“I set out for myself the task of achieving neutrality onstage. Which is impossible, it turns out,” Richard Maxwell told me last week, sitting in the audience of the Kitchen, where his latest show, Neutral Hero, makes its NYC debut this week (through Nov. 3; tickets $25). “It was a real struggle. And in the end, honesty became the arbiter. Honesty became an arbiter for what decisions got made.”
I think I made a face of increasing incomprehension, which caused him to pause to try to explain. “Let me just ask you something: when you think of neutrality, what color do you picture?”
“Gray,” I said.
“Gray, that’s it.” He nodded agreement. “And when you picture the sound, what sound do you hear?”
“Traffic,” I suggested, “background noise, white noise…”
“Okay,” he continued. “I understand these impulses, and I think there could be a concensus of what they are. But when it comes to putting on a play… Well, how would you apply gray to a costume? Or lack of costumes? What are you going to have them wear if you want them to be neutral? So these are the kinds of things that I grappled with, and I found in the end honesty was the only route I could really follow. What are we looking at? We’re looking at people. Who are these people? They’re people who speak English. Why do they speak English? Because they’re American. Where do they live? They live in New York. I had nowhere else to go other than to embrace what was already there.”
Since 1994, when the Fargo, ND native moved to New York from Illinois, Maxwell has developed what’s quite possibly the most distinctive theatrical voice in the city, as a writer-director of plays produced through his company the New York City Players. For some fifteen years, Maxwell and his collaborators have been developing a rich and subtle anti-mimetic performance style used mainly to realize Maxwell’s own texts.
So I’ll admit that I was somewhat surprised to discover that part of–perhaps even the main source of–the inspiration for Neutral Hero, which debuted in the spring of 2011 at the Kunsten Festival in Belgium and toured almost a dozen cities before making it to New York, was as a response to and exploration of the somewhat problematic reputation Maxwell has developed for “being the ‘neutral’ guy. The guy who does neutral stagings and deadpan performance. Affectless,” he emphasized. “Monotone. All this stuff. It’s funny because this show demonstrates maybe more than anything how impossible it is to be neutral. It’s just not possible to be those things that I felt were marginalizing me or pigeonholing me.”
“And yet I understand that it’s something that identifies me to people,” he admits, “and makes it recognizable.”
Maxwell’s process is painstaking and meticulous. (BOMB magazine had a great interview with him in which he demonstrated his process, and it’s well worth reading in its own right.) As a theater-maker, the various elements of his work exist in complex relation to one another. Maxwell may be a writer as well, but the text is always at the service of contributing to a live performance.
“What I wrote was based in a [different] time,” he explained. “If you’re trying to feel what I felt when I wrote that, you’re too late. That time’s passed and now I don’t care about it. It’s about what’s happening in the present that concerns me most, so I like that I can change that to accomodate the present.”
Immediacy–rather than any formal aesthetic goal–was what emerged from our conversation as a primary concern of Maxwell’s. The text is an essential part of Maxwell’s art, and as a director, part of his work is establishing his performers’ relationship to it. Far from a purely aesthetic practice, Maxwell’s formal distancing serves the purpose of placing both the text-as-spoken and the performer-as-speaker in an immediate present, rather than attempting a compelling fiction onstage.
“I think when you talk about performing, you are undertaking a task that involves a perpetual decision-making process. You step up onstage, there’s a million things flying at you at once,” he told me. “But how you respond to those is what I’m looking at. There’s no fixed or right way of how someone should behave onstage. So why is there such system? Why is it that we recognize acting when we see it? So people who tend to not abide by that, who intentionally or inadvertently upset that notion of what we’re supposed to see in a performer, intrigue me.”
Perhaps most intriguingly, Maxwell suggested that finally bringing Neutral Hero to New York presented a unique opportunity for the artists in how they approach their material.
“Something that hasn’t been talked about that’s really important is we are talking about people here,” Maxwell told me of performing the show in New York. “And maybe the sharing goes deeper when you can identify in the show and watching the show, a community.”