Eric Bogosian by Betsy Sussler

BOMB 48 Summer 1994
048 Summer 1994
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Eric Bogosian. Photo by David Seidner © 1994.

Eric Bogosian is one of the best performers we’ve got. And he’s got two Obie’s to prove it for acclaimed solos: Drinking in AmericaSex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and his latest solo, Pounding Nails. Something about his transformations are almost magical, so compelling, they are almost demonic. This Spring he skid from performing Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead to packed houses at Minetta Lane theater, directly into previews for his new play, Suburbia, currently running at Lincoln Center.

Suburbia is a departure, not only because Eric’s written it for other actors, but because it’s ensemble theater at its best. Suburban over-the-hill teens gather at their hang-out, a 7-Eleven’s parking lot, to wait for Pony, the local boy turned rock star. Its community of characters—from Jeff’s (Josh Hamilton) poignant indecision; to Buff’s (Steve Zahn) maniacal dervish; to Sooze’s endurance, played by a whimsical and acerbic Martha Plimpton—long to escape the familiar: despair. Which implies escaping each other. This is a sweet embraceable pain, one that’s played out in violence and longing, and humor and hope.

New York City, April 29, 1994, 211 Restaurant, 4:30 P.M.

Eric Bogosian My goals were multiple with this piece. I’m coming out of the experimental theater scene, and I wanted to play with classical form, what looks like a regular play. I wanted to use what I’ve learned about theater as event instead of theater as script that then gets translated to this turgid, church-like presentation on stage that you sit through in the hopes that there will be a moment of life up there …

Betsy Sussler Eric, your solo performances are incredibly confrontational, almost stand-up comedy, but with a violent edge. What’s it like going to something more distanced, where you are watching your characters, rather than performing them?

EB I started in a very academic, highly conceptual theater doing very pristine performances of Chekhov. And I got really tired of the theater. You’ve got to look at what’s really happening instead of what you think is happening. What’s really happening when you walk into the door of a theater is everything that’s happening around you, the people sitting in the audience, and what you’re picking up off the stage … You have to acknowledge that, or at least understand what the conceit is. Theater was ignoring the fact that it’s a social event. So I turned to Richard Foreman and The Wooster Group who were saying flatten everything down, let’s build it up again from scratch. That theater, the theater that came out of the visual arts … It’s as if I’d discovered this village in the Amazon, the way people used to discover Bali. There’s this force and excitement in primitive theater. Peter Brooks said amateur groups are often much more exciting than professional theater groups because they are so into it, and really excited. And so it was for me, as a theater artist who came to the work in Soho in 1976 and saw performance art. There were moments that were way more exciting than anything I’d seen in traditional theater. On the other hand, they were reinventing the wheel. There were so many clip lights stuck on the ceilings of these lofts, one day I said, there’s a thing called a lighting instrument, you can get it on Canal Street.

BS And such a thing as text and writing. I had a hard time with a lot of performance art because I love language. And often times in performance art, that was not the priority. Your early pieces were still dependent upon language.

EB The innovators, and their students, who were the Black Mountain crowd, Merce Cunningham and John Cage, were completely versed in every classical mode, understood them inside out, and then would break everything down—Phil Glass. What was happening by the late seventies was work by people who had never mastered the classics. And I’m one of them. Drugs had a lot to do with what was going on in Soho. I think Soho or downtown art is distinguished by trying to mimic a drugged state in some way, which you could also call spiritual.

BS You write the material and until Suburbia, you’ve acted the material. I watch you act your characters and I’m thinking, who is possessing whom? Are you possessing your characters, or are they possessing you?

EB But classically, downtown is very idiosyncratic and that gets celebrated, you do one thing really well and then you flaunt that thing. I’ve taught myself how to do some things …

BS Your characters are really crazed, Eric, you know that.

EB Well, I’m crazed.

BS (laughter) Okay, writers often say that characters come to them. You sit down and the character says, “Out of my way, I’m doing the talking here … ” You’re just typing.

EB The best of all possible worlds, is when you have an actor in mind, it doesn’t have to be me.

BS But you do in fact, act your monologues …

EB But my monologues have to do with my fantasy. Before I was ever acting I was fantasizing. Sort of a Walter Mitty type character where I was living in this dream world. I had this very shut down life when I was a little kid. So I would spend a lot of time in my own head. And I would spend time in front of a mirror. Nobody was asking me to do this, nobody was encouraging me, it was just some aberrational thing that I did by myself that was secret. And I did this for a long time. As a student, I was simply a bright kid who talked a whole lot, and cut up and was very undisciplined. And I realize now, I was drifting, with the pot smoking in high school, toward nothing. But when they labeled it and called it acting, I found that I had this instant fantasy apparatus inside of me that just goes on. And I know the people that I play. The first of the solo pieces was at Franklin Furnace. It was meant to be a conceptual finger exercise. It had come from a conversation with Mabou Mine’s David Warlow. I wanted to develop a speaking voice like his. And he said, take a tape recorder and speak into it and listen to it. And you’ll know whether you’re speaking well or not. So I’m going on with the tape recorder and I had drifted off into some fantasy character, and when I played it back, I noticed that this character was some redneck talking about speeding tickets. And it intrigued me—I have these guys inside of me who I seem to know. So I enumerated them. And that was the first piece, Men Inside.

BS The men inside you are mesmerizing; funny and frightening. It’s hard to know whether to gag or laugh, sometimes.

EB This is a funny thing with me, when I was in the fourth grade they asked us to write a scary story for Halloween, and I wrote one, read it out loud, and everybody laughed. I have a natural thing when I’m performing, of making people laugh. Anyway, I did these bits that I had very carefully written, improving and improving, and then I created them and put them together. I’m good friends with Cindy Sherman, Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, and Michael Zwack; all these artists had a big affect on me at the time. To my mind, Men Inside would ultimately become a set of pictures—you’d walk into a gallery and see pictures of me as these characters.

BS Cindy works with repellent images and so do you. It’s not simply by chance that you pick and choose extremely confrontational characters—disease ridden homeless, out of control drug dealers—and yet you make us laugh, and in that way break down that fourth wall, that safe distance between us and the character before us. But that laughter. I was noticing it in myself, is somewhat hysterical, because it is attached to fear. Your homeless man who urinates on the subway and then the stockbroker who sits on that same seat and when he goes home, fucks his wife on the couch on top of his coat which soaked up all the viruses from the urine … Does your audience’s laughter sound hysterical to you?

EB If the piece is seen as an exorcism and I’m a witch doctor saying this is the stuff that freaks me out the most … and we come together as performer and audience, that laughter creates this glue. You know, actors talk about hot or cold audiences? Well, the idea that the audience has become one being while the performance is happening—although you know that isn’t really true—you can never break that feeling that they’ve become one animal for that night. On good shows, shows that rile you up like the early David Rabe plays about Vietnam where you’re all pulled up into the emotional maelstrom that taps into the fears or hopes of people in the audience …

Performance is in every culture, it’s ancient, ancient, like god is, and it’s necessary to stir up and cleanse. What about our psychic ecology? We need to hang out together in groups and if one of us gets up and starts leaping around in front of the rest of us, it helps us deal. We’re missing this from our psychic diet and we’re going crazy. You see these weird shows in the afternoon, the Oprahs where the audience participates.

Suburbia, I’m just beginning to realize, is very much about this tribal thing that we do, which is hanging out in groups.

BS In front of a 7-Eleven …

EB In Asia, if there’s a really big old tree, everybody in town hangs around that big old tree, and they put things on it, and they stay under it all day long. And that’s essentially what happens in this play, it’s like …

BS The town square.

EB Yeah, it’s the tree of life, except it’s a poisonous tree of life, it’s typically synthetic … my father went last night and he said, “I really don’t like the act where you’re looking at a cement wall for about an hour. It’s so ugly.” In my solos, too, people would get mad at me for doing stuff that is actually three notches less intense than the shit you see on the subway. But you see it more for some reason on stage, because you know what you’re looking at.

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Martha Plimpton and Josh Hamilton in Suburbia. Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater.

BS You’re more closed-down on the subway, all of your defenses go up to protect yourself. But that’s what’s interesting about being in your audience. It’s dark, you let your defenses down, and then you realize you’re being assaulted anyway. Do you think comedy is a weapon? I don’t mean a weapon that can hurt people, but a weapon that can barge through people’s inhibitions. Your characters speak our unconscious, what most of us never acknowledge.

EB Well, it’s a stirring up. You have to understand, I’m this weird amalgam, I’m this bright kid from a really dumb town. I grew up on TV, and I also read volumes of books all by myself, but I didn’t always understand what I was reading. The reading tempered my pop mind. I’m always on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out, there’s that mixture. And I have this ability for mixing up this isolation with comedy. I’m a Brechtian. I totally believe in the Brechtian idea of theater. It should be something you can watch like a sporting event, like a boxing match, light up a cigar, sit back … I love that idea of mixing stuff that’s in your face with the stuff that’s very attractive. So the more in your face I want to get, the funnier I have to get. Supposedly, Lenny Bruce learned how to be funny, he wasn’t that funny when he started. I’m still learning, I mean, timing does not come to me naturally. I try things on stage. So you learn, and you realize … weapon? It’s like bait more than a weapon.

BS There’s something … It’s about this element of disgust …

EB Were you really disgusted and unhappy during Pounding Nails?

BS No, no, not at all. I was laughing a lot. But then I wondered what I was laughing at. The characters who were the least vulnerable, the art student who kept complimenting you so that you’d introduce him to your agent, or the shameless producer, were a relief because we could draw back and think: “Whew. We don’t have to sympathize with these guys, they’re just disgusting, they’re not disgusting and vulnerable.” When people are homeless or shabby, and angry, and in a rage, there’s a moral dilemma in our repulsion because it’s coupled with a complicit knowledge of social responsibility.

EB Well, there’s only really one guy like that in the show.

BS The drug dealer felt vulnerable. And then there’s this ordinary guy who’s walking with his child and thinking about that moral dilemma. People are confronted with their own guilt.

EB See, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll was a big hit. By the time it got to LA I had gotten so funny and the audience was so hilarious, that I started to say, “Wait a minute, what am I doing exactly?” And so I decided that Pounding Nails had to be more aggressive, and more in your face. I had to editorialize, even if the editorializing was ass-backwards. At the beginning of the show I’m talking about the show, my relationship with the audience, sex, life and comedy. But that keeps sticking people in a different place than where they want to be. They want to be one step back, and I keep saying, “Come here.”

BS Exactly.

EB Uncomfortable … you could ultimately argue that it’s taste. It depends on what you thrive on. I’m a heavy metal person, totally Metallica, Iggy Pop, that’s what I love. So, I just make things to my taste, maybe it’s cynical.

BS No, see, it’s the opposite. The moral dilemma is how dispassionate and isolated can one be?

EB I mean humor is important. I don’t like people who don’t have a sense of humor about this kind of stuff. Martin Scorcese has a sense of humor in his stuff, I mean he’s incredibly violent.

BS I agree. This connection between humor and violence is particularly American. I find it in myself too. What I’m saying is that you confront people and draw them out so that they see things slightly askew, and in seeing things slightly askew, see themselves from another point of view. But the experience of that is hysterically funny and frightening. And there’s also a yearning in it. Which brings us to Suburbia. There’s this sweet, sweet yearning, in the characters … like they’re all lost.

EB Wait until you see what happens with Suburbia in this production. I’m working with another artist who is a tremendous talent, the director Robert Falls. The play’s not the script, it’s the event, so the artist is really the director. We’re basically co-authoring this because there’s a lot of other things happening that you can’t quite see in the script.

BS Like what?

EB Oh, movement moments, the way somebody touches somebody else on stage, it’s just wonderful. There are wonderfully awkward moments, there are also frenzied moments that are way over the top, and almost ridiculous. This actor, Steve Zahn who plays “Buff” is tremendously physical. I love actors who are constantly moving between a naturalistic mode, where it’s so fucking believable you can’t stand it, and then over to this performance mode, where you really know they’re acting, but it’s so big, and fun, and committed, that it’s exciting to watch. DeNiro’s best movies are very performance-like. You film someone in a hotel room with a needle up their arm, shooting themselves realistically, naturalistically—it would be depressing and pathetic, it has to be over the top.

The important part of my history that is completely forgotten now is that when I first started making my stuff downtown, it was reviled by a number of people. I had gigs canceled.

BS Really?

EB Oh, yeah. It was too violent. By 1979 I was having a very hard time. You know, if you were from Punk Rock or something, you were hip. But there was a great deal of granola solo-storytelling at that time. And I see it as a class thing. Imagine if we were a society of bikers, a humor we would make to entertain ourselves would of course be rougher than the humor for a bunch of ladies at tea in society. To some degree I am from a slightly rougher cast than the classical New York art scene. What strangely has happened, in these ten, twelve years, this rougher cast has become more in vogue. Which is okay, except it loses its political impact. In other words, if I put ugliness on stage, I’m doing it because there’s ugliness out there, and I don’t want to forget it. I’m not talking about this shit for some really sick entertainment level, I’m talking about it because it bothers me that it’s out there in the world. And I think it’s a political act to ignore it.

BS That’s the other side of my question. Do you think indifference is violent? I think indifference is the worst kind of violence.

EB Yes, I do. Ronald Reagan and George Bush are criminals. And the deaths of thousands should be laid at their feet. I’ll be at some benefit for an AIDS organization and I’ll be on stage swearing a blue streak about George Bush, and people will come up to me and say, “Why are you saying that, this is too much.” I’m with Larry Kramer on this, it’s not too much, it can’t be too much, friends of mine have suffered horrible deaths. Where are you going to make a stand in this fucking life? Where does meaning begin and end but in the way that we take care of each other? I don’t want to get angry in some decadent way, where it’s my ego. A lot of the things I say in the show that the audience laughs at, I’m being absolutely honest about: I am happy, I lead a very placid life in a lot of ways at this point, but I’m going to get angry. I’m going to get angry about the war in Iraq, I still don’t understand what happened there. How we ended up just bombing the shit out of another country? The response was so mild.

BS That’s what I mean by comedy as a weapon, you match this indifference in the work that you do.

EB But you have to know your audience. One person’s meat is another man’s poison. There’s no point in clinging to some kind of universal language. I’m speaking to my community.

BS But I want to go back to class. The characters in Suburbia are over-the-hill teenagers, seemingly from a lower-middle class suburb.

EB Middle class.

BS Well, middle class is lower-middle class, now. The middle class myth is that you can climb a few rungs higher than your parents.

EB See, when I was growing up, I saw myself as strictly middle class, I thought I was upper-middle class, actually, until one day I was working in the next town over. And the son of the guy I worked for came by my house. He walked in the front door and said, “Wow, I’ve never seen a house this small before. You can see right through it from the front door to the back.” And I thought, my house is really big. Isn’t it? It’s the biggest house on the block. That myth was rampant in suburbia: Guys were told if you went into the air force you would become a pilot, pretty girls were told if you go to New York, you would be a …

BS Performance artist. (laughter)

EB Yeah, right. And then you get the shock of the way this world really works.

BS But, while reading Suburbia I thought this could be our generation, those of us who matured in the ‘70s. The airforce vet could be a Vietnam vet, that internalized rage. And all of the characters so urgently want to escape mediocrity. And then there are those who have the will to leave and others who don’t, so there’s that dance of clinging and pushing away. These are themes that come from the village, the small town, which suburbia mimics and in some instances replaces. So while it takes place in a contemporary setting with contemporary references, it felt like it could have been any time in the latter 20th century.

EB Well, the generation X rap is just a typical device …

BS Marketing device.

EB … to separate people from each other. But there are particular differences, some of the students who have worked on this play over the years have come out of school 60,000 dollars in debt for a four year education. You could buy a house with that money. And they’ve got our generation leering over them with all of our manner. And one of the biggest things is the power of idealism. Which our generation had and this one coming up has lost. (Jo Bonney enters) I invited my wife …

BS Oh, great, I wanted to ask what it was like to work with your wife as a director because Jo’s directed all your solo performances. Now I can ask both of you.

EB Well, it started naturally. We’re both always working on projects and we discuss them with each other. She was rehearsing me, so why not call her the director.

Jo Bonney When Eric started performing in more formal situations, it was at the Public Theater, suddenly the question arose as to how to deal with my …

BS Presence.

JB Yeah, presence. In the smaller, more ad hoc spaces nothing seemed formal.

EB But because of the writing aspect of what I do, that it’s apparently this casual monologue … . Well, it has to be edited and edited and edited. And Jo is more thorough in the edit than I am. My strength is that I can talk conversationally and I tape lots of those conversations but those always need cleaning, Jo does that. Or I write lots of things and I don’t know what to use and what not to use. And I’ll perform something that will be a crowd-pleaser and say, “Oh, they really liked it at that benefit, so let’s do that.” And she’ll say, “Well, yeah, but you know, what is it, it’s nothing.”

JB This is the whole conflict between the writer and the performer.

EB We work together, we’ve become collaborators. Ultimately the piece has to be shaped. Maybe thirty bits will be written for the twelve that end up in the show.

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Steve Zahn, Josh Hamilton, Tim Guinee, Firdous E. Bamji in Suburbia. Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater.

BS So the writing and the acting are hand in hand, it’s like which came first, the chicken or the egg. Is that true?

EB A lot of stuff gets taped and improved, and then written and improved again, and then taped and written and so forth. Usually what happens is something will get done, at a benefit, or on the road, and we’ll start to like the bit. I don’t necessarily know what it’s about when we start out, but after listening to the bit, it begins to tell us. Why not let yourself speak and let that tell you what your theme is. In Pounding Nails it ended up being about guilt, about sterilization vs. disease all over everything, whether it’s molecules or …

BS Your character, the young father who sympathizes with those in pain, wants to be able to help people, and yet also longs to be free of that, to care for his family rather than everyone in the world: Those things are at odds in many people’s lives.

EB The ground can constantly be reexplored as to how wealthy we are, how driven we are, and also how toxic our environment is in terms of the mass media. There’s a lot of stimulation from film and television. And essentially theatre is a meditative exercise, as opposed to film. Watching a theatre piece is much more an intense form of watching.

BS Suburbia is directed, and written to be very visceral: Buff hurls and swoops around the stage, the audience ducks chucked potato chips. And someone pukes Chinese takeout off the stage, at our feet so to speak. There’s also inside/outside on stage. The Pakistani family inside their glass 7-Eleven and outside, disaffected youth hanging in the parking lot.

EB And we’re in the round there, so you’re looking at a lot of audience people. On the theater gossip page in the Times today it mentioned that a man walked right on stage because somebody was smoking in the play and he told the actor to put out his cigarette. (laughter)

JB We were talking about this at dinner the other night, everyone was comparing stories of audience members walking onto the stage, it seems to be happening more and more.

EB I come out of this scene where there were no rules, and that was the excitement of the work that got made. Now I want to get back to the rules and try to hold on to the energy I learned around this primitive theater—performance art, or even experimental theater. Ultimately, an audience should walk in and not have to know the rules of the game, whether it be classical theater or experimental theater, to appreciate the piece. Theater is a conceit, it’s something that’s made. If you approach it as sculpture, then you’re freer. I wanted to return to the classical form with a freer mind. It’s taken everything I’ve got. I’ve worked eight years, to piece Suburbia together, and I’m still in the middle of writing it right now.

BS That’s why it feels like two generations crossed over …

EB Oh, yeah. Originally, it was meant to be about where I was at when I was hanging out on the corner.

JB But you get older in the meantime.

BS Jeff is the character at the heart of the play, his indecision is poignant, and yet he’s not the most innocent character. Why is the most innocent character sacrificed?

EB Don’t give it away. It’s so exciting to watch the play and watch an audience not have any idea where the play is going. While the play was in workshop last year, the way the actors acted their roles turned me on to directions with their characters that I hadn’t seen. And I got to know the people, and the way it should work. It’s the old Michelangelo thing, you take away everything that isn’t the sculpture, and that’s how you get the sculpture. People don’t give credence to their own imaginations. I really believe that we almost know the story before we sit down in the theater. It’s all there—I can’t explain it—it’s like the folds in your brain, you just know when it’s moving to the right place or not and all it needs to emerge is this gentle massaging. I’ve bit off a big piece because it’s written in the style of Three Sisters. The lead is embedded so you don’t really notice, you realize that Jeff is what the play’s about, but he’s completely forgotten for ten, fifteen minutes at a time, and then he comes back and he’s folded in again and again. I wanted to write a play that a bunch of young actors could really sink their teeth into and that wouldn’t have one central role where everyone else is there to make that character look good. Let ensemble work.

I’m a dyed in the wool theater person. The experiences that you can have in the theater are just amazing and I haven’t had many really great ones lately. That’s the other thing I want to do with the play, my community’s not really being spoken to in the theater I go to right now. I see everybody else’s community being spoken to eloquently and with genius—Angels in America is breathtaking, but it is a play about being gay in the 1990s, at least that’s a big part of it. When I came to New York in the mid-‘70s I would go to see Rabe, Mamet, Shepard … all of us would leave the theater talking about what we had just seen, it had affected us, made us think about it. Sexual Perversity in Chicago, it’s almost trite now but the general pulse of that had a big affect on me. There is a tremendous need for theater among people in their twenties right now. You can see it in the music. There is this urge to say something. A three minute song just can’t get you to the place where you’re watching transformations. Theater is essentially a community thing. The whole performance art scene was essentially community art. Performances where you would get a little invitation, maybe somebody would hand you an announcement. And there was no way you could have known about it if you weren’t a part of the community. Suburbia has a classic theater audience but it is about community.

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BOMB 48, Summer 1994

Featuring interviews with Eric Bogosian, Rick Moody, bell hooks, Dennis Cooper, Jack Whitten, Michel Auder, Hanif Kureishi, Joel Thome, Keith Antar Mason, and Allison Anders.

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048 Summer 1994