The third of our feature interviews from performers at Dublin Theatre Festival is with Richard Maxwell, the man behind Neutral Hero.
You’ve described Neutral Hero as “Hopelessly American” – explain that.
It might be a long-winded answer but the original intention for this project was to try to achieve theatrical neutrality, and I like that as a goal. What does it mean to not communicate anything, to have something on stage without there being anything there – is it possible for the form to be the message. When it was in my head I had this concept going and I assembled these people to work on it and it blew up in my face: these people are exploding with vitality and colour and richness, and not to mention “American-ness.” If you have neutrality as a goal – what language are you going to speak? What clothes are you going to wear? I was confronted by all of these questions while I was rehearsing. I didn’t have a script to speak of, I was going on the earliest examples of literature. I was looking at Homer’s Odyssey. I thought maybe if I went as far back as I could to the source there wouldn’t be so much cultural baggage. But in the end if you want people to be in your project you have to take into account who they are – not only do they speak in English, but in American English. That’s the hopeless part – we’re all hopelessly American. That’s when it started to take shape – I realised that was just how it was going to be and that there was no way around it. I took it a step further and made a lot this autobiographical. It opens with a very detailed description of a town, a place I know very well, so I feel like – if there was some way to say this humbly – I think I did to Minnesota what Joyce did to Dublin.
The epic of the every day essentially?
When you put them together you’re challenging the idea of what is epic. Most of our lives – they don’t feel that epic. How do these epics resonate today, these classics? How do they work today given that very few of us lead what we would call epic lives? I think there is a human aspect that we’re really responding to. Who is to say that our lives aren’t really epic?
Ben Brantey of the New York Times described this show as a “modern-day Our Town.” It seems like a very American impulse to want to reduce everything to bite-size, small-town America in order to understand it; you find it in Hollywood or (as in your case) contemporary theatre. Does it work?
Write what you know – I can’t think what it’s like to be a king, I’m wondering what’s left to look at for epics. How can I draw on that? I know what you mean, there’s a tendency to bring things to a common level but I think that’s everywhere. I’m thinking of Michael Bay, the director of the Transformers movies. In the formulaic Hollywood movie, they have a way of bringing the everyday small-town kid to be the one that’s chosen by the aliens to save the world. I think the difference between what I’m doing with these tales is that I am not so concerned with virtuosity, I’m not concerned that it’s polished, I don’t really feel like I have a moral. The block-buster formula of course also uses these heroes’ tales as a template, but despite the fact that we are American, and we’re telling an American tale, it’s the form of it that I want to have front and centre. I think we come as close as we can within our own limitations to being pure form and as far from a moral as possible.
So how do you personally describe the form of Neutral Hero?
It’s geometric. There’s something about the lines of it that has an aesthetic, and you see these shapes come up. You have these central figures of this story – you have the hero, you have his mother, his father, and you have this supernatural guide, and then you have the monster or beast and then the goddess and the temptress. These encounters that happen in the telling of the tale are a template – it’s base in part on Joseph Campbell’s book, Hero of A Thousand Faces. He distilled that kind of mono-myth from what he read, and what he came up with is a template or chronology of events that you will find in any epic or any hero’s tale. That to me is the form. These things are what keep happening over and over again. And it’s great. I had this idea when I started this thing – what would it be like to just put forward the skeletal remains of that epic. What would it take to satisfy each component of that journey.
‘Hero of a thousand faces’ – that links into the idea of ‘multi-use names’ that you employ in Neutral Hero?
I think Willie White is actually the first person who told me about multi-use names! Multi-use names, they’re names that stand for something else, like Jane Doe – they’re functional names. There’s a disposable aspect to them. Where’s the ownership when the name is shared, used and abused.
Neutrality is in some way the holy-grail of theatre, it’s impossible to achieve. Why and how do you seek it out?
It comes from having been an audience member for so many years. It goes back to my Chicago days when we had a theatre company. We were yearning for another way of expressing ourselves. I think we began to understand what “character” meant. When you’re originally assigned a part it becomes yours, and it can tend to get into this realm of peeling off what the possibilities are for this figure. I found when I was watching theatre that I didn’t feel like I had enough room to identify with it. It was in a theatrical language that remained in the realm of theatre, and didn’t have enough of the person in it.
It sounds like you think that for theatre to be good, it shouldn’t be theatrical or even simply, it shouldn’t be theatre – it needs to be about the reality on stage. Is it for that reason that you often employ people who aren’t actors for your shows?
It’s a paradox that I feel gets answered best by employing restraint with the performers. When you have someone who has never been on a stage before they tend to be outside of this theatrical palate, everyone needs to get from point A to point B, but I find it interesting when someone doesn’t have this routine around travelling through a production. It’s surprising. It doesn’t always work, it doesn’t happen with everybody. And forget about success or failure, it feels right to me. What matters to me is the heart, it’s about people sharing and here we have people.
You describe New York City Players as being about “above all feeling”, which doesn’t fit in with the idea of a pared-back, reality-based drama you create. You feel that the less you try to manipulate the audience’s feelings, the greater the emotional response will be?
I’m trying to work through this idea that it’s a contradiction, and I guess there’s a contradiction in theatre no matter how you slice it. Let’s think of a scenario where you want the audience to feel something – you’re playing A Streetcar Named Desire and there’s a lot of feeling in that “Stella” that you get Stanley to shout out. There’s always two realities you’re having to deal with – the reality of the play and the reality of the room. I’ve never been able to reconcile those two as an audience member. To me that’s a contradiction, trying to get an emotional response for this story that Tennessee Williams wrote. But that doesn’t correspond necessarily with the audience in the room. You’re assuming an awful lot of your audience when you behave that way. One of the things I’m pretty confident about is an audience’s ability to tell stories without any help – it’s pretty darn automatic. Blue jeans – that’s an identity, a story. Our minds are racing all the time. We’re not solving anything by having people deliberately emote. Let’s allow for the emotion already in the room, let’s allow that to be.