Power & Punk: New York's Avant-Garde Lifers: Richard Foreman with Sara Farrington
In this recurring series, I interview performers, writers, directors, designers, and composers who have dedicated their lives to forging New York's contemporary theater. These artists knew the rules and rejected them, gambling on new modes of expression, trusting impulses true to their experience. Each interview explores how they started, what keeps them going, the evolutions they've seen, what it takes and what it took to make a life as an artist in New York City.
My interview for this issue is with director/playwright Richard Foreman. Over the course of his extraordinary six-decade career, Foreman exploded the rules. A Foreman piece is not an evening of theater, it is, as he’s said, an ordeal. You might love him or hate him, hate him then love him, hate him then realize he’s a genius. (The latter was me.) There is a line from his 2009 piece Idiot Savant that helped me understand Foreman: “Message to the performers: Do not try to carry this play forward. Let it creep slowly over the stage with no help, with no end in view.” We had planned this interview in person, but when New York locked down due to COVID-19, we connected over the phone.
Sara Farrington (Rail): I conceived this interview series after a particularly challenging rehearsal period. It got me hungry to understand how the New York originals dealt with things like actors saying no, lack of space, day jobs, keeping sane, and especially how you did it.
Richard Foreman: Well, I avoided the actor problem in the beginning because I didn’t use actors. I used my friends who were filmmakers, people who didn’t have their ego invested in being an actor. The only time I had that problem was the first show I did in Paris. I was looking for non-actors, but a friend said, “Oh, I have this girl who wants to be an actress, but she can do anything.” I interviewed her, and she said, “Whatever you say!” Well, it was a disaster. She was standing there on stage, and you could just tell how much she hated doing it. She didn’t want people in the audience to think that she identified with the show. She just had this bored look on her face. But I didn’t mind.
Rail: When did you move away from working with non-actors?
Foreman: The non-actors included my wife, Kate Manheim, who then developed a technique of her own that became so strong I felt it didn’t make sense not to have equally strong performers working against her. So that’s when I switched.
Rail: You and Kate met in the ’60s, when a friend suggested you meet her?
Foreman: Yeah. I said, “I’m missing an actress, and I need somebody.” And he simply said, “Well, there’s a girl upstairs who might be interested.” There’s a famous story about that where I asked her, “Are you related to Ralph Manheim?” She said, “Oh yeah, he’s my father!” Well, I meant to say Karl Mannheim, the sociologist, but Ralph slipped out. But because of that when I asked her to perform, she said, “Yes! I’ll do it, yes, yes!”
Rail: You had a similar chance meeting with [composer] Stanley Silverman.
Foreman: Well, my ex-wife, Amy Taubin, and Stanley’s ex-wife, Mary, had gone to Sarah Lawrence together. I was walking down the street with Amy, and there’s Mary: “Hi! This is my husband, Stanley. Stanley’s a composer!” And Amy said, “Oh, wow, Richard’s a playwright!” And I just said, “Let’s do something together.” I said I’ll do a libretto. And he said, fine, I’ll do the music. And then we were trying to find a director. I had never directed much of anything, but I said, “I think I could direct it.” So that was my first big directing job, really. I was writing plays already. Early on, I had written a more commercial play that was actually optioned for Broadway, but it never happened. So, I felt I knew the theater, I could do anything, it was no problem.
Rail: When you were a kid, your one line in the elementary school play was taken away from you. This made you determined to prove to them, I can do this. Do you think that was the beginning of your rebelliousness, turning “no” into “yes”?
Foreman: I’m not sure, it was so long ago. The thing that really did it: I was an actor in high school and college, and friends of mine were writing plays, and I thought, “I can do as good as that.” So, I started writing plays. Then I went to the Yale School of Drama. John Gassner, who had been the literary manager for the Theatre Guild, taught at Yale. He was a great teacher. He said, “Richard, you know, you have talent, and I don’t say that to everybody. But you make one big mistake. You find an effect that you like, and you repeat it and repeat it and repeat it.” So, I went home and thought, “Oh boy, I better do something about that!” But then I thought, well, wait a minute. If that’s what I like to do, couldn’t I radicalize that? Make it my style? Which is what I did. And that was more important than being told as a child that I wasn’t speaking loudly enough and having my line taken away.
Rail: I’m curious about your courage to hang instincts in the face of being told not to do something. Did this courage follow you to New York? Did it ever get shaken?
Foreman: Oh, no, because that’s what I wanted to do. When I came to New York I got courage because I hated everything I saw in the theater including the experimental theater of those days, which was La MaMa. But I fell in with the underground filmmakers, under Jonas Mekas. They were my friends and my inspiration and gave me the courage to do what I wanted to do. I saw that they did what they wanted to do.
Rail: When did you officially settle in New York?
Foreman: My last year at Yale School of Drama I moved to New York. So, I graduated from Yale, let’s see… I graduated from Brown in 1959, then it was 1962.
Rail: Did you have a day job?
Foreman: My father was a lawyer who dealt with builders, and he got me a part-time job with one of his building clients, managing apartments. Instead of a salary I got an apartment on Riverside Drive and 79th.
Rail: You’ve said that the secret history of New York art making is rich kids.
Foreman: Oh, yes. Most of the people that I knew who were making experimental art in those days came from families who had money.
Rail: Do you think there’s a reluctance to talk about this now?
Foreman: There was a reluctance to talk about it then. I always thought someone should write that secret history of family money in the experimental arts in New York City. The only person that I knew who was making experimental art without money was Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines, who Kate [Manheim] actually studied with when they were in Paris. But everyone else I can think of in one way or another had financial support.
Rail: You know, I see great efforts made in gender and racial diversity in the arts, but not so much class diversity. There is a great privilege in art making.
Foreman: It is a class thing, there’s no question about that. I had enough financial backing that I knew I wasn’t going to starve. But somebody like Jonas Mekas didn’t really have that. He just managed.
Rail: New York wasn’t as expensive then, so was it easier to manage?
Foreman: I can’t say. Expensive is relative because, yeah it wasn’t as expensive, but people didn’t have as much money. It didn’t take as much money to be comfortable.
Rail: Did artists in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s just want to be in the room making something, or was there a question of pay?
Foreman: Because I didn’t use people who thought of themselves as actors, it was something we did at night. For them it was sort of a hobby, and they were excited to do it. When I started using people who thought of themselves as actors, still, it would start out being at night. Then at a certain point, one or two of them said, “You know Richard, I don’t know if I can do this anymore without any money.” Well, I didn’t have any money. Except, very early on, these two people, Mimi Johnson and Jane Yockel, approached me after a show. They said, “Do you have anybody trying to raise money for you?” I said, “Me? Forget it!” And they said, “Well, we would like to do that.” I said, “Sure!” So, they went out and got money from the NEA for me. Jane has died, but Mimi is still my manager.
Rail: Do you remember what show it was that inspired them to come up to you?
Foreman: It might have been Hotel China (1971). And then Mimi, of course, married [composer] Bob Ashley, and they started Artservices [Performing Artservices, Inc.]. In those days, Artservices managed sort of everybody, from Phil Glass to you name it. But managing an artist didn’t mean very much. They just did tasks for you occasionally.
Rail: Many avant-garde artists who emerged then could do everything. Like you, they were actors, designers, writers, and composers. They didn’t always align themselves with one thing. Now there’s this careerist mindset.
Foreman: Yeah, in those days we were making art. The theater is a profession now. People want to think of themselves as professional, and they have to worry about making a living, yes. We shouldn't view art as a career, it should be a side thing. But in those days, everybody was making art, and to make art you could do anything.
Rail: And I love that you’re in most of your work.
Foreman: Well, I don’t make theater anymore, but I operated the sound.
Rail: I mean your voice.
Foreman: Oh, yes, yes.
Rail: I think the imagination of New York would benefit from people being more like that rather than saying, “I’m just a playwright, I can just deliver this.”
Foreman: Well, of course it would, of course it would. But we live in decadent times.
Rail: You’ve said you felt a success, early on, if anyone was still in the audience by the end of the show.
Foreman: Oh, we expected people to walk out. I wasn’t particularly happy about it. But I was proud about it in a way because in those days, a lot of the art that I liked, people were walking out of. And I still experienced it when I did plays at the Public Theater. A lot of the audience at the Public Theater couldn’t stand what I was doing. They expected to see the shows that [Artistic Director/Founder] Joe [Papp] usually gave them. And I must give him credit. He was very supportive of what I was doing. The theater has always been the most backward of all the arts. Because on the surface the theater seems most life-like, I suppose. So then people expect.
Rail: Which is weird because you can describe a dream to someone, and they can accept it. Or the Bible, people can accept that.
Foreman: The Bible is a special case. Do you mean people who literally believe it? Because not many people who literally believe it probably come to your shows. Or my shows. People used to say about my work, “Oh, it’s like a dream.” But I never really thought that. And I didn’t want people to think about it like that.
Rail: It’s a recalibration of time for me, watching your work.
Foreman: I wanted to change the mental rhythm.
Rail: There was a first great review you got after Total Recall, around 1970.
Foreman: Oh, yes. It was in The Voice.
Rail: Did you need that validation?
Foreman: Yes, yes, I did. It was extremely good for my spirit because the reviewer said, “I don’t usually give recommendations to go see shows, but I just saw something that you should all go and see.” Especially at that point, because people were walking out of my shows after 20 minutes. So, it was a big thing for me. That was in Jonas Mekas’s old theater, the [Filmmakers’] Cinémathèque set up by George Maciunas at 80 Wooster Street. The fire department closed him down for showing films, so Jonas said, “Well, we can’t show films anymore, but Richard, why don’t you do plays here?” So that’s how I started out.
Rail: What were the logistics and finances behind actually using one of those big empty spaces?
Foreman: Jonas gave me that space. I needed a little money for the scenery, and my grandmother had left some money, so I used that. The actors I don’t think were paid, maybe they split the box office, but I don’t remember. There were no logistics. It was just possible. It was all possible.
Rail: And you had another space later on Broome and Broadway that was 140 feet deep?
Foreman: Yeah, also from George Maciunas. He was the head of Fluxus in New York and did all kinds of incredible things to make it all possible. He was another Lithuanian, like Jonas. He started SoHo, set up the first 15 artists’ co-ops in SoHo. He would get artists together, they would pool their money and then buy a building in SoHo, which cost very little in those days. He would always take the ground floor space. That was 491 Broadway, I think it was. I used that as my theater. All as a friend of George’s and Jonas’s.
Rail: What kind of shows did you do at 491 Broadway?
Foreman: I did shows where I could use that deep space to dramatic advantage. There was a little alcove to a façade where for about 20 feet I could slide in walls from the side on tracks. So, you would be sitting there watching a shallow space, and then all of a sudden, the wall would slide out and you’d be looking into a deep space.
Rail: Oh, wow, that sounds incredible. What prompted you to leave that space?
Foreman: I thought it was getting too safe. I thought, “Oh Richard, this is getting too safe. I should get rid of that space and force myself to move on to other things.” It was just too safe to go back to that space every year. I felt one had to be challenged in other ways. Also, Papp had invited me to do a show at the Public, and I had done a show in Paris.
Rail: You spent much of your artistic life in Paris. Do you think if you’d stayed in New York you would have evolved the same way?
Foreman: I think the same. I did a number of shows in Paris. I would be there for six or seven months a year, and I loved it. But I couldn’t stay, in the final analysis. I had to come back to New York, which I think was healthy and good for me because I never would have really been a Frenchman. But I loved Paris. It was the place I wanted to be. I loved the feeling of the intellectual atmosphere. I didn’t speak French very well, but still there was that vibration that Paris was full of artists and intellectuals. It was a total revelation to me when I first went there.
Rail: How did you finally get the space at St. Mark’s Church in 1992?
Foreman: That happened because I got a call one day from a guy who was the head of The Poetry Project by St. Mark’s. And he said, “Richard, you know, we have this theater space, and we’re looking for someone to take it over because the person who was there left, would you be interested?” I said, “Sure.” His name was Ed Friedman. Now, I’m adopted. And in later years, I was friendly with a woman who helped me find out who my parents were. She said, “You are registered on Staten Island.” We went to a library there, and she took the book out for my year, with the adoption agency listed and the number, you’d have a number. I looked down the list, found my number, looked over and saw that when I was adopted my real mother had given me the name Ed Friedman. And that was the name of the guy from The Poetry Project.
Rail: That’s crazy. That’s a sign.
Foreman: [Laughs] Well, I didn’t know it at the time.
Rail: Did being adopted affect you as an artist in any way?
Foreman: Not very much. I forgot all about it when I was starting out. Forgot all about it. Or maybe suppressed it, is a better word.
Rail: It does seem to me like you had amazing adoptive parents.
Foreman: Oh, yes. My parents claimed they didn’t understand my work, but they always went. When I did shows in Paris, they flew to Paris. And when I did an opera at the Paris Opera, they brought two other couples with them. At first my father was angry that I was doing such experimental work. But fairly early on I got my picture in The New York Times. And that changed everything.
Rail: You once got an offer to direct Lily Tomlin’s first solo show for TV, which you turned down. I know it would be hard for an artist now to turn down something like that. Was there ever an urge to go in that direction, be that mainstream guy?
Foreman: Not really, no. I was working on another thing. I was ready to go to Paris when they called. I mean, if that hadn’t been the case, I probably would have done it. But I don’t know. I probably would have been fired after two weeks. Actually, no, I probably wouldn’t have been fired, because I had the ability to do it. I did this thing called Doctor Selavy’s Magic Theater, which I staged, and it was a big, successful Off-Broadway musical. Because I always had the feeling that I could direct anything. In the early days I was very proud of the fact I would look in my notebooks and say, “Well, here: Page 15–35. I’ll stage that. Nobody could stage that. So, if I can do it, it proves I’m a good director.” I really thought that. I would take all these things that didn’t make any sense, and I would stage them.
Rail: You challenged yourself with impossible tasks.
Foreman: Oh, absolutely.
Rail: I wanted to ask about your piece Maria Del Bosco (2002) which opened a few months after September 11th. The piece has haunting images reminiscent of 9/11; Your imagery of windows in it is so moving. When a ballerina gently pulls a model airplane away from a window. I spoke to some friends who were in it, Frank Boudreaux and Juliana Francis-Kelly.
Foreman: Oh, yes.
Rail: Juliana said performing in it was a healing experience. Do you ever feel the urge to tackle the horror show of what is going on in this country now?
Foreman: No. [Laughs] I think we are living in decadent times, surrounded in nothing but trash. I’m not going to save the world. No, no. To be a young person, to be somebody like yourself, trying to do something these days? It’s a big task. It’s not scarier than before, it’s just harder. To be able to get funding, what little funding you need, to do it? No. I think there are a few places left where you can do whatever you want, but unfortunately most people don’t have the background to do anything very adventurous. They come from the theater, they think about the theater and only the theater. And that is not a good place to start making interesting work.
Rail: And some view theater now as training wheels for something else—TV, whatever—which takes away from any ability for New York to ever again have a counterculture.
Foreman: But that’s because of the particular situation we are living in. It’s much harder to imagine doing that in this world, in this economy, in this political situation, aside from what New York is going through now. I’m reminded of Wallace Shawn, who in the early days used to do plays in people’s apartments. You would invite him and 20 other people over. You’d make a semi-circle, and he would do his monologues to the 20 people sitting around him.
Rail: I think we may have to start doing that again. Why do you think Americans are still fiercely clinging to realistic plays, especially when the world is so crazy?
Foreman: Because people can’t stand it. They wish the world were realistic. But it’s hard to be as crazy as the world.
Special thanks to these artists for helping me prep and research prior to this interview: T. Ryder Smith, Robert Cucuzza, Juliana Francis-Kelly, Frank Boudreaux, David Skeist, Paul DiPietro.