Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with David Ford: The World of Somebody Cares

by R. Whittaker/David Ford, Mar 14, 2023


 

 












Photo: Diane Woods


Mia probably sent the email to everyone on her list. That meant even friends who weren't potential acting students, like me. It was something about what was happening at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. But out of curiosity, I took a look. Some classes were being offered. One was Beginning Acting for Adults taught by Mia Tagano. Hmmm. I noticed how I paused there, and immediately thought: really?
     On the other hand, I could... I mean, I qualified. Ha. And as I sat in front of my computer, an inner debate unfolded. On the plus side, Mia Tagano is a friend. And it would be an adventure taking an acting class - something I'd never considered. And I felt sure that no matter how embarrassing it might be, I'd survive - even being the oldest one in the class.
     That I found myself even debating the possibility had something to do with a recent interview I'd done with an old friend, Dennis Ludlow. His first acting experience on stage was in Sam Shepard's Pulitzer winning play
Buried Child at SF's Magic Theater back in 1978.
     Long story short, I took Mia's class - five two-hour sessions. It was lively and fun. After the last class, she took me aside. "Richard, I think the next step for you is to develop a monologue. And David Ford is the person I'd recommend for that. He's worked with so many people over the years."
     I was shocked. Me, do a monologue? It was something I hadn't considered.
     "Mia, if I do this, I'm going to blame you!" I said.
     And a couple of days later - after I'd calmed down - I took a deep breath and signed up. Now I thank Mia - a wonderful actor and a fine acting teacher and coach. 
     Just shy of turning eighty, the experience of taking two, ten-week classes with David Ford to develop and perform two pieces at Berkeley's Marsh theater has been one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It opened a new world. David's skills, the intimacy of the work - and the new friendships - are priceless. The six months of intense work opened a window into the world of acting and story telling - and an entirely new appreciation for why it's been such a part of human life from its beginnings.
     I knew early on that I'd want to interview David, and a few weeks after the class performances at the Marsh in December, he found an hour and we talked on Zoom.


Richard Whittaker:  How long would you say you’ve been doing this, David - this work with solo performance?

David Ford:   For 34 years.

RW:   34 years. What led you into this life you’ve been leading for 34 years?

DF:   I started getting interested in theater late in high school and in college. At the time, I actually was more interested in set design. Then, right out of college, I had a girlfriend who was a painter. She knew about this obscure, little school in the south of France, the Leo Marchutz School. The school was doing a summer program and we decided to go and take that summer program. They were going to close the school down and this was a last hurrah kind of thing.

By then, I had gotten pretty interested in painting so we planned to spend the summer there. The school was founded by a German Jew, who had moved to the south of France in pursuit of Cézanne. But Marchutz kind of took Cézanne at his word about why he was painting the way he was painting. He felt the need to dig into Cézanne’s point of view, and turn his back on what Modernism did with Cézanne—particularly that Cézanne was trying to take everything he was painting from the experience of seeing in the world, trying to represent that experience of seeing with as much faithfulness and passion as possible.

This might seem like an odd way to start this story, but believe me, this is actually the path, because a lot of my thinking about making theater comes from what I’ve learned about painting. Then meanwhile, after the…

RW:  Could I interrupt, David? I want to be clear about what this French man, what it was he wanted to pursue in regard to how Cézanne approached his painting. And somehow, he got involved in theater?          

DF:   No. Actually we lived in the south of France for another year, in Provence. By happenstance, there was somebody in that same town, an Israeli Jew, living with his French girlfriend. They were starting to do theater together. Up until then, when I was an undergraduate—(I was an undergraduate at Yale, and the way theater got made there at the time was they would use auteur directors and playwrights.) So, when I was an undergraduate, I got to see Andre Serban direct. I got to see Andrzej Wajda direct, and you know, most of these men had kind of a mad vision inside their own heads, and would move people to fulfill that vision. But that view of directing didn’t mean anything to me, so it never occurred to me to be a director. But then, when I was in France I met Amir Abramov  who was nobody to anybody. But he had an approach to making theater, which was highly collaborative.

And as I started working more in theater, what I learned as a painter had direct correlates—surprising ones. For example in painting, if you wanted to really have an orange that stands out, you pair it with its complementary color—a version of blue—and then that orange is really going to pop. And oddly enough the correlate of color in theater is emotion. We even used that expression in theater. If the director tells an actor, “We need more colors” he’s or she is saying, “We need a wider variety of emotion.” If you have a character that’s angry and you don’t have any contrast to that anger, it quickly loses its impact. Because as a human being, you see and experience things in contrast.

And there’s also something about the way you relate to the outside world, which I think has a big impact. Cézanne was having an experience of the outside world and trying to recreate that experience on the canvas. Yes, he was using abstraction, but it was grounded in the experience of seeing. But the Cubists took a much more intellectual approach to that. They started to explode the thinker and try to give you multiplicity in one painting, which is not how we see the world. It’s an intellectual conception that a lot of Modern artists had. And Cézanne was trying to stay close to the experience of, well, actually seeing.

I also read philosophers. So, if you read any of Heidegger’s writing on being, you might see a direct correlation between what he was saying about being and what Cézanne was pursuing in painting.

RW:  Oh, I love his essay Building, Dwelling, Thinking. Have you read that one?

DF:   I have not read that one. I’ve read What is Called Thinking? and Being and Time. He also wrote an essay about a sculpture I remember. Anyway, meanwhile, I was working with this guy, Amir Abrumov, who had this very collaborative way of working. And together, we created a two-person version of the story of Medea. We just got some rooms in the back room of a book store, but it had a huge influence of me because of how collaborative he was, and also how he liked to take stories and explode them, and work in an ensemble to reconstruct them in ways that people in the ensemble could relate to.

RW:   You and he, and perhaps a few others, worked together to create this two-person play?

DF:   Right. It was two actors, two women—his girlfriend and another woman. So essentially, it was the four of us.

RW:   You weren’t performing yourself in this, right?

DF:   No. No.

RW:   But when you were in high school and then in college—you did your undergraduate at Yale, I think you said.

DF:   Yeah.

RW:   So you must have done a little performing yourself, I’m guessing.

DF:   I did in high school, but my experience of performing is that it’s a rollercoaster, and I don’t go on rollercoasters.

RW:   Okay. Yeah, I understand this rollercoaster business from my last six months with you, David. In any case, it’s fascinating listening to you describe the connections between painting and theater. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe that before.

DF:   Would you like me to go more into that or continue to where I got to where I am?

RW:   Well, we’re squeezed for time and one area I wanted to ask about is, are there people in the world of theater who have been important to you, and who you still hold in great respect today?

DF:   That’s an interesting question. I’ve spent a lot of time in theater, so I’ve soaked up a lot of theater. For example, when I came back from France, I worked for a while for the Eureka Theater here in San Francisco. It was run by four directors, which is an unusual situation for a theater. Because I worked back stage, in some ways I was a production manager, but it became a little bit of an apprenticeship for directing, too. But they were very much directing scripted pieces, not doing what I do. Aside from working with Amir, most of what I’ve discovered about working with people and drawing out their stories, have been things I’ve discovered for myself.

RW:   Well, let’s talk about solo performance, the kind of performance that people bring from their own lives to the stage. You’ve been involved in that for a long time. I haven’t studied theater at all, and only recently have gotten a real taste of it. I feel fortunate that I was directed to you by my friend Mia Tagano, who is an actor and teacher herself. On the other hand, I’ve noticed how individual stories have become a big thing in our culture. I first noticed that listening to This American Life. Now, I published my first magazine in 1991 [The Secret Alameda] so that’s close to 34 years ago, too.

This American Life just stood out as something new.  Of course, I knew about Terry Gross, and Fresh Air. Then later on, the Moth Radio Hour, which seems to have exploded. I’d think you have a clear view of the development of solo monologue and personal stories. So I wonder what our thoughts might be about that? Do you agree with me about how this has entered the culture?        

DF:   Yes, and I’ve also admired the people you’re talking about. Solo performance, you know, obviously has deep roots. I mean, Homer was a solo performer. But in its modern incarnation, it came out of performance art. The experimental stuff that was happening in the 60s started to explode in theater, most particularly in the 80s, and along with other performance art, it was highly visual.

There were also other people experimenting. Spalding Gray, obviously, is one of the people who spearheaded the modern version of solo performancel. Eric Bogosian, Lily Tomlin and Spalding Gray tend to be the three people who are mentioned most frequently. They were doing something different than the people in the museums were doing. What was happening in the museums was much more visual, much more conceptual. But those three performers really started digging into narrative.

Spalding Gray famously sat behind a desk and would present narratives of experiences from his own life—the simplicity of that. He was a very, very powerful performer and had an incredible voice. He could deliver tremendous energy from behind a desk, and his work was really, really influential.

When I first came back from France, basically I was directing performance art of various kinds. I hadn’t specialized in solo performance. I worked with Bill Talen, who has a character named "Reverend Billy." He’s in New York and known for that character, which I helped him create 20 years ago when we first started working together. Bill’s a poet and a satirist. One of the things we did together was a piece called "Political Wife," where Bill, who looks a lot like a Kennedy, would give a satirical political speech. He kind of looked like a Kennedy, but he spoke like a Trump. He had some very funny bits in it like this bit about the problem of the black penis in American life—“How could we find a way to point the black penis in another direction?”

He had a great touch for satirizing the Right and their racial obsessions, and things like that. He’d deliver a speech, and then his drug-addled wife would take over the proceedings and present the counter-speech. Very simple. We ended up doing it as an environmental piece. We’d do it in Holiday Inns and serve apple pie with the speech. And in the audience we’d have members who were cast as belonging to of various political action committees. We created a whole world of political action committees. It was a lot of fun.

Bill was also a cocaine addict at the time, so that part wasn’t as much fun.

RW:   You said you presented these in Holiday Inns?

DF:   Yes. We actually played down the hall from Bill Clinton once when he was first running for president.

RW:   How did that work?

DF:   We would rent a conference room just like Bill Clinton was renting a conference room to give a speech and have a fundraiser. It was set up as a fundraiser. So I was doing things like that and, at the same time, I started working with solo performers. Josh Kornbluth was somebody I worked with early on, and Marga Gomez. They were just part of the performance art scene at the time.

Working with Bill and creating a show with him, didn’t feel much different than working with Josh and creating a show with him. There were a couple more people in the room, but it was still a very collaborative effort. And the show was being written as we rehearsed it. So, the script was being formed, it wasn’t a script that’s handed down, and this is a finished product; it was a work in-progress.

RW:   So the beginnings of contemporary solo performance were probably first happening in art galleries.

DF:   That’s where a lot of the roots of it were. But not long after that, it was happening more in theaters. Bill worked for a place called Life on the Water, which was in Fort Mason.               

RW:   I’ve heard of him, and Life on the Water.

DF:   And he had a couple of collaborators. Leonard Pitt was one of them. He’s a very powerful, physical performer. So it had become more of a theatrical scene—and George Coates was another part of that scene.

RW:   Okay, right.

DF:   I wasn’t working with him. He had a lot more money. Have you seen George Coates’ stuff?

RW:   Yeah. Didn’t he do those digital things?  

DF:   Highly visual, but with some music. Extremely visual, and often without any narrative, but theater.

RW:   I remember that.

DF:   I remember shortly afterwards going to the San Francisco Opera and watching them just stealing stuff from George Coates. He had a huge influence on what was possible with new technology and theater. That was the scene going on, and then we got to the 90s. Newt Gingrich was in the Congress, and there were all these cuts in our funding. A lot of the more ambitious performance art projects could no longer go forward, because they didn’t have the funding. So that left us with me and one other person in the room. That was the only financially viable part of performance art that was left. You know?

RW:   So that was a turning point because of the disappearance of financial backing?

DF:   That had a big impact. But on the plus side, that’s about when Stephanie Weisman was opening up the Marsh Theater. She was creating an environment for performers to be able to do their work. She was giving performers a much better deal so there was a huge rush of people coming to the Marsh and thinking, “I want in on this. I want to be able to do something like this. This looks exciting.”

RW:   And this was the early '90s?

DF:   I’m trying to remember. The Marsh started just about the same time I was starting. It started as just “Monday Night Marsh.” On Monday nights, Stephanie would produce showcases for four performers. It started in a bar in the Hotel Utah and had many homes for the first four or five years, until she found the space over on Valencia Street that used to be a Latin jazz club. She’s always had a good eye for creating an environment that’s very intimate and welcoming so that there’s a real strong connection between the performer and the audience. I think that’s a lot of why what she was doing was successful. That and the fact that she’s astute about real estate. She owns her building on Valencia Street, and that’s allowed her to weather a lot of ups and downs. A lot of other theaters have closed because they did not own their own space.

RW:   That would make a huge difference. You know, from my perspective—having performed in public thanks to taking your class—all of a sudden I’ve become aware that there are scores of little places where people can get up and tell a story, read a poem. When I first came to San Francisco in 1966, I was passionate about poetry. I thought I’d be a poet. And I quickly found that I didn’t have the confidence to get into the fray of doing public readings—like the Coffee Gallery in North Beach was a regular place for that. And now, I think these kinds of places have permeated the culture in a way I couldn’t have imagined in terms of how much performance must be going on.

DF:   Yeah. Performance was really getting going. You’re right, shortly after that we started getting into This American Life, which kind of brought the same kind of revolution to radio. You know, things like The Moth also started. It was another opportunity for people to tell stories. It’s interesting to me that at the same time, memoir became a more dominant part of publishing. It was really exploding, and made me think about— what is the culture looking for? It seemed to me the thing about solo performance, and all these other things, is that the person is telling about their own experience. And you get to judge the authenticity of the telling.

RW:   Right.

DF:   So, I think the word authenticity has a real important place. I know the Post-Modernists can go on at length about how “authenticity” is a non-starter, but I find that audiences have quite a different opinion about it.

RW:   That’s a little bit of a hot button for me—how the postmodern critique sort of took over. But fashion is very powerful at all levels, and it rules, in a way. And there’s a tendency of thought that tends towards black and white - even among people who would think they’re beyond this. Like if Foucault, let’s say, uncovers some truth behind how power can corrupt epistemology—then all of a sudden, there’s no place for recognizing something that’s genuinely deep and uncorrupted. I think this is unfortunate.

In any case, your mention of authenticity leads me to a couple of things that stood out for me, David, in the six months I was in your class. When I came to that first class, I was forty minutes late because I’d gone to the Marsh in San Francisco. And when I walked in, you made me feel welcome immediately, and I relaxed. You said something like, “Okay. I see that you've been publishing an art magazine” and you asked me a little bit about that. You said something like, “I see the passion there, and I respect that. I have a passion for art myself.” Does that sound at all familiar?

DF:   A little bit. I don’t always remember what I say. I’ve got my mind full of what everybody else says. It’s my job to remember that.

RW:   And you’re amazing that way, too. So let me ask you, would you say you’ve found your calling in life?            

DF:   Yeah. I would. I’m also a playwright. That has not panned out so easily. You know, when I came back from France, I’d made myself sick trying to be a painter. The conclusion I came to is painting is very hard. But somehow, theater was easy for me. Which is not to say it’s easy. Actually, there’s nothing easy about it.             

RW:   Right.

DF:   But the path opened up for me. As an artist, I could see what had to happen next, whereas as a painter, I would hit roadblocks all the time. So in that sense, the path was there before me. I just started going down it. I mean, I’ve learned things since I first started doing solo work, but I’m also still the same person I was when I first started doing it. I try not to teach based on what I learned. I try to teach based on my intuition at the moment.

I feel like I’m also sort of stammering when I’m talking to people in class because I’m trying to say exactly what is drawn forth in me in that moment to that person. Of course, I’ve also got that experience, and I speak from the experience, but I try not to be in the same rut of “Okay, this is what needs to happen.” I try to find ways to speak specifically to what that individual person is needing.

RW:  Well, I think you’re amazingly articulate in your responses to people and I think everyone else in the class is, too. So you said that painting was hard and you found something in theater that wasn’t as hard. And that something that was at the heart of that pursuit and experience back then hasn’t changed that much. That you keep going back to that, even though you’ve learned things. But I’m hearing you say, that’s okay, right?

DF:   I think I’m glad that it feels the same. I think I was worried that I would become—and you know, I still worry about this—I was worried that I’m a hack. I would have my tricks and I’d go to them as though there’s only one way to represent one’s self authentically on stage. There isn’t. There are as many different ways as there are human beings on earth.

RW:   Well, I’m with you, and it makes me think about Heidegger. I mean it’s so unfortunate that he got involved with the Nazis because no one can talk about being like he did.

DF:   Right.

RW:   And there’s the question of one's own being. We can ever leap frog over that. It’s something fundamental right in front of us—or at least, it can be in front of us if we’re trying to find something real in ourselves. I’m just glad to hear what you said. I also appreciate your concern about becoming a hack. That’s when someone has absolutely lost touch with this deeper mystery of life. This goes back to the question of authenticity. It occurs to me that this sudden blossoming of small places where people can come and stand in front of a small audience and try to speak authentically is because there’s a hunger for this.  

I mean, our culture is shot through with a lack of authenticity. Whatever might be authentic, gets put to work in to sell product. Any good thing advertising can get a hold of gets prostituted to sell something. So, in essence, where do you go in this culture to hear an honest man or woman speak an honest thing about themselves? I think this sudden growth of these little places is a natural response to the marketing atmosphere we’re all awash in.

DF:   I think you’re right. I would tend to trace its origins to the same place. Media is mediated. It’s right there in the word. So, the unmediated experience is something that, I think, people… And now, we have a lot of it. We have it in publishing. We have it in theater. And it’s even showing up now in television, like in that show, Reservation Dogs. It’s a really lovely show about a bunch of kids on a reservation in Oklahoma.

Somebody was just talking to me about an article about whether they were going to lose those opportunities in streaming services, because economically, it looks like there’s going to be a shake-out. Does that mean that streaming services will stop being these scrappy, risk-taking ventures, you know, throw some money at it and see if somebody comes up with something interesting? Because they won’t have as much money. Will they start getting safer? Will the MBAs start making all the programming decisions based on what they can guarantee for an income stream?

RW:   That’s a legitimate worry. Now, before my first class, I looked at the Marsh Theater website and found a link to a performance of yours that I watched. You were giving something like a lecture. Somewhere in there you were speaking about how a performance is often in front of a small group of people, and you said “But it doesn’t take that many people. It's not necessary to be seen by millions, or hundreds of thousands, or thousands of people. It may be enough just to be seen just by a few people.” Something like that…

DF:  It gets to this idea that artists are trying to make meaning. You know, they’re trying to make something meaningful. And we’re dependent on an audience to let us know whether we’ve done that. You know, being an artist is full of contradictions. One of them is that the universal comes out of the particular.

As an artist, you have to work from the particularity of your own experience, and hope that people can relate to it—and find universals within it. Then, when you start that process of trying to understand whether you’ve reached anybody, you immediately get into this other paradox of being an artist, which is, well, how many people do you need to reach before you can now say I’ve made something meaningful? This is something, I think, that drives artists crazy, you know?

RW:   Yeah. I do.

DF:   You know, you can meet very successful artists, who are still deeply fragile about whether they’re creating something meaningful. They get into these spirals of egotism and self-hatred. It’s like the classic diva who needs to be acknowledged all the time in their greatness, because they’re so fragile about it. So, in giving that talk, I was just trying to get people thinking about how, as artists, this is something that’s not going to go away. You have to find some way to make peace with this and live with the fact that meaning can’t possibly be a numbers game.

So, in that speech I was talking about how, if it’s a numbers game, then Beyoncé makes the most meaningful art in the world. I was trying to put forth the idea that if you can move two other people, then you’re in the same world as Beyoncé, that you know what it is to move somebody. You know something that Beyoncé knows, and probably Beyoncé doesn’t know a whole lot more about it than you do. I call that “the world of somebody cares.”

You and Beyoncé can both live in “the world of somebody cares” if you can move two, or two hundred million.

RW:   This is a beautiful thing you’re saying, David. And much needed. It’s not so easy to get past this strange dichotomy.  Sometimes I’ve posed the question to artists I’ve interviewed, “What is enough?” I think it’s a really an important question for everybody.

Let me ask you this, David. Okay, I’ve had 20 classes with you. So I’m now qualified to speak about you as a person helping solo performers. I’d say there’s something very clean about how you work people, which I don’t think is easy to do. What I want to ask is what do you get from your work with individuals struggling to craft a solo performance from their own life? Who are looking, perhaps, how to find some sort of affirmation of their own worth? I mean, there’s different ways to talk about this. But theater, is such a powerful form in which people can confront themselves, and be confronted with themselves. And now I can speak from experience at this late date in my life. So, it’s a long-winded question. But I can’t help thinking there’s something particularly rewarding for you in helping people this way.

DF:   You know, so often the things that call to us are also connected to the most fragile sides of ourselves. So, I would answer your question, first, what I get is a vacation from self. Somewhere in my childhood, I had to learn to live in other people’s emotions and keep my own at an arm’s length. That is something I struggle with personally all the time. At the same time, it’s led me to have this peculiar skill of being able to welcome the chance to be in somebody else’s body for a while, and to be able to feel and hear what they’re saying—and then, also, to feel what they’re searching for. Yeah. So trauma, blah, blah, blah.

RW:   Well, this must be the way it generally works. To the degree one has struggled in one’s own life, one can relate to—and possibly help—others with the same things.

DF:   Yeah. Let’s just leave it at that. One of the things that happens in the arts is that people who have lived in some way on the margins, have a perspective that is interesting to the rest of us, because if you’re not on the margin, you don’t see those things. So, yeah.

RW:   Do you have any projects you’re working on, or thinking about?

DF:   I don’t have any plays that I’m working on. I’ve kind of put that aside. I have been trying to think about doing a third lecture. I’ve been trying to think about time—how time functions for the artist. Particularly, what does it mean to say to somebody, “Take your time”? What does it mean to “have your own time”? What does it mean to not have your own time? And shouldn’t I be saying, “take the audience’s time”? Because as a performer, it’s the people in the audience giving you their time.
     In the same way, it’s interesting to look at the process of writing and how, when writing goes well, time seems to disappear. In fact, in the same way, if you’re sitting in the theater and watching a really powerful show, time seems to disappear. So, I’m intrigued by these things. But so far, it’s been beastly abstract. I haven’t gotten too far on it, but I keep hoping I’ll find a way to crack this.

RW:   That’s a great question. I look forward to what you might arrive at. There’s certainly something powerful about being on stage, a heightened experience.

DF:   And you’re somebody who had to learn to take his time.

 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.

 

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