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His Partnership Reflects a New 'Behavior'

Theater * At CalArts, Obie Award-winning Richard Foreman splits writing and directing chores with Sophie Haviland.

October 17, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

As the creator of a long list of unconventional stage productions spanning more than three decades, Richard Foreman looks like one of the American theater's foremost control freaks.

He not only writes, directs and designs the productions of his Ontological-Hysteric Theater in New York, but he also personally manipulates the dial that governs the volume of the soundtrack at most of the performances. "It's very difficult for others to know exactly how loud to make it," he explained. With a touch of glee, he added, "If I feel the audience is restless, I make it louder."

This year, however, in what he calls "an attempt to shake me out of my habits," Foreman changed his ways.

For the first time, the nine-time Obie Award winner worked with a co-writer/co-director, Sophie Haviland, who at 31 is less than half Foreman's 63 years. Together they created "Bad Behavior," opening Wednesday with an all-student cast at CalArts in Valencia, after an invitation-only performance on Saturday. Foreman won't be backstage controlling the sound; in fact, he returned to New York on Sunday.

The 60-minute production is the first Foreman premiere in the Los Angeles area--and only the second Foreman production here of any kind (a touring version of his "Pearls to Pigs" played UCLA in 1997).

Discussing "Bad Behavior" in a joint interview at CalArts last week, Foreman and Haviland said it was written according to the usual Foreman method, which begins with pages of unedited dialogues and monologues that are not initially assigned to particular characters. This time, Haviland contributed as much material as Foreman. And the two of them took turns directing, sometimes altering each other's previous choices.

"We told the students that there might be tension between us," Foreman said. And, sure enough, "Each of us felt the other person was taking our best moments away."

Even so, Haviland said that perhaps the collaborators should have been "more impolite" with each other in order to strike the necessary creative sparks.

The finished product has slightly more of Haviland's material than Foreman's, they agreed. However, asked who had the final say in case of a disagreement, Haviland deferred to Foreman. "He has a lot of tricks up his sleeve," she said.

One of them is his virtually patented use of strings that cross the stage, like clotheslines without the clothes. Haviland had requested no strings for "Bad Behavior," she recalled. "He agreed. But then one day, a string crept back in." Foreman had decided the production needed a string after all. When it was Haviland's turn to direct, "The tech people took the string down," she said. "But then I finally realized I had to put it back. It didn't make sense without it." Now the production has not just one string but a whole string section.

Another technique that marks "Bad Behavior" as a Foreman production is the use of very bright, jarring lights. "I don't do it to shock people," Foreman said. "I do it because I find it so beautiful."

Like most of Foreman's work, "Bad Behavior" does not have a standard narrative. Foreman never wants his audiences to empathize with the characters. However, the show does have a theme: unrequited love. "If you suffer the slings and arrows of love, do you just experience it or do you take the pain and use it to restructure yourself?" Foreman asked.

He immediately added a caveat, however: "Nobody is going to find out how to make their love life go better." This is not a self-help play.

After Haviland described the work as "a musing," Foreman added that it is "not terribly amusing. It's rather cruel."

"Sad," Haviland said.

Haviland, who is Australian, has worked with Foreman since 1992. Until recently, she ran his New York theater and his international tours. Since the decline of National Endowment for the Arts grants and the beginning of the end of Foreman's 1995 MacArthur Fellowship windfall, these tours--in much bigger venues than he has in New York--are necessary to support his work financially, Foreman said. However, he prefers to see his plays in very small spaces, where "everyone is seeing the same thing."

The Walt Disney Modular Theatre where "Bad Behavior" is being produced seats about 80, but the stage is deep, "like a football field," Foreman said. Rolling wall segments advance from the rear to help push the action closer to the audience.

So Close a Partnership May Be Foreman's Last

Foreman has worked on large stages before, when he directed other people's work--most famously, perhaps, in 1976, when he staged a celebrated "Threepenny Opera" with Raul Julia at Lincoln Center. He also has directed at the Paris Opera and the Opera de Lille in France, as well as at major resident theaters, such as the Guthrie in Minneapolis and American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge.

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