Written by John Logan
Directed by Les Waters
Main Season · Thrust Stage
March 16–May 12, 2012
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Paint it Red! The passionate play that swept Broadway comes to Berkeley Rep, staged by Obie Award-winning director Les Waters. At the height of his fame, Mark Rothko struggles in his studio to finish a major series of murals. The brilliant master wrestles with his new apprentice in a battle of wits over a bucket of paint. John Logan, the Oscar-nominated author of Aviator, Gladiator and Hugo, won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for this feverish 90-minute drama that spans the spectrum of human emotion. From grief and fury to joy and hope, it’s all covered in Red.
John Logan · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Louisa Thompson · Scenic Design
Anna Oliver · Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Lighting Design
Bray Poor · Sound Design
Julie McCormick · Dramaturg
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Kimberly Mark Webb · Assistant Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Stephanie Klapper · Casting
Tyler Albright · Casting Assistant
Lauren O’Connell · Casting Assistant
Katja Zarolinski · Casting Intern
Stephanie Buchner · Associate Lighting Designer
John Brummer · Ken
David Chandler · Mark Rothko
“Raw and real…A primer in the volatile life and work of Mark Rothko, this Tony-winning drama about aesthetics, psychology and fate marks the swan song of director Les Waters who will soon decamp from Berkeley Rep to take over the noted Actors Theatre of Louisville. Smartly framed by Waters, the play’s finest qualities stem from its ability to capture the unruly nature of the artistic process, the thud of paint smacked across the canvas, the rustling of brushes being cleaned, the deep abyss of the painter’s stare. Dominated by massive light-reflecting orbs (Rothko loathed natural light), empty buckets and encrusted paint splatter, Louisa Thompson’s gorgeous set design captures the ache of a space dedicated to art. The stormy Rothko (David Chandler) saw himself as an oracle and the studio became his altar. Peeking inside the dark corners of the creative soul is a heady proposition and there are moments of great exhilaration here. The first time Rothko strikes a brush against the canvas, the action is so raw and startling, it seems almost like an act of violence. It’s as if he wants to hurt the painting or himself or perhaps both…Logan—a Chicago playwright turned Oscar nominee (Hugo, Gladiator)—means to seduce us with his uncompromising vision of a man consumed by his art, obsessed with the meaning of shapes and hues that most of us merely glance at as we race through the world in a blur.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“Scintillating…The prickly personality and illuminating insights of David Chandler’s Rothko deliver some pretty rich rewards…Chandler, whose stillness gazing deep into an unseen canvas is both hypnotic and revelatory, is deliciously sharp delivering Rothko’s insights into the use of light in a Caravaggio, color in a Matisse, movement in Picasso or structure in a Michelangelo…[Director Les] Waters grounds the action in the workday world of the artist as laborer—from Anna Oliver’s paint-spattered work clothes to the clutter of tools of the trade on the stocky tables of Louisa Thompson’s set…a beautifully mounted production.”—San Francisco Chronicle
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
For the past eight years, we here at Berkeley Rep have had the great good fortune of counting Les Waters as a member of our staff. As most of you know, Les’ enormous talent and intelligence have left an indelible mark on our work. From Yellowman to The Glass Menagerie, from The Pillowman to Three Sisters, every one of the 16 plays he’s directed has been marked by a fierce visual imagination, an inspired illumination of the text and a passion to reveal the power and depth of our shared, human experience.
But Les’ contribution exceeded his pure artistry. Trained in England and coming of age during the ‘60s, he developed an insatiable appetite for new work. He brought that sensibility to Berkeley Rep, where he championed many new writers and directed premieres of plays written by Charles Mee, Will Eno, Todd Almond, Naomi Iizuka and Sarah Ruhl. Those productions were among the best we have presented during the past decade—work that inspired us and sustained us in every conceivable manner. Playwrights simply love Les precisely because he has the utmost respect for their process. The same can be said of his relationships with designers and actors. Simply put, he lets his colleagues discover and explore the world of the play for themselves, then guides and shapes their ideas with an absolutely deft hand in an almost imperceptible manner. And to top it off, the guy has a wicked sense of humor.
Les has already embarked upon his next professional journey as artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. But he returns to our shores to direct Red, the acclaimed play by John Logan that fictionalizes the interplay between master painter Mark Rothko and a young protégé. Here is another play that traffics in that “bewildering combination of fact and fiction” (as one of our bewildered critics recently put it when referring to another of our plays). But that blend is what makes Red so intriguing. And challenging. Watching Rothko and his student hash out the meaning of art while simultaneously revealing their deepest psychological paradigms requires a director who understands history, who loves art and who can make manifest both what’s on the page and what exists between the lines. For that we have Mr. Waters and his talented creative team.
We welcome Les back to Berkeley Rep. We will miss not seeing him every day, but we look forward to working with him for years to come.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Even as shows launched from our stage continue to thrill audiences across the nation, Berkeley Rep is proud to invite you to a new year of exhilarating plays. We’ve just announced five of the seven shows selected for our 2012–13 Season, and I’m excited to tell you about them. The lineup features an incredible array of accomplished artists who have collectively earned nine Obie Awards and three Tony Awards—David Henry Hwang, Denis O’Hare, Lisa Peterson, Leigh Silverman, Mark Wing-Davey and Mary Zimmerman—while introducing local audiences to exceptional young writer Dan LeFranc.
We begin with the West Coast premiere of Chinglish, the hilarious Broadway comedy written by Hwang and staged by Silverman. Then Zimmerman gives the Bay Area a beautiful gift for the holidays with The White Snake, before Wing-Davey brings the Bard back to Berkeley Rep with Shakespeare’s classic Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The Limited Season features Peterson and O’Hare’s visceral new version of An Iliad alongside the exuberant world premiere of LeFranc’s Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright. Plus, we’ll bring you two additional shows next spring.
It promises to be another year of exhilarating theatre at Berkeley Rep, and I hope you’ll share it with us. Here is why a ticket package to Berkeley Rep is the best value for your budget:
- The best seats at the consistently lowest prices
- Flexible exchange policy (yes, we do expect you to switch nights often)
- Guaranteed seats, even for sold-out shows
- Dibs on special-event offers
- Discounts for your guests—and we waive the fees
- A commitment that you will, indeed, get to all the great shows at Berkeley Rep
All that—and an emotional, visceral and intellectual experience that can’t be measured with dollars. At Berkeley Rep, when the curtain comes down, we always hope you leave just a little bit different. Won’t you join us for the journey?
All the best,
Mark Rothko: a study in red
By Julie McCormick
Mark Rothko is one of the most significant painters of the 20th century, most recognized for his color field paintings and associated with the American Abstract Expressionists. His career spanned a number of styles and idioms, beginning with largely representational studies of landscapes and human figures, passing through surrealism and ending with his own unique style characterized by dynamic interplay between floating rectangles and a luminous application of paint. His work features bold colors, and seeks to plumb new depths of the human experience. A profoundly spiritual and intellectual man, Rothko believed that “the exhilarated tragic experience is […] the only source of art.” Though gregarious and capable of great wit and warmth, Rothko was also plagued by lifelong feelings of isolation and depression.
The early days: Dvinsk, Portland, and Yale
Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in what is now Daugavpils, Latvia, but was then Dvinsk, Russia. Marcus was the youngest, by several years, of four children. While Dvinsk was spared the pogroms that raged through many other areas of Russia, there was nevertheless a great deal of anti-Semitism that the Rothkowitzes and roughly 35,000 other Jews in Dvinsk faced on a daily basis. As a form of protest against these injustices, Marcus’ father sent him to cheder (a school for young Jewish boys to learn Hebrew and the Scriptures). Marcus may have resented being forced to study the Talmud with such rigor, but at age nine he was considered somewhat of a prodigy. In his lengthy and well-researched biography, James E.B. Breslin notes that even after Marcus’ official studies ceased, he continued to compose journal entries, poems and even a play in Hebrew. Soon after Marcus started attending cheder, his father Jacob left for work in the U.S. Much of the family had already emigrated, and after three years of working and saving money, Jacob sent for the rest of his family.
The Rothkowitzes settled in Portland, Oregon, where some relatives had started a clothing business. The rest of the family, who were ambivalent about the move in the first place (Sophia, Marcus’ older sister, left behind a boyfriend and budding dentistry practice at her parents’ behest), found themselves in the awkward position of poor relations. To make matters worse, Jacob, after several months of illness, died of colon cancer soon after his family arrived.
Marcus’ adolescent years were spent in frustration, isolated from his community by his foreignness, his Jewishness and his intellect. He was extremely intelligent and motivated: though he was placed in the first grade at 10 years old because he was unable to speak English, he worked so hard over the years that he graduated high school early and was accepted to Yale on a scholarship. Yale, however, turned out to be just as isolating an environment as Portland. Instead of the academic rigor he sought, Marcus found WASPish “old-boy” posturing and institutionalized anti-Semitism. While there, he co-founded The Saturday Evening Pest, a weekly satirical newsletter that was slipped beneath dorm-room doors when everyone was out on Saturday nights. This is also likely where he first encountered Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophical writings, particularly his book The Birth of Tragedy, greatly influenced Marcus’ later approach to art. After two years, Marcus dropped out and moved to New York, much to his family’s befuddlement. He knocked around for a while, trying to break into theatre and scrounging to make ends meet. Every once in a while he would have dinner with some cousins in New Haven, who had a sneaking suspicion that these were the only square meals Marcus was getting.
New York: a clean canvas
It wasn’t until 1925 that Rothkowitz wandered into the Art Students League of New York and found his true calling. A popular anecdote is that while he was waiting to meet a friend, he poked his head into a sketching class with a nude model and was forever hooked. It’s important to note that, at this point, Rothkowitz was no painter. He had never before considered art as a career. Though biographers share small anecdotes about a teenaged Rothkowitz sketching behind the counter at work, he actually saw himself more as a writer, or a musician, and it’s certainly safe to say that he had considerable abilities and interest in both. Over the years he expressed his ideas about art, philosophy, tragedy and the human condition with great eloquence in essays and a short book, and, as we see in Red, he loved listening to the classical stylings of Mozart, Wagner and Bach. He was impoverished for much of his adult life, but Rothkowitz usually possessed a mandolin and a piano or harpsichord that he would plunk away on.
Rothkowitz’s path to finding his identity as an artist was long and emotionally fraught. Though he didn’t receive much formal training as a painter, he spent several months taking classes under the tutelage of Max Weber, who encouraged his students to push beyond a purely representative approach. New York of the 1920s was fairly conservative as far as art was concerned. The inspiring and cutting-edge movements that were sweeping Europe—Cubism, German Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism—had yet to find their counterparts in the American painting scene. Galleries and museums were able to display the works of “modern” European painters such as Picasso, Matisse and Klee, but limited their American displays to realism. Those few brave souls who were experimenting with less representational styles went largely unnoticed by critics and collectors alike.
This lack of public attention was a source of great frustration, but it also brought Rothkowitz together with a group of avant-garde New York artists that collectively came to be known as “The Whitney Dissenters” or “The Ten.” In protest against the Whitney Museum’s annual display of contemporary American art—which these painters felt privileged literal work and ignored the experimental and cutting-edge—The Ten put up their own display in the nearby Mercury Gallery. In addition to spending late nights drinking wine and talking about everything from politics to painting, The Ten’s fight against conservative attitudes toward art paved the way for the American Abstract Expressionist movement.
They also traveled together, and in 1932 at an artists’ retreat in Lake George, Massachusetts, Rothkowitz met his first wife, Edith Sachar. She was very young (19 to his 29), and a budding artist herself, working particularly with clay. Just as the two married and settled down to a life of blissful Bohemian deprivation, Rothkowitz had two solo shows: one in Portland, and one in New York. Despite these small victories, this was the height of the Great Depression. Art had become a luxury that precious few could afford, and those that could were not buying the work of these New York upstarts. So, Rothkowitz got a job.
Working for the man
He started teaching at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center in 1929 and also began painting for the government program TRAP (Treasury Relief Art Project), which hired 500 artists to decorate government buildings. Bowing to fears of anti-Semitism and deportation in the wake of pro-Nazi sentiments, Marcus Rothkowitz became a U.S. citizen in 1938. He also changed his Jewish-sounding name to the ethnically enigmatic and now iconic “Rothko” in 1940, and switched from “Marcus” to “Mark.”
Though it is hard to imagine the surly, chain-smoking Rothko teaching art classes to bright-eyed Jewish children, it was apparently an environment in which he thrived. The children loved their gentle “Rothkie,” who took them seriously and encouraged them to express themselves with their art. In turn, his dedication to his students allowed him to solidify some of his own ideas about painting. A talk he gave for parents was the seed of an unpublished piece called “The Scribble Book,” in which he outlines how children’s and “primitive” art demonstrate the ideal way an artist should approach making work. It is not the specific style they use that one should pay attention to, he argues, but rather, that their process is free from the inhibitions that come with a knowledge of culture, history and one’s social identity.
Rothko’s art was all about trying to move towards a purer, more instinctual, more direct form of expression. His explorations of this new territory began with studies of the human, particularly female, figure, as well as small groups in urban settings. At first glance these early works may appear to be fairly straightforward, yet Rothko sought to use the human figure as a means to capture the drama of emotions—of isolation, frustration, impotence and loss. Later, his compositions became more abstract as he turned to surrealist painters for inspiration and literary works such as Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. By Rothko’s own account, he took a solid year off from painting to read about Greek myths and dramas. (Whether he actually did so is doubtful; the point is that it was tremendously influential to his mindset.) In identifying these Ur emotional narratives, Rothko hoped to return myth to the modern consciousness. In such a secular, skeptical society, there was no longer any room for mystic experiences or venerating the unknown. Thus in his surrealist paintings of the early 1940s such as The Omen of the Eagle and The Syrian Bull, Rothko sought to provide himself and his viewers with “an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.”
While wrestling with these ideas, Rothko was also struggling with his marriage. By all accounts, he was capable of rapid oscillations between vivacious extroversion and black, crushing despair. This, combined with his unhealthy and untidy personal habits and total lack of entrepreneurial spirit, made him very difficult to live with. Edith, who was an artist herself and used to roughing it, started to long for a slightly more comfortable, economically stable existence. She started her own jewelry business and pressed Rothko into service touting her wares at department stores, a task he despised. After a lengthy separation and troubled reunion, the pair separated for a final time and filed for divorce in 1943. Even though the split was a long time coming, Rothko nevertheless fell into a deep depression.
In order to rouse himself, the 40-year-old artist returned to Portland and spent the summer of 1943 in Berkeley, developing a friendship with Clyfford Still. (If you go to SFMOMA, you’ll find that Rothko and Still’s paintings share a room.) In the spring or summer of 1944, he met Mary Alice Beistle (or Mell), and the two were married March 31, 1945. Mell was a balm for Rothko’s troubled spirit—she provided him with the structure, support and emotional nourishment he needed to do battle with his innermost self. She also studied art in college and was working as a commercial artist when the two were introduced.
In 1946, Rothko was picked up by the Parsons Gallery; though he didn’t sell many paintings, he did gain exposure and a sympathetic environment in which to display his art. Rothko had become enormously particular about the way viewers would approach his work, giving galleries and museums precise instructions on what height his paintings could be placed at and how close they could be to other installations. Betty Parsons was undaunted by Rothko’s demands; unlike most gallery owners of the time, she allowed her artists to hang their work as they wished. Rothko also had a show at the prestigious Guggenheim Museum, where his Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea was met with a measure of critical acclaim. He still wasn’t making much money, but Rothko was getting more attention as a painter.
He spent two summers in San Francisco with Mell, living in a beautiful house on Russian Hill and teaching an advanced seminar at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Once again, Rothko found himself as a mentor to young artists. His free-form lecture style did not suit everyone, but students recalled his dedication and the supportive, individual attention he gave to all.
In the late 1940s, Rothko began a phase of experimentation that would result in his signature, mature style. These large-scale works consist of two or three stacked rectangles hovering over a painted ground. The colors were vibrant and intense, pulsing and jostling one another on the canvas. In contrast with many of his contemporaries who drew attention to their medium through visible brushstrokes, splatters of paint and scratches in the canvas, Rothko sought to transcend the physical realities of painting and enter a new, unknown space where emotions were transmitted directly, rather than through an interpretive filter. According to Breslin, “Rothko was really looking for something beyond mere myths, which are, after all, narratives bound by the historical and cultural circumstances in which they originate…[Instead, he was] trying to find images for what he called the ‘Spirit of Myth’—not the Greek or Christian story but its transcultural emotional origin or core.” By eschewing representational forms altogether, Rothko was able to create this sensory experience for the viewer. These new paintings were a critical and commercial revelation, and Rothko quickly became a household name.
After years of being on the outside and looking in, Rothko found himself at the center of the room, and wasn’t entirely sure what to do with his newfound celebrity. So much of his identity over the years had been defined by standing against the crowd: leaving his Talmudic studies; the isolation of Portland and Yale; the long, hungry years of waiting for recognition from the art world in New York; his family’s lack of understanding for his work; and his tempestuous marriage with Edith. More significantly, perhaps, the content of Rothko’s art had always been concerned with the distinction between the individual and the collective. Some of his work, particularly the earlier, more literal paintings, portrayed isolated figures trapped in a gloomy world and yearning for a connection that is beyond their grasp (much like Rothko himself). The later works were also intended to express complex emotional truths about isolation and connection; so when buyers saw them as a financial investment or decorative accessory, it felt sacrilegious.
The Seagram Murals
In 1958, the Seagram Beverage Company asked Rothko to paint a series of murals that would go in the newly completed Seagram Building in Manhattan. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, an architect from the Bauhaus school in Germany; Philip Johnson, an American architect; and Phyllis Lambert, daughter of the Seagram CEO, had collaborated on the design of the sleek new skyscraper on Park Avenue. An elegant new restaurant, The Four Seasons, was to go on the first floor, and they wanted Rothko’s paintings to decorate it. Rothko readily agreed. Though this might be surprising given his extremely anticommercial sensibilities, the commission fee was awfully tempting ($35,000, which in today’s money would be more like $2 million), as was the opportunity to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.” He rented a studio in the Bowery that closely matched the dimensions of the restaurant and set to work. The lights were kept extremely dim, and he set up a track along the wall that he could hang paintings from. Despite his cynicism about the project, Rothko was swept away by his enthusiasm for having a space dedicated entirely to his art. He worked feverishly (you can apparently still see red paint splattered on the floor of the studio), and completed the 40 paintings in record time. It is during this period of creation that we meet Rothko in Logan’s play.
From red to black
In the years after the Seagram Commission, the dark haze of depression that had always surrounded Rothko threatened to turn into an impenetrable wall of despair. His paintings, which had once been full of vibrant yellows, oranges, magentas and cobalts, had dulled to dark greens, browns and blacks. His health deteriorated so severely that he was no longer physically able to produce large-scale works, and had to rely entirely on assistants to build and paint his canvases. Rothko’s marriage also fell apart, and he moved out of his home with Mell and their two young children.
During this time, he began work on the Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational temple in Houston that would contain 14 of his paintings. Finally, here was an environment that could be a safe home for his work. He had total control over the way his paintings would be encountered—the lighting, the height and the layout were his to decide. Nearly all the color had gone; Rothko was working primarily in blacks, grays and maroons. In his own words, he wanted to paint “something you don’t want to look at.” Yet at the same time, Rothko achieved depths of spiritual insight with these 14 paintings, inviting viewers to contemplate their own mortality and the deepest reaches of their unconscious. The chapel paintings are Rothko’s ultimate expression of Nietzsche’s interpretation of Classical Greek tragedy: a finite, limiting, Apollonian definition of a yawning Dionysian mystery. They are windows into the Abyss, and looking through them can be both terrifying and profoundly centering. As a security guard at the chapel said in the 1980s, “You know, when I got this job, I’ll be honest: I didn’t get any of this stuff. But I got to tell you, I’ve seen these things in the morning, I’ve seen them at noon, I’ve seen them at night. And now I think they’re the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
After completing the commission, with his health and personal life in a shambles, Rothko committed suicide in his studio on February 25, 1970, the day several of his Seagram Murals arrived at the Tate Modern in London. His assistant found him on the floor, where he had slit his wrists after overdosing on barbiturates. He ended his life the way he created his work—alone, and at the edge.
An interview with John Logan
By Neena Ardnt
Playwright John Logan discusses his writing process for Red. In addition to writing plays, Logan has also penned screenplays for many successful films such as Gladiator, Hugo, The Aviator and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
What was the impetus for Red?
My initial attraction was to the Seagram Murals themselves. I was in London filming Sweeney Todd, so I was there for months on end, and one day I walked into the Tate Modern and went to the room with the Seagram Murals. They had a very powerful effect on me. I knew very little about Mark Rothko, very little about Abstract Expressionism, but I found the paintings themselves profoundly moving and kinetic in a strange way. I went to the wall and read a little description about how he painted them originally for the Seagram Building and then decided to keep them and give the money back. And I thought, “Well, this is an interesting story.” So I decided that I would read a little more about it, and the more I read the more I thought that it was a play. And I almost immediately thought it was a two-hander play with Rothko and a young assistant. The shape of the play came to me very early in the contemplation of the work.
Do you have a background or training in visual art?
No. None whatsoever. The great, daunting challenge of Red is that Mark Rothko is such an intellectually challenging artist and he knew where he belonged in the continuum of his art. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of painting and of artists, so I realized I would have to gain a significant understanding of art history. I started with Abstract Expressionism and Rothko, and then I realized I needed to go back to what inspired him, and then I had to go all the way back. I spent eight or nine months researching art history. Going to museums, looking at paintings and trying to see which artists had inspired Rothko, how he fit into the tradition, and why and how he broke with tradition. In a way it was like learning a new language for me—the language of visual art. It was necessary because that language was Mark Rothko’s frame of reference. Mark Rothko didn’t go to the movies, he didn’t read books, he didn’t listen to radio, he didn’t go to the theatre, he didn’t go to the opera. He would listen to records, but his frame of reference, his world, was entirely that of painting. So before the character could speak about anything, I felt as though I had to have some facility in the visual arts and in the specifics of the language of art history.
In what ways is Rothko important as an artist, or as an Abstract Expressionist?
He’s important because of his absolute, uncompromising purity. He deeply believed that art mattered. He felt that it should be like a religious experience, and his great dream was to create a space that was like a church. He wanted people to take art that seriously because he believed it was redemptive. He believed that it was important to the human spirit to create art, to experience art, to be open to art because he truly believed it allowed an exultation of the heart and the spirit. He was rigorous about exploring those themes in his work. I think he did something that no one else has quite done—particularly in Abstract Expressionism—and that is to create something that is profoundly simple and profoundly moving. There’s no clutter, there’s nothing unnecessary; his paintings are austere and savage. They’re like Greek tragedies. They’re not Racine, they’re not Chekhov, they’re not Ibsen—they’re Aeschylus. They’re that pure and that strong. And I think his contemporaries were influenced by other movements in art: Op Art, Pop Art, Impressionism. Rothko was too, of course, but he stayed the course on his vision, on single-mindedly doing what he believed he could do. He was never as popular as Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol, but he created art earnestly and completely and with his heart and soul. And I think for any artist that’s admirable.
Do you think Rothko’s level of dedication to his art had anything to do with his relationship to religion or faith? He was not religious as an adult, but do you see vestiges of his Jewish upbringing in his work?
Yes, I think there’s a rabbinical streak to his work. And he brought a Talmudic seriousness and level of analysis to everything he did, while still letting it be pure and simple.
In addition to needing to understand Rothko’s work in the context of art history, you also faced the challenge of portraying an infamous historical person on stage. How did you approach that?
Considering he’s such a major artist there’s not a whole lot of biographical information out there. There’s one major biography, by James E.B. Breslin. It’s very detailed and sensitively written, and it gives you not only an overview of his life, but also a lot of interpretation of Rothko’s work. Rothko’s own writings about art are also useful. He was a very important essayist on art and a very challenging thinker. It took me an incredible amount of time to work through the logic to understand them because his thoughts are so complex. So general biographical work, specific art history analysis and his own writings became the bedrock of understanding what his voice was going to be.
And what about Rothko’s young assistant in the play, Ken? Was he inspired by an actual person?
No, he’s not based on an actual assistant. I just wanted him to be an emotionally agile person who begins the play in a really vulnerable position: wanting a hero. The point about writing a two-person play is that it’s a binary relationship. You have to let the characters respond to one another and segue back and forth. I knew that Rothko would have to be the prow of an ocean liner cutting through the ocean and Ken would have to be the wave that billows around it for most of the play.
One of the major ideas in the play is the idea that the son has to eventually kill the father, metaphorically speaking. Is that something that comes directly from Rothko?
No, that was entirely me. To me the play is really not about art at all, it’s not about painting; it’s about fathers and sons. I think people respond to the flamboyant grandeur and intensity of the character, but what really moves them is the father–son relationship. I wanted to write a play about teachers and students, mentors and protégés, fathers and sons. To me the piece has always been very domestic. Rothko had an awareness of young artists and an awareness of responsibility to young artists, but he wasn’t a teacher in any traditional sense. In fact, the relationship he has with Ken, his assistant, is not like the relationships he had with his actual assistants, which were very utilitarian. They were servants who did what he wanted them to do, but for the purposes of the play I allowed them to build a relationship.
Why did you choose to tell this story on stage rather than on screen?
I thought painting on stage would be really arresting and exciting. Movies are metaphorical by nature—things seem to be literal but they’re not. But when two men prime a canvas on stage, you’re seeing a real thing happen; the paint is really splattering over the actors. I wanted to do a work play, a play about all the things artists do. They’re not sitting around talking about painting—they’re painting. They’re stretching canvases, washing brushes, eating, doing all the minutiae of what they do. And from the very beginning, I knew it was going to be a play about language. The characters talk, I hope, in an exciting, muscular, visceral way, but they’re talking. And one thing cinema doesn’t do, at least not for great stretches of time, is dialogue. It doesn’t deal with the nuances of language. And since Rothko, as a man and as a character, is such a verbally dexterous person, everything about it said theatre to me.
You’re very busy as a screenwriter, but do you also plan to write more plays?
Yes. I started out writing plays, and theatre has always been incredibly important to me. I have an active and satisfying career in screenwriting which I hope to continue for as long as I live. But the theatre especially is something I’m drawn to. I always say, “Movies are my wife, but theatre is my mistress.” With Red, I rediscovered what it’s like to be a playwright and that was very fulfilling. As soon as Red was up and running, I started working on a new play because it’s satisfying work. And I’m working on the book for a couple of musicals, so my plan is to keep stepping between both worlds. I hope my movie work will inform my stage work and my stage work will inform my movie work. I’ve only ever wanted to be one thing: a dramatist. Whether I’m writing lines that are going to be spoken on film or on stage, or book scenes for musicals that will then segue into songs, it’s still being a dramatist. People frequently ask me, “Is writing plays different from writing movies?” My answer is no, not at all. Every day I wake up to write lines for actors, and I hope I will continue to be able to do that for many years, in many venues.