I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Select Equity Group Series on Theater
Ode to the Man Who Kneels, End of Reality, Showcase, Showy Lady Slipper, Henry IV Part 1, Caveman, Boxing 2000 … I never miss them. The particular, awkward liveness of Richard Maxwell’s productions has something to do with stripping theater down to a paradoxical truth: what happens on stage is really happening. Staged in locations as diverse as The Kitchen, BAM’s Next Wave Festival, and various hotels, his strangely basic language—spoken and sung—is usually accompanied by minimal sets and simplified, sometimes explosive action. Maxwell writes the stories and composes the music, and these activities are always very present in his approach to directing. He also produces and performs live country music shows, some of which were hosted by Reena Spaulings Fine Art, where I work, and where the following conversation took place.
BOMB asked us to “push the envelope” of the interview format. So Maxwell and I decided that instead of me interviewing him, he would direct me. It’s rough, like a rehearsal of something we try to get closer to by repeating, and, in the process of changing it, sometimes lose it. This is how theater works.
My assignment was to learn a monologue written by Maxwell, an excerpt from The Frame, which was produced in Bonn, Germany in 2006. We worked for a couple of hours, with some BOMB staff as an audience and recording equipment. Afterwards, we briefly approached something more like an interview.
MONOLOGUE FROM THE FRAME
by Richard Maxwell
Scene: The Brother and his Father (MENTIS). The father has been drinking.
MENTIS: Even uf you’re in in the middel you’d still figure it out. All the o/…Oh never mind. Tomas was there. He is a fire man now. Can you imagine? A Doctor of Philosophy is now a fire man. i like the siberia. I like it! I wanna go ther! CAn yo ubelive it? All the sailors. THey are there. And Katerina. SHe is there, not there I mean. Well. Oh well. She is the reason. I suppose. I am saying this only because someone tole me to. I saw Agat. She is in a sxy dress. I like her. BEing there. Well It wouldn’t be the same without her. She is from COrsica. Where the hell is that? SHe is from another universe,mm from what I can tell. Goood-bye alexa. Sorry. What do these girls want. I can give it to them, son. But I cannot. Really. Well I feel I can but I won;t ………….. You could take a picture of it. You will capture time. Daguerreotype it! What do you think. About it. It;s putting effore in to not being conscious. but !@@!!!It;s so consciouss. I feeel soorry forr those people. !!! Really bad!!! I’M ROUGH AND READY!!!!!!…What is this IDEA of property, in oter words, their rights… why is it important to walk around on it and build stuffs on it. What is the essence of thix,, this possession?.. I want what you got. Is it? The engraver and the modeler. I didn’t joined their group. -You want to make a point. You want to make an impact. You gotta package this shit up. So. Lemme see….You gotta package up how their is maybe some OTHER value besides cash value and package it to make money?? That’s rough and tough. And then, you…on the second xmas day you try to sell your possessions but find no buyers. YEah. and they tell you because of O, extermely bad times! Annnn….Fuck it!!! Ohnnnnn… SOn!!??
… Protect your niece. She;s your horse…..GErlach, the wind bag, resides in Tartarus. Give him the zweiback….locks!!..oh, pretty golden locks…mmm.
MENTIS (holding his son):
In a dream You stopped to look at my face Oysters, the cloisters In siberia I liked it Like Oslo baking in summertime That’s how you smell my dear
The boy’s let go. Let him go He will rise.
(John recites the monologue)
Richard Maxwell Okay. Nice job. It’s great that you memorized that, and that’ll come in handy later, but there’s some stuff I want to look at first. There are a lot of typos and crap in the text—it’s sloppy—and you corrected that when you read in a lot of places. I’m curious to hear what it sounds like in its pure form.
John Kelsey You mean if I articulate your typos?
JK For example, these two m’s could be pronounced EM EM or MMMM?
RM Well, that’s up to you. You’ll have to grapple with these peculiarities.
JK Your punctuation marks are also particular.
RM My intention, lack of intention, or whatever when I was writing this is pretty immaterial at this point, so right now, my curiosity is only in what this yields rhythmically. How are we going to know what this can yield rhythmically unless you’re being accurate?
JK Regardless of your intentions?
RM Yeah. This is the text we have to deal with; this is all we have right now, it’s in black and white.
JK There are some exclamation points before “really bad.”
RM Yeah, I’m glad that you noticed that, but I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how to deal with that. Here’s a little window of opportunity where you decide what to say. It doesn’t have to be the same every time, you know what I’m saying? So, just to finish the rhythmic thing, there’s this thing, there’s this pause, there’s this piece here, and then there’s this, which is kind of “cheap verse,” I guess you could say. I’ll be listening to what might need to change in terms of the text, too, its rhythm and how it comes off the page. So the closer you can come to executing it helps me to decide whether it needs to be changed or not.
(John recites the monologue again)
JK I didn’t handle the exclamations very well. (coughs) It’s partly because I’m sick and I’m having trouble with my voice.
RM Well, appropriate it to your state, so you can at least experience the—
JK —The differences.
RM Yeah. It’s important that you find a way to commit to the punctuation aspect of it.
JK Okay. And it says, “He’s been drinking.” Does that mean I have to wobble around and slur my words?
RM No, that’s jumping ahead. Stick to the text. You can hold onto that piece of paper, too, if you want.
(They stand up)
RM Take advantage of the fact that we have people here watching.
JK How do I do that? Read it to them?
JK Okay. I really don’t know what that means.
RM Yeah … I’m not sure either, really.
JK Does that mean address the audience? Is the monologue directed toward a group of listeners?
RM Yeah, I think it helps, regardless of how it gets staged in the end. I mean, because ultimately it’s not for us that we’re doing this, right? So let’s just further that idea along here a little bit. Forget about what it says on the page in terms of who’s there. We’re just dealing with the text and delivering that to the people here watching. Stay connected to us, in other words, throughout.
JK All right, so we’re still on the text; we’re not dealing with my other question about drunkenness, and I don’t need the bottle.
RM Don’t worry; you’ll get the bottle, John. (laughter)
(John recites the monologue again. Richard interrupts)
RM Use us to bring it out. It’s still staying inside you.
JK Okay, I’ll try. From the top?
(John recites the monologue again and interrupts himself)
JK I’m sorry, can I just stop here?
RM What’s up?
JK I’m just going through the text in my head. I’m not … I don’t know how to put it “out there.” I’ve never done this before. I just feel like I’m wasting your—our—time. I need to do something else to get it out. I don’t feel like I’m following your directions.
RM You are. You’re doing fine. It’s really important that you’re not judging what you’re doing, that you’re really executing the task at hand, as faithfully as you can.
JK I have no idea right now what it means to put the words out there. I can read them, I can show you that I remember them, but in terms of getting rid of them …
RM But it’s as simple as you talking to us, rather than saying the words. And it’s hard, too, because you’re basically exposed and uncertain. But there’s no way around that. That’s why I want to wait on the bottle and the stumbling around and things like that, because I’m afraid that that’s gonna confuse the process a little bit in terms of what we’re working on right now.
JK I’m gonna try again. From the top?
RM Yeah. Does it make sense if I tell you “stay with us”? Does that help you at all? To “stay with us” as you go through the text? I think you’ve got four good listeners here. I know we’ve all heard it before, but for our purposes it’s really important.
JK Maybe … maybe the idea that we’re all listening to it together or something. I’m listening to it as well.
RM Yeah. Okay.
JK All right, here we go.
(John recites the monologue again, without interruption)
JK I still have all these pauses where I’m trying to remember the words.
RM Yeah, it’s hard to remember lines when you’re talking. Why don’t we take a break here?
Rehearsal: Part 2
RM I feel like we need to show some kind of progress or we have to have some kind of end product to show for our efforts. But I’m talking to myself. It’s just to remind myself that we’re working for an hour and not to have great expectations here. And you should know that, too. I just have to remember it’s a conversation. It’s a conversation, man.
JK I’m resisting a lot, too. There are a lot of things I’d like to ask you, but I’m gonna stick to the job here.
RM Well, is it about your performance? Because I don’t think you should be holding that back.
JK My questions are about acting.
RM But you’re acting. And doing a damned fine job.
JK Thank you so much.
RM It doesn’t feel forced, right?
JK Am I German?
RM Your character is German.
JK Should I speak with a German accent?
RM Ultimately, we’ll decide who this character is. The audience will decide who this character is. So if we wanted to get dramaturgical about it, this was a play that was staged in Germany and that was translated into German. This speech was done in German. It doesn’t make sense for me to do that with you. You’re not German. You’re John. And you’re reading these words that indicate someone who’s drunk who’s talking to his son.
JK So my words are addressed to the son.
RM Well, that would be one way to stage it.
JK How old is the son?
RM He’s probably around 18 years old.
JK And he’s standing there listening to me.
RM Yeah, but that’s why I don’t want to get the bottle out and props and stuff. That’s really immaterial. It’s too easy. We can add that at the end; we can fix it.
JK And is this about me remembering something that happened before, or am I perhaps really in Siberia in that moment?
RM That’s a great question. It’s also something that the audience decides.
JK There’s a difference between telling a tale and … hallucinating it.
RM Yeah, but if that were important, I could write a line that says, “I’m hallucinating, this is not really happening.” There are ways to indicate that without relying on verisimilitude. So right now we’re working on you feeling some kind of ownership of this text, so that everybody watching can hear it, can get it. And in terms of navigation, the words and the punctuation are your guide right now. Use them. Take advantage of them. You’re not doing that right now. I’m not crazy about you going back to holding the page. But if that helps you get a feeling for the flow and also the punctuation … I know you’re sick, but I really want you to feel, to know what it’s like, to go to the maximum where that’s indicated in terms of volume.
JK In caps?
RM Yeah, in caps. And my concern is finding out what we can glean if we allow the text to lead us, rather than feeling like we need to lead. Questions like, “Who am I talking to? Am I drunk? Do I have a bottle?”—all that stuff is about you wanting to lead the text somewhere, to take it somewhere and make it interesting. And I understand that impulse; I’m feeling it too. But what I want to discover is, if we follow the text as faithfully as we can, what happens there? You’re gonna hear it, I’m gonna hear it differently, but, hopefully we can find our way into this thing that way.
(John recites the monologue and Richard interrupts)
RM Isn’t that where all the exclamation points are?
JK Yeah. So you want me to scream?
RM Well, what’s the maximum? Just do that, just to feel it out. Just do that line. Maximum volume.
JK I’M ROUGH AND READY!!!!!!
RM (laughter) I like that you looked at me. Is that the maximum?
JK I think so. You think I should go more?
RM Well, if it’s not maximum, then yes.
JK You just want maximum. That’s all you’re asking?
RM Yeah. That’s what I want you to commit to right now.
JK What about the neighbors?
RM They’ll be all right. It makes it real clear—the commitment that’s required. Right?
JK Commitment to what?
RM To what you’re doing. I mean, what are we doing? You’re delivering text. And your questions to me are about how you should be doing this and what you’re supposed to be thinking about. Here’s a really specific example of what commitment could look like.
JK Commitment to the text?
RM Yeah. How you maintain commitment to the text when the text itself isn’t so clear. Let’s run it one more time.
JK Have I been drinking?
RM Well, here we go. This is kind of the meat of the conversation—that question. And the other questions you’ve asked along the lines of character. Were we to work on this some more, the way into this would be to find out how you, John, fit into this scenario here. Why are you standing here doing what you’re doing? That question is not about the character that’s written on the page there. That question is about you. There’s a kind of compulsion when you’re acting to make it believable, to make it credible. That’s not my concern. That’s going to happen. Whatever happens will be real. It will be real in some fashion. What I don’t want you to do is get into a position where you have to pretend that you’re somewhere else than this room right now, doing what you’re doing. And yes, there is a story happening here. There is a kind of fiction being told. But again, that’s up for the audience to decide what its value is. So my conversation is not about Mentis, the character that you’re reading. It’s about you, John, and how we can work on this text. How we can put it across to an audience in a clear fashion so that they receive it and do what they will with it. And there are obviously other factors that go into that conversation, like costume and set and props and whatever. What kind of choices you make, we don’t know. What I’m saying is that it’s really important that our conversation doesn’t ever leave the room, if you know what I mean. We’re working on this, and you’re sick. You’re not sure what you’re doing. It’s uncomfortable. That’s all part of the reality here. That’s happening. I don’t want to deny that. I also don’t want to deny that we’ve done this before. When we’re rehearsing something, we’ll do this hundreds of times. To me, it doesn’t make any sense to put much effort into pretending this is the first time when that’s not what has happened. It’s just not the case. It always comes back to you in terms of your reasons for standing up here on stage. That’s the kind of exploration I like to have. It starts to make sense when you put it in front of an audience, when you have that electric environment, that formal situation. So we’re gonna just try this one more time and I’m curious to see what happens if you can experience the volume thing. That was something that made you aware of how you do something like that, and I’d like to see if this time through you can find other opportunities, if there’s a way to channel that for yourself. I don’t know if that makes sense, but we’ll see. Go ahead.
(John recites the monologue from the top and Richard interrupts)
RM I’m sorry, I just want one last thing here: I want you to do all the things like stumbling around with the bottle. I want to see what happens if you do all of those things you imagined.
JK I think acting drunk is rarely successful. Maybe Dean Martin is an exception. He based his whole act on acting drunk, or being drunk while acting—we’ll never know which. I have clichés in my head. Bad drunk acts. I wouldn’t choose them. If it’s important to the scene that I stumble around, I’ll do it. But in real life, I drink all the time and I don’t slur my words that much. I never fall down. It’s maybe what I say that’s different. But here’s the bottle.
RM Just for kicks, let’s do it. If you’re gonna do it, though, commit to it—to the drunkenness, even if it’s a cliché.
JK Commit to the cliché. Okay.
RM Go ahead.
JK This is gonna be hard.
RM Just dive in.
(John recites the entire monologue)
JK I kept forgetting that I was supposed to be drunk.
Part II: Talking
JK Yours is not what I would call communicative language. Maybe your writing is more sub-communicative … for example, a typo—that’s kind of an automatic thing that happens in the writing process. It’s not writing in the service of producing a representation of the “real”: real life, real talk. There’s something inefficient about it. So it’s a strange feeling delivering it to an audience and putting it out there.
RM It’s ironic, I guess, but it’s driven by authenticity. Trying … that’s how I feel we speak, you know? For what it’s worth, when I wrote that speech I was drunk.
JK “He’s been drinking.” (laughter)
RM I don’t think that’s necessary in order to have a lively theatrical experience. But that’s actually what happened. That night I was at Siberia Bar.
JK So the drunkenness is already in the writing; there’s no reason for me to pantomime it or something.
RM Well, if it’s really important to show that someone is drunk, there are tons of ways we can do that, and it doesn’t have to rely on an actor trying to get into a state of believability to put that across. I guess there’s that duality again of, of looking for authenticity but also understanding that we’re in an artificial environment at the same time.
JK How do you think about the movement from the page, from your decision-making process of writing to its embodied form in your directing work? I guess I’m interested in the idea that the writing process is still very much present in the directing. Usually on television and in movies, the writing is left behind once the camera’s rolling.
RM You think?
JK Well, I was watching the TV show John From Cincinnati … it’s the same guy that made Deadwood, David Milch. It feels like the writing is right there on the screen, with the costumes, the makeup, the acting, everything. I was so aware of the writer’s moment-by-moment decision-making. When you’re watching one of his shows, what you’re really watching is the actors and their bodies negotiating those decisions, too. It’s a bit hard to explain, but I feel like the writing is right up there with everything else, and that’s not a normal TV experience. I feel that with your work, too.
RM Sometimes I wonder if the directing I do gets compromised with the writing and rewriting that I do during rehearsals. When I was directing Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, for example, I got really frustrated because I couldn’t change it. I like knowing I can change things. And writing something on the page doesn’t really mean anything until you hear it spoken by someone else in a staged context. A large part of rehearsals is about figuring out what the writing needs to do; it’s a totally different animal when it’s spoken live, and in front of an audience, so it changes even after people are coming.
I think the staging might get more adventurous if there weren’t so much time spent on working on the writing. I tend to create more static pictures on stage and I’m just drawn to that, maybe because I’m familiar with it. I’m always questioning how necessary fanciful blocking is in terms of telling a story. I earnestly want to get that story to an audience in as unfiltered a way as possible, but I recognize that I can’t change people’s viewing history at the same time. There’s nothing I can do about that because I recognize that people are not behaving on stage like they do in a “normal” production. But I think there’s something worth exploring when the performer can accept the fact that they’re in an artificial situation, where we have rehearsed and our concern is not going to be about trying to make it believable.
JK Right. You just have to believe that you’re there doing it.
RM You don’t even have to—you just have to do it.
JK So it’s just a question of work and paying attention to the work you’re doing?
RM It goes deeper than that. When you repeat something over and over, when you rehearse something over time and you’re meeting together and you’re collaborating on this thing and it’s gonna be a theatrical production and you’re gonna put it up in front of people, that requires a huge amount of courage and willingness to expose yourself. I think it can go pretty deep—your reasons for doing what you’re doing. Each person, each actor, will have to answer that question for themselves, individually.
JK Is it also important that you, the director, understand the actors’ deeper reasons for doing what they do?
RM No, it isn’t. Only to know if they know the reasons.
JK I’m also wondering about the kinds of language, or language models, that you use. In End of Reality there’s a lot of bureaucratic or institutional language. I remember crazy, physical action—fights, brawls—onstage, and then this weird, abstract bureaucratic speak. It was almost like listening to people talking in police code or reading from a police manual.
RM Well, I wanted to somehow illustrate the kind of banter that would happen in a secure environment like that, on the job. There was a point where it became really clear that underneath all of this banal dialogue there was a real existential struggle happening within the minds of these characters. In my mind, I guess it was my existential struggle that manifested itself into the words.
JK What was that struggle about?
RM It was personal. It was a personal crisis. I don’t really want to talk about it, but that’s the reason why those words happened.
JK Back to this idea of the artifice of a production: when you put on Henry IV in Brooklyn at BAM, it was kind of a scandal. A lot of people walked out in the middle of the performance I was at.
RM In the middle? It started pretty early on.
JK Yeah, there was this mass exodus from the theater and people were shouting and really pissed off. I thought it was one of the best theater experiences I ever had, but obviously with Shakespeare the audience is expecting a certain kind of treatment, a certain kind of professionalism in terms of the handling of Shakespeare’s material, and you obviously made some decisions that frustrated or offended the audience. How do you explain that reaction?
RM Well, first of all, there were a lot of people that liked the show, and it’s important to distinguish the production from the experience. I’m not going to claim that it was a perfectproduction—it wasn’t; it was something that I would have liked more time to work on, but I was surprised at the reaction from a large number of people who had watched it. Also, their reaction runs in tandem with my reasons for doing what I did. I’m no expert on Shakespeare, but I’ve seen enough productions to know that there is a kind of consistency. It’s about virtuosity in a certain sense: execution and dexterity. It’s what you look for when you go to the circus. That kind of proficiency. Like a magician, you know what I mean?
JK So the guy walking the tightrope has to be a tightrope walker—he can’t just be anybody.
RM Right. (laughter) That’s probably a good idea. But, I really believe that it shouldn’t hold for theater. Even Shakespeare. So I had people onstage for the first time, let alone speaking Shakespeare.
RM Yeah. So I understand that some people didn’t like it.
RM Yeah, maybe half. (laughter) It ended up being a good thing. I liked the conversations that it generated, as hard as the immediate aftermath was. It was a real eye-opening experience.
JK In what way?
RM It’s made me think about audiences more. They always say “know your audience,” but I’ve never been very good at that. Or I realize who my audience is when it’s too late. But there is a streak in me that will always resist the notion that you can know your audience. In the run-up to the show, looking back on it now, I must have been willfully naive to not see that reaction coming.
JK Do you suffer when you lose part of an audience like that?
RM Oh yeah, totally. I mean, you get used to it but I get bummed out when the guy in front of me yawns, puts his arm around his girlfriend, just kinda starts checking out. You can’t help but take that personally. But it’s balanced by all of the people that identify with it, when it gets them somewhere that they maybe haven’t been before.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Claire Fontaine, Nayland Blake and Rachel Harrison, Roman Signer and Armin Senser, John Giorno, Kelly Reichardt and Gus Van Sant, Alan Vega and Matt McAuley and Brain McPeck, Richard Maxwell and John Kelsey, Chris Lipomi and Kathryn Andrews, and Peter Cole.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee