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?
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.”
Foreman, who received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 1995 after three decades of writing and directing, emphasizes that he’s not abandoning theater for film. The idea is to create a new dialectic between what’s filmed and what’s live, between the pictorial and the animate. While the form (“a living, moving wall of people doing certain symbolic activities, and then a few live punctuations in front of that”) is new, the proposed project extends many ideas Foreman has previously explored in plays—perhaps most explicitly in his 1987 Film Is Evil, Radio Is Good, but also his wordless 2002 work Maria del Bosco, a symbolic meditation on mortality and other themes. “My plays have always been dominated by images of death,” he says. “I think of the theater, because of its repetitive nature, as being about the death of real spontaneity.”
The film-performance project might sound strikingly bold for an artist who has never particularly liked mixed media in the theater. Foreman concurs: “I think it’s going to be very hard for me. I’m not convinced that I can do it. And if I fall on my face, I feel, ‘Well, God, I’ve made a lot of plays in my time and don’t I have the right to fall on my face?’ But I’m really looking to do this for more than just an eccentric variation for one year. I’m committed to this. The footage I shot in Australia really interests me.”
In Pearls for Pigs, Foreman’s 1997 meditation on the theater and the psyche, a self-dramatizing Maestro (played by David Patrick Kelly) longs for an ultimate release from the theatrum mundi of his own making. The Maestro envisions an enormous “destructive finale” involving all his dwarfs and circus clowns, but doubts if he can make it happen. “That was me, of course,” the director now says with a sly smile. “I just haven’t been able to figure out how to pull it off for many years.”
The Gods Are Pounding My Head might satisfy Foreman’s qualm-filled Maestro: Not only does Foreman’s theatrical finale mark the close of an essential chapter in American theater, but it also portends the end of Western civilization as we know it. The Gods features two “lumberjack Messiahs” (Jay Smith and T. Ryder Smith) chopping down everything in sight and referring to their fading moment in the sun. For agents of destruction, though, these ax-swinging lummoxes are “quiet, lost, and not very effective,” the director observes. “They’re having about as much success being lumberjacks as a certain country is having bringing democracy to a certain other country out there.”
Despite allusions to today’s world situation, Foreman hopes the production will evoke a far larger decline. “More than any of my other plays, this one talks about exhaustion. I think it’s an attempt to make an energizing evening out of exhaustion rather than bitterness and anger.” It points not only to individual tiredness, but to an exhaustion of the West in general. “For many years I’ve felt that the rich language of Shakespeare, and even a lot of 20th-century dramatists, is no longer available to us. We no longer write letters, we do e-mail; we talk on the telephone, we use a reduced vocabulary, we talk in telegraphic style. The old culture with Goethe-like figures who had the whole world in their head and spoke with great eloquence and were wise—I don’t think that operates anymore. I didn’t expect the play to take any political overtones, but much to my surprise I think it does reflect the coming decline and fall of the West.”
The Gods evokes a world now inhabited by what Foreman calls “pancake people.” These are “people who are ‘thin,’ because instead of including all the history of Western knowledge inside our heads, and shaping a vertical castle out of that knowledge, we have it all at our fingertips with computers, and we don’t have to keep it inside of ourselves. By following all these bits of information we become spread horizontally, like pancake people.”
Rather than risk dwelling in a pancake world, Foreman will move on, drawing on the perspectives, landscapes, and energies he finds in journeys around the globe—which, after all, is not flat. He hopes his new projects will cultivate philosophical ambiguities between film and stage representations of life: “Film is a copy, theater is another kind of copy, and I’m interested in discovering something to exploit in that relationship.” One possible theme for this decidedly un-flat venture involves people meditating on the sky in different countries. That would make a fitting new beginning for Foreman, who has sometimes described his work as an attempt to discover paradise through the theater. His old quest for “the unfathomable and unsayable” will continue, but with a parting nod to productions that gave us powerful glimpses of the ephemeral.