Seeing Red. Did we violate “sacred space” backstage at GeVa?

Seeing Red. Did we violate “sacred space” backstage at GeVa?

After the performance, back stage and onstage

On Saturday afternoon, GeVa theater goers were treated to a riveting performance of Red, John Logan’s Tony Award winning Best Play.

Red  can be a difficult play. A two man performance, no intermission, not much dramatic action, instead rippling with fast paced emotionally charged philosophical dialogue. At first, the audience’s response was tepid and hesitant.  By the end, polite light clapping gave way to a spontaneous standing ovation.

We were swept away by Logan’s vision of the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and his fictionalized protégé/assistant. The two bound together in Rothko’s New York studio, his “sacred space,”–a term central to the play and Rothko’s aesthetic beliefs–unraveling the mysteries of art, life and death, red, black and their absence.

We were also given the opportunity to go backstage after the performance. To see the scaffoldings and props that had shaped our evening of suspended disbelief.

For the fifteen or so of us, milling around the stage and behind was an intriguing, if voyeuristic, experience.  We saw how much smaller the space seemed now, after it felt so imaginatively enlarged by the actors. And, of course, the paintings in the set were not real Rothkos (unless GeVa’s budget is bigger than I think). The canvas made red during the performance was not made so by Rothko himself and his unnamed assistant but by Stephen Caffrey and John Ford-Dunker.


Stephen Caffrey and John Ford-Dunker. Photo: Huth Photography

I wondered–asking we backstage pilgrims–whether we were violating sacred space by being here. And, what might Rothko (if alive) think of our pilgrimage?

Jim Leitgeb (now a Talker subscriber and, I hope, soon to be contributor) offered a provocative answer. We were breaking all the conventions of the performing arts. Destroying the illusion. We were, “betraying the contract, the implicit contract, between playwright, players and the audience.”  Yet, Jim was there. Nor was he troubled by his own personal betrayal. Ah, the paradox.

Larry Eldridge, while admitting to a voyeuristic pleasure, seemed to concur with Jim’s thesis.  However, Larry hedged somewhat on his rationale. He was there because his wife made him.

Barb Flender felt the experience “opens another window into the play we wouldn’t see otherwise.” Playing devil’s advocate, I asked Barb would Rothko would approve of us being in “his” studio, so hermetically sealed off in the play and in his life?  The program notes describe Rothko’s fierce and obsessive desire to “control the environment in which a picture [or in our case a play] could be viewed.”IMG_0988

No, Rothko would not approve (probably red in face). But, in a way, Barb mused, she was there on the invitation of Rothko’s fictional assistant who is really us, the audience. The assistant–who pushes back against Rothko when he slides into a rigid rejection of audience–would be leading the backstage tour.

Another woman thought Rothko the egomaniac would like the tour because it was about him. Donald Trump metaphorically giving a tour of Trump Towers.  Speaking of reality TV, one woman did mention that phenomenon, wondering if our excursion, while enjoyable, was feeding our cultural appetite to peer into every hidden corner.

To learn more about the Red, I met with Dawn Kellogg, GeVa’s Communication Manager.  Dawn explained GEVA’s decision to perform Red  (Spamalot  it’s not).  She also filled in some details on our “rare look backstage” and some of  the complexities involved in a performing a play based on the life of a real person.

Red by John Logan is a unique piece of theatre. Certainly it is not unique for GeVa to mount a two-character play on our larger Wilson Stage, but Red is unique in that it is a piece of art about art and artistic sensibilities and demonstrates this to glorious effect. It is a play about why we at the theatre do what we do – indeed why any artist does what he does – and it is one that has touched all of us here at Geva. It is a play that Geva has wanted to do ever since it won six Tony Awards in 2010. Theatre must not only entertain, but it must provoke thought and challenge the audience and Red does just that especially directly following the fun and fluffy Spamalot.


GeVa even allows those invested in the theatre (subscribers, donors) a rare look onstage in the form of a post-show tour. This is not the first time that GeVa has welcomed audiences onto the set for a post-show tour after every performance – that was in 2012 with Freud’s Last Session set in Sigmund Freud’s London office. Red is set in Rothko’s studio and, as per usual with Geva productions, it is pretty authentic right down to the very last detail.  An enormous amount of research goes into each and every production, but that’s another blog for another time.

With a play based on the life of a real person, there sometimes comes restrictions about the use of certain materials, images, etc. Red is certainly not without its restrictions from the Rothko estate, eager to ensure that the memory and integrity of the great artist is maintained. On the set, for example, there are two works of art that, although not by Rothko, are Rothko-esque in nature. These will be destroyed right after the play ends its run next week. There are several other caveats which I won’t go into here, but suffice to say that we were absolutely able to work within the parameters set by the Rothko estate.

Dawn is certainly right on one point. Stay posted for a follow up blog already in the works.

Going back stage isn’t really a violation of the unwritten rules of theatre at all.  Call it dramatic jaywalking. I’ve been to experimental theatre where the audience is required to do things like going backstage or even taking down the set. Nonetheless, if you have the chance take our “rare look onstage.”

Most importantly, see Red. The play’s the thing.

Note: After leaving GEVA that night, I enjoyed another short play at the Visual Arts Workshop. See Jilted Rochester embraces David BowieIMG_1007

Also, on theater and the Visual Arts Workshop, see A little bit of the Moulon RougeIMG_0726


A finely executed performance of Mockingbird at GEVA. And on the “white trash” Ewells

Deconstructing (and admiring) GeVa’s “Miracle on South Division Street” through the looking glass.

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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