Features NYC FeaturesQ&A and Interviews Published 10 April 2014

Remembering to Forget

Isolde, the new play by Richard Maxwell - the writer and director best known for an anti-dramatic style in works like Drummer Wanted and, most recently, Neutral Hero - is the story of an actress unable to remember her lines or memories from her past. Exeunt caught up with Maxwell during rehearsals this week to talk about the piece, and how is work has evolved since Neutral Hero.
Kathryn Hamilton

Richard Maxwell’s Isolde. Photo: Simon Hallström

Kathryn Hamilton: Were the opera versions of the story of Tristan and Isolde an influence while writing this?

Richard Maxwell: No, no. Maybe in a Wikipedia kind of way, or after the fact. But I have to say that happened inadvertently. I’d written a love triangle story, and I had the guts of it worked out. And I had a dream that I should call it Isolde, and it was then that I went and looked up the story, and that’s when I saw all the parallels.

One of the interesting things about this version is that I found a new parallel to Tristan and Isolde. You know when [my character] Isolde is describing these pictures – this came out of a rehearsal in New York recently – where I was asking Tory [Vazquez] to describe pictures of what she could remember of Tristan and Isolde. They weren’t really connected to – they were connected to the memories, and it’s kind of a therapy scene where she is trying to find a way to remember. She is using the images that we use in the dumb show, so now it is relating more to the Tristan and Isolde story.

Kathryn Hamilton: In Neutral Hero, you were working with Joseph Campbell’s theory of the archetypal hero, and here you are working with a very specific story, but also these archetypical characters.

Richard Maxwell: That’s good that you found archetypal – it’s nice that you found that association because I was worried about it. I think it is becoming clearer as we work in this room. It’s been so much for me a conscious breaking from Neutral Hero, and what was going on there, that this is – it’s reassuring to know that there is this underpinning of archetypes and iconic things.

Kathryn Hamilton: In what ways do you see it as a break with Neutral Hero? 

Richard Maxwell: Well, you can look at the way people are behaving, and I think it’s very clear. Here it is almost like a style, it’s almost naturalistic. The writing is more – it’s people looking at each other and having a conversation.

Kathryn Hamilton: It feels like a Cassavettes’ script.

Richard Maxwell: Great, that’s great – I’m so glad you said that, because Opening Night, Faces, those were really resonating for me. Which is one of the reasons why part of our marketing was to do these screen tests, so we did these silent black and white screen tests with the actors.

Kathryn Hamilton: Like Warhol?

Richard Maxwell: Exactly. That was another connection.

Kathryn Hamilton: This play feels like a very different world – class wise – than you are usually associated with.

Richard Maxwell: Well, I knew that I wanted this story about someone trying to realize their dream house, so that’s already – you’ve limited your population. So that gave me license to write in a different way. And that’s maybe something that I couldn’t have written ten years ago, because I didn’t know people like that back then.

The original idea came from this idea of an actress who is a character, who is an actress, who is unable to remember her lines. And applying a kind of method acting approach so if you have to be faithful to your character as an actor, and your character can’t remember their lines, then the logic of that would say that you shouldn’t remember your lines either. It’s conceptual, it’s not something that I’d really like to see happen onstage. But in a way maybe that’s – it exposes some of the fallacies about acting. In this way that there is a difference between the character and the performer. If you were to follow through to forgetting, it exposes this idea that I’ve always had a problem with, that pretending is somehow necessary to tell a story, to have it work. Sharing a story, maybe it doesn’t need pretending.

Kathryn Hamilton: Or you put all the pretending into one section: here, the dumb show.

Richard Maxwell: Yes, yes, that’s a thing that stuck around because I didn’t know what to do there.  And it’s still there – I don’t know, it’s like – I mean, if I’m exposing some fallacies about  acting, then the dumb show exposes fallacies about how I feel about acting. I think this show is very different. And I’ve been guilty about saying that about every show, that it’s very different from the one before, but I don’t think I’m wrong this time. I’ve worked with these actors a lot, and all along I was convincing them that pretending wasn’t necessary, and after a while that starts to feel complacent, and also maybe not so accurate. Because when you think about what a pure state might look like as an actor, you don’t want to be obliged to pretend, but you also don’t want to feel obliged not to pretend. But normally there is not the flip side.

Kathryn Hamilton: Neutral Hero was going as far as you could go into not pretending.

Richard Maxwell: Yeah, and now I’m allowing the possibility of going another way.

Kathryn Hamilton: The Tristan and Isolde story is best known as an opera. Is there a reason that in this play you decided not to include live music?

Richard Maxwell: I think it’s about what I was saying earlier, that I’m trying to appreciate the craft of writing a play more, and this thing that is my habit to write songs, to tell the story with songs, it’s – the word to describe it they use is “devised” theater. I may have lost faith in that. It wasn’t called that when I was staring out. I guess I am saying devised because it is not a musical, it is not a play, it’s something else, and I’m the writer and the director, and I am making it in the room. And that won’t change, as long as I am writing and directing the play, that won’t change. But I am just not comfortable with that. I want to give that method of making theater a break. And to challenge the actors in a way that is different. You know, Gary [Wilmes] has been on Broadway – to do eight shows a week in front of 900 people, that’s something, you learn from that – and I wouldn’t want to deprive myself of his experience or any of the actors’ experiences.

Kathryn Hamilton: Like the argument that goes on in the play between the practical craft of the contractor and the architect’s dream house that can’t get built?

Richard Maxwell: Yeah, I think about that a lot, like maybe Massimo and Patrick is me cut in half. And Isolde, too, when she’s talking about “no more acting,” how wearisome it gets with the projects. You do them for enough years and you start to feel like there is a pattern, you know what’s rote.

Kathryn Hamilton: People come to your work with certain expectations. Do you think that they will find this a departure from what you’ve been doing before?

Richard Maxwell: I don’t know, I think it’s possible to see it as a radical departure, or as an extension. You know, like when Neil Young made Lucky 13, and I think it was David Geffen tried to sue him for artistic inconsistency. As I get older, I start to see that you can try to be different, as I did. You think you are making a splash, and you start to see that you are not as different or as special as you thought. And that’s OK. But the hazards are always there as well. The hazards of upsetting the norm.

Kathryn Hamilton: The norm?

Richard Maxwell: Well, your norm, yeah.

Kathryn Hamilton: The radicalism of not being radical?

Richard Maxwell: (laughs) Yeah, there you go, there’s a title. Is it radicalism though? That’s what haunts me, because I still think that under that, I want it to be.

Isolde is at Abrons Arts Center, New York, from 10th – 26th April 2014.

Neutral Odyssey: Exeunt speaks to Richard Maxwell

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