Lumberjack Alchemy: Richard Foreman
Just as the first servings of this year’s mental stew were being offered at the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, word spread that The Gods Are Pounding My Head! (a k a Lumberjack Messiah) might well be a last supper at the table of legendary writer-director-designer Richard Foreman. With Ontological veterans Jay Smith and T. Ryder Smith as two lumberjacks who chop away in a world they regret has been flattened, taken over by pancake people, The Gods is full of the depth one expects from Foreman’s work. Magic potions or the reckless naïveté of Maude (Swedish newcomer Charlotta Mohlin) might serve as an antidote to the lumberjacks’ fatigue, but does the auteur share their despair? Foreman sat down backstage with the Brooklyn Rail to discuss this twilight work and the expected dawn.
David Kilpatrick (Rail): What is meant by the announcement that The Gods will be the last major Ontological production?
Richard Foreman: Oh, well, it’s a little bit of a distortion. I’m just trying to start a new project that I hope will take a number of years, where I’m going to do events based on filming in front of very static, tableau-like images, which will dominate the stage. There’ll be performers of some sort, doing things against it. They won’t be dominating; there won’t be “actors” in the performances in the same way. We have material we shot in Melbourne last summer, so we have the basis of an event for next year, and then we are approaching universities and some theaters all around the world, and they seem interested to go and do this, some lectures and things, to get some students and other people to shoot with to develop this database. I think it will function like a bas-relief in the back of the stage. But I’ll still be keeping this place and doing an event here.
Rail: Okay, because it made me panic and gave me the shakes.
Foreman: Well, actually, I hope this means a lot of people will come. We didn’t do it for this reason; they’ll think it’s my last play, so they come and see it, and we’ll have huge audiences.
Rail: It’s a ploy!
Foreman: It isn’t really; it wasn’t. It was something that I wanted to do so I just said it. People picked up on it much more than I thought they would, that I’m not going to do all these plays in the same way anymore. I’ve done plays for so long. I want to force myself to do something that I’m not sure I can do. I don’t know if I am able to pull it off in a way that is as aesthetically satisfying to me and that’s why it’s a challenge.
Rail: Do you not feel that way with every production?
Foreman: Yes, to a certain extent. But it’s harder and harder for me to escape (once we get into production) doing things I know how to do. I’m sure it will be a little bit the same way with this other thing, but I know that I’m not going to cast experienced actors in the same ways, so that I don’t feel the obligation to give them interesting things to do. I don’t want to do that.
Rail: Your new play, with its despair over a flat world filled with “pancake people,” signals being at an end.
Foreman: Well, that is true in a certain way. I have increasingly felt over the years I hate the direction our society is going. Maybe all people, when they reach a certain age, feel the same way. But I think we are becoming a thin society, in which most of the references I make are not picked up by a lot of people. I don’t know anymore what the arena is that I’m functioning in and I feel very frustrated with that. That’s been increasing for the last 10 years.
Rail: It seems that this play and last year’s King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe have been especially timely.
Photo of Richard Foreman by Paula Court.
Foreman: I didn’t expect this play to be at all. But as we were working on it, I saw these things creeping in that do sort of evoke all kinds of things about the contemporary world. I thought it was just going to be a totally metaphysical aesthetic piece. And now, in a way, I think it’s more on the mark about how I feel about the world than Rufus, really, and that was unexpected.
Rail: Do you see something of the lumberjack in yourself?
Foreman: Oh sure, yes, of course.
Rail: Well, are Modernist/avant-garde writers lumberjacks? Is that the connection you’re trying to make?
Foreman: Oh, that’s after the fact, just looking at what I’ve done. You know, I never think things like that as a motive for doing the work. I just sort of free-associate. And then there’s a long editing process in rehearsal where things cohere—then I’m not thinking intellectually about how that will cohere—but gradually I start to see things emerging. I believe in working off the top of your head—contingency—all kinds of absurd accidents. And we were sitting around in this office last year and we went through all kinds of titles, and I just said, “What about Lumberjack Messiahs?” The original idea was a sort of Middle Ages rustic castle, so: lumberjacks in the forest. Everybody thought that was a great title, then as time went on, it didn’t seem quite appropriate, or it didn’t work with the image that I had for the poster. So it became The Gods are Pounding My Head, but I didn’t want to give it up, so I made it a k a Lumberjack Messiahs. But the lumberjacks came from this notion that it took place in a Middle Ages fairytale setting.
Rail: In a world of pancake people the Messiah can’t come.
Foreman: Well, it might come and not be recognized. But again, those are considerations that I just don’t think about. I just try to put things together. A lot of things come to me, through me, and then I think I have a good instinct for knowing what reverberates with something else in the play to make this machine that’s constantly tingling with associations and reverberations. And after the fact (if I choose) I can analyze it like a critic, and see what I seem to be saying, but that’s not part of the creative process.
Rail: It seems to me that all of your plays are messianic in that one must be ready, one must be prepared. You’re always making us wake up and be alert; we can’t just fall back on plot and wait.
Foreman: I would like to think that. I would like to think that each moment is pregnant with the possible; this moment could be the possible moment of revelation. For me there are many moments of revelation in that they are always trying to hit the same “ping” that is the announcement of something changing, coming.
Rail: But that pregnancy requires depth in a world that’s suddenly become flat.
Foreman: Well, but there’s still the potential for depth. In other words, I think that I am victimized in the same way, but I’m still enamored of the depth that I think is leaving the world. So, you know, it’s just, it’s hidden; it’s fragmented in a way. It’s hidden away in places. You know the libraries are still there. You can still go read Dante. You can still disappear into your own private version of the world, which can include the depth of attention.
Rail: At one point in this play, bread that comes from a heart feeds a machine. Does this speak to the notion of the flattening of the world, one object taking over the other?
Foreman: Yes and no. I’m aware of those reverberations. The way I work, I have these aphoristic phrases and then little pages of dialogue. Then, when I’m getting ready to do the play, I look at these pages and for every page I jot down the idea of one or two props that come to mind. And at a certain point I said, “Oh, we’ll have a funky old car.” At another page I said, “Get a bee hive,” or, “We can have a big heart.” And I didn’t put them together. Then, as we’re working and rehearsing, you start to try and tune them to each other and I realized, oh yeah, what you’re saying is partially true. All those things are there, but they arise, they are not force-fed into the play. Everything has to be over-determined and serve many functions, make many associations.
Rail: You could say your work is symbolic in that it resists the allegory of simple sign as signifier.
Foreman: The strategy I use is the normal, standard, run-of-the-mill, 20th century poetic strategy.
Rail: So you see yourself within that Modernist tradition?
Foreman: Oh yeah, very much so. Even though I realize I’ve contributed to certain things. I mean, I was sampling long before any D.J.s were sampling. And in a way, just two years ago I thought, “Oh, this modern world that I’m complaining about, I helped bring it about. What does this mean?”
Rail: The fragmentation of reality?
Foreman: Yeah, and in making a thinner structure. Now I try to make my structure thicken. I don’t have recourse to Shakespearean language, or complex Tom Stoppard kind of stupid discussions about intellectual issues. But I try to put the thickness back in through the combinations of various languages: of light, sound, music, gesture, movement, and text. So I do aim for a thickness, but still, on a certain level, I am promoting a kind of pancake art, too. Everything available. All the themes available at the same time. I think the play is sort of like being online in a certain way. My plays are full of hyperlinks, actually, in a psychological way.
Rail: Well, you hyperlink over to Tennyson a couple times.
Foreman: I forget how it first came in, and then I just wanted to explode it. “Come in the garden, Maud.” It just came. We actually looked it up online. I said, “What’s that line? Tennyson?” The stage manager went online on his computer and looked up Tennyson. We keep referring to Tennyson and adding other poems that are adaptations, distorted Tennyson. Tennyson never wrote about lumberjacks. We have J. saying, “Oh, that famous poem,” and he quotes something that talks about lumberjacks.
Rail: So you hyperlink to Tennyson.
Foreman: Yeah, and one of the reasons is, I’ve always I mean, Tennyson’s not a favorite of mine.
Rail: I wouldn’t think.
Foreman: But when I went to college, for some reason, the line that has always stuck with me is from his poem “The Lotus-Eaters,” which starts, “‘Courage!’ he said, and pointed toward the land.” That line has rung in my head for 40 years.
Rail: There is that mention of lotus-eaters, and there are mushrooms onstage. If there is a paradise that’s found in this play, is it simply an artificial paradise or is there some form of authenticity?
Foreman: I have no idea. I’ve always said all my plays are about paradise. People find that surprising, because I generally seem gloomy, progressive, or whatever, but to me, paradise is putting the bad, difficult things in life into the aesthetic meat-grinder and, through the aesthetic aspects of rhythm, composition, and so forth, taking everything that is problematic in life and making it dance in ecstasy.
Rail: Theater as alchemy.
Foreman: I was very influenced by alchemy. My early plays, which were very repetitive, very static, I used to consciously think about as if they were alchemical exercises in a laboratory, and we were reworking and reworking the same material in hopes that it would transform through grace into gold, into art.
Rail: So the claim that this will be the last major Ontological production?
Foreman: Well, I don’t know if it will be the last—no! I mean these other things that I’m going to do will be major Ontological productions, but they won’t be so play-oriented, so theater-oriented. I think the big emphasis being that I think they’re going to be more meditative, more abstract, and the actors will not be the central focus.
Rail: So for those of us that have a habit (you talk about habit a lot in this latest play) of coming to the Ontological, it isn’t as if we’re going to go through withdrawal? This isn’t the end?
Foreman: No, I’m certainly going to do something here next year. After that it may get a little tricky. I may not do it in the same way and the same space because I have to be available to go around to all these countries. I have to go to each place for like two weeks to do the filming and to establish this databank of images. But I’ll still be definitely aiming at doing something with all of this in New York, doing some kind of performance.
Rail: So the purpose is to collect an international database of images?
Foreman: To collect a database of scenes, of living tableaus with slight action. Mostly just these images on five-minute takes. Certainly a number of them from different countries. And then everybody in every country who participates will be able to freely use all of these images from other countries, and hopefully be encouraged to make their own use of them, be it a film, be it an installation, be it a performance. And I’ll make available to them anything that I use in my performance, the text or anything like that, which they can use or not use. We’re really hoping that other people will start to use the same material. But who knows what’s going to happen? My great mentor, Joe Papp, always used to change his mind—even announce a huge season of something or other and two weeks later he’d change his mind. But yeah, I feel that way. Because I’ve felt for a long time that I wanted to try something different, and this is the first time that I really finally had an idea, like a different way of proceeding. I think it is different.
The Gods Are Pounding My Head! (a k a Lumberjack Messiah), written and directed by Richard Foreman, runs from January 6 – April 17 at the Ontological Theatre at St. Mark’s Church, 131 East 10th Street at Second Ave.; Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday at 8p.m.; tickets $20/$15 for students, Saturdays, $25.