Spotlight On: Richard Foreman 

Christopher Borg 

--A constant reawakening of the audience--


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  Ben Brantley calls Richard Foreman “the most eminent elder statesman of the avant-garde in New York theater and its most exacting auteur.”

1999: I move to New York City.  My first performance on stage after moving here was in a "play" (for lack of a better descriptive) that was culled from the brain of Richard Foreman called Nothing, created for the Ontological Theatre INCUBATOR’s Obie-winning “Blueprint” series.  Pages and pages of “dialogue” written by Foreman but not attributable to any particular piece, were assembled and directors were free to interpret the words, ideas and lines in any way they wanted.  I ended up as one of 4 men wearing Dr. Seussian yellow union suits, negotiating a landscape of ropes and confusion, a radio hanging from the ceiling and I think the end of the world.  It was my first introduction to the performance art scene in the East Village.

2013: The New York Innovative Theatre Foundation awards the world-renowned avant-garde art-maker and famous New Yorker, Richard Foreman, the Honorary IT Award for Artistic Achievement.  The Honorary Awards Committee was unanimous in agreement that Richard’s unique contributions to the landscape of independent theatre are unparalleled. 

2014: It is with some sadness this month to read the announcement that the Incubator Arts Project was closing shop, effectively putting a period at the end of the chapter of the St. Mark’s experimental theatre legacy started by Richard Foreman in 1968. 

1937: Richard Foreman is born in New York City. 

1959:  Richard graduates from Brown University BA, (Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa).

1962: Richard receives an MFA in Playwriting from Yale School of Drama.

Richard founds the Ontological-Hysteric Theater and remains the company’s artistic director through its life. (In the 1980s a branch of the theater would be established in Paris and funded by the French Government.)

1968 – Present: Richard has written, directed and designed over fifty of his own plays both in New York City and abroad and presented work with the New York Shakespeare Festival, La MaMa, BAM, the Wooster Group, and Opera houses throughout Europe.

His awards include 5 Obies for best play and five other Obies for directing and “sustained achievement,” the Literature award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, a "Lifetime Achievement in the Theater" award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN Club Master American Dramatist Award, a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, and in 2004 he was elected officer of the Order of Arts and Letters of France. His archives and work materials have recently been acquired by the Bobst Library at NYU. Seven collections of his plays have already been published, and books studying his work have been published in New York, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo.

1993: Richard receives an Honorary Doctorate from Brown.

2005: The INCUBATOR begins as one of many inventive and innovative programs for experimental artists at the Ontological.

2010: the legendary Ontological-Hysteric Theater’s INCUBATOR wins an Obie just as Richard Foreman announces that the Ontological is ceasing operations and would vacate its East Village home at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Performing Artservices re-launches the newly renamed Incubator Arts Project.

Sunday, April 13, 2014:  I speak with Richard on the phone:
CB: What led you to avant-garde / experimental theatre?
RF: Seeing underground films by my guru, Jonas Mekas, who was making films and presenting expanded cinema events with musician Lamont Young. And attending happenings. I was making theatre since I was a kid, but I was not that moved by the early experimental work that I saw, and all of a sudden I felt much closer to these films I was seeing. That lead me to think of a new way to make theatre. Lamont Young’s music was very important to me, long drone-like sounds and I wondered how I could make theatre that had similar impact on me like his music did.
CB: How have you observed the indie theatre community change over the years?
RF: Well I don’t go out anymore so I don’t see any theatre, but it seems to me to be a very good period. Many more young people are making art now than were in the 80’s and 90’s and I talk to a lot of people in the theatre making this stuff – you know at St. Mark’s we gave home to a lot of artists that were at the very beginning, companies like Elevator Repair Service did some of their first work at the Ontological, and I feel that was the beginning of a new flowering of a new experimental theatre.
CB: You stopped producing at the Ontological. What led you to decide to move away from that form of expression?
RF: Well, first of all, I got sick of the space! It had certain limitations which I taught myself how to use, but I was always interested in film. I started making films as a continual background in my productions and I found myself looking more at the film than the actors. All my first friends in New York were young, underground film makers and I felt close to film, but didn’t consider myself a film maker. I had always written plays.
CB: What place do you think experimental theatre has in our culture now?
RF: Our culture is getting so strange I wonder if anything has much effect. Everything is so dispersed through digitalization and the internet. It’s a problematic period where, well, something else has to happen.
CB: What do you think is the future for avant-garde theatre?
RF:  I really can’t answer that. But I made art and theatre for myself and then I asked “can anybody else use it?” I think that there is always, hopefully, a continuation of a tradition where artists are making what they have to make because of some inner necessity and not to please other people…that has been the history for 200 years of avant-garde theatre.  But that has put me out-of-step with all the other theatre that was being made in the past and now. I was told that I was supposed to think about the audience, and I didn’t want to. I wanted to please myself and to wake myself up.
CB: Yes, you have written of this constant need to re-awaken the audience -
RF: Yes! It was to re-awaken ME because I was falling asleep and falling into habit like anyone else we have to fight that tendency.
CB: What are your thoughts on the Incubator Arts Project closing shop?
RF: Obviously it saddens me that Incubator is ended. I feel it's another sign of the general tendency of the culture to discourage the kind of work that I care most about, risk-taking and "experimental" which to me means driven by other than marketing concerns.
CB: What advice do you have for experimental theatre artists today?
RF: Well, without knowing who they are, I would hope that there are people out there for whom it would be useful to say: Just have courage. Follow your own particular obsession.  Not everyone has the drive to do that and they are not bad people, but people who do, make the interesting art.
TODAY:  Richard, now 75, has moved away from theatre, preferring to focus on making film and has released several movies.  He still lives in SoHo with his wife, Kate Manheim, an actress and artist. 
TOMORROW:  ? ? ?
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