Doing the Dance of Death


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A conversation with director Derek Horton

by Yves Jaques


Some of the most inventive, thoughtful, and deeply disturbing theatre to grace Seattle area stages in the past several years has come courtesy of local performance maverick Derek Horton. Whether as a director deconstructing an American classic like Our Town, or as an actor playing the role of a female idiot savant in Pookie, Horton projects a sense of play and lunacy that is sorely lacking in much of today’s theatre.

But beyond the immediately apparent comic aspects, it’s Horton’s violently spiritual sensibility that gives his work its unsettling emotional beauty. Indeed, he’s been variously described in the local media as resembling Rasputin, Christ, and Manson. His works tend to polemicize audiences and critics alike. Unable to ignore the complex theoretical and stylistic underpinnings clearly present in Horton’s work, some critics have responded with an attitude of, "Gee, I guess it must be good, but don’t you go," while others have celebrated his darkly comic vision with untempered enthusiasm.

Horton’s interest in live performance is omnivorous. In addition to writing, directing, and acting, he is also an accomplished musician, composing and performing for both theatre and live music venues.

I had the opportunity to speak with him in early February over beer and whiskey at a downtown bar.


YJ: Let’s start with Pookie’s Mystery Date, which is the last piece I saw you perform. The main character, Pookie, an idiot savant, a woman, maybe a man. We watch her prepare for her mystery date as the voice of Mr. Faker, the Devil, orders Pookie around.

After seeing your performance I thought a lot about the disintegrated mind of Pookie. You’ve been using this character for years in various pieces. What does this kind of disintegration offer you as a writer and a performer?

DH: Pookie is Jason in hell, paying for womanizing. He’s a little girl, crippled by having to wear his pants around his ankles, and by being blinded with a blindfold. He’s caught in a vaudeville loop with the devil. We originally used Hades, and buried that by naming him Mr. Barber. Then we switched to a Christian conception to bury it further, and we re-named him Mr. Faker.

YJ: After I sat back and thought about the play, I started thinking that all the other parts, Mr. Faker, the Devil, the Mystery Date, were all manifestations of Pookie’s insanity. And that her off-stage rape was essentially a self-mutilation. Trying to make sense of it in my head.

While I was watching it I was entranced by the spectacle, the pure physicality of the piece, the fact that Pookie is blindfolded, and that the stage has so many levels to it, so that the last riser is a good twelve feet off the stage. The audience is entranced by the fact that there’s a real human being on the stage stumbling around, shackled at the feet, and blindfolded. There’s a constant feeling of terror that Pookie is about to break her neck.

DH: What you do is take fundamental things like ‘Jason in Hell’. You take a sado-masochistic relationship between the Devil and his torture victim, and then you ask, "Okay, who’s really in control? Who’s torturing whom? Is the slave the master or is the master the slave?" Pookie is being tortured, but so is the Devil. It’s a tragedy for the Devil that he has to do this, because it’s going to start again the minute it’s over, and in exactly the same way, with Pookie having no memory and no knowledge of the experience.

So you take fundamental things, and apply to them a style that people understand, which in Pookie is Vaudeville. Vaudeville is still the heart of most anything you watch on television In Living Color or David Letterman it’s Vaudeville basically. And then you throw some spectacle on top of that. If you give it the right spectacle you mesmerize the audience, as in Pookie, where a part of the spectacle is the virtuosity of the actor in not falling off of a twelve foot riser. How close can he get? So that you can’t ingest deep emotional things like Unamuno’s text about the violent aspects of human love [A portion of Mr. Faker’s voice-over monologue], or the climax of the piece, Pookie’s rape by her mystery date, which is in fact the actor raping himself.

All these spectacles keep you from engaging emotionally because it should be Vaudevillian enough that it’s all still fun. The ultimate is when you can get people to laugh in the way that children do, like at a funeral, where it’s totally inappropriate. Laughter as a response to fear.

YJ: I think there was a lot of that going on in the audience. As I was looking around, people were laughing to release their terror. Every time Pookie stumbles and almost falls and breaks her neck, people laugh.

There was another kind of laughter going on related to what you were saying about children at a funeral, a guilty laughter. People were laughing about things that they knew shouldn’t be funny. Do you like to inspire that kind of laughter as well?

DH: Sure, I mean, isn’t that the oldest kind of laughter? The cruel joke is the mother of all jokes. What is all that Foghorn Leghorn and Roadrunner stuff about anyway?

YJ: Another thing in Pookie that I thought worked very well, is when Mr. Faker asks Pookie to break his heart, and Pookie starts playing the organ. It’s a moment of startling grace in the midst of all the chaos.

DH: It’s a comic relief, and if the play is comic, then the comic relief becomes elegiac. A pretty, pretty song. Well, a half-assed song, on a half-assed organ.

YJ: Held up by bricks.

DH: Held up by bricks, with a guy who’s been acting like he’s little Pookie girl in that ridiculous voice, and then all of a sudden in this baritone blaaaaaaah blues singer thing.

YJ: Falsetto to full-throated. For me that’s when the roles of the tortured and the torturer were reversed. The difficulty of the role of the torturer is made manifest when you see the beautiful side of the idiot savant, the one graceful aspect of her disintegrated personality.

DH: And the rebellion, the point of the rebellion in the play is when the Pookie voice gets dropped, and Jason is singing in the manly voice. Mutiny.

Like when you’re directing a play with a group of actors and you’re being really cruel to them, not really cruel, just making them go over it again and again, and not letting them go when they say they’re tired; you’ve made them fascistically do dance steps, force ideas on them that they don’t understand. The last thing you say to them right before you open is, "What’s the matter with you people, where’s your sense of mutiny? When are you going to bring mutiny and subversion to this play? Subvert me." The play truly becomes ‘how do we make a play?’ and then ‘how do we liberate the play?’

YJ: I see what you’re saying. What theatre has over other mediums like film, like books, is that it’s a work in progress, it’s made fresh every night. You don’t want to be in control of all the parts, otherwise it’s just not going to happen.

DH: Exactly, what you got to see in the theatre isn’t Masha in The Seagull, you go to see that woman playing Masha in The Seagull, and how she comes up against the ideas she’s having to portray. That’s the nut of it.

YJ: I was thinking about Richard Foreman’s views on theatre when I was thinking about Pookie. In his writings on theatre he discusses the kind of structures you want to avoid. The first thing you don’t want is the kind of structure where ‘a’ happens, which induces ‘b’, which induces ‘c’, so that the audience always knows what to expect. The other thing you don’t want to have, which is the other side of the coin, is complete happenstance, where again it becomes predictable; the predictability of complete chance.

What’s interesting about Pookie as a central character, is you’re using someone who has a disordered mind, and so they walk the line between predictability and chance. And that’s where the play is alive.

DH: ’A belief in the efficacy of false starts.’ Not an ignoble building of ‘this therefore that therefore this.’ That doesn’t work in anything, well maybe in advertising, but not really, not anymore it doesn’t. Advertising is based now on the well-made play, where magnificent events happen...’the efficacy of false starts,’ like those never ending candles that you had when you were a kid.

YJ: A piece that you premiered last year, Our Tow, a play on Wilder’s Our Town, and on the French writer Antonin Artaud. I was again struck in this play by the way in which you exploited the elements that live theatre has over other mediums. As we were discussing before, there’s that basic thing that those are live humans in front of the audience. But another element that you exploited to great effect was the three-dimensionality of the stage, its depth. When the play went to the second act, the stage moved back about fifty feet.

DH: It was about twenty feet.

YJ: It seemed like fifty.

DH: It seemed like fifty because the windows opened onto the street, which took the stage out to maybe seventy feet.

YJ: I was down in the front row, and I was used to having the players right in front of my face, and then all of a sudden they were fifty feet away, and all the action is happening right against the ass of the theatre, which is actually the front of the theatre.

DH: Where you entered.

YJ: Where I entered, and there’s a set of windows there, and passers-by are wiping off the fog and peering in, because they can tell that something strange is going on.

DH: They think it’s a party, and because the lighting is all facing the actors, they can’t see the audience.

One night, well you know, at the end there’s a fight, and everything is falling apart, and they’re taking Wally out the door

YJ: out the front door of the theatre.

DH: We had a cop, an actor dressed like a cop, the cop from ‘‘Our Town", who’s dragging him out. There was so much commotion going on as they were bursting outside that real cops got on to the scene and came in through the door.

YJ: Onto the stage.

DH: Yeah, and one of the actors was saying to them, "No-no-no, it’s just a play." And the cops were saying, "A play, what do you mean it’s just a play?" And the police weren’t going to leave until the actor pointed across the theatre and said, "You’re on stage."

And the cops, that’s enough to scare them away.

YJ: What was lovely about it from the audience’s perspective, was that the passers-by became a part of the play.

DH: And carriages, horse-drawn carriages. They do that bullshit with horse-drawn carriages down around that part of Pioneer Square.

And then there’s the scene we did between Simon Stimson and Howie Newsome. Thornton Wilder was gay, and a lot of people think the drunken organist is him, and that his big problem the reason he drinks so much is that he’s gay. And so we turned it around; he’s the only one that’s sober. Instead of it being Emily’s twelfth birthday, it’s her twenty-first, and so they’re all drinking tequila. And so Howie Newsome, who delivers milk in the original, we have him delivering tequila. And we have him in love with Stimson. They leave the party, and outside the theatre there’s two lanes with an island between, and so they go out on that island and have their love chat, way in the distance. And then in the foreground, outside of the windows, we have an argument between Dr. Gibbs and his wife, and then we have the argument between the Webbs on the inside of the theatre, still very distant from the audience.

And remember in the first act there was effectively a wall right in front of the audience, maybe twelve feet back, because there was a giant video screen.

YJ: That’s what was so effective, when that gets pulled back.

DH: Depth is a thing which is often ignored in the theatre. That’s why Richard Foreman puts obstacles in the field of vision. Even though he usually has a very shallow stage, he creates depth.

YJ: For me, watching the first act of Our Tow, with the talking head of the projected Frenchman quoting Artaud, together with the simultaneous translation into English by the Frenchwoman, even though I can speak both French and English, the cacophony of the two voices running over the top of each other made it so that I could hardly understand either of them.

DH: You couldn’t understand it because also simultaneously Mother Gibbs and Mother Webb were talking their scene, while the stage manager was clinking plates and forks.

The whole idea is to set it up in the beginning so that it’s like a competition, like a track and field event, where people are throwing javelins and shot-putting and running. So that these things will go into you but you can’t absorb them intellectually; it’s just this barrage of ideas. And if you can sit through the first act, at the very end you get everyone singing three songs all together, and they’re beautiful, dumb songs about evolution and animals. And then you earn the second act, which is just candy, taking words from Our Town, giving them to actors and taking them in and out of improvs; and we would do days of improvs.

YJ: Again a moment as in Pookie, where out of chaos comes a synthesis and order, a moment of grace and beauty in a disordered and chaotic world. A moment of relief where the audience gets to breathe, and as you say, earn the second act. So tell me about The Fools’ Passion, your latest project.

DH: It’s an all community theatre event, that is really a star fuck, a political event; an event that is at its roots political, but it’s just a simple spectacle in a church, in an Episcopal church, a cathedral.

YJ: St. Mark’s Cathedral

DH: Big and beautiful, with a post-apocalyptic feel. One of the most beautiful sanctuaries I’ve ever been in. The Fools’ Passion is going to be an all community theatre event to reclaim the myth of Christ

YJ: A lot to chew.

DH: A lot to chew. I was setup to do it once long ago. It was going to be weighted down with all this Eliot and Lawrence, and C.S. Lewis, and Beckett and Joyce...

YJ: And now you’ve cut loose

DH: Now I’ve cut loose. Now the text is going to be this horse-training manual that I bought for a quarter off of somebody’s lawn called How to Correct the Problem Horse.

YJ: How to correct the problem Jesus?

DH: Let’s not say. Just, How to Correct the Problem Horse. That’s the strength of things like that, you take your context and you put your text against it, but you don’t define it, and you also don’t alter it. If you do you’re lessening its power, you’re not subverting it. You subvert the whole context by delivering it as it is, as it’s written.

YJ: In a medium for which it was never intended.

DH: Exactly. And that’s the whole point of the work in Our Tow linguistically; that makes sparks, for me anyway. For some people it makes them go to sleep. You set up a situation where phenomenon can actually occur, with very very strict form. The more obstacles and the more limitations you place on a performed work of art, the greater the possibility for phenomena.

YJ: As a stage director when you’re working with actors, it reminds me of Pookie; you’re almost in the role of the torturer.

DH: Well, you know I used to be when I was younger. I didn’t know as much about diplomacy as I do now. I work totally differently now. I’m learning how to simply seduce.

A lot of times that means letting people go thoroughly, to the point where everything falls apart. And then, they turn and go, "Ah, Mr. Director Sir, would you give us a clue, because we don’t know what’s going on." And then you’re the brainwasher; you set up a situation as the director where you know they’re going to run out of water, and then you go, "Oh, I have some nice, cool, clear water for you." And then they can be encoded.

You set up a task, and you don’t have any vision yet you set up tasks that are between possible and impossible and the actors carry these tasks out. And as they carry them out over a period of time, a subconscious gesture will emerge. It will. Period. They will find their fetish. They will find what delights them, and then it will become almost redundant for them to do what delights them. The subconscious gesture emerges, and as the director you note that, and you form it into what becomes your shared vision, and that becomes the first shirt to hang on the line, and the same with the other actors. Once you’ve gathered all these subconscious gestures from this community that you’re observing, then you feed them back to them in form, which they didn’t have before. You give them their own form.

YJ: You’re an intermediary.

DH: Yes. I’m not the end deal, I’m a note taker. Should we talk about the state of American theatre?

YJ: Let’s finish by talking about the state of American theatre.

DH: I fell into theatre through the ideas of Artaud and Grotowski. So I thought that was normal, and I was in Texas! Lubbock, Texas! I encountered people who’s ideas led me to believe that the virtuosity of the body was where the heart of theatre lies, and that an act of cruelty was at the heart of every theme. And I had success.

And then I went the route of education and got into professional theatre, and found that it was artistically worse than dead, grotesque, like picking up corpses and going, "See?" and moving the mouth and going, "See? This dead guy’s really talking."

The revitalization came through building our own theatre out of a garage, where we liberated our dreams; and there was this mix of red-neck Texas insanity mixed with radical theatre ideas.

Theatre is a dance of death. A lot of people are always bemoaning the death of theatre, "Oh, theatre is dying." But Julian Beck makes an excellent point, that of course theatre is dying, it is always dying. That’s the job of theatre, to die. That is its function and its main action. What you do in theatre is the dance of death. And you don’t ever pretend to die, you do the dance of dying. It has to be the dance of...if I’m playing Edward the Second, and I’m dying because a white hot poker is being shoved up my ass, then I’m doing the dance of how Derek Horton feels to do the dance of Edward the Second dying with a white hot poker up his ass. You should do this for every gesture. Virtuosity.

If any movement that any actor is doing is not dance, then it’s not stageworthy, it could be buried stylistically of course, but if it’s not dance, it’s not stageworthy. And if any emanations of sound are not poetry, then it’s not stageworthy. Theatre is the reminder that there is theatre all around you.

I want to see that happen, and that’s why I spend hours and hours and months and months talking people into doing it. Talking them and hustling them into doing it. They think I’m crazy. I’m not crazy; I’m just not hiding my desperate estrangement from the rest of the world. I’m celebrating it. I’m celebrating it, and I’m asking them to come celebrate it with me, and eventually they do. And then they’re sorry, they got more than they bargained for, which is themselves. "I got more self revelation than I bargained for! Boo hoo!" Well I didn’t.


1996 by Yves Jaques and Derek Horton