Margaux Williamson on her performance piece How to Act in Real Life, her film Teenager Hamlet, and being a character in Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?
Polymath only begins to describe Margaux Williamson, a Toronto-based painter, screenwriter, director, playwright, movie critic, and book character. When I imagine her, she seems to alight on genres as a butterfly might on flowers, pollinating each next one with the dust of the previous one.
Williamson first came to my attention as a character in Sheila Heti’s novel-play-biography How Should a Person Be. Through the snapshots of Williamson that instigate many parts of the plot, I was continually astonished that this woman was not a novelistic invention but an actual person. I was compelled to know more about her, and it turned out there was quite a lot to know.
Her paintings first impressed me with their radiant, opulent strokes that create spaces of indeterminate reality. They suggest a set of eyes capable of finding dream notes in the living environment, and to assemble scenes or still lifes in which to place the components of a dream; a skill also relevant to Williamson’s work as a filmmaker. I suppose technically her film Teenager Hamlet is a documentary (with full-on explanatory voiceover), but it seems an ill-fitting label for a work that has real-life friends and people become archetypal “Ophelias” or “Hamlets,” while e.g., Williamson interrogates a working actor on what it feels like to be in the mode of acting.
Recently, during her residency at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Williamson presented a piece How to Act in Real Life, a construction somewhere between an organic Happening, and a play that relies strictly on Method acting. Engaged in an episode of Williamson instructing Sheila (Heti, the author above), on the art of simply being—existing in life that happens to be in front of an audience—much of what the viewer experiences during its presentation is circumscribed in the written manifesto/pamphlet distributed beforehand.
As someone who so fluently shifts between the written word and the image, I wanted to interview Williamson about her bilingual gifts and her reasons for so often incorporating both into her works. Over the course of a few weeks, we emailed each other, and I had the pleasure of understanding more about this charming Renaissance woman through her (predictably) articulate words.
Megan McDonald Walsh In all your work, you seem to flexibly adopt the role of either artist/creator/viewer or subject/creation/viewed. Do you have a preference for one position over the other?
Margaux Williamson Artist. But true, I’m flexible.
In terms of being a subject—when I started making art, I worked very quietly and alone. I made paintings that, on the surface, weren’t about me at all, but came entirely from my inner world. Later on, I got a bit sicker of myself and more curious about things outside of my studio. The more curious I got, the more I just became a useful character to use in my own work alongside all the other things in the world that I can use, like my neighbor or a tree.
In any case, it always seems polite and honest to wave to the audience so they know where you’re standing—which you can do if you’re one of the subjects they’re looking at.
MMW Speaking of using you as a character, in Sheila’s book you are a character who is also you, the person. Is it you? Did you discover anything new about yourself seeing that character on the page?
MW It’s another me, a different me. I learned a lot, yes. Though I’ve just said that I had spent a lot of time painting from my inner world, I had thought it was about the whole world. It never occurred to me to look at myself so much. It didn’t occur to me, in part, because I thought that we were all—people in general—very similar. I learned that it can be useful to see your own specific virtues and limitations, and humbling to see your outline: where you end.
MMW I’m really interested in your recent piece, How to Act in Real Life. In it, you explore the boundaries of what it means to act and behave in real life vs. what it means to act on a stage. In collaborating with the audience, both the teacher (Person A) and the student (Person B), who possess their own flexible boundaries, learn to master the mode of how to “see and be seen,” or, as you put it, how to have “eyes in the front and back of your head—[become] a clear channel.”
In the performances, do you feel that you remained in the position of teacher? Did you learn something about becoming a clear channel? Can you describe that experience?
MW I had just gotten back from Los Angeles when I wrote that piece—that brochure How to Act in Real Life. I love all the crazy manifestos you can find in LA; these strange brochures you pick up in equally strange museums on how you are supposed to think about things, presented as very confident and brutal wishes. That was on my mind: writing something like a brutal wish but in a soothing, authoritative voice.
I should explain the piece: I was the artist in residence for the museum here in Toronto, The Art Gallery of Ontario, for a few months. My only real obligation to the museum was to have office hours on Wednesday nights, the night that the museum was free to the public. I like the idea of artists being available to the public, but I happened to have been having a hard time, and I wasn’t sure if I was up for talking to strangers. I wanted to give the museum something while giving myself something even better.
What I wanted to do was give my friend Sheila acting lessons. I didn’t know what that meant, but I had a good feeling about it.
It had been a challenge for me at the museum to figure out how to work while being so extroverted—it was not exactly in my nature. I thought maybe I could learn something new from it—learn how to get energy from it.
I set up a small red carpet in the dead center of the museum. Being dead center made me feel less cornered. Sheila and I sat there and I gave her these “acting lessons.” I’m not such a good teacher or a good student, but I understand having friends. So I gave Sheila some lessons, and she gave me some too. We made it up as we went along. The brochure was on a podium in front of us. When people picked up the brochure, they knew we were thinking of them and aware of them, but that we didn’t have to talk to them. It solved my problems. It was also surprisingly intimate and intense.
I thought it was pretty funny to teach someone “how to act in real life,” because really, by definition, how could you go wrong? You are acting exactly how you are acting in real life since you are in real life. But it’s good to remember that and to physically practice. Then maybe, as an advanced Person A, you could go beyond that and really start “acting.” Maybe you could learn to move beyond your normal range of movements, even think of new roles—personal or political—pretend some things you wish were true are true.
MMW You cover an astounding number of movies (though I hate the phrase), high and low, on your blog Movie is my Favourite Word. What is it about film that draws out your writing instinct?
MW I had no idea I had a writing instinct. It came on very suddenly and urgently a few years ago—the very particular idea to write about movies just started to gnaw away at my brain. I usually find my instincts hard to ignore, but I thought it wise to ignore this one because it seemed like a really bad idea to me at the time. I had assumed I would be a very unpracticed and bad writer. The urge didn’t go away though. I decided that good or bad, it would be a useful way to articulate to myself, to map out, all of the things I had recently learned.
Because movies are about anything and everything, no matter what you watch, you can end up writing still very specifically about the things that are most important to you. And I like that so many people can be smart about movies without thoroughly knowing the domain or even knowing much about movies at all. So, movies can be a bridge for different kinds of thinkers to talk about wider topics that aren’t necessarily bound by the medium. Those are the conversations that I like the best.
That being said, I do actually have really strong opinions about movies. I think the week I finally allowed myself to start, I had been to three events where I was arguing with everyone about Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. I kept saying the same thing over and over again and was even starting to bore myself. I realized I would be doing my friends a great service if I only put my argument down once, in a small but public corner of the Internet, and left it there.
But, boy, it’s been great. After painting for ten years, suddenly to write was amazing. I was, like, "You mean I can just say things directly!?”
MMW You’re so eloquent on the topic of others’ movies . . . I wonder how you articulated your own movie? How much of it was conceived, scripted or prescribed in advance?
MW Thank you. It’s certainly informed my writing, having thought so much about my own movie. And thinking so much about other people’s movies is very helpful for thinking about my next one. For Teenager Hamlet, I worked for two months making a “shooting schedule”—not exactly writing but a highly structured five-day schedule. It started out as a list of the resources I had access to. I worked to arrange them and combine them as thoughtfully as I could—to bring out the most potentially useful situations. Everyone involved had a slightly different schedule. So, for example, at 8:45 AM, the photographer and my neighbor and my friend Sholem were all supposed to meet on my back porch. At that time, Sholem would look at his schedule and see that he was supposed to ask my neighbor about her boyfriend. My neighbor is very pretty and nice and Sholem is very funny and very talkative. I knew that if he asked my neighbor about her boyfriend, she might not be able to get a word in. I didn’t really want to hear about her boyfriend; I wanted to see what Sholem had to say about love and, also, to see how sometimes it’s hard to insert yourself into a conversation with him. It was all a real experiment, so after the rigorous work on the shooting schedule, I actually just felt curious to see what would happen.
I planned a lot of things like that. As an example, I told everyone that I was just making a ten-minute short. No one was an actor, so I thought that that would make people easier and more natural in front of the camera, but it also made it less stressful for me in case it turned out that I didn’t know how to make a feature-length movie. About three hours into shooting my friend Sheila turned to me and said, “a ten-minute short, huh?" I started laughing. Other than my words, there was nothing about the project that hid my intentions. It was like introducing an elephant as a cat. I had asked Sheila to interview "the Hamlets.” She’s a very curious person who can go deep with people pretty quickly. I really wanted to hear what her interview subjects had to say, but I had her wear a wig and sunglasses in an attempt to help the interview subjects keep in mind that they were on film—to remember to be a bit wary. I didn’t want to have to worry too much about the footage I had in regards to the comfort of the subjects.
I had ideas about how the resulting movie might unfold but didn’t really know or plan it. I thought it would be clear once I saw the footage; that’s sort of what the movie is about. The resulting movie is made up of a lot of interviews, which is a pretty big challenge for a narrative—people talking about big ideas rather than the action that’s happening around them. That was a good challenge, I learned a lot about narrative. For my next movie (which might involve Texas and vampires, or atheists), I want to use what I learned; the same process, also using reality, but this time tying the dialogue more plainly to the immediate context. And now I think I know how to “write” a movie like that.
MMW I’m interested in the use of space/place that I see in much of your work. As an extension of that, I wanted to ask about your home base, Toronto. In Teenager Hamlet, pieces of the city seem to be stitched into the fabric. Like the house the participants explore, the settings in and around the city seem to create a second stage for the characters. Though seeing the city of Toronto on film was a new experience, I felt very at home in it. Is the city itself an important part of who you are? And are there things about it you try to capture in your work?
MW That’s good that you felt at home! Maybe that’s because all those locations were actually inside my home and on my roof and in the fancy hotel next door and across the street at a stretch of abandoned land and buildings; anything that was within a five minute walking radius from my apartment. All my best dreams have so much used up abandoned spaces in them, and there’s a lot of that in Toronto, right in the center of the city. Those spaces—I always feel like I own them.
I’ve lived here since 2000, but other than the people I love, and the fact that it probably affects me a great deal, I don’t think about Toronto very much. I mostly think of it when I’m coming home from a trip. That’s when I feel grateful for that great feeling of so much space here—the space to play around in, to screw up in, to make big—possibly fruitful, possibly terrible—mistakes: lots of room and not a lot of eyeballs.
Even in Toronto, I know that some of the people around me thought my decision to quit showing paintings in order to take some time off and try to learn new things—which is where Teenager Hamlet came from—was a mistake. I was just starting to do well, starting to show in New York and L.A. and London. I also had understood that quitting, at that particular time, might be a huge mistake; but since that desire was so strong in me, and since my main and only plan for art was to do it as well as I could, it seemed stupid not to try. Had I been in another city where the rewards and pressures of the art world are more present and tangible, it might have seemed, even to me, more “stupidly” reckless, rather than just “whatever” reckless.
MMW In the film, there is quite an array of visual material. It seems to speak its own language, which threads through the dialogue and action in the film. One thing I’m thinking of is the interview between Phil Donahue and Ayn Rand. How do you source things like that?
MW I am more the kind of person that is delighted and educated by things I randomly come across than the kind of person that is looking, very specifically, in one area. It feels like I’m always just fishing.
And those interviews in Teenager Hamlet—that’s a good example. Though they were specific in some ways, I was hoping to be surprised by them. One of the young men we were interviewing mentioned that his mother was an “active capitalist,” followed the teachings of Ayn Rand, and "probably used to organize pro-capitalist marches.” That was very interesting to me since it manifested the idea of a capitalist in these very definable, concrete, almost storybook terms rather than just assuming by default that most people are capitalists. It was strange and kind of helpful to think about a “pro-capitalist march.”
It led me to thinking, too, about female villains—I hate when women have to be so great or so sensitive. And I’ve always been fascinated with Ayn Rand—ever since I was 15 and read We the Living, mistakenly assuming it to be a complex meta-level critique of propaganda in the form of propaganda (my virtue/flaw of ascribing more impressive intentions than evidence may suggest has been pointed out to me many times).
Because I wasn’t sure what, exactly, the movie was about, I followed some of the trails offered to me in the interviews, like watching Ayn Rand on YouTube or reading Your Erroneous Zones—a book someone else mentioned that helped them get over their sense of political impotence. In a funny way, I don’t have such a good imagination—I find it really helpful to use other things to think through. Even before I start painting in the morning, I usually read something difficult—something to scratch my brain across, mess my thoughts up a little bit and help new things come out.
Or at the very least, things like this allow for a less-random distraction while I patiently wait for my thoughts to catch up to my instincts.
MMW Waiting for your thoughts to catch up to your instincts—that reminds me of the way poetry goes for me. When your thoughts do catch up to your instincts, does it tend to be the thought that relays itself on the canvas (or whatever you happen to be working on) or the instinct? Your paintings seem to be instinctive, oneiric expressions, but some of your other works seem to operate more like philosophical experiments.
MW I’ll have to show you my new paintings. I’m excited about them.
I could say, in a certain sense, that the instinct is the thought that I have to catch up with.
Yes, sometimes you think there’s rhyme or reason to it, but it’s hard to know if what you have at the beginning is the answer or just the starting point. I knew my movie was called “Teenager Hamlet” before I knew anything. That turned out to be the answer, but I only really understood that at the end. So funny—recently, I found an old note to myself about plans for a sculpture. On top of the page I had written “Teenage Hamlet.” It wasn’t until seeing this note again, years later, that I remembered Teenager Hamlet had started out as a sculpture. Anyway, starting out with that name—it was as if I had to laboriously catch up to the answer by making a map to understand how I got there.
I’ve been painting for longer, so I see there how it works so differently in different cases. Once, I took a good look back to see if I could understand how the best paintings came to be. When I looked back, there was no good answer.
MMW Tell me about your new paintings. Is there a particular focal point? And is painting your priority right now?
MW Actually, I think one of the main things I’ve learned in the past few years is that it can take me a long time to catch up to those flashes of good ideas. When I used to show paintings, I would make a new series every year. This time, I thought I would give them all the time in the world and follow them, hopefully, somewhere deeper. It’s hard to be that patient with that process if it’s the only process you’re working on. It has been surprising to figure out that if I do these three things—movies, painting, writing—that my hands then don’t have time to move faster than my mind.
I wasn’t sure if this would be useful for painting—I thought maybe one year was ideal—but I thought I should try after seeing where I got by letting my movie take as long as it needed.
It turns out, it is really great to let paintings stew in your mind for a long time. I have, like, a six-inch-thick folder with “text sketches” of paintings. So though they’re really only in my head, I know they’re the best paintings I’ve made. The whole body of work feels as complicated and rich as anything I’ve been able to make—it’s always hilarious to tell people something like that when you only have cryptic notes behind you.
I just started to push the actual paint around this month—a good month. Right now, the work is called I Painted the Crows. Maybe I could say about them that my interest or instincts were to aesthetically reconcile the great and sometimes ugly high-realism of a boring, bright day with the confusion and strange potential of trying to see in the dark—a time where your imagination picks up the slack of your failing eyes. Maybe I could say that my conceptual interests or instincts were to reconcile the obvious narrative of where they come from—from me, painting alone in a studio—with the nature of painting’s capabilities. Painting can make something like a political fantasy appear so sturdy and frighteningly possible, or turn a desire for connecting deeply with someone else into something more seductively convincing than our millions of photos. Mainly I’ve wanted to explore the limitations and virtues of painting in a way I haven’t before.
MMW I love “text sketches of paintings.” Maybe that’s a more common technique than I’m assuming, but to me that seems uniquely indicative of the way your mind works. I see your voice finding special strength in straddling two media to get toward the essence of each: having an explanatory brochure help define the meaning of an improvisational art piece or mixing professional actors and real life friends in a film that comes to fruition, as, somehow, the inverse of a docudrama (a dramadocu?)
In a recent interview, you mentioned the book Trickster Makes this World by Lewis Hyde—the trickster being a character, in ancient folklores, who gains his power by being a boundary crosser. Do you identify with that role?
MW A totally insightful and flattering question. Regarding tricksters: yes, I’ve always had the desire to move between different types of places or crave the relief of leaving someplace or being someplace new. And the ability to do so comes easily to me. I’ve always thought about it—about how that trait can suggest a great tolerance for differences or, on the other hand, a terrible ease with complacency. But mainly, I do always have a sense that the good stuff is in between things—between me and a friend who is very different, or between a science book and me, or between a new home and an old home. And yes, of course—in between art mediums too. That’s been a fruitful place for me in art, though it didn’t occur to me, until your question, how much that mimics the way I’ve learned anything good in art or life—or anything enormously surprising.
But actually, I didn’t realize that those specific traits related to the idea of the trickster at all till I read Hyde’s book. I started to read Trickster Makes this World because I had a feeling that I needed to be more of a trickster before I began my next movie. I told this theory to a good friend right after I bought the book. He looked at me with skepticism, as though he wasn’t being fooled in the least, and said, “You’re plenty trickster enough.” I had no idea! This conversation was pretty much repeated verbatim the next day with another good friend. Despite my lack of self-awareness, I felt a little bit proud of my consistency.
Megan McDonald Walsh is a Brooklyn-based writer whose pieces attempt to encase the associative essentials of experience in walnut-sized shells. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Point, Explosion Proof, Western Humanities Review, and Ply Journal. She is co-creator and contributor to the pop culture blog Mere Duchess. Her work can be viewed at m-m-w.net.