In 1958, artist Mark Rothko received a commission to paint a series of murals for the newly opened Four Seasons restaurant in New York. It is against this backdrop that playwright John Logan has taken the real-life abstract-expressionist painter and thrown him inside his studio with a fictional assistant in Red, a play that explores both the relationship between master and apprentice and that of art and artist.
Vancouver’s Aenigma Theatre will present Red at the Little Mountain Gallery in July. In this in-depth Q&A, director Tanya Mathivanan explores the themes of the show and its relevance today.
Q[/dropcap] How did you come about to choose Red?
I came across Red during my research and fell in love with the play while reading it. As a great lover of the visual arts, I had never seen a play before that directly addressed what it is like to be a painter, the relationship between the artist and his work, as well as the role of the artist in society in a manner such as this before. I was also particularly thrilled that John Logan had decided to explore his story through Mark Rothko, who isn’t quite as well as known as his contemporary, Jackson Pollack, which I find to be quite a shame.
Besides, I wanted a play that I could produce within the limits of my budget and resources that I had at my disposal, specifically something with a small cast and a more intimate setting. We also tend to favour plays that are particularly character-centric, as Red is.
Q[/dropcap] It mentions in the press materials that Red is a particularly relevant story in our society right now. Why is that?
The play directly addresses the debate between the ideas of high art versus low art, which I think is a particularly interesting dialogue that goes on in our society today. We see so many conversations regarding the legitimacy of areas such as performance art, the endless comparisons between the low art of television and the high art of film – a concept that has changed in the last few years due to the rise of high quality cable programs – street dance versus ballet, graffiti versus fine painting, the rise of young adult and pulp fiction in literature, etc. I think that Red forces us to challenge these sometimes elitist notions, which in turn forces us to question who gets to decide whether a form of art is good or bad?
Is popular culture synonymous with bad? Or does it simply mean that a large group of people, living in that particular time and space, are moved by a specific piece of art of a movement?
At the same time though, I think the play also gives a lot of respect to traditional avenues and skills associated with art. I think there can sometimes be a tendency to dismiss traditional skills and older ways of doing things, and to think of older art forms as out-dated instead of appreciating all of them the same. It is possible to admire Renaissance art while still liking post-modernist works, and possible to appreciate modern dance without decrying ballet, which I happen to love.
The play also deals with the idea of commercialism as a driving force in art: specifically about what constitutes selling out, and how art can sometimes be used as a status symbol by people, without any true appreciation of it.
Q[/dropcap] The advance press also mentions that presenting it at Little Mountain Gallery will provide audiences with a more immersive experience – how will your production do that?
Little Mountain Gallery is a particularly small space – it seats not more than 50 people – which adds to the intimacy of the entire experience. The audience will be much closer to the actors, and will be able to experience the frenetic energy of painting up close. Furthermore, we chose the space because Little Mountain Gallery already possesses a certain type of grittiness to its ambiance that lends itself well to a 1950’s New York studio. Our aim is to make the audience feel like they’re entering an actual artist studio when they enter the space. The door by which the audience enters the space is the same door that the actors will be using, and the audience has to actually walk through the stage to get to their seats. Our hope and goal is that this enables the audience to feel like they’ve entered a different time and place.
Q[/dropcap] The premise for the play sounds intellectual – is it accessible?
I think that this play is very accessible to anyone who watches it. We knew, going in, that one of the biggest challenges we faced was personalizing some of the more academic language, which is quite prevalent in the play, as well as to flesh out the characters enough to understand how their words and actions stem from a very intimate, emotional place.
Although the characters do discuss painting and art in general in very technical terms at times, the play is written in a way that it is possible for someone with absolutely no inclination towards art to follow along. The terminology and conversations about art are there to add layers and depth to what I think are fundamental goals and motivations that are universal to all of us. The character’s words and actions ultimately stem from a desire to leave a legacy, the fear of mortality and being forgotten, the desire for individuality, as well as the desire to challenge the status quo. I think that one of the most important undercurrents of the play though, is the desire for human connection. It’s an emotional motivation that drives both characters, and something that I think most of the audience members will be able to relate to.
Their debates on the validity of art and what constitutes “good” art is also something that we talk about all the time, whether we realize it or not, when we discuss our favourite books, television shows and movies. I think the audience will be able to recognize and relate to all of the debates between the characters, even through it is framed through the lens of painting.
Q[/dropcap] What is it that the playwright, John Logan, is trying to say?
I think that Logan tackles quite a number of things in this play. On one hand, it’s a beautiful, fictionalized account of a real life painter, who I don’t think quite gets the credit he deserves in the history of art. Logan manages to capture this fascinating, larger than life character who was as temperamental as he was visionary, and who actually lived quite a tragic life, which was why he was so convinced that “truth” in art was about tragedy. Mark Rothko was one of those people that translates really well to fiction because he was so complicated, layered and had such a large, controversial personality.
Through this character and fictionalized biography, I think Logan is trying to say that art is always evolving and is truly one of the most subjective forms of expression that we have. There is no such thing as good art and bad art; rather art is all about the human experience, which is why we all have different ideas about it, likes and dislikes. Art isn’t a purely positive or negative experience, nor is it purely joyful or tragic, simply because the human experience is much more complicated than that. At the end of the day, I think that this play is an ode to art as one of the purest tools that human beings have to connect with one another through time and space. That’s why the relationship between an artist and his work is so personal and raw. We may be mortal, but even the most ephemeral of arts can leave a lasting impact.
Q[/dropcap] Rothko’s works appear in Red, how did you go about recreating them for the stage? Are they replicas or facsimiles?
My set designer, Sarah Melo, was very adamant that she did not want reproductions of the actual paintings of stage. Rather, she wanted to give the entire set the feel of a Rothko painting by painting the space in a Rothko-eque manner. Specifically, she intends to paint large Rothko-like paintings on the walls of the space, though in very different colours, in order to make the audience feel like they are looking at a Rothko painting, just like Ken and Rothko, who places a great deal of importance in the act of ‘looking’, do in the play. We study the “moving painting” as they study the canvases. To quote my sound designer Javier, we end up experiencing art through art.
We will have a couple of smaller replicas of the Seagram murals hanging in the lobby though, just for reference.
Q[/dropcap] Do your actors David Bodor and Patrick Dodd (Rothko and Ken) have any painting background?
Neither David nor Patrick have any painting background.
Q[/dropcap] How have you worked with the two actors to prepare them for the roles as artists?
I am incredibly fortunate to be able to have Sarah Melo, who’s designed all of the Aenigma Theatre shows thus far, as our set designer. Sarah is an incredible painter, who works as a scenic artist for Bard on the Beach. She’s given them a paint seminar teaching them how to hold their brushes and how to create proper strokes. She has also taught them how to inspect canvases, what the various ingredients they are handling are for, and how to assemble paint frames.
Both David and Patrick have also been extremely diligent in reading up about Rothko, his paintings, and specifically about the rise of the pop art movement in the late 1950s.
Q[/dropcap] As part of the new generation of theatre makers in Vancouver do you consider yourselves to be “Ken”, the new group challenging the status quo?
I don’t know if I would say that we’re necessarily challenging the status quo, or trying to break it. I think we simply aspire to offer something a little different to the audiences of Vancouver. Most of my production crew has been the same for all of the shows that Aenigma Theatre has done. As such, I think our productions have a certain look and feel that’s unique to us.
By choosing to produce character driven works that seek to say something about the society that we live in through the microcosm of close, intense, interpersonal relationships, we hope to add something new to the variety of voices that already exist in the city. I don’t quite see us as trying to ‘stomp out the past forms of art’ as Rothko might say or banishing an old era as Ken might say. I personally always find it sad when an old art form or way of performing dies out. However, I think we would very much like to open up the status quo, and encourage a diversity of new tones, thoughts and feeling to be added to the artistic sphere. I think there’s room for all forms of art, old and new, traditional and unconventional, structured and abstract, to coexist in this city.
Red plays the Little Mountain Gallery (195 E 26th Ave, Vancouver) July 4-16. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.