Mabou Mines: A Love Story
The black-sheep troupe of the avant-garde is
still going strong.
So are Ruth and Lee.
By Randy Gener
For Ross Wetzsteon
"Where is Lee Breuer?" asks Alanna Heiss, founder of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. "He hasn't arrived," Ruth Maleczech replies.
It is 9:23 on a freezing Tuesday night in February at the East Village restaurant Pangea, and the birthday boy is not here yet. Will he show up for dinner? The question isn't an idle one, because in the communal mythology of this bemused assembly of present and former members of Mabou Mines, Breuer is the endearing wild man whose genius ideas turn up just in the nick of time ("I've got a hit," he announced, a few days shy of Mabou Mines Lear's opening night in 1990. "A stage covered with sunflowers!"). So why should his late arrival tonight be any different?
"Lee is a hugely creative person," remarks the writer/director Sharon Fogarty, with an affectionate laugh. "He juggles a lot of things. The night of this dinner he booked an interview, a photo shoot, a flight and a birthday party all at the same time. That's classic Lee, hoping that they won't all hit at the same moment. Of course they did."
What's remarkable, though, is that everybody has kept faith in Breuer. Practically everyone who deeply matters in his theatrical life has shown up to celebrate his 70th birthday. Fogarty and Terry O'Reilly, both longtime Mabou Miners, sit on one side of a long table. Huddled together with puppeteer Basil Twist on the other side are designer Julie Archer and writer Liza Lorwin, the primary conceivers of Peter and Wendy, the poignant and inventive puppet-theatre adaptation of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan that Breuer first staged in 1996. Even Greg Mehrten, who retired from the collective in 1990, claims his place at the table. Deep in conversation, with an arm placed around the other guy's shoulder, are two of Breuer's fuzzy-faced male children—Mojo Lorwin, his only son with Lorwin, and Lute Ramblin', his second child with Maleczech. (Mojo and Lute worked in the original Peter and Wendy—the former as production assistant, the latter as one of the puppeteers of Captain Hook.)
Maleczech, clearly the host, has reserved a couple of seats for Breuer and his date at the head of the table. In his absence, she has impishly positioned two framed black-and-white pictures of herself and Breuer as one-and-a-half-year-old babies—she looking too cute with nary a signature red hair, and he topped with a shower cap of hair and staring directly at the camera. She also brought the only remaining print of the ramshackle goat house in Big Sur, Calif., where the couple once spent six happy months in 1958, a year after they first met at the University of California–Los Angeles.
"I worked in a play that he wrote called The Wood Complains," Maleczech recalls. "We stopped in Big Sur; we didn't move for a while. Then we went to San Francisco where we worked at the Actors Workshop with Herb Blau, a dear friend, and Ronnie Davis, who had the Mime Troupe. When Herb took over Lincoln Center, they wanted Lee to come to New York, but they didn't want me to come. Lee and I didn't want to separate, so we decided to go to Europe. But on the way we took this trip around the States, going up and down the country; we spent our European money doing that, so by the time we got to New York, we needed to get jobs to get money to go to Greece."
At 9:47 p.m., to the genuine delight—and relief—of everyone in the room, Breuer finally arrives, dragging a couple of black suitcases. Accompanying him is Maude Mitchell, his romantic partner of seven years, wrapped from head to toe in black, whom Maleczech introduces as the actress who plays Nora in Mabou Mines DollHouse. It turns out that Breuer had breakfast with his other kids in Michigan, but his afternoon plane connection was delayed by a fierce snowstorm. It also turns out he won't be staying very long; his friends have lent him and Mitchell a lovely place to stay in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.
After the requisite hugs, kisses and round of greetings, Maleczech raises a glass of champagne to give Breuer a formal toast. "I knew you then," she says, with a smile. "I knew you when." Quite evidently moved, Breuer frankly acknowledges his misgivings and terrible angst at turning 70 and points out that though he may not have many "close friends in this world," he expresses his gratitude to everyone present whose art gave him a life and whose lives gave him an art.
Three hours rush by. The formality thaws, giving way, in the dead of winter, to a flash of nudity. As he tears open his presents, Breuer strips off his outer garments to show off a black-and-white striped tank top, which he eventually (egged on by his friends and extended family) takes off completely.
"Look at them," Heiss tells me, with a tone of bewilderment in her voice. "They all still speak to one other." I am amazed as well; I note that all five of the women in Breuer's life (three of whom are present in the room) have somehow been enmeshed in the company's go-for-broke fusion of art performance and art theatre.
For an outsider, Mabou Mines might look, act and behave altogether like an alien species. It is a company of artists like no other, whose remaining founders are in the avant-garde of coupledom. Breuer and Maleczech have long since maritally separated (they tied the knot in 1978), but as theatremakers their lives have remained inextricably linked in the public consciousness. Under the auspices of the New York City–based collective they founded (along with JoAnne Akalaitis, Philip Glass and David Warrilow) in 1970, Breuer and Maleczech have been involved in a close conspiracy for some 37 years—a half a century, if you include those lively moving-on years they shared together, prior to the company's supernova birth. For these two former lovers, the notion of collaborating on stage pieces with their own two children, and with the other women he's been involved with (in the present or the past), as well as with his three children from those other relationships—none of it is unusual. It seems as natural as breathing air.
As the calendar years flit by, Breuer's frequent complaint that "there hasn't been one book written about us" sounds ever more importunate, strident and strange. He's 100-percent dead-on right, of course: Because its history and identity are so sui generis, Mabou Mines is ripe for a virtuoso reconsideration. The story of the group's tenacity, adaptation, brilliance and survival merits telling and retelling. And yet despite the avalanche of awards, grants, residencies, critical kudos and academic legitimization the company has received, no one has deigned to pick up the baton. Unlike the other names that tend to crop up again and again as exponents of the postwar American avant-garde movement (the Living Theatre, Open Theatre, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, the Performance Group and its later manifestation, the Wooster Group), Mabou Mines increasingly looks like the oddest man out, the black sheep of radical theatre, if you will. Mainstream cultural arbiters have successfully annointed these other groups (especially the Wooster Group) as the summit of American avant-gardism (or neo-avant-gardism, if you consider their relationship to continental European influences, such as Jerzy Grotowski and Vsevolod Meyerhold). But unless you belong to the already converted, Mabou Mines either seems insufficiently hyped by the arbiters of middlebrow taste or is perennially seen as the last among equals.
This perception, of course, could be skewed by the hazards of highly prejudiced value judgments—not to mention Breuer's own self-projected neuroses. Like the dog Rose in An Epidog or the pig Porco in Ecco Porco, Breuer sees himself as every bit the Art Martyr. Ceaselessly, repeatedly, almost as if it were a prayer, Breuer inveighs against the lack of money. He insinuates as much in those entertaining holidays missives he writes: "I dream, oh, how I dream and dream of crying, 'To hell with all the Penguin Networks of Antarctica,' and of flying back to the East Village in the golden chariot sent down for Elijah, who (just in case my dreams come true) has agreed to drop me off at P.S. 122 on the way to heaven." His hysteria crops up in conversation: "In terms of awards, Mabou Mines is in the black. But Mabou Mines as a business? Why has it been broke nonstop from 1970 to the present? It has never been in the black—never." Asked if he is competitive, Breuer replies, "What am I competitive about? Anybody who was truly competitive would put all their energies in a money board. That's how supposedly it works in New York. Look at the Wooster Group—they've owned a theatre all their lives. Look at the difference between us and Bob Wilson. Look at the difference between us and Richard Foreman. Maybe it's a class thing. They have access to funding and support. Other than art, Richard has never worked a day in his life. I've had hundreds of jobs. The competitiveness is against the system itself. The system is out there to crunch me. To avoid it, I have to be crass. I think it has to do with class. We're not upper middle class like everybody else in the avant-garde. Maybe Mabou Mines is the only truly lower-class theatre."
Funders, allow me to lay down the law: Mabou Mines is the astronaut of experimental ensembles. Everyone else is a jet pilot. In a world of its own, it's still going strong. The recognitions keep pouring in: The French Ministry of Culture recently named Breuer a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Maleczech was honored by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture at last year's Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre for her "influential, pioneering role in experimental theatre." In May, the entire company will be fêted with an Edwin Booth Award for its "outstanding contribution to the New York City/American theatre and performance community."
The ensemble has not ceased to display a proclivity for resurrecting or touring shows with robust legs. This April, Peter and Wendy, a popular favorite in the resident-theatre circuit that occupies a distinct place in the Mabou Mines repertory, is being revived again at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., for an eight-week run. Mabou Mines DollHouse, Breuer's groundbreaking 2004 deconstruction of the Ibsen classic, is slated to play in Rome, May 21–23, Singapore, June 15–17, and Edinburgh, Aug. 25–Sept. 2. Arte, the PBS of French/German TV, plans to turn Breuer's revelatory staging into a high-definition film to be shot in August. Also, Fogarty's impressionistic Lucia's Chapters (reconceived from 2003's Cara Lucia) alights June 7–9 at Charlestown Working Theater in Massachusetts and at California State University–Fresno July 6, with Maleczech portraying Lucia Joyce, James Joyce's only daughter.
Several projects in the pipeline are also in various stages of development. Fogarty's new music-theatre work Finn, about the boyhood adventures of the ancient Celtic hero Finn MacCool, perches at Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre on May 6 before embarking on further workshops in July in the Czech Republic. After Finn's New York berth in spring 2008, it will be O'Reilly's turn. He's working on a Pirandelloesque one-woman murder mystery, Waltz No. 6, by the late Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues.
Breuer, too, is cooking up a host of new pieces (more about those later). But what's immediately around the corner is Maleczech's gargantuan waterfront creation, Song for New York: What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting, which will be performed on a floating barge at piers and parks in the five boroughs of New York for one weekend each starting Aug. 31 at Governors Island. Performed free to the public, this large-scale, site-specific music-theatre piece lasts about an hour-and-a-half. It consists of five musical portraits of autobiographical and historical lives from the perspective of five writers, linked together by a connective text ("yarns," Maleczech calls them) written by borough historian Nancy Groce. (In the Queens song, for example, Mabou Mines artistic associate Karen Kandel kicks up jazz memories of growing up down the street from Count Basie.) Five principal singers perform each of the five songs, set to an eclectic score by composer Lisa Gutkin, with a six-person male chorus, who are knitting with variously sized needles (stylized with contact microphones to create percussive sounds).
"All performance sites, except for one," adds Maleczech, "were chosen in this way: You have to be able to see at least one other borough from your audience position as you watch the piece. As a result, you are looking through the piece and seeing another borough of the city, with the exception of Staten Island, where you will look at the ocean, at the way out of all of this." She estimates that about 1,000 people could see each performance on bleachers that, if plans go well, the New York City Parks Department will set up.
The whole idea of turning 70 totally bums Lee Breuer out. An intense, compact, muscular man with tanned leathery skin, this bad boy of the American theatre has been hanging out for a week in St. Croix with Mitchell, who is also DollHouse's co-adaptor. He's trying to ward off depression, because all he's seeing is "the statute of limitations coming into play—all the stuff you're never really going to accomplish." The writer/director still feels pretty vital, but does he really have the time, for instance, to breathe new life into Omeros, Derek Walcott's Caribbean epic poem version of Homer's Odyssey? This would preclude spending time hustling to stage a marathon of his one great animations opus—La Divina Caricatura, a trilogy of dense, bawdy-satiric, pun-drenched narrative poetry about a pig, an ant, a cow and a dog, the first two parts of which were collected under the same title by Sun and Moon Press. If produced in its entirety, the dramatic version of Animations would amount to a 12-hour mock-epic beast-fable performance poem (think Jean de La Fontaine's animal tales shot through with reincarnation and interspecies tantric sex), performed over three evenings. "It would be about five years of my life," he says. "It'd be a nice little swan song, if I live that long. I want to finish this because I think I have a big statement that I'm trying to make."
But there are several pending projects that Breuer is unlikely to turn his back on. One, a commission from the multi-arts Brisbane Festival in Australia, is a chance to work with Chappa, his musician son from the second woman in his life, Polina Klimovitskaya—whose modern-day Russian tale was transformed into the free-flying ballet Red Beads in 2005 (featuring both Maleczech and Breuer's daughter with her, Clove Galilee). A reggae-head, Chappa is writing rasta music for Breuer's staging of crucifixion scenes from the medieval York Mysteries. If Breuer's widely traveled The Gospel at Colonus conjured Oedipus with the jubilant immediacy of Ray Charles (thanks to the Blind Boys of Alabama) in a Pentecostal church service, this new work, pegged for 2008, reconfigures the crucifixion with Bob Marley as the Christ figure.
Reuniting with Gospel's composer Bob Telson, Breuer has also written the text for a new cantata, whose first song, "Love Unconquerable," integrates baroque material with gospel music. "This is a retelling of the New Testament," he says, "centered around a Joseph who has the Marvin Gaye problems (cocaine, drinking, etc.). He fantasizes he has a child. It turns out to be a girl. It's a metaphor for the retelling of the parable, which is simply this: When one lives in a Christian world, one is imbued in the Kantian sense with the fact that Christianity is part of the brain as much as time and space and causality are part of the brain. You cannot not live a Christian parable. You're perceived as a prodigal son, a sinner, a whore, or a sufferer. There's a parable for everybody in the world inside the Bible."
With Basil Twist, Breuer is also exploring the queer side of his male psyche. Both are adapting Chikamatsu Monzaemon's The Love Suicides at Amijima into a pop-oriented, quasi-porno hentai (anime) puppet extravaganza dealing with modern gay relationships. Just when you thought such a grandiloquent lineup of crossbred projects would be enough to occupy several careers, Cirque du Soleil has approached Breuer and Twist to create a new circus show for the Montreal-based troupe. If this happens, one can only imagine the box-office boffo quotient that has heretofore eluded this aging maverick.
Ruth Maleczech's left hand is shaking uncontrollably. Tears well up in her steely eyes as she relates to me the genesis of Song for New York one year after Sept. 11, 2001. Sitting inside ToRoNaDa, Mabou Mines's 66-seat workshop studio space on the second floor of P.S. 122 on the corner of First Avenue and East 9th Street, the bright yellow rays of the late afternoon sun make her red hair glow, as if she were an Odilon Redon figure.
For a long time, Maleczech says, she did nothing but cry and let her hair go white and utter the names of missing people. "I dissolved," she says. "At the end of that time, I asked, 'What can we make? What can we do?' I do really celebrate New York. I love what it has meant to this little theatre company. I don't think we could have done what we've done anywhere but here. Song of New York is a way to give something back, to say thanks."
If Breuer's enfant terrible reputation as a director far outstrips his identity as a poet, Maleczech's standing as an actor outshines her sporadic work as a director. Song of New York is her eighth directorial effort, and Breuer has let it float that it will be likely her last—a prospect she neither dismisses nor confirms, except to respond with a wry, honey-voiced laugh. But where his Ibsen deconstruction and his animations merely drape Breuer in feminist clothes or postfeminist trappings, Song of New York grounds Maleczech in a strong women-centered ethos. She is, after all, the mariachi diva who has twice conceived of rich, illuminating adventures related to the plight of Mexican women (1987's Sueños, about the proto-feminist 17th-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and Belén: A Book of Hours in 1999, first performed at Claustro de Sor Juana in Mexico City). "I was very struck by Song of Myself, those great New York poems of Walt Whitman that are 150 years old, and Hart Crane's poems on the Brooklyn Bridge," she says. "This piece was conceived as a contemporary response to the Whitman poems from a female perspective."
Mabou Mines's excursion into the site-specific realm is not a fresh innovation. But it does bust Maleczech out of small, self-contained echo chambers (such as her 1984 holographic encounter with Beckett's Imagination Dead Imagine). It allows her to move away from adapted writings (like 1981's Wrong Guys, from Jim Strahs's hard-boiled detective fiction). And it beautifully typifies Maleczech's beehive sensibility in drawing the best work out of the collaborators with whom she artistically falls in love. Without attempting to unify the five songs and yarns into an assimilated sound, Song of New York's eclecticism seizes upon the polyvalent attributes of each song—an egalitarian principle that runs parallel to a defining Mabou Mines characteristic: It recognizes, cultivates, absorbs, exploits and shows off the personalities, strengths and idiosyncrasies of each of its voices. ("I feed you, you feed me" is their mantra.) There is also the gang's highly conceptual art-gallery bent, which makes Song of New York not precisely a theatre piece in the traditional sense. It doubles as an interdisciplinary project. At each of the five piers, audiences may leave behind their written or visual-art impressions of the city or the event itself inside a booth. "We're going to give them the positives of their photographs, but we're going to keep the negatives," she says. "When 9/11 happened, photographs of missing people were plastered everywhere in my neighborhood in the West Village. It was very moving, very tragic." After Song of New York's run is over, Mabou Mines's co-artistic director Julie Archer takes over. She will create a mixed-media visual-art installation out of the photographs of the audiences, their writings, drawings or objects, along with music from the show. "We hope to mount this at the old Staten Island pier, right at the tip of Manhattan," Maleczech adds.
Unlike Breuer and Maleczech, the formidably gifted designer Archer has never fully matriculated anywhere. "I went to the University of Mabou Mines," she remarks. Since hitching a ride with this gang of art desperadoes in 1976, Archer has been an inextricable fixture, but one who has always preferred to recede into the background. "I have always made it a point to stay on the periphery," she says. "I tried really hard not to get involved in anything that didn't directly involve me. It's self-preservation, really." She didn't officially become one of the group's six core members until 2002. Maleczech refused to accept "no."
Archer, Fogarty and O'Reilly represent the next generation of Miners, the younger team that gradually took reins when the original members broke ranks to pursue their own careers in 1990. All three "co-artistic directors" were never offered the intermediate step of becoming "artistic associates" (like Kandel, Galilee and Honora Fergusson), that outer circle of talents who receive the benefits of membership without having to participate in the financial decisionmaking. For Archer, the wind started to change in the mid-1990s with the critical successes of Peter and Wendy and An Epidog. "Ruth has taken leaps of faith with me from the very beginning," Archer says. "I don't quite understand why, but I am grateful, to say the least."
One of the headaches of writing about Mabou Mines is that the legacy of its original members has remained buried in lore, mythology and reams and reams of indigestible academic discourse—but, on the other hand, because the original roots still exist (as embodied by Breuer and Maleczech), that legacy continues to hold cult-like sway. Another way of saying this is that Mabou Mines has become an anachronistic artifact—an avant-garde institution. Throughout the course of the interviews I conducted for this piece, practically everyone, at some point, became very protective of Breuer. His outsized, protean reputation as the crazy hippie guru of the avant-garde precedes him—rumors circulate about his huckster jives, his last-minute changes, his pitbull-like bluster—but few of his colleagues are willing to go on record. "What kind of an article is this?" Archer asks, at one point. If crumbs are offered, everybody fears that the anecdotes might be taken out of context. Someday, perhaps, some smart cookie will write a fat, juicy, dishy, psychoanalytic biography of this iconic wizard-maestro, but for now we're going to have to settle for kibbles and bits.
"When Lee and I work together," Archer offers, "at its best, he'll give me a scenario—not a literal one—and then he leaves me alone. It can be a series of adjectives, a seed. Then I'm off. He draws from so many sources. He scatters that out, and I go in. It's so rich and prolific."
"Lee is not afraid to jump off a cliff," adds Kandel, who has acted in Lear, Ecco Porco and (as the Meyerholdian narrator) in Peter and Wendy. "If you're willing to jump in with him, it's the most extraordinary experience you may ever have working with a director. I wouldn't call him crazy. He's mercurial. Sometimes, even when the piece has been completed, he will make changes way into the run. He will say, 'Hey, I've got a hit. I know how the scene can go now.' I love it, because I never stop working. Neither does he."
Twist says he admires Breuer's unconventionality. "When I find myself mired in a problem, I always ask myself, 'What would Lee do?' Lee is very free with how he works. Sometimes we would do these workshops and he maybe hadn't planned enough. But he's experimenting and having fun with it."
O'Reilly counters the image of a nervy eccentric by describing Breuer as a jesuitical monk. "We shared a room in Kraków, Poland, when he was working on DollHouse," remembers O'Reilly. "It was like being in a room with a scholar; he had all these translations carefully planned out and fantastically annotated. It's almost like the way someone would approach an academic subject, but he's dealing with radical or shocking ideas."
Having been a de facto managing director since 1994, Fogarty testifies that Breuer can be irritating when he follows his own orbit. "He will go as far as he has to to get his work made," she says. "He is legendary that way. There were rumors during the making of DollHouse that he might turn up with a paper bag full of cash to pay the crew and keep them working. End-run game is his middle name. I say this with a lot of affection to his dedication and commitment. He will go farther than most."
How much farther? He cast little people in the male roles of his radically reenvisioned DollHouse, which he morphed from arch melodrama into puppet opera. In his gender-reversed Lear, updated to twangy 1950s Georgia with Maleczech playing a forlorn Southern matriarch with three sons, Shakespeare's knights were replaced by a retinue of dogs. Fogarty's job, aside from a small acting part, was to ferry three dogs and four children to the theatre every night.
Mabou Mines encourages its members to work outside the company; increasingly Breuer has been less of a daily presence, a "queen bee" with his own colony. In fact, it would be fair to say that, of the two, Maleczech has been the more natural nurturer of the next generation—the loyal dog fiercely looking after the bowl. The "artistic associate" moniker was her idea, says Fogarty, adding, "It's one of the ways we're laying the groundwork for the future of the company, without saying so-and-so is being groomed."
But for Fred Neumann, another co-artistic director who has acted in all of Breuer's Animations, starting with Shaggy Dog, there was a time when Mabou Mines was truly a collaborative hive rather than what it is today, a loose confederation of warrior ants (or "a broader perception," to use Breuer's words). The company's early Beckett work proved to be emotionally cohesive. "It was one of the best periods of our work together," Neumann posits. After the 1990 breach, the group was forced to change its notions about how to survive, especially with the drying up of economic support for experimental work. (Breuer blames Frank Rich, but that's another story.) Still, Breuer always seemed first among equals. "Lee has his ambitions and was bound to achieve them, with or without Mabou Mines," Neumann says. "Usually for business reasons, it became necessary to work through Mabou Mines as an institution. Lee's stuff would come passing through, and Ruth would be involved in them. There was a powerful need in the company not to break apart. There was still a need for creating with some cooperation and collaboration."
Mabou Mines DollHouse is an excellent case in point. Despite its title, and the creative participation of Breuer as director and Neumann's wife Fergusson in the role of Kristine Linde, this isn't a Mabou Mines brand in the "traditional" pre-1990 sense. "It's a survivalist kind of thing," says Neumann. "In the life of the theatre and the life of life, you have to adapt to some changes, some restructuring, even a creative one. Sometimes we acted as producers. In doing so, all the energy would go to that side of things, especially lately when production money would not be available for certain individuals. We'd have meetings all the time about extraneous matters, certain things Lee has been doing that did not involve the rest of us, but we had to make business choices and vote on them."
The last time Neumann felt that familiar Mabou Mines feeling was when the entire company gathered its forces together in 2000 to work on Ecco Porco, which he describes fondly as "a great sprawling mess of a thing." "The bonding of the members today is not nearly as intense as it was," the actor says, wistfully. "That's old-fashioned to say, I guess, old-fashioned and gone."
I ask Lee Breuer if he's found religion. I tell him that his self-professed image as "a pop-head" is at least 30 years old, dating back to Sister Suzie Cinema. If I scan all his interests in the past 10 years, perhaps as far back as Gospel at Colonus, he's been swimming in a sea of comparative religion. How else to explain his intercultural reworking of the New Testament in the Telson cantata—his Dante-esque animations which take place in an inferno, a purgatory and a paradise?
Breuer hesitates. "First of all, this is a difficult thing to say because I'm working with a lot of religious people," he replies. "Metaphorically I have a certain idea that is akin to religion, but in terms of the organized religions of the world, I'm not a religious person. I'm not a Christian. I'm not a Jew. I'm not Mohammedan. I'm not a Buddhist."
What does he believe in? "I believe in scientific truth. In terms of the science of religion, I am religious. I like to deconstruct religion. I like to see the power it has. I like to see how it moves people. I understand faith in much the same way I find certain motivations of acting and singing."
How does he explain his 2005 Summa Dramatica, in which Maleczech portrayed a cow reeling off a dissertation to theologians? "I wrote that piece, like Hajj, for Ruth, which was ultimately a parody of William James's Varieties of the Religious Experience. That piece talks about acting as a religion, but it's a send-up—a comedy. Would you call Voltaire religious?" Why does he imbue his work in religious ideas? "I discovered the metaphor of Christianity."
The first time I met Breuer 11 years ago, he pulled up his shirt to show me a Kali deity totem strapped around his waist. A Hindu ecstatic, who spoke only in Sanskrit, had given it to him in South India. Through an interpreter, Breuer asked this priest "the real question": "I'm completely split between my work and my personal relationships. Every time I work, I'm trashing my family, my five kids. Every time I become totally immersed in them, I'm trashing their work." After a 30-minute trance, the priest handed the auteur this totem and said, "This image of Kali is from the Mother. If you take care of your blood, your work will come automatically." Breuer said he's never forgotten this sage's advice.
"Our jobs," Maleczech states, "are to infuse as much artistic wherewithal as we can into one another's work. Other than that, we have our singular job, which is to pursue our own idiosyncratic artistic vision and to get it out there."
How does Breuer fit into this dynamic? "It's different with him, and it's different of late than it has been, too, because now he's really been traveling the globe. He's more difficult to pin down. But once you get him, he's got good ideas, usually very good ideas. You don't get him unless you need him."
Q: When did your marriage with Lee stop?
A: I'm still married to Lee. (She smiles.) Not that I believe in marriage. I don't believe in divorce either. He'll have to do that part. That's up to him.
Q: You've worked with the women in Lee's life. Liza Lorwin,
the adaptor of Peter and Wendy, also produced Gospel
at Colonus. In The Warrior Ant, you performed with
Leslie Mohn, the mother of Lee's son Wah. Polina wrote the tale
from which Red Beads was derived; you played the mother
in it. Now Maude is in his life.
A: I've never been in a piece with Maude. I don't know that that wouldn't happen. I have worked with Liza, though. So what is the question?
Q: How do these personal dynamics reflect in the work itself?
A: I have no idea. How does it play out personally? It is personal. I guess it plays out personally.
Q: How many children does Lee have?
A: Five. I know all those children. Yes. Do they know me? Yes. Do I know their mothers? Yes. We all know each other. I mean not know, but we know each other.
Q: You and Lee have been together for 50 years.
A: Working together, yeah.
Q: Is there a secret for that kind of longevity?
A: There is, and it lies in respect. There are a lot of gifted people. Big egos. Lots of feistiness, but probably at the bottom, respect for when we're making work. Sometimes to other people that looks a little weird. Maybe it does. Because it can get very intimate and argumentative.
Q: Like Mommy and Daddy?
A: No. Like two big egos clashing—not like Mommy and Daddy. (She laughs.) I come from a very authoritarian family. There was no argument from my mother ever. My father said it is what it is. So it doesn't resemble that. (She pauses.) You know, it's messy, this way of making work, this way of working with people—it's messy. And it's mucky and murky, and it takes a long time before it gets clear. It takes a long time from being really bad to being really good. That process is slow. Unless it's instantaneous, which it sometimes is. (Note to self: "Mabou," someone told Ruth, means "clear water" to the Chinook Indians of Canada.)
Q: What binds you and Lee together?
A: I think we genuinely like making work together. We really actually like it, we get off on it. And it's surprising and interesting.
Q: Are you his muse in the shows he's written and directed?
A: I never thought of it that way, Randy. (She giggles.)
Q: In what way has Lee affected you as an artist then?
A: If I look back on the things I have directed or adapted or helped design or performed in, I see a body of work. I don't think I could have been an artist if I were looking for work in somebody else's play. I couldn't have done it without being hopelessly unfulfilled and just quitting. Mabou Mines has provided me—that is to say, all the people involved in the company—with a way to build a body of work, just as a painter builds a body of work. I guess it's a very strange-looking body of work. But it's me, too. It's connected to how I've personally pursued my own life. Always if I look back, I see me in it—in all of it. I've been lucky.
In his talk "Exemplary Love Stories," the Romanian-born French theatre critic Georges Banu theorizes that for every director there is "one unique actor." Frequently this partnership goes beyond the theatre and evolves into a romantic relationship. "The unique actor," Banu conjectures, "fulfills not only the idea of an artist but an idea of being." Some examples would be Grotowski and Richard Cieslak, Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper, Peter Brook and Natasha Parry, Andrei Serban and Priscilla Smith, Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw. These affairs usually last long and are often very fruitful from a creative standpoint. The couples make contracts, with each partner playing roles they've intuitively assigned to each other. (In the case of Mabou Mines, Breuer is the seer and Maleczech the earth mother.) Sometimes, the lovers break up, but the separation merely confirms the status of the unique actor, because the directors often cannot replicate the relationships they've had with their unique actors, or the new lovers simply aren't as brilliant. "Without the unique actor, the director becomes an orphan," Banu states. I wonder if Breuer and Maleczech fit this bill.
"Ruth and Lee are the greatest love story ever told," says O'Reilly. "Do you know Ruth once directed Lee in Wrong Guys? It's one of the few times Lee has been an actor. She wanted Lee to know what it meant to rehearse lines, change your life for a show, show up every night at the theatre and be good. He really hated learning all those lines. She did it to let him know, 'Welcome to my world.'"
Kandel agrees: "Ruth and Lee have shorthand in the way they challenge each other. Within the challenges, it's very clear to me that there's tremendous amount of love. One great indication of how much love they have not only for each other but also for the company is how they keep struggling to move it forward rather than stopping the machine. Let's keep it oiled. Let's keep it going."
I ask Lee himself: Is Ruth his muse?
"Yes, Ruth was my muse—and is my muse."
What has she meant to him?
"Ruth and I have a fantastic relationship, but people think we're against each other or something. Some people think I'm sexist and stuff like that. Ruth has been my life and art partner all my life, since she was 16 and I was 18. She was in the first play I ever wrote. It has been a combination of best friends and joined-at-the-hip artistically ever since. We haven't lived together for many years, but we continue to run the theatre together. We have a very fruitful and very tight friendship. She's a brilliant actress. I don't trust any actress as much as I trust her."
Given the other women in his life, how are those personal dynamics reflected in the work itself? "I've had a lot of experience managing all that. Sure, there are constant complications between people, areas of connections with the company and with me and with Ruth. We've always had to deal with it. What's different about us is that the connection has crossed over into family more than most people have to deal with. We've just been more honest about it. I'm very proud of all my kids."
Is Ruth the love of his life?
"People have lots of different kinds of loves of their life. In many ways, yes. Maybe the best way to put it is: I have different kinds of lives. My most important life, or one of my most important lives, is that of an artist. I've written more plays for Ruth than anybody on earth. I wrote Hajj for Ruth. I directed Lear for Ruth. It goes back many, many years. Ruth was the love of my life. She is certainly the love of my life as an artist."