“I don’t write plays anymore,” Richard Foreman says while rehearsing his new show, Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland, due to premiere in two months’ time from this chilly November afternoon. Now he culls his texts from notebooks that he keeps daily, and instead of crafting line readings and psychological conflicts during rehearsals, he crafts moments.
And it is a craft like any other, but the peculiar materials he’s working with are time and space. The thing is, both are filled with all these objects: words, video, blindfolds, people, large black knots, and in this production two miniature grand pianos (the set has been fully-built for a while now). All are in undoubted evidence during the process (Foreman rehearses each show for several months before it opens), which also includes a row of interns, all the performers in full costume, wires and sound boards and texts, mounted for convenience on stiff white paper. Foreman, during rehearsals, sits in the middle of the audience on an office chair with arms, lists of sound and light cues and the text itself at his side; to his left sits his stage manager, Brendan Regimbal, cheerfully (at least he’s cheerful this Sunday afternoon) calling the cues, making notes, keeping track of the endless details from behind his own tech boards. A video engineer sits directly before him, a light technician to his left, a sound technician to the right.
“We’re starting from 37:05,” Brendan yells out, referencing the place in the video from which most of the stage production takes its cues. “And roll video!” As the video (completed months ago; it doesn’t change much once rehearsals begin) begins to move on two screens above the playing area, the cast goes through its choreographed motions. In this scene, four elegantly-dressed women are manipulating vases holding large Styrofoam balls; an elegantly-dressed man is trying rather unsuccessfully to make contact with them.
Foreman stops the proceedings. “I don’t like those Styrofoam balls any more,” he says dourly. He sits for a moment then brightens. “Knots! Yes, knots painted gold!” Everyone breaks into laughter, including Foreman; knots play a large part of this particular mise-en-scene, whatever they may mean, and this will introduce another echo of the motif (it would seem almost Wagnerian if there were some precise theme connected with it, but there isn’t) apparently without reason. But it does echo the black knots that the women are manipulating; this seems good enough for now. Brendan makes a note to have some gold-painted knots made to be placed into the mouths of the vases, and the rehearsal continues.
Although Foreman’s shows have been becoming technically more complex for years, during rehearsals he spends a great deal of time with the actors, but his instructions to them are far more biomechanical than Stanislavskian. He tells one actress, “Look up as if you’re saying, ‘I want to be a part of this!’ And then you see that you aren’t, and you’re hurt.” Nor does Foreman hesitate to leap from his chair onto the stage to demonstrate the movements he wants the performers to make. Then, of course, there are those moments in which the movements remain undecided so far. “Do you want me to move to the left or to the right?” an actress asks. “I don’t know,” he says, asking her to explore both possibilities. However, Foreman never gives more than rough outlines of gesture to the performers. The actors and actresses perform, interpret his suggestions in their own movements: they do make them their own, stylize them with their own physical instincts.
During a break, he shows me a large folding black board from which he works: there are pasted in it columns of numbers and three- or four-word descriptions of the cues these represent; often, they’re sound loops of a few words or sentences from the text. “We make jokes that it’s like a Chinese menu, and I guess it is,” he explains; during the rehearsal he’ll say, “Let’s try 204 here,” and the sound technician can instantly call up the cue and play it through the speakers. “One from column A, two from column B … and we see what we end up with,” he laughs.
And sometimes he is not laughing. He stops the rehearsal at one point and says, “What is that?” He seems to be the first to hear a low bass thrumming rhythm shaking the theatre. He sends producer Shannon Sindelar to investigate; she returns to report that a bass guitarist has been practicing in a nearby room. He has been told to move further away, and Foreman begins the rehearsal again.
“Things like that still bother me, and I try to find ways to fix the problem,” he tells me. For this particular show, he has been running a recording of John Cage’s Europeras, made up of various sound elements arranged by chance, through the performance (Foreman claims to be coming to a new admiration for Cage’s achievement); then, odd outside noises may not seem so invasive. But Foreman’s face falls. “It doesn’t work.”
By 3:00, the rehearsal has been going on for five hours (with a half-hour break for lunch); this continues six days a week; and the hours can be hard, calling on intense attention to detail from both performers, designers, the stage manager, the cast, and Foreman himself. Once an hour or so, Regimbal calls a “Stop and write,” when he joins the cast on the stage to help them annotate the changes that have been made into their scripts. But there’s an ease that’s been engendered among the theatre practitioners. Foreman chats with the designers and the invited visitors during these breaks; there’s a lot of laughter; to a visiting pianist, he jokes that she should do a concert on a raked stage, from which the piano (and pianist) slowly roll into the audience.
Today, Foreman and his collaborators have been working on a five-minute piece of the play, carefully designing each individual moment – but what’s surprising is that each individual moment leads from and to another. In crafting this time and space, the rehearsal process finds not only a few minutes here and there of importance – suddenly, you realize, each moment itself is uniquely important, not only for itself but for the ways in which each connects to another. The director, cast and crew seem to be creating sentences of time, word by word, and this reminds me of Georges Bataille’s discussion of the quality of language in finding connections within itself. “Ever since sentences started to circulate in brains devoted to reflection, an effort at total identification has been made, because with the aid of a copula each sentence ties one thing to another,” he wrote. “All things would be visibly connected if one could discover at a single glance and in its totality the tracings of an Ariadne’s thread leading thought into its own labyrinth.” During Foreman’s rehearsal process, that labyrinth is explored, the rehearsal process itself that thread; and who could know, even with all the indexed sound and light cues, all the decisions made by the placement of the performers’ bodies, what might lie around the next bend in the labyrinth?
It’s just after 3:00 and time enough for one more hour of rehearsal. Regimbal and Foreman take their seats in the audience, the cast stands and waits again to take position – for Regimbal to call “Roll video!” – and Foreman takes up his Chinese-restaurant menu of cues. He tells the cast that he’d just been describing it to me that way, and they laugh with recognition. One of the actresses says, “You can order up a pretty interesting meal from that.” And Foreman responds, “And if you really know the chef, you can order stuff that’s not on the menu.” Regimbal places his hands on the lightboard, says, “Are we ready?” and the rehearsal commences again.
George Hunka is the author of the blog Superfluities Redux.
For more of George's writing on past Foreman productions, read his entries