RICHARD FOREMAN: An Eccentric Ringmaster Creates His Own Circus

The first thing you notice walking into the theater to see Suzan-Lori Parks's new play, Venus, is a mysterious red light blinking at the top of the proscenium at center stage. It doesn't stop until the show is over and everybody goes home. The next thing you notice about the play is the network of strings crisscrossing the stage overhead, instantly establishing that this production has been directed by Richard Foreman. 

The strings, which appear in every play Foreman directs, both his own and those of others, are so inexplicable that many theatergoers have found them irritating or even sinister. In a recent interview at his Soho loft in Manhattan, however, Foreman divulged the simple origin of this scenic trademark. 

“When I was 8 years old, my parents first took me to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus,” he recalled, slumping comfortably on a rose-patterned sofa in one of the loft's many book-lined rooms. “At the old Madison Square Garden, to get to the seats, you came up from below into the middle of the auditorium. I remember going there for the first time and looking up into the sky and seeing all these trapezes and ropes and nets. It seemed like the most magical thing I could imagine. I think I've been trying to live in that world ever since.”

Now 58, Foreman has been walking the tightrope as a playwright and director for more than 30 years. The Ontological-Hysteric Theater, which he founded in 1968, has produced at least one new play of his annually. Along the way, he has accumulated a large and devoted cult audience as well as a reputation for outraging more conventional theatergoers with the mannerisms of his highly stylized theater: aggressive surrealism, loud sounds, lights in the audience's eyes, enigmatic vaudeville turns. 

Foreman, who with his sad brown eyes, black shirt, jeans and red suspenders resembled a somewhat melancholy ringmaster, elaborated on his fascination with the circus: “That first time I went, I wrote them a letter saying that I loved their circus but could they please have more clowns. That grotesque, bumbling, falling-over-oneself element has always been my thing. I've always felt myself very physically awkward and ungainly. The desire, therefore, was to take that physical awkwardness and find a way to make it dance. That's why there's a lot of vaudeville shtick in my theater.”

The director's long commitment to his fiercely eccentric comic-philosophical theater has earned him wide respect. “He belongs to that generation of people who came out of the efflorescence of performing arts in Manhattan in the late 1960's to early 80's,” said John Rockwell, director of the Lincoln Center Festival. “I'm thinking of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Bob Wilson, Twyla Tharp. Richard is certainly one of the most idiosyncratic. What makes him so interesting is the blend of seriousness with the subtext of French intellectual play on one hand and downright slapstick humor on the other.”

Foreman is an acknowledged inspiration to a new generation of artists. “The younger experimental directors show distinct Foreman influences,” said Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. “Among the things they take from him are his adventurousness, his impatience with realism, his willingness to go against the text, the way he tests an audience's endurance and his capacity to enter the dream life of the audience.”

Those are some of the qualities that made Suzan-Lori Parks jump for joy when she learned that Foreman had accepted the Public Theater's invitation to direct Venus. At the age of 32, Parks, who wrote the script for the new Spike Lee movie Girl 6, has gained a reputation for unusual plays. Her works favor odd metaphorical structures and repetitive wordplay that conjures up Gertrude Stein and jazz improvisation. Her characters, both historical and imaginary, float, as her frequent collaborator, the director Liz Diamond, put it, “in the hyphenated space between Africa and America.”

Venus, for example, centers on the true-life tale of Saartje Baartman, a South African bushwoman brought to London in 1810 and displayed in freak shows because of her prominent buttocks. Parks uses the so-called Hottentot Venus to examine overlapping myths about love, race, history and show business.

“The first time I went over to Richard's house, he said to me, 'This is a very strange play,'” Parks recalled. “I was pleased that he reminded me of that. Richard understands the play intellectually and emotionally and the humor, the funny bone. He's the total package, as they say in wrestling.”

For Foreman, Venus is “the kind of theater I like, a slightly cerebral circus; I'm interested in the theater as a pageant, as a spectacle.

“This play has a much stronger narrative than her other plays and than my plays,” he continued. “But it still has the circus-like aspect of showing you an object from many different sides at once, revealing the many-faceted nature of life, stories, human phenomena.”

Foreman personifies the kind of theater that survives and thrives far from the commercial mainstream, and Venus is unlikely to take him any closer to Andrew Lloyd Webber's neighborhood. Over time, though, he has been honored with awards that recognize the value of his work. He was one of the first to receive the National Endowment for the Arts award for lifetime achievement in the theater. And last summer he received a $345,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship for his original vision and helping to shape American avant-garde theater. 

The excitement of the MacArthur was somewhat overshadowed by the illness of Kate Manheim, Foreman's wife. A haunting performer who had starred in many of his plays, she had suffered mysterious pains for a number of years. “It came to a head last summer, when she went into the hospital really near death,” Foreman said. 

He was aware of the grim irony that her father, the distinguished German translator Ralph Manheim, who died in 1992, had won one of the first MacArthur grants just when his wife was stricken with cancer, and most of the award money went for 24-hour nursing care. “I was afraid to go to the hospital and tell Kate that I'd won a MacArthur, for fear it would sound like history repeating itself,” he said. 

Her health, however, has improved and she has since returned home. But Foreman is still reluctant to take directing jobs that would interfere with caring for her. He agreed to direct Venus only after it was arranged that rehearsals could take place in New York before the three-week out-of-town run at the Yale Repertory Theater, a co-producer with the Public Theater. 

Turning down jobs abroad has interrupted the momentum of Foreman's career. “When he directed Don Giovanni in Lille four or five years ago, it seemed to me he was just about to step into a new world of possibility and expansion,” Rockwell observed. “And then he had to retreat because of Kate's problems.” 

But Foreman has mixed feelings about the whole idea of his directing career. 
“Inside me is a nice middle-class Jewish boy who grew up in Scarsdale, and my parents always wanted me to be famous so they could point to me with pride,” he said. Directing jobs at fancy theaters in Europe dispatched that filial obligation. “But I don't really think of myself as a director. I started directing plays because nobody would direct my plays. I always dreaded the idea of becoming the kind of director who has to figure out how to do my version of Hamlet that's different from the last five.”

A Suzan-Lori Parks script may seem to lend itself to Foreman's vision more readily than, say, a Moliere comedy. But to hear him talk about it, he has no choice over the way he works. “No matter what, I'm still obsessed” -- the word he uses most frequently to describe himself -- “with seeing the world the way I see it. 

“It's really as simple as reading a play and then closing my eyes for a minute and imagining what it looks like,” he said. “Then, of course, the complicated task is to make reality, which is very specific, cohere as closely as possible with that vague, intuited image. That intuited sense of the play doesn't tell you, 'the psychology of this character is this, the important theme of the play is this.' No. It is a perfume. It is an atmosphere. To me, to try to keep that sense of a suggestive perfume is the task of making art, whether you're a painter or a theater director. 

“I was thinking about this today,” he said, leaning forward on the sofa in his loft. “Life is a matter of having these moments when you intuit what you desire. Anything you find in reality to embody that is always a failure. It's not 100 percent as rich as that sensed moment. So the finished thing you make has to have that consciousness built within it: this is something you love, but it's not really the fulfillment of that thing that awoke love in you to begin with. That's the tragedy of life, the opportunity of life. That's what true art has to reflect.”

What about the mysterious red light on the set of Venus? Where does that fit in? 

“Oh,” Foreman said mildly, “that was added in the last three days.”

For Parks, the last-minute addition made perfect sense. “I love that flashing red light I haven't asked him why it's there. You could say it's the heart of Venus that beats forever. It's luuuuv. It's ya luv lite, right there.”

New York Times, April 14, 1996