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Mark Rothko is the subject of Red at the Goodman Theatre

John Logan explains how he developed his Tony Award–winning play.

Photograph: Liz Lauren
Edward Gero (Rothko), left, and Patrick Andrews (Ken) practice priming a canvas during a rehearsal for John Logan's Red, directed by Robert Falls, 2011.

“I thought that no one would ever produce this play because it’s two guys talking about art in a room,” John Logan recently said of Red, his play about artist Mark Rothko (1903–70).

He was wrong: Red premiered in London in 2009, won a Tony Award for Best Play in New York last year, and opens at almost 30 theaters across the U.S. this fall. The Goodman Theatre’s production, which stars Edward Gero as Rothko and Patrick Andrews as his assistant, Ken, runs through October 23.

A Northwestern graduate, Logan lived in Chicago for 20 years but now splits his time among New York, Los Angeles and London as a screenwriter and producer. I sat down with him at the Goodman earlier this month to find out what drew him to Rothko, a member of the New York School and pioneer of color field painting.

Red takes place in 1958 and 1959 in Rothko’s New York studio, as the artist works on murals for the Four Seasons, the luxurious restaurant that Philip Johnson designed for Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue.

Many critics have praised the play for its evocation of studio life. According to Todd Rosenthal, who designed the Goodman’s set, a “scent generator” will waft the odor of turpentine through the theater. During a September 10 panel discussion at the Goodman, Red director Robert Falls told the audience, “Every scene in the play has a giant action: stretching the canvas, mixing the paint, putting a frame together.” Ken is a fictional character, created to dramatize Rothko’s anxiety about competing with younger artists, most notably Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. But “the things that Ken does in the play are what [Rothko’s] assistants did,” says Logan, who turns 50 this week.

The playwright developed Red after stumbling upon nine of the Seagram murals four years ago at London’s Tate Modern. “I walked into that room with those murals and they stopped my heart,” he recalls. “Something about the size, the intensity, the seriousness of them, just slapped me across the face. I knew very little about Rothko, so I read the description on the gallery wall.… He spent two years creating these magnificent canvases and doing dozens of studies.” Disgusted by the Four Seasons’ rich clientele, “he decided not to give them to the Seagram Corporation, but to give the money back and to keep the paintings.”

Rothko’s commission was worth $35,000 (more than $270,000 in today’s currency), an unprecedented sum at the time for an artist of his generation. “So, clearly there was some transition that happened, and as a playwright, all you look for is transitions in characters,” Logan says. The artist later donated nine of the Seagram murals to the Tate. (Others are owned by the National Gallery of Art and a museum in Japan.) The same day that his paintings arrived at the Tate, Rothko committed suicide.

Logan spent a year researching Rothko as well as his peers and predecessors, such as Édouard Manet. He read biographies and Rothko’s essays, and visited his works in numerous institutions. “I sought them out wherever I could,” he says, citing his pilgrimages to the Rothko Chapel in Houston and the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (As Gero prepared for his role, the actor spent two hours in the Rothko Room after the Phillips Collection closed.)

The playwright also visited the studios of friends who are painters, whom he declines to name. “I got to mix paint, stretch canvases, sort of get the paint under my fingernails, if you will.” In Red, he tries to convey how “messy” and “sensual” these experiences were. “The fulcrum of the play is when they prime the canvas,” he says. “It’s not painting, but it’s incredibly sexual and violent. That, more than anything, reflects my experience of what it was like being in the studio.”

The Goodman Theatre invites artists to attend “Shades of Red” Thursday 22 at 6pm.

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