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.