Friday, December 28, 2007

Questions to Richard Foreman

Production Intern Liz Peterson interviews Richard Foreman

Liz Peterson: I’ve heard you talk about the absurdity of the theatrical space and the notion of an audience sitting politely for a determined period of time, focusing on one event and I wanted to ask you what it was about that absurdity that for you was different from the absurdity of taking in a work of art or being present at a religious ceremony.

Richard Foreman: I probably used the word absurdity casually, I’m not particularly in favor of religious ceremonies either (laughs), but you know, probably it’s a product of my low attention span, but I do increasingly think that the whole notion of assembling people, of focusing, even of reading... I have great philosophical questions as to whether... you know the human mind is so constructed that if you put an object in front of it, it automatically cramps upon that object, if it’s a hand, a cloth, it grasps it, it holds it to study it. And I do tend to think that the spiritually better position is to discover how to release that cramp, so the mind is open and wide and relaxed, a little bit like an animal who’s just sitting in a field and is alert to the whole field, until the dangerous sound comes from the corner and it cramps on that.
There are various people who I read when I was young who talk about that being the big problem of the west, this continual focusing of attention that should better maintain a wide field of vision. I can also relate it to the one mystical experience I had that I spoke about to people here, when my whole head expanded into an eight inch in diameter transparent globe and everything outside and inside was there and co-present and how great that felt. And in my art I’ve always been interested in trying to create an overall feel rather than having you focus in and follow a narrative or follow a character’s moves from right to left, of course I can’t succeed, but that’s the aim and that relates to destroying this feeling that you’re sitting, nailed to your chair and cramping on the things that are seizing your attention.

LP: Now, I also heard you say once, and I might have misunderstood what you were saying at the time but I heard you say that your plays are never as boring as you morally feel they should be...

RF: Not exactly boring, but I do see how, I mean I’ve been in the theatre since I was 9 years old. I’m corrupted, you know, you have people sitting out there and you don’t want them to fidget, even though you know that most of them should if you were doing something really good because they wouldn’t be interested in really high art. So I don’t necessarily mean boring, but the refusal of all these goodies and all these items that are going to make the attention cramp on them because that’s the secret drive, which I can’t quite achieve. Yeah, I’m torn by those two alternatives; either making something so vast and rich that is like, you know, totally involving in that sense or making something that doesn’t move and so it’s up to you how you relate to it. There are certainly artists who do that more rigorously than I do. I think it’s pretty hard to do in the theatre... and if you say that somebody like Beckett did it to a certain extent, I have to admit that I’m bored with Beckett. So there I am torn in many directions at once, and can’t decide.

LP: What has kept you working in the theatre form for so many years?

RF: Oh, I don’t know. Because it’s what I did, and I didn’t know what else to do, and the main reason I think, because I know that when left to myself, when I’m not coming to work at the theatre everyday, I’m sort of a hermit, and I think that’s bad for me and it makes me atrophy. And I think I need to be forced to interact with other people and although I resist it, for my health (laughs), I have to do it.

LP: The way that the video that you use incorporates into your plays, what is the function that you see it has within your work?

RF: Well, this is probably the last play that I’m going to do with video because I think the video interests me so much that I just want to work within the video. But I don’t know, it started out I think that I wanted to disrupt my performances and find a way to introduce a foreign element that was indeed more placid, more passive, I was trying to have effect. Probably with the video in this play it’s getting too flashy in a way. In comparison to most films it wouldn’t be considered flashy, but quite static and slow. But the function arises as I work with it. I gave myself a problematic element that I would introduce in the plays to make them harder to do, sort of like introducing a grain of sand into an oyster, the oyster figures out how to spin a pearl around that. Well I introduced these movies at the back of my plays and try to figure out how can I arrange the play so there’s the proper total dual-like finished product of the play mixing with film.

LP: How do you think that affects the relationship that you build with the actors?

RF: I believe that in a life setting also, but certainly in art, you should not have preconceived goals. You should give yourself some materials and then see how you can put them together and find out what they want to say by being put together.

LP: Do you feel like video almost replaces theatre for you?

RF: Oh sure, for me, well I mean, it doesn’t replace it, but it’s a step into something somewhat different. I’ve always said, I mean it’s true that I’ve always disliked the theatre, at least for the last thirty years, and I work in the theatre in order to work out other certain problems that are for me of a more philosophical, spiritual nature. That’s what concerns me, not making a good play. Now obviously you have your ego, so you want to make a good play to the extent that people like it, that you get good reviews, but that is less important to me now finally. I mean I suffered from being vain and being anxious about wanting to be a success and wanting to be accepted, but then you reach a certain point, you know, everybody feels they’re not accepted sufficiently, or appreciated. I think I have overcome that more than I ever have in the past, maybe not completely and I just want to be in an arena that I build for myself where I can work on certain problems and I resent, and I have for a number of years now, having to open these plays and subject myself to audiences, critics, what have you, and that’s not part of a real life, you know (laughs) it seems to me, it’s something we do.

LP: One last question: have you ever considered becoming a free mason?

RF: No! I considered when I was younger, I mean considered isn’t the right word, but I did at different times feel slightly guilty about making art instead of finding my guru, and following my guru and theoretically becoming an enlightened person, not that too many people who follow gurus become enlightened. But masonry was never one of the disciplines I tried, I was interested rather in a variety of much more serious stuff.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Blogging from Potatoland

I am a former Foreman stage manager and was involved with five of Richard's shows from 1995 to 2000 (I’ve Got the Shakes, The Universe, Permanent Brain Damage, Benita Canova and Paradise Hotel, a.k.a. Hotel Fuck). Since then I have been back to see Richard’s shows every year but I have not been to a rehearsal since I left the role of stage manager. I accepted the invitation to blog a rehearsal. Although I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant I brought my computer to jot down some of the events, quips and controlled chaos as it unfolded.
I arrived in Potatoland just after lunch and apparently just after a run through and so the afternoon session started off with notes. As the actors, technicians and interns gathered I asked Richard how the play was going and got his usual “Oh I don’t know”. I look around and see the tiredness in everyone’s faces as they are in their last weeks of rehearsal. Richard reads through the notes, taken by an intern, first in a confused voice and then realizing what the notes mean. He addresses Eduardo, the video op, in a tone familiar, a combination of frustration and impatience. This note is followed by confusion from Eduardo, and now Brendan, the stage manager, joins in to comprehend what Richard is insistently referring to. The video screen shows a frozen tableau with question marks running across the bottom of it.

“Red words, big…you don’t see the red letters enough…” Richard says, and the interns resetting the props on the stage now catch my eye. Brendan calls out “ the newspaper goes one higher guys”, referring to the fish wrapped in the fringed white cloth wrapped in the newspaper and set on the shelf in the curio cabinet. Then we’re pulled back to Richard saying, “…so as there is no confusion…” and then “the world that rivals the real world” Richard's voice intones, but this is now a recording of Richard’s voice that I hear. As the interns again cross the stage with white wooden swords and set them in their place the swirl of disjointed notes and cues and corrections continues--some things never change.

”We changed it, we changed it to…” Brendan says to Richard.
“I heard it because you were not going to use it, ” he says.
“Let’s try making the truth, single”, Richard says.
The actors have now taken their places on the stage, three women in eveningwear and a man in a suit. The man wears a bright blue dust mask. In Potatoland, or any other of Richard’s realities, this mask is ambiguous--is it a prop or a costume piece or is it merely what it is, a mask over the nose and mouth of a sick actor? Richard turns and addresses me.
“Now, Ken, that blue mask is not part of that gentleman’s costume. “Oh I know”, I said. “I noticed that as soon as I arrived,” and I recounted the story of when I was sick during a pick up rehearsal before a tour and Richard made me wear a similar mask so as not to infect the other company members. “But the eye patch he’s wearing is part of his costume”, he says without missing a beat and then returns to the notes.
“Cut the mental experiment,” Richard says.
“Which one”, says Brendan
“How many mental experiments are there”, Richard asks.
“There’s the one where… when Joel grabs the fish.” Brendan replies.
“Yes, where Joel grabs the fish” Richard says knowingly.
Richard addresses Sarah, one of the actors.
”Did you take the cloth off before you played the piano?”
“Yes”, Sarah replies.
“DON’T, he implores. “You’re much more talented than that and you can play the piano through a cloth. Okay, let’s run this."

Ken's recent fascination has been the stars and their roots in Greek mythology. He is currently investigating how to recreate the constellations in physical form.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Juliana Francis Kelly in rehearsal

Messing around with Potatoland-like objects at home can be fun: a coil, a spirit photograph; unusual jewelry and an interesting dress.

Notes from a rehearsal:

RICHARD FOREMAN: Is this the fifth week?

STAGE MANAGER: Oh we’re past that-

We did two with you then two w/o you…

RICHARD FOREMAN: (laughing) Oh well those two don’t count-

STAGE MANAGER: Okay, this is the beginning of the fifth week.

…Actors on break: actress in a black crepe dress sleeping by a giant urn…

RICHARD FOREMAN: Which play had the giant blackbird pie?

TWO ACTRESSES: King Cowboy Rufus!

STAGE MANAGER: The blackbird pie is in storage upstate.

Four striking actresses in early 1930s dresses; just after the flapper dress first got elongated and someone invented the metal zipper: Sarah Dahlen, Caitlin McDonough Thayer, Fulya Peker, Caitlin Rucker. One actor: Joel Israel, looking like a malevolent Arrow Collar Shirt Man in a dark suit and a jangled stripe tie.

Break is over – actress on floor wakes up.

VIDEO: Japanese cast rewinds on film: a crowd descends the staircase

VIDEO CLOSE UP: Beautiful girl in a black hat turns her head

A light bulb in the video screen pulses then glows (like a hat pin, a pearl, a mystical navel)

SOUND: Old opera baritone punctuated by harpsichord



With florescent subtitles

RICHARD FOREMAN: Joel – move your feet more like “what are you doing?”

Then –

RICHARD FOREMAN: What is the term human beings used before they started saying “whatever?”

Some good suggestions. None quite match “Whatever.”

STAGE MANAGER: We’re going to keep going from here. The girls are going to stand up and twirl.

LOOPED VOICEOVER: Here is the end of part one-

Girls turn (not a full twirl) reveal three 19th century spirit photograph portraits (which is very moving suddenly – why?!)

In Japan a girl in a red dress crawls down a staircase


RICHARD FOREMAN: You’re going too fast; it doesn’t have to be even. (He demonstrates. Joel repeats.) Cover your ears; feel the vibration…. I think it would be closer to your ears… make head phones for yourself…(Demonstrates.) I think it’s impossible to do “wow” without opening your mouth a little….And then…when the thuds come (SOUND CUE OF THUDS) all beauty comes to tragedy”

--Posted by Juliana Francis Kelly

Juliana acted in Foreman’s PARADISE HOTEL; BAD BOY NIETZSCHE!; MARIA DEL BOSCO; and KING COWBOY RUFUS RULES THE UNIVERSE. She is currently on tour with Young Jean Lee’s SONGS OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN (next stops: Berlin, Brussels, and Seattle) and can be seen in Marie Losier’s film, MANUELLE LABOR (created in collaboration with Guy Maddin) in Brussels, Paris, Stockholm, Montreal, Cairo, Lausanne, and Columbus.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Any Canadian growing up in the 80’s will remember a children’s show called The Polka Dot Door, in which, along with a plethora of multicoloured characters, real actors and regular sing alongs, there was a character called Polkaroo. Polkaroo only ever appeared on “Imagination Day”, and most specifically only when one of the “real” actors had left the room. Polkaroo would appear and would never say anything more than his own name. Then he would disappear, and just like the week before, the absent actor would return having missed Polkaroo’s appearance.
Now before you dismiss this tenuous link between Richard Foreman and a large polka dotted kangaroo playing the guitar, let me explain. I was sitting in rehearsal, very much wrapped up in my own problems, when I looked up and saw a scene that I had watched many times before. Sarah was standing upstage centre with a handkerchief over her face vigorously shaking two black sticks with jingle bells on the ends, while some melancholy French song played over a web of other sound cues. And suddenly I asked myself one of two questions that tech director Peter Ksander repeats frequently when at work, What am I doing here? (the other question being, Who am I?). Looking at the world that had been created onstage (and built to Caligarian dimensions), I was overwhelmed and it occurred to me that the hurt that we carry around with us, the injustices that we feel, are all so absurd. And it’s not absurdity in any funny sense, but an absurdity that stems from some sense of self-importance. Then I remembered something that Richard had said a while ago, when he referred to us, (presumably us being members of our present society) as “evolved, broken and stupid beings”.
I was, most definitely, having a moment. I’ve seen Sarah shake those bells since and it hasn’t had the same effect on me. At that particular point in time a meandering train of thought suddenly felt like it held some weight. Something emerged, and then like the Polkaroo, disappeared. I couldn’t put my finger on what had seemed so clear to me at that moment; it had vanished. And like the absent actor whose presence the Polkaroo always replaced, I’m waiting for that moment to re-emerge.

--Liz Peterson, Production Intern

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Today something changed

Richard introduced a new working system for the light and sound cues. Usually he would pause the rehearsal when he wanted a change and then would add or cut a light or sound cue. Then Brendan, the stage manager, and Travis, the sound engineer, would immediately adjust the cues. However for me it always felt like an interruption in the creative process of the performance because sometimes these adjustments would happen every three minutes.
But today Richard introduced a new method, which makes it possible to rehearse longer sections of the play.
If Richard feels there should be a change in the cues or in the actions of the actors he will shout out "stop". Then the videotape will be stopped and the actors freeze. The video engineer, Eduardo, shouts out the timecode of the tape and the director's assistant notes it down. "Continue", and the play starts exactly at the moment where it stopped. This whole action only takes a couple of seconds and allows the actors and the director to keep up the creative flow.
After a bigger section is rehearsed, Richard takes his notes and tells the crew his new changes, while the actors have time to relax, look at their notes or take a sip of coffee.
For me as a spectator and stage manager's assistant, his new method makes it more relaxing to watch and to understand his way of directing.

--Michaela Schultz, production intern

Friday, November 16, 2007

Guest Blogger George Hunka Pays a Visit

“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

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the first day of this new blog, dedicated to the artistic process-- and more specifically, rehearsal and preparation towards production and the various events that surround this theater. Over the coming months current Ontological artists (and some from the past), staff, interns and others from the community will post their observations, questions and revelations in response to their experiences here.

Currently the theater is in rehearsal for DEEP TRANCE BEHAVIOR IN POTATOLAND (A RICHARD FOREMAN THEATER MACHINE), opening January 17, 2008. So who better to make the inaugural post, but Mr. Foreman himself? Below is an excerpt from Foreman's notebook on the current show:


Thinking or feeling
About de-focus
let it enter

(don’t identify with one
element, which is always DECEIT)

The temple of
The rift between—

(break off sentences)

The personality mask, and the empty. . .empty

The dream of the voice so deep that its rumble sounds all possible words, all possible ideas, all at the same time, such multiple universes of sound and sense

What I give you now
Is the key to the echo chamber—
Inside of which discovering the echo of all things inside each single word or sound, and one therefore
Eventually. . . . .

The temple of all people who strive
For continual clarity, with which—

Le large door opens—to deceive in
That opening—those who—

(Beginnings only, like a lightening flash)

(Flower BUD—opens...

Still, swinging the pendulum
Subjunctive tense

Suppose I were to postulate

Let it be that

A possible


I might

Suppose it were true—

Even though

Were he to go

Were it true

Suffice to say

Should it be true

One insists that

It seems that

It is possible

Provided that

Even though


(contrary to the fact at present)
Ah the true realm
Which this confrontation hides
Rendered unavailable
Through normal rigor
Misapplied, as always

(One does not, perhaps,
copy internally, -- the mental configuration
isomorphic with this
total compositional field.
And yet, it happens
Inside you—now)

Defining the perimeters of this
3 dimensional ideogram—
nothing less than what is touched, mentally
at the moment of non-sustainable

Certain aspects, not yet clarified
One fights impatiently
To fill in such gaps
That might otherwise have led one
Into very real things

To read the full notes click here