Well Blog Buddies – the first rehearsals are fast approaching and I’m starting to feel the crunch. In spite of working on this script for some months – I still feel like I have piles of work to do before the first read.
I feel like the lines are coming along and will be well in hand before starting rehearsals. But that can be risky. I often caution younger actors not to worry too much about learning lines too early. There is always a concern that they will become trapped into line readings that become entrenched hindering the give-and-take required to bring a script to life. However – in this particular rehearsal process – we will have only slightly longer than two weeks to get the show together. The challenge for me will be to be fully comfortable with the text – while still maintaining the openness to listen and respond. I do this – and here is the hard part – not by learning the lines, but by learning the thoughts that flow beneath the lines.
Text – to me – is a symptom of thought. Only by penetrating beneath the text and making informed personal judgements about the thoughts and connections that lead to the actual words, am I able to incorporate the text and deliver it by rote. Usually – if I can’t recall a line – it is usually because I have not fully conceived of the thoughts that flow behind that line.
In a work of complete fiction – it can requires substantial imagination and acrobatic leaps of faith to reconcile my personal experiences with the given circumstances of a story. In Red – however – there are a great many details about actual people, places, things and events. So – beyond the lines and the motivations – and the subtext – and moments before – beyond all of that: is a lot of basic homework to gain an understanding of the historical facts of the material.
I’ve said before that research is one of the aspects of producing, directing, or acting that I enjoy the most. I love doing homework on a new period in history. John Logan’s Red is chock full of references to artists, artworks, and places – many of which I had never heard of before reading the play. That is now changing. At this point I have read several books about Rothko and about art history in general. I’ve watched numerous documentaries. I’ve looked up countless references.
Red is – among other things – a mentor/student story. In the play, Rothko spends considerable time schooling his assistant Ken an various aspects of art and art history. As result of this constant tutelage within the text: exploring the play – for me – has also meant exploring a number of artworks – some of which I never knew existed. There are five major works that are discussed at some length in the production of red. I would like to share a few thoughts on them.
Some of Rothko’s Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern in London
The Seagram’s Murals: The process of executing the commission of these works for the Four Seasons Restaurant shapes the central narrative of the play. Rothko engages a new assistant, Ken, to help him with the grunt work of creating as many as thirty or forty large canvases for the series of murals. These murals were commissioned by architect Philip Johnson for the restaurant that was to be in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Historically – Rothko received the commission, which was one of the largest modern commissions ever. Then – after completing the murals – he refused to deliver the paintings and returned the money. There has been much written and discussed as to why he changed hi mind, but no definitive version of events seems to exist. Rothko’s journey from celebration to disillusionment is – for me – a central through-line of the play.
As I have previously written, I was in London when I randomly purchased this script two years ago. Had I read it during the trip I would have had the chance to some of the Seagram Murals first hand. Seeing these – and the other artworks discussed in the play – has now become a bucket-list item for me.
The Santa Maria Del Popolo in Rome
The Conversion of Saul: One of the first major references discussed is in a story that Rothko tells about visiting The Santa Maria del Popolo which is the home of Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion of Saul’
This discussion is in the context of Rothko explaining his aversion to painting outdoors because “the light’s no good” . He defends this ideal by explaining the ‘inner luminosity” that
Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul
Caravaggio achieved in his painting. “…the painting glowed. With a sort of a rapture it glowed.” This – in spite of the fact that the painting was created for a dark corner of a dark church with no natural light.
It offers an interesting insight into the artistic aesthetic of Rothko who created powerful, multi-layered images that seem to glow and pulsate and move on the canvas.
I find it interesting also as Rothko’s telling of the story has a lot of humour imbedded within it. This was a bit of a clue to me in terms of Rothko’s journey through the play. This story comes fairly early on and while the tone of Caravaggio’s artwork is dark – the telling of the story is one of the lighter moments in the story. Michael Shurtleff (again Shurtleff…I know) would often lament about American ‘method’ actors having a complete lack of humour in their approach to the work and would often miss entire aspects of a performance because they would allow their character no sense of humour. This would, in his opinion and in mine, reduce the the sense of truth and humanity presented on stage. In my reading of John Logan’s Red – I find a great deal of humour in Rothko – particularly in the early scenes.
The Red Studio by Matisse
The Red Studio by Matisse: at another point in the story, Rothko tries to give his assistant Ken an insight into what drives him. He starts the story by discussing in detail his visceral reaction to seeing Matisse’s painting: The Red Studio. Rothko describes an early incident in his career of seeing the picture at the Modern when it was first installed. “…it swallowed me…” ” Such plains of red he made. Such energetic blocks of color. Such emotion” “…everything I do you could trace the bloodlines back to that painting…”
The point of the story, however, is one that compares his youthful enthusiasm with his current mid-life obsession with mortality. The story illustrates a major theme in the Rothko of John Logan’s play: the conflict between the Red and the Black – Emotion and Intellect – Life and Death.
Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt
Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt:
In a further – and slightly darker – discussion on the concept of “Black” Rothko gives a brief description of the painting as a way of explaining a hostile reaction to his assistants “adolescent” views on art. Rothko describes the painting and then translates the Hebrew words “You have been weighed in the balance, and been found wanting”. This message is in the form of a warning from God, via an angel, to a blaspheming Belshazzar.
To me – the reference speaks to a growing sense of dread within Rothko at this particular point in the play. The Seagram’s Murals have been ongoing for some time and the process is very slow. Rothko speaks often in the play of mid-life angst. Specifically that he may be slowing down or losing his edge. (“as you get older, the palette fades and we race to catch it before it is gone”) To me – the discussion of the painting in the context of this particular moment in the play is a confession of a deep seated fear on Rothko’s part….an insecurity that is very related to the project at hand.
Having read up on it, I see that this is a fairly large canvas (roughly 6 ft x 7 ft). I have seen larger works of Rembrandt in the past but never this one. I certainly hope to see this picture some time soon.
the staircase at the Medici Library in Florence
The Staircase in the Medici Library in Florence: Another place that I have never been to and hope to visit soon. Rothko describes for Ken how he was inspired to create the images for the Seagram Murals by relating his experience of visiting Michelangelo’s architectural marvel. He describes the staircase as being a “…tiny vestibule. Like a vault it’s so cramped.” I had seen images of this staircase before but I never equated the image with Rothko’s description in the play. Once I started to research the reference I quickly recognized this famous staircase from having previously read about Michelangelo.
In the play, Rothko tells of how the false rectangular doors and windows inspired him as they “…make the viewer feel he is trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up…” This sense of claustrophobia led to his conceiving the rectangular panels of the Seagram’s Murals
Technically called The Laurentian Library it was commissioned in 1523 and work continued until it’s opening in 1871. According to my reading, it is considered to be one of Michelangelo’s most important architectural achievements. The photos show this to be an amazing feat of design, engineering and construction. I can’t wait to visit this place and see it for myself.
Next up I’d like to share some of my impressions of the many artists that are discussed in John Logan’s Red. I’m getting very pumped to begin rehearsals. Hard to believe – after all this time – we are less than three weeks away from beginning.