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“I don’t have a vision. I have values.” An Interview with Anne Bogart.

by Daniel Mufson
Originally published in Theater Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 59-63. Also published on AlternativeTheater.com.

I spoke with Anne Bogart at the festival that the Actors Theatre of Louisville had in her honor in 1995. Looking back, one can see that Bogart was one of the early critics of America’s obsession with technology, but equally important are the statements she made about her process and her plans for the future.

DM A critic at the Actors Theatre of Louisville celebration of your work [in 1995] pointed out that every time he had seen The Medium, he discerned a progressively stronger point of view, a feeling of a statement that the piece was making against technology. This struck him as a contrast to what you, and also Paula Vogel, had said about the multiplicity of meanings that ought to be available in viewing a piece. Is there a contradiction?

AB There were two things that kept that piece from having a clear message. First, I have ambivalent feelings about technology. I’m on e-mail, and I’m into computers, and I’m interested in innovations and technology. It was not my intention to say technology is bad, or that we shouldn’t embrace technology. Second, the piece was put together pluralistically, meaning that the text is not only from McLuhan—;all over his work—but also from pop magazines and writings on the effect of technology on people.

But over the two years since we made The Medium, the subject has come into the popular consciousness. What we’re saying becomes more important because people are recognizing the message more. I’ve always felt proud to be saying those things—not to say technology is bad, but that, as McLuhan would say, there is no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening. And something that a theater piece like that can do is to contemplate and say, “This is happening to us, look at what is happening to us.” That’s what I get a thrill out of saying. And I don’t think that’s the same as saying, “This is what you have to think.”

DM You’ve mentioned elsewhere that it wasn’t just you putting together The Medium. You’ve often talked about the group process, and I’m wondering what you think makes your work a single vision?

AB I really don’t think it is. I’m often told that there is a vision. I don’t have visions and I don’t have pictures in my head, or ways that something has to be. I think all of those three pieces [at Louisville—The Medium, Small Lives/Big Dreams, and The Adding Machine] and everything I’ve ever done is a highly, highly collective vision. I think there is a company vision that is emerging from the SITI company, because we’ve worked together for a while. But what I’ve tried to do is always work with people who aren’t afraid of giving huge amounts of input.

DM So are you re-envisioning the director as a sort of facilitator?

AB I’m not envisioning any way a director should be, I’m only refining what I can do best—which is, to act as a facilitator and a sieve. If I have a talent, it’s that I am able to focus other people’s visions. Anybody who’s worked with me will tell you that I don’t tell anybody what to do; I create an arena or a ballpark. And then I always hear, “Oh, Anne’s vision.” I don’t have a vision. I have values, maybe.

DM Is that what you mean when you say you haven’t really changed much from the first piece you directed in high school?

AB I’m referring to a sense of timing and a sense of humor a kinesthetic sense on stage. I don’t know if one is born with that, but it develops early. Those things have somehow oddly stayed the same—which is why I always wonder if you can teach directing, because you either have that sense or not. In the same way that I think a musician or a composer works; it has to do with how time is spent, how time is organized.

DM Are you moving away from itinerant stagings, or was that just a constraint placed on you at Actors Theatre?

AB No. I’m a big fan of Max Reinhardt’s career, where one play would be a tiny little chamber piece, and the next one would be pageant outdoors in Salzburg, and the next one would be a George Bernard Shaw play of large scale, and the next one would be Kleist. I’m a big fan of the expansiveness of theater; I’m interested in all the different relationships an audience can have to an event. Right now, what I’m exploring with the SITI company are what I like to think of as little essays that are about theater, but that are also about other things—like The Medium and Small Lives. They’re essentially “Essay Theater.”

DM Could you clarify what you mean by Essay Theater?

AB Rather than doing a play in an Aristotelian sense of a character going through a catharsis—although McLuhan sort of does that in The Medium—it’s the idea of taking a theory or theories about a certain aspect of life and expanding on them in a theatrical form. Like the one I’m working on now, Going, Going, Gone, which is about quantum mechanics. It’s finding theater metaphors that encompass certain innovations in theoretical thinking.

DM Was the first Essay Theater that you did No Plays No Poetry?

AB I guess so.

DM When did you start conceiving of this as a distinct form?

AB After doing The Medium, I discovered I had about 15 “Essays” I wanted to write. And I’ve only done a couple of them, so I have a lot of Essays in me.

DM What else are you thinking about?

AB Things that deal with sociology. I started working with Erving Goffman’s theories on how people interrelate, and I’d like to expand on that. And Goffman’s notions that there are 17 forms of human interaction possible—that’s interesting to me, because in the theater we only usually do two or three.

I want to do a piece about consumerism, about what it means to be a consumer as opposed to a citizen, which is a notion that Bill Moyers actually talked about recently in discussing why people should support public broadcasting. He said that public broadcasting is one of the few media that treats its audience as citizens as opposed to consumers.

DM A couple of things came to mind when I saw your most recent Theater Essay, Small Lives. First, you’ve spoken about being a distinctly American artist, and I’m wondering how that ties in to a piece in which the text comes from Chekhov and the movements seems to be so influenced by Asian performance.

AB It’s very important to understand that, if I say I’m interested in my American roots and American culture, I do not mean to pursue it by only doing American work. I have become more American through my confrontations with other cultures. If I go to Japan, I am confronted by my Americanness because everything is so foreign. If I am working in the proximity, say, of a Tadashi Suzuki, who has a completely different notion of what an actor or rehearsal or audience is, I am confronted with my own notions, and therefore I will drop whatever notions I have inherited and don’t necessarily believe upon inspection. Conversely, I’ll tune in to the ones that I do believe in.

I intend to engage in content and in texts that are non-American—that’s very important to me. That’s the basis for the founding of the Saratoga International Theater Institute: it is about a fellowship of artists from different cultures. The odd and unexpected by-product of that is, I become more American the more I engage in other cultures. If movement looks Asian and the text is from Chekhov, that is a response, I’m sure, to an interest in other cultures. But I would hope that there is, or I think that there is, a great deal that is American in it.

DM What do you think is specifically American about Small Lives?

AB I agree with Gore Vidal, who calls America the “United States of Amnesia.” I think we are unbelievably optimistic—which is our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. For me, a group of people who walk along a road, having no idea where they come from or where they’re going, but who are kind of oddly hopeful, is quintessentially American. I think it’s American in spirit.

DM You’ve acknowledged that Small Lives is a dense play, and Paula Vogel talked about your No Plays as an experience that had to be re-experienced and remembered by the spectator in order to be resolved. How necessary do you think it is to see plays like Small Lives more than once, and is that a limitation of the piece? Or is first-glance accessibility an unreasonable and debilitating demand on theater?

AB I do not think that what makes strong theater is accessibility at first instant, mainly because my first experiences in theater were not simple—I didn’t understand it. But I did sense that there was something there. I find immediate accessibility easily forgettable. All the great theater experiences I’ve had have either been too long, or too difficult, or I’ve had to reach. That doesn’t necessarily mean I think audiences have to come to see it more than once. I have had the experience, and of course I’m a theater person, where I remember going to see 20 times Richard Schechner’s Mother Courage in 1974 or 1975. That was his greatest work, it was an unbelievable production. I didn’t understand it. But there was something about it that brought me back. I don’t necessarily think that the sign of a good work is where you have to come back to understand it; I don’t understand most of my work. I have to look at it and constantly redefine what it is. If I did understand it, it probably would not be as volatile. I don’t think that understanding is necessarily the best thing in art.

DM What is?

AB Aliveness. In the theater, certainly a sense of event. A sense of human beings reaching towards something, a sense of inspiration. As in great music: you are taken to a place where you are not in familiar territory, where one encounters new landscapes. That’s what I want in the theater. I want the audience to be in new territory, I want myself to be in new territory. I mean, I am the audience, ultimately.
DM Although it doesn’t seem as if you move completely away from giving the audience at least some trace of a narrative.

AB No. Because I think any good person in the theater also has a strong streak of show biz and a sensitivity to the level of entertainment and story. No matter how rigorous, there’s a sense of showmanship; there should be, I think, in the theater.

DM People asked you at the festival how you choose the plays you do. You said, in regards to classics, you often go on the recommendation of people you respect. How do you decide which contemporary plays and playwrights you want to stage?

AB It usually, oddly enough, does not come through reading the script. It’s by having a relationship with the playwright. The playwrights I’ve worked with, I can count them on one hand. There’s Eduardo Machado, Paula Vogel, Chuck Mee, Mac Wellman. Every single one of them, I actually met them before I worked with them. Similarly, people I respected would say their work is important. I don’t know that I can recognize great work on paper. There are people whom I respect and I really listen to them, and they do know how to read a play. I can read a play once I’m working on it, but to choose a play, I get very insecure, because I can’t tell. Often I think a play is hard to see on the page. Or, it takes a huge investment, and sometimes I’m unwilling to give that investment because I’d rather be reading history, or psychology. That doesn’t erase the fact that, once I’ve started working on it, once I’ve made the decision, its an incredible experience—one’s relationship to a script is incredible.

DM How do you mean?

AB When I started working on plays like Danton’s Death, I realized that when I would do research, I would go to a library and sit there and try to study the French Revolution, but what would happen is that I would wander over to the magazine section. And I used to feel guilty about that, as if I weren’t really dealing with the material. But then I found out that, because Danton’s Death is in my mind, all of the detours are part of the research. For example, with Danton’s Death, I picked up a magazine about the club scene, and I ended up setting Danton’s Death in a club with “celebutantes,” which had a correlation to the fashions and the notion of fashion after the French Revolution, and the air of brutality. I think you can hypertext off of plays. Plays should awaken rich associations that you can’t really control, and the older I get the less I’m interested in controlling the associations. As a young director, one wants to say: this is what I think, and this is what I know. As I get older I’m more interested in complexity, in opening something up rather than closing it down.

DM One of the interesting things about The Medium was the degree to which the intellectual and the emotional were absolutely fused. That’s something you don’t see too often. It wasn’t just about presenting art with a political slant, but about intellectual ideas having an emotional import. Do you see that in the other pieces you’re working on?

AB Going, Going, Gone is about quantum mechanics, using the structure of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, of two couples spending an evening together.

I never understood science or math in high school, but recently I started listening to physics tapes because I couldn’t read the books. I listened to them when I was driving between Saratoga and New York. When I would have closed to book because of not having understood, the tape would keep talking. It would be Stephen Hawkings or The Tao of Physics or something, and I would be driving, and suddenly I would get it. I would stop trying to understand, and suddenly I would say, oh my fucking God, I think I just understood the Heisenberg Theory or the Theory of Relativity or something. And that started changing the way I think about the world and about movement on stage and about relationships. I want to create a piece that gives the audience the same experience I had in the car: they’re involved in one story (I was looking at the landscape)—in this case they’d be involved in these two couples passing the evening. But what they’re hearing, what they’re saying, are these extraordinary theories from quantum mechanics. In some pieces, that’s how it should work.

DM And do you explore what’s terrifying about quantum mechanics?

AB I’m learning that the more I study quantum mechanics, the more I’m questioning the whole notion of living. I suddenly think that I might be the only person in the whole universe, and that you’re a figment of my imagination. And that I’m creating you—therefore I question every moment of my life. That’s what I want and that’s what I’m scared of, too.

DM I sounds like you’re making an association between quantum mechanics and solipsism.

AB Oddly enough, solipsism came up recently in something I was reading—that you can actually take quantum mechanics to be about solipsism. But I’m still in the middle of it, so I can’t really draw any conclusions.

DM But it’s taking you into philosophy of science texts?

AB Deeply. And religion, oddly enough, and the notion of religion.

DM To me, the actual content of McLuhan’s writing made The Medium terrifying and powerful, because these were intellectual ideas, and yet, I turned around when it was finished and the woman behind me was weeping. And that seemed like a perfectly understandable—yet surprising—reaction. I wonder if a piece on quantum mechanics…

AB I don’t know. We’ll see. I didn’t know in starting The Medium that it was an emotional piece, either.

DM But you must have some instinct about it, if you choose that topic.

AB I just know that quantum mechanics, or the study of it, is changing my life profoundly. So I want to do a play about it so I get to spend more time with it and share it with an audience.

Read the essay that accompanied the above interview when it was originally published in Theater.

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