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Interview with Diane White

My interview with Diane White, Reza’s producer, took place on 9 April 1995.

dm Could you tell me more about the recent decision not to accept a British invitation to remount Reza’s staging of Quotations from a Ruined City?

dw It was just that Reza wouldn’t have been there to oversee it, or it was possible that he might not have been there. He didn’t want to permit the production because he wouldn’t be there to make sure that it was okay.

dm For Quotations, Juliana Francis was assistant director, whom he’s worked with a lot; his brother was the co-author and collaborator. I know you can’t speak for him, but in terms of re-mounting a production faithfully, it seems as though it wouldn’t be that problematic.

dw At the moment, it was problematic for Reza. When Reza shows his work, especially in a new city, in a place where we’ve never been and that has never seen the work, then it’s very important that the work be absolutely the way that he staged it and the way that he wants it to be seen. Because he’s never seen the space that it would have been done in and he doesn’t know how it would configure in the space and whether or not there would be anything that would have to be altered—which sometimes happens when we go to a new space, it’s either too small, too large, not deep enough, not high enough—that maybe there would be something that would need to be redone, and then he would have to be able to do that. When it comes to Quotations—there are different reasons why he doesn’t do different plays in different places—in this particular instance, it was because of his illness, I think, and because of the new piece.

dm A Story of Infamy?

dw A Story of Infamy—which, if he’s going to begin working again as soon as he can, he has to concentrate on that totally. I just don’t think he wanted or could deal with the distraction of having to do Quotations in London.

dm Which theater was it that wanted to mount the work?

dw The Lift Festival. We were supposed to do A Story of Infamy in June, after the opening in Vienna on May 22, we were supposed to do it June 14, 15, 16, 17, and when it turned out we couldn’t do A Story of Infamy, they suggested that we do Quotations instead. But that would have been a major work of his being done in a city that’s never seen his work, possibly without his being able to be there, and that was unacceptable to him.

dm Does this mean that Reza doesn’t want people to re-mount the works after he dies?

dw We haven’t discussed it.

dm Do you think you’re going to?

dw I don’t know. I think we’ll discuss it when he brings it up, if he brings it up. Those of us who have worked with Reza on his pieces, it would be a curiosity to us, I suppose, whether or not they could be done after he’s not here anymore. But the necessity to do them without him, at least, does not reside with me. It’s not that anybody’s in denial about the whole thing, it’s just that it hasn’t been discussed, so I really can’t speak to it.

dm I ask because reading the descriptions and watching the videos is such a pale echo of seeing the work live…

dw The only works that would be possible to do would be the works that we’ve already done a great many times, and that have been staged and re-staged and completed and shown.

dm That would be…

dw All the works that have been toured: Hip-Hop, which I doubt we would ever do again, because Reza has stated that he doesn’t want to do it again—

dm Why doesn’t he want to do it again?

dw He doesn’t give us a reason. He just doesn’t want to do it again. Other works that could be done include The Law of Remains, which he probably would do again. Tight Right White is another piece he has stated he doesn’t want to do again, didn’t give a reason. And of course, Quotations, which I’m sure he would do again.

dm Why are you so sure about The Law of Remains and Quotations?

dw We’ve discussed the matter. When we finished Hip-Hop the last time, at the Festival [?], he said, “I don’t want to do this piece anymore.” When we finished Tight White Right—at the last one that he attended, in Brussels—he said, I don’t want to do this piece anymore. Period. That was that. The only one that is a big, great crying shame is the fact that we’ve never been able to do Bogeyman anywhere except in L.A. It’s never been seen in New York, it’s never been seen in Europe, it’s never been seen anywhere except in L.A., where it was extremely successful. But Bogeyman could never be done without Reza being there.

dm Why?

dw Well, the main reason—aside from a million reasons that he might have, which I can’t quote because they’re his reasons—the obvious ones are that there are a number of cast members who would not, who could not, be there. One of whom has passed away since he did the show, so he’s definitely not going to be there, and a couple of actors who may or may not be able to come from L.A. The fact that it would have to be re-staged, because it’s possible that we wouldn’t be able to do it on that set, because it was so expensive to reproduce that set.

dm You had actually had parts of that set stored?

dw I had the entire set— the entire set, the costumes, the lights, everything—I had had it stored for almost three years. From the time we did it, when the LATC closed, I had the set taken out of the theater and stored. It cost a lot of money to store it each month, and finally, after trying very, very hard and finally getting a no from the powers that be in Europe about it, because it was just too costly and too complicated to put in different kinds of theaters because it’s a difficult set to fit in most theaters, I finally threw it away.

dm Could you tell me a little bit about when you first saw Reza’s work?

dw The first time I saw Reza’s work was in a loft in L.A. A small loft. He did a production of King Lear. It was four and a half hours long. He directed it and designed it, and on the night I saw it, he was acting in it, because he was filling in for the actor who played Edmund, who was sick. I had been told about it first by Alan Mandell, whom I didn’t listen to—I wouldn’t go, because he told me it was four and a half hours on a wooden chair in a hot loft. Alan’s word simply was not good enough for me, and I didn’t go. And then Timian Alsaker went to see it. He came to me very quietly, and he said, you know, Diane, I really think this is something you ought to go and see, because I think that he’s somebody that we ought to invite over to the Theater Center and do some work. I reluctantly dragged myself over there, I sat in a wooden chair for four and a half hours in a loft, and the only thing I can tell you was that it was a unique experience; the design was interesting; the interpretation was interesting, because it was not King Lear as we know it. It was Reza Abdoh’s King Lear. It was a very interesting piece of work. I was not bored for a minute. It was fascinating for me to watch the mind of this young man, who was barely twenty, or twenty-one, or something. It was in 1984 or 1985, 1985, I think.

I left there, and I came back to the theater, and I told Bill Bushnell that I thought it would be a good thing to invite this young man over to do some work. And so we did.

dm Do you remember aspects of the design in the apartment? What did he do to King Lear?

dw He deconstructed the piece… I can’t recall, exactly. It was ten years ago. He was using some of the techniques he uses now. The actors were all young, some of them were very inexperienced. But the way that he worked with them was so interesting that it didn’t matter that they were inexperienced.

I don’t remember the way the set was. The costumes were very odd, and the set was on a number of levels. There was a back wall, that was painted in a very strange way—which I didn’t think was the greatest thing I ever saw, but it was interesting. It had a depth to it, for some reason. I really can’t remember well enough.

dm And one of the first things you gave him to direct at LATC were a couple of David Henry Hwang plays? How did that combination work?

dw There is a play, called The Sound of a Voice. It’s a very abstract piece, a very odd piece. I liked it very much. I don’t remember how the decision came that he should do a David Henry Hwang play. David wrote a second play, because The Sound of a Voice was not a whole evening, it was a one act. He had written another one, called As the Crow Flies, which was also very abstract and interesting. We put them up together. I think it worked. It was done in a very small theater—we had a Theater 4 at the time. And in the first year that we programmed the Theater Center, we were able to program all four theaters. After a while, it turned out after the first year and a half, that we didn’t have enough money to program the small theater. After two or three years, we started renting it out.

But this was in the small theater. It was a black box. It fit, at the most, 99 people when there was practically nothing in it. Maybe 75 people could fit into it, normally. But this black box, what did Reza do with it? He painted it white. And we were in a white room. And the audience, in the rectangular room, he put it sideways, so that it was very long. This also had a scrim with things behind it; Timian designed it. It was a beautiful set, and the costumes were beautiful.

dm That was the first thing he directed at LATC?

dw Yes.

dm And after that, did he go straight to Hip-Hop?

dw No. After that, he went off on his own. It was in 85 that he did the Hwang plays, and then came a couple of years when he didn’t do anything at LATC. He was working, he was doing his own thing. He did Medea, Rusty Sat on a Hill, all those things that he did outside of the Theater Center. He did Kroetz’s Farmyard. He did a lot of things on his own, some of which I saw, some I didn’t. Rusty, actually, I was looking at the video the other  night because I had never seen it. It was three hours long! There were two videos that said Rusty Sat on a Hill, and I thought it must be two videos of the same thing. It was an interesting thing. He started using a lot of the actors that he would use again and again around this time.

dm How did he meet up with them? Do you know any specifics?

dw I don’t know where he met most of the actors. Some of them he met at LATC, but a lot of them he met in New York, when he came to do Father Was a Peculiar Man. He met Julia when he did Father Was a Peculiar Man, and then she was in Hip-Hop.

dm What can you tell me about Reza’s life? It seems most pertinent with Bogeyman, which is spoken of as an autobiographical piece, but only in vague ways: that it’s about a boy who is gay and has aids, and the revelation of these facts to a conservative household.

dw As far as what I can tell you about Reza’s life, Reza was born in Tehran, he was one of three, or four children…. [laughs]. The mystique lives with Reza—none of us knows too much. He has a sister, he has two brothers. His father was very handsome, very active, a sportsman. His mother was very young when he was born; I think she was 15. His father was a very charismatic man who was not very nice to his wife or to his children some of the time. Reza left home when he was 12 years old.

dm This was when they were in…

dw Teheran.

dm They were still in Tehran?

dw Oh, yes. His mother never left. She’s still there. They traveled a lot when he was young, but he went to London by himself and joined the theater company, the National Youth Theater, and directed his own piece. His father left and went to America, and sent for Reza and his brother. Then he and his brothers came to America to be with their father, and soon after, I don’t know the exact time frame, the father was on the handball court, and suffered a heart attack and died. He left them alone, with hostile relatives. His relatives were hostile, because Reza was gay. So Reza had to support both of his brothers. There were all kinds of ways and means he had to use to do that, and some of them you saw in Bogeyman.

dm The mother had stayed in Iran throughout all of this?

dw As far as I know.

dm Could you talk a little bit about the concern over the distribution of the videos?

dw It’s not concern over the distribution of the videos. Basically, the videos are not a good representation of the plays. There’s only one that’s a fair representation, and that’s Hip-Hop. The Law of Remains is a very bad video; Bogeyman is an unedited video; The Law of Remains is an unedited video; Tight Right White is, I think, an unedited video; and Quotations is a little bit better, I think…There are two reasons, I think. One is that he doesn’t want the work to be seen in its unedited form, in a bad light, especially people who might judge it in some way, or might judge the work for seeing it, for doing it. But it’s been sent to people who might possibly want to do it, but for dissemination in the public world…. And also, there is a small concern that some of the videos might be sold, or somebody might use them, or reproduce them and use them. It’s more of a concern of when we go to a different country—or even here—and people from TV stations and things want to video. And all of the sudden they end up videoing the entire show. And they’re only allowed to show three minutes of it, because if they show more than three minutes of it, they’re supposed to pay the actors. In America, Equity laws prohibit television stations from showing anymore than three minutes of Equity actors without reimbursing them, as such, for it. In Europe, the laws don’t hold as well, but we try as a touring company to enforce those laws, because we don’t want our actors to be exploited. It’s much more difficult. When we were in Hamburg, for instance—it was the third city we went to on the first The Law of the Remains tour—and by that time the word had gotten out. We had, at the dress rehearsal, six television stations videoing. They were asked, please don’t video the naked scenes to show on television, because the actors don’t want it to be shown, just stop the camera. There’s that scene in The Law of Remains, where she does that dance, and she did not want to be shown on television in that way. We had to fight sometimes with the video people to prevent them from doing it. I used to just go over there and tell them, either turn the camera off or I’m going to stand in front of you. Things like that become a concern.

When we were in L.A., we used to have people sneaking into the theater with video cameras between their legs, tape recorders in their crotches, it was unbelievable.

dm This was a problem…

dw Just in L.A., with Hip-Hop and Bogeyman. It was a phenomenon. We had to fight with people to get their tape recorders away from them. One man we had to chase all around the theater.  Basically, we don’t want the actors to be exploited in that way.

The reason we don’t want you to disseminate your tapes is that they’re not good tapes are not good tapes of what the work actually is.

dm What is the story with the upcoming work, The Story of Infamy?

dw Much of the script is written. It has to be finished and refined.

dm Is this another collaboration with his brother, Salar?

dw Yes. The show is designed by Timian. The drawings have been made and sent to Frankfurt. It can be built; it hasn’t been started, but it can be built. The costume designs have been done by Eddie Bledsoe, the same person who did the costumes for Quotations. The lights have been tentatively designed  by a new gentleman. Raul Enriques and Gayland Wai have started—the sound design for these shows is a long process, and the video has started as well. It takes a very long time to do the sound and the video, a lot of work for everybody involved.

dm How much does a work like Quotations cost? It seems as if that should have been one of the less expensive works.

dw It depends. We did Quotations for the first time in L.A., in the L.A. summer festival, in a workshop production, where it didn’t cost very much to do. And then last summer we toured it. But it was done as a workshop production in a very small space. When we did it here, it cost a bit more because it was a huge space. It’s hard to say what it cost, but it always costs a lot less to put up when we do it ourselves. If you try to put up the same show in one of the theaters in New York, it would cost your four times as much because of the union labor and so forth. Bogeyman and Hip-Hop were much more expensive than The Law of Remains or Tight Right White or Quotations, because the first two were done in a major theater with a staff of people who were paid regular wages, with actors who were paid regular wages in a LORT-C theater. So it cost much more to do it in L.A., and of course the productions were bigger.

I’d been putting up shows at the LATC myself, that’s what I do. And I know how to do it with the least amount of money. We always have help from one or another foundation: the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gerome Foundation has been very helpful, the Andy Warhol Foundation. And we have a wonderful board that gives us money, and I give some money myself when we do it here in New York. But it’s never cost us more to put up a show (outside of LATC). When we do a show here, in New York, the actors work for next to nothing. They get paid more when they go on tour. The technician’s work for less, too.

A Story of Infamy will be a departure because we’re doing it in Europe, and I have no idea of the costs.

dm You’re now figuring on rehearsals for A Story of Infamy for this summer, in New York, right?

dw Yes.

dm How do recommend viewing Reza’s work?

dw It’s difficult to analyze it in any way. When you see Reza’s work, it has to simply wash over you. Whatever happens when it washes over you, if it strikes a chord or means something to the person who’s washing it, that’s all that matters. To try to analyze it or put it in a box, it’s very difficult, because it’s different from anything else that you ever see. I go to the theater all the time, I saw three plays yesterday, and nothing ever comes near it. I saw this Roberto Zucco thing at Cucaracha, where  they were trying to do something different–but it’s not different, because I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen what they’re doing before. When you see Reza’s work, there’s no precedent for it. Even within his work, he breaks the images in one work that he gave you in the last. You know it’s his work, but it’s very difficult to pin it down in any way or to say anything specific about it, except that it hits a note in you.

I was afraid when we were doing Tight Right White that the black audience would be uptight about it. Because even though I’ve bee working with Reza, even though I’ve been doing minority work for years and years and years, I’m still brought up in a liberal world. But it was amazing what happened, when blacks came to see that work. They loved it. They went crazy over it. The black educators, actors, writers, were so moved, they were moved to tears.

When I was watching it I laughed my head off. But I was moved, too. I’m always moved. If the work didn’t move me, I wouldn’t do it. It’s hard to explain. So many times people ask Reza, “What does your work mean?” Sometimes people are amazed because Reza comes from Teheran, that his work is so uniquely American. If someone watching Hip-Hop didn’t know Reza was Teheran, they’d never guess that he wasn’t American.

dm What do you see as the failures of the critics who approach Reza’s work. I get the sense that you’ve been dissatisfied with some of the critical response.

dw In New York. We’ve never been dissatisfied with the critical response in L.A. Or in Europe. The critical response in New York leaves a great deal to be desired. With the exception of John Bell, Bonnie Marranca and Dasgupta, Elinor Fuchs…the response of the critical community in New York has not been faulty, it’s been nonexistent. Michael Feingold saw Tight Right White; he didn’t come to see Quotations. I don’t know why. He never saw The Law of Remains; Alisa Solomon did, and she didn’t know what she was looking at.

From the New York Times, there’s only been two: Stephen Holden, who reviewed The Law of Remains, and Ben Brantley, who reviewed Quotations. Nobody reviewed Tight Right White, which is really the one that they should have come to, to be able to understand anything. It was easier, I suppose, to decipher or make sense of Tight Right White than it was any of the others.

But they never even came. I couldn’t get a critic to come. I did everything in my power. I called. I wrote. I used pull. I did everything that I could to try to get a New York Times critic to come and see Tight Right White, and nothing worked.

dm Do you know why?

dw No. I remember that someone had seen Mel Gussow at a party, and asked him if he was coming to see Tight Right White–he was still reviewing then–and he said, oh no, Reza Abdoh’s work isn’t for me. I don’t think I would be the right person to review that.

We’ve never had a picture for a review in the Times. We’ve never had more than a paragraph and a half. When we go to Paris we have 30 reviewers in the audience on opening night. When we go to Frankfurt, Hamburg, Rome, Berlin, Lisbon, there are 30 or 40 reviewers out there.And in here in New York, we can’t get one man to see a show.

Eli Fuchs wrote the review last year for the Village Voice last year on Quotations. It wasn’t the best review we ever got, but it was intelligent. That’s all we expect. In many instances in L.A., we would get reviews in 10 different papers, and four of them would say it was the worst thing they ever saw. But they’d put a huge picture in and they’d say this is grotesque, this is awful, and people would come running to see it from the bad reviews. We don’t mind bad reviews. The problem is that in New York we get no reviews, and it’s impossible for people to know who we are.

dm Why are Bogeyman, Hip-Hop and Law of Remains a trilogy?

dw Because Reza says they’re a trilogy. If you saw Bogeyman and The Law of Remains together, you’d see where that was going, you’d see the connection. The Law of Remains is the apocalypse, it’s the end of everything. And Bogeyman is the life. Something had to happen after Bogeyman, and if anything had to happen, it was The Law of Remains. But seeing them out of context, you couldn’t possibly make that connection. Nobody’s ever seen them together, so you’re not unique.

dm How do you see Reza’s work as changing after he found out he was HIV positive?

dw I’m not sure I knew him before he didn’t know. He said he knew five years before he told me, and he told me in 1989, and I met him in 1985 or 1986. So I never saw his work before he knew he was HIV positive.

dm How does a European audience appreciate something like Tight Right White, which seems so reliant on an American context?

dw American culture, especially black American culture, is very popular in Europe. That show was received better than almost any other show, not only in Europe, but here, because they could relate to it. They knew what was going on, they could relate to it. In the others, the images are a little more abstract.

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