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.

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