it was informed with other kinds of areas, such as basic eroticism or sensory registering. In fact, the line-by-line quality of the dialogue wasn't informed by those complicated ideas so much. It was more that those ideas were hovering in the background. Usually the texts made reference to those bodies of ideas in only the most peripheral way.
KJ: There's something interesting, though, about the choice to do bad writing in work, which was obviously dealing with complex ideas.
RF: But I would never claim, for instance, that I was an expert on Lacan, who was very influential upon me at a certain point. So to make references that had to do with my reading of Lacan, I would allow myself to reveal in my writing that I was a rather plodding, not rigorous reader of Lacan, though I was getting certain insights, and hopefully I had a certain kind of poetic latent intelligence that enabled me to grasp the sense of certain things. But at the same time I was a stupid reader of Lacan. But this writing dealing with this area reflected exactly what Gertrude Stein says writing should not do: it reflected the stress and strain of doing the writing, or doing the thinking. It reflected the fact that I had not become a well-oiled, a well-tooled Lacanian machine who could spout all the jargon and follow all the intricate ins and outs of moment by moment Lacanian discourse. No. I was somebody who was struggling with that material.
KJ: Now, beginning with "The Cure" your writing began to turn more inward. It became concerned with more conventional psychological material.
RF: As I said, I thought of "The Cure" as the cure, and I think I started doing something a little different with that play. I think I was putting in much more direct statement from me, about me, about my own feelings --though I've always had the same intellectual program, or the same spiritual program down through the years.... But, you know what it's like? It's like catastrophe theory. Catastrophe theory is a way of mapping events, making graphs, and trying to figure out why at a certain point, after a long period of regular, unchanging input into a system, and nothing happens all that time, all of a sudden the fifteenth million tiny little input makes the whole situation reverse. I don't know how else to put it, but I do think that's the way one's development happens in art, how your style changes. The input is no different, but at a certain point the same input of trying to write what you really feel just flips something, you know? At a certain moment, as in catastrophe theory, you find that the stuff seems to be organized in a different way, even though the input isn't that different.
KJ: But in terms of your writing technique, what was it that happened which allowed you to introduce more direct statement into the texts?
RF: Well, two things happened. For one, as I said, at this time I was writing by putting two loops, two warring musics, against each other. Then I would just take dictation and write whatever came. I hadn't done either of those two things before, really. Before then I had always written what came, but I would hear only much smaller fragments, whereas what the loops did was give me the energy to keep going -- the rhythmical energy of the loops sort of forced me to keep talking to myself, and to not be embarrassed by or pay attention to what was coming. It was surrealist mode, sort of, properly understood. But a little different, because the music driving it was very important to me.
KJ: And so the song form led you to write lines that had more emotive content, like "Nobody knows my name but I don't care I don't care I don't care. Nobody knows what books I like..." Etc. Or the song form, "Here's an important dream," which suggests a certain kind of internal character life.
RF: Part of it is just looking for good ideas that are stage-worthy, or recitable. The phrase, "Here's an important dream" seemed a way to generate things, much in the same way that the surrealists would invent different games -- with questionnaires, for instance -- that generated interesting, revelatory responses. So I'm not so sure it was a conscious decision to say: Now I'm going to write this more personal kind of material. Just after the fact I noticed that was the case -- that I was speaking more of my own secret, underground efforts through the years to try to do something to my own self, my own personality, my own consciousness. You know, this attempt has always been evident in my plays, but before "The Cure" I don't think I ever wrote down things which were so directly the product of me mulling over various leads I'd been given -- mostly by stuff I had read -- concerning the exercises and meditations you should do, or the thoughts you should have, so you can have a better life. "The Cure," ultimately, had something to do with the figure of Madame Blavatsky, and with Yeats, and my saying to myself: Wouldn't it be nice if, rather than living here in New York on Wooster Street, if I lived in that society of poets and occultists involved with these various mystical societies in the English speaking world at the turn of the century? This is something I've often said to myself, you know, aren't there other periods in history, other social milieus that it would be nicer to live in? So, I was just thinking about the possibilities that being in that environment would release in real life. Vaguely, vaguely. I'm not saying that I sat down and said, Now I'm going to write a play about Madame Blavatsky and Yeats. But there was a relationship, you know: how could I write out of that aura?
KJ: From "The Cure": "I have had more visionary experiences than you could shake a stick at."
RF: Yeah, well that's very Yeatsian, I would say. As I was staging "The Cure," the decision was made to have it take place in a room that was like a room where three people could meet who belong to an occult, spiritual society. In the back of mind I was thinking that they would meet here specifically to do some kind of work upon each other -- be it consciousness raising, or some kind of religious trip, or some kind of psychological interaction. That was the first time that the setting had, in my mind, consciously been a place where one works on oneself. And I think that helped to shift the balance. Did it take place in Richard's private church, or in his meditation chamber? The opening to admitting that possibility happened in "The Cure," so that even if later plays didn't always take place in a similar room, nevertheless that possibility was more present in whatever location they did seem to be taking place in.
KJ: Beginning with "The Cure" you allowed a much wider variety of language into the plays the recent plays are not only more personal, but in "The Cure," for example, you were appropriating texts from other sources, cutting things out and sticking them into the plays.
RF: Right. You know why I did it? It was too short.
KJ: So what did you do?
RF: Once we realized that the play wasn't long enough -- and I didn't feel like writing any more -- I just thumbed through some books and looked for something that was appropriate. So I casually, very casually, went to the bookcase and said, well, maybe this would be relevant; maybe this would be relevant -- skipping through the pages. It took about five minutes. We used a little section of Marion Millner, an English psychoanalyst who wrote books about her own psycho-spiritual development, and a little bit of Alfred North Whitehead, I think.
KJ: The different kinds of language introduced into the text lent themselves to different kinds of speech in performance. This led to a diversity of performance styles that you were able to employ in "The Cure" and in the plays since then, and to a more emotive, at times conventional performance style. You were taking advantage of all that was available.
RF: Yes. First of all, "The Cure" was a play with three people, whereas up til then I'd always had at least twelve, nine of whom would run around making patterns and moving scenery and who were a sort of chorus commenting on the action -- it made for a very spectacular, theatricalized performance. I didn't know if I could make a play with only three people, but I thought it was worth a try. On the first day of rehearsal, I remember telling the actors I wanted to try to not use any of my old shtick, I wanted to stop relying on the tendencies I had to do a certain kind of thing to accompany the text at particular moments, and so forth. So for the first scene of the play I started to make a very specific effort to have the two male actors in the play, Jack and David, take as much time in relating psychologically to each other as they could. I tried to pretend that we were doing an Actor's Studio Exercise. Though we only did it for the first page of the play -- I thought I was going to do it for the whole play, but I got bored, or started to think about other things -- but it did color the whole procedure. From the beginning I knew that "The Cure"... I said all through rehearsals, This is my best play, I'm willing to be judged on this play. Of course, now I think that I'm going to do better things, but it was a watershed of a very distinct kind. I felt that I was doing something different in ways that had to do with the performances that I wanted, and the fact that it was a smaller cast, and that there was much more psychological interaction between the actors. The songs forms allowed me to do things, which I had never done before. And a lot of the dialogue, the speeches, were just direct pourings from my heart about what I was thinking.
KJ: So for "The Cure", you deliberately set limitations for yourself regarding the size of the production?
RF: I've spent most of my twenty years in the theater manipulating hordes of people, doing big choreographic things with crowds, and, well, I know how to do it. And I've gotten bored with it, relatively speaking. It's much more challenging for me now to deal with the interaction of two or three people, and to have the audience close enough to watch what's really going on in the souls of those people. So, ideally for me, we'd be doing it in a room 30 by 40, with less than fifty spectators -- sometimes I think it'd be best to have only ten spectators -- which is basically the way "The Cure" was done. At that time I remember thinking that I was going to make a play that would be like reading a Rilke poem. Up til then I'd been doing "War and Peace," in my own little way, but here I was doing a Rilke poem, doing a "Sonnet to Orpheus." It was a chamber piece.
KJ: How would you describe the dynamics of the performance?
RF: It was much softer, very subliminal. The actors were famously miked for the first time. They used radio mics, so all their language came over loud speakers, even though nobody in the audience was more than twenty feet from the actors. I wanted them to be able to talk very, very quietly -- and I don't think one was used to hearing miked actors in such a small space. To me that was the most important technical thing about the play. And with this very quiet talking, the music was very subliminal, very quiet. Another thing about "The Cure" was that up until then I was using very strong lighting effects. "The Cure" had very little lighting. It was quieter, slower, more meditative. The big transition between "Miss Universal Happiness" and "The Cure" was that up through "Miss Universal Happiness," essentially I was trying to get into a state of Dionysian frenzy, obviously alluding to the illumination that might result from that Dionysian frenzy. Since then, I've been mostly, with exceptions of course, been working towards a more meditative state.
KJ: For the music you were still running two loops at the same time during the performance?
RF: Oh, yeah. I was trying to make a play about what was going on in the interior. Now I leave it an open question, who's interior. The actor's interior, my interior? But it was a play really about feeling, sensorialy, that you were inside a consciousness. My other plays up til then had used strategies to paint a picture in the external world of what the external world would be like if the rules and procedures of perception and consciousness were operating in that external world. But this was a play more about, for me, being in the internal world not projecting the rules of the internal world into the external world. At the very beginning of rehearsal, I told all the actors that I felt "The Cure" was going to be different, and I kept saying to them, I think this is the play I'm willing to be judged on. I still feel that way. I think it was probably the play that I was most relaxed about letting the play itself come through: I let the material itself stand on it's own feet, in a way. I didn't feel I had to flesh out the material with all kinds of directorial pyrotechnics, even if there are some there in the end. I know a lot of people look at me strangely when I say "The Cure" was the best play. To me, "The Cure" was a better text than "What Did He See," which a lot of people seem to prefer -- though maybe a lot of those people didn't see "The Cure." But I think perhaps it was the best play because it was less up front revelatory on a personal level.
KJ: Why would that make it better?
RF: It makes it more usable in a variety of psychic circumstances. In other words, "What Did He See" is more about a specific, recognizable, psychological situation. "The Cure" is almost, to me, like a transparent plate of glass, which might have application in terms of many different interests, many different expectations, many different life situations. Perhaps it's somewhat more obscure for that reason, but in the final analysis, it's more universally applicable.
KJ: We've spoken before about how you find most other playwright's work problematic or frustrating to stage because the plays are so specific, so filled in.
RF: "The Cure" was the most transparent of my plays, and I take that as being something good. Recently I've been thinking that I want to achieve a writing that is quite thin, transparent, so that the writing can function as a kind of talisman, something that you wear through all kinds of life situations. In other words, I want to make a writing that is just a little allusion to a possibility, a flick of an idea, spread out like a thin sheet of transparent glass, and the writing, therefore, can be a consciousness material that accompanies you through life and can be applicable and can be there in a variety of life situations. As opposed to a writing that becomes very dense and solid, and makes a little package that takes you into it's specific situation, and then you go back to your life. So while most writing is like opening a door and saying, "Come into this room for a while." I want to make a writing that is more like spraying yourself with a little perfume, and you carry that aroma, hardly noticed, through all kinds of different adventures in your own life. It relates to something I've experienced many times. At this very moment, for instance, we're sitting in my living room. It's 3:00 in the afternoon, and the light coming through the window strikes me as not as beautiful as the light of 8:00 in the morning. But then I sit back and take a moment and say, Wait a minute, where else have I experienced this light? And I get a picture in my head of being in my old apartment in Paris, and remembering exactly this same light coming through. Just that recollection redeems this 3:00 light, and all of a sudden it gives it a special, magical quality which I think can only come because you become detached from the psychological commitment to the specific time and place in which you are. Only then do you realize that other kinds of energies, timeless energies that relate to all other times and places are flowing through you. And I would prefer to make a theater that somehow closes your eyes to the specific reality of where it's supposed to take place so that all other possible places and associations can bleed through. When "The Cure" opens up, the way I staged it a person is looking at a jewel on his finger. According to the text, that isn't necessary. The line is, "Look at this jewel. It sparkles." The one thing that I wanted to do when we staged that line was for the actor to look at the jewel on his finger, but I wanted to make it clear that he was talking about the jewel of his head. Or maybe he was talking about the jewel of the whole room in which they were in. "Look at this jewel, it smiles at me." Right? Is he smiling back at it? Well, maybe he is the jewel that smiling. "It's facetted. Light enters it, bounces around." ... Alright, this whole speech about the light bouncing around in the jewel, the jewel of an idea, jewel of an act, jewel of an emotion. The way I wrote it, there's no indication as to how that's to be staged, or even any indication of who's speaking. That's all decided later. Then another character says, after this speech about the jewel, "The time has come to tell the truth. Art, this art, tells the truth. But it's hidden. Why is it hidden." Certainly, it's pretty easy to provide millions of glosses on that. Is it about the play, is it about a situation in their relationship. The dialogue is open to all kinds of interpretations. It's a transparent kind of writing. In other words, to fill it the director has to decide: In this production, how do I want to make these lines applicable, and to what kind of situation. In it's first manifestation -- I've only staged it once -- I made an application to this Blavatsky, Yeatsian meeting of the Golden Dawn Society. Somebody else might choose to set it, well, in a strange jewelry store in ancient Prague with a lot of old Jews sitting around talking. Somebody else might do it poolside of a Miami hotel. Of course, you can do that kind of treatment to any play, but one has to be careful in the staging not to make the chosen locale too specifically that and nothing else, because wherever it is, it has to suggest many other places and levels of being.
KJ: Obviously this approach to creating a kind of text that is not temporal specific relates a lot to contemporary American poetics.
RF: Of course, what I'm doing is in no way unusual in terms of the strategies of contemporary poetry. Or of western poetry of the last 200 years, certainly, and to many other poetries at earlier periods of other cultures. And the significant thing about that is that poetry is a kind of writing in which one is led by the language. In other words, we inherit a language that has built into it certain attitudes and certain ways to respond to adventures, conflicts, experiences. And if you're writing prose, normally prose is what disappears so you can be reminded of, and relive an experience. Poetry, on the other hand, is writing in which the language and the power of the language give you a feeling about what is talked about -- the language stays in the foreground. In the same way, I try to make a theater in which the theatrical language, the lights, the actors, the way these things are put together, stay in the foreground. So it's a poetic strategy, that's all it amounts to, which is nothing very esoteric or difficult, really. Except the theater, for various reasons, has had to rely usually on prose organizational patterns.
FILM IS EVIL, RADIO IS GOOD (1986)
KJ: So, you think film is really evil?
RF: Yes. Film is really evil in the same way that you know, the Judeo-Christian religion says: Don't worship graven images. Film is evil for many reasons. But basically we live in a visually oriented culture, and images tend to become icons that we assimilate without really relating to, without weaving them into the warp and woof of our everyday reality. That may be a sort of superficial gloss on the subject, but I think it's profoundly true. Of course, one cannot deny film and other visual aspects of our experience in the world, but I think there's a tremendous over-balance at this point. And obviously I'm not going to change it. Moreover, I know that I live amidst it, and many people have said that I'm basically a visual artist, and it's true that the visual arts do come easier to me, in a sense, than other aspects of my art. But the paradox is: visual things finally are not, in general, profound and deep things. There are even philosophical schools that would maintain that the history of our times is to discover that the truth, whatever that means, is to be found in surfaces. I just am not oriented to thinking that. I think that somehow the truth is hidden; the truth is not totally realizable or discoverable. And I think that visual ways of relating to the world give one the illusion that the truth mainly is discoverable, scanable, controllable, catagorizable.
KJ: But still, as you said, your work tends to be very visual.
RF: I'm trying to fight that, but it's very hard. It's very hard. I'm constantly wishing I could find a way to make the listening be more important, and I find it very difficult to do that.
KJ: There's even a film in the play.
RF: Yeah. Well, of course the play is building upon the irony of the fact that I'm saying film is evil, and yet I'm seduced by film like everybody else, and for a long time I wanted to make films. And I made some. But my theater was very visual, so obviously I'm playing off on the irony of saying film is evil, visuality is evil, and yet I'm a great indulger of that very visuality. I'm immersed in that evil.
KJ: Immersed in it?
RF: I do a lot of visual stuff, yeah. And I often opt for visual solutions in my plays when I'm staging them. Or have in the past. I've opted, say, to keep working on the visual aspects so they become overwhelming, so they will have an emotional impact upon people, and I would speak to the spectator through what they see. I would like to do it less, but I find it very hard. But I would hope, as we've often said, that we're operating on many levels at one time. Now, film as it manifests itself today is evil. And of course I would be critiquing that. But I, on a deeper level, on a religious level tend to think that all visual phenomenon of that sort, in a kind of McCluhanesque analysis, probably do not serve man's evolutionary development. I would think that what comes in through the ear probably has more possibility of evoking that numinous presence of what is so deep that our particular perceptual organisms have not been designed to be able to pick it up.
KJ: But wouldn't you say that your work is intended to make the viewer conscious of the visual in a way that will challenge and raise questions about the way we normally relate to images in the theater?
RF: Yes, but I think that's not enough. Because I'm not, at this point in my life, satisfied with doing a critique of the visual. I would like to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
KJ: Still, when you were making "Film is Evil," I find it hard to imagine that you thought of yourself as just giving in to this evil impulse.
RF: Oh, no. Of course not. But I was aware of the fact that I was at times giving in to this ... you know, evil is a strong word. I mean I'm using it for polemical purposes. I don't think film is evil, I don't think anything is evil but the use that man makes of it, obviously. But in "Film is Evil" the emphasis was more on the sociological aspects of the use of film in our society, and how it has become the great collective dream of the masses, and everything that the masses represent in a kind of Ortegain analysis; how we're subjected to the rule of mass man, and quality has vanished. So, sure, in "Film is Evil, Radio is Good" I was not able to focus as much as I do in my private thinking on the really esoteric matter of whether using the eyes tends to limit us spiritually, and using the ears would tend to make us more evolved creatures. That's awfully difficult to deal with in a play. I would think. Maybe I shall someday. In "Film is Evil, Radio is Good" there were brief references to that fact, but I don't expect that it was too present.
KJ: But then why did you make the film if you were so distrustful? In fact, you once told me that you made the film as a short hoping to get funding for a full-length feature.
RF: Yeah, but the film is about some sort of spiritual teacher, me, who finally, in the end, disappears. I'm supposed to vanish before your eyes. There I am, pontificating as this kind of guru, and finally as the camera is filming me I dissolve into thin air. The implication of that would be that as long as you are fixated on worshiping me, glamorizing me and my image in the movies -- and I think anybody you see on film you have this kind worshipful, glamorous relationship to -- what I'm saying is never going to get through to you. It's going to be swamped by the glamour of the situation.
KJ: At the same time, Kate was in the film saying, "Don't turn off the camera!" Right?
RF: Well, sure. Because most people don't want the camera turned off. That was being rather nasty to her position, right? I was saying, she wants to be glamorous, she wants to be in the movies. Now, of course I do too. And in real life I put myself in the movie, right? But it's a mix ... we all have contradictory forces within us.
KJ: There's a line in the play where an actor says, "I apologize for making everything so artificial." And you say, "Ah, but that's a great opportunity."
RF: I'm saying to everybody, disappear. And Kate is saying at the end, No no, film me, I don't want to disappear, I don't want your trip. I was just reading a fascinating book on that subject, by the way, by this blind French guy who was in the resistance, "L." He was head of a big resistance cell, and whenever somebody wanted to join he would interview them for an hour, just talking about any old thing. Because he was blind, he could always tell whether they were to be trusted or not. He passed on like forty people, and the only person he had some doubt about, though he finally said yes for other reasons, turned out to be a traitor. Ideally, in a funny way, I'm convinced that what I should really do is blind myself. I think it might actually make me a deeper human being. Now, I'm not about to do that. I'm not even about to eliminate all the visual aspects of the apartment in which I live. I like certain visual effects, things on the wall, whatever it is. But, philosophically I'm not convinced that it wouldn't be better. I mean that quite seriously.
KJ: But what was present in the play was a conflict between this sort of contemporary sociological material involvement with image and film, and then the possibility of higher spiritual aspirations through some other mechanism or means. Sound, right? And I'd like you talk a bit more about that conflict, or how you position yourself in that conflict.
RF: One thing the play does refer to briefly is that film, especially since almost all films are now shot on location, whatever adventure that is going on, film convinces you that it takes place in the real world. And it sort of makes one believe that the real world that is perceived is the only possible world. And I think that's evil. Because, philosophically, I think the world does not have to be the way it seems to be at this moment. Film tends to limit our imaginative options. In other words, there are realms of possible experience, which may not be realizable at this moment, yet if one maintains the fantasy or the dream that in some undefined way they are possibly realizable, slowly something changes in the environment. Lying in bed at night, just before you fall off to sleep, you go through that twilight state when you have an intimation of something different, and that something different might prove to be different from the current world we live in, the way that we perceive it, no more nor less than the difference would be if suddenly, magically you find yourself transported to ancient Egypt with the consciousness of an ancient Egyptian. Because I think it's quite justifiable to imagine that with the mind set of an ancient Egyptian, looking at the pyramids and the Nile, you might have the feeling that you were living in a world that was constructed of a different substance, in which different energies were primary than the particular energies that we high-light today, because of our contemporary mental sets. And I think that film tends to make it difficult to believe that there could be such a difference in mind set that would make the world seem to have different qualities and characteristics than the physical world now seems to us. It's a limiting factor that kills the imagination. Especially the evolutionary aspect of the imagination.
KJ: That has to do with the material specificity of what you see on film.
RF: Yes, so that even if the subject of the film seems to be transcending that, like the few films that have been made about people getting into other levels of consciousness, like in Ken Russell's "Altered States," for instance, in which people in isolation tanks are supposed to have various cosmic experiences -- nevertheless, see, even though that film, and other films like it, speak thematically about a different level of consciousness, a different way of being, it is all overwhelmed by the very palpable, physical reality of this real world in which we are now living. It doesn't allow the mind to dream in the same way that the text of the film implies dreaming or transcendence or evolution might be possible. You come closer to it by looking at very early film, because in very early film the world really does look different.
KJ: You mean silent film?
RF: Yes, it seems to have a different flavor. Now, people will maintain that a hundred years from now the same will be true of new film that you're looking at today. But I'm talking about the big impact of contemporary film as you are looking at it now, and see your own world as it is, multiplied to the millionth degree. Film convinces you, in effect, that this world you're living in is the only possible world from which the imagination can take flight. That's the important thing. Obviously you might say, Well, by the power of the imagination, while I'm looking at this scene that takes place between two movie stars in front of Rockefeller Center, I can imagine all sorts of other things. But film implies that the launching pad of the imagination is this material real world. And from this launching pad you can only go to certain places; other places you can't reach from this launching pad.
KJ: But at the same time, in the play there is an awareness of yourself as a 20th century American, living in this culture, and on some levels seduced by the media.
RF: Well, the play also deals with, as I hope all my plays do, the contradictory nature of our experience, and our reality. I have these yearnings to transcend this visually oriented culture, the glamour of the movies, but a part of me certainly doesn't. A part of me is seduced by it like anyone else. And has yearnings in directions that have been awakened by the existence of that media.
KJ: When we talk about the material specificity of film, and the way that it only lends credibility to solid, to-be-touched objects -- objects that exist in a concrete world in which we know what a table is supposed to do, and that's what makes it a table -- you can oppose that to the way objects are invoked in poetry.
RF: The fact is that when William Carlos Williams is writing about a red wheelbarrow -- and this is sort of cliché to say -- but obviously it's everybody's wheelbarrow. It's setting is unclear. But between his statement and your perception of that statement, and your translating that statement into understandability, all other kinds of energies, whiffs of universes of your own interfere and mold that particular image. But with film -- which is more evil than painting, because painting still creates ambiguous images -- film is evil because it does not create an ambiguous image. Now, the defenders of film and photography would say: Well, just wait, we're going to get more imaginative, we're going to use more interesting editing techniques, narrative structures, and montages of sound; and we're going to get that looseness and multiplicity of reference that you think is so desirable. I still maintain that the captured, mechanically reproduced image swamps all of that; it's overpowering. There is something in-built in the human perceptual mechanism -- perhaps God didn't imagine that we would ever invent movies, and he left a weakness, which is our ability to be seduced beyond all measure by the photographic image of whatever it is you're photographing. So that, in a funny way, the message of photography is: what is real is what can be photographed. And if it can't be photographed, it isn't real. But as we know, many things that can't be photographed are real. It's not only, what can't be photographed can't be real, but what photographs better is more important and more real. In other words, if Elizabeth Taylor photographs better than some kind of electron pattern with an electron microscope, that proves that she is more important. And if Elizabeth Taylor photographs better than Mary Jane, who sells newspapers on the corner, that proves Elizabeth Tailor is somehow more important than Mary Jane. The problem with film is that it is the exploitation of the visual media, which comes closest to deluding you into thinking that you are looking at life. Like I said, I didn't think painting was as evil, because painting still has all kinds of ambiguity, and because it's more one-dimensional than film. It is therefore a reference to a system of referring to reality. Film runs the danger, as does theater, of really confusing you to the extent it seems to be a replacement, a substitute for reality rather than a way of alluding to reality.
KJ: But wouldn't you say that you've pursued various strategies to disrupt the traditional frame through which we normally view theater, and by doing so have undermined that frame, and have weakened it's hold on the viewer so that he is able to see the work from a detached perspective?
RF: Well, I think that that's what I'm trying to do. I increasingly, as the years go by, think that I'm not as successful as I would like to be, and that's the reason I'm getting more and more dubious about this activity of making theater, much less making film. And why the subject of my plays increasingly seems to be becoming, should one really make theater or isn't that a mistake? Should one make something that, fight it as you will, still seems to be a substitute for life rather than a way of referring to life, so that you can include in that reference vast other possibilities that life itself, at this point, doesn't seem to be able to realize? I can just say that from my own point of view I'm unhappy with the degree of my success in this direction, and for that reason I continually fantasize that it might be better if I could write poetry, write novels, if I could do something besides making theater.
KJ: But in "Film is Evil," you were employing different tactics to break the frame, the frame that contains the photographic image -- and the frame which contains most theater composition, focusing the audience's attention on the superficial emotional interaction between the characters. The play took place in a vast loft space, and the spectator's eye was encouraged to roam in all directions, to see things in a very three-dimensional sense. Without that frame, the spectator has the freedom to play, and to transcend that narrow way of seeing. It suggests other ways of seeing.
RF: Well, I don't know what to say about that. Partially that was because of the peculiar space that we were working in, which was this very deep, relatively narrow space. You know, I never think about these conceptual things when I'm making the productions. I don't think about any pre-determined, conceptual frames or categories that I want to fill with the work of art. I start out with a text, and space, and I'm just trying to make something that pleases me. This is important to say, because I think that many artists make their art in order to find out what it was that they really thought about life, or about the world, or about philosophical issues. So you make a play, and then you say, Oh, I see what I'm saying with this play: I'm saying that film is evil, right? Now, I don't know why I arrived at that title, and I certainly did before the play was completed. Probably just because I thought it was catchy. And I knew that I believed it somehow. But nothing in the play is calculated to prove or reinforce that title. Everything in that play, as in all my plays, is there to set forces and ideas about things at work, and then to see what, unbeknownst to me, the unconscious drift of my thinking has really been saying to me.
KJ: This was the first play you did after "The Cure." Do you think that "Film is Evil" continued in the same direction of being more internal, more meditative?
RF: Yes, though because there were so many more people in the show -- there were twelve people dancing, moving props and so forth -- the production was larger, so it was sort of half way between the previous work and "The Cure," I suppose. Though I expected it to be closer to "The Cure" than it was. I started out using the body mics, but they didn't work in that big room. You didn't have the effect of that intimate kind of talking, so we ended up only using stand microphones. Then some scenes with the three main actors alone on stage weren't miked at all. I don't think therefore that "Film is Evil, Radio is Good" represented the next step in the direction I took with "The Cure." I think it was a kind of marking time, somewhat regrouping my forces, remembering some of the things pre-Cure, plus some of the energies of "The Cure." Indeed, I think I wrote more of that play in rehearsal than any play I'd ever done, mostly at the urging of Kate, who wanted some more naturalistic scenes to specify the relations between the characters and their relation to the radio studio. So there were quite substantial scenes that I wrote after we'd started rehearsing.
SYMPHONY OF RATS (1987)
KJ: Would you say that this play is really about the President of the United States?
RF: In a funny way, it is. It's about the President of the United States being no different than the rest of us, and about his being subjected to psychological and other forces outside of his control. He's receiving messages and he doesn't know whether to trust them or not. Just as I think we all are receiving messages from our unconscious, or from God, or from angels, or from the media, or from our past experience -- and we don't know which of them to pay attention to, which of them to validate and which not. So, in that sense, it was about the President, because it's hard to remember that the President is really a mixed-up, stupid, fallible person like all the rest of us.
KJ: But on the other hand, in our culture, especially for white males in power, there is a sense that we ought to suppress that kind of ambiguity when it arises in our own experience.
RF: Well, of course. That goes without saying. But you see, here again I'm of mixed opinions. Would I prefer the President of the United States to open himself to this level of ambiguous behavior, and perhaps to become a real wacko and with the expected result to the country? On one level I think maybe I would, you know? Because I think that the sixties were the healthiest and most glorious time in the United States -- it may be the time that a lot of people think the country was about to fall apart, but I think it was wonderful. And a lot of energies were released that made it the most bearable time to live in the United States of America. On the other hand, would I like it if the country fell apart to the extent that people from New Jersey might cross the river and co-opt my beautiful loft? Well, I probably wouldn't! [Laughs] So I'm not sure if I want it to happen or not. Part of me does, part of me doesn't. But those kind of ambiguities are what I try to make my work out of. You know, I even own stocks. I don't want the stock market to crash, really, because then I will have to worry more about my financial situation. On the other hand, I realize perfectly well that in the long run, it might be much healthier for this country and it might produce an environment that would be better for all of us to live in.
KJ: There's a couple of lines from the play where the President mentions the imagination, and he goes on to say, "I regret to say that that's a realm someone in my position dares not approach too closely."
RF: Exactly. I mean, if you had a President who allowed his imagination to function full time, he would not be able to make the straight ahead decisions that apparently, with the structure we have now, he must make at every moment. I mean, suppose ... well, I don't have to go any further.
KJ: Do you think of it as a political play?
RF: To me, it's no more or less political than any other play I've ever done. The real politics of America, it seems to me, have to do with the conflict between people who can sustain ambiguity and uncertainty in their lives, and people who get terrified by it and want everything to be black and white and clearly defined, and so become reactionaries or conservatives. That's the political situation in America. I think my plays always deal with exactly that issue, and therefore are very political. But they're obviously not terribly political in terms of what particular political party you happen to belong to. Even a political issue such as the rights of minorities in the United States basically boils down to whether or not the personality can sustain ambiguity. Because, for instance, white people in the United States of racist political opinions, who think black people are not responsible and shouldn't be allowed to move into their neighborhoods and so forth, what they're really objecting to is a lifestyle that disrupts their ability to sustain certain categoralogical distinctions, such as: this is work time and now you work, and you don't bother to play loud music, you know; or you keep your lawn neat and manicured in a certain way. And those people who come from a different culture, we don't think they observe exactly the same rules, and that makes our life more ambiguous because we have to deal with noise, in the cybernetic sense of the word -- noise being not part of the message, or being all the static that is part of the message. Noise is introduced in our life by people who have other cultural roots, who don't observe the clear distinction between work periods and play periods, or observe certain rules of how to dress or how to serve food or drink or what have you. This noise entering our lives makes our lives more ambiguous and that we cannot sustain. So the political issues, even in the more recognizable sense, I think finally reduce to the individual psychological issue of how you relate to ambiguity, another name for which is noise, in your daily life. Where do you put up your fences? Where do you make your distinctions? So I think my work is terribly political.
KJ: Now what about the big robots, and you on tape. Why did you put yourself into the play so much?
RF: Well, the plays are all about me and my trying to stage my particular rhythms and perceptions, so it's only fair ... Someday maybe I'll be in the play myself. Maybe not, but my voice has always been present in the play. And now technology allows a way for me to put my face in the play sometimes too, when I think it's appropriate. Now obviously the President is being bothered by voices he's hearing coming from outer space. They might be coming from his unconscious. Ron Vawter, who plays the President, is an actor who has to say lines that are coming to him from outer space, meaning that I'm sitting over there at my typewriter writing lines that he's forced to say. So in a sense it's quite appropriate that the person who seems to be the controlling outer space visitor, manifested by these giant puppets, turns out to be me.
KJ: Can you describe how the puppets looked, and how they worked?
RF: Oh, there were two big metal structures with arms and legs that could sort of squat and stand up. Tubular metal forms, with TV sets for heads, and one of them had a TV set for a hand. The TV set heads had my face on them, and when the bodies would stretch up as if standing they were about eleven feet tall. Then we added a lot of painted, decorative elements that made them look like primitive Mayan figures. You know, there's a debate about whether some of these Mayan figures are really space people that visited the Mayans [laughs] because they look like they're wearing helmets and things that space people would wear. So in my fantasy, it was as if I wanted to combine that kind of primitive, archaic, totem-like structure -- because space people are sort of 20th century totem figures -- with a suggestion that these voices from outer space might be coming from the unconscious, might be coming from outer space, or perhaps are something archaic inside of us that have always been inside of us, maybe a primitive side that we have now projected into space? Or maybe they really are space giants, mechanical men from another planet? Who knows. Again, touching all bases of that sort. ... I thought it was rather nice, also, to make these giant space puppets, who were sort of menacing and frightening to everybody, the source of goodies. So at one point, the actors go over and push a button on the chest of one and soft ice cream comes squirting out to fill their ice cream cones.
KJ: You did the play with the Wooster Group. What was it like to work with them on this project?
RF: [Laughs] No different than the other time. Except I didn't force them to be quite as frantic as they were in "Miss Universal Happiness." Since they were playing Presidents and advisors, I wanted them to be a little soberer, like those people are. You know, the other play was Latin American revolutionaries, and this play was the WASP rulers of American society. Obviously I knew them better for this play. And, again, this play was different because there were only four people in it, so the work could be more intimate. They had run riot in "Miss Universal Happiness," and Ron Vawter had thrown himself around so much physically -- I mean I thought he was going to kill himself every night the way he used to throw himself against the walls. In this play, I wanted to pull them towards a more naturalistic, more psychological kind of performance than they had given, either in my previous work or in the work that they normally do for the Wooster Group. And I think they did. I was working a lot on trying to make them do a subdued, more internalized kind of performance.
KJ: How did you do that?
RF: Well, it wasn't so much Stanislavski technique. I told Ron to get his voice lower all the time. Also ... something was going wrong. We had all these stand mics they were supposed to talk into, and they looked sort of dead talking into these mics. And so at one point I just made the mics lower, so that in order to speak into the mics they had to squat slightly, and that seemed to energize them in the right way, without energizing them by making them do energetic things. It was just that there was a certain awkwardness they had to deal with.
KJ: It added a certain kind of tension to their performance.
RF: Right, right. So essentially I wanted them to be quieter and more internal, and thinking about what they were saying, and living what they were saying, more than they were asked to do in most of the other plays they'd been doing, I think.
KJ: Ron's performance was particularly psychologically intense.
RF: Yes, and I was very happy about that. Because at times I actually felt a little frustrated in "Miss Universal Happiness" because there were scenes that I wanted to have more of that, and I don't think I was too successful in getting it. But there was so much else going on that I couldn't focus on it too much. But in this play I vowed that I wanted that to come clear, especially in Ron's performance -- it was the best performance I've seen him do, frankly. But we were definitely working for that. He was well aware of the fact that he would tend to regress sometimes, and we would talk about it quite a lot, and always together try to pull his performance back to being rooted in a particular kind of character who is relating to what was going on around him in a very particular way. We worked to get Ron to relate to the material that he was saying in a way that makes you think that he's intellectually struggling with ideas, or with trying to have an effect upon his own psyche. So here the performer is not a deliverer, a presenter of information, but rather someone who is trying to work on himself. That's what I think happened in "The Cure," and it happened in Ron's performance in "Symphony of Rats," as well as in "What Did He See." And that's the shift in my work: now the performer is no longer someone who presents something to the audience, but rather is somebody privately working on himself, fully consciousness of what he is doing.
KJ: One of the peak dramatic moments in the play comes when Ron has a nervous breakdown standing on top of his Presidential desk.
RF: Well, when Ron flips out, to me that's a reversion to the things that I've done before. Because that's the performer being victimized by something that's happening to him. What I was interested in most by Ron's performance in this play, as in these performances I mentioned, was the performer mulling over what he was going to do with himself. You see, the performer making decisions vis-à-vis his own consciousness.
KJ: Could you find an example of this in the text?
RF: Yeah, very easily. At the beginning of the play Ron comes up to the mic and talks to the audience. He says, "What's out there in space. You've been there. What's out there. Silence. Vast silence." Well, he's asking us, but he's really asking himself, How am I dealing with this phenomenon? And in no sense did I want it to be presentational. I've done plenty of plays where questions like that would be addressed to the audience, "What's out there in space. You've been there. What's out there." In many of my earlier plays, that would be a demand to the audience: well come up with an answer. And here I specifically want it to be clear that Ron was working it out for himself, and did not want the audience to participate at all. This kind of performance starts happening back in "The Cure."
KJ: How is it happening in "The Cure?"
RF: Kate had a moment in "The Cure" which was more like that than things she had had in the past, I think. She had a speech where she comes out of a little tent carrying a doll, and she talks about seeing workers going up a mountain and polishing stones. It was a memory of mine when I was a kid taken to Arizona for my hay fever back when I was five years old. But in that speech, it seems to me that she was talking as the character in this play -- who is this well-to-do person at this Friday night séance -- about her relationship to workers, and to the fact that she didn't have to work in that same way. There were other implications in that speech as well, but it was essentially her, in front of us, figuring out for herself certain things about herself. And I don't recall that she had moments too much like that in earlier plays.
KJ: Do you remember how you directed her to help to bring that out in her performance?
RF: Oh, just urging that it be internalized, quiet. And I gave her the doll to hold on to. We never actually spoke about this, but my idea was that by holding the doll, and sort of half talking to the doll, the doll was standing in for herself, so she sort of was talking to herself. That kind of thing. Of course, I should say that she was not looking at the doll, because the doll was held up next to her body as if it was a second ghost head right next to her own head.
KJ: You once mentioned to me that you had originally conceived "Symphony of Rats" quite differently than the way it was finally done.
RF: Right. That was because Willem Dafoe was going to do it, before he had to go make the Jesus Christ movie. Had he been available the play would have taken a very different form. I was imagining that he was going to be the President, and I imagined him looking sort of like James Dean did in "Giant" when he got to be an old man -- metal rim glasses, white hair, a cane. He would have been a California kind of President, as if Jerry Brown got to be seventy and then finally made it to the White House. Ron, then, was going to be his secret Hindu guru. The women, Kate and Peyton, were going to be trying to decide which was more romantic and glamorous: to have allegiance to this guru or to the President.
KJ: The dialogue all the same.
RF: Yes, the dialogue all the same. That was the way I originally was thinking of it. And I don't think it would have taken place in the White House, I think it would have taken place in something that suggested the Indian's environment into which the President kept finding himself falling. So another production of the play could be done that way. Someday I'd like to, maybe, do one of these plays again, doing a totally different production, and that's the kind of thing that could happen.