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Redefining Real

New York Director Richard Maxwell brings Boxing 2000 to Chicago

Chicago as a theater training ground has launched another talent. Performer, director, and self-described "hack musician/composer" Richard Maxwell has taken his Midwestern sensibility and ear for the language of everyday life to New York City's Lower East Side.

Described by critics as "New York theater's greatest ironist" and a "connoisseur of cliché," Maxwell has also been equated by The New York Times to Sam Shepard in the early 1960s.

Maxwell studied theater at Illinois State University, after which he accepted a fellowship with the Steppenwolf Theater Company. He later founded the Cook County Theater Department along with other Chicago actors, before moving to New York in 1994. After sweeping the Wooster group's stage for a few months, he made connections in Manhattan and is now the artistic director of the New York City Players.

Based on audience and critical response to his work over the last several years, Performing Arts Chicago (PAC), in conjunction with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, invited Maxwell to participate in their PAC Theater Series.

"The idea of that series is to look at some new initiatives within the theatrical world," explained C. J. Mitchell of PAC. "Each company is very distinct in terms of what they're doing and each group has challenging aspects. Although they can be difficult, we believe they communicate to a wide audience."

Boxing 2000, Maxwell's twelfth play and the third to tour internationally, depicts Latino characters from Brooklyn, Maxwell's current neighborhood. It opens with Jo-Jo, ex-prize fighter and technical school graduate looking to help his younger half-brother, Freddie, figure out what to do with his life after he loses his job. A white, used-car-salesman fight promoter approaches them, asking Freddie about his financial plans for the future, to which Freddie responds that he currently plays Lotto. This interchange inspires Freddie to ask his girlfriend Marissa to marry him and culminates in the final sequence, which takes place in a full-sized boxing ring on stage.

Although Maxwell does not describe Boxing 2000 as traditional, he does see it as a play. Maxwell describes part of his artistic vision as getting "back to theater as a medium by itself." His motivation for this focus goes back to a time when he was performing in Chicago, when performance was in a sense apologizing for theater. "For me it just became too much of this multimedia extravaganza," Maxwell explained, and this was his motivation to get back to more traditional theatrical concepts.

Maxwell's work has been distinguished from conventional theater by the ambience of reality and commitment to a different vision of reality than theatergoers might normally expect to see on stage. "There's a holy grail to good acting - that it's 'real' - and I think that one of the things I discovered working in Chicago with Cook County was that 'real' can mean anything. For me, real is doing a play."

Though working with theatrical conventions of plot and encouraging tenets of good performance based on a traditional theater background - give and take, listening, being generous on stage, and being active - Maxwell also encourages his actors to avoid trying to sell the lines. "There's no convincing that's necessary," Maxwell tells his actors. He encourages them to avoid "as ifs," meaning that they should avoid acting "as if" they are in a particular situation or "as if" they are in a play. According to Maxwell, the reality of saying lines in front of an audience is enough.

"The fact is, you have lines and you say them, and the audience will decide whether that's interesting or good or bad. They will be able to project whatever they want onto what you are saying. Most plays are designed to elicit one response from the audience. ... That's not interesting to me."

Because Maxwell pulls his lines and conversations directly from what he has observed in the world, he places the burden on himself to make the play credible or "real" through the way the lines are written and arranged rather than asking the actors to present their lines in any particular way.

"The words themselves create the locale, create the place, and there's no need for the actors to invent that in their heads, there's no need for them to invent another reality, or to pretend that there's another reality on stage," Maxwell said. "You can't really say these people aren't real, because they exist. You can say you don't like them, but you can't say that it's not real or even not realistic."

In creating Boxing 2000, Maxwell was interested in how people express themselves in Brooklyn, and he put himself to the task of writing it down.

"The writing of the play is interesting because ...that's where authenticity, verisimilitude, and believability is really important," Maxwell explained. "That's something that I take pretty seriously. And I think that's what makes it a play. That's what keeps it in the play realm. It's very important that the dialogue is somehow accurate to the character."

In addition to taking conversations and lines from actual people on the streets for Boxing 2000, and trying to stay true to the rhythm and syntax he observed, Maxwell also maintains the integrity of the locale by casting people from that neighborhood, in addition to casting traditionally trained actors. Placing these novice actors with professionals creates an interesting dynamic, according to Maxwell.

"It creates a sense of the unexpected. They're working with a palette if you will, that is not expected, that is not the norm, because they are not coming from a traditional training background. ... Training is a way to deal with fear and a way of coping with fear and how to get around that. When you're in front of an audience, of course you're going to be scared. There's this high level of expectancy around it and it's a highly charged environment. But that's not a bad thing. That's a good thing. ...There's really no reason to disguise that and pretend it's not there."

During our interview, Maxwell described his primary direction to his actors, trained or not trained, regarding delivery: "We're doing a play. There is an audience. Can the audience hear the lines? Are you loud enough? Can they understand them? Are you intelligible enough? If not, why are you saying them?"

Although the actors are delivering lines, rather than "acting" or pretending to be someone while delivering the lines, they are still in an active state of participation when they are on stage.

"They are reacting to each other. They aren't reacting to each other based on fiction though. That's a very active state and that's something I talk to them about a lot. You have to be committed to something up there. There has to be a reason you're up there and you have to know what that reason is. At the same time you have to be able to adjust, to modify, to betray that at a moment's notice, that's the paradox of acting, of good performing, to be in that position of give and take, of utter commitment to a thing, not necessarily a psychological or emotional need, but some thing," Maxwell said.

Maxwell also describes his directorial style in terms of music, since music has been an integral part of most of his plays. Although Boxing 2000 only includes one song, Maxwell still focused on the musical quality of the words while creating and developing the show.

"It's more about rhythm to me: where's the pulse? There's a rhythm to the words that hasn't been discovered nightly, and I think each time you enter into a situation where you're performing, there are about to be new rhythms that are stumbled upon, discovered, and finding the rhythm with the audience is really important."

Maxwell's musical sense will come in handy for his next play, scheduled to open later this year. He is working with Dutch actors who will be performing his work in Dutch (translated from his words written in English). Because he does not speak Dutch, as a director he will have to rely heavily on the rhythm and sounds of the words.

Despite the influx of critical accolades, Maxwell also receives comments from audience members who don't necessarily understand what he is trying to accomplish.

"I think that's where a lot of the comments come from, like 'Why are they lacking emotion?' 'Why are they flat?' It goes back to the notion of: What is reality?" Maxwell said. "What people are saying is, 'That this is not consistent with what I'm used to seeing on stage.' And that's what makes it seem unreal. ... One of the things I think television and movies have done is they have corrupted the theatergoing experience, because when people go to a play they're not necessarily understanding that this is a live thing they're seeing, and that's why you have people talking during the performance, or commenting, or maybe not responding. I think there's a certain responsibility that goes along with theatergoing."

Boxing 2000 will be performed at the Atheneum Theater 2936 N. Southport (at Lincoln and Wellington), on Friday, January 25 and Saturday, January 26 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, January 27 at 4 p.m. Tickets for SAIC students are $8 ($5 on Friday). General public price is $20. For tickets and information call 773-PAC-LINE or visit www.pachicago.org.
Photo by Michael Schmelling. Courtesy of Carol Fox & Associates.

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