Foreman's Film Society

New York theater's philosopher king goes to the movies

Every January the hallucinations come: Escher-like pirates and brigands appear on New York's signboards accompanied by black-and-white lettering announcing Richard Foreman's newest play at the legendary Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. Since 1968, the 67-year-old writer-director-designer has created at least one major production each year, rehearsing throughout the fall, opening in early January, and performing five nights a week through April.

But next year the billboards, and the American theater, will be considerably emptier: Foreman has decided that his newest production, The Gods Are Pounding My Head, opening January 6, will be the last of its kind. When The Gods completes its run in April, Foreman will return to one of his early and most profound interests: filmmaking—a momentous decision for a director internationally recognized for his colorful and groundbreaking ideas about the stage.

Although Foreman humorously acknowledges that he is "a man of the theater" and a 37-year veteran of its avant-garde, his essays, manifestos, and plays have expressed ambivalence about theater's traditional presumptions. Is this writer-director making good on his often stated wish to find a more suitable home in another art form?

The maestro at work
photo: Richard Mitchell
The maestro at work

After a day's rehearsals in late December, Foreman sat down in a quiet studio at his theater in St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery to discuss his plans for a major change in artistic direction: "I've always claimed that I have a love-hate relationship to the theater. And it's reached a point where I think this is probably the last sort of play like this that I'll be doing." Foreman may still create shorter works and less elaborate stagings in New York. And the Ontological, a beacon for downtown theater, will continue to produce his work as well as the other programs he's launched at St. Mark's. But the announcement marks the end of an Off-Off-Broadway era.

Foreman's anticipated shift away from full productions of new plays reflects personal exhaustion more than frustration with a form he has radically reconceived. "I feel in a way I've done what I can do. I've never been a great fan of theater. I've always liked the process of making theater, but I have never been as excited, presenting the finished product, as I have been working in rehearsal, trying to figure things out."

This new departure is not the director's first significant artistic shift. Foreman began directing his own plays in the late 1960s when he couldn't find anyone else to stage them. Rejecting psychological realism, Foreman founded the Ontological-Hysteric in 1968 to offer radical dissections of the mind's processes and comic celebrations of behavioral impulses. To fulfill his aesthetic restlessness, he has gone on to invent new categories of acting, scenic design, playwriting, and sound composition (all detailed extensively in his 1992 book Unbalancing Acts). But his most important previous change began in 1986 with a three-person play called The Cure. Here Foreman turned away from the often panoramic large productions for which he had become known, and began creating "chamber plays" that allow for greater intimacy and new psychological and spatial dynamics.

Throughout his career, though, Foreman has also maintained a strong interest in film. He was influenced by the New York underground filmmakers in the 1960s, and by Jack Smith's films and live performances in particular. His early plays and manifestos explored the application of cinematic structures to the stage. Foreman also made a number of short films and videos, including the feature Strong Medicine in 1979, and a television-play, Total Rain, in 1990.

Last summer the director went to Australia with his collaborator Sophie Haviland to launch a film project with the College of Arts in Melbourne. They shot a series of "very static, very slow" tableaux scenes with performers making minimal gestures—often centered around blindfolds, an image Foreman has found resonant in many theater pieces. They will integrate the footage into a film-performance event in which "the giant projection of this image would be a sort of bas-relief, in very slight motion at the back of the stage." Performers in the foreground will do "minimal things," with the exact nature of the interplay to be determined in rehearsal. Don't expect it to look like a Wooster Group or Big Art Group piece. "It will be a live performance, but dominated by these projected images. I don't intend to do the kind of thing I've seen in the last couple of years, where there's some environmental background and then the actors come out and play scenes in front of it."

Foreman conceived the Australian project as the first in a series. He has contacted universities in Asia, Europe, and Latin America, and expects to travel to them over the next few years to create additional thematically related film tableaux with students and community members. (The director is approaching academic institutions partly because they make the most likely source of funding, equipment, and participants for such a rigorously experimental project.) Material filmed in each country will be made available to artists in the other countries for installations and theater events. "My hope," Foreman says, "is that creating a giant database of these slow-moving images will excite all kinds of possibilities I haven't even thought of yet."

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