In 1958, renowned abstract artist Mark Rothko accepted a commission to paint a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant. His struggle to complete this task is the subject of Red, Melbourne Theatre Company’s new production starring Colin Friels. We spoke with director Alkinos Tsilimidos about the challenges of directing theatre and paying tribute to the man himself.
You’ve been working in film for the last few years; what attracted you to come and do theatre?
I love theatre. I love watching theatre, and I’d only recently become interested in directing something, because I love working with actors. I’ve been doing a lot of teaching at acting schools, and a lot of the work we do is through improvisation and creating characters. That’s what really interests me- working with actors- so that’s what made theatre seem like a good place to try. Specifically, it was Colin [Friels, who is starring as Rothko] who brought me in. We’ve made a couple of movies together, so we’ve got a good creative rapport, and he was really integral in instigating this to happen. The MTC wanted to Colin to be in it, and he contacted me to direct.
What were some of the challenges in directing theatre; was there room for any improvisation?
Theatre, for me, is basically serving the text. There’s not much room; there’s air, of course, but really it was the cast and myself serving this terrific text. There’s freedom, obviously, in the way to go about rehearsing the text, but pretty much from day one I decided that it’d be the text we were working with. Within that, we can discover the characters, because the text will give us the truth of that. Whereas with film, mostly I would start the rehearsal process and throw the screenplay away- you start from the ground level and develop the characters. I asked the guys to research before rehearsal started, so that’s the same as I would do with film, but theatre cuts right through that and goes straight through to the core of the text to create the truth, so that’s the big difference.
The play is a two-hander, where Rothko has an assistant who’s largely a fictional character, whereas with Rothko, there’s a wealth of information about him. In terms of the research you had to do in directing these two characters, did you have to alter your approach for them?
Yeah, what I created is an interpretation of Rothko. Ken [played by Andre De Vanny] is like a composite of real people, but ultimately the text allowed us to create a composite of those two characters. There was a wealth on Rothko that you could research, but nonetheless it was going to be an interpretation. And so, with Ken, his research was about the time, the art, and what it was like being a young man in 1958 right in the middle of contemporary American painting. There was plenty on Mark Rothko, which was good to feed knowledge for all of us, but Ken was representative of a lot of young guys at the time. They’re serving an apprenticeship; you don’t go work with a painter just to stretch canvases all your life.
If you were doing a film of Rothko’s life, you’d probably have to cast somebody who looks a lot like Rothko, who talks like him, but with theatre we’re more willing to accept interpretation.
It’s a spirit he’s inhabiting. Physically, Colin looks nothing like Rothko. Rothko was a big balding Jewish fellow, and Colin is very slight and Scottish. There’s a spirituality we can capture, and on film it would be a different thing, I think. You could get away with it, because we’re more ready to accept it in theatre. On film, I think you would want to create a character that has the physicality of Rothko, and you’d seek that, but sometimes an actor comes along who looks nothing like Rothko but inhabits the soul of Rothko. Ultimately, it’s a creative decision that you make.
Obviously with theatre there’s no editing, as opposed to film – does that change your process at all, that there’s no room to remove things once the show is done?
The thing is that when I rehearsed film, I’d rehearse each scene in a seamless process. And that’s what I’m doing with the play; we’re discovering the text in a seamless process. Incidentally, Red is written by a screenwriter, so it’s divided up into five scenes. It has a broad filmic structure, so like I would any film, take a scene and rehearse that. The great thing about theatre is that I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to frame it, because the fourth wall exists and the audience is beyond that. Ultimately, theatre is an actor’s medium, film is a director’s medium. It feels good not to have to take a scene and manipulate it, it’s much more pure.
All I can do is a director is impart, put in the form work with the guys, and it’s their domain. So I’ll come watch and give input, and if I’ve got any ideas to help them, I’ll give them. That’s all I’ve really done, is give them a framework, a way for every scene and an overall context. The design and all that, yes, that’s from a director’s viewpoint, but the purity of it all , the two people on the stage all the time, it’s their medium. Getting over yourself as a director will help you direct theatre.
There’s no opportunity for you to sit in an editing bay and change things.
I’ve seen film directors shoot something and say “Oh I’ll just take that part and cut the rest”, whereas I’m not going to do that. Every moment in theatre is a significant moment, whereas in film, I can chop it away.
Moving sideways a little bit, how much direction did you have in terms of constructing the set? Was it informed at all by previous productions of the show?
It wasn’t informed by other productions. I met with [set designer] Shaun Gurton, and I liked his passion for Rothko’s work, and from there we collaborated. We made a decision very early on to recreate the gymnasium Rothko converted to create the murals. The gymnasium was at 222 The Bowery [a neighbourhood in New York City famous for its poverty], I couldn’t get into the actual building, but I stood outside and had a look at it; there’s apartments there now and a shop at the bottom. We thought it would be best that we don’t abstract the play and let the work be the abstraction, in that Rothko produced abstract art. We wanted to work on the idea that when the audience come into the theatre, they’re sharing an intimate space with Rothko in the place he works, which happens to be an old basketball gym.
The bulk of the play happens around Rothko’s comission, which at the time was one of, if not the, most expensive ever given to an artist.
It was the certainly the biggest commission any American painter had received- it was equivalent to about two million dollars today.
*The following portion of the interview concerns the real life events depicted in Red, including the play’s ending. If you’d rather not know, skip ahead here.*
Now, he ultimately fails to deliver those murals. It seems that there’s a focus on his personal failure in trying to reach for an artistic goal that he ultimately felt was beyond his reach. The plays seems like it’s about this sort of monumental quest, to do the best thing you’ve ever done. Is the play ultimately pessimistic?
Oh no, I think it’s definitely optimistic. Rothko spends two years creating some of the best work he’s ever made, and in the end realises that this place that it was supposed to be for would never view his work in the way it’s supposed to be viewed. It’s a victory for Rothko, not a loss. He happily gives back the money and keeps his murals, and that’s ultimately the ideal of the play.
It’s essentially about a master and apprentice relationship, and through Rothko, Ken is able to understand the responsibility required of an artist to be original, what that actually entails, and in doing that, this young man reveals to Rothko the kind of weakness in his personal argument for taking on the comission. So they both in a way save each other. It’s a hugely optimistic journey. Rothko didn’t need the money, it was all about his fucking ego, and in the end he realises that. Where he does fail is in his blind belief, that the patrons of this restaurant would view his work- what they’re really going to do is to eat and talk shit.
That was always the strange thing for me, that he would even take the commision in the first place.
He thought he could create a place of contemplation in a restaurant, but this restaurant he was painting for was all about being seen there, being seen spending a lot of money. It was in the Four Seasons, which was going to be the place at the time. He hoped that he would put them off their meals, but he realised that they wouldn’t even fucking look at it.
And that’s the realisation he has to come to,
Regardless of whether he paints crap or the best work of his life, ultimately it doesn’t matter.
Because they’re never going to look at it. Rothko was all about creating a place where people would be consumed by the work. He says, “I want people to put as much work as I have in the creation of these things in viewing them”. It would’ve been completely at odds with people eating at the Four Seasons restaurant.
*Plot details end here.*
In spending so much time with Rothko, discovering a lot about his ideologies and beliefs about art, has his work affected the way your approach your work?
Not in terms of my direction, but one of the reasons I agreed to do the play is because I believed in his philosophy. It makes me feel good to help portray someone who believes so much in the purity of art. I’m up for anything where the argument of ‘Art vs. Commerce’ can be bandied around, and if Art wins out, then I’m in- and it does.
Red plays at MTC’s Sumner Theatre from March 22 to May 5. For Ticket sales and more information, visit their website.
Words: William Godfrey