Courtesy of an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, I'm en route to New York to interview Richard Foreman, the avant-garde writer and director. Foreman is virtually unknown to UK theatregoers, but he has, nevertheless, been developing his uniquely disorienting form of drama for more than 30 years. As he eschews the emotional manipulations of narrative, I suspect he would be unimpressed by my choice of in-flight entertainment: award-winning Lost in Translation (yes, I did get a bit emotional at the end) and The Matrix: Revolutions (not quite such an empathic response to this, but a bad choice to watch on a flight - too many catastrophic bangs and explosions). I am now feeling vaguely anxious - and guilty.
Before getting the chance to see Foreman's newest work, I spend the afternoon in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts watching videos of his previous shows. It is an interesting set-up: viewers sit at a television screen remotely operating a playback machine via computer link. Apparently, there is a lonely technician closeted somewhere in the basement whose job is to load and unload tapes as required. You can send him little personal messages such as: "Hold everything - I'm just going for a bathroom break. Be right back." I wonder what the response would be if I proposed a similar arrangement for library staff at Loughborough University?
Having viewed a number of these plays on tape, as well as having sat in on a rehearsal in 2000, I finally watch a Foreman production live: King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe . I have been warned by one of the cast members that this one is "untypical" because Foreman uses it to comment on contemporary political realities. He needn't have worried: it is splendidly Foremanic - quite crazy, utterly unpredictable and extremely funny. King Cowboy Rufus (the imitation George Bush character) is portrayed as a cross between an effete 18th-century English aristocrat and a gun-toting goon. It is very hard to convey the effect of one of these energetic pieces to anyone who hasn't already seen one: the whole point is that they are irreducible to mere description. Gloriously overloaded with signifiers of all kinds, this is total theatre in compact form. Beautifully crafted chaos.
I get to interview Foreman in his SoHo loft apartment. It is as cluttered as one of his sets, with a vast personal library forming the majority of the décor. The man himself is utterly charming and extremely accommodating, responding to my endless questions with patient good humour and a fierce intelligence. He even agrees to record a short message on video for my students, who will be performing the UK premiere of his Pearls for Pigs in June. Afterwards, on the way down to the ground floor, I receive a revelation: suddenly I know the inspiration for the random "pings" that routinely punctuate the dialogue of all his plays. And as the elevator passes another floor, yet another bright tone rings out.
On the return flight, I find myself seated next to a 12-year-old girl travelling back to England with her family. She asks what I've been doing in New York, so I try to describe Foreman's play to her. After a moment or two, I notice that she has assumed the polite expression of someone humouring a harmless lunatic. Ho hum...
Neal Swettenham lectures in drama at Loughborough University. He is the author of An Opportunity to Get Hit by a Car: Richard Foreman at Work .