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Tom O'Horgan is the director who brought total nudity to Broadway. But shocking an uptight, uptown audience with naked hippies in the smash hit musical Hair does not strike O'Horgan as much of an achievement. "Obviously it means something if people are bothered," he signs, "but it's sad after trying so long to evolve a personal style to be called the Minsky of our times."
This misapprehension of O'Horgan's stature is due mainly to the condition invisibility in which he has worked, for the past four years, as paterfamilias to off-off-Broadway's inventive La Mama Troupe. Though O'horgan has led the troupe on three European tours, it is only in the past year that his highly original style has emerged as a major vision of the possibilities for American theater.. While Broadway is seeing a somewhat commercial version of the O'Horgan message in Hair, off-Broadway offers his staging of Paul Foster's "Tom Paine" for which O'Horgan won a Drama Desk award last week, and, this week, a revival of Rochelle Owens's black pastorale "Futz", for which O'Horgan won an Obie last year.
Like the ancient Greeks, Wagner, Artaud, Peter Brooks and the Polish experimenter Jerzy Grotowski, O'Horgan believes in confronting the audience at every level with every medium. The O'Horgan brand of total theater is a cross between Singspiel and group grope; it is sensual, savage and thoroughly musical.
Polyphony: More a choreographer and orchestrator than a traditional diction and deportment coach, O'Horgan disintegrates linear, verbal structure and often breaks up and distributes narrative and even character among different actors. The resulting polyphony is often too chaotic to decipher - which O'Horgan feels is all to the good. He enjoys sensory bombardment. "It's like life," he says. "You just absorb what you can, you miss a lot, but you don't question it."
O'Horgan's method is extreme permissiveness based on exploratory improvisations with his actors. "Most directors get an ego trip out of playing the godhead," says the 40 year old, hippie-talking leprechaun. "I try to assure the actor that whatever he's doing is acceptable. The last thing I care about is a bunch of actors trying to do my head."
O'Horgan expects the same kind of ego-dissolution from his actors. "I don't think anyone os brilliant enough to fool the audience into thinking, 'I am a 70 year old man'." So O'Horgan does not build character in the conventional ways that invite audience identification. HE fragments roles, uses the cast as a chorus of comment and frequently has actors switch roles in the midst of a play. "I'm trying for an alienation from the physical aspects of character," he says. "I hope this will make the part itself become really visible." The kinkily classic example of this occurs in Hair when a hoity-toity be-minked lady turns out to be a young man wearing nothing but jockey shorts under his furs.
Ego Traps: To liberate actors for this kind of task O'Horgan involves them in a variety of games. he stimulates concentration in rehearsals by running actors through a string of abstract activities - undressing in slow motion, singing, praying to God and Buddha and jostling one another - while relating to a particular scene indicated on a blackboard. In the "Trust Game" the actors form a circle and toss one member back and forth. Other "ego traps" include mock sexual gymnastics, as well as delivering lines while being carried about or doing headstands. And always O'Horgan has his actors play musical instruments, often using pieces from his own collection which ranges from a rare French, nineteenth-century sarrusophone to a bizarre "serpent" O'Horgan built himself from sixteenth-century plans.
The young O'Horgan's theatricality was encouraged by his father, a Chicago newspaperman who built footlights and even a wind machine for his son. At 10, O'Horgan had written an opera. At DePaul University, he was a twelve-tone composer who learned to play dozens of instruments and picked up spending money singing tenor in local churches. After a helter-skelter early career, he evolved an absurdist seriocomic harp act playing everywhere from New York's Waldorf-Astoria to San Francisco's Hungry i. After a short stint with Chicago improvisatory group, Second City, O'Horgan moved to New York and began to work off-off-Broadway.
An epochal, 1964 production of jean Genet's The Maids - with males in the female roles as Genet requested - launched o'Horgan at La Mama. He has now directed 30 plays there, and La Mama chatelaine Ellen Stewart praises him as "the beautiful person who would always help the young playwrights no other director would touch." Next month, Stewart and O'Horgan fly to Prague for the International Theater Institute conclave. In August, the troupe will work on a new production at Brandeis University. There'll be the film version of Futz in the fall, followed, perhaps, by a multifilm package. For O'Horgan, the first, but not the last of the OOB talents to skyrocket, "it's really been a love feast."