A number of years ago, I was leading an expressive art group for patients at a hospital. We used basic materials with no formal art training. The objective was not to make master pieces, but to give the patients a different way to interact with each other. I did not want to control their creativity beyond asking them to glue two colors of construction paper together, then add whatever they wanted to the paper. The table presented them with a variety of markers, water colors, pencils, magazines for collage pictures, etc. With the directions given, I sat back and assisted only when called on. For 45 minutes, they could process whatever inspired them. One man, a few years older than me, selected a sheet of brown and red construction paper, glued them together, as I instructioned, then sat and looked at them for the rest of the session. At the end of the session, anyone who chose to could describe what they came up with. Most had selected or drawn pictures representing themselves, their family, pets, landscapes, etc. When we came to this man, he held up his two sheets of construction paper, smiled wryly and said, “My Rothko”.
When we subscribed to Arena Stage’s season and saw that there would be a play about Mark Rothko, I wondered how you translate abstract expressionist painting to the stage. Red is the incarnation of the character of Mark Rothko in his studio, a series of murals for which he has accepted a commission to paint for a new, high-end restaurant in Manhattan, and his philosophy for creating. For those who are not “into art” and therefore do not know Mark Rothko’s history, the dialogue of the play provides enough bits of history to place his work: son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he wanted to pursue acting, but ended up not fitting into the WASP culture at Yale, dropping out to pursue painting, intensely passionate about his views, and critical of all around him, including himself.
The play is set in the late 1950’s, as Rothko and a newly hired assistance work on the murals for this commission. The dialogue of Red has a great risk of becoming as dry as a philosophical treatise on mid-20th century existentialism or a self-absorbed as an endless psychoanalytic session. Fortunately in the hands of the creative team at Arena stage and the minds and bodies of Edward Gero (Rothko) and Patrick Andrews (his assistant, Ken), we were transported into the incarnation of the studio, alive with ideas, blank and finished canvases, and the raw elements from which a work of art emerges.
Paradoxically, for a play about abstract expressionistic painting, the staging, costumes, and interactions were excessively realistic, on first glance. Todd Rosenthal has constructed the space as a loft, art studio from Manhattan, with white washed walls two stories high and dark windows near the ceiling, restricting the natural light which Rothko considered too harsh for his images. The only entrance is a screened in area to the left of the stage. To the right are shelves too high and massive to consider ascending to retrieve gallons of supplies, and a sink area. Just in from this is a work bench with the essentials: paint colors and medium, coffee mugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. In the center of the stage is a large frame on which canvases twice the height of any man can be hoisted. Rothko sits in an Adirondack chair viewing the painting he is working on center stage. However, the atmosphere created by Keith Parham’s lighting and Richard Woodbury’s compositions and sound design, bring us from the real to the abstract.
To illustrate Parham’s exquisite lighting of the murals, contrast the opening scene with one later in the play. Ken has just entered the studio on his first day as the assistant. Rothko instructs him to stand and contemplate the canvas center stage, a large dark block surrounded by a rectangle of red and another boarder of dark color. Rothko gives more commands to “stand here… closer… not too close… let it fill your whole peripheral vision…” The red color begins to radiate as if glowing. I glanced back to see that the lighting design was saturating the central space with red and magenta jells. Ken becomes a silhouette, nearly absorbed into the dark central block. He becomes the abstraction. Later, while talking about the magic of light, Ken turns on the full studio lights to demonstrate how washed-out and flat the paintings become in too much light. Wow. Give me the illusion. But, how often does too much “light on the subject” turn that image or idea into a glaring, harsh, repulsive experience.
Sound, or more precisely, music appears to have been part of how Rothko set his atmosphere for painting. Down stage, left sits a phonograph and a stack of LP’s. Each time Rothko prepares to paint, or change the canvas he is to work on, he puts on a record. Most of these are classical pieces from familiar piano sonatas to opera arias. At times the sound is tinny, emanating from the record player. But, with the increased frenzy of working, or for scene changes, the music surges from speakers around the theatre filling the audience with the passion of the sound. Just before the volume became unbearable, as if the power of the creative process were to overwhelm us, the music subsides and the dialogue resumes.
The selection of music also announces a key transition in the play. In one scene, Ken has John Coltrane jamming on the record player. He is constructing frames on the floor. Rothko enters enraged after having viewed an exhibition of upcoming painters, who would become the Pop Artists (Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, et al). After a long rant, he stops, looks at the record player and demands to know how such discordant music was being played in his studio. He recognizes that just as his style of art progressed past her early 20th century cubist style artists, he was about to be passed by with a new wave of popular arts. His seriousness in his abstractions would be forgotten for cans of soup and comic book images. Gero’s dynamic tension and Andrews’ staid passion bring us to the peak of this mountain to not just see the view but to realize that the only direction to go now is down.
One of the most stunning and engaging affects of this production is how, without asides to the audience, Robert Falls’ direction and blocking bring the audience into the show. The Kreeger Theatre is a short thrust stage with an emphasis on the proscenium arch for this set. We, the audience, view the production through the “4th wall”. Several times, Rothko or Ken walk out to center stage and look out to the audience. However, they are not looking at us, but at the central theme of the show, the murals for the Four Season’s restaurant, which would be hung on that 4th wall. However, in those long, quiet moments in which they contemplate the invisible murals, we, the audience become the murals. We become the abstraction.
Red is a play about the relationship between the artist and art. For Rothko, he does not only create the art, but he listens to the art and adds what the art tells him to add. Art is inherently an internal experience for the artists. Yet, art is inherently a social interaction too. The art, once created must be shared with others, who then establish their own relationship with the art. What would painting or sculpture be if no one viewed them? What would a poem, story, or novel be if no one read them? What would a concert, ballet, opera, or play be if there were no audience to attend? So, my expressive art group gave those patient’s a few minutes to connect their internal worlds with the other members of the group. I wonder what that patient thought about for 45 minutes while looking at red and brown sheets of construction paper that became “My Rothko”.
What creations have you contemplated recently?