Nostalgic, Not Sentimental
The Wooster Group as »Artist in Focus« at the Schaubühne
by Joseph Pearson
12 April 2023
The Wooster Group is named for Wooster Street, the location of the company’s theater in New York’s SoHo. In the 1970s, this part of downtown Manhattan was a refuge for artists who acquired and rehabilitated the manufacturing lofts south of Greenwich Village. One such site was inhabited by The Wooster Group and dubbed The Performing Garage. Many of the greats of American theatre –Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray, Steve Buscemi, and Frances McDormand––developed their careers in the Garage, in the revolution of the post-dramatic tradition, pioneered by founding director Elizabeth LeCompte.
»Then things change around you«, LeCompte tells me, »Suddenly it’s all Prada. But we get their old clothes, and we cut them up. I still walk down to Canal Street and collect tubes and plastic. I think of it all as material; I don’t judge it«.
Wooster Group performer Kate Valk adds, »Still, you have to look at the economics. There needs to be an economy for things to happen. Many others now can’t make work like we do, and commit the time, and have a place for how long it is going to take. They can’t get the money because what they are doing is not seen as a marketable product that will increase in value«.
Wooster Group remains a fixture of the New York Theatre scene but is increasingly a rare breed. Their tenacity and exceptionality indicate something about artistic production in the American metropolis––they represent the talent and dynamism of New York, but also the extent to which market forces endanger the avant-garde. When speaking to American theatre makers, the economic questions are just under the surface. Meteoric property values have meant the partial desertification of Manhattan into a grid of CVS Pharmacies and JP Morgan-Chase banks. Rising rents mean theatres must sell, and commercial theatre delivers. Broadway is lit with billboards for musicals, and the rare experimental work requires an actor with name recognition, fast-paced linear plots, and the promise of short durations. Talented young actors and directors meanwhile flee to the world of streaming television and its different commercial pressures.
It is a testament to the Wooster Group that it has endured and continues to exert such a force on international stages. The influence of Elizabeth LeCompte, and the Wooster Group, now in its sixth decade, is hard to overestimate, and hinted by the Schaubühne’s invitation to the group to be the Artist in Focus for the international theatre festival, FIND 2023. I ask Elizabeth LeCompte how they continue to survive and prosper.
Elizabeth LeCompte tells me, »We did something right. We bought the space for 80 000 dollars in 1973«.
Kate Valk adds, »There are now a lot of pressures. Real estate taxes are going up. The neighbourhood has been rezoned for commercial purposes. We are fortunate to have the Garage«.
LeCompte explains, »And that’s how we can do what we are doing. Otherwise, you need to do a famous play, and then they give you money. But then you are in a precarious position. The audience wants to see all the bells and whistles that TV and film can bring«.
Changes in how theatre people are trained in America, with the rise of specialisation, has also had its effect: »Everyone goes to college now. They each study a special area, like television acting, to get a television job. Or directing, to go to Broadway––«
Valk parries, aghast, »They study experimental theatre!«
»When I came to theatre«, LeCompte recounts, »I was a visual artist. People were experimenting in all kinds of arts. Our early pieces were a form of performance art«.
The discussion brings us to the two on-stage pieces presented at FIND 2023. The first is »A PINK CHAIR (In Place of a Fake Antique)«, based on the works of the Polish visual artist and theatre maker Tadeusz Kantor, whose theatre group Cricot 2 was founded in the wake of Stalinism, after a sojourn he spent in Paris.
LeCompte tells me, »There was a lot that was foreign about Kantor. The way his pieces used language––the holy seriousness around the productions«.
Valk says, »It took us a while to understand his humour«.
»But we discovered that in translation, with his daughter«, adds LeCompte, »I said: I need to deal with this with someone else. Get me the daughter! And she helped a lot«.
»Dorota [Krakowska] took us on this voyage to invoke the spirit of her father again«, Valk continues, »We could identify with the daughter looking for the father, instead of just making an homage to a male artist«.
»I am constantly offered money to make pieces about great male artists«, LeCompte laughs, »It’s really funny. I have to find these ways of doing it so I can identify in a strange way. Dorota was also on the outside, not accepted by Kantor’s company, partly because she was so close to the great father. I came to identify not so much with Kantor but with the whole company and their relationship to Kantor. But as a director, I see myself on both sides of that story«.
Valk explains, »The piece of his that is the centrepiece of our production is »I Shall Never Return«. It’s one of his last pieces, but the first piece he performed in. All the characters from previous plays confront him, with need or desire. He’s looking back at his whole oeuvre«.
I return the conversation to the »sacred seriousness« of the Central European tradition and ask how the perspective on Kantor changes when a New York company gets their hands on the material. I suggest that too often––in the continental tradition––there is a leaden expectation that if a piece is going to be taken seriously, it needs to be devoid of humour.
»It can’t help but be funny: it’s my personality«, LeCompte tells me, »For all of us: we are Americans, and humour and irony are a big part of our lives. It’s an instinct that we bring to the work––an instinct that is inherited. I think we do the comedy well«.
Valk says, »We have a kind of self-referential humour. It’s also kind of like children’s play humour, or low humour mixed with high, mixed with some sense of being serious that indicates we are not going to take ourselves seriously«.
LeCompte adds, »I saw Der Rosenkavalier last night at the Met: it is hysterically funny. It’s the same humour that we found in Kantor. We found his irony. What had been taken as overt prophetic statements were filled with ironic humour. It was great for us«.
Along with their many films, the Wooster Group presents a second on-stage theatre piece at the festival, »NAYATT SCHOOL REDUX«, based on a 1978 production by LeCompte which starred the celebrated monologue actor, Spalding Gray, in an early role.
Gray’s story is a tragic one and worth researching before seeing the production: his mother committed suicide in 1967, and he followed by throwing himself off the Staten Island Ferry in a depressive episode in 2004. I suspect that reviving the production, with the absence of its main actor and founding member, must be difficult.
But LeCompte tells me, »Was it very difficult? I remember it as no problem. I went about finding a way to present it, about problem solving, and there was a distance from where the hurt was. I remember how wonderful the piece is, that there was something joyous in it, also for us«.
Valk comments, »Liz isn’t sentimental«.
LeCompte clarifies, »I’m nostalgic, not sentimental«.
Valk explains, »It was good for me to have a little nostalgia, to talk about the time when I first came to the Wooster Group, which helped me fill in for Spalding in this piece. I think it’s fascinating how long ago it was when we made it: to think about what Liz and the group did in the late 70s. It seems wild now. Oh my god: did we actually do that?«
LeCompte replies, »Then there’s this layering. Sometimes the old piece is only just visible through the new piece. Sometimes you don’t see it. Sometimes it’s secretly there. Like an old cassette tape where, in the background, you can hear what was previously recorded«.