Eating the Heart of Richard Maxwell

A dubious, obsessive attempt to understand the work of the playwright/director behind Neutral Hero, Isolde, and Burger King.

Naomi Skwarna is a writer and artist. She lives in Toronto.

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In September of 2012, I quit my job at a restaurant that put wet duck shreds on pizza with the intention of “being the thing I knew myself to be.” Part of being that nebulous thing, I believed, would be to meet and absorb—like a vampire, or a tampon—all that was vital about an artist I was fixated on: New York-based playwright/director Richard Maxwell. At the time, Maxwell’s work was waking me up to unorthodox methods of making, participating in, watching, and digesting live performance. Understanding Richard Maxwell seemed like the way to that hall of wonder that would, at long last, let me be the artist that I desperately wanted to bring out of apparent latency.

Truly understanding Maxwell meant interviewing him, which I prepared for by close reading his published work, repeatedly watching performance clips on YouTube, and worrying about how to discuss plays that no amount of obsessive study seemed to make me any more fluent in. I thought it was because I hadn’t seen one live. And then I saw one in New York the day before I was to meet him. The show was Neutral Hero, about a young man who leaves home in search of his father, encountering various pains and beauty along the way. More than that, Neutral Hero was Maxwell’s homage to Joseph Campbell, American mythology, and to his own intractable way of making theatre.

Watching Neutral Hero, I felt mentally clumsy—too fixed in my conventional view of theatre to understand what was happening to me. I was engaged, at moments even mesmerized. But I never forgot that I was watching a play, because Maxwell goes out of his way to remind you.

Maxwell was raised in Fargo, North Dakota, trained as an actor in Illinois, and completed a fellowship at Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theater. Around the same time, 20 years ago or thereabouts, he co-founded an experimental theatre company with his friends called the Cook County Theater Department, moved to New York, and began a shift from performing to writing and directing his own weird, bracingly uncommon plays with his new company, the New York City Players. Before he became a bona fide “auteur,” Maxwell presented himself to the Wooster Group and the company’s de facto leader, Elizabeth LeCompte, with whom he still has a rich and symbiotic creative relationship.

Elizabeth LeCompte interviews Richard Maxwell for BOMB Magazine about Isolde

Since then, Maxwell has produced more than 20 of his own plays, and three more written by protégés under an NYCP endeavor called American Playwrights Division. His work has toured internationally, won him a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Doris Duke Artist Award, and the Spalding Gray Award. He has not won a Tony, but there have been several OBIEs.

You may be thinking: How can a play be anything more than a middle-class alternative to an evening nap? Or maybe you love the theatre, love the feeling of sliding a programme under your left thigh; of the house lights going down, the rituals and gestures that are so recognizably of the stage. A Richard Maxwell play—like Neutral Hero or his current work, Isolde—seems to systematically reject “basic” theatre while also being thoroughly aware of “basic” theatrical conventions: the deep appeal of credible naturalism, the virtuosic actor, a linear sense of time, minutes faked as months. That’s what people pay for, right? But it’s not what Maxwell is selling.

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If I were to gather you outside the Abrons Art Center in Manhattan—the old-timey playhouse with ivory moldings and ungenerously plush seats where Isolde is presently showing—I might suggest you watch for the following:

1) Trademark performance style wherein actors speak with exaggerated deadpan delivery

2) The inclusion/interaction of discernibly amateur actors with trained actors, although the hierarchy is (mostly) evened out by the affectless style

3) Text that forgoes explicit markers of time and place in favour of ambiguous non-spaces. Or do the actors only exist onstage?

4) Catchy, melodic songs written in an apt generic style, typically “American,” sung tunelessly

5) When someone cries, when there is any sort of emotional climax—it is more or less shown to be that, an “emotional climax.” Any crying is tearless and ends abruptly

And then you would watch Isolde and notice only one or two of these things, and you might ask for your money back. Because a Maxwell play changes under your gaze, and the harder you try to resolve it, the harder it becomes to read. His work is both hypnotic and hateful, especially for a greedy cipher like myself, who looks to upload the words and style into my own brain for future use. Maxwell’s work evades me, and that gives me more feelings that I cannot decode. I’ve read, re-read, re-watched, fretted over, and basically tried to ingest his strength. Building an intellectual shrine to your heroes is an everyday sacrament to a higher human power, an attempt to augment your own.

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That interview I did with Maxwell in 2012 never found a home, which dragged at me, drags at me, even as I type this. In April of 2014 I returned to New York to see Isolde, and perhaps find a way to reframe the old interview with regard to the new work. Isolde is an elegantly composed chamber play staged in Maxwell’s flattened, hyper-articulated dramatic terms. We’re thrust into a love triangle, (or trapezoid, give or take a character), at the centre of which is Isolde herself, a beguiling actress (played impeccably by Maxwell’s real-life partner, Tory Vazquez) whose inability to remember her lines implies a more expansive loss. Loss of history, time, and—in moments—her facility to perceive a discrete self. Meanwhile, she is surrounded by men who attempt to define her in terms of their relationship to her, their varying desires to fuck her, baby her, or idolize her.

A performer locates herself in the gestures and moments that the words of a script cue for her. Maybe she has a method. Isolde’s radical forgetfulness is both an artistic argument about the actor’s craft and a feminist escape narrative. Not one and then the other, but both simultaneously.

An interviewer locates herself in the gestures and words of her subject, and the two interviews I’ve now done with Maxwell, a year and a half and two productions (Neutral Hero and Isolde) apart, have not made me any more expert in his work.

After Isolde ended, I nervously congratulated him in the theatre’s foyer and mentioned that I intended on writing about it in context of our earlier interview. He offered a follow-up conversation sometime before I left New York, which I accepted, trying to mask my avarice. With that, I ended up sitting across from him in the Hell’s Kitchen apartment he shares with Vazquez and their two children, thinking I would finally see his work with perfect clarity and be free to move on. Maxwell gamely responded to what I now realize was more like an interrogation than an interview.

When it was over, I rode the elevator down 30 floors with the flood of dopamine that comes after exiting a high-pressure scenario. I looked at the recording to check how long we’d spoken for—maybe 90 minutes—and was sickened to see the time marked as 0:00:00. I pressed play, nothing happened. 0:00:00. Standing by the steel mailboxes in Maxwell’s apartment building, I wailed—no, keened—quietly, as very very old people shuffled by to unlock their cheques and circulars.

Riding up the elevator again, I told Maxwell what happened, and he examined the numbers, rattled the device, as if that might bring the conversation back. He was not angry. If anything, he seemed sort of amused. And I felt like he knew that I was hoping for something that I couldn’t get; that my irrational efforts to absorb him had failed and I’d finally have to resign myself to that void.

More likely, his was just a smile of benevolent indifference.

The following is a dialogue that is conscious of, if not home to, that second, vanished interview. The divisions are my interruptions after the fact, an attempt to fill all lacunae. They don’t.

I. The Combination of Power and Inadequacy

For our first interview in November 2012, Maxwell and I met on a slightly rainy afternoon in a diner at the corner of 10th and 18th in Chelsea, just a few blocks away from The Kitchen, where Neutral Hero had just opened. Maxwell ordered a burger and a Coke. I asked him increasingly abstract questions, starting with what “affectless” meant to him. The question of affect and aesthetic absence is where we started the conversation, and where we will often return, in a way.

Your work has long been described as “affectless,” which I didn’t get before I’d seen your work. Like, to what extent a performer or performance could actually be truly without affect.

Were you convinced that it could be?

No.

(Sternly) Even after Neutral Hero?

Especially after Neutral Hero. Its conceit [to tell a heroic story with complete neutrality] seems like a response to critical commentary [affectless; flat; deadpan] about your work. Were you trying to prove or disprove those opinions?

In a lot of ways it was a direct response. I had an inkling that it was impossible to achieve neutrality onstage, but I still liked the challenge. It acted as a catalyst—a pressurized situation that produced interesting results with the performers and the designers. How can you satisfy the requirements of your challenge?

When I say prove, I mean even to yourself. Do you describe your work as deadpan or affectless?

That’s a funny question. (Pause) No. (Pause) Here’s how I talk about my work through the ages: when I first started directing my own stuff 15 years ago, it was my ineptness—my inability to make something look like a normal play—that really charged me. I couldn’t stop laughing… I was just, like I’m doing my best here! And still, it was failing.

You could tell that it didn’t look good?

I could see that in rehearsal—my ineptness—and found it amusing. Also, my power was dizzying. It felt too special, that combination of power and inadequacy. When people started to apply their own words, “deadpan,” I bristled a little bit at all the different adjectives describing—essentially—affectless performance. I didn’t want to be “the deadpan guy,” so I started to fight that. I wasn’t satisfied with the joke anymore.

So you turned what could’ve been perceived as bad craft into a stylistic choice, which became recognizable as yours. What did an inept dramatic scene look like?

We had no money, and when you have no money, you have no time. Everybody’s working during the day and we have three hours to rehearse in a shitty little tenement basement, what we called the Dumpy Space, over on 48th St. If you look at any pictures of the play House, that set is an exact replication of the Dumpy Space back wall, with the heating pipe that runs askew, not flush with the floor. (Contemplative) The guys who did that drywall job must’ve been high. Payphone on the wall. I wasn’t interested in how fancy blocking would figure its way into storytelling. Maybe I was so preoccupied with getting the writing to be better, or to function in some way. I’m not trained as a writer, I don’t have that background. It was out of necessity that I was doing the most basic storytelling imaginable. In the early days, the hardest thing for the performers was to keep a straight face.

Server: (Yelling directly in my ear) Hamburger and french fries!!!

So you were a young director—

Still a young director!

—You were a baby director. Did you develop an idea of how you wanted to direct from your training as an actor?

And how I wanted to write, yeah. (Focuses on ketchup application)

II. Sabotage

The rain lets up, so we walk along the High Line, which is filled with people enjoying the briefly clement weather. We are moving slowly and I’m holding too many papers and pens, trying to keep my recorder near his face because I worry about the wind. Incidentally, this is one week before Hurricane Sandy hits, flooding The Kitchen and cutting short the run of Neutral Hero, which received a stellar review in the Times even though many people who wanted to see it, couldn’t.

Did acting lack something for you?

I liked acting, but I felt limited creatively by what I could contribute. I’m a saboteur by nature. When I see something established, I have a really mischievous impulse to undermine it. Specifically, I remember working on a show at Steppenwolf Theater as an artistic intern. At the time, I was in a high school outreach show, Romeo and Juliet, playing a bunch of different small parts. One of the parts was a servant, where I’d come out and say what ho and you know, how doth the queen or something like that. They’d had a party the night before at the theatre that was totally unrelated to the show, and there are all these helium balloons backstage. So like good and dutiful Shakespearean actors in full-on tights and doublets, we decided it would be really great if for our scene we inhaled a whole balloon and went onstage and said our lines.

(I laugh. Maxwell does not. I stop laughing.)

I felt limited as a performer, and maybe… I’m also not the best at it. I don’t have any interest in doing what it takes to be an actor, the whole rigmarole around auditioning, that political scene.

When you said saboteur, I imagine something more destructive.

It is destructive. If you’re inhaling helium and saying your lines in someone else’s directing project, that’s kind of a—I mean, that’s something you do when you’re 20 years old, I guess.

So that instinct pushed you towards writing.

There was the issue of saying words that aren’t your own and repeating them: I think that’s what informs me when I sit down to write something.

III. Characters Are Fake

“New York City Players is a theater company creating original work about people, relationships, and above all, feeling” is what you read when you click the “about” tab on the NYCP webpage. I fixate on that “about,” nested under another “about.” There is something cruel but magnetic about an infinite regress of abouts.

When did “creating original work about people, relationships, and above all, feeling” emerge as a way of describing what your company does?

If you emphasize the about, rather than say that they have feeling in them, or that they show feeling, that’s a different thing. If they’re about feeling, you can start to imagine the behavior [flatness] as justifiable. Sometimes I tell my actors, “There’s a very good chance I was feeling something when I wrote this, and you might think that it’s your job as an actor to feel that too, but it isn’t. Because you’re too late. I already felt it, and I don’t feel that way anymore.”

That goes against basically everything we’re meant to believe about performance.

Those feelings don’t matter. We’re in this theatre in the present moment. The audience is watching the show, and we celebrate their ability to feel more than the actor’s ability to. So if your goal is to have the audience get something emotional out of it—to experience something that carries them to another place, then we have to get out of the way and let them decide what they should be feeling. Sometimes it corresponds with what I intended, and sometimes it doesn’t. That should all be okay.

Your work makes me feel like I’m being denied the traditional behaviors that show me what to feel. It was hard to decode my emotions from moment-to-moment.

Do you think that you do that in quote-unquote normal play? Do you spend time thinking about it at all?

I think about that a lot, relatively. I think about how telling an audience what to feel permits us to stop generating our own discrete responses.

So when you go see a normal play are you thinking about decoding what you’re feeling or experiencing?

I was so confused about my own emotional state during Neutral Hero that my attention shifted to the performers; I got very intimate with their faces, the way they carried themselves. I was especially interested in watching the more obvious non-professional performers. How did you come to work with non-professional actors? Your practice of working with “amateurs” is seen as one of your more unorthodox signatures.

I’m attracted to exoticism in the mind, the way people think. It’s that unorthodoxy that creates interesting moments or situations in rehearsal and onstage. I discovered that when I was directing community shows in Minnesota, [in my late 20s]. I was directing You Can’t Take It With You, and it’s a big play. Something like 18 characters. Casting wasn’t what I knew it to be, with the onus on the actor to prove themselves as worthy candidates. It was the opposite. I was begging, virtually begging people to be in the play because I had no one else. It was humbling, working with people that had never been onstage before and had no interest in being onstage. That total lack of interest was really intriguing; here they are, performing, in costume, saying lines, and they’re not sure they should be doing it. Whatever vulnerability people seek as performers or theatre makers, it made that experience for me, at least watching it, more vulnerable. That reluctance—reluctance and fortitude.

Because they’re there in spite of all that.

When it comes down to it, I really don’t care at all about character. Characters are fake. It’s just my bullshit writing that’s borrowed from everything else; but the people are there for us, and that’s compelling to me. I learned that working in Minnesota and I learned that working with people like Bob [Feldman], Lakpa Bhutia, Jean Anne Garrish. These are people that I’ve worked with in the past, and at least with Bob and Lakpa, I just knew them from life. I worked at a cafe on 43rd St, that’s how I met those guys.

This isn’t the cafe, is it? (I hold up copy of Maxwell’s play anthology, a plain white book with a snapshot of him leaning against the counter of an anonymous kiosk, eyes glassy and fixed in the distance. Behind him, a frustrated man points at his watch and looks dolefully at Maxwell’s head.)

No, but that’s Lakpa.

Is the photo staged?

Yeah it’s totally staged. I like the possibility that this could be Richard Maxwell (Points at Lakpa).

IV. Lowly Jobs

It’s the next day, and we’re back in the diner, which is now packed. Maxwell’s plays can almost always be categorized as self-consciously working class. It’s the rare show of his where actors wear beautiful garments, actual costumes, and they’re often paired with dirty sweatpants and waffle tees—the actors like kids who managed to snag a few choice items from the costume trunk. Mostly, characters wear nylon windbreakers, standard-issue security guard uniforms, faded hoodies, denim, flannel, safety vests. One of his first plays, Billings, was about house movers. Burger King was set in and around the fraught political microcosm of a small-town Burger King. Neutral Hero looked like an Alcoholics Anonymous production of Our Town.

After moving to New York, you interned with the Wooster Group. Was that before or after the Dumpy Space?

No, [the Dumpy Space] came a little later. The very first thing I did when I came to New York—besides work in a grocery store—was intern at the Wooster Group.

You worked at a grocery store! Especially in your early plays, there’s a heavy—

—Work vibe?

There’s such a work vibe. When you talked about how you couldn’t ever see yourself holding down a regular job, I wondered if plays like Burger King were nightmare expressions of those shit jobs. Maybe I’m reading too much into them.

No, I think that’s true. There’s something about those dumb jobs that if you work too much at them, you start to hallucinate—maybe because you’re sleep-deprived or stressed out about money—and it has a way of feeding into your imagination. This guy Joel and I had a joke when we were running crew [at Steppenwolf]. After doing ten-out-of-twelves in the theatre, we’d say “You wanna get together after this and go through some set changes?” The most absurd zeal (voice dropping) for the most lowly job.

V. “We Refuse”

There is a man painting autumn leaves on the outside of the diner window. Maxwell and I watch, transfixed, through most of this next part.

Was there ever an artist or company that really checked you into what you wanted your work to be like?

For the longest time, all I wanted to be was Sam Shepard.

Really?

I don’t know if I would’ve gone into theatre if I hadn’t come across his plays when I was a teenager. I happened to watch The Right Stuff again recently—have you seen that movie? (Sotto voce) It’s a great movie.

That’s the astronaut movie?

(Nodding) He was a badass. Sam Shepard and Steppenwolf’s connection with him— their famous version of True West—that was something that we all watched as actors-in-training at ISU, and whether we admitted it or not, all wanted to be that; do these cool, rock ‘n’ roll plays. And then once I was in Chicago, I found out that it just wasn’t possible to do that. I was too late. My sister at this point lived in New York, my sister, you know she’s a famous actor.

(I nod—sister being five-time Tony nominee Jan Maxwell, who knew what a knob Alec Baldwin was a long time ago.)

She’d been encouraging me to move to New York. I did a fair amount of soul-searching with members of what would become Cook County Theater Department.

Gary [Wilmes], Brian [Mendes], Kate Gleason and I were all hanging around Steppenwolf and decided do our own thing [as Cook County Theater Department]. At that point I was acting, and I remember feeling forced to behave in a certain way in the shows that I was in. I wanted to slow everything down and be more careful, more thorough, and not have these huge expectations around performing. In college, I’d taken an acting class where the final exam was to cry. Acting Basics.

Sounds like a lot of pressure.

Yeah. I passed the course, so I must’ve done it. But I didn’t like it at all; I didn’t like the feeling it gave me. Made me feel exploited somehow. Now I was getting paid, now I’m a professional actor, and I’m expected to cry. I really didn’t like that, but I did like performing with Cook County in this more relaxed way. We were surprised to find ourselves an experimental theatre company because we didn’t want to do what productions were asking us to do. We refused. “We refuse!” (said with the irony of someone who was maybe once a tremulous idealist) and looked to the Wooster Group—at least I did—as a kind of beacon.

And now your company and the Wooster Group seem so culturally connected.

I saw Brace Up! in 1992. I feel lucky that I was able to see Ron Vawter before he died. He was so precise, so present, without pushing anything or selling anything. I wanted to work with the Wooster Group, even if it meant sweeping the stage. So I went and knocked on their door said “I just moved to New York. I don’t want to act anymore, I want to direct.” It was a relief when I finally let go.

EARLY PLAYS in LA - Here & There with Portraits (work-in-progress) [02.25.13]

You mentioned a period of soul-searching. Did that happen in between finishing at ISU and moving to New York?

I don’t think the soul searching ever stopped. I don’t remember soul-searching much before 18, but I think ever since then, I have.

What are the questions you ask yourself now?

Oh let’s take it right to the present, that’s good. Right now. I like that. That’s a good jump cut. I ask myself if I have faith. I ask myself if I’m a good man. I ask myself if it matters what I’m doing. If it really resonates outside of the small theatre world that I find myself in.

The question of faith. Is it faith in work? Or faith—

In God.

Oh.

I ask myself if it’s legitimate. What I’m doing. It feels like you could make a persuasive argument for why it’s legitimate. But you’re never safe from being illegitimate. Maybe that’s a good thing, necessary somehow.

But it’s probably also hard to bear. Are these recent questions?

No. It started about ten years ago. That’s when the routine started. You know? The routine of this is what I do, or this is what it means to be successful.

Mmhmm.

I got bored.

I suppose there’s no fully avoiding that routine.

You want to have freedom. To do whatever you want. It’s like my sister Susan says: “Ask for the perfect solution.” Why settle for anything less? The truth is, I’m prone to melancholy, and only because I’m nostalgic, hopelessly nostalgic. It drives a lot of what I create.

Nostalgic for something in your own life?

Yeah, for my own life. What else could you be nostalgic for? I guess you could be nostalgic for old diners or something. That’s what nostalgia is, right? A yearning, you yearn.

Nostos, the homecoming. The desire to go home.

Look at Neutral Hero, that’s what that story is. That’s the hero’s myth, that’s the paradigm. To go somewhere else and return. To come home. (Brightly) The funny thing is, nostalgia and melancholy are also what keep me grounded.

You’re also making something completely new out of the yearning for old things.

Yeah, that’s true. It’s the perfect solution. But there’s no audience, you know? There’s just no audience. Gotta develop that audience, gotta get these kids seeing theatre.

You seem to have a very—

Naaaah. What, you mean like 150 people a night? At best? It’s not a huge audience. You want an audience, you’ve got to do music. Maybe I should just do music. People like music, right?

But you have music in your shows already.

Oh, yeah. You’re not going to find my shows on Broadway. It’s not like this is commercial stuff. I don’t know, what do people like to see in theatre? They like to see relevant stuff, topical stuff. I don’t give a shit about that, I don’t give a shit about topical, relevant stuff.

You don’t think your work is relevant?

It’s all nostalgic, remember? It’s all about the past.

But people are obsessed with nostalgia.

Yeah, but I’m not packaging it like that, “’50s Diner.”

Isn’t your work kind of about nostalgia—in the way that it’s about feeling?

Yeah. I just refuse to sell. I sell, I know I engage in selling when I do work and after it’s done, but the shows themselves are not selling anything. They’re not selling sex, they’re not selling virtuosity, and they’re not selling eye candy. They’re not selling hot button political issues.

Your work doesn’t sell anything?

Well let me think about that. When I was listing those off, I was thinking: do I sell independence? I don’t think you can. It’s antithetical.

But you can allow it. I think you invite people to see your work and you don’t dictate emotion. Maybe you’re not selling independence, but freedom. “Brief inner freedom.”

I’ll buy that.

I successfully sold your theatre back to you?

Sounds better when someone else does the selling.

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Addendum

Near the end of that second interview, Maxwell’s baby wakes up from his nap and joins us at the kitchen table. Maxwell holds him up high in his little green overalls, pointing down to the city 30 stories below and naming the various vehicles. It’s the moment when I wanted to reprise a question I asked in 2012, one that he’d answered in such a precise and haunting way. What are the questions you ask yourself now. I felt uncomfortable bringing it up in front of the baby. Not that the baby couldn’t have handled it, I just didn’t want him to have to. So I wrote down the original question and Maxwell’s old answer in my notebook and slid it across the table to him, like a number he ought to consider.

Joggling the baby, he read it and quietly said heavy in the same serious/ironic tone he’d used to say we refuse at the diner nearly two years prior. It was a moment I’d contrived to be fraught and meaningful, and I felt guilty for contriving it, though still ravenously curious. Maxwell looked up and out, maybe fixating on the painting of JFK on his wall that looked a bit like it could’ve been done by George W. Bush. He said something akin to I feel I’m in limbo and shifted the baby against his chest. Purgatory, liminal, I wrote in my notebook. Sad to be between things. He didn’t say either of those phrases, but I must’ve meant something by writing them down.

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Isolde continues at the Abrons Arts Center through April 26. Richard Maxwell’s book Theater for Beginners is to be released in June.