Richard Foreman brought me to New York.
Having never seen a production of his, I moved from Seattle and signed on to be a “dwarf” (i.e. the Ontological Theatre’s unofficial lingo for non-speaking non-Equity role) in 2004’s King Cowboy Rufus Rules The Universe. Before rehearsal started, I would tell everyone proudly about my casting coup. The universal response was either worry or horror, depending on how square the person. Foreman’s reputation preceded him—his productions were known to have rigorously long rehearsal processes, and the plays themselves confounded audiences, often sending the less seasoned (or open-minded) theatregoer out of his seat and out the door before the curtain call.
The rehearsals were indeed rigorous (six hour days, six days a week, one day off for Christmas). And, judging by the glazed look on certain viewers’ faces, the performances were indeed perplexing. At one point two months into the production, as I sat backstage in an incredibly hot bear costume with bloody fangs and a three foot Styrofoam dick, I thought to myself, “What the hell am I doing with my life?”
Since King Cowboy Rufus I quit acting and started writing. But I go back and see Richard Foreman’s plays every year. And I simply have fallen in love with the work. Everyone in the theatre world has a strong opinion about Foreman (Charlatan? Genius?) but no one can deny the incredible strength of his vision. Here is a consummate theatre artist who does not compromise, doesn’t care what you think, but wants to tell you something very, very important.
His newest work Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind is Dead! delves deeper into the ontological territory present in his previous plays. Incorporating filmed material shot in a Lisbon insane asylum, Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! is a mesmerizing and quietly shocking stage work that’s hard to shake from the imagination. I recently had the opportunity to chat with him about the piece in his book-crammed Soho loft…
You’ve written a play every year for the past couple decades. I was wondering how your process has changed, if at all, or is it the same process for every play?
Well, it’s changed a lot now, especially since I’ve started to work with film. I am no longer writing with a production in mind, sort of. It’s controlled by having filmed material. So it does make the writing process different. It increasingly fragments [the productions]. Even more than the way that I was working a few years ago, when I would just have snippets of dialogue and little phrases, then organize those into a play thinking of a thematic center based on the language that I had. And now it’s not based on language.
How would you say that the film has influenced the content of the plays?
It’s pulling the plays into a more abstract form even than I’ve worked with before. It’s sort of slowing things down in a way. I think I don’t have quite the courage yet to get as slow as I want to. You know, when I started making theatre, I did things that were very slow and very static, and hordes of audiences would walk out. [laughs] And then they got more circus-like and more theatrical. And I sense myself being pulled back to that slower form.
And how does the introduction of film affect the performers?
When I’m casting the actors I say to them, look, you know I can’t guarantee how much you’ll be used, there might be lots of times you’re in the dark and nobody sees you. It hasn’t worked out that way. They are very present. But there is that longing on my part to make an environment with the film that runs through in the background and have the actors sort of half there and half not there. I haven’t quite done that yet.
So, while you’re creating a production of a show, are you always thinking of the next show?
Vaguely, yeah. The word is “neurotic worrying” about the next show. [laughs] “What can I do after this? My God …”
What are some obstacles that you face in the creation of the play?
My own inertia. But other than that, I mean obviously you always worry about having funds, which I have had so far. Many days the obstacles are, you know, dragging yourself to the theatre because I tend to be a hermit. And the psychological obstacle that I have now is thinking I’ve done this for forty years now—Is it enough? Shouldn’t I be doing something else? That, combined with feeling that my audience is sort of disappearing. I think that in this pop-culture-media-bottom-line-corporate world that we’re moving into, perhaps the audience for the kind of rigorous, somewhat difficult art—that I’d like to think is high art, that I’m making—is being depleted. And that is psychologically bothersome for me, and I keep wondering therefore, who am I doing this for? Why am I going on?
Do you think the move to include more film or media is influenced by that?
No. Absolutely not. Especially the kind of film I’m making. It isn’t exactly commercial film that’s going to get people more interested in a particular aesthetic that is the center of my being. The aesthetic that has always been present in my work, but that I’m moving into more and more directly, has to do with the aesthetic of advanced twentieth century music and certain advanced twentieth century painting and poetry. And let’s face it: Theatre audiences on the whole are not into those things. So in a way I’m sitting on a limb that I’m busy sawing off and I’m going to cut my own support.
You mentioned sound just now. Seeing as you use a lot of sound bits and loops from all over pop music and classical, the whole spectrum, how much does that effect your work?
Oh, profoundly. When I direct, as you know, we start out with a whole rack of computers loaded with different sound bits. So I’m playing with that from the beginning, and we rehearse to this sound, and the punctuation of sound, and I couldn’t imagine rehearsing otherwise because often I’m staging in response to this web of sound that I’m creating. I have to say again, in the last few years, I’m using fewer and fewer pop elements in the sound. I used to use a lot.
What are you using instead?
A lot of little fragments from 20th Century advanced classical music, people like Stockhausen. Other classical composers. Little fragments, I’m not using long sections. And occasionally, well, for instance, the play we’re doing this year is mostly German atonal music, but interrupted by little segments of Glen Miller. So there is some sort of pop element. Up until recently I was interested, and used in my productions, more contemporary house music, acid trance music. I really don’t find myself pulling from that area very much anymore. I want the dry electricity—the dry snap, crackle and pop—of what I get from someone like Stockhausen. It’s curious, because I’m interested in the kind of music that makes the brain experience a kind of sharp electricity, that makes the brain dance. But that being said, when it is combined with the other elements in my theatre—the lights and the phrases and the imagery and so forth—the total element I think is still more akin to the kind of bathing in an environment that house music or something like that does to you, even though the strict musical elements are not taken from that. What I want to do is have your body feel like it’s being massaged continuously by the performance and at the same time your mind is slightly separated from that and is going Plik! Plok! Plik! Plunk!
Seeing as you’re running sound at the performance every night, how does your reaction to the work shift over the course of a run? Do you find yourself wanting to change things?
No, no. Once it’s open, it’s sort of set in my mind. And of course, like anything else, I mean, how many movies can you watch a hundred times in a row? But my plays generally don’t start boring me for at least eight weeks. But for me, that’s always the test of things: How many times can you watch it in a row? [laughs] Because most things, when they become predictable, they’re no longer of interest. I don’t think that’s true with certain kinds of poetry that just have such mystery inside of them and how they operate that you can never solve it so it remains engaging. There’s not too many films like that. I won’t say theatre because I don’t go to theatre anymore, but I know that there’s not too much theatre like that.
You don’t go to theatre at all?
I go once or twice when I have to, for various personal reasons, when it’s somebody I can’t say no to. [laughs]
Why have you stopped going?
Oh, I haven’t gone for years because I hate theatre. It bores me. I don’t like being in crowds. I don’t even like going to movie theatres anymore. I watch everything on DVD. But I’ve always disliked most of what I saw in the theatre and at a certain point I said, okay, that’s enough.
Did that factor into you starting to create works? You saw theatre you hated and thought it could be different? Oh yeah. You see, I went to everything until I was in my middle thirties. Every year I’d see a couple of things, two or three or four, that I thought were really impressive. But it just got to the point where it was too painful to have to sit through so many awful things to see those few good things. Because obviously what I thought was impressive, most other people didn’t agree with. [laughs]
Something stuck in mind since rehearsing King Cowboy Rufus. One day you had said, and I’m paraphrasing, that the problem with men today is that they’ve lost all sense of wisdom. I’m wondering, because that idea was profound for me in understanding Rufus, how much that factors into your creation of the play?
Well, all such considerations factor in the creation of a play not very much, because I try to work totally by instinct. However, such things factor into the way I fill the rest of my life to a gigantic degree. Because I spend my life basically reading and mulling over the same problems that I’ve mulled over for forty years which is essentially a consideration of, how do you make touch with the elusive forces that are clearly controlling and driving everything, but are not fully conscious to everybody? And it’s like a pain gnawing at the back of my head that has always been the central event and focus of my life. Then when it comes time to make a play, I just say Oh, what do I want to see here? I don’t try to translate that directly into what I do in the theatre, but I’m sure, because I’m the kind of person I am, it must end up being present and influencing what I want to see, which is what I make.
Richard Foreman’s Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind is Dead! is now playing now through April at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8p.m. Adults $23; Students $17; all Saturday seats $28. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.ovationtix.com.
Tommy Smith’s work has been seen at Playwrights Horizons, Soho Rep, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ontological Theatre, Huntington Theatre, ACT Theatre, O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, among others. He is a graduate of The Juilliard School’s Playwriting Program. His play WHITE HOT will be presented by the Soho Rep Writer/Director lab in April.
Tommy is a playwright. He lives in Manhattan.