Painting the Museums Red

By Sarah Rosenthal
May 1, 2015

© Kate McCawley ’17

On May 1, the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of Red will open in the Harvard Art Museums’ Menschel Hall, during the university’s annual ARTS FIRST festival. The production is also part of the new Intersections series, which features student and faculty performances inspired by the museums’ collections.

Red, written by John Logan, focuses on the relationship between Mark Rothko and his (fictional) studio assistant, Ken, as they prepare important commissioned paintings. Given the museums’ current special exhibition, Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, the production perfectly set the stage for collaboration between the museums’ Rothko experts and the students involved with the play—including director Max McGillivray ’16, and actors Katherine Moon ’14 and Kevin Hilgartner ’16, who play Rothko and Ken, respectively. The museums’ Division of Academic and Public Programs organized a series of special activities to give the students insight into Rothko’s work and his artistic process.

A Materials Lab workshop, for example, provided a unique opportunity for the students to work with the very same materials and techniques that Rothko used. During a two-hour session led by Francesca Bewer, the museums’ research curator for conservation and technical studies, Red’s cast and crew worked through the painter’s entire process to replicate a panel of the Harvard murals. First, the students fit together stretcher bars and stretched a canvas, learning to use artists’ tools. Next, they learned about Lithol Red, the pigment Rothko used, as well as the two types of paint he mixed—one using a base of animal skin glue for the background, and the other mostly composed of egg for the figure. Finally, the students took these homemade paints to the canvas, investigating the gestures required to achieve Rothko’s look. And in an effort to connect workshop with stage, the canvas the students painted will be used in the show.

According to McGillivray, working with these materials transformed how the staff of the Harvard production understood the artist’s work. “[Rothko’s process] was painstaking, exhaustive, and gritty,” McGillivray said. “There was a marked change in the performances after this meeting, as Katherine and Kevin became more invested in the particulars of Rothko’s process and, as a result, their characters.” 

On another occasion, the play’s staff met in the galleries with Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. She led them through the exhibition of Rothko’s Harvard Murals, explaining the history and intention behind the project as well as the conservation method used on the paintings.

The discussion of curatorial decisions about presenting the murals mirrored the students’ questions about how to represent an artist and his work in a theatrical production. While the actors in Red will not create actual paintings on stage, the play’s staff applied Schneider Enriquez’s insights to the set design and the production’s use of projections. In particular, her explanation that Rothko viewed the mural panels as a single image, and that he aimed to produce deep, transcendent spaces through the use of color, solidified McGillivray’s desire to create “an immersive experience that mimics the mural spaces.”

Red promises to show how the visual and performing arts can be combined, as well as how we can find new ways to interpret and understand. As one of the show’s producers, Andrew Gelfand ’15, said: “When we think of museum interpretation, we tend to think of wall text, audio guides, and the like, but in many ways, interpreting through performance is a no less rigorous path to understanding a work of art. Is there a better way to understand Rothko’s practice, as evident in Harvard’s murals, than seeing it re-created with tools and techniques similar to those he would have used?”

The production of Red will premiere with a staging specially for Harvard undergraduate and graduate students on May 1 (tickets are free and are available at the Harvard Box Office). Free public performances will follow May 2 and May 3.