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Hysterical, Ontological Foreman Online

Richard Foreman ('who of all people could expect me to be the person I was or was not') talks. logo

Editor's note: All italicized passages (except this one) were borrowed (idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation intact) from Richard Foreman's website,, according to his recommendation that writers draw on the material from his online notebooks to create their own Richard Foreman play. Or, in this case (Foremanian flip), their own article on Richard Foreman.

From Bad Boy Nietzsche
Photo: Paula Court
Ladies and Gentlemen, grab onto your swivel seats, your keyboards, your mice, grab on and hold tight for you are about to experience (clears throat, taps microphone) Is this thing on?

"I would prefer to make a theater that somehow closes your eyes to the specific reality of where it's supposed to take place so that all the other possible places and associations can bleed through."

(This was said once by Richard Foreman to someone with the initials KJ, mostly likely as he sat in his living room with the three o'clock sun draining in. Could we imagine that someone, dreaming of the web, once said something similar?)

"I invented an airplane with bananas for engines.

Oh really? Well, I invented a cheeze sandwhich you didn't have to walk towards to pick up. Who of all people could expect me to be the person I was or was not."

Oh, is this an article? Sorry. I was experimenting with material from Richard Foreman's website, Anybody hear of "virtual theater"? It seems like a contradiction in terms. I've never experienced any myself. But if one is going to experiment, one may as well borrow from the great theatrical experimenter himself, Richard Foreman.

Founder of The Ontological-Hysteric Theater, which now resides at St. Mark's Church in the East Village, Foreman has been creating his unique theater for over thirty years. In that time he has written over forty plays, has had his work performed all over the world, and been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (1995-2000), two NEA fellowships, a Rockefeller Foundation Playwrights Grant, and nine Village Voice Obies. He also holds an M.F.A. in playwriting from Yale School of Drama, and an honorary doctorate from Brown University.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, grab onto your hair for (taps microphone), is this on?

"The fact that multiple states of being exist in us at all times is what I'm always trying to express."

Anyone confused yet? Good. That means it's working. That is, I'm trying to take Foreman's suggestion from his site that playwrights and directors draw from Foreman's own notebooks, which he has posted there, and create their very own, brand new, never-before-seen Richard Foreman play.

"This material is offered freely. I ask no royalty."

Except I'm trying to apply this approach to my article, in the hope that you might get a small sense of Foreman's work--often baffling, sometimes moving, always challenging, typically hilarious.

From Bad Boy Nietzsche
Photo: Paula Court
Foreman has just opened Bad Boy Nietzsche, his 47th production, which plays at the Ontological Theatre through April 30. I phoned him early one morning to see what he would tell me about his recent web efforts, as well as about current theatrical inventing going on at the Ontological.

I ask him what effect he thinks the web would have on art and culture. "I think it will [have a disastrous effect]," he replies. "It keeps people from organizing and finding really alternative ways because I do think it--eventually the marketplace will take over in the web too, and it will just weed out anything idiosyncratic and personal. I know in principle that it's supposed to make everything available, but that's never happened in the past [with other kinds of new technology]. But I don't try to see into the future. I'm too old, and I'll be dead before anything happens.... I think it's silly to speculate. I think one just keeps doing one's work and hopes for the best."

With his site, Foreman himself could certainly have an effect on art and culture, but in my opinion, not a disastrous one. Foreman encourages other theater artists to construct plays from the random pages in his notebook in the same manner he does. He explains on his home page that the organization of his plays starts with the selection of a "key page", which then influences the selection of other pages from his notebook. After selecting the text, he then looks for a loose theme around which to organize these pages, touching up transitions here and there, and finally assigning lines to characters.


Foreman did away with all conventional approaches to play-making shortly after he left Yale. He worked with outlines for some time, but found that he "was controlled in a funny way by the outline. I wanted to write scenes that would in fact obliterate the outline." (I wish I could say I got him to say that on the phone, but that quote, I must admit, is from his site.) Eventually he abandoned the outline, stopped writing lines with specific characters in mind, and even did away with rewriting, preferring to strive for a pure, unedited voice, no matter how embarrassed he might be by his own words.

From Bad Boy Nietzsche
Photo: Paula Court
This ability to abandon convention was never easy for Foreman. "I'm a very uptight person. And each step towards total [John] Cagian freedom has been a big challenge for me," he says in his site. Recently though, Foreman has taken to editing his work again (much to his own chagrin), a set back he attributes to computers. "The computer has certainly affected my work," he tells me over the phone. "[In much the same way that] every writer is victimized by the computer to over-write, and to write too much, because, of course, it makes a lot of things very easy. No, I think it's changed tremendously the way I write and what I write." I ask him if the web has had a similar effect on him. "No, it's allowed me to find a lot of books that I never thought I'd find, but other than that, not too much."

"Clocks all notate, which is unusual
The unusual falls into place like clockwork.
Dogs make imagination the next plateau.
Energy waves latch onto heat, and loose entree.
The locked gates hint, at everything else."

"I am continually interested, in all levels of my work, in generating complicated structures from relatively simple building blocks in ways that I think echo the way life operates."

(Is this on?)

When I ask Foreman what his favorite response to his work has been, he actually tells me about a response to a response. "When I was first beginning, somebody said something that was rather ironic, because somebody told me, 'Oh Richard I love your plays, but even more than watching your plays, I love watching myself watching your plays.'"

I ask Foreman if he too enjoyed watching himself watch his own work. "Well, I don't know if I enjoy watching myself watch it any more...(laughs) I enjoy the rigor that I see at work, I'm exhilarated by that, and sure, I hope that people have the same response."

At this point, I consult my notes and ask, "Is there anything in Bad Boy Nietzche that is wildly divergent from your past work, either in content, style, or approach?"

"It's a little divergent. I try always to be a little bit different," he replies. "But I'm captured, like any artist, by my own style. But yeah, it's a little different, it's a little more...there's a little more space in it.... It's less different than I thought it would be when I went into rehearsal ten weeks ago, but that's always the case...You know, you take a giant step forward, and then by the end you look at it and--well, you've taken a little step forward."

"There is a window in me, right now, right this minute, which shows me only the self evident.
I am required to present you with a whole life, but I have not the resources for doing so.
Which lie to evoke next?
lift all veils
Please: be afraid"

Ladies and Gentlemen! (I don't think this thing is on.)

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