Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with Fred Curchack: A Life in the Theater

by Richard Whittaker / Fred Curchack, Feb 26, 2024


 

 












photo - r. whittaker

Not long after the publication of works & conversations #42 with its memorable conversation with Dennis Ludlow (his first public role had been in the premier of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child), I got a note from w&c contributor, Leslie Curchack: “I’d like to recommend someone for you to meet and perhaps interview. He is in fact, my ex-husband Fred.” Fred Curchack, I quickly learned, is an actor, playwright, teacher, director and mentor—a man whose calling appeared in childhood, was reinforced in grade school and gained traction from there all the way to great reviews in the New York Times.  

works:   Now you got involved in the Gurdjieff work early on.

Fred Curchack:   Yeah, when I was 20.

works:   What do you think led you to that?

Fred:   Well, that’s impossible to answer, but I’ll make a stab at some of the influences. Years ago my son said, “Why don’t you make a play about some of the stories you tell us from your life?” And I took that as a challenge. It’s a challenge to remember things very clearly, but I called the play Glimpsings. It had to do with moments of awareness, that put together, can become a life, and I guess the unifying theme that emerged was more or less what you’ve just asked. You know, what leads a person to want to understand the mystery of their own existence? I think that in some ways it’s a God-given quality that everyone has, but it gets obscured and covered over quite a bit.
     I do remember childhood dreams at three or four years old that were almost predictions of an interest in something like esoteric ideas of various forms of feeling like I was from somewhere else. And that wove its way into the play. Ostensibly we’re talking about artistic work, and the dawning of that began before I went to the High School of Performing Arts in NYC. My interest in all sorts of playwrights kindled an interest in existential questions. By the time I was a teenager, I was reading Beatnik poets and then I became interested in reading about Zen.

works:   So in high school?

Fred:    Yeah. I got into Queens College, the City University, at sixteen. But I got a small scholarship to the University of Chicago, too. So I flew out there and was bemused by their acting classes, which seemed stupid after my classes at the High School of Performing Arts. And when I realized how much money it was going to cost, even with a scholarship, I said “Screw this! I’m going to Queens College.” At that time it was free.

works:   Let’s back up. You got interested in theater before you went to high school?

Fred:    Yeah. Even from an early age.

works:   So, what was that about?

Fred:    Yeah. Mr. Nyland asked me that, too. It’s hard to unpack that sucker. Certainly there were the puppet shows in the garage—and Halloween “spook houses” I made to terrify the neighborhood kids. These had all the elements of some of my later plays, really. The kids were so scared and I was so happy.
     Finally, they evolved to such a level that the mothers in the neighborhood came to my house and told my parents who got me to close down the spook house because the kids were having nightmares. That was just dandy for giving me a sense of being a real artiste.
     There are so many things.  In elementary school I saw Mary Martin flying on Broadway in Peter Pan. And it was just so magical. So, I immediately threw my own Disney extravaganza and gave a role to every kid in the neighborhood.

works:   And this was in elementary school?

Fred:    Yeah. We did it in our basement. I directed it, and I played Peter Pan.

works:   God, that’s amazing.

Fred:    So it’s kind of…  It was a given, you know.

works:   Your life was going in that direction.

Fred:    Yeah. And in fifth grade, I played a tree in a Thanksgiving pageant. They wrapped me in some brown crepe paper. It was an inglorious role. I felt I could do better than that. Then in sixth grade, I was given a lead role in a class play about a football hero, which—to put it mildly—I was not. Anyway, he was a football hero who liked to cook (which I did, and still do) and he entered a cooking competition with his “Yankee Doodle Casserole.” So he wins the prize. But you had to be a girl for the competition. So they dressed me in drag to accept the prize. We performed this play in the auditorium for the whole assembly, and I just vividly remember the howling laughter at seeing a boy dressed as a girl in front of their eyes. I thought, “This is the life!”
     Then in seventh grade, I won the junior high school declamation contest doing Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. There was no stopping me then. The next year I directed Eugene Ionesco’s play The Leader. In the ninth grade (I skipped eighth grade) I got a scholarship to a Greenwich Village acting school—The Gene Frankel Theatre Workshop. I’d go there on Saturday mornings by myself at 12 years old and look for Beatniks in Greenwich Village, but Saturday morning wasn’t a good time to find Beatniks. But I did have bongo drums—and the poetry. And I wanted to be a Beatnik!
It was a small theater class—five, maybe seven kids—and all of us got into the High School of Performing Arts, which was very competitive. I was lucky to get into it.

works:   That had to be a big thing.

Fred:   For me it was, because I was so scared of bullying, which I had experienced a little bit of in junior high school. There were gangs in the local Flushing/Queens high school, and I told my parents, either I get into this theater high school or I’m not going to high school.

works:  I mean, there’s some real trauma there, as a kid with bullies.

Fred:   Yeah, it’s dreadful, dreadful… and my experience wasn’t even that bad compared to so many I hear about.

works:   Yeah. I got bullied once and it was so fucking traumatic. This kid just beat me up.
Fred:   Yeah, it happened to me too. Toughest kid in the neighborhood. He accused me of insulting his father. I said, “I don’t know you and I don’t know your father.” He said it was in the newspaper office. I said, “What did I say?” Finally, he beat the shit out of me, and after that, he treated me like his buddy.

works:  Really?

Fred:   They prove their superiority and then it’s okay.

works:   I talked with someone who went through the Performing Arts High School, Ana Valdes Lim, and it sounded amazing. How was it for you?

Fred:   Loved it. I reconnected with some old friends and we Zoom most weeks for an hour-long chat. How long ago was this, 1964? But it was so good and we made deep connections, shared something deep.

works:   You know, just having spent eight months last year in this little group of actors and wannabe actors, developing monologues, now I know how connected you can get to feel. Every week, getting up there and trying to craft this performance. It was so intimate—just a trove of experiences, a spectrum. And I’m assuming this would not be unusual.

Fred:   Yeah. Everyone, I imagine, craves connection. People are afraid of it, traumatized about it… But in theater, it’s relatively safe to make a connection. To some extent, you’re doing it through these alter egos of the role you play, although with your monologues you were probably being yourselves. [yes] But even if you’re performing your self, you’re no longer quite yourself.
There’s still a mask of some kind that protects you. And on another level, when theater really gets good and interesting, it becomes much less safe than the protected state we all make for ourselves in daily life, because ultimately, the most interesting work is the most vulnerable and most exposed.

works:   Say more about.

Fred:   Before doing that, I want to make sure I didn’t leave dangling what I was aiming at when you asked about my getting into theater…

works:   Well, it was fascinating and sounded almost like you came into this world with a history. I mean, sometimes it’s hard not to think that we’ve been here before in some way.

Fred:   Yeah. I don’t traffic in reincarnation. We take ourselves to be the results of our conditioning and education, and generations of beliefs and so forth. But I don’t think looking at past lives helps us come anywhere closer to experiencing who we really are.
     Briefly, I studied Indian singing with Ali Akbar Khan and I remember one song he translated. It was like, “Poor you, lifetime after lifetime, and you still don’t know who you are”—something like that.
     But that said, for a long time, I’ve shared your feeling that there is something from another lifetime. When I was three years old, I remember having imaginary friends who were acrobats and performers. I’d bounce on the bed and talk to them. It’s not like I thought they were real—I mean, they were very real—but at the same time, I didn’t ask people to talk to these invisible friends. But it was a very powerful relationship, and it dealt with performing.
     And when I was 24 years old, I was in Japan for a few months studying Noh Theater, and had some experiences of feeling like I was a ghost looking at people in this life from a different life.

works:   Experiences when you were performing?

Fred:    No. I did perform in Japan on that trip, but not then. I connected with the keeper of the Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto after hours, somehow. In my rudimentary Japanese, I was able to strike up a conversation with him, and he invited me to take tea. I had a flute with me and we were sitting there in this ancient rock garden. I played my own funky imitation of a shakuhachi flute and we had tea. He invited me to rake the garden, which is called the Sea of Eternity. By then, for several years, I’d already been a student with Mr. Nyland. I’d learned to sit from Suzuki roshi when I was 19 in San Francisco, and I’d sat at some Zen monasteries while in Japan. So, I felt this was part of my being, part of my legacy—whatever that could possibly mean.  
              
works:   You mentioned that at a certain point, you felt like a ghost looking at… what were you saying, again?

Fred:   It was like it was another lifetime and I was observing from this lifetime. I mean, one other time I remember having that experience in Japan.  It was at an Oban festival on the seashore. People were doing folk dances, and it was all very, very old. There were bonfires and thousands of people. I was watching and again, it was like, “This isn’t like a movie; it’s like a lifetime I’m experiencing.
     I became interested early on in Japanese Noh Theater. I studied it when I was an undergraduate in an Oriental literature class. It blew me away because I was already into theater, and suddenly there was this poetic theater form that Ezra Pound had translated, or William Butler Yeats developed, as a whole theater form based on his limited experiences of these plays.
     So, it blew me away. And part of it was because I was so dissatisfied with the superficiality of what was offered as a career in theater. And another part was how it spoke to my essence—as it’s intended to do. All of that converged in occasionally doing plays that were inspired by, or were directly related, to Noh Theater—and also studying with a Noh master briefly.

works:  Wow. I know next to nothing about it. I have this idea that in Noh Theater there’s not much of what we think of as action. But if a performer can really inhabit a certain something that we don’t know much about here in the West, everybody can get it, and it’s just powerful. Is this in the ballpark?

Fred:  Yes, absolutely. If you inhabit it—I’d like to use the word ‘embody’ it—if you get it in your body, in your being, in your whole entirety, then everyone will get it. At least on some level. I mean, even if there are concepts or words they don’t get, they’ll get the energy.

works:   That fascinates me. And I’d say I’ve had a taste of that in my own experience. It’s something we don’t—with all our scientific knowledge—understand much about. I mean, there’s this realm of subtle energies nowhere on our radar in terms of any cultural introduction. It’s a big area to talk about, and so interesting when it’s communicated and people can feel it. We’re way more subtle than we think we are as beings. Something like that.…

Fred:   Yeah. I think that probably summarizes why I’m fascinated by, and have been devoted to doing, live theater, although I made quite a bit of video integrated into my work. I love to watch movies, but they don’t do “that thing” the way live theater does. I mean, the evidence of the level of being. The quality of being, of the individual actor is somewhat apparent on the silver screen—and certainly, the screen is analogous to our experience of life, but it doesn’t really do what you just talked about the way live theater does, where you’re physically present with other people.

works:   Right. At its best there can be a real quality of being.

Fred:   Yeah. Well, you asked what might have led me to the Gurdjieff work, and certainly I told you of my interest in the Beat poets, and then Japanese Noh Theater. And there were other concepts related in Eastern thought, particularly Zen, and in San Francisco learning to sit with Suzuki roshi—these were extraordinary experiences.
     When I was 19, my first girlfriend committed suicide. It was such a crushing experience. I dropped out of school, moved to the country, and became very… and I was also was taking psychedelic drugs and smoking pot—the usual stuff of the 60s with all the psychedelic literature. Aldous Huxley, Alpert and Leary, Metzner and Alan Watts were weaving Eastern mysticism and esoteric ideas together with psychedelic experience. That was my ‘bag’ briefly, and then I started to see that after a fantastic high, I’d feel lower.
     So, I stopped doing that, and did learn to sit. It was an important experience. But then right after that, I read Gurdjieff’s All and Everything, and that book was a life-changing experience. I read it cover to cover and then went east to find Mr. Nyland, who I’d heard about. I had a friend who was a student of his. I was allowed to come to a meeting—I was 19, maybe 20. It was in a small, New York apartment with quite a few people, maybe 60, sitting in chairs, crammed in. Mr. Nyland played piano—improvised for a long, extended piece, which I found unbelievably good.
     I’m not as big a fan decades later, but he was a remarkable, idiosyncratic musician in a kind of romantic/classical style. I was very much opened up by the music. Then he sat down and talked for an hour-and-a-half. In the course of that, he occasionally looked directly at me as he was speaking. I was pretty close by and basically, he turned my psychical world inside out.
I could say he reached into my mind and gave me myself in such a dramatic and mind-boggling way—the kind of thing I was romanticizing about a teacher. I was completely gobsmacked by the experience. Then he got up to leave and he walked straight over to me and shook my hand. He looked me in the eye and said, “Do I know you?”
     And right away, even at 20 years old, I thought, “Oh, shit. You know you know me.”
     He said, “You can come back if you wish.” And I was hooked. That level of being. I don’t believe it was my imagination. I’d been guru shopping and had met quite a few yogis and Zen masters. I danced with Sufi Sam Lewis in San Francisco trying to find someone who could help me, because I did—as your character in your monologue said—feel lost.
                 
works:  Yes. What years were you in San Francisco?

Fred:   That must have been ’67.

works:  That’s the same year I speak about in my first monologue, interestingly enough. So in theory, we could have passed each other on Haight Street.

Fred:   Because I met Mister Nyland in ’68.  And the level of being I experienced in that first meeting was something that always impressed me. Later, after he died, I read an obituary in the New York Times, which said that he’d been the director of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in Java during World War II. I mean the guy was a spy, as well as a musician—and had a PhD in Chemistry. He was an outrageous person. He’d studied with Orage, and then ended up spending quite a few years working directly with Gurdjieff.

works:  I wish I’d met him. So, somehow I’m leaping back to that most vulnerable part of theater, where the deepest theater can be. I don’t have the experience to talk about this, although the experience I have had, brief though it’s been, has been profound—I’d have dreams, surprising memories came back. It just churned up my world in a way that was rich, and revelatory, at times. So, I wonder if there’s anything more you could say about that deepest level of theater that you alluded to several minutes ago.
        
Fred:    Well, you know, I’ve been a college professor, as well as a producing, performing and writing theater artist. So, as a professor, I like to profess—and I can shoot my mouth off about that.

works:   Okay. But first give a little thumbnail of your life as a professor of theater, and then I do want to hear you shoot your mouth off.

Fred:   Well, when I was graduating from Queens College—I guess I was 20 at the time—I felt kind of omniscient because I’d discovered Gurdjieff and Grotowski. One of my teachers, who went on to be a TV and movie director, had just worked with Eugenio Barba, and I think he worked directly with Grotowski. He taught us what was passing for Grotowski’s work at the time—physical exercises called plastiques and corporeals. The plastiques were also called details and the corporeals, or elements, were full-bodied, yogic-type movements. He taught us those as a way of improvising and getting ready…

works:   Grotowski?

Fred:   No, no, this guy Joel Zwick. He brought the first copy, as yet unpublished in the U.S. of Barba’s edition of Towards a Poor Theatre, which was about Grotowski and documented his work. So I bit into that with full gusto because Grotowski was a kind of spiritual tripper, or teacher, or guru, or charlatan—whatever you want. He was an outlandish explorer of theater art. I recognized that and completely tried to do it, but shortly after that, Grotowski came and gave talks in the U.S.  And because we were directly studying his ideas, he gave us first row seats in Town Hall in New York, along with Andre Gregory’s group, “The Manhattan Project.” He discussed how he didn’t have a method to follow and he hoped the seriousness of his research would inspire other people, but not to claim that we were doing his method because he didn’t have one. He was just searching.
     I loved that, and was liberated from being a Grotowskian. But I did continue to attend all of his various events, and ultimately got to work a little bit with him and more with his actors. He always saw his work in line with Stanislavski’s work. And I’d been told that I was learning Stanislavski technique from the time of Performing Arts High School onward. So now, when I read Stanislavski’s writings, it’s more apparent that he had a kind of powerful religious or spiritual intention in the artistic and psychological work he did to create his approach to acting. Now it’s the most common approach to acting you get anywhere, worldwide. Although it ends up being expressed in a whole bunch of different ways.
     I researched this a little and found that Stanislavski was very much influenced by what he thought was Raja yoga that some guy named Ramacharaka wrote about. He talked about super-consciousness and the soul, and the unconscious and its relationship to the subconscious and the superconscious. This Ramacharaka was actually an American occultist character who had a very sketchy understanding of yoga.
     But Stanislavski adapted that and it became very much a part of his language about this kind of creative “I” that was basically synonymous with the soul. It was partially Russian Orthodox traditional mysticism and partially this kind of quasi-Eastern thing. But Grotowski’s teaching—and he saw his work as being in line with Stanislavski—was totally different than all the interpretations of Stanislavski I’d been taught as a Western actor. He spoke about it in Towards a Poor Theatre, which later became very influential in spiritual terms about unmasking and relating it to the via negativa of medieval mysticism, where you don’t accumulate tricks or craft, but you get rid of things. And in this case, it’s getting rid of everything.
I mean, I continued to study, never deeply, different forms of Buddhism and certainly, the Tibetans talk in that way, as well, in Dzogchen teachings and you can find this in Zen teachings and Sufi teachings and yoga. I studied yoga for many years—the yoga teachings, and Advaita Vedanta teachings of Ramana Maharshi—and Nisargadatta Maharaj, who wrote that book, I Am That, which I love so very much. And I noticed in Peter Brook’s interview with Grotowski about Gurdjieff, that he actually mentions Nisargadatta at the end of that interview. (Peter Brook isn’t credited as the interviewer published in Needleman’s book of essays on Gurdjieff, but I later found out. Both Brook’s essay and then this interview are published there.)
     I love Nisargadatta so much, because it’s almost antithetical to all the extraordinary complexity and depth of Gurdjieff’s ideas. Tat Tvam Asi. You don’t do anything. That’s who you are. On the other hand, as Mr. Nyland said, when asked about that kind of thing, “Well, it’s a moot point whether we’re already that, or that we have to create it.” He loved Ramana Maharshi. The fact is, we don’t experience that, so how do we get to that direct experience? It’s basically like what you were saying.  How do we live?

works:   It’s seemingly a very simple question, right? But it’s a question that can go all the way down.

Fred:   Yeah. So that was Grotowski in answer to your question about the deepest level of acting. His earlier theatrical period was about that, and that’s what attracted Peter Brook to him. In Peter’s book, The Empty Space, which is taught in a lot of theater schools, he talks about different kinds of theater, and one of them is “the Holy theater.” And he talks about Grotowski and his company. So, there is this kind of sacred or holy attitude towards what the actor is doing. Now, in truth—after I ended up working with these people directly—I found out it’s more than meets the eye, you know? It’s easy to romanticize this shit and imagine that it’s more holy than it might actually be. For example, the holy actor for Grotowski was Ryszard Cieslak, who I got to know quite well. He stayed at my house, and we did workshops. I’d seen him in a bunch of their plays when they came to the U.S.  
     I mean, this thing the plastique and corporeal exercises were mistaken for Grotowski’s great sacred method by all these groups calling themselves “Physical Theater” or “Movement Theater” or “Experimental Theater.” Ryszard told me, “Yeah, I read this little Polish book about yoga postures, and I said, “Grotowski, why don’t we do these while running around?’”
     Well, those guys beat the shit out of themselves doing those exercises, and they all had bad backs and knees from thrashing about and doing this stuff. So, with all sorts of new ideas one tends to romanticize what they are. So this thing you asked about the deepest level of acting, worldwide theater writers were, at a certain period, holding Ryszard Cieslak up as the holy actor, the exemplar of what Brook called the holy theater of Grotowski’s acting. It had reached that level. Then I was drinking every night with this alcoholic guy who was screwing a friend of mine and another woman who’d helped me organize the workshop. I always had fun with him, but he was totally duplicitous and screwing people over right and left. It was like I had to say, “Holy mackerel, this guy is really fucked up.”
     Then I worked much more intensively over the years with Zbigniew Cynkutis, a fellow member Grotowski’s Theater Lab, who told me, “Yah, Fred, when we did the Constant Prince,” (which is one of their seminal productions) “Cieslak played a prince, who gets beaten and tormented, and he ends up doing this monologue, which was written about extensively as the deepest level of acting, ‘the greatest actor in the world.’” Then Cynkutis said, “Yah, in rehearsals Grotowski had us beat the shit out of Ryszard, literally, and I think something in him was broken in the process.”
     So, this is all gossip, but it made me reconfront this whole notion which had been so influential for me in my own approach to acting—revolutionizing how I regarded what I would do as an actor.
     At the time, I was working with Zbyszek Cynkutis. He’d proposed that I’d get together a small group and we’d do this play together. We created it on The Book of Job, and he did some improvisations with me that made me incredibly vulnerable. But after he’d told me “the holy actor story,” I thought, “I’m glad he’s so gentle with me.”
     It was basically through a kind of delicacy that I started to appreciate some of the depth of what they were striving for in their artistic work, not through the thrashing about—which I learned alongside of Sam Shepard. He was a fellow student with Grotowski and his company when we finally did some of those exercises with them. I mean, that shit was murder. You could barely walk after the first day or two. And then eventually, you became rather opened up.

works:  Wow.

Fred:   But so much of it is through a much more delicate, sensitive thing. So, there’s no formula for how one arrives at what you’re commenting on—the depths that one can experience as an actor. The medieval codifier of Japanese Noh Theatre, Zeami, had an expression “riken no ken,” which had to do with observing yourself as you’re dancing—seeing yourself. It’s very similar to the Gurdjieffian notion of self-observation without praise or blame. Just seeing. And it’s very much related to Kensho, or the Zen idea of awakening.
     So, ultimately, I think that became Grotowski’s prime concern. What can one do to arrive at that? He knew about Gurdjieff’s writings on objective art, and his own phase of research called “Objective Art Project” where he assembled all these shamans, medicine people, Sufis and Kabbalist Jews to do things from their process, trying to understand the objective elements in art forms that lead to awareness or transformation.
     He didn’t credit Gurdjieff, but I always thought that he just kind of lifted the idea directly. And then, as Zbyszek told me after decades of working with Grotowski, “Well, Grotowski is a genius. So he takes credit for everyone else’s ideas.”

works:   It’s fascinating what you’re saying about how sensitivity can open someone into depth versus a harsh, even violent push. It makes me think of the difference between Rinzai and Soto Zen.  With Rinzai, you just beat the doors open. With Soto, you wait for the fruit to ripen and eventually it falls from the tree.

Fred:    How beautiful. That was so interesting with Suzuki roshi. Because I’d read about getting whacked with a stick. But you had to ask for the whack.

works:  Just a few days ago someone was telling me she’d been in a Zen sit and was feeling apprehensive because she could see the shadow of the stick master. She’d hear somebody get whacked and get more nervous. Then eventually she got whacked—once on each shoulder. She said it wasn’t painful and getting whacked, she said, “Just instantly straightened my spine!” There was something precise there, apparently.
 
Fred:    Well, I mean I’ve read about other traditions, where out of the blue, they whack you in the head. But with Suzuki roshi, I always put up my hands to beg him to whack me because it was like that. It was like getting an adjustment from the master. And plus, the tension that accrues from long periods of sitting just kind of goes out.

works:   Yeah. How much time did you spend with Suzuki roshi?

Fred:    Not much—a month maybe, but every day, morning and evening. Or maybe not seven days a week. But it was a month at the San Francisco Zen Center.

works:  I once sat a ten-day Vipassana with Goenka. I think it’s a little more hardcore than the group out at Spirit Rock. We sat ten hours a day. I mean, let me tell you. That was hard. Maybe I’m not going to do another one in this lifetime, but it gave me two extraordinary moments that I’ll never forget.

Fred:    It’s an amazing discipline.

works:   Yes. And I know some people who can sit. Forget about it. They can sit for a month, two months if they want. But that’s another realm. At one point, you were going to give me a thumbnail on your life as a professor of theater. Are you still teaching?

Fred:    Yes. I teach at University of Texas at Dallas. I’d started to say that way back as an undergrad and had been exposed to Grotowski and to Gurdjieff, I had an idea to do a class in what I called “Ritual Theatre.” I asked them, “Could I teach this?” And they said, “Yes, but you have to become a graduate student.” So, they let me set up a kind of tailor-made program for myself and let me write, direct and produce my own plays—some of them in the city, in New York, at La Mama.  Because they were a loving, supportive group of professors who were incredibly influential for me.
So I began teaching while I was a Masters student at that college, and I taught quite a bit. I started a theater program for the United Nations International School. I started a senior program for New York senior citizen centers, and a senior acting company. I taught where I went to school at Queens College. When I moved to California, I applied to a lot of colleges, and I didn’t even get interviews. Eventually, a friend of mine, who was a chair of a film department in New York, said, “Find a place you want to teach. Just call ‘em up and go see ‘em!”
     So I did that. I chose Sonoma State University for various reasons and I called them up. I dropped by and hit it off with the theater chair. And within a year, I was teaching there. I taught there part-time for seven-and-a-half years.
     Although I’d been creating new plays all along, and performing and touring them, I finally connected with this one play adapted from The Tempest of Shakespeare called Stuff As Dreams Are Made On—a solo performance. I was invited to perform it worldwide. I asked if I could have a leave and come back as a teacher. They said, “No.”  

works:   And this is something you wrote?

Fred:    Yes. And performed, and made masks for, and did music for. I’d just finished touring a huge show that I’d written, combining Aristophanes’ The Birds and Lysistrata. It was a great experience. But it was such a mind-numbingly hard thing to work with a huge group of people and technicians. We didn’t make any money, and I had two little kids. So I needed to make money, and being a part-time college teacher wasn’t doing the trick.  So the solo show ignited, and for several years I toured, constantly getting—what were for me—astronomical, nightly fees plus top-ten recognition in the New York Times—all sorts of marvelous, validating things, none of which I’d had before.

works:   That must have been incredibly heady stuff.

Fred:    Heady. Heady. Heady. Heady. I was on the road doing the same show over and over again—sometimes eight times a week. And I still wanted to make plays, but I was getting tired. My kids were little. Then I was recruited for a tenured professorship at the University of Texas. I didn’t think I wanted to move from California to Texas with Leslie [Curchack]—we were then married, and our kids were little—but we went out there and they wooed us. So I took it, and I’m glad I did, because I continued to make plays and tour.  They gave me an advantageous schedule, which made that easy to do. I didn’t have to ask when I wanted to take off and fly somewhere. I just did it, because they knew I’d be responsible to the students. And I’ve been doing that for 37 years.
     Just this morning, I was on the phone and Internet with some of my graduate students about their work and their projects. It’s so satisfying to be even a small part of the evolution of what other people are doing.

works:  It’s amazing for me to be here talking with you, Fred—and hearing all that you’re sharing, and have been through in your life. It’s really something.

Fred:    Well, thank you, Richard. Likewise, I should be interviewing you—although having seen your monologue—I said, “Holy mackerel. This guy’s got a lot to say!” After Laura and I watched it, I said, “And he’s not acting. You know?” That’s the thing—when you asked about what the deepest level of acting is—for Stanislavsky and later for Grotowski—it’s when you’re no longer acting.  
     But you catch me at an advantageous time to blather about my work, because I’m on a year-long sabbatical, and I’m writing every day about my work.

works:  That’s good. The forces lined up, and I’m loving it. And the masks I’ve seen in a couple of clips of you on stage are amazing.

Fred:    That clip of Stuff As Dreams Are Made On?

works:   I think so. Did you make all those masks?

Fred:    Yeah. I studied sculpture in college. I love to make stuff.

works:  There’s one scene where you’re struggling to get this mask off. It’s almost a life and death struggle going on, and with all these really intense sounds… And it’s an amazing mask with this big nose. So how did you come make this particular mask?

Fred:   Well, part of my year sabbatical is not only writing—I mean, I’ve written about approximately 50 of the 78 original shows that I’ve made. And in order to write about the work, I’ve had to look at old videos and read old scripts to remember and try to re-experience something of what went into them. And although I wrote all these scripts, some didn’t even exist in script form. Like this play that you’re talking about. It was developed through improvisation, using Shakespeare’s own language, and then there was stuff I interpolated. I performed that one maybe a thousand times all over the world, and there was no script. Luckily I had these funky old videos. I realized that I had to write notes because even with the script, often there’s no way to understand what I’m doing because a lot of it is the image and not just the words.

works:  Right.

Fred:   Like Murray Mednick. I did read that part of his interview where he says “it’s all in the words.” Peter Brook, in his writing, said the only thing people will remember from a play are the images and not the words. And I adore words. I love to write. I mean, I love to do Shakespeare, or Beckett, or Chekhov, or the Greeks—or any number of great written stuff. I love poetry. So, I find the words very important. But as a visual artist, I think the images are incredibly important—in this case, the metaphor of taking off mask after mask. They’re all latex masks, so they could actually fit one on top of the other, which is a bit tricky.
     I did have the rare chance of getting to discuss this play with Peter Brook. I was performing it at the same festival where he was doing the Mahabharata in Germany.
     He said that Caliban, the monster in The Tempest—which is the mask you’re talking about—is the ego. I told him I didn’t agree, that I thought Prospero the magician says, “Thou earth, thou!” He calls him, “Thou earth, thou!” He gathers their fuel—their fire—and he does manual labor. For me, Shakespeare makes Caliban into the body—and also, he’s horny. He tries to rape Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. So, those are certainly sex, drugs, and rock and roll. They’re attributes of the physical body. I saw the characters as having something to do with layers of personality, but also different qualities of the self—Caliban being the physical. Then you rip that off, and there are other masks to be ripped off.
     Ultimately, when you’ve ripped off all the masks in my play, I try to rip off my own face. Which is not so clear in the video I gave you. Somebody filmed that for PBS and ended up editing it in a way that didn’t show that. It’s “is there something underneath, layer upon layer, that covers us?”
     So, one of the many places I performed it, was at my friend Larry Sacharow’s theater in Woodstock. He produced it there. Larry was in Mr. Nyland’s group and he later led a group in the New York Gurdjieff Foundation. He said, “This play is about the Work, isn’t it?”— Nobody says that to me because they don’t have that point of reference,—And I said yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do, but through indirection, not by preaching about it. It’s by taking away this, that, and the other, and what are you left with? Is there something underneath all that? I think Shakespeare writes about all that, certainly in the later plays. But they exist on so many levels, simultaneously. I try to embody my understanding of that with the texts, and try to let the text collide with the image, so that a new meaning, or a new experience emerges.
     My Caliban mask was derived from a Noh Theatre mask, which is also a very dirty mask in Japanese tradition. One of them is of a jealous woman who turns herself into a demon, and the other is of a guy with a penis for a nose. Another mask is a death mask; it’s literally a death mask, the way they make them with plaster molds. The mask of the magician is just a white death mask, which I wear for him. There are several others, each with their own source.

works:   Right there at the end, I was reminded of listening to Laurens van der Post many years ago. His nursemaid had been from the San people and he grew up in South Africa and had learned some of that clicking language.

Fred:    Yeah. The Lost World of the Kalahari. That was a great book.

works:   He wrote many. I heard him speak at a lecture series that Jacob Needleman had a lot to do with. Van der Post spoke about The Tempest. He’d actually produced the play once and was very familiar with it. As one of Shakespeare’s last plays, Van der Post thought his message was that if you want to go deeper, you have to turn to religion—that art can only carry you so far. It was a very striking statement and has stuck with me all these years.

Fred:   Yeah. I think that’s true. I mean, the word ‘religion’ is a little tricky these days. But something that’s religious, or has that most essential quality—and certainly Stanislavsky professed to do that (and a lot of contemporary actors kind of have that lingo)—it’s not unheard of. But it doesn’t manifest that well in general culture.     

works:   Not so much, right.

Fred:   No. The plays that are popular these days are concerned with social justice issues, and I embrace most of those issues. But they don’t go to that deeper level that you’re talking about.

works:   Right. We’re talking about something that seems almost impossible to give another person. If I’ve had a certain kind of deep experience, I can “tell” people about it, but I can’t really give it to them. So that brings us to the edge of theater and these deeper realms of experience.

Fred:   Sure. I have nothing but highfalutin opinions about that—and a few experiences to go along with them, as well. I was very attracted, as I was telling you, to Zeami, the playwright who wrote a lot of the Noh plays that are still performed hundreds of years later. He also was a theorist and performer—a theorist of acting. Earlier I mentioned riken no ken, I think it’s pronounced, which is the experience of awareness of yourself dancing— that when you’re performing as a Noh actor, you’re dancing, and seeing yourself panoramically, objectively. It’s equated with the Zen experience of kensho or awakening.
     It’s said to do away with the subject/object relationship, that dualistic perception—I’m performing and you’re the spectator. I think that’s what you were asking about, the spectator’s experience of something palpable, something that’s true, something that’s present, and something that takes one beyond the ordinary. If the performer is able to experience that in performing, it does away with the separation with the audience. And the audience gets it, theoretically.

works:   Right.

Fred:    You asked me earlier if I had experiences like that. We’re talking about well over 55 years of performing—and all of it under the influence of Gurdjieff’s ideas and other ideas which speak of such things. But trying to make them real in daily life, and in the experience of performing, is a central concern for me. I was attracted to Grotowski originally—particularly in the early stage of his research where he talked about what he called, “the Total Act.” For him, it was also impossible to articulate what that is, exactly. You can say what it’s not, because so much of what we experience, and so much of what happens, in performance is, well, superficial bullshit, prevarication, lies, obscuration—you name it. It’s not being present.
So, same with Zeami. He didn’t really try to theorize too much about what that awareness in performance was, or the transcendent experience of beauty, which is the coming together of all the elements in the performance. But he wrote poems about it. He wrote metaphors, almost like Zen koans or haikus, rather than trying to express directly what that experience is. And for me as well, from thousands and thousands of performances, there is an experience of that, where the border between myself and the action that I’m performing, and the audience that’s witnessing it, and my mind—all those borderlines disappear. There’s a unitive experience of being present. It’s not reliably there, although I would venture to say that reliably and always, that’s who we are. That’s who I am. But the perception and experience of that is not always there. It can be there. And it’s wonderful when it is.

   

 

 

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