by Isaac Butler
Note: A year ago, this piece appeared in the Fall print edition of Rain Taxi a wonderful review of books based in Minneapolis that some of my favorite writers-- including David Foster Wallace-- have written for. Since the copyright recently reverted back to me, I thought I'd finally get it up online.
Conversations With Anne
Theater Communications Group ($22)
Anne Bogart, now sitting comfortably amongst the Old Lions of the American Theater, has had at least three distinct stages to her influential and befuddling career. In the 1980’s, she was a postmodern visionary, stalking her favorite directors in New York, absorbing their work and reconfiguring it into grand conceptual gambits, most famously a production of South Pacific at NYU which she reimagined—much to The Rogers and Hammerstein Organization’s chagrin— as taking place within a hospital for wounded veterans. After serving for one disastrous (her word) year as the Artistic Director of Trinity Rep in Rhode Island and two years as the President of the Theater Communications Group, she then founded the SITI Company with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki. Over the years, SITI has trained dozens of artists and toured all over the world with a variety of original works, earning a storage locker's worth of awards and critical recognition.
The SITI Company became most famous within the theater industry for a series of ensemble building and training exercises known as The Viewpoints. Adapted from exercises developed by the choreographer Mary Overlie, The Viewpoints are a system for using movement and gesture to explore various aspects of live performance, such as architecture, spatial relationships, tempo, duration, emotion, and story. The Viewpoints are remarkable training, but also amongst the most troubling aspects of Bogart’s legacy, as many a young director, misunderstanding their point, has attempted to use them as a way to develop staging concepts, with near-universally poor results. As Bogart herself says in her new volume, Conversations With Anne, “The mistake I think people make about our work is that they think that we actually improvise to make a play, which we do not . . . It’s essentially a training technique. It informs how people work together.” (376)
It is the way of the world that the avant-garde becomes the old guard, and SITI has not escaped this fate. Now they tour and teach, but the critical responses to them are often guided by an admixture of respect and disinterest; their most enthusaistic fans tend to be other theater artists, and the vast majority of their influence on the field can be traced to their training, not the actual pieces they create. Still, it’s tough not to admire their resolve. They continue to survive as a company, creating the work that they want to create and building a business foundation that allows it to happen. Bogart is also adamant about paying her labor well and dedicated to serving as a mentor for countless theater artists, surprisingly rare traits in an established director.
While SITI has settled into the august Valhalla of the established quasi-experimental troupe, Bogart has gone on to reinvent herself again as a prose writer, essaying the intertwined arts of theater and life in The Viewpoints Book (with Tina Landau, Theatre Communications Group, 2005), A Director Prepares (Routledge, 2001) and And Then You Act (Routledge, 2007). The third of these, written and published in the middle of George W. Bush’s second term, is a particularly wonderful book. A meditation on creating art in seemingly hopeless times, And Then You Act is beautifully written, rigorously researched, and that rarest of things: a book about theatre that has appeal beyond it.
Over the last decade, Bogart has also been conducting a series of live interviews with various groundbreaking directors, writers, and choreographers. Conversations with Anne collects twenty-four of these, including talks with Richard Foreman, Bill T. Jones, Oskar Eustis, “My Dinner With” André Gregory, and Julie Taymor. Sadly, while the book contains many great truffles for the enterprising hound, it is marred by several pervasive problems, many of which can be traced to a lack of editing that renders the book infuriatingly dense and repetitive.
The interviews in the book are presented in a transcript format. Except for a couple of speaker identifications when an important audience member chirps up, the text is left largely alone, save for a prose introduction written after the fact about whomever the subject is. Each subject is also introduced within the transcript of the talk. The two introductions often repeat the same stories and information, sometimes almost word for word. Here are a few sentences from the first two paragraphs of the prose introduction for Richard Foreman:
As an undergraduate at Bard College I was part of a posse of theater students who organized the “I Hate Richard Foreman Club.” . . . When Bard’s film department invited Richard to speak with film students, we rounded up the “I Hate Richard Foreman Club” to face him down. Much to our surprise, no film students showed up, which left us to face and accuse him directly: “You use actors like props!” At the time, we were all highly influenced by Jerzy Grotowski’s brant of actor-centric “poor theater” and Richard’s auteur theater seemed heretical to us. Much to our frustration, Richard . . . agreed that he treated actors as props. (3)
And here is most of the first paragraph of the interview transcript:
Let me start by telling my personal story with Richard. When I was an undergraduate at Bard College in upstate New York, I was part of a company . . . Which was very influenced by Grotowski . . . I hated Richard Foreman. I just thought he was awful. We formed the “I Hate Richard Foreman Club.” This was 1973. We saw a sign at school saying that Richard Foreman was coming to visit… so the “I Hate Richard Foreman Club” al went down to torture him and none of the film students showed up. So, Richard came it, and we said “You treat actors like props!” And Richard said, “Yeah.” (5)
Having had a similar conversation with the Master once (Me: “You took all the humanity out of your work!” Him: “Yes! Exactly!”) I can attest that this wonderful anecdote sums up a lot about him, but the nearly verbatim repetition distracts from and ultimately undoes what delight it contains. The next interview—with Peter Sellars—has the same issue, as do at least three others in the book. If any of her subjects directed in college, Bogart uses the formation “X studied at Y, where their productions are still legendary,” to describe their early work.
All of this would be picking the tiniest of nits if the conversations delivered on their promise, but a similar repetition and lack of thorough weeding dominates there as well. As Janet Malcolm puts it in her landmark exegesis of the subject-writer relationship The Journalist and the Murderer, “When we talk with somebody, we are not aware of the strangeness of the language we are speaking. Our ear takes it in as English, and only if we see it transcribed verbatim do we realize that it is a kind of foreign language.” (154) Malcolm’s own prescription for this problem is to treat the interview transcript
not [as] a finished version, but a kind of rough draft of expression. As everyone who has studied transcripts of tape-recorded speech knows, we all seem to be extremely reluctant to come right out and say what we mean—thus the bizarre syntax, the hesitations, the circumlocutions, the repetitions, the contradictions, the lacunae in almost every non-sentence we speak. (155)
Capturing other people’s words is one of the great challenges of nonfiction today. Striking the balance between massaging and clarifying speech into something coherent, clear and beautiful and capturing a voice in all of its glorious, authentic idiosyncrasy is a task whose shape changes from project to project. An anthology of live interviews will never be able to engage in the kind of reworking that Malcolm was able to do at The New Yorker, but it still has a duty to find its own solutions to the elocutionary problems that she articulates above.
On that front, Conversations with Anne is a failure. To pick a few examples at random: The first answer Foreman gives Bogart takes three and a half pages to get through what should be a two paragraph answer. Peter Sellars delivers frequent verbal mélanges like, “That to me is the project of democracy that is always ahead of you. And one of the reasons we do theater is to hold in front of people where we are still going, that we haven’t been there yet, but we’re still trying to get there.” (31) Tina Landau’s interview comes laden with qualifiers like “I think” or “for me” that torque her sentences into odd shapes. Molly Smith introduces the subject of Wendy Wasserstein and her cancer by saying, “I’m very excited about—well, let me tell you about a person who I am thinking about right now. You were talking about women writers. I don’t know if you all know what’s on with Wendy Wasserstein right now.” (421)
When shaped by the human voice with all its cues of tone and rhythm, inflected via hand gesture and the acrobatics of our facial muscles, projected by microphone and speaker through the trembling air into the attentive ears of the audience, I have no doubt that these interviews made for bracing listening. The people collected for these Conversations are legends, geniuses, and in some cases, bullshitters par excellence. In the book, you’ll find history lessons from Zelda Fischandler on the origins of the Regional Theater Movement, inspiration from André Gregory on how you can do theater in your living room, Mary Overlie and Anne Bogart discussing the intellectual property issues surrounding The Viewpoints in real time, Bill T. Jones talking about his public image after he revealed he was HIV Positive, Joseph V. Melillo explaining how BAM works, and Martha Clarke and Bogart discussing their differing approaches to Act Four of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You’ll even get a round-table discussion amongst members of the SITI Company in the book’s final chapter, as they explain with as much candor as possible the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. Finding these gems takes far more work than it should, however, as they come buried under so much verbal sludge that they are times near invisible.
Throughout, Bogart is a generous, effusive ringleader. Her most commonly used adjective to describe something her subject has said is “beautiful,” and she is generous on the subject of her own weaknesses. It’s hard, in fact, not to fall a little in love with her as you read her questions, or as she charmingly self-deprecates about her tenure at Trinity, or retells the fables that guide her own thinking about the world.
All this effortless charm hides how little actual conflict or drama there is within any given interview. Theatre folk are notoriously thin-skinned and conflict-averse in public; the social nature of both the industry and the work it creates has resulted in an environment in which people are afraid to alienate or offend peers whom they may need to count on for work. So while the various artists playing nice on the stage makes a certain amount of sense, it’s a missed opportunity. After all, in A Director Prepares, Bogart bizarrely asserts that America’s love affair with theatrical realism is the result of artistic cowardice after the McCarthy hearings, but when she interviews Zelda Fischandler—one of the primary forces behind America’s love of theatrical realism—this difference goes completely unmentioned. Bogart says in one interview that Robert Woodruff’s work was stuck in a rut until he “came and did Columbia’s directing program… [and] his work with young directors took him out of the eighties,” (105) but avoids discussing this fallow period with Woodruff himself.
Admittedly, the book is called Conversations and not Debates with Anne; its goal is to give its subjects as much room to express themselves rather than to push them on any given thing that they say. When this approach works, it works beautifully. The best interview in the whole book is with the Public Theater’s Oskar Eustis, as he holds forth about his background with Communism, his fascinating life story, and his struggle to balance his ethics with running and sustaining a large theatrical institution.
In place of conflict within the book, however, a kind of odd dramatic irony creeps in. The final interview proper in the text comes from 2006 (a SITI Company roundtable is from 2009)—before the financial crisis, before theaters started going out of business, before the Edifice Complex that afflicts the American theater had become a deadly disease. I cringed reading Ben Cameron’s recounting of Joe Dowling’s promise that the Guthrie Theater’s new building would result in more adventurous work knowing that instead their seasons today feature Broadway try-outs and Neil Simon. As Molly Smith mentions offhandedly that she’s fundraising “over a hundred million dollars” (418) to build Arena’s new building, it’s hard not to wonder how no one could discuss why such a budget would ever be necessary. The book, then, inadvertently serves as a sharp reminder of how deluded we all were in those days. How we thought—as André Gregory says in 2003— that if Bush was reelected, “we have seen the end of Democracy in this country.” (69) How we thought—as Bogart says of Peter Sellars—that someone “is a courageous guy” (29) for stomaching audience walkouts of their work. How we thought as it played and played that the music would never stop, how we didn’t realize there weren’t enough seats left at the table for all of the children running round and round.