Richard Foreman

by Eric Bogosian

Left to right, Thomas Jay Ryan and Henry Stram in Richard Foreman’s, My Head Was a Sledgehammer. All photographs by Paula Court, courtesy of Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Inc.

In 1975, I came to New York to work as a “go-fer” for an Obie-award-winning director at the Chelsea Westside Theater. I knew little about Off-Broadway and a little about “Experimental Theater” (courtesy of the Drama Review). During the fall of 1975 I saw dozens of productions all over the city: Broadway, Off-Broadway, even Shakespeare at Juilliard.

One night I went to see Richard Foreman’s Rhoda in Potatoland in a loft on Lower Broadway, on the edge of a new neighborhood, “SoHo.” On that night, my whole orientation as a theater artist shifted. Why? Because for all the theater I had seen, all over New York, only minutes of any particular production seemed alive (Exception: the young Richard Gere in Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth). I longed for intensity, fun, manic energy, insanity, brains; “performers” instead of “actors”. I wanted theater that was more than the sum of its parts. I wanted event. Funny thing was, I didn’t know what was missing until I saw it. After that, I couldn’t go back. Eventually, I moved downtown and tried to make (in Foreman’s words) “rigorous” theater art. I totally credit Richard Foreman with changing the direction of my theater life.

Since then, I have seen a number of his creations and have been enthralled every time. They are beyond imitation, almost beyond description or analysis. They are fantastic machines emanating from the head of Richard Foreman.

Eric Bogosian You’ve mentioned, in your manifestos on theater, that an actor must have hostility towards the audience. That was an original point of view in the seventies, but now it’s turned inside out. It is fashionable to be aggressive and indigestible. How does this affect your use of hostility, your jarring, aggressive style?

Richard Foreman I know how easy it is for me to want to love, to want the caress of reassurance; and how quickly that can deteriorate into not being alert through all the difficulties, all the stumbling, all the problems that force me to invent. I am personally happiest when I am forced to solve a problem. The aggression onstage has to do with that. I want the performer and the performance to give the audience the feeling that there are problems to be solved. And I’ve made the solution available, somehow, on the stage. That is the excitement, the delight and the pleasure. Personally, I am a very unaggressive person. When I was young, I’d see Sam Shepard occasionally giving interviews, and he seemed like such a cussed, intransigent bastard. I thought to myself, “God, I wish I could be tough,” instead of Mr. Niceguy, which is my personality.

EB In his play, Cowboy Mouth, where the guy kicks chairs; all over the stage—he and his sister are incestuous . . .

RF I haven’t seen all of his plays, so . . .

EB The Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago did a version. The point is, all the frenzy and anger is happening on the stage. And beyond the footlights, we’re all safely getting this voyeuristic thrill. You’ve worked with some actors I know, Rocko Sisto and Will Patten, who appear to be aggressive, but in fact it’s the play that’s aggressive, it’s the situation you put your audience in that is difficult. We are not witnessing violence going on up there.

RF No, I am not really good at physical violence. In the early days, people used to complain that just as a moment of emotional identification, a nice dance—something they could get into—would start, it would stop. And they were frustrated. And that frustration, the strategy of frustration, is terribly important to me. It is only through frustration that conscience comes into play, and man transcends a slothful animal state—which I certainly have a fair portion myself. So the aggression is that. The aggression that occurs when you are writing at your typewriter, alone in your house, and you force yourself to say: Now wait a minute, I am falling into habitual patterns, I am doing what’s easy. Mentally slapping yourself in the face, and making yourself try something else. That is the program, that’s the idea. Of course, most of the time, I fall into patterns like anybody else. And like anybody else, especially now that I am getting older, I see how often I’ll rely on a mastery that I have developed for dealing with some problem aesthetically. I hate that mastery, and I would like to cast it out. And hopefully, in each new play there is an inch more of giving that up.

EB You are very good at choreographing clumsiness, creating these moments. When I watch one of your plays I go in and out of an ability to concentrate. I get led down a path with you, I think I know what’s going on, and then find that I am looking at something else. And while all that is happening, you’re being very funny. Your work is extremely exciting to watch because of your ability to choreograph invention. I’m always surprised. That happens when I listen to Mozart as well. That’s a turn-on for me. That’s what I try to do in my theater. And I got that from you.

RF I am, essentially, a comic artist. You know, I am hysterical at rehearsals (laughter), directing these people. It’s comedy, but complexities probably exist that stop people from laughing more than they might otherwise. We are always happiest when people are laughing a lot, even though I have some friends who get very offended when people in the audience laugh.

EB Yeah, that happened to me at your last show. I’m sitting there laughing and laughing, and somebody kept turning around to give me dirty looks. This brings up a question: Who are these people in your audience? I mean, is your theater crowd an “in crowd?” Who do you think is sitting out there? Who do you hope is sitting out there?

RF Oh, well, you know I am an asocial person. We see very few people. I rarely go out. If it was not for theater I would probably see nobody, so I can only fantasize who is actually there. I am always depressed, because I would like to think that I am involved in a dialogue with the other artists and thinkers of the world as it is today. And I guess some of them come, but I can certainly think of thousands who are not coming.

EB Don’t you think it’s an economic grouping? When we say “intellectual” in this country we are also talking about people who fall into a clan. I can see them at your shows. They work very hard at cracking your code…

RF It still remains that I am making the piece only to satisfy myself. Your analogy to Mozart, how exciting it is when he shifts to a different mood, that is the excitement I am looking for in my work. When I make pieces for myself I am able to sustain that intensity of response to my own process of making, but I don’t know if the audience does that or not. My interest lies in that step-by-step playfulness with all the ideas that are in the air, all the references, all the allusions. To me, that is the potential delight of art, and all other meanings that can be abstracted are forced because any conceivable meaning is qualified by some other meaning that somebody proposes. I am not interested in making plays that say, Here is the message. I am interested in plays that put into play in exhilarating fashion, all of the different meanings circulating around us. Art is a place where you don’t have to make life’s desperate choices, but can enjoy their interplay. Many people confuse art with life.

EB Yes. That happens with my stuff.

If we were walking around inside a model of Richard Foreman’s head—what’s changed over the years? For instance, I first saw your shows when I was twenty-three. At that time, there were all these great looking babes on stage with no clothes on. It did all kinds of things to my head to see how you used nudity. You’d have other performers onstage looking at them and then the buzzer would go off, and formations would change, and I was forced to look at me looking at them. You also used people who weren’t trained as actors. In the new show, I saw what appeared to be trained actors. What kind of performers are you using now?

RF My interests have changed. So at this moment, I am using trained actors, exclusively.

EB Starry-type trained actors, who are known, or. . .?

RF They don’t have to be stars to be known. In New York, in the actual community, they are relatively well-known. But that’s not why I chose them. I used a girl last year who was very talented, who had never done anything on stage before, but I felt that she had the quality of a trained actress even though she was not.

EB What is that quality?

RF A certain arrogant control of the mechanism. So that again, one has the possibility to play with intonation, emotional response. An untrained actor does things, in a sense, in an involuntary manner and because of that fascinating things can be seen. I used to exploit those involuntary manifestations on the stage. The early texts were purposely very simple and wooden in prose style. As the prose style became more complex and subtle, I felt that to counterpoint what was happening in the text, I needed performers who could play with their acting ability.

EB Do you interrupt them? Let’s say that they start to drift toward something, find a seductive beat. They find that the audience laughs or they could move people with a set of five or six lines—and then you start screwing with that as well.

RF For many years, I wanted to use the garbage that our culture pours over us and recycle that: the attack of music, loud sounds, the problem one has with one’s own body. And in the early plays, the problems of the body over the mind were represented by all the nudity and sexuality. Part of that garbage, since I am functioning in the theater, is also playing with the mechanism of acting. The actor’s intonation is the kind of garbage I want present in the text, structuring it, recycling it. These days, as I am getting older, the focus is not so much the sexual body versus the spiritual mind. Death replaces sex. (laughter) Death, and disease, and old age have replaced sex. (laughter)

EB For most of us.

RF So, it’s another dynamic at work in the play. And to serve that dynamic, there are different kinds of problems. The work is more lyrical, and the interruptions operate on a different level. The play is quieter, seemingly less aggressive. As a matter of fact, the play at the moment—who knows what will happen in the next two weeks—is seductive. We rehearsed for five weeks, and I was trying to make the actors tough and fast and dark. And after seeing it endlessly, all of a sudden I realized what the actors have to do throughout the play is to use the language to caress. There’s a perversity in the language that, if acted as a caress, its aggression seems more present. Whereas seeing a performer in aggressive mode makes the text itself redundant. It is always an attempt to make each moment branch into many multiple possibilities. Not just presenting the black at the same time you’re presenting the white, but presenting the black and letting it fragment like a prism, so that you see the alternative to Ibsenite drama where everything is supposed to come together. Where, if the gun is on the wall in Act I, it’s got to be fired in Act IV. Quite the opposite. The moment the gun is fired proceeds into all those parallel universes that some scientists propose. It’s fired and somebody dies, and at the same time it’s not fired and somebody lives, and at the same time it turns into a phallus…. Those transformations are also humorous. We laugh when things jump from being one thing to being something else.

Left to right, Thomas Jay Ryan, Henry Stram and Jan Leslie Harding in Richard Foreman's, My Head Was a Sledgehammer.

EB When you look back over the plays that you have made, do patterns jump out at you that you didn’t see? Do you see things in the plays that you didn’t know you were making when you were making them?

RF (laughter) I never look back at my plays.

EB Considering the amount of crafting you put into them, are some more what you wanted them to be and others less so? Is each one equal? Is there one that is the “classic?” Have you restaged any?

RF Before I answer that question, you asked if I ever look back and discover a meaning that I did not think was there. That happens in rehearsal. Invariably, as we rehearse, the text undergoes psychoanalysis, and I discover what it is really about. I’m just at that point today in the current play. Now I see that it’s not what I thought it was about, it’s about something else.

EB What did you think it was?

RF I thought the theme of the play was finding out how every disparate thing, adjusted properly, rhymes with everything else. But there’s also another theme, which I’ve discovered in the last two days: how thinking is destroyed if it has a subject. Because whatever it’s thinking about eats the previous thinking. This thinking, which must not be allowed to crystallize into a form where it seizes a subject and absorbs its quality, has to do with a kind of Nirvana, an emptiness that the play is about: that emptiness, that kind of consciousness without an object. As usual, last week I was ready to call this play off. All of my plays reach a point where I say, “Oh my God, I can’t let anybody see this because I’m too embarrassed.” And now it’s finally starting to come together. It’s coming together in a way that I’ve always dreamed of, where something is so light, so airy, that it’s just exhilarating. I’m always telling my casts, “Look, I’m not putting my work down, because I think my work is great, but you must remember that we are doing the highest, most refined minor art. If you think you’re doing what people think of as major, heavyweight art, if you play it that way, it’s not going to work.” It’s a wisp of smoke that is going to be the most ecstatic experience of your life, but it disappears. You must not let it, in your performance, take on the emotionally committed aspects of ponderous, heavily performed art, like that idiot Ingmar Bergman. It’s the opposite of that. Actors must—"Oh this is a passionate emotion"—throw it away. “Oh, this is so funny”—throw it away. Throw it away.

EB Well, this seems grounded in Eastern philosophy.

RF But I don’t want to push that either, because I’m not Eastern. I use to read a fair amount of the stuff, but I read everything. I don’t think of myself that way at all. I think of myself as this New York, Jewish, fallible, sloppy person, who has sharper moments of consciousness and insight that somehow don’t redeem the entire life; because in normal daily life, I’m still who I am. I did eight plays in Paris. At one point, I was seriously thinking of moving there. I loved France because it seemed like the manifestation of all these things. But I began to realize that it wouldn’t work because I am this adolescent, stupid American, like we all are. I had to get my hands back into that rich loam of goofy stupidity and let that collide with my pretensions at being a clear, luminous, cerebral, Eastern-Zen-French intellectual.

EB The plays always have, as an objective, dismantling the normal way of looking at things. You once said that a tourist sees a place better than anyone else, because a tourist is really looking with eyes open, and that’s what you want. You want the theater to be a gym-like environment, which sounds Brechtian. I like that idea. Break in tape

What is your life? Could you characterize what Richard Foreman’s life is like on a day-to-day basis? Instead of what’s going on in the plays . . .

RF I have two lives. I have one life when I’m directing a play, and in that life, I’m an alive, dominant, electric, funny person. But when I’m not directing a play, I’m lying down at home most of the day, dozing off, reading little snatches of this book or that book, jotting down a few lines, watching General Hospital on TV. I’m a totally lethargic, passive person who, through that passivity, is generating texts a little everyday, but spending most of the time wasting away. As far as the kind of person I am, you’d have to ask my wife, Kate [Manheim] and I’m sure she would say my plays haven’t improved me.

EB Kate is an actress who wasn’t an actress when she started in your plays, and who actually created a tremendous style on stage that was amazing to watch.

RF She had a profound influence on the direction of my work.

EB Can you be more specific?

RF A profound influence in making it more comical, and in making it essentially more accessible to audiences, because Kate would prefer that we do I Love Lucy. She always wanted the scenes to be funnier and livelier. She would insist that scenes be rewritten or added so that she could show off this, that, or the other thing. I would say, “Sure, why not?” because I believe that art is made out of the contingencies of the situation. So I would respond to those contingencies. Also, the nudity that made us notorious in the beginning happened because Kate wanted to do it. I wouldn’t have had the nerve.

EB That’s interesting. I always wondered, How does this guy have the gall to ask these actresses to take their clothes off? Of course, it was a different SoHo in those days, and if you walked around the neighborhood you would run into all the people in your plays. Now SoHo is a kind of world’s fair, mini-mart shopping mall.

I think I see something here. As an actor, I feel most alive when I’m acting, when I’m onstage and I’m in that moment—more so than when I’m the real me. The rest of the time, I’m just uncomfortable. You deal with that discomfort, with that lethargy. You described. . .

RF I just avoid the world.

EB But when you’re being the director, Richard Foreman, it sounds like a very exciting place to be.

RF However, I distrust that part of myself. I think the discoveries that I’ve really made come through that writer’s passivity. As a director, I’m not as adventurous as I am a writer. As a writer, my guard is down, I’m just letting all the sloppy stuff come through. As a director, I’m anal-retentive and I want to clean everything up and make everything look powerful, like a well-oiled machine. I wish, sometimes, that I had the courage to stand up in front of my cast and act like the inarticulate bumbling slob I am around the house. I’m exaggerating of course, but still, there is that dichotomy.

EB Would somebody have to be an intellectual to come in and enjoy your work? I’ll put it another way. Does the audience have to know what you’re thinking?

RF I don’t think so. The basic thing is to create a certain rhythm—visually, orally, etc.—that seems ecstatic. The materials contributing to that rhythm could be anything. I happen to live in the world of books that I’m reading, in the world of theories that I’m learning about, as well as the stuff from the mass media and the street. I don’t think it matters, because almost anything can be a substitute. Now, my sensibility is such that I can only choose and refer to the things that I know about. These things may or may not be relevant to your life, but once you start spinning the top, it’s the hum and the magic of that spin that is the fascinating thing; and that’s what I’m trying to create in the theater.

EB And you’re making different tops as you make each play, or is each play the same hum?

RF They vary slightly, but I have to admit, in a sense I’m always returning to the same subject. In the same way that Francis Bacon is always returning to the same subject, in that many poets are always returning to the same subject, I have one subject.

EB Well, that’s an art attitude, what we think of as Art with a capital “A.”

RF It is the slight variations within a given style, that’s what is interesting about art. Yeah, that’s a very aesthetic, elitist position, but what the hell can I do? That’s where I am.

EB You’re an elitist aesthete.

RF Yeah.

EB Well, that happens. I heard that Coppola, on Dracula, purposely cut out the best-acted scenes. He wanted everything to be as flat as possible, so that he could keep it at that distance.

RF Well, that’s exactly what I do. The actors are always in agony because I cut half the play by the time we open, and they always think I’m cutting the best parts. But I love to get to that level of white noise, that, to me, is related to an aesthetic high. The question is can you reach that white noise, that aesthetic high, without those very specific emotional things to identify with. Because once that dominates the play, that’s what I tell them to throw out. It has to be there, so they can react against it, so it can inform them, somehow, and then it’s thrown out. You’ve got to have faith that through the structure of this whole piece and the structure of what’s happening, you can play one thing all evening. You can find the one emotional thing to play that is not boring, that if you see it again, and again, and again, you never get enough of it.

EB You once said that you didn’t need an audience to make theater. It could be God is watching.

RF Well, okay. A lot of things I’ve said are for polemic reasons. Especially in the early days, when no one was coming to my theater and taking it seriously. It was a way to get people to pay a little attention. I don’t know if I speak the truth when I speak. I speak provocatively, and it is the real me that is speaking, but how do I know to what extent that really relates to the totally unconscious process of work, to the creative process?

EB Well, that’s why I asked you about discoveries you’ve made about yourself, looking back. Part of the success of being an artist is to trick yourself, to let yourself be intuitive. I’ve found that the best stuff I do slips past me. I don’t realize I’m even making it. It comes up later. The part that pulls you toward it, and the part that pulls me toward what you’re doing, is the cohesive, aesthetic mind behind it all. It’s making a million different choices, including quite a few you don’t talk about.

RF It’s being in touch with primitive impulses. My theater is a theater of impulses. I respond to impulses. I never bring theory into the theater. Sometimes, when things go badly, I think, What the hell am I really trying to do here? And sometimes that gives me a little redirection. But I never think about what I’m doing in theoretical terms. I only, only trust instinct in a rhythmic sense. I’m sitting there trying to feel if the rhythm of things is right. That’s all I want to do.

EB The fact that you won’t restage your plays, you telling your cast that it’s ephemeral, all points toward the idea of theater as event, something very nonmaterial.

RF I think of it totally as an experience, an attempt to evoke the weirdness of something other, like there is another world. I’m not satisfied with this world. I have never been, since I was a little kid. I always have this feeling that there must be another world in which there is a different rhythm operating, and I just put things together and keep changing the way all the things onstage relate to each other, until it seems to evoke for me the weirdness of that other world that I’d rather be in. That’s it.

EB I can’t wait to enter that other world.

RF When you’re in it, like a kind of drug, it is so powerful it shakes you to the bone. But like some kinds of drugs, because it is so unique, when you’re out of it, you don’t have the equipment to really remember what was going on. Now, ideally, that would make you fascinated by what that experience was, and would make you delve into all the ramifications of what might have happened to you.

off-broadway theater
production and direction
experimental theater
Spring 1994
The cover of BOMB 47