Richard Maxwell

Richard Maxwell talks about his new work in the 2012 Whitney Biennial

Richard Maxwell and New York City Players, Untitled, 2012. Rehearsal view, Whitney Museum of American Art, April 24, 2012. Photo: Sascha van Riel.

Richard Maxwell is a New York–based playwright and theater director, and a recent recipient of a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. Maxwell wrote the text used in Sarah Michelson’s Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, which recently won the Whitney Biennial’s Bucksbaum Award. His own contribution to the Whitney Biennial, a public rehearsal with his company, New York City Players, will run on the museum’s fourth floor from Wednesday, April 25 to Sunday, April 29.

WE DIDN’T WANT to just do a show on the Whitney’s fourth floor. It didn’t make sense to carry over the trappings of theater into a museum structure. It would be a forced fit. In my work, I embrace the environment and the circumstances. So you’ll see me working with four or five actors, a set designer, a costume designer, and some other folks. We’re rehearsing our next play. It’s a real work, not something we’re drumming up for the biennial.

Is this rehearsal process itself a piece? I’m not thinking about the esoteric aspects of it. At least I’m trying not to. It’s not my job, you know? Why not let the people who watch it make up their own minds about whether it belongs there or not? That’s the kind of contractual question my work poses to any audience. Do you think this is worthy of being here?

We were doing table work on the script this past week. And I’ve played around with some staging ideas. It’s something that I’m still writing. That’s one of the main features I think people will see: me working on the text with the actors. Changes on the fly, things like that. A lot of pencil and paper in hand, script pages flying.

One of the great tenets of theater—of any live performance I guess—is that anything can happen. I talk with actors about being in a place of readiness, to not deny or ignore the room. I think it’s a good frame of mind to get into. To troubleshoot what could happen ahead of time doesn’t make sense to me.

Rehearsal is getting used to the idea of repeating. I think if we only had to do this once—say the story was written and somehow we were able to present this as a one-time event—my shows would look a lot different. Not just because of the time factor, but because of the way that performers behave. There’s something to this fact that we have to repeat something. I don’t have a problem with realism—of trying to pretend you’re someone else, this character written on a page—if it’s only going to happen one time. I think that’s why I accept realism in acting in films. It fits the frame. But it feels more honest to say to the people that are going to watch a theatrical production, “Look, we know we’ve repeated this. We’re not going to put any energy into pretending that this is the first time it’s happened.” I think about rehearsal as a way of reckoning the fact that we’re going to repeat.

I feel like repetition also has something to do with being the best that you can be. Why are there lines, for example? Why have actors learn lines? It’s something tangible that you can master. In storytelling, it’s nicer to watch people who know their lines than those reading from a page. I don’t know if I can defend that. Maybe by saying, we can do it, so let’s do it, let’s master that.

The project we’re beginning here has no fixed deadlines, so we can take our time, but we are all working toward a final production that will happen . . . I don’t know when, maybe five years down the road. I think it’s good for the actors to experience working in public. That’s ultimately our goal. You know, we don’t do this for ourselves.