Saturday, January 31, 2009
Text and photos contributed by Leah Herman
Richard has been lauded across disciplines as a master of design, sound, movement and, of course, theater. The set, props and costumes are his creations, his vision.
It takes 10 interns, the props mistress, technical director and stage manager two full weeks to build the initial set, create the initial props and assemble the inital costumes. That adds up to roughly 910+ hours of building, painting, gluing, errand running, sawing, stapling, sewing, drilling...and activities I don't know words to describe (these ARE Formanized objects.) Then rehearsals start and all bets are off.
Over the next three months, everything goes through changes. Feathers, jewels, string, papers, a double dildo, blocks, multiple cacti and baby legs (off the top of my head) have come and gone. Props are built, added, and cut. The set is painted, written on, repainted, rewritten on, and then covered in material. The 10 foot snake (I sewed it myself) had a simple head, then a head with a tiara, then a head with a tiara and a snake in the mouth, then a head with a tiara and a baby in the mouth, then simply a head with a tiara. Karl started in a Prince Valiant wig, went to a Brunhilda wig, then to his own hair slicked down and parted in the middle, then to a hat. The hat has been through at least five incarnations involving gold paint, black gaff tape, two different rubber snake heads, and a piece of black cloth hot glued to the back. Richard seemed to develop an odd need to spend long periods of time with Karl's hat. "Come here," he'd beckon with his finger. Karl would walk over, hand his hat over, and we'd sit while Richard applied concentric circles of tape. Rehearsal would begin again, and Richard would say, "No, it isn't right." And Karl dutifully walked over and relinquished the hat.
Less than two weeks before opening, the trademark plexi and string that separates the audience from the performers came down in 10 minutes of screwdrivers, lug wrenches and a pair of scissors. It was called, "Richard Goes Radical." He said, 'In the next lecture I do, I think it will be called, How to Make Theater Without String.' " Everyone - performers, interns, stage manager and audio engineer were, to use our term, "completely freaked out" by the sudden openness. "This is like theater," someone said.
Attached are some photos chronicling the changes in costumes, props and set design. I wish I could show you everything. These photos show less than a fraction of what has happened.
Friday, January 30, 2009
Contributed by OHT intern Ian Picco
I've been interested in the subject of magic ever since I was in high school, when I befriended a local intellectual/tormented genius/magician. It never became a subject that I studied too seriously. The scattered sacred texts I was able to get my hands on were always fascinating to read, but ultimately too esoteric for my intellect to obtain. I have a problem with holding on to certain kinds arcane knowledge, and thus have a difficult time when it comes to discussing such topics with other "intellectuals." I don't easily retain the specific names or terminology that is needed for fluent discourse. But nevertheless, I don't let it deter me from making an attempt.
Indeed, I did lose interest in magic after that friendship ended after high school, and I moved away to college. It wasn't until I found myself working on the production of Foreman/Zorn's Astronome: A Night at the Opera that my interest in magic resurfaced. The reason being, perhaps, because it was the first time in my life that I actually witnessed real magic.
I would liken Foreman's process of creating a play to the practice of alchemy, in that he takes raw material and transforms them into gold and precious jewels. It is a long process, and you must first create a lot of lousy theatre to get to a pure and valuable product.
The product Foreman has transmutated this season is Astronome. The play is littered with magical and mystical symbols, incantations, rituals, and dark poetry. The first 2 and a half months of rehearsal I was seeing the play as a sort of ritual, a dark and sinister ceremony. I knew it was about magic, but I hardly expected it to actually be magic.
Then I stumbled upon the Church of Satan on the internet, and I was surprised (though, not really) to find some rather uncanny resemblances between Foreman's play and the Satanic ritual of Black Mass. I wrote a short piece on my blog drawing parallels between Astronome's ritualistic aspects, and The Church of Satan's theatrical aspects. You can read it here.
Then I started to read a bit into the Key of Solomon, which has to deal with Kabbalistic magic, and Western Hermetic practices. (There is an online text here.) And I started to wonder if Foreman himself has a working knowledge of all this, or if he is just working from some genius intuition. Richard said the other day that he was unsure as to whether John Zorn was even aware of the magic present in his composition. So then maybe they are both intuitive geniuses, and their magic comes purely by coincidence. Either way, Richard surely recognized the magic inherent in Zorn's Astronome and ran with it. And though he is certainly not practicing any form of orthodox magic that I know of; with Astronome, Foreman has succeeded in creating a real ceremony of serious magic. I just hope he understands the responsibility of the power he possesses.
Before I sign off, I also wanted to share briefly my experience of last night's run through. There was something that happened that changed my whole outlook of the play. I noticed a very small yet very drastic change in the actors' gaze.
This gaze suddenly gave a whole new tone to the play and to the characters that inhabit it. It also completely transformed the whole locality of the play for me, transporting me to another world. Where I used to see a group of actors performing a ritual in this world, I now see bizare group of underworldings who inhabit some sinister underworld or afterlife.
This new place that has been created is quite real, and quite frightening. What I saw in the characters eyes was a sense of real fear, something dark, a sinister stare. I suddenly realized that these characters where not of their own free will. They are being watched, made to perform, like puppets, strange gestures and bizare rituals: perhaps for eternity. They know they are being watched, you can see it in their eyes. They move with extreme caution, as to not miss a step, so the watcher doesn't notice anything out of the ordinary. This is a dangerous and anxiety ridden world they inhabit.
During last night's run trough, I was so much more affected by, and aware of, multiple layers of psychological associations in the play. I can honestly say that my experience was one of brief existential anxiety (until of course a bright light shone in my eye, thus denying me permission to fully fulfill my immediate desire, which was to contemplate a green light hanging in the corner of the stage).
It is what attracted me to Foreman's theater in the first place: this sense of playing to the audiences psyche rather than to their intellect. It is something that I couldn't really know until I experienced it first hand.
I just glad that the frustration of working through Foreman's relentless experimentations actually payed off: not that i had any doubts. But what 2 months ago I saw as a a process with no logic or reason; I now see as an intuitive ceremony that yields a wealth of esoteric knowledge.
If anything in Foreman's plays "make sense" it isn't because you can apply an intellectualized set of logic to it; but rather, it just "feels right (or wrong)." Foreman presents this very idea in a line of poetry "spoken" in Astronome: "The power of the message, is simply, to engender the thing with that message itself." This is, I think, definitely at the core of Foreman's technique.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
There's LOTS of information out there about Richard in interviews and essays and so forth. They cover the clever, theoretical, artistically relevant, conceptual questions around the maestro. Here's some tidbits those interviews might not mention...
Richard Foreman is funny. Very funny.
He has an alter-ego named Norman Foreman.
He recommends you read Peter Kingsley’s book, REALITY.
Did I mention he’s funny?
He wears black plastic spa shoes during rehearsal.
He likes fleece.
Richard is generous with the younger artists he knows who work around him.
He takes scissors and cuts material off costumes as the actors are wearing them. Sometimes he sits in his chair and says, “Come here.” Sometimes he just walks onto the stage and cuts.
During breaks he will quietly pick up gaff tape, walk onto the set and start taping stripes and x’s.
Richard hears everything we say, even if he doesn’t respond or seem to notice. He notices.
He watches one daytime soap opera.
During rehearsals, he will lift one finger in front of his eyes and wiggle it back and forth while he watches a performer. We have no idea why.
Funny. Right, I said that.
When you are in the rehearsal process, he’d like you to be immersed in it.
More than half the cast and crew began working with Richard as interns. No matter where you come from, what you do, or how long you've done it, if you want to work with Richard, interning is good. He notices.
He eats homemade sandwiches for lunch.
I’ve never seen him drink anything.
Richard knows all about hot glue.
If something doesn’t look right, he’ll take a pen, walk onto the set and start writing on the walls. Then he'll start changing the lights (see video)
Every once in a while, he will nap during the lunch break. Usually he sits in his black office chair and looks at the set.
Richard wears a headset instead of the special earplugs the rest of us use during rehearsals. Yesterday he broke one side off because...something about it not working with his glasses.
When inspired, he tells great stories.
He might disagree with one or more items on this list.
Tidbits assembled by Leah Herman
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
What is that Pink Feather in my Husband’s Hat or Musings on Immediacy and Richard Foreman (Astronome)
Contributed by Leah Herman
It is my experience that NYers survive the constant, frenetic stimulation of the city by opening up to what interests them and closing out the rest. The degree to which this is successful is, I think, what determines the level of patience or snarkiness each person in this city exhibits. I am simplifying, of course, but the general idea is that whether you live in New York or Des Moines, we each have ways, frequently subconscious, by which we let in what we want to let in and block out what we don’t.
Richard Foreman bombards us with stimulation. Sets. Light. Sound. Pauses in which there is only a brief cessation of action, but never stillness - the underlying energy and tension is always there. The first time I saw a Foreman production I had the simultaneous experience of such sensory overload that the breath was shocked out of me, and the desperate wish that it would never end. All I could feel were my eyes moving, roving, taking in the stage, picking up pieces, giving in, giving over to this outrageous experience. Every part of me was alive. I came back to see the play over and over and over, bringing (or dragging, depending on who you ask) various friends with me. David went out of his mind with impatience – his brain simply could not hold the breadth of activity. Stacey loved it, but laughed and said, “No, once is enough” when I asked if she wanted to come back with me. For me - each time, same thing: breath knocked out, alive with the immediacy.
This year I’m a production intern on Astronome. I’m here to work, listen and watch, paying assiduous attention to what’s going on around me. Sitting on the back riser taking blocking notes, I watch hour after hour of rehearsals. I have listened to Richard muse, joke, direct, explore, question, change, solve, think out loud, accommodate, and become (occasionally) a little irritated. I see the same sequences repeated, amended, replaced, cut and sometimes reinstated. I wait as Richard goes back over each light cue, changing this light, lowering this level, cutting this one, adding it back in, reprogramming an entire series, removing one light from the entire show. I see props and set elements added, cut, and redone with tassels, jewels, stripes, scribbled words, veils, feathers and lots of Hebrew letters. He will try anything.
As Richard works, I see a world in which the steady spinning of stimuli is driven by curiosity and a relentless drive to break free from the strands of automatic behavior we each carry from all the Everybodies we’ve assimilated. That “Everybody” is our particular assemblage of right/wrong, do/don’t do, is/isn’t, should/shouldn’t, cause/effect messages we’ve picked up. It is the series of lenses that have been placed in front of us and that we unconsciously view the world through. Take one away, the world looks very different, because these lenses distort what we see. Richard’s barrage of sensory stimulation is a whirling top of possibilities, a collection of mindfully placed doorways to an alternative view, and an attempt – perhaps an offering – to remove one or more of those lenses. In rehearsal Richard challenges us. “Everything you’ve been taught is a lie” he tells us with a resigning smile.
It does occur to me that the surest way out of compulsive, habitual, unconscious thoughts and beliefs - the lenses we unconsciously carry - is the capacity to exist in the moment. Lucidity, self-possession, awareness - whatever your language - - - if you can see what is right here in front of you, you are in one hell of a position to take in and respond to your life.
The rhythms, blocking and aesthetic strategies of Richard’s plays, and his process of creating, present an opportunity for the audience and the cast and crew to do this. The importance is of this moment. There is no past or future in Richard’s timeline. There is now, immediacy. If a performer can’t do something, he changes the action to accommodate the performer’s limitations. If there is an error in the set, he might just work with it. Most surprising to me is that he continually lays out relationships between performers, and between the performers and the props and set, but the relationships do not carry forward. They have no past or future. They do not link together through time. There is no “arc.”
“When he goes down that hole, you’re looking at him and think, “That bastard, what the fuck is he doing now? And you have to go over now.”
“When she comes on with the pillow, you know she’s going to hit him with it, but that thing he just did to you felt nice, so take the pillow away. You don’t want her to hit him.”
“Look at her pomegranate for just a minute, then look back at your egg. Eggs are better than pomegranates.”
“Only spin it three times. You look at him and you are so appalled by what he’s doing. You think, “He’s an ignorant Midwesterner” and you have to get your object away from him, so cross to the other side of the stage quickly.”
“You look at the pole and think, is this what I want to spend the night with? No. Then turn to the wall and think, I want to go to that honeymoon suite behind this door. But when you walk you hit the wall because the door is gone. So turn back to the pole and think, well, I can spend the night with this. But collapse a little. It should be poignant.”
When the next action comes, the relationship is over and the characters/performers have moved on. The man who went down the hole is no longer a bastard. The nice thing that stops one woman from letting another hit the man with the pillow is gone. Eggs and pomegranates, and whatever rivalry existed has disappeared. The “ignorant Midwesterner” is now someone to shake hands with. The pole is just a pole.
The more time I spend in rehearsal watching and listening to Richard, the stronger this thought settles into my lap each morning: I trust the mind this material comes from. Whether I think I understand what’s going on onstage or not, whether the actions or props intrigue or discomfort me, I can sit back, let go and take it in. Something happens. My heart melts. I laugh. I am repulsed then alarmed. My responses don’t always make sense to me. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with them – I should feel something else, not this. I have to let myself go to a place where I know nothing in order to let Richard's vision in. I have to let go of my past and become fully present, and then I am mesmerized by the blur of activity. I am in the middle of my own stimulus filtering system.
You have an opportunity in a Richard Foreman show to glimpse into what you let in and what you block out. If you must try to understand what you see in his current plays, as I sometimes feel compulsively compelled to do, remember this: lots of what you see on stage has no specific meaning. Lots of what you see are variations on a theme. Somewhere inside that is Richard’s vision, whatever it is that lives inside his head. The rest is you. Pay attention by getting lost in the visceral, sensory experience and face what comes up.
Leah Herman is a performer, teacher, writer, and Production Intern on ASTRONOME.