When Richard Maxwell was 12 years old, his father made him an offer. The former boxer believed his son had a natural gift. "I'll train you to be a professional boxer," he said. "Imagine, the girls wanting to feel your muscles! The guys running away in fear! You don't have to answer now," he added with suitable seriousness. "Just think about it."
The younger Maxwell was terrified, but luckily his dad never brought up the subject again. "I didn't have the strength to say no," recalls the 32-year-old writer/director, warming to the subject of his impressive dad, who is also a retired judge, community-theater veteran, and a senior Olympian in the high jump. "If I chose to do it, I would sacrifice everything. But he was only half-serious. He was trying to teach me one of those life lessons. He had a flair for drama."
As it turns out, Maxwell, now the artistic director of the New York City Players, was more attuned to his dad's love of the stage than the sweet science. But 20 years later the two passions have come together in Boxing 2000, appearing this weekend at the Southern Theater as part of Walker Art Center's "Out There" series.
Maxwell, an Obie Award-winning artist who was recently compared to the young Sam Shepard by the New York Times, sees boxing and theater as natural bedfellows. "Obviously boxing is very theatrical, and it's also ancient in its origins, with people entering the ring to fight each other and draw a crowd," he explains by telephone from Manhattan. Though Maxwell recognizes the cliché behind the heroic pugilist, he has crafted an up-from-the-mean-streets tale anyway. "I think that the story is really predictable," says Maxwell, who describes a simple scenario of an older brother training his younger brother for a bout. But the director, who includes a three-round bout in the production, hardly follows Marquis of Queensberry rules. "What's unusual is the way the story is told," he says.
The Fargo and suburban-Chicago native spent a year with the famed Steppenwolf Theater before heading east to perform experimental work, intending, as he puts it, to reach "more than six people" in the audience. True to that ambition, Maxwell has distinguished himself both in New York and Europe for his oddly unadorned style. "It's what the actors aren't doing," he says. "I don't expect them to assume the burden of creating a different reality. Instead there's an acknowledgment of the immediate moment. I really like putting the story on its feet and letting the audience do the rest. If I had my druthers, there wouldn't be any sort of imposed psychology. If you come to the first rehearsal with things answered already, then you've already closed doors."
Maxwell's casts frequently comprise trained and untrained actors, a mix he finds refreshing because the sense of raw fear is more palpable. "Everyone wants to do a good job, and actors are no different....A lot of what training teaches us is how to deal with the nerves, how to make sure the audience doesn't see you sweat. I like for people to let go of their training. I'd rather they really perform and not [just] get through it."
The oddly uninflected and frankly amateurish performances that come from this approach can seem flat and lacking in feeling--as if the whole boxing story were taking place in the neutral corner. But this effect is anything but accidental: It's intended to upset the expectations of seamless traditional theater. "My beef with a lot of acting right now is that there is a rote standard," Maxwell says. "I don't expect people to manufacture emotion, but I also say there's a lot of emotion in my work. The actors are up in front of a group of people. That takes bravery. They're unsure, they're vulnerable, but they're also excited, very present and alive."