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Interview with Reza Abdoh: 14 January 1995

The day I traveled into New York, I had scheduled an hour-long interview with Abdoh. When I arrived at his apartment, I was led over to Reza, who was laid out on the sofa in the living room looking emaciated and weak. He told me he wasn’t feeling well and asked if we could keep the interview short. I said I’d keep it to ten or fifteen minutes.

Little information is in this interview until the end, which is, unfortunately, the point at which my conscience was making me feel truly warped for engaging a fatally ill man in an activity he clearly found exhausting and unpleasant. When I told him I was ending the interview, he rolled his eyes with relief and said, “Oh, good.” I asked when we could talk again, since he was leaving soon to spend a few weeks resting in L.A. He assured me we would speak more when I came to sit in on rehearsals for A Story of Infamy; unfortunately, his condition grew worse and he went on a respirator the day before the first rehearsal was to be held. He was soon off the respirator, but remained weak. The day of my interview with Diane White, she told me he weighed 99 lbs. Nevertheless, I tried calling him for a phone interview; not surprisingly, the person who answered the phone told me Reza was not in a condition to speak.

So many questions I would’ve liked to ask: Why, exactly, do Hip-Hop, Bogeyman, and Law of Remains constitute a trilogy? How, exactly, is Bogeyman autobiographical? Does he perceive his use of folk culture as nostalgic? Has he read Arlene Croce’s infamous article in the New Yorker, and what is his attitude towards victim art, and Croce’s criticisms of it?

Still, what is here is of some value, if only as a way of seeing the degree to which Reza’s answers are often ambiguous, a little inconsistent, and surprisingly not at all worked out in advance. After the interview, for example, I found out that John Bell had earlier asked Reza a similar question about the extent of actor’s input; when I asked the question here, though, he acted as though he’d never heard the question before, never really thought about an answer. Perhaps it was a result of the exhaustion.

MUFSON Could we start out talking about the nature of some of your collaborative relationships? I know you used a dramaturg on Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice, Morgan Janess. I’d also be interested in hearing about your collaboration with your brother on Quotations from a Ruined City—he wrote a bit of Quotations, didn’t he?

ABDOH Right. Well, my collaboration with a dramaturg is obviously less prominent than with my brother. He’s co-authoring the work. But I’ve only really used dramaturgs twice. The way I approach it is, if I’m using texts from different sources, I usually require them to find these texts—

MUFSON —the other occasion was Law of Remains?

ABDOH No, Minamata. I haven’t used any dramaturgs since Hip-Hop, and I’m not going to, either. They’re unnecessary, as far as I’m concerned. I think they’re really necessary in regular theaters, but not for me.

Writing with my brother…he writes, and I write, and then we put it together and edit it.

MUFSON Could you tell me a little bit about the piece you’re about to start working on, A Story of Infamy?

ABDOH It’s about death, redemption. It will be the same style, pretty much, as Quotations.

MUFSON Some people would say that Quotations was less wild.

ABDOH It was calmer.

MUFSON Is that a direction that you’re heading in?

ABDOH No, Hip-Hop was extremely calm. Hip-Hop was calmer than Quotations. There’s no “direction.” Every now and then I want to do something a little different, a different kind of pace, a different kind of energy.

MUFSON One of the things that struck me about Quotations, the one work that I’ve seen live, was the closing image of the two people, shells of men, coming together for the embrace at center. What was interesting about it was, it was a gesture or movement that was very familiar—lovers coming together center stage for a comforting embrace. That, as a gesture, is traditionally cliché and sentimental, but you inverted it in several ways. You made it two men, instead of a man and a woman; and it was absent of solace even though it was a solacing gesture. Both men were wrecked in a way that powerfully undercut the attempt at mutual comforting.

What is sentimentalism for you, and is that something you consciously try to avoid?

ABDOH Yes, I do try to avoid it. My sensibility doesn’t lean in that direction, anyway. It’s something I think most artists are concerned about, especially if they are creating a quiet, emotional moment.

MUFSON How are you defining sentimentalism?

ABDOH Emotions that are not real, that are there for the purpose of evoking some kind of response that is not genuine. Our culture is saturated with sentimentality. Ninety percent of the films that come out of Hollywood, even when they’re dealing with subjects that are extremely brutal, they deal with it in a way where you don’t get under the skin of these people. You just shed a few tears. Most viewers in America get off on sentimentality. But for my work, you should try to create a certain reality that is not dependent on sentimentalism in order to work.

MUFSON Was that something you were consciously toying with at that moment?

ABDOH No, I was just doing my work. I create a certain anguish, and I’m just instinctively aware.

MUFSON I noticed that some of your company members had worked at Club FUCK!, which does some performance work?

ABDOH They used to. Club FUCK! doesn’t exist anymore. They used to have some S&M shows and stuff like that. My lover and I used to go there sometimes when we lived in L.A.

MUFSON Did the style of the Club FUCK! shows influence—

ABDOH Bogeyman. Yes, and Law of Remains.

MUFSON How much do you let the actors provide input in terms of how they’re going to dance or move?

ABDOH I don’t. They don’t. Everything is very fixed and choreographed. Actually, that’s not true. I do ask people to create certain gestures; it’s impossible to create every single detail, especially if your work is as detail-oriented as my work is. And I don’t know what certain performers or actors or dancers’ inner gesture is, so sometimes I ask them to create certain gestures, or certain sounds. If I think it’s appropriate and fits the overall vision, then I keep it. If not, then I don’t. I do do some of that. Generally, they really don’t have any say in structure, or what the piece is about, or what it’s going to be.

MUFSON You said in an interview with Phillippa Wehle that you hate the word “avant-garde”—“I’m a populist. I think of my work as popular entertainment. It engages a lot of ideas and a lot of your intellect because I believe in completely physicalizing difficult ideas.” The thing that struck me about that is the tension between populism and the desire to engage the intellect, especially in a culture that many have called anti-intellectual.

ABDOH I meant it in a very direct way: I use a lot of popular imagery and iconography. Obviously I have a distance from it. I don’t incorporate it without distance, and quite often it’s a critique of a lot of the popular work. Not just popular work, but the way that life is portrayed in popular culture. That was in Law of Remains, the way Jeffrey Dahmer was portrayed. Or O.J. Simpson. Popular culture, especially popular media, is, to me, abusive. In my work, I show that, but I have a distance from it. My work is a paradox; it’s not one or the other. I like to incorporate ideas in the work, and obviously that’s an intellectual process. But at the same time, I can’t stand work that’s purely intellectual and so cerebral that you have no emotional strain through it. In a lot of popular work, especially music, you can drown yourself in sound, like a trance. In ancient cultures, they didn’t practice theory in their dances; they wanted to arrive at a state of trance, and I think that’s an appropriate approach for the arts: to create a work that is entrancing.

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