Monday, January 5, 2009

The Ontological-Hysteric Theatre as Satanic Ritual?

In my late night online wanderings I've been doing a little reading up on Satanism* and the philosophy of Anton Szandor LaVey, author of the Satanic Bible and founder of the Church of Satan, and I couldn't help but draw some uncanny comparisons between the Satanic Ritual known as Black Mass and Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric theatre.

We can start with the term that Satanists use for their place of ritual. They call it an "Intellectual Decompression Chamber," which simply means a place where one willfully enters into a state of conscious suspension of disbelief, for the purpose of achieving magical ends.  LaVey says that it is necessary for one to be completely unburdened by "conscious intellectual critique" to truly achieve this kind of powerful magic. 

This idea of an "Intellectual Decompression Chamber" bares a lot of resemblance to Foreman's sort of theatre, which tends to appeal to ones' senses or psyche rather than ones' intellect.  And is it only coincidence that for the past decade Foreman's plays have been created and performed inside a Cathederal?

Aesthetically, Forman's plays share a lot in common with the rituals performed by the Church of Satan. Or is it that the members of the church just happen to be the kind of people who are also attracted to real theatre? Peter Gilmore, the current High Priest of the Church of Satan, said in an interview with the History Channel that the performed rituals of the Church are often theatrical in nature, and that in fact it's the theatricality of the iconography of the Christian Satan that attracts the Church to use Him as an icon for their religion.

In the Book of Belial, LaVey lists the 5 major elements needed in the performance of satanic magic: Desire, Timing, Imagery, Direction, and Balance. LaVey's instructions on imagery perfectly describes Foreman's visual design of the stage:

Imagery: Accouterments conducive to the ritual environment, and the full visualization of the desired outcome, must be present. This not only includes the standard ritual equipment, but more specifically any specialized imagery or items the magician requires to give him a full mental view of what he wishes to happen. This can include drawings or paintings, sculptures, dolls, written poems or verses, or anything else that aids in visualizing the outcome.

Especially since Foreman creates his plays through the process of rehearsal, he too demands that every visual and aural element are present during rehearsal from day one in order that he can effectively create his "magic." Foreman typically adorns his sets (Astronome's not excluded) with many many layers of imagery, from strange and absurd props and objects to ornate and intricate geometrical designs to mythical symbols. These images really do create a sense of ritual. 

The Satanic Ritual and Foreman's plays also share similarities in the performative aspects of both of the rituals.

LaVey distinguishes the performative behavior that takes place in a Satanic ritual from that of other religions; claiming that even though the Satanist is in a suspension of disbelief, he is always consciously aware of this fact, and knows he is doing so for a specific purpose (magic), rather than falling victim to the sort of self-deceit and delusion that other rituals promote.

This reminds me of Foreman's technique of distraction and psychological conflict--always making both the audience and the actor fully aware of the fact that they  are in a theater, watching/performing a play--never letting you get swept away by your emotions or the fiction of the performance.

I know that Satanist are a rather silly group of people, what with the dressing up as devils and occult figures and performing strange rituals of lust, sacrifice, compassion, and destruction. I mean, they are really only as silly as any other religion with their silly rituals. But what the Satanists have, at least, is the humor and honesty to admit to the reality of what they do- the theatricality of it all. They are so self-delusional in that sense. And I think Forman himself would agree in saying the same for the institution of theatre. Ultimately, his theatre exists to point out the same type theatricality naturally inherent in theatre; rather than to not hide behind some intellectual concept of western theatre. It is theatre for the sake of creating theatre. Ritual for the sake of Ritual.  

With all this in mind, it is hard to look at Foreman's plays and not believe that he truly is trying to summon some kind of real and powerful magic. It begs the question: Richard Forman, Theatre Director? or Richard Foreman, Satanic Magician? 

Personally, I give Foreman much more merit than LaVey and his religion, because the kind of knowledge Foreman is offering isn't so readily attainable as the kind offered by Satanist philosophy.  Foreman's knowledge is much more cryptic, and carries with it a mystical fortune. It is a process of peeling back the layers, into the subconscious. Like the Satanist philosophy though, Foreman's theatre also indulges in the desires of man; only it is not so much about the immediate experience. Instead, it reveals the plural nature of man and man's reality (space and time)--it is about the here and now, but also about the there and then; about what is happening, and also what is not happening. and also, what is not happening. and also, what is not happening. and also, what is not happening, what is not not happening, what is not happening....

*For those of you more conservative readers who may not be familiar with the teachings of the Church of Satan, or who may have been sensitive to the whole "Satanic Panic" hysteria of the 80s, there is no actual Satan worshiping involved. The philosophy is for all intensive purposes humanistic, denying the concept of human-created gods or devils and all forms of the afterlife, and instead focuses on the pursuit of individual-enlightenment and the indulgence in human, worldly experience. The only difference is that Satanists believe religion and ritual to be a necessary part of human nature, so they have created certain theatrical rituals and dogma to be performed and followed as part of the religion. They are basically just intellectual Dungeons & Dragons nerds.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rehearsal: Thoughts and Observations on Process from an OHT Intern

We are at the end of week 4 of rehearsal for Astronome: A Night at the Opera, Richard Foreman's new collaboration with avant-garde composer John Zorn. This project is a new challenge for Foreman, in that it is the first time he's tried to create a play that isn't really "his."

Foreman's usual method of creating theatre begins with generating a text. He'll generate many seemingly disconnected strands of dialogue over the course of a few months in a stream-of-thought sort of method. Then he'll collage these pieces of dialogue together into something that seems to make sense to him. He'll bring this along with pre-recorded audio clips, video images, etc into rehearsal and start playing around with it all: trying every thought that comes to mind. The process of his rehearsals are in an ever-constant state of flux. The Ontological-Hysteric staff and interns are there to facilitate Foreman's fantasies. They do their best at creating everything and anything that he calls for, no matter how absurd. Foreman directs his theatre much like a film director edits film: he has all the raw footage already at his disposal from day one, and then he arranges and rearranges the material until it is in an order that pleases him.

However, Astronome is different, because Foreman did not start with a text. In fact, at the moment there exists no text. No film. Only a few sparse voice recordings. The play is to be built around John Zorn's Astronome composition, an experimental, ritualistic death metal album featuring the guttural vocalizations and primal screams of famed singer Mike Patton.

The past 3 weeks have felt more like an eternity. During rehearsal, I often feel as though I have died and found myself in some bizarre purgatory. Nothing about Foreman's rehearsals make any logical sense, except to Foreman of course. It is a treat to watch him direct his actors. Every choice Foreman makes during rehearsal, from the costuming, to the performers' actions, to the stage, prop, and light design, comes completely from intuition. It does not make immediate sense. It may take days to understand why he made a choice, and then again some of things are immediately brilliant (but you can never say quite why).

My favorite part of rehearsal is when Foreman ascends the stage to work out an action or give example. His movements on stage are so genuine and purposeful. I might even go to say that I'd rather watch Foreman on stage than any of his actors. But to say this is would be to go against what Foreman wants his actors to do on stage. He cares little for "theatrical" images, and theatrical acting; that is, images which sole purpose to create an emotion from the spectator. In his first plays he specifically used non-actors, because he enjoyed the awkwardness of it, but then as his plays became more psychologically layered he found the need for more highly skilled actors to convey his thoughts. Today, I think, he uses a mix of both.

A reader of this blog, had commented that his students were annoyed by some of Foreman's work that he had shown in class. I think this is a very common reaction to Foreman's plays. In his early work, the audiences would walk out before intermission, and he'd end up playing to a few weirdos who stuck around. What Richard does is certainly not "theater" in any contemporary Western sense. Richard would be the first to tell you that he "doesn't know how to direct theatre," and that most of what he creates is "lousy." This has become his aesthetic: lousy theatre. Homemade objects, shoddily crafted thing-a-majigs, ugly colors, awkward designs. Like Gertrude Stein, Foreman is more interested in pointing out the syntax of lanuage and creating a new kind of language for his artistic medium.

Everything on Foreman's stage is pointing out this syntax, forcing the audience to be aware of the reality of what they are experiencing. Foreman is a master of distraction and contradiction. He litters his stage with hundreds of props, absurd objects, clashing designs, optical illusions, string, stripes, checks, dots, etc. His lighting designs are brilliantly unconventional, with several giant, ultra bright, soft lights that point at the audience, and flashing strobes that are used both aesthetically and as cues for the performers. He wants to make it impossible for the the audience to get wrapped up in the fiction of the play. Indeed, he is opossed to the kind of theatre that wants you to "feel" something, or empathize with the characters. He is much more interested in creating a psychological experience, in which you are never quite aloud to fully live out the emotions you think you should feel from the action on stage. 

The psychological contradictions that occur sublimely under each action, and each visual and aural element on stage, effect the psyche of the theater-goer in a strange way. The most common of these responses, I think, being annoyance. It's a bit like one's first taste of coffee or liquor: at first the experience is most undesirable, but then you try it again and it's  a little more palatable, and before long you learn to enjoy the flavor if not only for the neurological effects you get from ingesting it. 

It is not an immediate process, there is no instant satisfaction as far as intellectual reason or emotion, it is a kind of something that grows in the mind like an implanted seed, or manifests over time like festering fruit. 

The set design for Astronome gets more and more ornate each day I come into rehearsal. After I've been gone from the theatre for the weekend, I'm always excited to come in on Monday to see all the new changes that have been made. It seems every day there an addition of a new line of string dissecting the theatre in some direction, or another layer of fabric stapled to the walls. The environments that Foreman creates for his actors are truly chaotic, and I think it's his attempt at depicting the world the way it is: multilayered, confusing, conflicting, chaotic...dangerous

At first glance you would think all this ornamentation is haphazard, but then you realize it all is really there for some specific reason when Richard yells a sudden halt to rehearsal and begins tearing down a piece of striped fabric, or small random letters that hang from a string, or removing a small red ping-pong ball that is hardily noticed on stage saying "We simply cannot go on rehearsing!...These kinds of things make a very big difference to those with a sensitive soul." 

And I suppose they do. 

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ontological-Hysteric Theater: First Week

Let me try and organize my thoughts here:

By here I do mean here as in this blog, but also I mean to say let me organize my thoughts now. Of course I also mean here as in the place I am writing this: a coffee shop.

I have been waiting for what seems like many months in anticipation for my internship with Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. During this period of anticipation i did many things to occupy my time. Many things and not so many things. I rambled about the country via motorcycle visiting friends, family, and strangers. I ended in New York City, making an indefinite home in Brooklyn.

My first 3 weeks were miserable. I wanted very much to transport my self back to the West. I came into the city with little more than $45 dollars cash in my pocket and whole lot of increasing credit card debt. I had no home and no job. The first 2 weeks seemed to last months. I was constantly stressed out and worried about finding housing, food, and a job. Looking back now it doesn't seem that long. Hell, I found a place to live and work in only 3 weeks.

I now work at a nice little espresso bar in Forte Greene somewhat near my apartment. With my internship I will be working 60 hours a week: 40 at the theatre and 20 at the coffee shop. Guess which one I actually get paid for?

So I've been waiting, and working. And the first day finally arrived. I woke up and it was time. Only a little nervous. I was more afraid that I'd be working with a bunch of pretentious rich kids. And while most of them certainly are coming from rich families, I was pleased to find that I'll be working with more genuine people than I expected. I guess it makes sense: what kind of people are attracted to Foreman's work? And are willing to give their free time to help make his visions reality.

It turns out through some series of events that I happened to be one of these people; though, I couldn't exactly tell you why or how: it all just happened. Of course there was more to it, but looking at it from a distance...

Does anyone know why anything happens?

I have found myself here. Not to say I have found myself, but more to say that I have litterally found myself here. And what a pleasant surprise, and what an unusual place, and what a unique opportunity. I am excited.

The theater itself inhabits the loft of the St. Marks Cathedral in the East Village. It is everything I could have imagined. Small, intimate, almost make-shift. The theatre staff is comprised off 5 people, all friendly, genuine, caring, and passionate people. They work hard and love what they do. I hope to learn much from them on that mode of living. I only briefly met Richard, as rehearsals have not yet started.

The first two weeks are load-in: in which time we construct the set, costumes, and props, so that everything is fully ready to go by the first day of rehearsal. Richard runs every rehearsal like a full dress rehearsal. That means every element must be at performance level. This is becuase Richard likes to start with everything from the very beginning. He puts all ideas right out in the open and physically works through them during the 8 weeks of rehearsal.

We were warned: NOTHING IS SACRED (and everything is sacred)! Even though we spend all this time, craft, effort, material, and money on a prop, costume, sound design, or set, none of it is sacred. In fact, half it will be thrown out, changed, modified or not even used for the final performance. Richard Foreman's method of creating a play is unique in that it all comes out of the process. We were told that we will get to see many different versions of the play, since it will be in constant evolution. Something that the technical director said that I found interesting was that even though during the early rehearsals a certain point in the play a large object might be shook loudly, and in the final version it is replaced with a silent moment, the energy of the initial action is still remains present. It got me to thinking about the reverberation of energy in a space, and how that it can exist both in a specific moment in time and eternally.

Richard plays typically involve hundreds of props and objects: he is a master of distraction. The prop list is quite amusing calling for odd numbers of odd objects, such as 3 red ping pong balls, a giant green lightbulb, 4 rolling pins, a giant fish that knitting needles can be stuck into, etc. The list as of now is literally 3 pages long, and it will only grow throughout rehearsal.

I speak more in depth about Foreman's method once we actually begin rehearsals, so I won't try to explain any of it now. Not here.

I suppose this whole blog thing should be more about me: my experience, my impressions of this process.

Well. In the past week I've had many thoughts. I should try to write these down through out the day as they come, because now of course I can't remember any.

I have thought constantly about what will happen after the internship, and after that, and after that, but then I try to bring myself back to the moment. I try to focus only what is immediately in front of me.

But will a stick around in New York? Let's just say I have a gut feeling that tells me that this town is going to suck me into it for at least a few years. And that might be ok. Even though my heart sits in the cold Portland water.

Do I want to be an actor still? ? ? Theater. Film. ? ? ? Oh I don't know. It all seems like so much work to get there. But then maybe if I keeping living the way I'm living it will all just happen like everything else just seems to happen. Of course I know nothing really just happens: I work hard for things. But again things do also just happen at the same time. Looking back at it.

What if I get the chance to actually work in theatre. It would be a busy life, working multiple jobs, multiple theaters, making all those connections, networking, blah, blah...

I have to focus on the moment, I can't think about all of that. It isn't healthy. I forget to breathe.

I will end this post with something I found to ring true while reading Foreman's Unbalancing Acts. What he said seemed to settle my dilemma about wanting to hurriedly move back to the Northwest as soon as possible. It is Foreman's reason for living in New York, and also one reason why he produces his art.

"Obvioulsy, if you choose to inhabit a nice, comfortable environment, it's quite easy to feel at one within yourself. The challenge is to find that point of stillness in the midst of the storm--within the depths of the negative hyper-energy that characterizes the worst of contemporary Western urban life."

Friday, August 22, 2008

It's been a while

I feel lazy, because I have posted nothing new in quite some time. For those of you who might happen to read this, I'll give you a brief run down of what I've been up to.

First off, the project in winter was a huge success! It evolved into a one-hour stage performance that synthesized all of my street pieces plus some others. It was called "Human Resources" and was performed at the Evergreen State College on March 14th. The only part of the production that wasn't a success, unfortunately, was the documentation. I was so busy doing every other aspect of the production that I had very little energy or time to properly document the process with pictures and video. My camera man dropped out on me at the last moment before the show, and I so I set up two static cameras, but then only one of them got turned on. I haven't even watched it, I'm so depressed about it.

Nevertheless, the performance was fantastic. Thank you to all who helped. It was an amazing experience, and the images that were created will not soon be forgotten. Now the only thing left to do, is to transcribe the performance score, in hopes of getting it produced for a future production.

In the Spring I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey. There I met with artist Ismet Dogan, who commissioned me to create a performance for him and his friends in his studio in Beyoglu. I collaborted with Mariah Barrett and Halil Ildeniz on this 30 minute peice. There is a video floating around somewhere in Turkey of this performace, and when I get a hold of it I will most definately post it.

More good news is that I got an internship with Richard Foreman and his Ontoligical-Hysteric Theatre in New York City. My Internship starts in November, and I'll be sure to keep this blog updated during that time.

I'm currently en route to New York via motorcycle. I've been meandering across the country since early July.

I can't wait to get a new project under my feet. The anxiety of feeling worthless and lazy is becoming too great.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Winter Project

This winter Jamie and I are creating an experimental stage performance. We have synthesized my past 6 performances into one inclusive piece. We are taking the images of the past performances, which where created for site-specific public locations, and translating them to the stage. I have applied for a grant, and will find out week 4 just how much funding this project is going to have. The performance will be on March 14 and will be invitation only. I will post sketches, sounds and pictures of works in progress as they materialize.