Home

Porn, blackface and Germaine Greer: the shows that built the Wooster Group

The artistic director of the boundary-pushing New York experimental theater company won a $300,000 prize. Here are the Groups landmark productions

Elizabeth LeCompte, the artistic director of New Yorks paramount experimental theater company, the Wooster Group, has never really known why or how she makes each new work. One can try words like deconstruction, postmodernism, resistance, bricolage. LeCompte wont. I dont know what I do, she says.

At Skidmore College, where she earned her undergraduate degree, professors in the art department would ask her what her work meant. She never knew what to say: I just wanted to make something beautiful, which seemed so simplistic, so naive. Maybe not. LeCompte recently received word that she won the Gish prize, a prestigious $300,000 award honoring an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankinds enjoyment and understanding of life.

Thatll do, she says.

Since LeCompte and her colleagues established the Wooster Group (named for a street in downtown New York) in the early 1970s, the company has produced a body of work at once sprightly and grave, immediate and distant, direct and a little unknowable. The Group often repurposes classics, found texts and documentary materials, combining these sources in unusual ways, as in House/Lights, a work pairing Gertrude Stein with a 60s lesbian sexploitation flick.

There is a longstanding enthusiasm for technology from scratchy record players and Walkmans all the way through to live streaming and 360 video. But the group has also nurtured a vigorous and mischievous approach to acting. (Current and former performers include Willem Dafoe, Kate Valk, and the now deceased Spalding Gray and Ron Vawter.) Performances can feel playful punch in the gut and can leave you just as breathless.

The company has attracted substantial acclaim, but also frequent controversy, rights have often been a problem and the use of blackface in Route 1&9 lost the Group much of its funding. This was a considerable blow. It did not stop them from deploying blackface in the next piece, this time as a more pointed investigation of performance and appropriation.

Often LeCompte decides that she has made her last piece. I go to some place thats empty, empty and that I dont know where the next play is going to come from, she says. But it comes just the same. And she tries to surprise herself every time. At the moment she is designing The B-Side: Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons (A Record Album Interpretation) and directing The Town Hall Affair, a theatrical exploration of the Hegedus and Pennebaker film, Town Bloody Hall. In the midst of rehearsal and European tours, she had a few minutes to speak about several of the pieces that have defined her work with the Wooster Group.

Three Places in Rhode Island (1975-1979)

These first works by the Wooster Group, which evolved out of Richard Schechners Performance Group, were explorations of the life of Spalding Gray, particularly his mothers suicide. A trilogy and an epilogue, these pieces combine direct address (precursors to Grays later monologues) with dance, fantasy sequences, flashing lights, loud noises, slideshows, a recording of TS Eliots The Cocktail Party, and taped interviews with Grays mothers psychiatrist. From the very beginning, I was thinking about science, says LeCompte, the flaying of the body on a table. I would be examining this material of Spaldings that he would bring to me as though it were some kind of an experiment, some kind of a scientific inquiry.

Route 1&9 (The Last Act) (1981)

LeCompte mostly remembers this work as a big break because we had gotten enough money that I could buy four TVs. It combined snippets of Thornton Wilders Our Town with phone calls, pornographic video and Pigmeat Markham comedy routines, performed by actors in blackface. The use of that trope excited a scandal and led several agencies to withdraw funding from the group. The controversy startled LeCompte, who hadnt designed a deliberate provocation. I was not aware what was happening, she says. I was just working.

LSD ( Just the High Points) (1984)

Another exploration of a modern American classics amid the dislocations of contemporary American culture, this work took up several themes that Route 1&9 had addressed. The script drew on Arthur Millers The Crucible (rewritten as gibberish when Miller denied the Group the rights, then replaced with a structurally similar text), the Beat poets, Timothy Leary, and the troupes own experiments with LSD, via a trip that was videotaped and then meticulously recreated onstage.

The Hairy Ape (1996)

After mounting The Emperor Jones in 1993, the group remained drawn to Eugene ONeills language, the emotionality of it, says LeCompte, and took on another play. This survey of humanity and dehumanization, staged on a metal grid, starred Willem Dafoe as the coal-smutched stoker, Yank. The first Wooster Goup show to achieve mainstream success, it opened uptown to the Selwyn Theater, a derelict house on 42nd Street that the company renovated. That was the right space for that play, LeCompte said.

House/Lights (1998)

Who but The Wooster group would think to combine Gertrude Steins somewhat opaque libretto for Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights with the libidinous scenes of a 1964 B-movie about bondage-happy jewel thieves Olgas House of Shame? It was a struggle with the devil in two very different ways, says LeCompte. The show featured Valk as Faustus, the singer Suzzy Roche as Mephistopheles and sound designer John Collins as a talking snake. It was the beginning of translating film into a stage logic, says LeCompte, as though we were translating the camera moves.

To You, the Birdie! (2002)

Both Racines tragedy of the doomed queen Phdre and a highly competitive lawn game, this frisky work, which starred Frances McDormand as the semi-incestuous queen, transmuted the strictures of the royal court into the rules of a badminton court. LeCompte had first rehearsed the piece with ping pong balls, but those balls kept getting lost. With badminton it was really easy, she says. It went so slowly, but you could use an incredible amount of force.

Hamlet (2007)

Though LeCompte had avoided Shakespeare for years, she finally acquiesced to Scott Shepherds desire to play the title role. I had never read Hamlet and I didnt identify with him until I began working on the play, she says. She took inspiration less from the original text (and its variants) and more from the 1964 film starring Richard Burton, directed by John Gielgud. The cast re-created that staging as a ghostly version of the film itself flickered silently behind them, with LeCompte choosing to fast-forward through a scene.

The Town Hall Affair (in progress)

Scheduled to open in New York in late winter, this is another piece repurposing documentary footage, a 1971 Town Hall evening at which Norman Mailer moderated (immoderated?) a panel of feminist thinkers, including Germaine Greer and Diana Trilling. The actress Maura Tierney had brought the Hegedus and Pennebaker film to Le Compte a few years ago and she had enjoyed it, but I just couldnt imagine what I would do with it, she says. Then a year, later she could. I realized how deeply we could go into these people, she says, how we could make something really new.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/oct/26/wooster-group-elizabeth-lecompte-porn-blackface-germaine-greer

Category: Trending

Comments are closed.

FREE Skin Care Checklist - Instant Download

Get our most popular FREE Skin Care Checklist - Instant Download.

Request confirmed - check your email inbox for access and download instructions