October 12, 2009, New York City
If you don’t know who Richard Foreman is, the following might help. He has been making live theatrical performance machines since he was a child — but let’s say officially since 1968 — mostly in New York City, but sometimes in France, occasionally in Los Angeles, and a number of them have toured to places like Vienna and Singapore. Ben Brantley once called him the “Godfather of the Avant-Garde.” In many ways Foreman has been a kind of spiritual guide to those lost souls seeking out the kind of live art that upsets one’s usual way of encountering the world, puts into doubt perceptions of the self, others and the relations in between, and that offers us something that may be missing in the world as we know it in our everyday way. For his labors in the field he’s been awarded all kinds of grants and honors, but the most notable might be his MacArthur award and being elected officer of the Order of Arts and Letters of France. For more facts about Foreman and his history, you can find his biography here.
Foreman has just finished his “Last Theatrical Production Ever” (for real this time, … maybe). It was a show he directed at the Public Theater here in New York’s East Village. The title was Idiot Savant and it starred Willem Dafoe, Alenka Kraigher and Elina Löwensohn.
If you pop over here, you can see video of interviews with the Foreman and the performers and download a podcast of the post show conversation we all had one night at the Public. I say this was his “last theatrical production ever” (in quotes) because he has been accused of threatening to leave the theater to go make films before, but this time he seems to mean it.
In 2005 Foreman made his last in a series of chamber theater pieces in the Ontological Hysteric Theater at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery (The Gods are Pounding My Head: aka Lumber Jack Messiah). Since then he has been experimenting with “film/performance” pieces that used live performers and his traditional densely packed interior staging of dotted string, dislocated symbols, and bright lights layered on top of footage he shot all over the world with his film collaborator-in-crime Sophie Haviland as part of what they were calling The Bridge Project (a different Bridge Project from the one producing UK-NY theater collaborations). With the exception of the last theatrical piece John Zorn’s ASTRONOME opera that he made on the Ontological stage in 2008-09, and the recent show at the Public, he has been immersing himself deeper and deeper in his own film/video/”photo play” experiments and making the conversion from live theatrical director to art film creator.
Morgan Pecelli: So, we’re here to talk about Metaphysics. Maybe I ought to start with a question that Ken Jordan asked you almost 20 years ago, when he was interviewing you for UNBALANCING ACTS. I wonder if this is still even remotely true or not, not necessarily about Metaphysics, but it’s about spiritualism, or the spiritual in your work. Ken was asking you about an underlying interest in a more basic spiritual grounding. I think he was implying that you were clearing away a lot of the dramatic and excess acting. That you were trying to get to the spiritual, by clearing away . . .
Richard Foreman: Well, that’s always been the case, though I think the word spiritual’ is a bit pretentious or a little too fuzzy. But, I’ve always been concerned with, and I am to an even more radical degree, with seeing daily life and daily behavior as just a total prison that we can’t escape, a total facade that is meaningless, but we can’t deny it. It’s there. So, the task is to use the art to erase the surface — not to get to depth, because I’m not sure I believe in any further depth — but to erase the surface just so you can really watch.
You see, it’s a difficult time to talk to me, because I’m making this transition from theatre to film, and at the moment, I’m deeply immersed in finishing this play, so I’m sort of confused in that sense, because I’m back to thinking about certain problems in the theatre, which basically are problems that no longer interest me, and all of my focus is faced on seeing rather than doing. The theatre however, is not about watching. The theatre is about doing, about making things happen. And, I find that, at least in terms of my own life, rather regressive.
Yeah, doing, doing — moving everything around, making things, making things happen. So, I’m in a bit of a quandary in being able to talk clearly at this point, because that’s where my head is until . . . you know, the play opens in two weeks now. So, my head is still in that, trying to solve the problems of the play, but those are no longer problems I’m very interested in solving. I’ve been solving them for 40 years, and I’m interested in something else now.
Where does the film take you? Where does the seeing take you? And, how is it so different from the doing?
Of course, that’s very hard to answer, I mean, I have tons of pages that I’ve written, about notes concerning that. But, I think one hardly has to say more than just seeing that everything is the same, that it doesn’t matter what you have, which is part and parcel of the way that I work in film. Well, yes and no, because the way I work in film is that I shoot very fast, in 3 or 4 days. I get like twelve or fourteen set-ups. And, I keep all kinds of mistakes. I keep giving instructions to the performers. Mistakes come in. These tableaux where people talk a little bit. Do a few movements. And I just take this as raw material, and there isn’t much thought really. And then, it’s true, I take that material, and I work over it, and edit it and edit it, for about a year. But that is just a deepening of the seeing, as far as I’m concerned. It’s trying to see what is really there.
Because the tendency is, you first look at 6 minutes, a 6-minute bit of material in one set-up. And, your first reaction is, Oh, that’s interesting. That’s dramatic. Oh, I could keep that. That’s not very good.’ And, you have to keep looking and looking and looking, until you see that all the things that were embarrassing, or not very good — even if you edit them, even if you change the exposure — are still things to be looked at that are of just as much value as the things that seem more engaging.
Most film tries to draw you in, and engage you. And I don’t want to do that at all, I have no interest in that. I want to almost make you feel that the film is watching you, rather than you’re being asked to enter the film. But the film, that is full of people staring at the camera, is filling your space, much like Russian or other Eastern European icons, which I’ve got, which I’ve always been sort of interested in.
You’ve used those for your posters.
No, no. Those were not icons. Those were from a 17th century French architect, who was a schizophrenic, a great, famous, visionary architect, who also made these strange pictures, these strange people.
No, we had some of these icons. And, Kate was always interested in these icons. We bought each other icons for gifts, often. And, it’s just that staring, you know, that looking at you the icon does. What is that icon looking at? How is it entering your space? Well, there’s a whole, you know, philosophical analysis of those possibilities.
There’s a Lacanian analysis of the object.
Yes, I remember, of course, Lacan saying the fisherman, when he was saying, Oh, you’re looking at the tin can floating in the water. Don’t you realize the tin can is looking at you.’ Yes.
Are you playing with that at all?
Lately, I have been thinking less about Lacan, though he, and people writing about him, dominated a lot of my thinking for probably 15 years. But, for the last 5 or 6 years, as I’ve told everybody, I’ve been continually reading and re-reading this book, REALITY by a man by the name of Peter Kingsley, who used to be a serious professor of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, and wrote one of the classic books in the field. And, he’s now even more serious, because he went off the deep end, and he’s now writing a different kind of book, where he talks about Parmenides and Empedocles, who are theoretically the founders of the Western rational tradition, showing, I think fairly effectively, how they were really magicians, and they were really shamans. And, how they were really rooting the beginning of the West in a kind of magical manipulation, which then, Plato and other people came along, couldn’t deal with it, and translated it into inventing logic, so people with their minds, would have something to do, as he describes it.
It’s like, give a dog a ball because it wants to be doing things and chewing, and this ball keeps it busy. Well now, rationality and Western philosophy keeps us busy because we can’t face up to the stillness, i.e., the watching, that Parmenides placed at the root of Western philosophy. Everybody thinks he was talking about logic, which is a term he used, but it was a different thing.
Was he talking about logic or was he talking about the Platonic Real’ — that symbolic Real’ of the conceptual world — as opposed to the sort of lower-case, material reality, which is at play when you talk about trying to get people to look at the Real’?
No, he wasn’t talking about it . . . look, I don’t want to give a gloss here about Peter Kingsley’s work, which I can’t do, because that’s the reason I have been reading it steadily for 6 years. Because it’s easy to read. It’s not like Heidegger. It’s like quicksilver. It’s very elusive. Mostly, he’s just talking about how everything is deception. We live in a world of total deception, and we have to be very tricky to move within that deception. Accept it. Let ourselves be deceived. Know that we are being deceived. And know how to navigate that, to experience the stillness behind it. Now, he doesn’t talk about watching, but I translate it, for my own purposes and for my own work, into being related to the kind of watching that I find myself doing as I’m working on film, as opposed to what was happening when I was working on theatre.
When you are working on film, you said that you are trying to get it so that the audience feels they are being watched, but also there’s a watching of the Real. Was the doing of the Real happening in your theater? Were the performers doing the Real? Was the audience doing the Real? Was it a collaborative doing of the Real? Or, did they have nothing to do with this sort of Real’?
I don’t know, because as I’ve always said, this is after the fact. This is when I try to figure out for myself, why the hell I’m doing this, instead of writing a play like David Mamet. And I come up with these things, and these things that I read that seem to relate to it. But, when I’m actually making the art, I’m just blanking out and saying what do I really want. And, the interesting thing is, that in making film, and having people look into the camera, and then doing this watching, I’m really returning to the kind of theatre I made back in 68-’70, when everybody used to walk out of my plays because they thought they were too boring. But, I was dealing . . .
Like Angelface and Rhoda in Potatoland (Her Fall Starts), that broke there, in between?
Yeah. Those plays were all about actors just standing there, looking at the audience, long pauses, a little bit of movement, very basic things being said, and the whole moment of the play was as if to say to the audience, Okay, here’s a statement? What do you make of this? Here’s a body, audience. What are you going to do with this?’ And really now, towards the end of my life, making films, I’m returning, sort of, to that style. Now, there’s a big difference. There are differences, but there’s a return to that.
Back in the 60s and the 70s, when everybody was walking out of your shows, there was a certain amount of risk that it may be easier to take at the beginning, when everybody is walking away, and there’s a certain amount of freedom that you had, to explore those things. Do you feel that you’re in a similar position now, at the beginning of this film work?
Oh, absolutely. And, of course, people were walking out, but it existed. Though I was not making films, my friends were the filmmaker community, around Jonas Mekas, called Underground Films.’ And, those people liked what I did, so if everybody walked out, there were a couple of those that didn’t. And I felt, ah well, these are the only people that count. It was fine. And, as I started making films, my first notion, which is not exactly what I am going to do . . . but I said to everybody, You know, I’m so sick of this theatre, and worrying about people, worrying about how they respond, even though I work for myself. I’m still hurt when people don’t like it.’ I thought, why don’t I make films for the next 10 years, and I’ll put an ad in the newspaper and The Voice’, if anybody still read The Voice’, and it will say: Richard Foreman is now making films, and they will be viewable on the day of his death. And, that’s a pretty good idea, because yes, I certainly am nauseated by this whole idea of pushing your stuff out into the public. Yes, yes.
It would also, of course, free you from any response whatsoever, from anybody else.
From having to deal with that, and therefore you’d just be free to make whatever you want.
But, in a sense, that’s what I’ve tried to do for years, even though of course, one of the many selves that is within me, in a Gurdjieffian sense, there are several of those selves, selves who care about what people say, even though I’ve always made things thinking just what keeps me interested, what keeps me awake, and just hope for the best with the audiences. But, you know, that’s a tricky area, because in a funny way, I can’t believe that even people like Neil Simon, do they really think about the audience all the time? Maybe they do. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to believe that any artist doesn’t basically make what is going to give them delight. I don’t know.
But certainly, if you’re working in the theatre . . . I’ve been very lucky, because I’ve been mostly working through my own theatre. But, normally in the theatre, you know there’s all kinds of people who come and offer their opinions, and you have to listen to them. They are giving you the money. They are the producers, and the producer’s wife. I mean, it’s a whole thing. And many people say, that’s the glory of the theatre. It’s the collective thing. It’s not just you. I don’t have any trust or interest in collectivities.
Of course, a painter doesn’t operate that way. I don’t think Picasso was painting and saying as he was painting, Would you come and tell me what color I should put here, now.’ No, that’s nonsense. I don’t think that’s the way an artist functions. And, for that reason, I don’t think that theatre is art. And, that’s not normally the way film functions. But, it was the way the underground filmmakers functioned. And, that’s why back, when I was starting to make my theatre, I was only seeing underground film, that I thought I was seeing some sort of presentational art form that made sense to me. It seemed, you know, pure and ravishing and wonderful to me.
You just said you don’t think theatre is art.
No, I don’t.
What is it?
Entertainment. It’s part of the entertainment industry. Absolutely.
I want to come back to the REALITY book, but also to . . . I know you just said while you’re making a piece you’re in the moment of saying, Ah, what do I need here? What do I want here?’ You said before that sometimes the pieces that you’re making you try to fill a gap, something that’s missing in the world.
Well, missing in my life. Yeah.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
What’s missing in my life . . . oh, well the whole socialization process. Like I have to talk to you now. I have to present myself in a certain way. And, I’ve been so conditioned like everybody else. I, too . . . there are certain things I wouldn’t do. You know, I wouldn’t ahh, ahhh’ [RF makes faces while vocalizing incomprehensible sounds]. All kinds of behavior I wouldn’t allow to surface. And, I’m not saying that it surfaces necessarily when I’m alone in my room and nobody else is there. But, we exist in terms of categories that are implied upon us, obviously by society and our upbringing. And, I think that cuts off a lot of impulses.
I mean, why do people think that kids are so great? Because they haven’t been socialized yet. I mean, I think it’s overdone. It’s not quite as simple as people think. But, you know, kids are still operating out of impulses. And, people say that you can’t have a society that way. No, no. But, why do artists exist? I think even if they train and discipline themselves to throw out a lot of things, they are still trying to be responsive to certain impulses, to certain abilities, to see, even, impulsively that in most people have been schooled out.
Through disciplinary practices?
Well, some disciplinary practices do serve artists. But no, through social practices which each society deems okay. In other words, why do different societies come up with different painting styles? Well, it’s hard to say exactly where they come from. But obviously, if you’re in Persia in the 17th century you paint differently than you paint in New York, today, right now. Why? Well, because you are in a milieu that keeps certain channels open and other channels are closed off.
Is this some of where your suspicion of the collective comes from?
Oh, yes, but it comes from everywhere. From the time I was a little kid, I hated collective stuff. I’m a person like . . . you know, it could be because I’m adopted and my mother did not breast-feed me (laughing); maybe it has something to do with that. But I always rejected, especially the American need to be friendly and encounter group things, that grew up in America when I was young. All of that stuff makes me nauseous. I mean, I am the kind of the person that hated even as a young man singing in a chorus. I mean, I couldn’t hear myself, so I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was no good.
I’m the kind of person who . . . you know, everybody says . . . most people know the film that Leni Riefenstahl made of about Hitler’s Nuremberg rally called, The Triumph of the Will.’ And, it’s all these Nazis marching up and down, with great spotlights and big spectacle. And, everybody says, Well, the Nazis were terrible, but you’ve got to admit that film about the Nuremberg rally is pretty wonderful.’ I never got that. To me, it looks like a lot of my old gym teachers, you know slightly pudgy middle-aged men who are trying to act tough, dressing up in funny costumes marching along. I don’t get it.
But, again maybe that’s my character structures, reasons from my upbringing, and my early situation. But, that’s what everybody has to deal with, and the problem is most people are not in a situation where they can openly and honestly deal with the idiosyncratic nature of their being placed in the world in a certain way, and therefore having a certain perspective. No, they learn to sort of smooth that out, so it’s more like the perspective of everybody else, so they can get along. And, that’s what I think is horrible.
Is that a veil between us and Reality’?
Yeah, but of course, you have to accept, and, I think, Peter Kingsley, for instance would accept . . . you mentioned Lacan earlier. Lacan, of course, identifies the Real’ as exactly that which you cannot touch, which you cannot define, which evades our language and other perceptual systems. Yeah. So, it’s a veil between you and Reality, but you aren’t going to make contact with Reality no matter what you do.
No matter how many pieces of theatre you make a year . . . no matter how many films.
Your theatre is called the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. Is your film going to be Ontological-Hysteric Film? Is that moniker going to travel with you into this new . . .
I don’t even care. I don’t know. I’m not thinking about it. The only thing I know, my first film, which is just about finished, I’m calling it Richard Foreman Photo Play, because that’s what films were originally called, when they first started, photo-plays. That’s what it is. I don’t think it makes any less than the theatre, though there are theatrical elements, in its confrontational aspect, in its tableau aspect. It’s just, I see all these films that people like, and they get so disgusting to me. I mean, sometimes I’m hooked a little bit.
You know, films are for people who are tired, and who want a little escape, and who want something to do on Saturday night. Even most of the so-called . . . even the art films, aren’t made anymore. You know, there was that tradition, especially in European art films. It’s over. It’s over.
Is film art or entertainment?
Well, it depends what you do. There are certain films that are art. Some of the films of my friend Michael Snow are art. I think Bela Tarr films are art. You know, maybe some Godard, certain other things. Some Bresson, obviously, are art, but it’s very rare, very rare.
What about this piece that you’re in the midst of making right, now . . . this theatre piece you’re in the midst of? It’s a piece with Willem Dafoe. I mean, you worked with Willem how many years ago, at The Performing Garage?
Miss Universal Happiness. I would have to look up what year it was, early 80s, mid 80s.
How are things different? Has a lot changed since the last time you worked together?
No. Not really, you know. He is extremely easy to work with. He’s happy to be given a lot of instructions, a lot of ideas.
You said back then working with The Wooster Group at The Performing Garage, and he’s no longer working with The Wooster Group, but when you were working with them that it was really nice because you asked them to throw themselves against the wall, and they would run and hurl themselves against the wall without question. There was something about that sort of freedom that working with them as performers you found . . .
Yes, basically, the same. I think that, you know, he’s a big movie star. He’s done a lot of things. I mean, sometimes he does wonder, Richard, why are you saying this?’ And, he says, Oh, I never would have thought of that. Okay, that’s good.’
The piece is a re-visiting, right? You wrote this piece a while ago. And, you’ve been re-writing it and re-working it. You’ve never staged it, though.
No, no. Oh, I wrote it about 12 years ago, maybe. And, when I finished it, you know, I put pieces together from pages I have. I put it together about 12 years ago, and in reading it to myself there were certain things that really haunted me, but a lot of it didn’t work. It seemed too obvious or corny. So, I didn’t do it. But, down through the years, every once in a while I thought, Maybe that Idiot Savant . . .’ I’d look at it again, and I’d have the same reaction.
Then, a couple of years ago, I called up Michael Gordon. I’d heard a record of Michael Gordon, a CD. And, I just called him up. I didn’t know him. I said, I love your music. I’d like to do something with you.’ And, we had a couple of ideas. And then I thought, I could take certain elements of the Idiot Savant. I’ll sit down and re-write them as if someone were singing. And, I gave it to him. And that became . . . There are 2 or 3 scenes that were features in an opera we did at REDCAT Theatre in L.A., through CalArts. And then with Willem, it was interesting because after he left The Wooster Group, I’d see him in the streets. And, I don’t know how it came up. Maybe he said, Why don’t you direct me in a play?’ I’ve got to think of something.
And, I had this script. Another filmmaker that I respect very much is Portuguese filmmaker Manoela de Oliviera, who is now 100, and he’s still making films. And, he worked in a lot of his best films with a writer who is now probably in her late 80s or 90s. Augustina Bessa-Luis, who unfortunately, though she wrote a lot of novels, has never been translated into English. Which is a great tragedy. But, I read some where she did a play called Kierkegaard and Eroticism. So, I had a contact in Portugal, and I said, Can you get me this play, somehow?’ She said, I’ll try. I know Bessa-Luis.’ Bessa-Luis sent me a rather rare copy of this script. I got a translator, and he translated it. And, I thought it was wonderful, and I thought Willem would really be good playing Kierkegaard. I said, Willem, I’ve got this script, but it’s pretty esoteric. Why don’t you . . . want to take a look at it?’ So, he took a look at it, and he said, Yeah. I could do that.’
Then, we soon realized we couldn’t find any . . . I mean, it wasn’t right for my theatre, and we couldn’t find any theatre that would take the risk of doing such a cerebral, in a sense, esoteric play. And, I said, Well, I have this other idea. I have this script that I’ve always thought about. Maybe if I re-wrote the Idiot Savant.’ So I re-wrote it, and then it was still no good. I ended up re-writing it about 10 times before I finally sent it to him. And, he said, Oh yeah, let’s do this.’ And then, I re-wrote it a couple more times after he said, Let’s do this.’ So, it’s pretty well transformed. The basic kernel of each scene is the same. So, it’s an old play that’s a new play.
This is going to sound ridiculous, me asking you this question. “What is it about?”
It is about the Idiot Savant, who essentially is making fun of every attempt to make rational sense of the world, and ends up embracing just babble just, blah, glah, gluh, glah.’ Essentially, as that being a connection to a deeper truth. Now, I don’t totally believe that, or I do believe it. Or, it doesn’t matter. I don’t think beliefs count. I believe anything. It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do with whatever you choose to believe this week. So, that’s what it’s about.
And, the film you’re working on right now?
Well, the film that is basically finished . . . it’s just a matter of realizing that color is not what I thought it was in video, because it changes depending on where you show it. The film is called Speaking for Dead People. And it’s a film that I filmed with students at the most prestigious theatre school in Germany, which is not for actors but only for directors. And, I used all of them. It’s the kind of school where by the time you are in your second year, in this school, there are already theatres in Germany bidding for your services. And, if you would ask me what it’s about . . . (laughing)
Are you going to send it to others to view, or are you going to save it?
No, I’m not going to save it until I’m dead, no.
When do you think you’re going to . . .
As soon as the play is finished, I’ll go back. It shouldn’t take me more than a month, at most, to color correct it, then I’ll start figuring out . . . if the Anthology [Film Archives] could show it. I mean, the New York Film Festival really wanted to see it. There’s no guarantee they’d take it, but Richard Peña, who’s the head of the film festival, has come to my plays for years, and I’m sure he’d at least be interested. Who knows? Or, maybe people will hate it. I think it’s pretty interesting, but it’s very different from what people are used to looking at.
Are you going to start working with other footage after you finish color correcting?
Oh yes, I’ve pretty well decided, you know, I have a lot. The footage I have to work on, it hasn’t been used in my plays. Because, as you know, but other people might not, for 3 years in my own theatre, I was doing plays that had a continual one-hour filmed background that just ran through the whole play. And, that was footage we shot in different countries. And now, I have left to work with . . . I have Denmark, Zurich, Buffalo, N.Y., something we filmed in the loft this past summer, and I have Bucharest. And I think probably I am going to go to work next on the Bucharest material.
What was the Bucharest material? What was the kernel of the Bucharest material?
I can’t answer that, cause the kernel for me is always just a different group of people in a different setting. And in Bucharest, we were in this cultural center of some sort that had lots of big soft easy chairs and conference tables. Of course, we moved it around a lot, but it was just . . . I don’t know. I don’t know.
But . . . what were they talking about? There’s some mythical character that surfaced in some of my movies. People are always talking about David Williamson. David Williamson this, David Williamson that. I forget if we were talking about David Williamson in Bucharest or the other character whose been surfacing, Rainer Thompson. I know that when I go to work on the material from Buffalo, which we also had a very interesting space, the title of that is going to be My Name is Rainer Thompson and I Have Lost it Completely. The Bucharest material, I’m not sure what it’s called.
Who are these two characters? They are just made up?
They are archetypal. You know, names like that have a resonance, as I assume certain character names that were more obviously funny had for W.C. Fields. I mean, he’s always making reference to Dr. Pangalo’s Botenhobby. You know, and that seems to be a generating source for a lot of his ideas, and it’s the same for me.
Is there something about Rainer Thompson,’ these names . . .
David Williamson’ . . . I wanted the most banal American name I could think of. And, I was inspired, because there’s one American character in one of my favorite novels. The last novel I was ever able to read, is this 1500 page novel by Heimito Von Doderer, this Viennese novelist. And, there is somebody Williams or something in that book, and I was thinking of that.
That’s exactly where I was about to go, actually. Rainer Thompson,’ for whatever reason it triggers in me an Austrian, end of high cultural empire, which is sort of what that novel is about.
That’s sort of what my work is about, also, the end of the high culture empire of Western Europe, which sort of is no more, and sort of I’ve always been infatuated with. And I love Vienna. One of the great sadnesses of my life is, The Bridge, our filming organization went to Vienna, but I got sick and I couldn’t go. So, I didn’t get to film in Vienna.
Why the fall of the . . . to some extent, that is the peak, or to some extent that is a pinnacle of disciplinary culture, to some extent, and it’s the demise of that. It’s almost like the peak of the veil that we were talking about between us and Reality.
Yeah, but, I’m the product of that, because I’ve always been ambivalent about America and American culture. When I first went to Europe, for 15 years of my life I was totally infatuated with France, and then with other aspects of other European cultures. But, it is sort of over, you know.
Ken asked me to follow up with you and ask you about the mystical experiences you have had and how they have influenced your theater. Can you tell us about the most important one?
I was in my early twenties. I had a moment that started out like an average neurotic episode. I was trying to get my wife at that time’s attention and she keep saying just a minute’ and after this dragged out for a while I said, ok, just forget it.’ And I threw myself head first full length down onto the bed. And as I hit the bed, my whole head opened up. All of a sudden it was like a whoosh. My head seemed to be a globe. It must have been six feet in diameter or possibly twenty feet in diameter. On this globe everything inside of me was projected on the inside surface of the globe and everything on the outside was projected on the surface of the globe.
Everything in the whole world. And now of course it was like a golden transparency: the inside and the outside were on the same plain surrounding my head. Everything was perfect. This was accompanied by a feeling that everything for all time was there and it was the way it should be and that I didn’t have to do anything and that I had no more obligation and the world was as it should be. That experience lasted for quite a while, at full intensity maybe ten minutes. And then it faded over twenty minutes. And as it faded I could still remember the feeling of what it felt like. And then I went to sleep and when I woke up in the morning I could remember the mechanics of the experience of the globe and everything else but I could no longer really feel it.
Something similar happened a few days later. I was walking down Broadway, I was going to the store or something. I stepped off the curb to cross the street, I turned my head slightly off-center and I really had a very strong feeling that a ray of light was hitting me from the sky. It wasn’t nearly as intense as what happened to me that evening, the night before, but it seemed like a similar moment to the kind of illumination and I felt very good about that light in me.
I should add that during the same period, I was waking up every night — and I’m not exaggerating — at least four times a night, I was waking up in the midst of terrible nightmares and I would scream. And you could hear that I had woke the people living in the apartment above because could hear them moving around. The dream always involved either somebody coming into the room or me rounding a corner, there was somebody just staring at me with these huge, intense eyes. And I was paralyzed. I don’t know what I was afraid of. It was significant that this counter kind of mystical experience was happening at the same time.
Back through the years, I’ve thought about these experiences and I didn’t really know how to put it into my plays. I made reference to it in two plays with somebody talking about that experience, but I never succeeded really in integrating it. Though, it has always been a feature of my plays that people stare at the audience, especially in the early days for the first five or six years. The play was all about something being said to happen or the actors saying something and all the time glaring straight into the audience as if to say what are you going to do with this experience?’
And I have to relate that to the nightmare dreams. I have never abandoned this completely. But now that I’m moving into film, there is a relationship of some sort because the whole time I was making theater I always thought that what I was doing was in one way or another making things happen in general and then trying to erase things that were happening by adding music or by adding lights in the eyes. I had different techniques that would erase the normal narrative of empathatic identification. And I think that can be related somehow, if one chooses to do so, to the feeling — of being plopped on the bed — that the real world vanished and what you’re left with is the image of this real world, this timeless image in which everything is perfect.
In making film as opposed to theater, I’m no longer trying to arrange things, move people around and make things happen. As I’ve said many times, it’s about watching. I’ve just realized today that I still realize these tableaux where the actors are arranged in some sort of echo of a particular painting that I choose from the history of art, generally not a very famous painting. And then from the inside, manipulating the image in various ways, and transforming the residue of these tableaux, in which people do move a little bit, I give them props, and people occasionally say an ambiguous phrase. But it occurred to me today that what I was setting up is to capture a kind of fossil, a kind of residue that is left over from real experiences that these tableaux sort of evoke.
And then by manipulating it electronically or with editing, I am erasing the reality of these fossils so that some other energy can enter, a wind from the cosmos. Also reflecting the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. I named my theater Ontological-Hysteric because I was dealing with hysterical syndromes from 19th century Boulevard Theater. I was making those banal things happen. Now what I am doing in film can’t be called hysteric. The ontological something-or-other but instead of psychological interaction of a hysteric nature, [the film is] dealing with the fossil remains that are evoked by the images captured from generally not major works of twentieth century art.
Willem Dafoe image by Paula Court. Richard Foreman image by Morgan von Prelle Pecelli.
Morgan Pecelli is a curator, producer, anthropologist and performing artist who has been working in New York since 1999. She is the Director of Development for Performance Space 122 and the curator of the 2010 Prelude Festival. She managed Richard Foreman’s theater for two years in the middle of this past decade and has been on the Board ever since.