"Eating the Heart of Richard Maxwell" - interview with Maxwell at Hazlitt Feb 16, 2015
Naomi Skwarna interviews Richard Maxwell at Hazlitt:
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.
...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.