With the Wooster Group, director Elizabeth LeCompte has been remaking theater at Manhattan’s Performing Garage for over fifteen years. By a lengthy and public creative process that is itself a drama of genius, this troupe of persistent iconoclasts has produced a body of work—including the infamous trilogy, The Road to Immortality—wholly unique to the language of theater.
The following interview is a composite of conversations conducted during open rehearsals for the Wooster’s newest piece, Brace Up!, based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Developed before audiences in the US and western Europe, with LeCompte always the audience’s most attentive member, it’s been three years in the making.
This form of theater may be for people used to watching television with remote control. It feels like the action on stage—the channels—is constantly changing. The Wooster Group is often described in terms of music, choreography, movement, archeology, architecture: every word but theater. And yet, the result is the most theatrical of theater: spectacle, emotional content, story-telling—the senses rebalance themselves. Or, as LeCompte says, “It’s giving up control. And that’s difficult to play for any person, to have it out of control. But think of yourself as someone that the words just pass through, like when you touch a piano key and the reverberations go on to the strings and the sounds come.”
February 26, 1991
Linda Yablonsky A lot of the rehearsal process is finding a language for you to communicate with the performers.
Elizabeth LeCompte Yeah, that’s the hard thing, and that’s what takes so much time. I have to find a way to communicate with 20 different performers so that each one is showing me something that’s fully themselves, and not some construct I’ve made.
LY A lot of things have happened in the last week during rehearsals that both confused and excited me. You talked about making the stage a dangerous place. Did you mean dangerous for the actors, for the audience?
EL I meant for the audience. I probably meant there is the sense that anything can happen, that it isn’t as controlled an environment as might be expected.
LY You used it in a discussion during post-performance notes where you said you wanted to make the world (that is the theater) dangerous and real. So you wanted the actors to drop their masks, but pretend to be wearing them.
EL Yes. When accidents happen, the audience is unclear about whether they are in the present world or in an illusionist world.
LY I’ve noticed that the communication level between you and the Group members and say, the guest performers, is very different. It’s almost like you’re speaking two different languages. I’ve seen Peyton and Kate actually translating what you say to the others.
EL Yes. Because they don’t know the language. It’s very hard for the outsiders because I forget they don’t know the language and then I have to try and articulate it for them, and it confuses them—it’s sometimes very difficult and I have to be very careful.
LY But no matter what you say, the Group members pick it up immediately.
EL I think they just don’t challenge me, because they understand that I say a lot of stuff that’s useless and they’ve learned to take what they need and throw away the rest, whereas the people I haven’t worked with try to understand everything I say. It’s a big mistake. I’ll throw in just anything to manipulate a situation.
LY The thing is, watching you rehearse, I can see there’s a collaboration going on with the actors, but it appears to be essentially your vision that everyone is working from. You listen to what they have to say, but it’s your vision that’s going to get done, even if, onstage, they follow their own impulses.
EL I don’t think you can tell, unless you see the working of our world over a number of years, that I’m oftentimes asking what they want from me. A lot of the time I’m trying to get something I saw them do that they then lost. It’s not that I’m trying to get something I see in my head. I’m trying to get something that I know they can do. Most everybody brings something of themselves to the pieces, so even though it looks like my thing, they’ve brought something equal that I have to take. I mean, I’m not going to say, no, you couldn’t do that, so I’m sorry, you’re fired, I’m hiring someone else. I’m forced to find something in them, even when it’s totally wrong. I make my mind fit into their bodies, I make the project fit them.
LY What is it that attracts you to particular performers?
EL A combination of things. I like someone who takes the work seriously—deadly seriously—but doesn’t take themselves deadly seriously, which is an odd combination. It’s hard to find. And it’s not in every performer I work with, but it’s in the whole work.
LY During rehearsals I’ve heard you caution an actor against “acting” (impersonating, displaying) one moment, and in the next breath, say to someone else, you’re too abstract there, I want you to act. What do you think of as acting and what as performing?
EL It’s all the same to me. I don’t make any distinction. When I say, "Stop acting, " it means I can see the work being done and I don’t want to see that. I mean someone like Beatrice [Roth, 72, playing Irina, the youngest sister] is an interior performer. She’s a good actress. For me, that means when she says lines, I feel it’s the first time they’ve been said. It doesn’t sound like a play. She’s struggling with something real at the moment. I call that good acting. It doesn’t mean that’s the kind of thing I always want. Sometimes bad acting is fine. When I use “bad acting,” to stop someone, it means I don’t feel the actor has invested the performance with the person of herself. It doesn’t have to be natural, just some part of the person is invested that I can recognize as that particular person. I’m looking for that all the time. When I don’t find that, I get bored. It usually has to do with the performer finding some pleasure. Real, deep pleasure, and by deep pleasure, I mean a pleasurable connection with the stage, the materials I’m using, that makes me want to watch them.
LY Pleasure. Do you mean it as a physical sensation?
LY It’s not just an aesthetic appreciation? Is it how you know you’ve gotten what you want?
EL Yeah. I feel . . . high. When you talk about having your senses rearranged—that’s how I feel when things come together in the work.
LY It’s not always a happy feeling.
EL No. It disturbs me at times. Part of the pleasure for me is surprise, and that’s why I build in so many random moments—I can never really turn it into a system. A system would bore me. Like if I hear a line reading and know what’s coming next, I’m bored. I need some element of hedonistic surprise—that’s a little perverse—to fool myself, to surprise myself, and yet, at the same time, I need to maintain control.
LY But you’re always building up to give up the control—to the performance.
EL That’s a form of hedonism, a form of pleasure-seeking, and it’s dangerous and exotic. You find it in people who do weird sports, you know, people who jump off high places . . .
LY Excitement junkies.
EL Yeah. It’s a bit addictive.
LY But you’re doing it in front of a live audience.
EL I have to say that doing things in front of an audience is an extremely painful part of it for me.
LY Yet you rehearse in front of an audience.
EL Yes, yes. It’s extremely difficult. That’s why I’ll leave the theater eventually. It’s very very difficult for me to sit and watch one of these pieces going on with an audience and yet I’ll make them in front of audiences more than most people do.
LY After all this time working this way, you haven’t become more comfortable?
EL Each year, I feel less and less comfortable. It’s almost neurotic.
LY What happens to you when you’re watching from the audience?
EL I have a heightened pulse, and it gets hard for me to swallow . . .
LY Like stage fright?
EL Yeah, exactly. My hands shake.
LY I’m surprised. You seem so comfortable working in front of outside viewers.
EL It’s different when I’m in closed rehearsal, because there, I’m working. When it happens in front of an audience, I’m passive, I’m just sitting there. I’ve given up certain controls. I’m sitting there and watching, without being me, without the control, without being able to say, STOP, without being able to go in. Losing control—it’s fear, real fear, the worst fear I’ve ever had, with an audience watching.
LY Do you find it difficult to watch with audiences outside of New York?
EL No, that’s the same. I mean, it’s very exciting to play the piece, after you’ve played to an audience that’s attuned to the English language—to take it to a place where they don’t understand English. That’s so different, freeing, in a way, because I can get away from the language. Sometimes, you tend to overconcentrate when people are reaching for meaning. Sometimes, if you let go of it a little, the meaning comes of itself.
LY Ron [Vawter] said to me, "I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone who cares about language more than Liz."
EL I think he may be overcompensating a bit, because people have talked about our work as, you know, not text-oriented, more visual, and that’s obviously wrong.
LY In Brace Up! you’re adhering to the whole text of Three Sisters more than you have in other pieces.
EL Somewhere in me, it would be very easy to paraphrase this play and put certain parts of it in another context. But some of the impulse of the piece is to do the whole play.
LY Chekhov never had it so good.
EL In the early days, when they talked about “imagistic theater,” the critics were not really . . . watching, were not really listening. They’d lump us with Mabou Mines, for instance, who were doing much more visual imagistic theater, and there was a whole dance-into-theater movement that we really had very little in common with, except that we were, exploring the outer reaches of performance. So what Ron’s trying to say when he talks about language, he probably talks about the sound, also.
LY Yes, he was talking about the voices . . .
EL Yes, those are very important in my work, and sometimes that needs to be reiterated, because it seems to get lost in the shuffle. I like the sounds of things, I get into working with words on a number of different levels. I don’t have a psychological structure and then get a space to illustrate it. I tend to want a physical structure that I then want to bring alive with performers. I treat the words with equal weight to my sound or visual elements. I don’t try to destroy them, or obliterate them, as some people accuse.
LY Because of the layering and overlapping?
EL Yes, I take a very static structure and have it in some way accumulate and disintegrate at the same time. I treated Three Sisters linearly up until Act III. In Act III, the structure of the play is being fucked with for the first time. All of a sudden, two scenes overlap on the stage, and actions are repeated several times that have never been repeated before so you have overlaps, jump-cuts, rewinds, and going forward. There’s the sense that something is disintegrating. The interruptions become less illusionist in direction and more real as in technical interruptions. That’s disturbing.
LY Do you have a name for this kind of theater? It’s very stylized, and very natural at the same time. It’s hard to characterize.
EL It’s difficult for me too, because we’ve never fit into any of the “isms,” either theatrical or artistic, with the possible exception that some people were able to talk about our work in the deconstructionist mode, which to me, is very interesting, but it doesn’t work very well with theater. Peter Sellars did the best when he talked about it as an extreme form of naturalism. A new naturalism—that’s the way I’d like to think about it. That people might think I’ve taken naturalism so far, they can’t tell the difference, that this might be happening to the person for the first and only time. In front of them, there’s this sense of presence in the work that is a little dangerous. I reinvigorate old terms, like naturalism, but then I’ve also brought in different elements from around the art world—which has been done before, but never, I don’t think, with the combination of Brechtian story-telling, direct address, and this extreme subjective naturalism as well.
LY The structure of this piece—the way things accumulate and disintegrate, the interruptions—is it something you design?
EL No, it comes out of . . . watching. My pleasure is watching. That’s the pleasure. I find I use this particular method, which is based on improvisational accident, to get the sense of danger, that something’s not right. It’s like Madeline. Did you ever read Madeline? “Something is not right.” That’s what this piece reminds me of—that kind of place.
July 15, 1991
LY Last time we talked you mentioned pleasure and danger in the context of theater. I’ve been reading Brecht and Artaud’s essays. Artaud didn’t want his theater to be subservient to the text but to create a new language that was somewhere between gesture and thought. It seems you’ve taken that idea and extended it into a suitable method for our times. He also wrote about the theater being a dangerous place in the sense that we were discussing—of losing control. And Brecht wrote about the sense of pleasure—this could be you talking: "The theater set-up’s broadest function was to give pleasure. It’s the noblest function we have found for theater . . . It needs no passport other than fun . . . Nothing needs less justification than pleasure."
EL(laughter) Where is that from?
LY It’s called "A Short Organum for the Theater."1
EL I’m surprised to hear it put so directly from Brecht. I feel that in his work.
LY Before you left on the tour, you told me you weren’t sure what Act IV would look like. Has the tour changed your idea of its structure?
EL Yes, I know exactly what it will look like. A whole new set of things has been created, which was a surprise to me. A very big surprise. I thought Act IV was going to be the center of the piece. It is, but in a very different way than I thought.
LY I’m surprised to hear you say that! Last time you said Act III was the center of the piece.
EL Well, it was the center of the piece because we didn’t have Act IV. III is now a diving board for Act IV. And Act IV is still up in the air, so to speak.
LY There’s still a lot of music and dancing in it, though?
LY Will there be a time this year that you can foresee performing the entire show, rather than parts of it, that you’ll consider it finished?
EL Oh yes, in the fall. (I say that advisedly.) I’ve made it modular so that on any given night certain sections can be deleted and other sections added. I’ve had to be very conscious all the way through that people would be coming and going. So I’ve made it complete when it’s incomplete. It can be structurally rearranged because it has such a strong core.
LY When you say come and go, you mean actors having to leave the show for outside work?
EL Yes, other commitments. And that means other people coming in to replace them.
LY Really? At this late stage?
EL I have a system now, it’s very easy to put new people in.
LY You do?
EL Yes, we developed it on tour.
LY What would you call it?
EL I won’t tell you, it’s a secret. You’ll have to see this fall.
LY Okay. What is Kate’s character’s function in the piece, as it stands now?
EL Mmm She’s the narrator.
LY Just a narrator?
EL JUST a narrator? Linda!
LY I don’t mean just. It’s the soul of drama, after all.
EL I took it from a Japanese tradition and then incorporated it into a well-worn European tradition of narration. The idea came from Benshi. We were looking at early Japanese silent films. In Japan, the Benshi is the narrator who stands next to the silent film, that man or woman who both lip-synched the roles and performed the story, next to the movie. That was the inspiration. Kate has to do that with both the videos and the live performers. Kate skips back and forth in time, she can rearrange the actual production any night. So her role is both inside and outside the drama. She acts as a bridge between the audience and the performers. Somewhat similar to the Stage Manager in Wilder’s Our Town, but more real.
LY Outside of your work with the Wooster Group, what do you find pleasurable or exciting?
EL Oh, God. Going to the movies, flipping through my television set, going away.
LY Do you watch a lot of TV?
EL I don’t know how to compare it, I watch by flipping channels.
LY You look at it, not watch.
LY Where do you go away, anywhere in particular?
EL Right now, I like to go to Maine. I have a cabin up there I’m tearing apart. I enjoy that very much. I like taking off surfaces and revealing structures. Which we do in everything. It’s very funny, but that’s what I enjoy most up in Maine—tearing down all the old wallboards, getting to the studs. And, I would say, I like to stay in very good hotels—but just for one night. More than that is suffocating.
LY One more question: are you surprised to find yourself where you are? What’s the most startling thing that’s ever happened to you?
EL Going to the Oscars. With Willem [Dafoe in 1988]. That’s a place I never expected to find myself.
LY Was it fun?
EL Oh, it was fabulous—but I’d never go back. Like a great hotel, it’s only good for one night.
Brace Up! is now on view at the Garage with company members Willem Dafoe, Peyton Smith, Ron Vawter, and Kate Valk, joined by performers Anna Kohler, Michael Stumm, and Jeff Webster as well as guest artists Joan Jonas, Beatrice Roth, Roy Faudree, and translator Paul Schmidt.
—Linda Yablonsky is a writer living in New York. She’s completing a collection of essays: Pleasure and Anti-pleasure: The Diary of A Nicotine Queen, and curating a series of readings at Pat Hearn Gallery called Night Light.
1. From Brecht on Theater, translated by John West. Hill & Wang, NY, 1964.