Theater In Conversation
LIN HIXSON and MATTHEW GOULISH with Carol Becker
Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never.
Director and writer Lin Hixson and performer, writer, and dramaturg Matthew Goulish, both based in Chicago, spent 20 years working with the company Goat Island. That company developed and performed nine unique pieces over 20 years in locations around the world. After a two-year process of marking the end, the company disbanded. In the U.K. and in other locations people cried when they heard the news, so deep was their affection for the company and the work.
Now Hixson and Goulish have co-founded Every House Has a Door. They will be performing their new piece Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never at the Coil Festival in New York, January 5 – 9, 2012. Directed by Lin Hixson, the performance features a bicultural cast: Selma Banich and Mislav Čavajda from Croatia, and Stephen Fiehn and Matthew Goulish from the U.S. This new work pivots around the provocative 1970s and ’80s films of Serbian director Duan Makavejev, best known in this country for WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Sweet Movie, and Montenegro. The work is filtered through philosopher Stanley Cavell’s writings about Makavejev’s obsession with filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.
Carol Becker (Rail): I believe I’m one of the few people on the planet who has actually seen all the work of Goat Island and now has seen the work of Every House Has a Door, so I’m obviously a longstanding fan. I’d like to start by talking about the new performance that you’ll be presenting at the Festival in January. It’s a really interesting collaboration with Croatian artists. I saw it in Zagreb, in Rijeka, and in Chicago. So, I think probably everyone would want to know, how did this piece Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never come about? How did you find yourselves working in Croatia and with Croatian artists?
Lin Hixson: Goat Island started going to Zagreb, Croatia in 1996. We returned every two years to present our work, and sometimes to teach workshops. We became familiar with the community and the artists there, and particularly with Marin Blaević, who was key in initiating this piece. As Goat Island was ending, he came to us with a proposal to work with two young Croatian artists, and we decided to take that on. It initiated the idea of bicultural exchange that motivated the new company, Every House Has a Door.
Matthew Goulish: Marin at that time was the director of a theater in Zagreb. When he found out that The Lastmaker would be the final Goat Island piece, he commissioned this potential collaboration and suggested Selma and Mislav. The project’s structure became a template, or precondition, for what our new company might be: that we could continue to collaborate, but that the circle would open up to include people who could commit to only one piece. This could allow for a more international group that coheres for making and presenting one performance, and each collaborative team could change from one piece to the next.
Rail: I was going to talk about Goat Island and Every House and this evolution later but why don’t we do it now, so that we clarify for everybody. Talk a bit about Goat Island, how it evolved, and the transitional moment at which you determined that it was time to end.
Hixson: We stopped very deliberately. Initially it came from the feeling that after 21 years we had said all we could say together, or at least I felt that I had said with the group all that I could say. I brought that to the group, and it became all of our decision to make a final piece together. And this, I think, provided, through the creative process, a way of ending. We used our process to guide our ending.
Rail: Then you made The Lastmaker?
Hixson: Yes. We announced it was our last piece, and it gave us two years to end together. The company members already had other practices, but during those two years everyone became more deliberate in creating their new paths. So we were witness not only to our ending, but also to people individually creating new practices that now we all continue to support. I think we wanted to take on the ending before the ending took on us.
Rail: That’s a good way to say it.
Goulish: There weren’t many positive examples, only negatives, sadly, that we wanted to avoid. After you’ve attained a degree of success you’re expected to repeat yourself, to keep playing out variations of yourself for bigger audiences—that wasn’t interesting to us. Or to transform, really have a complete change of personnel, but to keep the same name when you’re not the same. We didn’t want to do that. And we really didn’t want to continue to work to the point where it all broke down in acrimony. All those things you see all the time, but we couldn’t think of an example of a positive end, and so we tried to make one. Lin led the way by not being afraid, because it’s fear, I think, that keeps people together longer than they should be.
Rail: It’s like relationships or marriages. Surely this was like that; you worked so closely.
Goulish: But it ended up being a rebirth. After that initial moment, we got over the fear, and then we had two years to work. We all had other practices that we wanted more time to pursue, and Lin said you have to remove this one big piece to make room for all the smaller pieces to grow. Goat Island has to stop to allow other things to happen. Then all of a sudden, we were all like kids again in a candy store because it was like: This is my last chance. I’ve always wanted to play the saw. I wonder if Lin will let me play the saw?
Rail: The saw as instrument?
Goulish: Yes, that was Bryan’s response. “I want to play the saw.” Or: “I want to do Lenny Bruce.” “I want to do a camp monologue.” “I want to do forward rolls.” And I was like, “I want to recite Robert Creeley poems.” And Lin herself even was like, “Well, I want to play ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ at the very end.” And the piece assembled from all the things that everybody wanted to get in before the clock ran out, and it became like the grand finale of a fireworks display.
Rail: People cried because the piece was touching, in spite of all that campy stuff, and it was very meaningful. It also ended this image of a group that could stay together indefinitely. Let’s get back to the piece that you’re soon to perform. Talk for a minute about the things that you’ve been able to do with Every House. Is it the same? Different?
Hixson: The origins of Goat Island came from an impulse that I had 23 years ago to construct a company where we could work a long time on composing a work. That impulse evolved into a consistent two-year process, and that’s kind of continued even with Every House Has a Door.
Rail: That long gestation process and bringing it to its finished form?
Hixson: Yes, exactly. Working collaboratively with a company—it was formed in 1987—but I would say from 1996 on it was basically the same members. Part of what made it work for me was forming a piece where everybody’s voice could be heard. With Goat Island’s work, we often started with a question, and then responses would proliferate. We would keep bringing in other sources to make a work of connections. With Every House Has a Door that’s markedly different. We’re interested in starting with a subject, or question, and a few sources, and staying with them. We’re not going outside the initial ideas that we take on. We solve the problems of the work by looking more deeply into the initial sources. I think that’s a key difference. And we’ve now made three pieces since ending Goat Island, the first of which is Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never.
Goulish: When you have a company of the same people that work together for so long, you can get to forms of presentation that you just can’t access any other way, through that multi-year commitment, repetition, and crafting a piece. I think a danger of that is this over-coding that happens in all of the communications between the people; everyone knows what everyone’s thinking before they finish saying it. The work can become very ritualized. Sometimes audience members considered it opaque, or difficult to enter, but that was exactly what other people loved about the work. We had gone through a long investigation and now we presented the results in this finely tuned product—like an art object. When we commenced this project with myself and Stephen Fiehn (one of the performance duo Cupola Bobber) and Mislav and Selma, we very quickly found that the methodologies we had discovered through the Goat Island years were not going to work. We didn’t realize the extent to which we would need to rethink how to work. It took some time before we discovered what the piece was about. I think that discovery came with this Stanley Cavell essay that I coincidentally was reading at the time. Cavell wrote about the Yugoslavian film director Duan Makavejev, in particular his 1974 film Sweet Movie. I mentioned this in rehearsal, and we discovered that Makavejev was much better known in the states that in ex-Yugoslavia because of his exile. We watched the films together. Makavejev’s fascination with Ingmar Bergman was baffling to us.
I think we adopted the energy of that fascination. We began making this piece in the orbit of Bergman, as seen by Makavejev, as analyzed by Cavell. We had the idea of voices as stand-ins. Makavejev as a stand-in for Selma and Mislav, Cavell as a stand-in for Stephen and me. And the discovery of that third element, the work of the Swedish director Bergman, that we thought of as “equidistant” between America and Croatia, gave us a subject in relation to which we were all beginners. We could talk to each other by talking about this absent third element that was new to all of us. We could make a performance that didn’t present the result of an investigation, as Goat Island might have, but instead reconstructed the investigation. We directly addressed the audience. We demonstrated the source materials. The work stayed bilingual. We interpret one another, and try to invite the audience in, at least at the beginning of this piece, to this common discourse that we had discovered. At a certain point the performance tries to embody those themes. You get the sense that the direct address, essay-like quality, goes off the rails into mayhem. But then the question is: Is that mayhem actually continuing the essayistic discourse but in a more embodied mode?
Rail: Let me go back to something that you said about Goat Island: that this internal dialogue or discourse between the members of the company went on for so long that you all knew what you were talking about and this created a certain opacity when the work was actually performed, because all those previous conversations weren’t necessarily explicit to the audience. I always wanted to write an essay about your work called “The Lost Signifier” because I felt that you all knew something that had been left behind in the process. That’s why it’s interesting to hear a new methodology. Let’s talk about what you’ve been able to do so far with Every House Has a Door that is different.
Hixson: After Goat Island I became interested in this idea: What if you just tell the audience what you’re trying to do?
Rail: Not the opposite, but the contrary to what you’d been doing? That’s interesting.
Hixson: Yes, in The Lastmaker there were moments of that. But I think with Let us think… this idea of what happens if you tell the audience what you’re trying to do, really came into being. What Matthew was saying earlier about “performing the investigation,” we discovered through the making of Let us think…. Instead of showing the product of a process, we decided to perform the investigation, and the thought of the investigation. But simultaneously with that, I became obsessed with this idea of: Let’s try, as we can, to tell the audience how we’re trying to do this, and what we’re thinking. And of course, that fails. I mean, you can try, but there’s a certain failure to trying to recreate that for an audience that I think is fascinating. What I find in directing is when you tell the audience what you’re trying to do, it gives you a lot of freedom to then—
Rail: Fail, to fail in front of them.
Hixson: Yes, it gives you freedom to turn that upside down and to unravel it. I like it as a way of thinking and as a way of making performance. It opens up a path. After you’ve told an audience what you’re trying to do, then you can explode that and try different things for them to see in the attempt.
Rail: Do you think the audience understands that you’re telling them what you’re going to do?
Hixson: Let us think… starts with Stephen’s offstage monologue, asking the audience to relax if they don’t know the sources of Makavejev, Bergman, and Cavell because he didn’t know them either when we were making the work, and that if you don’t know them, you’re still going to be fine.
Rail: In case they’re getting anxious.
Hixson: Near the beginning of the piece, we tell the audience that Makavejev was obsessed with Bergman, and in 1978 at Harvard, he did an experiment attempting to make a Bergman film that Bergman never made. He did this by editing together 23 nonverbal scenes from 11 Bergman films. He made a montage and projected it for an audience. We actually got in contact with Makavejev, who told us that the film didn’t exist but there was a published account of that experiment.
Goulish: It was an editing guide, with precise timings.
Rail: His own guide?
Goulish: Yes, that he had worked from to create this montage. And we found it. The first third of Let us think… is built around an attempt to stage that editing script.
Hixson: But we don’t do it for an hour—the actual length of Makavejev’s experiment. We tell the audience that we’ve created a system to reenact it in a certain amount of time. Looking from the outside, as a director, I see this as a case of saying what we’re trying to do, but then when we do it, it looks different.
Rail: Well, actually, when you describe it, it sounds incredibly serious, but when you see it, there’s a lot of humor.
Goulish: This, I think, is a comic set-up—announcing what you’re about to do and then doing it.
Rail: That’s why I asked if you really do what you say you’re going to do?
Goulish: I will now pull a rabbit out of this hat: Whatever happens the audience compares it to the announcement. This is a recurring strategy through the piece. We will now do X. And then we go to do X and it’s bound to be Y, or anyway different from the expected X. Maybe this was inspired by Makavejev, the teacher at Harvard. There’s a famous story of his compressed cinema, as he called it, motivated by wanting to show his class three Bergman films, but having time to show only one. He projected all three simultaneously on three parallel screens. He had a pedagogical rationale for this, like, I will now show you three Bergman films and you’ll be able to see the common rhythms, etcetera. Then when you actually see three Bergman films at one time—
Rail: You can’t take it in. It’s too much information.
Hixson: It overflows the frame.
Goulish: The failure is one of excess. It’s comic because it’s more than what you said it would be. I think we tried to structure our performance like Makavejev’s ecstatic classroom.
Hixson: It’s like a lecture or essay performance, except that it spins out of control. Part of the way we get to that is by this excessiveness, where things start happening at the same time.
Rail: It does make sense. You’ve written beautifully about the notion of the performance as essay or essay as performance. You talk about investigation, and that’s what an essay really is. Often essays begin by saying, “I am about to do this,” or certain sociologists love to say, “I’m going to prove that…” so there’s a parody of that form. But, as you know, for a writer an essay really is an attempt to understand something that one doesn’t yet understand. So Lin, in reading some of your essays, I liked this idea of performance as container. Could you talk about that a bit?
Hixson: Container is a helpful word for me. You can put different things into a container. That idea gives me permission to put dance, performance, theater, writing, all these things into the container, and it’s like a bowl. Then they mix together. But initially the ingredients have their own integrity and their own form. So rather than thinking of theater and its traditions, or performance and its traditions, or dance and its traditions, it’s helpful to think of the thing I’m making as a container initially for all of it.
Rail: But there are people who say that in all the work you’ve done, one needs to see this work more than once because the structures don’t reveal themselves the first time, because the audience is focusing on the action, or the language, or trying to figure out, what is this Bergman thing? Why is this even happening?
Hixson: It goes back to the idea that we discover the performance by making it. Through the making we discover the meaning. We’re interested in the movement of thought, as well as the meaning, and in making a composition of that movement.
Rail: That’s about form. That’s about how one thought leads to another—
Hixson: Exactly, right. We’re interested in that being our process but also that being an experience. There are ideas investigated and spoken of, but then those same ideas become embodied.
Rail: The performance is a vehicle for ideas.
Hixson: Then there is the idea of acknowledging the thought of Makavejev, acknowledging Bergman, acknowledging the sources. But to acknowledge something is not necessarily to know what it is, only to know that it is.
Rail: I always feel with your work that you want to bring back things that maybe have been lost. If a younger generation of Croatians don’t know Makavejev because of history, because he was in exile, because of the war, then in a bizarre way perhaps you’ve come to Croatia to bring Makavejev back to the former Yugoslavians. It’s very complex. But then it’s not just bringing that back, it’s layering it with this amazing sort of intervention of Makavejev, or coming together of Makavejev and Bergman, all filtered through this writing of Cavell. When we worked together, I wrote in parallel about psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and utopian thinking because you’re using ER: Mysteries of the Organism, which is also about Reich, who had become obscure to many although his wild ideas have become unknowingly absorbed into New Age thinking. You seem to be retrieving the past all the time?
Goulish: Cavell used the phrase “the film of excavation.” He described Makavejev’s approach as one of reconstructing, not just forgotten ideas, but also forgotten connections between ideas. A frequent question asked about Makavejev’s films is: Are they documentaries or features? They mix fact and fiction. That’s something we’re interested in with our work as well, this documentary quality, of the work existing in relation to the historical world—to take to heart the idea that theater has the potential to be a meeting place for ideas, for elements, and for people. When we have these moments of translation where Selma says a speech in Croatian and then I say it in English, there’s a very small percentage of the audience who will understand every word. I think the sort of community that we’re most interested in is the one that coheres temporarily in the theater in relation to the performance. People have a common experience, and they’re paying attention in a certain kind of way, and they know that nobody understands everything. There’s something that happens between us and them—between the actors and the ideas they interpret to portions of the audience. There’s some actual, palpable community that arises.
Rail: That’s a good place to stop.
Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never., created and performed by Every House Has a Door, will run January 5 – 9 as part of the Coil Festival at Performance Space 122 (150 First Avenue, Manhattan). For further company info, visit: www.everyhousehasadoor.org. For tickets ($20/15 students and seniors) or more info on the Coil Festival, visit www.ps122.org.