I Survived Richard Foreman

richard foreman's panicRecently, I came across a notebook I used while working with the inimitable Richard Foreman, the legendary theater maker and self-proclaimed “King of the Avant-Garde.” The incomprehensible instructions that follow are quoted exactly as I wrote them, in italics.

(photo: Paula Court)

Orders from Satan—12/1/02—(orders from Satan—I think it’s cute!)

More holds—snapshots are an important part of the structure. BIG MUSCLE. That’s not a horse, that’s a lady dressed as a horse. Oh, and the noise backstage is too loud, says Satan.

Richard usually always wears the same thing, or some variation on it—a black fleece sweatshirt, soft black pants and Mephisto hiking boots in either black or brown. That seemed apt. Mephisto—Mephistopheles. I’m sure the irony isn’t lost on him, either. Anyway, below my notes for the day is a rough sketch of Richard, depicting him horned and caped, with a forked tail and hairy chest, wearing crudely drafted shoes marked “Mephisto.” I know I didn’t draw it. I never would have drawn Richard Foreman’s chest hair in such loving detail.

Orders from Satan—12/5/02—after run-through

What does Satan say today? Tell us, oh dark one, we who are your minions? How can we better serve our omniscient lord?

No more hats. I’m retarded (a small drawing of a dark haired girl with an enormous hair ribbon and a large tear rolling down her face.) Me, crying, because I’m retarded. Bring on CIGS W?CLUB RIBBONS!

Screens, skirts; remember tree—be mindful.

Wait for twirl, asshole! (I’m the asshole.)

Dance off when the music starts, NOT when the cabinet begins to move. Get out of the way sooner with balls—use buzzer to cue—spin out, dance off (says Satan) Hee-yah! Orgiastic!

Below all of this is a detailed drawing of an elaborate gingerbread house perched atop a giant penis. This one, I drew.

When I first got the phone call from Richard at 9:30 am on a Sunday asking if I still wanted to be a dwarf, I was so excited I literally pulled my boyfriend out of the shower to tell him the good news. He asked me why I hadn’t put to use the bottle of drain cleaner he had given me for my birthday. Then he said, “That’s so great, honey. I just hope it’s what you want to do.”

“What do you mean, you hope it’s what I want to do?” I asked, a little indignantly. “Of course, it’s what I want to do. I mean, this is my first job out of school! This is amazing! I’m the luckiest girl in the world! Richard Foreman picked me! Me, me, me! He must think I’m really special!” Special. Special. In retrospect, I realize that many things qualify as special. Special is not necessarily a positive adjective. Tuna Special. Special Education. The Special Olympics—everyone knows they aren’t the real Olympics. They’re SPECIAL.

For those of you laypersons, unversed in the codes and customs of New York Downtown Theater (notice the capitalization), allow me to explain the concept of what Richard Foreman “affectionately” terms dwarves. Personally, I like to think of it as the downtown equivalent of being a chorus girl, though this may be romanticizing the situation a bit. Foreman’s highly choreographed extravaganzas necessitate a parade of his favorite props and set pieces—strings, large pieces of cardboards, rubber balls decorated with nipples, phallic symbols, pastry, demonic babies—to be moved and delivered to the play’s stars at the master’s will. It is a dwarf’s job to make sure that these things are introduced at highly precise moments. These moments are usually cued by an amplified thud, crash, buzz, or ping. Occasionally, dwarves will be called upon to dance frenziedly in the background, to lend a general air of insanity to the proceedings. The exactitude of timing is extremely important. A lazy or stupid dwarf can easily drag the choreography of a ten second piece of business on for hours, earning the wrath and ire of her director and co-dwarves. Dwarves are typically rendered unrecognizable in heavy swatches of burlap and wool, and subject to disfiguring makeup and headdresses, unless you are a female dwarf that Richard Foreman finds attractive. I was not. I learned this lesson the hard way, when one day Richard said, “Okay, I think Bj, Rachel, and Ryan, you know, the dwarves who are not the beautiful women dwarves, should have disgusting cigarettes dangling from their lip. Yes. The male dwarves should have cigarettes.” (That’s not an exact quote, but pretty close.) Not only was I a dwarf, but I was a sexless, awkward, male dwarf.

By this time, I had just broken up with my aforementioned boyfriend, was spending seven hours a day, six days a week, in a freezing, soul-sucking, black hole of a theater for what I figured was roughly $0.17 an hour, and was drinking pretty heavily. Maybe Richard (my college idol! The reason I wanted to make theater!) didn’t mean it personally, but it wasn’t the best time for me to feel my physical charms under attack. He gets into your head, in a disturbingly Freudian way. I think I slept with more strangers in a shorter period of time than ever before during the rehearsal process. And this time it wasn’t because I was between boyfriends or because my dad wasn’t home enough when I was a kid. I just needed Richard to think I was pretty.

Don’t think it isn’t embarrassing for me to admit these things here, for all to see. It’s humiliating. But sometimes, we need to purge in order to move forward. You eat too much ice cream and don’t puke it up, sooner or later it’s going to show up on your butt. So I apologize for indulging in what may seem like an English major’s version of bulimia. (An acting major’s version of bulimia, is in fact, bulimia.) Bear with me.

Oh God. Oh God. My roommate is practicing his drums again. Oh God.

One of my fellow dwarves and I decided, during some downtime at a particularly deadly rehearsal, that we were going to write a memoir of this time entitled “Waiting for the Thud: My Life with Richard Foreman”. Waiting for the thud—we thought it was cute. I still think there’s an audience for it. At the time, Richard was making us wear hats that fit tightly under the chin with an elastic band; hats fashioned from coiled black foam rubber that made you look like a giant had shat on your head. We were to wear these hats at all times; Richard couldn’t possibly imagine what the play might look like if we didn’t. My hat gave me dandruff for the first time in my life. We laughed about how we would be bald, broke, deaf and suicidal for the rest of our lives. We laughed so hard that our heads shook and a fine shower of white flakes rained down from our hair and sprinkled the floor like the fake snow on a flocked Christmas tree. Then we stopped laughing, because we were making too much noise, and because it was the kind of laughter that is suspiciously close to tears.

Later, we decorated our dressing room mirror with a picture of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor greeting Hitler.

Why be a dwarf at all then, if it’s so awful? And if you are so inclined to be one in the first place, why complain? Well, why do people climb Mt. Everest? Why do people swim the English Channel? Why do people re-enact the Crucifixion every Easter? The question is are you going to be the kind of determined maniac that gets crucified in Brazil and stays up there on your cross bravely for days, battered by the wind, and tortured by hunger and thirst? Or are you going to be like that guy who crucified himself, only to realize that once he had nailed one of his hands to the cross, he couldn’t nail down the other one, so dragged himself to the phone to dial 911 and tell them what a total tool he was? What kind of dwarf are you going to be?

Love him or hate him, Richard Foreman is indisputably a genius; an artist with the kind of focus and vision that comes along once in a generation. Seeing him in action is incredible and inspiring. Someone with that kind of confidence, that kind of clarity, whether you like his work or agree with his admittedly bleak vision of humanity, is awe-inspiring. You are constantly in an intellectually and physically challenging environment with a director who routinely peppers his conversation with references to arcane Romanian poetry and obscure occultist philosophers. You know that somehow, eventually, you are going to be a part of something important. Serious art. High art. Kultur with a ‘K.” Famous people will come and see the play you are doing, famous people like Lou Reed, Phillip Glass, Willem Dafoe, Elizabeth LaCompte, Isaac Mizrahi. Somebody even swore she saw Jimmy Fallon one night. They will come, and even if they fall asleep during the performance, afterwards you will hear them say they LOVED it. Do a Richard Foreman play and you can out-pretentious anyone at theater parties for years to come. And it will make you a better artist, a more disciplined artist, and a very patient person. That, though, is not the reason.

The reason, of course, is to be able to say you did it. Nothing is more profoundly satisfying than completing something truly difficult and unpleasant. Why do you think cancer survivors always look so damn smug? Why do we bother with graduate school? It gives you faith in yourself—in your fortitude. It makes you feel somehow superior to other people. And this is because, as I think Richard himself would agree, pomposity can be a highly underrated virtue.

Plus there’s the free trip to Europe. That helps a lot.

5 thoughts on “I Survived Richard Foreman”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: