Richard Maxwell is a New York City-based playwright and director who has been making plays with his company, New York City Players, since 1999. For five consecutive days he staged an open rehearsal with his company on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum as part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Following these rehearsals, Maxwell and Performa’s Marc Arthur met up to talk about his process and his experience staging theater within the context of a museum.
Marc Arthur: When I first walked into the vast and empty fourth floor where you were rehearsing with your company, I searched for clues about what I was watching. Neither the wall text or museum brochure revealed anything. Why did you leave out the details of content of your show?
Richard Maxwell: The great thing about working with Jay [Sanders] and Elizabeth [Sussman] is that they were really supportive and understanding. Even half-baked notions I was helped along with, which is unusual because I’m used to having to justify my position (instead of collaborating on an idea) and always feeling like concessions must be made. I had this feeling that the content would convey too much unintentional political or moral information, because the show was about witchcraft and I wanted to be able to change the content at the last minute. I wrote this very quickly and I wrote it for the Whitney.
Is there any significance to the witch hunt theme in the context of a museum?
Part of the reason I was drawn to it was this public aspect in the play. I didn’t know how the public would figure into this but I knew that it would only help if you had a trial, for example. There was public milling about and I thought it would help in making the situation more acute somehow, adding another layer to it.
So you saw the audience as voyeurs of this trial?
Yes, and they actually were in the end. That was definitely on my mind. The thing I’m trying to connect is friendship and witch hunts. I know that they both exist. And I know that they’re both in this show. I feel like they’re both connected, and I feel like there’s an aspect of a witch hunt inside the dynamics of a friendship.
It was exciting to watch you cut an entire scene in the rehearsal on Friday. It felt a little voyeuristic watching you work. Why did you not step into the action as a director during the final run-through on Sunday?
I learned that I wanted to stay out of it to give the viewer more agency in watching, coupled with a feeling that I wanted to be anonymous.
I got tired of reckoning with this question of am I doing this for them or for me? Which ultimately goes back to the issue of am I doing this to impress people? I wanted the folks who were watching to be more involved. I didn’t know how else to get them involved without it seeming like direct audience participation, which is pretty horrible. However I did try to get the public involved by handing out lyric sheets to a song I wrote.
How did that go?
I think people liked it but I really didn’t like it.
Did they sing along?
Yeah, everybody sang. But it was something that I would run from if I were a museum visitor in that situation. I don’t know what it is; it’s so repellent that it’s probably worth exploring.
It took eight hours to get through one rehearsal, and you rehearsed for five consecutive days. How did endurance affect your process?
It turns out rehearsing in front of a crowd takes a lot of stamina. I got a little loopy as the days accumulated and I noticed that I just didn’t want to stop to get into the nitty-gritty of the scenes. For example, a scene written in a room somewhere in a house and trying to find that space mentally for the performance– it didn’t seem like the best use of time. So, I kept going back to the question: What’s the big picture? What’s the story arc? How’s the structure? And, like you saw me cut a scene– that’s the kind of macro work that was happening. I felt like that fit into what I imposed on everyone. Which was that we’re going to start at the beginning of the play and work our way through it in a rehearsed fashion to the end.
What were pro and cons of developing a piece in such a public setting?
It was great. The only con is that I couldn’t really hear so well in there. It took a lot of energy to listen and the breadth of the space made it hard to see. I liked it because I was able to respond to the public’s reaction immediately and chart what they responded to without the pressure of being trapped in a seat. It was interesting to see what people volunteered to stay for- there was never a time when I felt like people were obliged to stay. That’s a healthy thing to experience when conceptualizing a piece made for theater, because a lot of my stress is about keeping people happy in their seat. But this anxiety was replaced by a more self-conscious sense of being watched. That was a little stressful in the beginning. It’s also stressful to deal with these issues without a fixed opening night. What is it that I’m working toward and how much do I need to press people? And how much does that feed into why I’m doing what I’m doing?
In Michael Fried’s 1967 essay Art and Objecthood he said “theater and theatricality are at war today, not simply with modernist painting but with art as such.” Now here you are in 2012 rehearsing a play in a museum. Do you rely on a lot of formally theatrical techniques in this show?
This play’s structure needed to be melodrama and I really tried to adhere to that. Melodrama of course belongs in the proscenium frame. I felt like I had to carry that over into the museum because all of the other trappings of theatricality, in general, I was trying to avoid. I felt in my gut that it should be structured dramaturgically as a melodrama– this very clear-cut structure makes a well-made play. I like conventionality as a concept and I think it belongs. That’s what keeps it theater: a sincere attachment to convention, an almost nostalgic attachment. It’s really integral to what I do.
You were also involved in Sarah Michelson’s “Devotion Study #1” another performance work in the Biennial.
Sarah asked me if I would be in it. I asked her, “Are you going to make me wear something that’s emasculating?” Her answer was no. Sure enough, Jay [Sanders] was in what I would say was a very emasculated outfit. I dodged that bullet. But I did write the text for them, I wrote it based on some very simple instructions from her. She had me read the Marcel Breuer document of intentions before the Whitney was built. I had wanted to incorporate that into my work, so it was no problem.
What is the future of this piece?
Our plan is to do it again, to keep working on it in this floating way. We made decisions about things as we went along and I’d like to imagine a presentation at some point that fuels these decisions. Costumes, for example. We have people in partial period costumes. Now, is the goal to make them full period? In the style of a conventional theater production? Or is there a new version of completion, costuming that instead involves aspects of street clothes? You could say that about virtually every aspect of the production from the writing, to the space, to the set. I’m very curious to keep doing this in other venues–other museums, actually– and creating things in a public way, to see what the outcome might be some five years down the road. The ideal situation would be for us to do this two or three more times in a context where there’s high traffic.
Richard Maxwell is a New York-based playwright and theater director. He is the recipient of several grants and awards including the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, and, most recently, his second Obie for directing Early Plays by Eugene O'Neill.
Marc Arthur is a writer and artist based in New York. He has worked at Performa since 2009 where he currently heads the Research and Archive department. Arthur holds a B.A. from California College of the Arts.