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Foreman has written, directed and designed over fifty of his own plays both in New York City and abroad. He has received three Obie Awards for Best Play of the Year, and he has received four other Obies for directing and for "sustained achievement". He has received the annual Literature Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a "Lifetime Achievement in the Theater" award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN American Center Master American Dramatist Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, and in 2004 was elected an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters of France. His archives and work materials have been acquired by the Fales Library at New York University (NYU).
Richard Foreman was born in New York City, but he spent many of his formative years in Scarsdale, New York. At Scarsdale High School (SHS), from which he graduated in 1955, Foreman was heavily involved in the theater department. Two years after Arthur Miller's original production premiered on Broadway, Foreman produced and directed The Crucible at SHS.
A 2018 documentary produced by the Lower East Side Biography Project exposes Foreman's early motivations for pursuing work in the theater. Foreman suffered from extreme shyness as a child. According to the documentary, Foreman was too shy say his line, "oh here comes the Yule log," in a second grade Christmas play, so the line was taken from him. Of this experience, Foreman says, "...I swear, at that point I said I'm going to show them. I'm going to do theater. I'm going to show them I can do it."
The documentary also reveals that Foreman was adopted -- a fact he did not discover until he was in his 30s. The name given to him by his birth mother was Edward L. Friedman. Foreman admits that his adoption might have contributed his feelings of being uncomfortable in his body and in the world. He says, "...my parents were very supportive, but nevertheless, I didn't feel that close to them in certain ways."
Richard Foreman went on to study at Brown University (B.A. 1959), and received an MFA in Playwriting from Yale School of Drama in 1962. As an undergraduate, he was instrumental in the formation of Production Workshop, Brown University's student theatre group, while taking part in other student theatre, including set-designing Brownbrokers' 1958 production of Down to Earth. In 1993, Brown presented him with an honorary doctorate.
At Yale, Foreman studied under John Gassner, the drama critic and former literary manager at The Theatre Guild. In the Lower East Side Biography Project documentary, Foreman describes Gassner as a "very rigorous, wonderful teacher." Although Gassner acknowledged Foreman's talents, he criticized his pupil for the repetitive nature of his work. Foreman has told this story on multiple occasions as a defining moment that led him to be able to reject the theatrical expectations of his teachers and predecessors and to take ownership of his writing style. In 1988, Foreman recalled, "He [Gassner] said that my one problem was that I tended to go for a big dramatic effect and would then repeat it and repeat its and repeat it. For a long time I tried to correct that until I realized, 'How silly. If that's what I want, I should turn it into an asset, or at least try to.'"
Richard Foreman moved to New York City directly after graduating from Yale School of Drama and worked as a manager of apartment complexes. Before finding his footing as a theater practitioner, Foreman became an avid patron of New York's downtown experimental theater and film scene. Foreman described feeling "overwhelmed" upon seeing The Living Theatre's productions of The Connection and The Brig. Foreman also attended screenings of avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas at The Living Theatre. Mekas' early cinematic work had a profound impact on Foreman. In The Lower East Side Biography Project documentary, Foreman states, "those [films] really got to me. I thought this is the most poetic, beautiful, creative art that I've seen Americans producing." Foreman claims that, for a long time, he was too shy to introduce himself to Judith Malina and Julian Beck (the founders of The Living Theatre) or to Jonas Mekas, but fascinated by Mekas' work, Foreman and his wife, Amy Manheim, began following Mekas as he filmed various projects in New York.
Foreman finally inserted himself into the avant-garde scene when police interrupted a screening and seized a copy of the 1963 film, Flaming Creatures, and charged Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, and Florence Karpf for violating New York's obscenity laws. Foreman called Mekas, offering his help, and over the following years, Foreman and Mekas became close friends and collaborators.
Through his connection to Jonas Mekas, Foreman became acquainted with architect and artist, George Maciunas. Foreman began working for Mekas and Maciunas, overseeing their movie theater, Film-Maker's Cinematheque at 80 Wooster Street. Foreman also became heavily involved in the development of Maciunas' Fluxhouse Cooperatives, which consisted of converted SoHo lofts designed to be living and working spaces for artists.
During the 1960s, Foreman also got to know theater director Robert Wilson, filmmaker and actor Jack Smith, and theater director and scholar Richard Schechner, all of whom encouraged Foreman to start producing his own work. With Schechner, Foreman formed a theater collective in 1968 called "A Bunch of Experimental Theaters of New York Inc," which included seven theater companies: Mabou Mines, The Manhattan Project, Meredith Monk/The House, The Performance Group, The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Section Ten, and Foreman's company, Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. From this point on, Foreman began producing works under the moniker "Ontological-Hysteric."
A number of scholars have called attention to the parallels between the theories of Gertrude Stein and Richard Foreman's theatrical aesthetics. Foreman himself has spoken about the significance of her writings to his work. In 1969, Foreman declared, "Gertrude Stein obviously was doing all kinds of things we haven't event caught up to yet."
Kate Davy analyzes Stein's influence on Foreman in her article, Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theatre: The Influence of Gertrude Stein. The primary connection between the works of Stein and Foreman, she proposes, is the writers' conception of consciousness in writing. Stein preferred "entity writing" over "identity writing." According to Stein's model, "entity writing" is "the 'thing-in-itself' detached from time and association, while identity is the 'thing-in-relation,' time-bound, clinging in association." "Entity writing" is free from any notion of remembering, relationships, or narratives, and it expresses what Stein called the "continuous present." Stein's method of writing is meditative practice that requires the writer's "deliberate detachment of oneself from the external world while documenting one's own consciousness in the act of writing." Therefore, this type of writing is said to reflect the workings of the writer's mind in its presentation. Stein adopted this theory of the "continuous present" to her work as a playwright. She abandoned the theatrical conventions of narrative structure in favor of a theatrical experience that focuses on the real-time consciousness -- one in which "the spectator can move 'out' of the composition, or stop, at any moment without creating syncopated emotional time."
Foreman's theatrical experiences invoke Stein's theories in that they both abandon narrative, focusing on the here-and-now, and they seem to include Foreman's "process of making the play" in the presentation of the play. In his essay, "How I Write My (Self: Plays)," Foreman explains his process of taking text to performance: "The writing tending towards a more receptive, open, passive receiving of 'what wants to be written' and the staging tending towards more active organization of the 'arrived' elements of the writing -- finding ways to make the writing inhabit a constructed environment." The text, therefore, creates a sense that the writer's consciousness, or process of writing, never leaves the work, throughout the staging and performance process.
Davy notes that like Stein, Foreman tends to avoid "'emotional traps' or the intentional manipulation of an audiences emotional responses by eliminating the 'lifelike' qualities of drama (clearly developing situation involving imaginary people in imaginary places), thereby creating a world into which the spectator has great difficulty projecting himself." Davy gives the example of Foreman's characters often referring to themselves in the third person, which creates an alienating effect for the audience member who cannot project themself into the experience of the character. Through Foreman's alienating characterization, the audience is made to look at Foreman's actors as "self-enclosed units," or theatrical props, rather than characters. Therefore, Foreman's aesthetics demand that the spectator not escape into the play, but become conscious of their own process of interpretation. In Foreman's essay, "14 Things I Tell Myself," he elaborates, "Our art then = a learning how to look at 'A' and 'B' and see not them but a relation that cannot be 'seen.' You can't look at 'it' (that relation) because it IS the looking itself. That's where he looking (you) is, doing the looking." Davy points out that "by eliminating internal punctuation in long complicated sentences," Stein's writing produces a similar effect for her readers who have to actively take part in discerning Stein's words.
The Ontological-Hysteric Theater (OHT) was founded by Foreman in 1968. Foreman mounted his first productions with OHT at the Film-Maker's Cinematheque on Wooster Street, where he worked under George Maciunas. The theater's current home is 131 E 10th St. at St. Marks in Manhattan.
According to OHT's website, the company was founded with the mission "of stripping the theater bare of everything but the singular and essential impulse to stage the static tension of interpersonal relations in space. The OHT seeks to produce works that balance a primitive and minimal style with extremely complex and theatrical themes. The core of the company's annual programming is Richard Foreman's theater pieces, of which he has made over 50 in the last 42 years."
OHT's first productions, Angelface (1968) and Ida-Eyed (1969), received almost no critical attention. By the mid 1970s, however, OHT gained traction with relatively popular works such as Sophia = (Wisdom) Part 3: The Cliffs (1972).
In his 1973 essay, "Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theatre," Michael Kirby aptly breaks down the aesthetics of OHT through the case study of Foreman's important play, Sophia = (Wisdom) Part 3: The Cliffs. He uses the elements of setting, picturization, speech, written material, control, movement and dances, sound, objects, relation to film, structure, content, and effect to analyze Foreman's theatrical vocabulary. Among his observations, Kirby notes that although "Sophia" is a play without a plot, it produces its own kind of structure of "thematic webs of visual and verbal ideas and references." Foreman achieves this visual structure through "picturization.' By picturization, Kirby means that Foreman's staging is presented as "sequences of static pictures" in which the actors adjust themselves into tableaux as opposed to moving continuously throughout the play. Kirby also notes that Foreman makes use of written text that is projected on screens on the set. These projected words, Kirby describes, are both direct addresses to the spectator and "expository information". Kirby also writes about how Foreman literally controlled the pace and tempo of every performance of "Sophia." During the performance, Foreman would sit at a table in front of the stage, controlling the projections and sound cues. By acting as stage manager, Foreman was able to insert himself into he performance as it unfolded. Kirby also discusses the role of sound in Foreman's plays. He writes, "Noise, too, serves as both background and as an explicit part of the action." At times, recordings of lines take over for the actors' actual voice, creating a sense of alienation.
The Ontological-Hysteric Theater prides itself on nurturing the talents of young and emerging theater practitioners. According to their website, "the OHT was a starting point for many artists making their mark in New York City and internationally including David Herskovitz, Artistic Director of Target Margin Theater, Damon Keily Artistic Director of American Theater in Chicago, Radiohole, Elevator Repair Service, Pavol Liska, NTUSA, as well as Richard Maxwell, Sophie Haviland, Bob Cucuzza, DJ Mendel, Ken Nintzle and Young Jean Lee."
In 1993, OHT began their emerging artists program by initiating the Blueprint Series for emerging directors. In 2005, OHT reorganized their emerging artists program under the name INCUBATOR, "creating a series of linked programs to provide young theater artists with resources and support to develop process-oriented, original theatrical productions." The INCUBATOR programs include a residency program, two annual music festivals, a regular concert series, a serial work-in-progress program called Short Form, and roundtables and salons. The program received an OBIE grant in 2010.
Foreman's work has been primarily produced by and performed at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in New York, though he has gained acclaim as director for such productions as Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center and the premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus at the Public Theater.
Foreman's plays have been co-produced by The New York Shakespeare Festival, La Mama Theatre, The Wooster Group, the Festival d'Autumn in Paris and the Vienna Festival. He has collaborated (as librettist and stage director) with composer Stanley Silverman on 8 music theater pieces produced by The Music Theater Group & The New York City Opera. He wrote and directed the feature film Strong Medicine. He has also directed and designed many classical productions with major theaters around the world including, The Threepenny Opera, The Golem and plays by Václav Havel, Botho Strauss, and Suzan-Lori Parks for The New York Shakespeare Festival, Die Fledermaus at the Paris Opera, Don Giovanni at the Opera de Lille, Philip Glass's Fall of the House of Usher at the American Repertory Theater and The Maggio Musicale in Florence, Woyzeck at Hartford Stage Company, Molière's Don Juan at the Guthrie Theater and The New York Shakespeare Festival, Kathy Acker's Birth of the Poet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the RO theater in Rotterdam, Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights at the Autumn Festivals in Berlin and Paris.
In 2004, Foreman established the Bridge Project with Sophie Haviland to promote international art exchange between countries around the world through workshops, symposiums, theater productions, visual art, performance and multimedia events.