Lee Breuer by Michael Goldberg

BOMB 56 Summer 1996
Issue 56 056  Summer 1996
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From Mabou Mines’ An Epidog. Photo by Beatriz Schiller.

After watching a rehearsal of Mabou Mines’ next production, Wendy & Peter at the group’s rehearsal space (and office) at P.S. 122 in New York, the director and one of the group’s founders (which also included Ruth Maleczech, JoAnne Akalaitis, Philip Glass, and David Warrilow), Lee Breuer and I began this interview in a white tiled hole in the wall, La Foccaceria. Just down the block from P.S. 122, it’s an antiseptic, noisy, shiny place where eating is refueling, and in a hurry.

My qualifications for doing this interview are limited—this is the first I’ve ever done—but I’ve been an admirer of this group for almost 25 years, right from their first production in 1970 of The Red Horse Animation to their very recent An Epidog, which knocked me out. Sustaining and developing an image, a direction and a purpose over a period of 25 years and to still be ongoing, I find a miracle. I tried to explore this miracle.

Lee Breuer … Money. I don’t know how to get it or keep it. It’s not that I don’t make much, I make a little. But, if I was a different kind of person, I’d probably hang on to it.

Michael Goldberg Lee Breuer is one of the founding members of Mabou Mines. What the hell were you people doing in Nova Scotia back in …

LB 1970. Ruth Maleczech and I came home from Europe to live with JoAnne Akalaitis and Phil Glass in their house for the summer. Phil had inherited a parking lot, and with this parking lot money, he and Rudy Wurlitzer, the film writer, decided to buy a place in Nova Scotia. They were negotiating for a place in a town called Mabou Mines. We were trying to register as a non-profit organization, but we needed a name. So I said, Let’s just put down Mabou Mines. It sounds kind of hip, like a rock group. This was at the time when The Open Theater was supposed to be open. The Living Theater was alive—and well, you know, call it Mabou Mines, at least it will be a good conversation piece, which it has been for 25 years. So, all was going good, except that by the time they bought this place—a very beautiful place—they didn’t get it in Mabou Mines, they got it in Margaree Forks. (laughter) And we couldn’t switch the name of the theater to Margaree Forks. I’ll tell you who lives in Mabou Mines, Robert Frank, the photographer. So we went up that first summer to Margaree Forks, which was great, and spent it working on The Red Horse Animation, and that’s how we got the name.

MG I was curious, when you all got together, did you have some kind of shared purpose about theater, an idea or vision of the kind of theater you wanted?

LB Sure, we were nothing but visions. Everybody had their own vision. I can only speak about mine. It was collective and collaborative. I envisioned Mabou Mines in the beginning as this ideal little working cell inside the social system. A pure concept inside the larger mathematics of it all, in which we’d do the best work we could, share the money, basically do pure art. We have kept it, in a pretty interesting way, just that, for 25 years. However, we’ve also become idiots, because the world has completely changed around us. We come from a generation that would throw away money. We’d get money and throw it at each other. The 1960s were so flush and lush, that nobody treated money seriously at that particular point. Everybody was just out to save the world in one respect or another.

MG The 1980s was the visual art world’s equivalent. I gotta ask you a really bloated question … What do you see as the function of your theater? How do you see the work in relation to the society that we live in?

LB Well, I believe in a socio-thespo-biology, a kind of bio-Marxism. What I’m here to do is to invent my own theater. To present illusion, and to deconstruct it, to show how illusion is manufactured. With the implication that if you understand how illusion is constructed, you might understand what is not illusory, or if there is anything that is not illusory, then you can enjoy the simple structure of the illusion. And so, speaking sociologically, I see theater as the meiosis of society. Theater is the way society reproduces, it’s the sex organ. For example, if you look at culture in a Darwinian way, what’s selected in society are not successful genes, but successful ideas, successful notions, and above all, successful images. Let us say that theater produces fashion. And ultimately the fashions that they are selected for are society.

MG Don’t you feel that somebody like Bob Wilson is a product of fashion? He’s the reverse of what you’re talking about. It’s fashion first and theater second. In other words, the impetus of it is fashionable.

LB I do believe that culture, like DNA, is composed of conflicting alleles. And that you have, in every respect, an image from the culture balanced against an image from the counter-culture. And they compete, like a fashion war. Bob represents a cultural prototype and my fashion represents a counter-cultural prototype.

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From Mabou Mines’s An Epidog. Photo by Beatriz Schiller.

MG I’ve always felt that your theater reflected what I would call shaded optimism. Mabou Mines is a theater of hope, that things are going to be better, possibly.

LB Are you saying that we’re just Romantics?

MG No, very un-Romantic, but Baroque in the way in which you see possibilities of changing the society. What we call Modernism. In relation to this whole idea of shaded optimism, I also thought that you were a theater of spiritual revelation.

LB That’s wonderful.

MG There is a relevance to Catholic ritual. In the sense that you’re asking the audience to believe in redemption. How do you feel about that?

LB Lately, I’ve been trying to find the spiritual path that involves what I like about the East and the West. For a while I was interested in Buddhism, but I’m much more interested in the more Baroque aspects of Hinduism now.

MG For instance?

LB Kali worship. Also evolutionary theory. I’m trying to figure out how the world works. I think that’s what you detected. I feel the theater is a spiritual discipline. We can call it Drama yoga, it could go right along with Hatha yoga and Raja yoga. There is a spiritual mythology centered around the Goddess of Playfulness, and the realm of “play.” A beautiful example of this is the Kali myth, that life is many kites, and Kali has hold of the strings to the kites, and with a laugh every once in a while she just lets one go, and that’s what death is.

I think it’s my fate—my dharma—to learn about the construction of illusion and the construction of character by deconstructing it, by understanding character all the way down to its … chemistry—its microbiology.

MG Is that why you use puppets?

LB One of the reasons. I love animation, I love puppets, and I also love the new technology.

MG Do you see puppets as alternate or surrogate characters, as an alternate identity?

LB Well, I’m interested in the zen of puppetry. In teaching Buddhism, they show you a Bunraku puppet that’s nothing but a mask and cloth—there’s no body to it. And the puppeteer puts his hands into it, and there’s an illusion of life. He takes his hands out and there’s just cloth. It makes the same statement as the Hollow Buddha, the “void” inside the “process.” Also, the Marxian idea of dialectics is fascinating to me. I believe that there can be no art without a tension between oppositions. I construct theater in a dialectical fashion. For example, if I were to take a highly stylized, beautiful Bunraku puppet. I would not want that puppet to perform a mythological sequence for me, I would like that puppet to take a piss. What you have when that puppet takes a piss, that opposition between the logical and the bio-mechanical humor, is an epiphany. There’s this human behavior, but this magnificent machine has done it. Are we, in the last analysis, magnificent piss making machines?

MG That’s very good. (laughter) How much of the production that you’re involved with in the theater is a shared experience, or a group experience, or are you a director? Are the pieces you’ve done your creations?

LB In the beginning, when we were doing The Red Horse Animation, the B. Beaver, it was a totally collaborative process. And, at that point, the actors made comments about the script, and this and that, and everybody helped. The Shaggy Dog Animation was, I felt, my first major semi-solo work.

MG That was done when?

LB 1978. Won Best American Play for 1978. And that was a big milestone for me, it meant recognition in my world—the Village Voice, the SoHo Weekly News … At that time, I felt that I had to assume some responsibility as a writer. And it wasn’t about being outvoted by the actors. From that point on, where my lines were concerned, I was the boss. But I always continue to work in a deeply collaborative way. I have some great puppeteers, and I want them to do a lot of the puppet direction. It’s my job to keep the umbrella over all these people, to keep the overview. It’s not collaborative in that sense. I conceived, wrote, and directed the Shaggy Dog and An Epidog. The one you just saw in rehearsal, Peter Pan, Liza Lorwin adapted. Incidentally, Liza was the producer of Gospel at Colonus. I almost never do anybody else’s work—I want to support Liza’s project in the way she supported mine, as a producer. We have a kid together. Mojo’s now 12-years-old. It seems an absolute necessity when a woman has her first child, that she do Peter Pan. Leslie Mohn—we have a son named Wah—just did “Putana Moksha”, a story about Krishna. Peter Pan is Krishna.

MG Here’s a question. How much of the whole is from a written script, and how much from improvisation during rehearsals?

LB I used to ask the actors to improvise around themes I would give them, and then I would write after the fact. I want to do that again.

MG You like working that way?

LB I do, but only with specific people. I want to do a piece called True Crit. It’s a piece about criticism. I want to say something very clear about the garbage pit we call the political arena. I found a really interesting image, and that was Meyerhold being shot in the back of the head in a cellar in Russia in 1942 for believing in formalism. His wife was knifed to death, all because he was a formalist. Now, that’s fascinating to me.

MG It shows how powerful culture can be.

LB Oh, tell me about it! Tell me about it! Now, why the fuck am I poor? I am poor for the following reason. In 1981, I did a show called A Prelude to Death in Venice that has been in Mabou Mines’ repertory for 15 years. We opened A Prelude to Death in Venice at The Public Theater—Joe Papp was alive at the time and the press rep said, “Hey, there’s a new critic on the Times.” I was expecting Richard Eder, who liked my work. But Richard Eder had just been canned, and this new asshole named Frank Rich came. Now, Frank shat on my play. Then, in his review, he called upon the National Endowment to cut off our funding because in his words, we were a bunch of drugged out hippies, sitting in The Public Theater using public funds. And in response to this, I wrote a letter to Frank Rich, in which I said that he was either stupid or evil, but my guess was, he was both. Now, that letter has prevented me from making a living for 15 years, the entire time that Frank was the Times reviewer, because no piece I’ve ever done got past him. When Gospel at Collonus opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Frank didn’t think it was worth coming all the way out to Brooklyn, so he sent Mel Gussow, who gave it an absolute rave. It became the hit of The Next Wave season. 10 years later, it moved to Broadway. But when it moved to Broadway, Frank gave it the only bad review in over 800 reviews that the piece had received worldwide. He came down on me personally. It was an elitist, racist review—God and Caesar stuff: to black people belongs Gospel music, to white people, Sophocles, and never the twain shall meet. He helped us go broke because he strongly influenced the Tony Awards. He dumped on Warrior Ant at BAM; he dumped on Lear; he dumped on literally everything that I’ve ever done. After Rich dumped on Warrior Ant at BAM—I want to use this in the Crit piece—a writer at the Times called up my collaborator, Bob Telson, at five o’clock in the morning and said, “There’s a rumor at the Times about Lee Breuer committing suicide after the Frank Rich review.” Liz Smith was ready to run it in her column! And I thought, what an incredible metaphor … this motherfucker thinks he can make me kill myself. He and John Simon had come over and dumped everything they had on The Warrior Ant. Of course it sold out for the week it was there—I have enough friends to sell out a thousand seats for a week. But it’s poisoned every attempt I’ve made to complete the piece. So basically, in Frank’s fantasy, his reviews have the power to kill people like me, to wipe us off the planet. A closer analogy is the way drone bees are not let back in the hive after copulation, they’re supposed to die on the outside of the hive. The system was finished with me, and it was the critic’s task to see that his view of art prevailed and that my view of art succumbed.

MG Well, obviously you’re still here. And as a forceful presence in the theater, whereas Frank Rich isn’t.

LB What’s fascinating to me is the power of the media. I’ve read my Noam Chomsky, and I’ve been thinking I want to write a Noam Chomsky on art criticism.

MG A.J. Liebling is better, read A.J. Liebling on the press.

LB I want to show the power of culture. How a simple choice by Joseph Stalin to support Stanislavsky—of course, he put Stanislavsky under house arrest because he couldn’t let Stanislavsky really do his thing, he had to massage him into socialist realism—but then he had Meyerhold taken down to a cellar and shot in the back of the head!

I see critics as having the power of prophets, only false prophets. Their job is to invent “culture according to the ruling class.” It’s very Foucault—culture is an arm of economics and politics.

MG You know, the frightening thing is, those people think that they’re right.

LB Oh yes, I know. I know. They can’t believe that they’re just machines run by a system.

MG I got these questions from a friend of mine, an ex-theater person, who wanted to know how you and your collaborators work out the content and the sequences of the graphic material in The Epidog. There’s another question that goes with this. Did you have a dog named Rose? What was the source of your preoccupation with the dog as a central figure of a theatrical trilogy?

LB I’ll answer both questions together. I had a dog, the prototype of Rose, who was named Clove’s Klechayazi, which means “puppy” in Navajo. Clove, who plays Leslie in Epidog, is my daughter—then she was two years old. We got the dog on a Navajo reservation, when I was teaching at Four Corners, a little, beautiful female Husky that was a terrible amount of trouble all her life, but we kept her from the time she was six weeks to the time she was about 17 and died. And, I really felt that this dog, which was absolutely gorgeous, with blue eyes, looked a lot like an important lover in my life, named Susan, who also had black hair, blue eyes, and white skin. I thought that Susan and this dog were pretty much the same person. I was young and I had had a big Romantic Experience—nobody should go through life without one of those, where you’re dying all over the place. It was fabulous. She was the person I wrote Sister Suzie Cinema for and about. She was a minor movie star. And I realized that we were in a state of pure romantic attachment—puppy love—we were faithful dogs. And so, at that time, I began this trilogy, which now is not really about the dog, the Dog is only Book One. Book Two is about an Ant. And Book Three is about a Pig. What I wanted to do, in this trilogy, first of all, was to write a long poem. Secondly, I wanted to have an original take on writing about a love relationship, the same love relationship goes through incarnations. The dog gets reincarnated as the ant, and the man that she is in love with, John, gets reincarnated as the pig. And, so, it goes on and on, forever. I was a Kafka nut, I was reading Kafka’s animal fables. Not just The Metamorphosis, but things like The Beast in the Synagogue, Jackals and Arabs,the minor ones, where these animals have monologues. In The Burrow, a burrowing animal can never figure out how to disguise his exit and entrance, so he can never feel completely safe. I thought they were brilliant. It was how I came to sort out the Jews I liked in my life. And Kafka is one I really go for. (laughter) Marx is another.

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Lee Breuer. Photo by Julie Archer.

MG I’m a Jew.

LB Yeah, of course. I’m a Jew, too. The point is, I wasn’t that interested in Jews. But then I was looking for one who had a spiritual base. Who was talking Jewish metaphysics. And I think The Trial says it best, because it’s Kafka’s Talmudic exposition. I come from a whole line, on my mother’s side, of rabbis. And, I don’t consider myself a very good Jew, but I was interested in the Kabbalah, and I was really interested in Kafka. And I thought, this man’s hit on animal stories, this is it. I went back to La Fontaine and to Aesop, and then I went way back to the Panchatantra that originated in India 3,000 years ago. And what I realized, chasing the heritage of animal stories, is that the animal metaphor permits the “ingenious philosopher.” If I wanted to write philosophy from a point of view—if I wanted to be able to say what I meant, and have a level of theatricality and entertainment—I’m in the entertainment business, you know—that was the way to go because I’m not a philosopher. I have an attitude, not a philosophy. I want to give Nietzschean speeches to pigs. Ecco Porko is going to be about a Nietzschean pig, with a mustache, of course. It’s the old comedic character, Il Dotore from Bologna who has all these fights with the goat, Pantalone. These are theatrical prototypes. So, I decided to write an animal trilogy—or an animal to insect to animal trilogy. There’s even a plant in it. This redwood tree is a “living god.” It’s about 250 years old—most Gods are around 2,500 years old—it’s the God generation. Anyway, the Shaggy Dog Animations is a love affair that never quite gets into the human sphere.

Basically, in terms of the graphic material, I know what I need to tell the story, but I leave the visuals up to the artists. I worked with a good computer designer and a really good composer, Ushio Torikai. She’s now really famous in Japan.

MG Drawing on so many different theatrical conventions and traditions in staging the play, does narrative coherence become an issue?

LB That’s a question for the audience to answer. You can look at it two ways. One, it’s pure storytelling—that’s pretty basic: There’s a storyteller and there’s a puppet acting out the story. That’s the way children’s theater works. It’s ultra simple. If you weren’t attached to the influences, and you didn’t know I used Ninjo Buyo, an obscure dance form from Japan, or that the costumes were from South Indian Kuddiattham. Or that the sliding around the stage was from Kuruma Ninjo … If you weren’t being an intellectual about it, you would simply see good storytelling. I love to make things crystal clear, but dialectically … You put this crystal clarity against that crystal clarity (being clear is not necessarily being right). I want to describe a series of very clear things that, when you put them all together, are complexly unclear—and may even be true.

MG What influences have you had?

LB I was an English major at UCLA, and I quit school before I graduated. I was interested in film, and if I had had a chance to cross over into film in the beginning, I probably would have. I got into theater because it was cheaper. In The Red Horse Animation I was trying to deconstruct what a film was. If you lie everybody flat and look at them, you’re looking at them on a plane, so you’re looking at them on the screen. I was interested in pinning my dreams down, which were filmic dreams.

MG How do you see … silence? How do you see confusion? How do you see other kinds of theatrical conventions like Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, in relation to your own work?

LB Anybody who’s ever done any drugs is an Artaud lover. You always want a way to get to that level of madness. He did coke, laudanum, this and that, he was a junkie. But he still had the most interesting thoughts about theater in the whole century. John’s [Cagian] silence is a fascinating technique in performance. We were lucky enough to perform with Cage before he died. John was an incredible original. I’m not a Cagian. I’m too shmaltzy, I like camp; I need a bit more of a psychology, but John was tremendous, he taught me so much. Nobody ever told me to listen to silence before. Nobody ever said, every sound is musical. I could see John’s sources for this philosophical stuff, however they’re pure abstractions. And while Cage and Merce Cunningham are not my favorite dance, I find myself working with nothing but Cunningham castoffs because I’m basically committed to a level of performing abstraction, a level of formalism, but I’ve tried to lock the formalism together with story content. I’m still too much of a writer. Merce Cunningham doesn’t need a writer, he doesn’t need to tell a story. I still like to tell stories, these parables.

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From Mabou Mines’s An Epidog. Photo by Beatriz Schiller.

MG I have another question. Many years ago David Warrilow acted in The Lost Ones, which was one of the most moving theatrical experiences I’ve ever had in my life. What has happened to David Warrilow?

LB David died this year from complications resulting from AIDS. He was amazing. We were very, very close at the time we started working together in Paris in 1968.

MG What were you doing in Paris?

LB Just hanging out. I wanted to travel. Ruth and I were in Europe together from ’65 to ’70. JoAnne Akalaitis and Philip Glass picked us up in Greece when we were out of money and we stayed on their floor in Paris. And we found a way to make enough money to stay alive by dubbing films. So we were able to stretch a few months into five years, and we met David, who was an editor for Realité, an extraordinary actor, and an alcoholic. He and Fred Neumann were close and they both came and joined Mabou Mines when we started out in the United States. The climax of my relationship with David was the work on The Lost Ones. That was a breakthrough piece for David, and for me, the first time I got national recognition, David got an Obie. After that David wanted to pursue a separate career. He did a couple of pieces with JoAnne and then he left the company. He went on to have a film career and he acted on the French stage, he was bilingual. He became very close to Beckett. There was always a schism in the company, a stylistic schism.

MG Yeah, I was curious about that.

LB It was really about what level of formalism was perceived to be the direction for the company. On one side, I was always a Pop-head. I was interested in rock & roll and gospel music. I worked with composers like Bob Telson instead of composers like Philip Glass … JoAnne was more conceptual and David was more the classicist.

MG Do you want a permanent base, a rehearsal situation and permanent support for your group? After all, you’re established, you’ve got a track record. You’ve been producing art for what? Twenty-some odd years. One would think that you could get some orthodox support, although you’re doing unorthodox work.

LB One would think, but we don’t. The entire running costs of the theater office was funded by Federal or State funds. Other funds came in for specific projects: the Kennedy Center funded An Epidog and the Rockefeller Foundation funded The Warrior Ant. But now we don’t have any money to keep the studio rent paid or to keep the phones hooked up or to pay the taxes. We’re asking people who can afford it, to support us now. But I don’t think we’re going to go much past this 50-seat theater at P.S. 122. Look, I have some 15 students who are running theaters all over the United States. They’ve been offered companies with multi-million dollar budgets. They’ve been offered artistic directorships. They’ve been invited to join the club, to play musical chairs, jumping from one theater to another. I’ve never been offered a theater in my life. Never once. Nor have I hardly ever been offered an occasion to direct for one. Of course, I do have this reputation ever since the “wildman” Village Voice article, as being this kind of guy that blows people’s budgets and drives everybody nuts. Actually, I’m not really surprised that I’m not getting the offers, because I don’t want to do “their” work. I only really want to do my own work. But it’s interesting to see all of my kids running theaters. I’m living off my students a lot.

MG One of the difficulties that all of us have as we get older is, how do you avoid envy, bitterness, how do you avoid yourself, as a matter of fact? Obviously, we’re all involved in something that nobody’s asked us to do. Nobody’s on your back saying, Hey Lee, make that work. You’re in it because you can’t do anything else, finally. I strongly believe that because you can’t do anything else you’re free in our society. You’re free to starve obviously, but that freedom is valuable.

LB Yeah.

MG There are a number of independent filmmakers from the ’50s like Ron Rice and Jack Smith who were doing things that I always found extraordinarily fascinating. Did they influence you in any way?

LB Oh, yeah. I knew Jack (Smith) well, and I loved his work and I’ve been very influenced by it. There’s a couple of other people, Stan Brakhage, obviously.

MG There’s another filmmaker, Maya Deren.

LB Yeah, Maya Deren’s partner is my consultant for this bebop opera, Lulu, I’m doing with John Faddis. The last act is about Haitian Voodo.

MG When I was coming up in the art world, there were about three or four galleries in New York. People made art, not because we were selling it as objects, but because we really thought we could change the world by making art. I hate to say it, but I still feel that way. I’ve been quite lucky, obviously, because now I live very well …

LB The story that I didn’t tell was that I’ve worked five years on The Shaggy Dog Animation. I worked on the whole trilogy since 1975. And now it’s 1995, that’s 20 years, and the book’s coming out this year. The thing I made the most money on, I did in 20 minutes. I wrote the lyrics for Brenda, Brenda which was the b-side of Calling You, the Oscar nominated song for the film, Bagdad CafeCalling You, Bob Telson’s song became number one in about 15 countries. And what went riding right along with that was my little b-side, Brenda, Brenda. What happened was, Bob and I were working on Gospel in Minneapolis and Bob had this movie deal with Percy Adlon. Bob called my room and said, “I gotta write these lyrics, and could you help me out?” We had it in about 20 minutes, and the album’s still selling. Both my kids with Ruth Maleczech—Clove and Lute—went through school on that 20 minutes work. The flip side of that is, I make a $500 advance on a book that I’ve worked on 20 years! Not that I’m not happy it’s getting published. There’s not the slightest relationship between making a profit and making art.

Michael Goldberg is a painter and cultural historian who divides his time between New York City and the outskirts of Siena, Italy.

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Originally published in

BOMB 56, Summer 1996

Featuring interviews with Martha Plimpton, Irvine Welsh, Jeffrey Vallance, Nick Pappas, Mark Eitzel, Lee Breuer, Ornette Coleman, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Janwillem van de Wetering, and Ada Gay Griffin & Michelle Parkerson on Audre Lorde.

Read the issue
Issue 56 056  Summer 1996