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Richard Maxwell Explains his Ghostly New Play, "Ads"

The experimental director's latest offering explores how billboard culture inspires us to sell our personal beliefs to strangers.
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Ads, the latest play from New York-based playwright and director Richard Maxwell, offers a fresh perspective on how theater can interact with the audience. The play features taped strangers, not actors, who explain their deeply-held beliefs to the audience in pre-recorded monologues. Here, Maxwell talks about the concept and technology behind the play:

You usually direct more traditional plays, right?
Traditional in the sense that they are with humans, yeah.

I was impressed - I didn't expect a show projected onto glass.
Well it's not projected onto glass. The [images of the people] are being projected onto a screen - an RP screen - a weird projection screen, and the reflection of that image is picked up on the glass. It's an old theater trick called Pepper's Ghost. It's as old as the hills - goes back to the 19th century. The thing with that is that you don't need it to be video, it can be a person in the wings who is not seen in the audience. Their reflection is picked up by the same piece of glass, so it has this feeling of depth.

It's ghostly. It's in a theater but it doesn't deal with humans in real time.
That's the idea. My intention was to make theater and to put it into a broader give individuals the opportunity to claim back space.

What do you mean by that?
There's this book by Naomi Klein called No Logo, and in that book she talks about public space being usurped by private interest, like people getting Nike swoosh tattoos. The space that was once personal space is now public and somehow that's necessary to shape our identity... to define who we are. That really got me thinking about how much I walk around in the world and assume that space is not mine. I can't walk into any building I want to. I can't look out my window without seeing billboards, for instance. That's what got me into this idea. I thought - we'll make our own ads about our beliefs to try to claim back some space in this small way - and it dovetailed nicely into this notion of trying to make theater.

Do you think this notion of space is different for New York than elsewhere - is the play at all New York-centric?
Well, it's acute in the city. The more people you have, the more you're going to be exposed to advertising.
But I don't think it's [New York-centric] because of the ad space; I think it's because all the people I invited to talk are from New York. And I'm already talking to people in other cities about making local ads. When you talk about places in Nebraska where physical signs are not so evident - there's this whole online thing that's another ball of wax. It's pretty much impossible to avoid that.

How did you choose the people who did their ads?
Some are my friends, but I didn't want it to be all my friends, so I started asking my friends if they knew people. The image I had in my mind was a subway car. I wanted a nice cross section of folks.

You asked people to write generally about something they believe in?
Yeah, and they were given five minutes and they had to write it down and those words were fed into a teleprompter and they would read them back to the camera. I put the condition that it needs to be sincere because I want people to delve into the question.

That's tough!
It is tough. If you can imagine - and I did this - I have a thing on my phone that takes voice notes, and before I asked anyone else to do this, I hit record and tried to respond to that question and I was totally speechless.

What do you believe in?
I believe in the heart. The human heart. I believe it's connected to the mind and I think it's important to be present and open and to continually be engaged in learning and always beginning. At the end of the day we don't really know anything, but we continue.

Do you think that belief is represented by Ads?
Yeah. I might not have said it if you didn't prompt it, but [Ads] articulates that idea better than anything that I could say. To me it's a very clean statement in that way.

Ads is running at PS 122 until Feb. 6. Visit the PS 122 website for tickets