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The Unadorned Archetype: Discussing The Evening with Richard Maxwell

By Sarah Benson

In advance of the world premiere of New York City Players’s The Evening—a new work that tours to On the Boards, PS 122, the Andy Warhol Museum, and The Kitchen in coming months—Soho Rep director Sarah Benson interviews company founder and Spalding Gray Prize–winning playwright Richard Maxwell.


On New Year’s Eve I met Richard Maxwell to talk about his new play, The Evening. I first encountered Richard’s plays on the page and found them to be some of the most exuberant and alive writing I had ever come across. So I was shocked when I moved to New York from London to find that his work was almost completely defined by a perceived style. As my favorite graphic designer, Stefan Sagmeister, says better than I ever could: style = fart. I found it limiting that Richard’s work was defined using a small set of descriptors such as “flat.” We are now working together on a play called Samara, which I am directing. As we talk about in this conversation, Samara has connections to The Evening as part of a possible trilogy. Here we talk about The Evening and why we make theater.

Sarah Benson

So you’re leaving for the Walker tomorrow. Are you excited?

Richard Maxwell

Yeah, I’m starting to look forward to getting into the theater and figuring out a lot of questions that we couldn’t answer in a rehearsal hall.

Benson

So who’s in the show?

Maxwell

Cammisa Buerhaus, who’s new to New York City Players, and then Jim Fletcher and Brian Mendes, and then a band.

Benson

I know the show has evolved a lot during your process so far. What’s it become?

Maxwell

It’s become a story about characters, and I’m working with archetypes. We have this bartender character who’s also possibly a prostitute, so we have this “hooker with a golden heart”, and then there’s the fighter, the warrior character, who’s trying to make a comeback, the aging prize-fighter. And then you have Jim playing the corrupt manager. I’m trying to carve out these shapes that we follow. I’m looking at what’s the difference between a person and a character.

Benson

So what is it for you here?

Maxwell

I’m looking for examples. Like fighting. People can fight as a character on stage in a way that they couldn’t as a person, as they could get dangerously injured!

Benson

Yes, things can happen to characters that can’t happen to people. You can put characters in situations that we aspire to or are afraid of and can’t embody as people. The laws of physics trap us, the laws of society trap us, social norms trap us.

Maxwell

The social trappings are a big part of this play, in terms of these archetypes. Cammisa’s character develops hints of agency as a being. Characters don’t have agency. They are subject to the whims of the creator, in this case me. I’m investigating if there’s some way for these characters to escape the wrath of me. I give Cammisa this potential for agency, and she starts talking about escaping and getting out. In the context of the play it’s about a trip to Istanbul. And it’s clear right off the bat that Brian and she have some intense relationship that is probably ending. There’s a big fight that happens between Brian and Jim that Cammisa also inserts herself into, and in the aftermath of that fight they start talking about things that are not part of the story. It’s starts with Jim saying, “I like this place,” and he’s ordering jello shots, and what I’m going for is that you, as a viewer, are wondering if they are getting drunk or whether some other kind of element is taking over their conversation. The text takes on shapes, which I’m really interested in, and then hopefully without you being too aware as a viewer you’re in a new place… And then eventually there’s a collapse.

When you were talking about the trappings, that’s a really nice point of how characters differ from people. And yet we want as viewers for them to behave like people!

Benson

Yes!

Maxwell

It’s this funny paradox. We as viewers like to see characters who can do things we can’t do. But we hold them to standards of consequence that are based in standards of what’s logical.

And all of this is, of course, framed by my dad’s death. His dying came at a time when I should have been really working on figuring out what this show is, and it didn’t make sense for me to shut that out. There was no way to.

The minutes as they wound down became more and more precious. That was something I was trying to pay attention to. So what happened in this play became a way to eulogize. It’s not really a lamentation. I don’t want it to be so solemn. It’s not how I want to eulogize my dad, but there are strange connections that I can’t really defend.

Benson

Structurally and thematically, there are similarities between Samara and The Evening. Even though Samara is set in a much more mythical bar, somewhere we recognize far less than in, say, the bar in The Evening, it’s still this place that ultimately disappears and this much more cosmic journey takes over. They seem to both be looking at the interconnectedness of everything and how energy never goes away, it just shows up somewhere else.

Maxwell

It makes me think about cataclysm. There’s a collapse within both the plays. A critical difference between the two plays is that in Samara you have an escape and a yearning to return home and in The Evening you have escape and a yearning for finding a new place.

Benson

How do you prepare for rehearsal?

Maxwell

I try to forget everything—which isn’t hard for me! You willfully dumb down. And it’s been episodic how we’ve made this, rehearsing in chunks of time. My goal was to sort out as much as we can in advance with the script, and then focus on the technical and set aspects in the residency that we had at The Kitchen, and coming up at the Walker.

In depicting the bar, Sascha [van Riel, set and light designer] and I talked a lot about how far we go in representing it, which connects to what we were talking about in terms of how far you go beyond these archetypes. These shapes, these cut-outs. It’s a tricky thing. With the writing, I find that the more I depict in terms of who these people are, the more particular it is, the harder it is to pull out of it with this shift in the play. I’m so interested in how that runs parallel with the set. How far do you go in terms of decorating the space? We could have beer signs, but that’s too much. As writers we decorate characters, to enhance them. But I can’t really get into that too much. This also of course is a big part of the conversation I’m having with Kaye [Voyce, costume designer].

Benson

Why are you interested in the unadorned archetype?

Maxwell

My impulse is that that kind of detail doesn’t belong in theater. What interests me about theater is why it’s different from film or TV. Any medium where you have a frame, it’s different.

I think theater is where we sit down as viewers and watch and make these decisions in real time about who these characters are. That’s the governing characteristic of live theater. So you have these criss-crossing sensations and points of view that all materialize in the moment. I want that latitude and freedom as a viewer. You’re allowing the mythic in when you start talking in terms of shapes and archetypes. You’re allowing the ancient to enter in more fully.

Benson

Yes, and you’re allowing the audience to complete the experience. It’s not a hermetic unit. There’s a porous quality. People often ask me what I want people to take away from one of my shows, and I find it a baffling question when there’s so many people and multiple perspectives in the audience. There is no single thing I want people to go home with, no message I want to deliver. Hopefully they connect with the material, and in a best-case scenario it transforms how they think about themselves and others around them.

Maxwell

When you were asking why these shape: it lets the whole experience be more open. It’s not because there’s something to aspire to, or any high ideal there, it’s actually that we allow perversity. And I know I’m perverse! But we have to allow for broken behavior—for broken anything! To allow in things that aren’t anticipated. That moment in rehearsal where things finally gel? Who knows what causes it. It could be delirium from lack of sleep or some kind of endorphin rush from all the work you’re putting into what you’re doing. But it’s that moment that’s about three quarters of the way through rehearsal where you realize, “Oh, this is much bigger than me or anything I thought it could be.” And then it becomes this thing you follow. That’s perverse. It’s something that isn’t regular. I feel like that’s why I keep coming back at it. That’s what I want to share with people.

Benson

What is it that creates that state? You sometimes see it in religious practice or sports events, where people are focusing on something other than themselves and this bigger thing takes over. What makes that happen in the theater?

Maxwell

I think it comes from collective will. And there’s definitely skill involved.

Benson

Technically?

Maxwell

I guess so. There’s some kind of, I hate to say this but, proficiency.

Benson

Proficiency in what?

Maxwell

I think you have to be good at reading the heart. Understanding your relationship to your own heart. For me that’s what it’s at.

Benson

How do you get good at that?

Maxwell

First of all, you have to do the basic stuff. For the writing it’s got to have some power. It comes up a lot in the conversations I have with actors. How do you get good at reading the heart? To say that proficiency resides in how you’re reading the heart does not preclude the intellect. Those two feed each other. It’s hard to articulate. I don’t even know if I want to articulate it. Intuition is also a really hard thing for me to wrap my head around. It’s attentiveness that allows the room in.

Benson

Yes, we’re connected to our bodies and this corporeal, physical matter. And we’re also rooted to the sky—or the divine or the cosmic, depending on how you think about it. There’s that kind of vertical plane that’s present in humans that is specific to how we experience the world. And so I’m always trying to figure out how I can amplify that aspect of our experience as people.

Maxwell

I’ve always felt there’s an urgency when people step out on stage. So in that sense it does feel like there is amplification happening. And that’s part of why I feel cautious about making things dramatic. It’s already a dramatic situation! You’re already creating a pass/fail construct. Risk is right there. I want the viewer to identify, but the terms under which identification happens is where I feel like I break camp with a lot of the theater I’m seeing. Time just operates differently in theater, than from say how people interact with other mediums, or their devices. If you want that identification to happen, you need stage time. Just being in the room with that person, development happens. So you have time, you have amplification, to use your word, you have risk that’s already there doing so much of what we call interesting, or at least what I find interesting. You have the opportunity to watch someone inside a story head to toe. That’s not what film does. Film tells you what to look at. I guess I’m just saying I’m actually cautious about the amplifying. Because there’s so much identification and storytelling that can happen with the viewer.

Benson

But I guess what I mean is that the theater context itself amplifies the experience of life that has become so normalized. That two people can sit in a room, perceive each other, have feelings. That’s insane! And the chance of any of this happening at all… There’s something about theater that can harness that, rather than normalize it, as I find a lot of, say, psychological realism does, where you find people in living rooms talking about stuff and the content of the conversations they’re having is what is foregrounded and everything else is just a delivery system for those ideas.

Benson

Two guys and a woman. Why a love triangle? I guess I have a beef.

Maxwell

Why do you avoid it?

Benson

I get that it’s a strong geometric shape, but it’s also an archetypical set-up that I’m tired of and one I’m always trying to escape from. It modulates in all these fascinating ways in your plays, but I do have an aversion to it.

Maxwell

It is a trap. You talk about trappings. These are the trappings. If I started with a love triangle, for example, that had two women and one man, it then becomes a spin. I can’t start spinning. There are other shapes that deal with two and four. But three is so strong and so prevalent. But I share your discomfort with it. And, if I’m going to be critical of myself, it’s not the triangle that bothers me so much as the role of women in drama in general that I struggle with. But I am interested in the struggle that is inside this patriarchal narrative.

Benson

So what’s your relationship to that?

Maxwell

As a man?

Benson

As a writer or a person.

Maxwell

I’m sympathetic. I’m sorry that it’s there. I’m based in mythic things that I don’t even realize. When I open up to what has come before us, that’s what comes out, and yet I feel like I’m trying to reckon with that at the same time. I’m not the guy who is going to solve all the problems. I wouldn’t want to give people any sense of false promise. But I feel very connected to the struggle of a female character inside of that.

Going back to my dad, one of the things that came up as I was going through this grieving process and trying to make a play was: I felt like there was no form. As I was writing, I would look at it and it wasn’t like it was being erased. It was a strange sensation. It was like un-writing. I would feel like I had something that would work and I would bring it into rehearsal and I would find that, wow, there’s nothing to hold onto.

Benson

How did that feel?

Maxwell

Suffocating, frustrating.

Benson

But it sounds like something else then started to happen.

Maxwell

Once I was able to accept it, I tried to harness that. I accepted that this was going to be a part of the show. And then rode the wave.

Benson

So what took hold?

Maxwell

This sense of needing to get out, get out. Which is why I identify with Cammisa’s character so much. She becomes my vehicle. I wrote down in my notes something that I thought was significant: “Are they (the characters) leading us towards extinction, or have they found a path?”

Benson

That seems connected to the question of evolution that we’ve talked about which I feel is so relevant to Samara but to The Evening as well. How much of our experience is a willful path, and how much are we products of our environment? So a fish grows flippers over millions of years and comes out on to the land. But that’s not a directed experience. The fish isn’t directing events from the inside. It’s a bunch of incremental, random changes over time that give a particular fish an advantage which eventually evolves a species. But that fish isn’t a pioneer!

Maxwell

I think we’re helpless in a way. As humans one of the things that separates us from other animals is that we delude ourselves into thinking we have a directed purpose.

Benson

Exactly, we build all these steel structures that I’m looking out your window at, we read newspapers, we put up constructs to help us generate meaning.

Maxwell

I like the evolution idea in relation to Samara. Free will versus determinism. The fatalism of it all.

Benson

Yes, at first I found it really hard to accept. But how can the truth be depressing?

Maxwell

It does make me wonder what part two is. If The Evening is the beginning, what’s the middle? I might have to go to Dante for that.


Sarah Benson is an OBIE award-winning director and has been artistic director of Soho Rep since 2007. She has directed works including Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, David Adjmi’s Elective Affinities, Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and in 2012, the Walker-commissioned FUTURITY: A Musical by the Lisps, among others. Benson is directing Richard Maxwell’s new play, Samara.

Richard Maxwell is a playwright, experimental theater director, and artistic director of the New York City Players. The winner of the 2014 Spalding Gray Prize, multiple OBIE Awards, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010, he was included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. The Evening, a Walker commission, is his third Walker performance: Joe was part of Out There in 2005, and Devotion, his collaboration with choreographer Sarah Michelson, was presented at the Walker in 2011.

“Characters don’t have agency. They are subject to the whims of the creator, in this case me. I’m investigating if there’s some way for these characters to escape the wrath of me.”

“I’ve always felt there’s an urgency when people step out on stage. That’s part of why I feel cautious about making things dramatic. It’s already a dramatic situation! You’re already creating a pass/fail construct. Risk is right there.”

Richard Maxwell

Photo: Juri Junkov

Richard Maxwell/New York City Players, The Evening, 2014

Richard Maxwell/New York City Players, The Evening, 2014

Photo: courtesy Gerardo Somoza