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 Rosemary Quinn

is the Director of the Experimental Theatre Wing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where she teaches Acting, Improvisation and Self-Scripting. She is an Associate Arts Professor of Theater and the Associate Chair of the Drama Department. She has lived in New York City’s Lower East Side for over twenty-five years, working as an actress, director, teacher, arts administrator and producer. She has originated roles performing in numerous experimental theater productions with The Other Theater, The Talking Band, Mabou Mines, The Roy Hart Theatre of France and Theatre for a Two-Headed Calf, among others.  She frequently collaborated with the director Joseph Chaikin and has performed in a number of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s plays including  Sunset Freeway, which was written for her. Rosemary will be directing Jean-Claude in a solo performance in September of 2012 at LaMama in NYC and will be returning to LaMama in December to perform with the choreographer Molissa Fenley.

 Rosemary has studied the voice work of The Roy Hart Theatre since 1983 and has been a Roy Hart Voice teacher since 1989. She teaches workshops and has directed productions at their center, Malérargues, in the south of France in the summer. Rosemary is married to Jonathan Hart Makwaia. They have two daughters.


Photo © Johanna Lippmann

 Interview by Walli Höfinger and Christiane Hommelsheim

Christiane Hommelsheim: In a workshop I was participating in you onces asked the question: „how can the self be fulfilled while thinking of others“. For me this quote touches the question : „how can we create fullfilling collaboration?“ Can you say a little bit about that?

Rosemary Quinn: One of the classes that I have taught for over 20 years at New York University is an improvisation class for actors. It is clear to me, that if people go into any kind of improvisational work trying to only be in response to the others, that nothing will happen. That there has to be some intentional desire or wish from each person. It is also clear to me that if people go into an improvisation and say: „ I‘ve got it! We‘ll all be at the doctors office, and I‘ll be the one who...“ if someone tries to take care of everything, that also crashes. So there is always this balance. For years I feel in this Improvisation work I‘m constantly asking people to have as blurry a difference between what they‘re getting from the outside and what‘s coming up from inside. And can you keep listening to both directions simultaneously? And then that Improvisation has a chance for everyone meeting it to meet each other, and to make something that does not exist in any of the single people. That‘s my sense of the definition of collaboration.

When I finished college I was very interested in working with some of the theater artists who kind of defined creative collaboration in the theater in the 60ties and 70ties in the United States. My work was very much defined especially by the director Joseph Chaikin and the „Open Theater“ work and actors or artists working together to create theater collaboratively.

W&C: What is your perspective on the voice work in a societal context? Do you see a political dimension of this work, especially today? I‘m referring to what Claudia Gaebler of the Théâtre de la Vie said in a conversation we had: „If everybody would find their voice we would have a revolution.“

RQ: Finding one‘s voice is a big part of my work, is a huge part of what I teach. What I have done in the last 20 years at the Experimental Theater Wing is refine and define ways for actors and other artists to find their voices through solo performances, through writing, through finding theatrical avenues, theatrical paths for which to let their voices arrive. 

How do people find their voices? And for me there is not a lot of difference in finding ones voice in the top note of the piano or finding ones voice by suddenly realizing that they are the only person in the class who always performed on a skateboard, - you know - „Oh, I do have a style!“ whatever that might be... It seems to me, on a societal level, that finding the voice is very important especially for those who are marginalized and aren‘t familiar with taking the time to find their voice, but there are two parts - the other is: Who is listening? I‘m in anguish about that on a political level. Who is listening? Do we even know how to listen? I think in some way that‘s what drew me to the work here, at the Roy Hart Theater - I will never forget how Marita Günther (founding member of the Roy Hart Theater and student of Alfred Wolfsohn) listened, when she was teaching... it was as if she was listening to me in front of her and simultaneously to everything around us. Can we help people to listen? I mean, what‘s so valuable is to tell a story and for someone to go: „Oh, it started like this, but I had no idea I was going to end up there...“ And that experience of : „Wait -  I‘m here now?“ or: „Oh, I see the woman show up with the big blond hair and her this and her that...“ and by the end I‘m amazed that I understand Maths so well from her. How can all the stories rip open our stereotyping, which we all do so quickly and how can we listen? 

If we could get everyone to listen we wouldn‘t need the revolution.

I feel that the theater is such a political act, especially in the 21st century, when there is very little reason why one person has to sit across from another. So to be in places where human beings are in the same room, within heartbeat listening to each other it is kind of a phenomenon. It is a political act when people are together in real time and space.

W&C: The fact that they are actually coming together is the political act?

RQ: Yes: Thats the first right that‘s removed in a totalitarian society, being able to assemble together - Why I call that the theater! It becomes a political act even to have that ability. Even in places where we take it for granted. I feel as if it is a theater artists obligation to tell stories that somebody else hasn‘t heard. I don‘t always feel I‘m doing that well enough, but I feel the obligation.

W&C: It also touches the theme of what kind of theater gets shown in what place. To show  a piece like „birdsong“- is that a political act? 

RQ: Well it depends - I mean, there is a political act in the way you listen to each other in „Birdsong“. But maybe sometime in the future when you are back in the theater - who do you cross, walking from where ever you stay to the theater, who would never be in the audience and why? And I‘m sure that‘s a different story in that particular section of Brussels than it is in New York City or at home or here. Who and what are we not seeing? And not hearing... Not only what are their stories but what is our story, that we don‘t hear them?

Walli Höfinger: You as an artist - actress, director - What are you most interested in at the moment? 

bing bing - mobilephone message

RQ: Lets see if they‘ll answer my question!

W: we could also ask: what is art? and : How is your artistic work connected with your teaching work? The skill of facilitating communication - isn‘t it a vital part of a creation process? what is life and what is art? And how can we do „healthy“ art?

RQ: It has to do so much with respect and with trusting that respect will be given to us.

I don‘t know what to say about art.

I am so fortunate that I am surrounded by the opportunity to ask that question: „What is art and what is life“ that it is so much everywhere for me, so that I can sincerely not know what art is because I get to ask myself all the time. Makes me a very lucky person.

When we first moved to our home in NYC, the four of us - before that we lived in a really small place, much smaller than this apartment - we finally moved and of course we didn‘t have any furniture, because in the tiny little place there was no room for any furniture, so we had to buy furniture - I mean we had mattresses so that was good. We bought two pieces of furniture: a dining room table that could expand and seat 15 or 16, and a piano! And I realized: „Oh this is the definition of my family and a good example what is important to me!“

W&C: The topics we still have on our list are „support“ ,“hierarchy“ and „the cracks and edges in the voice and the cracks and edges in art“. 

RQ: I‘m not completely sure what you mean by hierarchy, but I‘m going to say a few things anyway!

I think that it is very important and it is the primary support in any kind of exploration work or training that the teacher is in charge. And that the teacher makes a place that is safe and sees everything or holds everything. Often in my class I‘m asking you to create something and afterwards I don‘t know if it was right or wrong or good or bad, only you know how close were you to doing what you wanted to do. So my „power“ as the expert disappears. But I‘m still in charge. Hierarchy changes because I‘m not necessarily the expert in what it was that you wanted to do, if you were coming in bringing a solo of your own work, but I‘m in charge of the room and the rules of the room, even if your work is to break those rules. I also think that most teaching is manipulative, even when it is gently manipulative and that thats part of the agreement of a student and a teacher. It is complicated thought, it is kind of deliciously complicated ...

In terms of support that the group gives, there is inherent support in structure, there is inherent support in narrative, which is different than structure, but there is also the support that people need in order to be lost, which is in so much of my work, to take people to where they don‘t know what to do next.

But there is also this transpersonal social arranging that I believe goes on in a group. You know how sometimes you can be in a group and think: „I‘m not saying a word and I‘m usually the one who is talking all the time“, or „I feel so shy“ or „I feel so something“, or, the person that really interests me: for some reason when that person starts talking you just want to get up and run out of the room, or throw up or slap them? What is it that triggers all of this attraction or repulsion or responses? 

And it is almost as if you imagine a circle and parts of all those people went out and had a little election. „You‘ll be the bad guy today and i‘ll be the one who never stops talking and you‘ll be the funny one...“ and at the same time everyone is here, trying to pretend like they aren‘t having this committee meeting some place else!

But I feel as if that interaction, that sort of subterranean transpersonal interaction is a huge support in a group.

I mean - support in not always warm and positive, but it pushes what people bounce off of. Its the structure, it‘s another structure again, a container, that holds things   so that people can be on their way. One needs a container most of the time.

And there is one more thing that I you asked me - the cracks and edges of the voice and the cracks and edges of Art:

When I met Richard Armstrong - who, I think it was in 1981 maybe 1983, introduced me to the Roy Hart Theater work, I completely understood something that I thought I had understood for a long time before that, which is that the beauty is in the cracks and all the possibility for what happens next is on the edges.