I was in a production of John Logan's play 'Red' earlier this year with The Space Between Theatre Company.
TSB's run of ‘Red’ ended June 1st.
This has given me some time to reflect.
I don’t specifically refer to reflection about our particular production of the show, what we did well, what we could have improved, etc, but rather, I find it is has given me time to reflect upon how I related to the show and how I relate to Mark Rothko himself.
Red was (and still is at this point in my life) a piece that resonates with me and resonates with me HARD. The simple fact is I’m getting older. I’m realizing that my time on Earth is finite. I’m realizing that I only have a limited amount of time to put something out into the universe and I’m starting to ask myself with increasing frequency, “What am I going to leave behind?”
This is a good question to ask oneself. It can be a difficult question to ask, but it’s one that should always be asked. I see Rothko and Ken ask themselves this very question (in various ways) in ‘Red’.
I look to the future and I wonder what I’ll leave behind. Will I be able, when my time comes, to look back at my own life and say, “I have done good”?
Will I have helped? Will I have contributed? Will I have pushed things in a direction that they needed to be pushed?
Every day I wake up and I realize that I’m another day older and I feel a fire in my chest that propels me forward into an unknown future that I can only hope is full of moments and connections that truly matter.
But I don’t know. I don’t know where I’ll end up, HOW I’ll end up, or what, at the end of my time, I’ll be able to point to as being proof that my life was worth something.
I had the chance to visit the Rothko Chapel in Houston near the end of July. I was immensely excited to get to stand in the middle of this room and consume what was the culmination of Rothko’s journey as an artist and as a human being. I thought I was going to be in awe. I thought it would be a near-transcendental experience.
Mostly it just made me sad.
The Rothko Chapel contains fourteen paintings. The paintings are fairly large (about fifteen feet tall and five feet wide) and they consist exclusively of shades of black.
I’ve never had a problem with Rothko’s use of black in his paintings. As his work started to slide deeper and deeper into darker hues in the late 50’s and 60’s it certainly didn’t make the work any less dynamic or intriguing. As he continued on his path and began producing paintings of blacks on grays, blacks on browns, blacks on purples, and finally, blacks on blacks, I still had no complaints.
But the blacks on blacks in the Rothko Chapel - it was their textures, their qualities, that made all the difference.
The Baltimore Museum of Art has a Rothko piece from 1957 where the black seems to whirl with the reds it is coupled with in a sort of chaotic negotiation of space and velocity. The black in that painting is deep, vital, wise, playful. The darker hues from Rothko’s work from the 60’s that I saw in various cities across America likewise contained similar traits.
But the blacks in the paintings in the Rothko Chapel were flat and dull. They didn’t pulse or dance, they just laid on the canvas with sterility and spiritlessness.
Although there was beauty in the architecture, the layout of space, the lighting of the room, and in how all of these elements responded to and rolled through each other, I didn’t find a transcendence in the Rothko Chapel. I found a tomb.
And this is what Rothko’s last statement to us was. It was a defeat. It was an acknowledgment that he was left looking nowhere else but inward because what was outside of himself had either ceased to capture his interest or had damaged him too much for him to feel he could continue onward. I mean, the man committed suicide. You can’t stand in that space with those pieces and see anything other than resignation.
It scared me. It still scares me.
Rothko struggled with a lot of things. He struggled with depression. He struggled with how his art could fit into a world that was largely commercialized and still be pure and true. He struggled with how to co-exist in a world filled with people who didn’t share his ideals.
Through John Logan, the character of Mark Rothko speaks to some of these struggles in ‘Red’. As noted, a lot of the words hit close to home for me. I struggle with how, artistically, to put out product with purity and integrity in a world that doesn’t always care about either quality. I struggle with how to exist with people and a world that don’t often come close to sharing my ideals. I struggle with depression. Mental illness runs in my family.
And all of that struggle is difficult.
And it is terrifying.
And it is exhausting.
The world beat Mark Rothko.
I don’t want it to beat me.
‘Red’ ends on a hopeful note. Hope is where Logan chose to end his story, rather than on the point in life where Rothko chose to end it. I like this hope. It feels right. Or maybe I simply choose it to feel right because to my eyes it’s a far better choice than the alternative.
'Red’ had quite an impact on our audiences in Saint George, Utah. After literally every show the four of us (Varlo, Kelly, Jacob, and myself) had people seek us out and tell us how the show had affected them. Some couldn’t even put all of their feelings into words. To see them moved by their experience - it was quite a lovely thing to observe.
In the end I think those connections are what will stick with me from ‘Red’ for the longest amount of time. I speak not only of the connections that we created with our audiences, but with the connections I felt to the characters on the page.
Those connections are an astounding thing and they’re one of the gifts that theatre can constantly provide to us.
They’re a reminder that we’re not alone.
Jesse Nepivoda is the Artistic Co-Director of The Space Between Theatre Company
THE SPACE BETWEEN Theatre Company
is the resident theatre company at:
THE DIFIORE CENTER FOR THE ARTS
307 North Main Street
St. George Utah 84770 (MAP)
T (435) 216 - 5523
P.O. Box 474
Santa Clara Utah 84765
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