Richard Foreman’s latest play, “Wake up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind is Dead!” begins with the wire-haired director personally addressing the crowd: “Relax! Don’t work overly hard trying to understand.” Foreman’s mind-bending experimental theater has been challenging conventions since its founding in 1968. Now, he’s traveling the world, lecturing and filming video to use in his live performances. Foreman turns 70 this year, and as he tells the Resident he’s just getting started.
You’ve said that your theater tries to be open-ended, like other media. What do you mean by that?
RF: Originally I used to justify making theater … I thought theater was the hardest, because there’s an advantage if you write a poem you just have words and the imagination has to deal with all kinds of other things that are absent. In painting you’re absent movement and three dimensions, and your imagination or some faculty fills in. Theater gives you everything. To try to generate the same kind of participant imagination in the person confronting the work of art is a big challenge to me.
The new play proposes the loss of unconscious thought; do you feel that the Internet is a contributing factor?
RF: Yes. Yes I do. Because I think that the Web, everything is immediately at hand, so we no longer carry a lot of things inside of ourselves. We no longer have those kind of 19th- or 18th-century figures who built themselves like great cathedrals, like a Goethe or a Melville, take your pick. Now, you don’t have to learn a lot of stuff, because I want to find out about so-and-so, I go to the Web, I find a surface discussion that provides surface information about so-and-so, and I jump around in that way. And I do think that that does make us shallower people.
You keep your notebooks online, how do they relate to the way you create a play?
RF: It’s been many years since I tried to write a play from beginning to end. At a certain point I realized, “Hey, I make all these false starts, I have all these things that pop into my head, I’ll just put them all down.” And then I try to collage up a play. I look for a page that interests me; I look for a page that seems it could go along well with that. I skimp the surface of things, as it were, skim the surface of all these jottings that I have made to find something that musically, again, seems to hang together. It’s almost like finding a theme or variations in jazz. It’s almost like riffing.
How much of those notebooks make it to the stage?
RF: Maybe one percent.
What do you think about the state of theater today?
RF: Everybody knows that I don’t go to the theater, and basically, I don’t like theater very much. So it’s kind of perverse and strange that I’m still making it. I saw so much from the time I was 13 ‘til the time I was 36, I saw absolutely everything. And I still see things, very infrequently, two or three plays a year. But other things interest me much more: painting, film, music, literature, philosophy. That’s where I get all my inspiration.
For someone who has such a love-hate relationship with the medium, how do you think you’re able to produce so much work?
RF: You tell me, I don’t know! I need the contact with people. I tend to be a hermit, so I realized I need those months every year that I go and engage with people and work with people and that’s important to keep me healthy.