Anne Bogart is getting used to grumpy cops and angry audiences, although she is neither an unlicensed street peddler nor one of those fascistic Union ushers. On the other hand, it would be well within the range of her peculiar directorial vision to rework Inherit the Wind as a confrontation between Darwinian ushers and fundamentalist pretzel vendors. Anne Bogart’s problem is the same as that of any artist who delights in pushing theatre beyond its established barriers: the security blanket of expectations is stripped off, leaving witnesses exposed, uncertain and upset.
There is no middle ground in an Anne Bogart production. Those who do not walk out cursing the director in foreign tongues are exhilarated. Take, for example, her stagings of South Pacific and Spring Awakening at the Tisch School of the Arts Drama Department of New York University, where she has taught in the school’s Experimental Theatre Wing for six years. South Pacific was reset in the sterile, white-tiled environs of a clinic for the rehabilitation of war veterans. The “patients” enacted a performance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein warhorse as part of a therapeutic graduation ceremony.
Audiences at the Wedekind play walked into a futuristic world of geometric white cages populated by lurching, leaping squadrons of Star Wars-like patrolmen. These omnipresent choruses of black-and-white garbed space troops functioned as 21st-century puppet masters to the sexual awakenings of Wedekind’s zealous post-adolescents. In a three-ring circus production, Bogart and musical director Jeff Halpern (also her South Pacific collaborator) collapsed time by mixing science-fiction ambience with Victorian dress, and interpolating intricately choreographed production numbers of Lieber and Stoller rock songs from the 1950s. Audience members who were not swept away by the (superficially) incongruous spectacle sat in open-mouthed disbelief.
The 32-year old conjurer behind all of this is adamant and eloquent in defense of her highly conceptualized approach. “The act of making the play is like re-illuminating or lighting a fire under certain themes that humanity has worked with through the ages—and it will always be different because people change and their consciousness changes,” she declares. “In doing a
classic—South Pacific is a good example—we have to see it as a piece of cultural memory. When you think of it you think of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, you know the songs, the tattoo dance, the staging—there are all of these expectations that come with it. Usually a production will pretend that there is no history of the play. I believe theatre can be a lot more exciting if you include the baggage that the audience carries into the theatre with them.”
Both South Pacific and the recent Spring Awakening, in addition to their unorthodox framing, were distinguished by their sexiness. Bogart confesses with unblinking matter-of-factness that,
“Personally I’m kind of obsessed with men and women together. I don’t know why, except that it’s something that I don’t understand at all. So I usually veer toward exploring that in whatever production I’m doing. I like to fall in love with the actors. There is sort of a libidinous energy which I believe should be there.”
The sexual directness and conceptual frameworks of Bogart’s work are two holdover signatures retained from a connection with avant-garde German theatre that reaches back to 1969. The day after viewing a consummate Peter Stein production of Gorky’s Summerfolk, Bogart enrolled in German lessons, and began to devour issues of Theater Heute. Lifting ideas directly from the magazines, she began to devise scripts which required moving her audiences from place to place.
One of the earliest of Bogart’s self-admitted German rip-offs was called The Emissions Project, a weekly “soap opera” with 12 actors in which each installment was staged in a different location in New York City. Audiences were obliged to phone Bogart prior to the performance to find out where to assemble that week, and Bogart dragged them everywhere from Wall Street to a detective bureau near the Port Authority. “What I found out from all of this is that audiences love to be challenged. They love being asked to crawl over a snowbank.”
Among the works that followed were an updated East Village version of The Seagull—which resulted at one street corner performance in the arrival of an ambulance and a police car, when alarmed passersby mistook an actor’s overwrought finale for a cry for help—and a massive, parade-like spectacle commissioned by the Present Stage of Northampton, Mass., which involved a procession of some 2,000 people.
If Spring Awakening was Bogart’s transitional work in that it employed both spectacle and great literature, then her next project will move her fascination with literature into intimate terms. Lyn Austin, producer of New York’s Music-Theatre Group, has asked Bogart to stage Gertrude Stein’s gargantuan work The Making of Americans, from the 1972 adaptation with music by Al Carmines and lyrics by Leon Katz. “We’re cutting it down to an hour and 20 minutes, which is the magic number Lyn believes an audience can stand. It also originally utilized a lot of actors because there are so many characters. We’re going to do it with eight peformers.
“My idea is that all eight performers will be Gertrude Stein. There will be a Gertrude Stein remembering Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein as a film editor—I think she would have liked to be a film editor, the way she edits and uses her words. So that will allow for a cinematic approach, using cinematic techniques to get at the breadth of the book.”
While Bogart is obviously ready to make the pragmatic leap into any assortment of theatre tasks, she remains grateful for her association with N.Y.U., and is proceeding cautiously. “I really think that it takes a long time to grow as an artist, especially in a culture where there is such an emphasis on making it quick. It’s very difficult to find a place in New York where you can work for a long period of time and create a lot of material which will hopefully seep out into the world.
“There is a tendency in this city to be protective about your work, because in the late ’60s there was a huge explosion of incredible work in the theatre, and my generation is trying to pick up the remains—saying ‘I did this, this is mine.’ So there is more of an emphasis on developing technique than content.”
Even carrying the torch of ’60s innovations, Bogart does not reject the values of commercial theatre. “I think some of the more interesting things right now are happening on Broadway. It seems to me that Broadway is maybe one of 50 ways of doing theatre. I would love to do something on Broadway because it’s a different kind of stage, a different arena. It isn’t a goal of any kind, it’s a kind of an animal. The rules are different. The structures are different. The seats are different. It has its own history.”
Whether or not Broadway is ready for Anne Bogart is another question. At $45 a throw, tired businessmen are wary of climbing to the mezzanine, let alone climbing over snowbanks. In the meantime, she is wearying of the blackboard jungle, and of keeping the police force at bay. “I’ve learned an incredible amount from teaching, but I’m at a point now where I’m starting to repeat myself. And I go, uh-oh, it’s time for another adventure!”
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