Nonlinear success story

Richard Foreman’s Symphony of Rats wins a national resurgence and a local premiere

That’s one way to frame a photo. Blair Leatherwood peers through his co-stars in <i>Symphony of Rats</i>.

That’s one way to frame a photo. Blair Leatherwood peers through his co-stars in Symphony of Rats.

Richard Foreman recently enjoyed the distinction of being dubbed “the emperor of New York experimental theater” by the New York Times. He’s been challenging the status quo since 1968, when he established his Ontological-Hysteric Theater. He’ll turn 70 in June, and he’s still going strong.

“I make very controversial art,” Foreman said, matter-of-factly, in a phone interview with SN&R. Case in point: Foreman’s 1988 political play Symphony of Rats, about an American president who thinks he’s seeing flying saucers. When Symphony of Rats premiered, Ronald Reagan was in the White House. Foreman insists he wasn’t depicting any particular leader, but acknowledged that the play is experiencing a nationwide resurgence during George W. Bush’s second term—including Sacramento’s first-ever production, currently running at California Stage. (See review on this page.)

Symphony of Rats deals with a president who could be going crazy. The part of the president originally was written for Willem Dafoe. “Then Willem got a film and wasn’t available,” Foreman recalled. “Ron Vawter got the role, so I rewrote it directed toward Ron.”

Foreman may have gotten some scathing reviews through the decades, as well as being blasted by bloggers who say his unconventional scripts don’t make sense, but on the whole he’s a satisfied guy. “I’ve done my plays for 40 years and have been well supported,” he said. He’s won five Obie Awards, bestowed by the Village Voice for off-Broadway theater, and he gets covered by the major New York press.

The New York Times recently called Foreman’s current show in the Big Apple, Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!, a “dazzling exercise in reality-shifting.” The show was just extended for three weeks.

Foreman told SN&R that his creative process involves writing “a little bit every day, having lots of pages. I don’t know where it’s coming from. When the time comes to make a play, I look for something provocative, then find other pages that go with it.”

A linear plot is not his goal. “I’ve often said that stories hide the truth, which gets people’s hackles up,” he said. “They say stories are the basis of everything. I don’t think so. Stories capture us in the narrative line, but make us blind to the beauties by the roadside.” Foreman compares what he does to “theme and variation in music, or 20th century poetry.”

“If you’re reading a poem by Wallace Stevens, you’re not reading a story,” he added. “Moment by moment, you’re savoring the twists and turns of the human mind as it confronts the world.”