A Conversation with Anne: The Shock of Recognition

by August Schulenburg

in Interviews,TCG Books

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Since 2002, Anne Bogart has conducted a series of interviews with major artists and cultural thinkers at her SITI Company studio in New York City before live audiences. TCG’s recently published book, Conversations with Anne, collects and documents these remarkable conversations between Bogart and the artists and thinkers she most admires, including Zelda Fichandler, Richard Foreman, Bill T. Jones, Julie Taymor and Paula Vogel.

And, well, what better way to celebrate that book than conduct a short interview with Anne about it?

So it came to pass that – with copious notes, clever questions and Garage Band at the ready – I called to interview the interviewer. I would quickly learn from her to set the notes aside and to burn the clever questions, and discover – with a shock of recognition – that the most important thing I had to offer to the conversation was a memory of a production of hers that I had ironically forgotten…

Here are some of the highlights of that conversation (variants in line spacing are my attempt to capture the rhythm of the exchange):

August Schulenburg: So this first question is much like the first day of rehearsal – we’ll get through it to get to the next one. What was your process for choosing whom to interview?

Anne Bogart: I didn’t start out thinking it was going to be a book. It was really responding to what felt like a shared need to get together in a room after 9/11. People were really shattered, and it seemed for a number of years after that there was this need to get together in a room without the separation of lighting and stage to talk about substantive things. It seemed necessary, and it continues to feel necessary.

With the exception of a couple of interviews, they are all really good friends of mine, people I admire and whose work I’ve seen for years, and I wanted to share the pleasure of my friendship with others.

AS: I particularly liked when you mentioned that in school you were part of an I Hate Richard Foreman Fan Club -
Yes, I formed an I Hate Richard Foreman Club, and of course later, I realized that was not the case.
It’s a great line in the book, after seeing his work again and again, you realized he had taught you more than any other director.
Yes, yes.

AS: There’s a performative aspect to these interviews – did you prepare for them thinking of them as performances? How did you prepare for them?     

AB: No, I didn’t think of them as performative, although I enjoy speaking in public, and I didn’t prepare much for any of them on purpose, and I’ll tell you why. Obviously, I know these people, I know where they come from, I’ve seen their shows, so the preparation was my life. But for me, the most important thing in an interview is being present to respond to what’s coming at you. I might walk in with an idea for an initial question or anecdote or observation, just as a director walks into rehearsal with an idea, but then you go with what’s happening in the room.

It’s very important to listen and take the digressions that happen as gifts. There’s nothing worse than an interviewer that comes with a list of questions, because that means they have an agenda that’s not about the other person, and an interview should be about the other person.

AS (after hastily discarding my list of questions): I guess approaching the work that way leaves you open to being in a state of consistent surprise – were there any surprises in the interviews that have stayed with you?

AB: What you can’t really feel in the book, I imagine, is the atmosphere that these individuals I interviewed cast, and whether the people who were there listening leaned in or leaned back and how it changed their breathing. That to me is the most fascinating thing, and I have to say I was surprised in every single interview when something in the room happened. It’s like what you want from great theatre, where being there transcends your reason for coming. Something deeply human happens in the room. Those moments are hard to capture in a book, but they’re why we want to get together in a room and talk to each other.

AS: If you work in this field for long enough you find you can defend yourself in interview situations by finding ‘the things you say to these kinds of questions’ – was that something you felt like you ran into with these interview?

AB: Well, that’s interesting, I did an interview a few weeks ago in Ann Arbor with Bob Wilson and Philip glass – which I guess now needs to be in the second book – in this really packed house, about 1500 people, and Bob Wilson is known as a challenging interview because he has these stories he always tells, with the same syntax, and I think to myself,  “I am going to catch him off”, and I’m happy to say I was able to do it a number of times. I think he actually enjoyed it.

You can sense when someone is doing their old-story-thing, but I must say that because my relationship with most people in this book was personal, that didn’t happen much, it was more, “what’s happening now in your life?” And you can feel the difference when somebody goes into the right hemisphere of their brain, which means they’re telling a story they’ve told many times before, or if they’re trying something out, and I prefer them to try things out.

AS: Yes, you can feel that at times in the book when you catch someone trying to figure out something they’ve never said before, which is particularly satisfying with creative artist, because it’s a window into how they work.
It’s their creative moment.

AS: Did you ever find yourself in that same point of uncertainty, or risk, not knowing how to move the interview forward?

AB: Oh sure, that’s why I chose not to go in with pages of questions and just be present, that immediately puts you into that  crisis. And then you say, OK, nothing ever stops, something is always moving, that’s a scientific fact, so if you listen properly, there’s always something to respond to, and you just have to calm down. That was my desired state,  and I would under-prepare on the questions for that reason.

AS: Did you hear things in these conversations that made you say, “Yes, that’s something I can latch onto, that’s something I can use”?

AB: Absolutely, and that’s my secret cause for doing these interviews with people I admire. I want to be changed by my interaction with them – that’s the reason we converse , to be altered by the exchange.

AS: Do you feel – because when I think about you and hear others talk about you – that you have achieved a kind of wisdom that benefits others to-
AB: No, no no no, I have to stop you right away, I feel like the most base beginner ever, I don’t feel wise in the slightest.

AS: In reading your blog, there’s a kind of restlessness I admire, a looking outside of the theatre world towards new kinds of thinking.
AB: Yes, I get really excited by struggling with other people’s ideas. Very little of what I write or say is original at all, it really comes from a certain foraging about in the world, and from the kind of conversations that are in the book. I come across something that’s tricky to understand, and then I get to a point where it gives me that shock of recognition, I want to write about it and share it – that’s a part of the restlessness, too, that shock is hard to hold onto.

AS: That shock of recognition – that’s Virginia Woolf, right?
AB: Yes.
Which I love, and I’m remembering now, there was a recent production of a one-woman show of Virginia Woolf’s writing that featured that phrase, you worked on that, right?
AB: Yes, that’s a play called Room – and that’s the thing about Virginia Woolf, reading her work as a teenager, she made literature seem like this extraordinary acrobatic experience, and to get back in touch with that, with her appreciation of moments of being…her ability to translate those moments into words is just amazing.
I’m a little embarrassed that I forgot you directed that-
AB: That’s OK.
AS: Because I saw it in its the most recent incarnation-
AB: At the Women’s Project?
AS: Yes, and oh gosh, I wish I had remembered that – well, I guess I’ve remembered it now – it was a profound experience for me, I wound up shaking from it – the sequence where she goes through all of the gestures that have been built up throughout the play, and the text is Woolf’s ‘shock of recognition’ – I can’t believe how much that moved me in such a visceral way.
AB: Well, I’m so glad to hear that, and I feel the same way, I’m not sure all audiences feel that. You might be interested in knowing that there’s a guy who wrote a book about SITI Company, and he saw that show a number of times, and in rehearsal once, he asked Ellen Lauren (the performer of ROOM) what she was thinking or doing in that section that he found so moving, and she said, “I’m counting.”

And he got so upset, he said, “That can’t be, I went through so much emotion during that,” he would not accept that what she was doing and feeling in that section was counting. But that’s the odd paradox of the theatre, that often the most emotional moments for the audience are the least so for the actor.

AS: That’s amazing, it really was – I mean it wasn’t even emotional, it was physical – I’ve loved those words for so long, and somehow they became flesh, they became body, in a way I didn’t think was possible.
AB: Oh that makes me so happy to hear, because that was the intention exactly.
AS: It was really something, and I’m kind of reeling from remembering that moment, so maybe that’s a good place to end.

The lovely irony of having a shock of recognition over that “shock of recognition” was the highlight of the interview for me, and reading through Conversations with Anne, her interviewees experience many similar moments. It is a rather extraordinary book that we’ll be unpacking here on the Circle over the next few weeks, and you can purchase your own copy here.

In case you’re curious (and I hope you are) here is an excerpt of the text of Woolf’s regarding these shocks of recognition:

“And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what: making a scene come right, making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate, it is a constant idea of mine that behind the cotton wall is hidden a pattern, that we–I mean all human beings–are connected with this, that the whole world is a work of art, that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet, or a Beethoven quartet, is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven. Certainly and emphatically, there is no God. We are the words. We are the music. We are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.”
-Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being

Conversations with Anne at The Greene Space: (L to R) Anne Bogart, Sarah Ruhl and Paula Vogel. Photo: Matthew Septimus.
To catch a glimpse of Anne Bogart’s interviewing in action, visit TCG’s Playwright in Conversations: Discussions and Readings for video of the event, Conversations with Anne. Held on March 5 at The Greene Space in New York City, the evening featured a discussion between Anne and playwrights Sarah Ruhl and Paula Vogel.

Anne Bogart is the Artistic Director of SITI Company, which she founded with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki in 1992. She is a Professor at Columbia University where she runs the Graduate Directing Program. Works with SITI include American Document, Antigone, Under Construction, Freshwater, Who Do You Think You Are, Radio Macbeth, Hotel Cassiopeia, Death and the Ploughman, La Dispute, Score, bobrauschenbergamerica, Room, War of the Worlds, Cabin Pressure, War of the Worlds: The Radio Play, Alice’s Adventures, Culture of Desire, Bob, Going, Going, Gone, Small Lives/Big Dreams, The Medium, Noel Coward’s Hay Fever and Private Lives, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and Charles Mee’s Orestes. She is the author of three books: A Director Prepares, The Viewpoints Book and And Then, You Act.

August Schulenburg is the Associate Director of Communications at TCG. He is also the Artistic Director of Flux Theatre Ensemble, winner of the 2011 Caffe Cino Fellowship Award. He is a playwright whose produced plays include Riding the Bull, Carrin Beginning, The Lesser Seductions of History, Dream Walker, Rue, Jacob’s House and Other Bodies. He is also a director (most recently Ellen McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq) and actor (the recent film, The Golden Scallop). Learn more here.