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How I Watch a Richard Foreman Play
By Jonathan Kalb




[This essay was written for the Wiener Festwochen program book of Richard Foreman's Panic! (How to be happy), which toured to Vienna in Spring 2003.]

The theater landscape in New York City is dauntingly crowded--not only with commercial entertainers and the countless non-profiteers who envy and emulate them but also with hundreds of avant-gardists whose stock in trade is resistance, protest, and experiment. Even in this noisily congested field, Richard Foreman stands alone. After 35 years, he is the senior artist of the American avant-garde, its de facto rebbe, the only one of his pioneering 60s generation who has hewed so strongly and single-mindedly to a specifically theatrical vision over the ensuing media-saturated decades that his productions are now objects of annual pilgrimage for thousands of loyalists.

His current, tiny theater is located in a church, inside which he builds "art installation"- like settings packed with mysteriously obsessive arrangements of totemic objects, such as zebra- striped strings, sliced up rugs, lewd chandeliers, kabbalistic symbols, and more. Thus the Ontological-Hysteric Theater has acquired a shrine-like aspect, a reputation as an island of idealized idiosyncrasy in an ocean of urban pandering and titillation. Whatever the truth of this, the uncompromising nature of Foreman's work has long provided unique hope and sustenance to other theater-makers whose faith in their unconventional impulses might otherwise have flagged.

I am too young to have seen Foreman's early pieces. I first came upon him by chance in 1981 when, knowing nothing, I bought a student ticket to Penguin Touquet at the Public Theater and found my imagination blasted open in ways that thrilled and startled me. Since then I've seen nearly every piece he has done, not only to follow him but also, I readily admit, to revisit and reflect on what happened to me that first time. Foreman's frenetic and hermetic theater gets under your skin and leaves you obsessing about why.

I always begin my Foreman-going by reminding myself to take note of the man at the back of the house. That balding, somber, heavy-lidded, vaguely Rasputinesque fellow obsessively turning knobs and pressing buttons is the author-director, whose work is always first of all a mapping of his own strange and capacious consciousness. He begins making his plays by collecting scenes and snatches of conversation from his notebooks, in which he writes constantly, often while listening to those same looped musical tapes heard in all his shows. The texts amount to debates with himself about various metaphysical, therapeutic and practical issues which are of urgent concern to him. In other words, he invites you to enter his mind and roam around there to get a sense of how it operates, which may seem odd at first but is actually a basic attribute of all great art.

Nietzsche--a writer close to Foreman's heart--once wrote: "As soon as you feel yourself against me you have ceased to understand my position and consequently my arguments! You have to be the victim of the same passion!" Foreman's greatest challenge, after assembling his texts, is to avoid killing or falsifying his passion, which would short-circuit the passion of others and consequently invite them to align themselves against him. Thus, he never develops his fragments into sequential arguments, or decided theses, or knits any of his rags together into familiar-shaped garments. He strives instead to maintain the truest possible image of his actual PROCESS of thought--invariably feeling in the end that he has failed.

But if there is a failure it is the failure of which Beckett speaks, the failure immanent in any attempt to "express" with imperfect materials . . . such as words, or actors. Foreman's actors are his reluctant and refractory surrogates, the terrible alter egos who drag his self-analysis out of the private study and into exquisitely shabby carnivals where he loses full control. Don't be misled by the seeming omniscence of his amplified voice--more prevalent in Panic! than in previous plays. The actors have brought their own unpredictable desires, expressions, gestures, tastes, and distastes crucially into the mix, and their multiple voices and bodies (often scantily clad despite their intricately layered costumes) mirror and challenge Foreman's manic thought, transforming his strings of discrete, pearlescent moments into adventures of deadly serious silliness.

For my part, I make little effort to remember precisely what is said in these plays. I see them as carefully engineered shipwrecks in which my memory is both a friend and an enemy. Those who struggle mentally to reassemble what has been punctiliously torn asunder here will find themselves swimming against a current they can't fight. (Foreman: "it's only the distractions, it's only the suggestion that life goes off in a million different directions at all moments that provide, for me, an interesting subject for art.") If on the other hand you use your memory tactically, reflexively, as a bobbing sailor uses his arms to grasp flotsam, you have at least the chance of discovering an impromptu logic in the wreckage and in your own confusion.

The work can teach you how to enjoy it, if you're receptive. Unlike most avant-garde theater-makers, Foreman doesn't undermine conventional (Aristotelian) cause-and-effect as a rebellion for its own sake but because neutralizing it, stilling the hunger for it, is the surest path he sees to his desired experiential "paradise" (variously called "poetry city," "paradise hotel," "the cure," etc.). "The delay of gratification is gratification," says a voice in his play Maria del Bosco. Thus, openness to ricocheting and reverberating meanings, and the ability to experience non-specific anticipation as pure suspense, perpetual deferment of connection as a new sort of connection, is the grail. Pattern and whimsy, "meditation" and "racing," stand in perfect, precarious balance where "story" has been truly displaced by flash discoveries, inspirations, surprises, and fortuitous accidents. After all (as another of his voices says): "you will never be as smart as you are right now."


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