Richard Foreman Analysis
Richard Foreman began his theater career as a playwright and progressed toward international recognition as one of the most influential auteurs of the contemporary American avant-garde. Foreman’s writing style helped to establish what has come to be called the postmodern aesthetic, in which character no longer exists as a theatrical element, and the Theater of Images , in which aural and visual elements of a production become more important than the literary. His scripts for the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre represent only the workings of his mind while he writes them.
As a designer, Foreman constructs a playing space jumbled with objects and sensory input, which he then obscures from the spectator by shining blinding white lights into their eyes. Although he still presents Ontological-Hysteric Theatre productions, over which he maintains absolute control, Foreman has begun to direct other classic and contemporary plays, yet his unique directorial style is always apparent in his work.
Foreman established his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in 1968, in a long, narrow loft that he converted into a performance space in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. The name Ontological-Hysteric, although chosen rather capriciously, has come to symbolize many of Foreman’s preoccupations. In both his playwriting and his subsequent staging of his own texts and those of other playwrights, Foreman’s goal is to materialize the workings of consciousness and to make spectators aware of how they perceive their world.
Foreman sees consciousness as a perceptual mechanism that filters the world through the senses, and he believes that habit has taught people to limit their sensory input. To free them to explore their perceptual potential, Foreman constructs a rigorous attack on habitual ways of seeing the world and seeing art. Foreman’s early Ontological-Hysteric Theatre works, such as Sophia = (Wisdom) Part III, Pain(t), and Vertical Mobility, Pandering to the Masses, and Rhoda in Potatoland (Her Fall-starts), insistently aimed to reshape spectators’ perceptions by focusing on form and structure. He created a perceptually challenging environment that forced the audience to participate actively in constructing the theater experience.
In contrast with realistic theater (which strives to provide catharsis and to resolve its ambiguities and questions in a happy conclusion), Foreman’s art avoids moral issues and the linear development of traditional plots. He forces spectators to expend their energies on “blasting” themselves into productions in which the entire framework of traditional theater—plot, characterization, and settings—has been discarded. The required perceptual work replaces the usual theater experience, in which the audience passively awaits catharsis through identification with a hero.
Foreman was considerably influenced by the theories of Brecht, whose alienation effect forced spectators into critical contemplation of the actions presented in his epic dramas. Brecht discouraged the identification processes of more realistic theater, which he believed rendered spectators passive and unable to move toward political change. Brecht’s stagings were presentational. He used placards to announce his drama’s episodes, intentionally interrupting the seductive narrative flow. His performers were taught to present quoted characterizations that maintained the separation between actor and character and gave the spectators room to contemplate the play’s meanings.
Where Brecht encouraged critical distance in order to allow political self-determination, Foreman, however, was emphatically apolitical: He wanted his spectators to contemplate purely perceptual concerns. His work, moreover, departs from traditional Brechtian techniques. Particularly in his early Ontological-Hysteric Theatre pieces, preferring to work with nonactors, he discouraged his performers from acting as anyone other than themselves, and he directed them to deliver their lines in a...
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