The Theater Years

An Interview with Richard Maxwell and Tim Reid
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Theater often gets talked about in terms of the present. Here, in this book, there is that other sense, that other part of theater. That it is over; it has passed; what happened was a moment.

In reading The Theater Years, there is a desire to linger, or flip back. It looks like something actually happened. Each image calls to the next image, the next page, the next play, to the end. The plays themselves are moments. Together they constitute a moment which is the company, New York City Players.

This book is made of screengrabs pulled from archival video, grainy, single camera stabs at documentation. The plays are given chronologically. Each play gets a series of frames. At the beginning of each new play, on the left side, the verso, there is the title of the play, a synopsis, and below, information from the production. On the right side, the recto, there is a single large image from the play. Then there are the frames: they come six to a page, always covering the left and right, so each play is shown in multiples of twelve. Most get twenty-four frames; a few get thirty-six; one gets forty-eight. That’s it. If we are going to talk about these plays, we have to do it without referring to plots, and we have to do it without referring to characters. So, how do we summarize?

Often it starts with a bare stage. The space of the theater is rarely if ever shown in the book. We see the back walls. Occasionally there is a wide shot where we see the backs or silhouettes of the heads of audience members. A head blocks one frame. The action proceeds. For a playwright who states, “The work is staged writing, dialogue between mostly static figures,” there is a lot happening. Having a limited number of frames heightens that sense. A gun firing, a kiss. There are pictures of phones and intercoms, fights, faces covered in blood. Musicians in the back holding their instruments. There is nakedness, sex. We almost see the love triangles but they’re harder to make out.

Mostly we are given people. There are a lot of different people. Some faces recur. Some appear only once. Here are the people which make the show. There is silence and awkwardness. The people stand out, and then we see what is around them.

It is not description by encompassing or surrounding. It is not complete. It leaves things out. It leaves as much out as possible so there is space to approach. And I have, in the convenience of the book, as much time as I need.

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I spoke by phone with Richard Maxwell, Artistic Director of New York City Players, from my home in Los Angeles to their offices in New York.

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Tim Reid: The book. It’s beautiful. It’s great to have. Thanks for making it. I’ve never seen your work in person. I feel like maybe I’m getting closer.

Richard Maxwell: That was the intention with making it, to somehow capture what it’s like to watch, not just these plays, but plays, which is why we went with the screengrabs. We have all these really nice production stills that we forwent in favor of the screengrab. It just feels a little freer as a reader to not be told what’s important to look at all the time. It was a small group of us grabbing these images and then we culled them together, and went down the list, and it was a really long and mostly boring process. I hadn’t gone back to watch the videotapes since we’d done the shows –it’s grueling.  We’re sparing the reader (hopefully) of most of the grueling parts. Maybe approaching what it’s like to sit in a theater with people and watch the shows.

TR: Were you all just watching videos and whenever you felt like it you just screen-grabbed?

RM: Yeah. Well I’m one of, let’s see, five grabbers, so I can only tell you what it was like for me. It was mostly intuitive, focusing on production elements like shoes or hair or that corner of the set where it kind of runs off into a void…You know: light, color, and just trying to be in a place where you can receive something, where you can transfer something evocative. For me, it would often correlate to a memory I had working on the show, or being in that room. So it’s personal. It’s strange. It’s nostalgic. It’s lonely. It’s boring. And yet, there’s this investment that you’re putting into it.

It feels a lot like honoring the people, for sure, and the work of it, and the time, all the time, which is felt just reading it.

And seeing  people repeat through the years, so that’s part of that personal process of selection, too. And having a feeling for how this particular frame captures some essence of that person.

Do you think of this book in relation to the other books you’ve done?

I do. Since Michael Schmelling designed Theater for Beginners and The Theater Years, we definitely carried over that conversation. It’s territory that I either didn’t get to cover or avoided with Theater for Beginners.

I mean, one’s definitely all text and the other’s all images. And then there’s the book of plays which are the scripts.

I’ve known Michael since 1998, and so it feels like one long conversation. You try to feel out what the book needs, and follow that. So, once we sorted out that we were going to be working with screengrabs, there were a bunch of technical questions that Michael had. He was pretty skeptical that a printer would even take on a job like this because of all the video blacks, and contrasts, and the pixilation from the low resolution …. And so it needed a bit of faith to jump into this for Michael.

Jim Fletcher was a big part of the conversation too, and Robert Snowden. We all were going back and forth, and getting input from other people, too. It was a very  (if you look at the editors in the back) opinionated group. So I don’t want to give the impression that it was a conversation between just Michael and I because everyone was chipping in and we all kicked it around that way.

But rules would evolve. We were learning about the book, what it needed. Like we thought maybe we could have captions, we could have text along with the images. And Jim was advocating for less text and finally no text. There were some pretty sharp discussions… I guess it gets sharp when you start to ask “Why?” Things get sharp. First of all: Why does this book need to exist? Why should it only be images? What is the text doing? What is the text’s job? And even boneheaded questions like: What is a book? There’s nothing immune from interrogation, I don’t feel. Everybody had that on their minds.

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Did you find answers that were satisfactory, or was it more exciting as a project that generated those questions?

I brought the idea to Thea [Westreich Wagner] and they have an imprint and a history of publishing art books. I knew it had to be an art book. It doesn’t seem to fit into the theater section, when I think about where it’s situated. Her input was real valuable, and their support was critical. They just had questions that I wasn’t used to. I’m not really in the art world. But I wanted the work to be dealt with on a visual plane. I was noticing when people talk about the work that we do, that the visual part of it is often downplayed or not really addressed. Because there’s so much text, and the performance behavior or style is unusual, that gets a lot of attention, when people talk about it in the press or whatever. And I feel like there’s something going on visually, and with the designers, the production designers that I work with, like Sascha van Riel.

You said something at the beginning of us talking about how you wanted the book to be about theater, and about plays, about how we watch plays.

Yeah, yeah. And in that way I guess it’s a companion to Theater for Beginners, because it’s not a long book, Theater for Beginners, but I do spend a long time talking about the audience, and what it means to sit down together and watch something. And so, it’s nice that we have a companion now to reference at least the shows New York City Players and I have made.

And it’s interesting for me, as one audience member who sees probably more theater than the average person, to watch theater alone, reading this book, with as much time as I want.

These questions about time, and how it can be bent and reshaped, and these questions about community and how much we are alone together, these cross my mind as I watch plays. There’s maybe some overlap there, as far as the medium experience.

I was wondering about the title, where that came from…

The Theater Years was a late title in the process. I was looking at… not the dummy, what’s the term?

The galley…

The galley, yeah, the galley. I was looking at those. You know it’s a bound, very simple, very rudimentary version of the book that’s kind of scaled down, but you get a sense of the flow. As an object that you could hold in your hands, it was the first time I was able to experience the book, and I was reading the copy that we chose in the Introduction about, “These are video images from plays from 1997-2015.” And that just struck me as strange. It never occurred to me before, like why those years. You know, and then I thought: “Oh, these are the theater years.” And I ran it by people and everybody was laughing, so it seemed like a good move.

It struck me, too, because I like what you do on the website with the Video of the Week, that sense of having a week to watch this thing and then it will go away. Putting time on the internet. And then the way the website scrolls. It prints for you, and you have to wait for it.

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But there’s something in the title that feels almost past tense about it, about The Theater Years. I’m curious about that, what that is pointing towards?

Yeah, it feels like punctuation. Maybe it is, I don’t know. It’s more… I bet… I don’t know, but I bet it has more to do with my relationship to theater, and how I don’t owe theater anything… That’s kind of what it feels like.

What do you mean by that?

Well, I don’t… In terms of like loyalty. I guess it’s a strange thing to say, but that’s the feeling.

I guess I wonder, also with the framing of the book as an art book, wanting it to be in the art section rather than the theater section of whatever book shop…

I’ll be happy if it’s in any book shop. I’m not gonna complain about where. [laughter] I just want to be clear about that.

It’s a coffee-table book. That was the idea. It’s a pretentious conceit. It is. But I think we have fun with it.

It frames theater in a particular way. It’s framing theater as an art. And what does that mean that theater is an art? You get to this at the end of the Introduction.

You mean in the essay?

Yeah.

Huh. I don’t know. The essay’s weird. The essay was crowd-sourced. I don’t know if you know that or not.

No. I didn’t. I thought it was you.

Well, it starts out in my voice, but then… Jim and I solicited people’s reflections on the company’s work, and we sent it out to over 200 people, to volunteer their thoughts. Mine was more general, and then Jim got more specific. His was more of a survey. That got synthesized, edited down. It’s hard for me to really represent the essay. Which is a weird thing to say, but it’s true. It’s how it was made. So I don’t know how relevant that is to your question or not. But it probably helps to know how it was made.

Yeah, that’s super interesting. That’s good to know. I’m still curious about this thing that’s brought up in the Introduction, of theater as an art, and situating theater with the other arts, where theater may not always be considered alongside the other arts, and how to change that, if that can be changed. If that’s part of this loyalty thing, this feeling.

I do know what you mean. I’ve thought about this quite a bit. I’ve noticed in my years of working in theater that there’s not a lot of interest in what’s going on formally, when it comes to theater. I’ve been trying to figure out why. Maybe it goes back to the book thing, the medium thing. Like this is how a book behaves, this is how theater behaves, this is how a film behaves. And maybe, I feel like people, myself included, they don’t really want to be, when they sit down to watch a play, they don’t want to see the acting. I’m taking a leap here… I think that your average person, and I’m an average person, that’s how I try to write, they don’t want to see acting. But my problem is, either because I’ve been in theater so long, or I just have a certain sensitivity, I see acting where others don’t. And so I’ve been trying to get around that for many years. And I’ve failed. Every time. But I still keep trying…. Well not every time. And you can’t say always. Because there’s definitely… there are times when you feel like you’ve succeeded….

It’s a weird thing: the form of theater. I wish it were considered more. Most of the time, it’s like: we got to get this show up. And we got this much time, with this much money, and we got these people, these stars in it, and let’s make it happen. I totally respect that process but it does do something to the medium, this constant formulaic thinking. And so I like form. I like thinking about form, a lot. It pervades everything that I do…. People are not used to that, people are buying a ticket ahead of time. There’s just things that keep it from being considered art, or from being in the art world, if you want to use that horrible term. There’s certain economic factors, or practices, that won’t allow it, or rarely allow it to cross over.

I bought the script of Good Samaritans from you.

Oh nice.

Somebody told me it was great and I couldn’t get out there to see it. So I bought the script. And I got this little envelope from you all in the mail, and there was this stapled thing, these Xeroxed pages folded and stapled together. And it was like, “This is perfect, of course.” It totally helped me get the play.

The vehicle matters.

Absolutely. Right? If it had been real slick, like a brochure, like a time-share brochure with the script in it, it might have been a whole different kind of play.

There is a show that that would totally work for. Like Showcase. That’s a good idea.

I had the same thought.

If you like the scripts we’ll send you a couple posters. Have you seen those?

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No. I was talking to a friend who lives in New York, and I said I was going to be talking to you about the book. And she said, What are you going to ask? And I said: I want to know why the cover is grey and the book’s all color inside. And she said the posters are all grey.

That’s the shorter answer.

I’m curious about the longer answer for sure.

Well, I can give you a quick, long answer. That is a really good question. And it does run through the work that the company does. It runs through the conversation I mentioned earlier about Michael and I because he designs all the posters.  It does inform a lot. The newsprint is great. First of all: it’s cheap. Second of all: it’s quotidian, it’s everyday. It doesn’t draw attention to itself really, in the sense of, it’s not grandiose. It’s also ephemeral. It’s something that’s going to disintegrate over time faster than the heavier paper. It’s also going to yellow in that great Tony Conrad way. I don’t know if you know about his film screens…. He’s got these painted, I guess it’s canvas, but they’re squares of paint that were white, when he made them in the 70s, but they’re slowly turning yellow. He called them films, because they’re moving images.

But then there’s also this idea, which is part of the website, part of why there’s the Video of the Week. I don’t really like it when theaters use videos to advertise theater. I understand it, it’s the quickest and easiest way to do it. But I don’t like it because you’re trying to equate two mediums there, and we never wanted to do that with any of the representation we have out there, of the work.

Maybe this goes back to Showcase, which was borne out of the idea of a real showcase at the Hilton, the APAP convention, the Performing Arts convention that happens every year in January, and they fill the expo floors where you can rent a booth. When we investigated way back when getting a booth it was prohibitively expensive. I was like well: I never liked the idea of representing the work. I always thought if we participated in APAP we would have a show that was on the expo floor in a booth. But when I found out what the cost was, then we got a hotel room and I wrote a play instead. There’s always this conundrum about how do you represent something when it’s not the medium, and I always favor, let the thing represent itself. But we have this communication hurdle to get over with our public, with our audience. So that’s the quick long answer of why black and white, and not as quick as “because the posters are black and white.”

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The Theater Years. Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Edited by Jim Fletcher, Richard Maxwell, Robert Snowden. Westreich Wagner and Greene Naftali.  2017.

Richard Maxwell and New York City Players’ latest play, Paradiso, will premier at Greene Naftali January 12 – February 10, 2018. Reservations can be secured here.

More about all of this is at New York City Players’ website.

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