Whit MacLaughlin on NPL, “The Adults,” and Eric Fischl
FringeArts has been a big fan of New Paradise Laboratories‘ work for years. Katy Otto, who’s worked with NPL, writes in with a Q&A with NPL artistic director Whit MacLaughlin. Whit talks about a visit to the studio of artist Eric Fischl, whose paintings have influenced NPL and its upcoming FringeArts presentation, The Adults.
When did you first become acquainted with Eric Fischl’s work, and what was that like for you?
I’ve been looking at Eric’s paintings for around 20 years – so maybe 1994. I think I first found a book of his work at the Strand Book Store in NYC, and snatched it up. I was very interested, first and foremost, in any contemporary artist who kept the figure at the core of his/her practice – it was unusual at the time – and Eric painted bodies in an un-ironic way. He was sincerely concerned with the place of the figure as a locus of consciousness and narrative. I also liked how his canvasses forced me to acknowledge my own voyeuristic tendencies. The subjects of his paintings were the people on view, not some idea about the people, which made sense to me in a particularly theatrical way. He was also painting a world I knew something about. Middle class, vaguely suburban life with a fair amount of alcohol and ambiguity. And there was sex, pretty much right out in the open. Right up my alley.
How has visual art impacted the work of NPL?
We have started with visual art as a departure point for most of our pieces. Let’s see: Goya, Miro, Piero della Francesco, Breugel, Cy Twombly, Marcel Duchamp and more. We almost consider our work as moving visual art. We paint with bodies in motion. And we like stillness that vibrates. Visual art gives you an almost immediate immersion into a visceral world, which is very useful when you are making work from scratch – which means that our work isn’t really from scratch, is it? I consider painters and sculptors to be playwrights, really, usually without words. And I like the way that visual art – the stuff that we remember, really – has always relied on the presence of an edge, an avant-garde, to advance. That separates it from theatre, as a whole, which is pretty content to keep its work in the realm of the traditional – its strength is in the ways that it recycles convention, making incremental evolutionary advances over time.
What is the connection between The Adults and the work of Eric Fischl?
Beaches, moody interiors, family problems, sex, suspicion, self-absorption. Hidden cruelty. Probably a lot more.
How do you create work that remains open to the current moment?
I don’t know what the current moment is. Our brains are never located in the present. It’s the past that constitutes the present, and walking down the street for me is like walking through a space that is haunted with the presence of things now absent, sometimes for a long time. I suppose the main thing that’s current now is how similar it is to things past – except for maybe two things: the internet and climate change. So we are incorporating both of these phenomena into this piece. We have a “surround” around the piece that is working to clarify the sorts of things we all experience as we try to achieve this mythical, perhaps non-existent status of adult. It exists in the internet. And the piece has some, I think, interesting ideas about the relationship of childishness, the fluids in the body, and the rising sea level. Does that sound topical?
Tell us about the development of The Adults.
We’ve been working on it, off and on, for 16 months, which seems like a long time. Some of the material in the piece was first glimpsed at a residence we undertook in North Carolina in March of 2013. We started making proposals, improvising – yes, for the first time we undertook several four hour improvs that had no theme. A very challenging thing for actors. And we made proposal after proposal of stories that seemed to emanate from Fischl’s paintings. Things organize themselves over time into a series of scenarios. A narrative emerges. We spend a long time writing and staging. When that process is near to finished, then we rehearse and attempt to perfect. The Adults will be created, from stem to stern, in about 16 weeks of rehearsal.
You recently took the ensemble to Sag Harbor to visit Fischl’s studio. What was that like?
A lot of fun and very interesting. I contacted Eric about a year and a half ago, when we were just getting started and told him what we were up to. He said to keep in contact. I laid low for a long time. Finally, a meeting seemed appropriate so we approached Eric through an intermediary–Harry Philbirck who is the Director of the PAFA exhibition program, who we are working with as a sort of visual art dramaturg–and Eric agreed to hang with us.
We showed up, a big gang of 8, at his beautiful house in Sag Harbor. He had lunch waiting. We sat and talked, then roamed his house and talked, then hung out in his studio, looked at his new canvasses and talked. A most edifying day. We all agreed that cross-disciplinary conversation should happen more.
What steps do you take as a theater artist to ensure that the work is able to remain vulnerable to interpretation?
A hard and interesting question. A most important question. I think that the best art has at least three valid interpretations. I don’t like things that seem to proscribe, to tell me how to live. All good work is clear at the core, but invites you to ponder with it.
How does one achieve this? There are as many strategies as there are artists. Most of them attempt to trick the mind of the artist away from easy interpretability into an ample field of inquiry. And for the viewer or audience, the trick is to give adequate toeholds into the work, but still leave room for the viewer’s developing mind.
What has it been like combining the older NPL ensemble with the newer in this piece?
A blast, really. Instant love. The older members provided a kind of anchor point for the younger, and the younger provide an invigorating dose of foolhardy bravery for the elder ones. Mostly it’s just fun and stimulating. Everybody learns from everyone else.
What role will sound play in The Adults?
Wow, Bhob Rainey is the real deal. His work is intuitive, well thought through, ravishing, crazy, and violent. Just what you want music to be. We’ve gone through an iteration of the score, now we’re starting over and doing it again. A good portion of the piece happens at the threshold of silence, generated by the actors. Other sections are good and loud.
The Adults runs September 3 through 7, and September 10 through 14. Times vary, $15 to $29. This show is supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.