Jackson Gay Tackles Red, Mark Rothko, and the Cycle of Birth and Death

Even though artist Mark Rothko was a difficult man to be around, had two failed marriages and committed suicide, director Jackson Gay finds his story inspiring.

Gay is back in Houston to direct the Alley Theatre production of Red, based on the two years when Rothko was putting together murals for a massive Four Seasons-commissioned project. During the two-man, 90-minute play, he and his (fictional) assistant Ken increasingly debate what Rothko is doing.

"It's a mentor-student relationship" played out in the basement of an old YMCA in New York City, Gay said. "In the beginning, the assistant is in awe." But that is swept away over the course of the performance.

Gay, who grew up in Sugar Land, certainly knew of the Rothko Chapel and something of his art ("Art History 101," she says), but didn't know the man until she began reading Red (it won the 2010 Tony Award for best play) by John Logan (Hugo, Rango, The Aviator, to name a few).

"He was tough to be around. He was unrelenting. Not much for small talk. He was about getting at some kind of truth. He was brave and actually got irritated with people who wanted to be ironic, that too cool for school distancing. I think that made him insane, that they wouldn't deal with anything real," she said. "To him it was just insane that an Andy Warhol soup can would be hanging next to his work."

"His assistant [something of a composite character of all the assistants Rothko ever had] is of that generation and in a lot of ways represents the outside world and what is happening." He enters dressed in pop art.

Gay said the opportunity to work with a two-person cast was more than welcome after doing August: Osage County in Houston last year. She was attracted to Red because of Rothko's existential focus on human beings: "You're here, you're alone. The cycle of birth and dead. How human beings confront that. How they deal with the fact that life is going to have an ending date and how you make a place for yourself, how do you engage with the world and how do you actually have your life be about something."

She learned that Rothko once said: "'There's no such thing as a good painting that's about nothing.' I like that. Life has to be about something. You have to engage, read and study."

Rothko's life was "bittersweet because he did finally get his own space for his paintings -- a chapel -- but he committed suicide before it was complete. Spending a whole life trying to find your place and to being able to hang's kind of tragic."

She was surprised that he was so uncomfortable about being a financial success after growing up poor. "It really was a burden to him."

Another thing that surprised her, she said, was that Rothko thought about his art the way a theater person would think. "He really felt that the audience was 100 percent necessary, it [a painting] just wasn't complete, doesn't work without the viewer. He called them [paintings] little dramas. He wanted the viewer to have a visceral reference."

"And like a theater director he tried to control everything," she added. "How his paintings were hung and how far off the ground they were and how large the room was. He was a lighting designer who took complete control over the painting and not just the painting of it but every single aspect of it, even who could get to see it and who couldn't."

"Rothko's main thing about his art was the raw emotion being captured by the intellect. We are just hit with all of these visceral emotions and agony. Art is a way to contain it so you can deal with it. He thought that was what happened to Jackson Pollock, was that he wasn't able to paint anymore and therefore he couldn't handle it," Gay said.

Scott Wentworth (Broadway roles: Lost in Yonkers, Anna Karenina), who plays Rothko, and Jay Sullivan, who was most recently seen at the Alley in Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, are put through their paces in taking on this play, Gay said.

They prime a large canvas -- in red -- onstage. At the end of it, both are sweating, she said. As Ken, Sullivan drags canvases in and out, pulls nails. All of this is done with almost no light. "Rothko liked it dark. He didn't like natural light. He preferred artificial because he could control it. He liked the mystery of it."

The Alley Theatre production of Redstarts previews March 2, and opens March 7 through March 25 on the Hubbard stage. For ticket information, go to or call 713-220-5700.

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