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Meet the artists after the performance on 12/05
Richard Maxwell has become known for his hyper-realistic, incisively written representations about the triviality of the American dream. In 2016, the playwright and director returns to the festival with The Evening, the first part of a Dante Trilogy. The Evening is a poetic and musical theatre piece about three losers – a jaded boxer, a corrupt manager, and a frivolous barmaid – who clank and clash with each other in a smoky late-night bar. Prickly but disarming, the piece exposes the condition humaine of the American anti-hero. Throughout the often-absurd dialogue emerges a striving for freedom. And the conviction that dreams can be stifling. And that life, whatever happens, still ends in death. The Evening shines a light into the perpetual darkness. It is at once intimate and universal, recognisable and abstract. It is an epic journey through dramatic landscapes with the ultimate release as end goal. There is light after darkness.
Written & directed by
Cammisa Buerhaus (Beatrice), Jim Fletcher (Cosmo), Brian Mendes (Asi)
James Moore, Andie Springer, David Zuckerman
Set & lights
Sascha van Riel
Original music by
Richard Maxwell, arranged by the musicians
Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Théâtre National de la Communauté française
New York City Players
the 2014 Spalding Gray Award (Walker Art Center, On The Boards, Performance Space 122 and The Andy Warhol Museum), supported in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New York Theater Program, Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, and the Alliance of Resident Theaters’ New York/Creative Space Grant. Production design support provided by the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Design Enhancement Fund, a program of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (A.R.T./New York)
With additional generous support provided by
Greene Naftali Gallery & The Kitchen
This engagement is supported by
Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation through USArtists International in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
New York City Players is supported by
public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in Partnership with the City Council and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency, with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. New York City Players is a member of A.R.T./New York
Performance in Brussels supported by
Embassy of the United States of America in Brussels
Subtitling supported by
New York City Players staff
Louis van de Geer
The Unadorned Archetype
Discussing The Evening with Richard Maxwell
In advance of the world premiere of New York City Players’s The Evening, Sarah Benson has interviewed company founder and Spalding Gray Award winner, playwright Richard Maxwell.
SB During the development process, the show has evolved a lot. What has it become?
RM It has become a story about characters, and I’m working with archetypes. We have the bartender character who’s possibly also a prostitute, so we have a ‘hooker with a golden heart’, and then there’s the fighter – the warrior character who’s trying to make a comeback, the ageing prizefighter. And then there’s Jim Fletcher playing the corrupt manager. I’m trying to carve out these shapes that we follow. I’m looking at what the difference is between a person and a character.
SB So what is that for you in this case?
RM I’m looking for examples. Like fighting. People can fight as a character on stage in a way they couldn’t do as a person, as they could get seriously injured!
SB Yes, things can happen to characters that can’t happen to people. You can put characters in situations that we aspire to or are afraid of and can’t embody as people. The laws of physics trap us, the laws of society trap us, social norms trap us.
RM The social trappings are a big part of this play, in terms of thesearchetypes. Cammisa Buerhaus’s character develops hints of agency asa being. Characters don’t have agency – they are subject to the whims ofthe creator; in this case, me. I’m investigating whether there’s some wayfor these characters to escape my wrath. I give Cammisa this potentialfor agency, and she starts talking about escaping and getting out. In thecontext of the play, it’s about a trip to Istanbul. And it’s clear right off thebat that she and Brian Mendes have an intense relationship that is probablyending. There’s a big fight that happens between Brian and Jim,which Cammisa also inserts herself into, and in the aftermath of thatfight they start talking about things that are not part of the story. It startswith Jim saying, “I like this place” and ordering jello shots, and what I’mgoing for here is that you, as a viewer, are wondering whether they aregetting drunk or whether some other kind of element is taking over theirconversation. The text takes on shapes, which I’m really interested in,and then hopefully – without your being too aware of it as a viewer – you’rein a new place… And then eventually, there’s a collapse. You were talking about trappings, that’s a really nice point in regard to how characters differfrom people. And yet, as viewers, we want them to behave like people!
RM It’s this funny paradox. That we as viewers like to see characters who can do things we cannot do. But we hold them to standards of consequence that are based on standards of logic. All of this is, of course, framed by my father’s death. His dying came at a time when I should have been working on figuring out what this show is about, and it didn’t make sense for me to shut that out. There was no way to do so. The minutes, as they wound down, became more and more precious. That was something I was trying to pay attention to. So what happened in this play became a way to eulogise. It’s not really a lamentation. I don’t want it to be so solemn. It’s not how I want to eulogise my dad, but there are strange connections that I can’t really defend.
SB How do you prepare yourself for a rehearsal?
RM I try to forget everything – which isn’t hard for me! You wilfully dumb down. And it has been episodic, how we’ve made this, rehearsing in chunks of time. My goal was to sort out as much as possible with the script in advance, and then focus on the technical and set aspects. In depicting the bar, Sascha [van Riel, set and light designer] and I talked a lot about how far we should go in representing it, which connects to what we were just talking about in terms of how far you go beyond these archetypes. These shapes, these cut-outs. It’s a tricky thing. With the writing, I find that the more I convey in terms of who these people are – the more particular it is, the harder it is to pull out of it with this shift in the play. I’m so interested in how that runs parallel with the set. How far do you go in terms of decorating the space? We could have beer signs, but that would be too much. As writers, we decorate characters to enhance them. But I can’t really get into that too much. This is also a big part of the conversation I’m having with Kaye [Voyce, costume designer].
SB Why are you interested in the unadorned archetype?
RM My impulse is that that kind of detail doesn’t belong in theatre. What interests me about theatre is why it’s different from film or TV. Any medium where there’s a frame is different. I think theatre is where we sit down as viewers and watch and make decisions in real time about who these characters are. That’s the governing characteristic of live theatre. So you have these criss-crossing sensations and points of view that all materialise in the moment. I want that latitude and freedom as a viewer. You’re allowing the mythic in when you start talking in terms of shapes and archetypes. You’re allowing the ancient to enter in more fully. When you were asking why these shapes: it lets the whole experience be more open. It’s not because there’s something to aspire to, or any high ideal, it’s actually that we allow perversity. And I know I’m perverse! But we have to allow for broken behaviour – for broken anything! To allow in things that aren’t anticipated. That moment during rehearsal when things finally gel? Who knows what causes it. It could be delirium from a lack of sleep or some kind of endorphin-rush from all the work you’re putting into what you’re doing. But it’s that moment that’s about three-quarters of the way through rehearsal where you realise, ‘Oh, this is much bigger than me or anything I thought it could be.’ And then it becomes this thing you follow. That’s perverse. It’s something that isn’t regular. I feel like that’s why I keep coming back to it. That’s what I want to share with people.
SB What is it that creates that state? You sometimes see it in religious practices or at sports events, where people are focusing on something other than themselves and this bigger thing takes over. What makes that happen in the theatre?
RM I think it comes from the collective will. And there’s definitely skill involved.
RM I guess so. There’s some kind of – I hate to say this – proficiency.
SB Proficiency in what?
RM I think you have to be good at reading the heart. Understanding your relationship with your own heart. For me, that’s what it’s about.
SB How do you get good at that?
RM First of all, you have to do the basic stuff. The writing has to have some power. It comes up a lot in the conversations I have with actors. How do you get good at reading the heart? To say that proficiency resides in how you’re reading the heart does not preclude the intellect. Those two feed each other. It’s hard to articulate. I don’t even know if I want to articulate it. Intuition is also a really hard thing for me to wrap my head around. It is attentiveness that let’s in the room.
SB Yes, we’re connected to our bodies and this corporeal, physical matter. And we’re also rooted to the sky – or the divine, or the cosmic, depending on how you think about it. There’s that kind of vertical plane that’s present in humans that is specific to how we experience the world. And so I’m always trying to figure out how I can amplify that aspect of our experience as people.
RM I’ve always felt there’s an urgency when people step onto the stage. So in that sense, it does feel like there’s amplification happening. And that is part of why I feel cautious about making things dramatic. It’s already a dramatic situation! You’re already creating a pass/fail construct. Risk is right there. I want the viewer to identify, but the terms under which identification happens is where I feel like I break camp with a lot of the theatre I’m seeing. Time just operates differently in theatre than in, say, how people interact with other mediums or with their devices. If you want that identification to happen, you need stage time. Just by being in the room with that person, development happens. So you have time, you have amplification, to use your word, you have risk that’s already there doing so much of what we call interesting, or at least what I find interesting. You have the opportunity to watch someone inside a story, from head to toe. That’s not what film does. Film tells you what to look at. I guess I’m just saying that I am actually cautious about the amplifying. Because there’s so much identification and storytelling that can happen with the viewer.
SB So what’s your relationship to the role of women in drama?
RM As a man?
SB As a writer or a person.
RM I’m sympathetic. I am sorry that it’s there. I’m based in mythic things that I don’t even realise. When I open up to what has come before us, that’s what comes out, and yet at the same time I feel like I’m trying to reckon with that. I am not the guy who is going to solve all the problems. I wouldn’t want to give people any sense of false promise. But I feel very connected to the struggle of a female character inside of that. Going back to my dad, one of the things that came up while I was going through the grieving process and trying to make a play, was that I felt like there was no form. As I was writing, I would look at the text and it was like it was being erased. It was a strange sensation. It was like unwriting. I would feel like I had something that would work and I would bring it into rehearsal and find that, wow, there’s nothing to hold onto.
SB So what did take hold?
RM This sense of needing to get out, get out. Which is why I identifywith Cammisa’s character so much. She becomes my vehicle. In mynotes, I wrote down something I thought was significant: ‘Are they (thecharacters) leading us towards extinction or have they found a path?’
SB That seems connected to the question of evolution. How much of our experience is a wilful path and how much are we products of our environment?
RM I think we’re helpless, in a way. As humans, one of the things that separates us from other animals is that we delude ourselves into thinking we have a directed purpose.
SB Exactly. We build all these steel structures that I’m looking at out your window; we read newspapers, we put up constructs to help us generate meaning.
RM It does make me wonder what part two is. If The Evening is the beginning, what’s the middle? I might have to go to Dante for that.
Sarah Benson is an OBIE Award-winning director and since 2007, artistic director of Soho Rep. She is directing Richard Maxwell’s forthcoming play, Samara.Back to top
Richard Maxwell (b. 1967) is a playwright and director of experimental theater who lives and works in New York. He is the recipient of the 2014 Spalding Gray Award from the commissioning consortium of Performance Space 122, the Andy Warhol Museum, On the Boards, and the Walker Art Center. He is a Doris Duke Performing Artist and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, two OBIE Awards, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, and was an invited artist in the Whitney Biennial. Recent projects include Maxwell’s plays The Evening , Isolde , and Neutral Hero . His latest book, Theater for Beginners , is published by TCG (2015). He directed Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play, Really , for New York City Players (March 2016). Upcoming projects include The Evening (Part 2) , and Samara , directed by Sarah Benson with music by Steve Earle (2017).
Richard Maxwell/New York City Players at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts
2007: The End of Reality
2011: Neutral Hero