In the opening of an interview with director Elizabeth LeCompte, Anne Bogart asks where LeCompte and her company get the permission to create work so “unlike what you see in most theatre.” She responds: “it comes from having a space that’s mine, that’s ours, our very own. So when I start work, there’s not anything that’s saying to me that you have to do this for somebody else. If it doesn’t work, then I don’t owe anybody anything.” Conversations with Anne, a series of twenty-four interviews conducted by Bogart, the artistic director of the SITI Company and professor of the graduate directing program at Columbia University, could be approached with the same mindset—this is a book about having your own space to voice thoughts: thoughts on art, the theatre, human emotion, fragility, strength of character. These interviews, held within a ten-year period after the 9/11 attacks, are all connected in some way to the theatre and the world of performing arts, though this piece is not restricted to the theatre-loving reader.
Each interview begins with Bogart’s interactions with, knowledge of, or relationship to the person she is about to interview, followed by a brief biography and list of professional achievements. The interviewees are of the theatre and performing arts world, such as choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones, playwright Paula Vogel, and director Robert Woodruff. Often the anecdotes of how Bogart has come to know her interviewees are repeated in the opening of the interview itself, which is redundant and unnecessary. The anecdotes do help to exemplify Bogart’s connections to her guests (whether they have served as her mentors, been her peers in writing workshops, or if Bogart has worked with them as a director), and that’s what conversations do—connect people. Whether the author is relaying her embarrassing story of forming an “I Hate Richard Foreman Club” to introduce the director, or gushing about Meredith Monk’s influence on Bogart in the 1970s, Bogart’s personal stories and connections to these individuals make the interviews that much more intimate and poignant. These interviews are built from the need for connection first motivated by 9/11. Though the conversations people engaged in then discussed the human condition and larger issues of hate and fear, they mostly stemmed from this more crucial human need to connect and empathize, because we are, at our core, social creatures.
All interviews were held in a public forum, providing more truly open dialogue, where audience members occasionally ask questions and further the conversations. By choosing to read this book, we are more passively (but no less importantly) becoming a part of these conversations. Because interviews are public, at times audience members’ questions supplement Bogart’s. They are usually simpler (where do you get your ideas?) but no less important questions, about pleasure from work, literary influences, and the like. The point is that this is a continuing, rich dialogue that everyone is capable of partaking in, and one in which everyone should.
A reader doesn’t have to read the interviews in order, which is liberating and allows you to pick and choose the conversations you want to immerse yourself in. I found it best to read the pieces one at a time, so as not to have voices and ideas blend together. The book opens up with an interview with playwright and director Richard Foreman. He and Bogart begin with the theme of hate, such a prevalent topic in regard to 9/11; hate motivated the act of terror. Foreman takes this as a cue to discuss group human responses and the purpose of art. The answers in these interviews are never simple or straightforward, but full of poignant, wise observations. As Foreman reminds us: “The task of serious art is to make everybody really understand that they don’t belong to a group.” The individual should emerge from art, and it does so onstage through the physical presence of the actor’s body and the impact of the words. The impact of each interview’s words only emphasizes Foreman’s point throughout the rest of the book.
Often, I was expecting stage directions, or cues to the interviewee’s physical and facial responses to questions, since all members of this book are affiliated with the theatrical world in some way. Perhaps that would have been gimmicky, but the very depth of action and physicality of the stage that the various voices discuss seems to be missing in the structure of this stark black and white Q&A format. Director Peter Sellars mentions in his interview that gestures on stage are held high, because these movements make connections with the viewer, so I was hoping for some of these gestures to be described throughout the interviews.
Each interview brings a greater richness and complexity to the conversation about what theatre and art, movement and dialogue can do for our social fabric. Every interviewee’s attitude and personality shine through their responses and the particular questions Bogart has paired with them. For example, one of the most interesting and engaging interviews is with Sellars. His conversation with Bogart is full of passion and feeling, and she reminds us this is indicative of his personality. He mixes politics with passion, confirming that the political is indeed personal, and that art gives breath to the political—so art is always, therefore, personal.
Initially, the book appears to be directed toward a theatre audience, but then you recognize that it is about art more broadly, until finally you acknowledge that even that observation doesn’t fully encompass the scope of the work. Bogart’s book is about larger human connections, which art helps us to understand. It is about emotion (the love as well as the hate). In Foreman’s interview, he reminds us that when relating characters to America, we need to accept ambiguity. Some issues—and most characters, like people—are not on one side of the spectrum or the other, but somewhere in the foggy middle. It is this foggy middle that Bogart so skillfully navigates through her dialogues. Even though the book does not leave one with clear-cut answers, it allows for discussion. And it makes room for analysis and new ideas about the appreciation and necessity of art in these tumultuous and confusing, albeit inspiring, political and social times.