For 10 weeks, apprentice director Richard Eoin Nash observed rehearsals for auteur writer, director and designer Richard Foreman’s latest experimental theatre work, My Head Was a Sledgehammer, which runs through March 27 at Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater in New York. The experience, Nash writes, “was frustrating, exhilarating and titillating, sensually, spiritually, intellectually.” In this account of the rehearsal process, Nash evokes Foreman’s fractured theatrical universe.
I am continuously thrown into complete disarray. To try to explain my confusion entails trying to describe Foreman’s theatre art, which seems to me foolhardy and, moreover, an act of betrayal. But I have devised a way of fooling myself into thinking there is a way around this obstacle. The theatre of Richard Foreman is constructed to be slippery–to be experienced, not recorded. (As I state this, it ceases to be true.) Thus the only way to explain the experience of watching Richard Foreman rehearse is to fail to explain. Thus, six failures, six bullets, which will fail to follow a path sufficiently elliptical.
1. 2 + 2 = 5 is wrong–asserting this truth sounds silly. But if we want to uncover more of the universe, then we have to leave what we know (2 + 2 = 4) to one side, and start examining what we don’t know (2 + 2 = 5). Silliness resists the obvious because it does not actively seek out the correct answers. Mistakes, errors, misses both near and far are interesting because the human mind is insoluble; the essence of the human nature is “not-knowing.” “The key,” says Richard, “is more interesting than the lock.” Ironically, Richard will often dismiss an idea for a particular staging as “silly.” (Rational solutions are not the key but are ways of convincing ourselves that the problem does not exist.)
2. The momentary strobe flashes, which cause and are caused by the profound confusion the performers experience in Foreman’s worlds (which are speculative versions of our world), are equivalent metaphors for the moments of blinding illumination and for the jarring experiences of having my consciousness pried loose from the social vise. (I am getting better; my references, as one of Foreman’s characters once remarked, are becoming “more imprecise.”)
3. Watching rehearsals, I want to occupy a space where I can have faith in faith and faithlessness.
4. The world is of “both/and” rather than “either/or” (both/and and either/or)–oppositions are conjoined rather than delineated, are infinite rather than binary. The challenge is to filter the noise, to distill all the blubber into oil to burn brightly.
5. Glimpses, intersections of collisions, all just out of reach. I get frustrated when Richard dismisses as utter crap the 200 lighting cues I just programmed into the lighting computer; he does so because he gets frustrated at falling back on the old devices, at slipping into the material, psychological world which we already know, when he wants to access slivers of the OTHER PLACE.
6. “That is not what I meant at all.”
–The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
“See what happens. Time passes through unchartable waters. Language proliferates. So things can be said nobody ever intended.”
–My Head Was a Sledgehammer
Not understanding should not be a source of anguish, but a source of creativity. “The most interesting thing about everybody in this room is where you are, that part of where you are isn’t where you think you are.”
7. It is delightful to imagine angels dancing on the head of a needle, though it might be more rational to envision a single angel pierced by a needle.
8. My partner once watched dress rehearsal with me. She is a photographer and acknowledged that it would take her lifetime working in her art form to produce a body of work as contradictory and layered as My Head Was a Sledgehammer. On the other hand there are entire plays which encompass less than a single photograph. I don’t understand why theatre artists are trying to reproduce on stage the effect on the human mind of a painting, or a novel, or a photograph–they are wasting unique possibilities which can never be available to other artists.
9. I have spent 10 weeks hearing the same constellations of words, and the possibilities evoked by these constellations–mediated sonically and visually–as they interact with my own shifting frame of reference will never be exhausted. My explanatory six-shooter proliferates bullets and keeps missing the target. That keeps me going, keeps me thinking in Richard Foreman’s worlds.