Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Director’s Notes: David Emmes Talks "Red"

Actor Mark Harelik and director David Emmes.
Mark Rothko.
Playwright John Logan opens Red with a question that abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko poses to Ken, his new assistant. As they look at a painting. Rothko says, “What do you see?” as they look at a painting. Then, “Engage with it.”

It could also go to what Logan seems to ask the audience to do during the performance: engage with the play, respond to it, let it wrap its theatrical arms around you.

Red is set in 1958, when Rothko is at the height of his glory and has begun work on the biggest commission in the history of modern art. It’s a pivotal point in the art world: abstract expressionism has stomped out cubism, but pop art looms threateningly on the horizon. This Tony Award-winning play looks at the nature of art and artists.

South Coast Repertory Founding Artistic Director David Emmes will direct Red on the Segerstrom Stage. In a recent conversation about the play, Emmes talked broadly about Red and some of the issues it raises.

What about this play attracted you?
I absolutely am a strong admirer of Mark Rothko! I also am interested in the issues of art and the idea of how one finds a way to pursue art and, at the same time, pay the bills. When we first started SCR, actor John Arthur Davis quipped that ‘Well, if we just stay in a garage and don’t change anything, then we could do what we wanted without worrying about things like the rent.’ That is a situation of complete liberation. He was kidding, but right. When you pursue the arts professionally, it can become a struggle as to what your art can be or it may limit the time or choices that you have.

I also know that a good play can be made all the more compelling if you have the right cast. Early on, I knew I could do Red if Mark Harelik would do it. He’s an actor who in the top-most ranks of American theatre actors. We also have a design team that includes Ralph Funicello, whom I regard as one of the finest designers in American theatre. So we were off to a strong start.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities in a two-character play?
Of course the challenge is that you only have two people out there! (laughs). But Red really supports that with the interesting argument it poses. The way John Logan has written it, it is a story that is accessible and understandable; in other words, you don’t need an advanced degree in art or art history to appreciate it.

What are some of the ways that you are preparing?
Rothko was a brilliant guy.  I have been reading from an art textbook that he was writing at the time of his death—and that his heirs later finished. His writing is intellectually amazing from an expository point of view alone. I’ve also been reading from a biography that is very interesting. In the end, though, even with all the research you do, what you put on stage is the text of the play. The truth is in the dialogue—it just doesn’t exist anywhere else.

What do you want audiences to come away with once they see the play?
I hope they come away with a deeper insight into how hard is it to make your way in the world. Rothko was this giant of 20th-century art—a mega-star in the visual arts world—but still faced a struggle. It’s still hard today for artists to make their way—composer, visual artist, actor, playwright, whomever—so what do you have to do? I think people can relate to it, whatever they do. The themes are universal.

If Rothko was a playwright, who would he be?
That’s an interesting question. Rothko believed that 90 percent of painting is thinking, waiting, studying and learning; 10 percent is putting it on the canvas. Rothko was a brilliant intellect. I think that he would be Henrik Ibsen, because he plotted everything out and thought things through intellectually. Or, Rothko might be like Edward Albee in a way, in terms of pure intellect.

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