Media Diet: Richard Foreman

One avant-garde playwright has no interest in Bertolt Brecht

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Described as a “practicing metaphysician in the experimental theater,” six-time Obie winner and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Richard Foreman is widely considered one of the foremost avant-garde playwrights in the world today. Since founding the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in 1968, Foreman has written, designed, and directed some thirty humorous explorations of the mind’s slippery territories—including Eddie Goes to Poetry City, The Mind King, and I’ve Got the Shakes—which have been presented in the United States and throughout Europe. We asked him about his media diet.

What magazines do you read? 

Everything, depending on the articles, but mostly I read art magazines and literary journals like Art in America, Flash Art, which I like because it features a lot of European artists whose work you might not otherwise see, and Artforum, Sulfur, Telos, and October. Although I’d like to read Wired and Mondo 2000, I hate having to peer through their overprinted graphics, and I only read newsmagazines at the doctor’s office.

What books are you enjoying now? 

I’m particularly fond of Heimito von Doderer, an Austrian writer who died in 1966. People are always surprised about that, because his style is so “old fashioned,” which is not at all what I’m doing in art, but I think Doderer’s huge, sweeping novels about Viennese society—like The Demons and Every Man a Murderer—are totally fascinating, seductive, and revelatory; in fact, I think he’s the greatest novelist of the 20th century. Doderer’s theory was that everyone is trapped in their own “second reality,” their own self-enclosed world, and there’s an interesting parallel between that and what thinkers like Sherry Turkle, whose book Life on the Screen I’ve been reading, are starting to say about people’s relationships to their computers, and how identity is being constructed in the online world. In some of the dialogue Turkle reprints, where someone is dealing with a virtual psychiatrist program, you get a kind of back-and-forth in which the program’s answers sort of miss the point but are extra stimulating for that reason, which sounds like dialogue from my plays.

What TV programs do you watch? 

Although I watched everything I could about the O.J. trial, in general when I’m tired or incapable of doing anything better I just watch football or channel-surf. You know, some years ago I read Jerry Mander’s book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, which argued that TV corrupts the consciousness by substituting fast cuts and zooms for real content. I agreed at the time, but later I began to think that maybe those editing tricks were creating a force field of sorts in which a new content that was just as valuable could arise. My theater is full of the equivalents of jump cuts and zooms: I’m interested in agitating perception, altering internal rhythms, but perhaps there’s nothing to perceive. Maybe agitation itself is the point.

Which authors or playwrights have had the most influence on you? 

When I was young and just starting out in theater, I was very influenced by Bertolt Brecht and Gertrude Stein, but now that I’ve found my own voice I have absolutely no interest in either of them. Probably my greatest influence in recent years has been the psychologist Jacques Lacan: He’s the most efficient thinker I’ve encountered insofar as making one realize just how fragmented and impenetrable a human being really is.

Which current trends in the media most trouble you? 

The fact that it exists at all. In my opinion, the media is the handmaiden of advertising, which is the greatest horrible evil in the world. I suppose that if a thing is awful enough it could produce a change in the mindset from which other beautiful flowers might grow. But I also hate the media because it brings out the worst in me: I watch it, and when I’m doing that I’m not doing what I should be doing; I become weak, uncreative, and unenergized.

What are the sources of your best and most original ideas? 

Forgetting everything I know. Hitting my head against a wall and accepting that the wall is impenetrable, and glorifying that. When I’m making art that wall might be discovering that something I’m doing seems embarrassing, stupid, or completely clichéd; however, hidden in that stumbling block is usually the seed of something really new.

Where do you find inspiration? 

Reading, particularly in psychology, philosophy, or mystical literature. I’m always looking for strategies in those disciplines for changing one’s consciousness, and whenever I find something I immediately try it as a way to generate texts, which then become my plays. Making the mind a blank is a great spiritual technique, of course. Stupidity is the great inspiration.

What is your most creative space? 

My couch.