I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Select Equity Group Series on Theater
It is a truism that great art not only changes the way we consider an art form but also has the ability to affect how we see everyday life. After a couple of decades of watching the Wooster Group dismantle and partially reassemble classic plays, it’s impossible not to see little Wooster Group playlets all around us. There is a kind of “B” movie, the kind where the actors’ intentions and the drama have little to do with each other, that seems like a Wooster Group readymade. It’s not camp, exactly; it’s the world of meta-drama, where a play or film is governed by iron-clad conventions in which it only half-heartedly believes. It is, in fact, our world. That space between the model and the rough-hewn (or exact) replica is the space of contemporary art. Kate Valk, after 29 years of performing with the Wooster Group, is the exemplary artist in this regard.
In this interview Valk explains how the Wooster Group turns the pleasures of mimesis into a kind of feedback system that yields an unprecedented working space for the performer and memorable theater for the audience. I should add that she is a national treasure.
We sat down with Valk shortly after the Wooster Group’s production of Hamlet at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Staged with the Wooster’s familiar yet still confounding juxtaposition of film and video with live action, Hamlet takes as its template the film of Richard Burton’s legendary 1964 modern dress, Broadway production. The Group re-edited the film—fast forwarding through and obscuring parts—and channeled its performances, acting alongside and in front of its projections.
David Salle I know little about you, biographically speaking. What path led you to the Wooster Group?
Kate Valk It was very intuitive. We moved around quite a bit when I was growing up, and I finished my teenage years at Towson State in Baltimore. I just gravitated toward the theater department; I don’t even know why. I didn’t really want to go to school.
DS So you were not in the high school theater club?
KV They did musicals, and I couldn’t sing. Actually I wanted out of high school. I never really felt like I fit in. Those were not my glory days. I worked at Shepherd-Pratt mental hospital, and I liked to take my name tag off and maybe be confused for one of the patients. It was just more exotic and interesting.
Sarah French Were you escaping something?
KV I wanted to reinvent myself. I didn’t know I was looking for that group to belong to. I was desperate to come to New York. I came from a lower-middle-class background and wasn’t exposed to the arts. My father really wanted me to go to college because he’d never finished school. I wanted to come to New York and hang around artists. So I went to theater school at NYU, in the studio program. I spent two years working with Stella Adler, and I had a great time. Stella was a fabulous persona—such a great character. But after two years there I knew I didn’t want to get a picture and a résumé and be an actor. Wasn’t interested in it. I’d go see plays, and I was always very disturbed about the fourth wall. Things seemed very artificial to me. I had one semester left, so I attended this new program, the Experimental Theatre Wing, and the Wooster Group was teaching that semester. I met Liz [Elizabeth LeCompte] and Spalding [Gray] and Ronnie [Ron Vawter]. I went to see the first trilogy, Sakonnet Point (1975), Rumstick Road (1977), and Nayatt School (1978). It meant everything to me. Everything spoke to me. Everything was vibrating. It was so exciting that I gave up my apartment and moved in upstairs at the theater and volunteered.
DS What did you do?
KV I was working as a seamstress when I got out of school, so I just offered myself to Liz. She said, Well, what can you do? And I said, I can sew. So I started making things for her. I was very lucky. At first, this was what it was: a place to go every day, and to make things. It wasn’t primarily as an actress. I never really felt like an actress. I was always very much wanting to run away from my psychology.
SF Psychology can get in the way.
KV For me it did. And this was why I was never really attracted to film, because the scrutiny of the camera is—ugh—it’s terrible. And I liked having a mask. So I was lucky. I started performing in the next piece that Liz made, which was Route 1 & 9, where we did the re-creation of the Pigmeat Markham routines. Route 1 & 9 deconstructed Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic Our Town, using videotaped excerpts from the play on overhead monitors, actors in blackface, and scatological vaudeville humor. That was 29 years ago.
SF What do you remember about that first performance?
KV There was nothing better. It was like a coming-out party for me. And also it was the first time I had performed with such a huge mask. I would get into makeup for Route 1 & 9, and into my costume, and I was different. I was so powerful, and I would think differently—respond differently—and it was just terribly exciting.
SF How was that time different?
KV I had so much enthusiasm. The longer I’ve been working, the harder it gets for me. Just to do something, and not to keep doing the same thing over and over again.
SF I’m interested in how you stay uncomfortable. How do you keep that edge?
KV That’s all built into the structure Liz gives us. For Route 1 & 9, for instance, Liz began with the Pigmeat Markham routines off an LP, and the TV timing of daily soap operas for the videotaping of the last act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And then we made up dances. The floor is always very important for Liz, and so the blocking and everything was literally mapped out on the floor. A lot of how we work, with the in-ear tracks and the cues off the televisions, keeps us responding in the moment, shortening the time between impulse and action, so what we do is cued from this outside stimulus. And that can keep changing, so there is the potential for the unpredictable.
DS I was thinking about the outside influences that might not be the expected ones. I was watching Mean Streets for the 90th time recently. Harvey Keitel and de Niro are doing their routine together. It’s naturalistic New York City street dialogue, more or less. But what they’re really doing is Abbott and Costello comedy routines, and clearly enjoying channeling this bit of arcana, which is productive for them, though they’re in New York in the ’70s. Is there any parallel for you—something you have taken as your particular extra bit of information, a vernacular?
KV When we “take” something, that information is what we take as an outside stimulus. For instance, with Hamlet, the Richard Burton film—Burton playing Hamlet—is the backdrop of our version. The Burton film is played onstage and is an integral part of our performance, which plays off of it. Both of the characters I play, Gertrude and Ophelia, were pretty far away from me, because I didn’t have a command of Shakespearean language by any means. It took me quite some time to even be able to hear it. And then vis à vis the performances of Eileen Hurley and Linda Marsh in the Burton film, by copying and keeping up with those, I have no choice but to let that change me from the outside. Not to mention the fact that we edited the film back into iambic and it gets fast-forwarded at times. In our Hamlet we aren’t really acting, we are channeling. There are things I bring to it just because of how I am and who I am, but my task as a performer is to stay open and fluid to channeling what’s on the screens. And there are things I know or like to imagine that actors do, to get to an emotional place to play those scenes—and those are the other things I toy around with. That’s exotic and mysterious to me—that kind of emotional recall, that kind of acting.
SF What about improvisation, how does it enter into this way of working?
KV Improvisation might be some game structure set up to spur rehearsal time and develop the shared vocabulary, or some section of the piece might be structured in a way that allows improvisation each night. For instance, in Route 1 & 9, there was a timed section where the guys built a little house, wearing glasses that totally blocked their vision, and they built it a little differently each time; meanwhile, I was making random phone calls to bars and delivery joints. On the other hand, in L.S.D. (… just the high points …), we videotaped one of our rehearsals of The Crucible while we were tripping on acid, and then re-created that every night second by second. Everyone thought it was improvised, but it was the most scored section!
DS With all that’s going on, you seem to be very relaxed onstage.
KV I do feel relaxed! (laughter) We’re so grounded by the task, so in the best times it’s a relaxed readiness.
DS You project a great deal of calm. The analogy I can make is to a gifted dancer who actually seems to extend the time within the score. They don’t; the counts are the counts. But it’s almost as if there’s more time in a measure of music.
KV They hit all the points on the way.
DS Exactly—every point along the way is somehow illuminated, and it creates the impression that time slows down, allowing you to perceive more beats than are actually there.
KV What we do with Liz is always very physical. There’s always some sort of training for each piece that, again, grounds us in a physical vocabulary. It needs to be created because she’s dealing with such different people. The training provides some base that we all draw from so we look as if it’s all coming from the same world.
SF Who are the trainers? How do they train you?
KV Well, I meant that we would train ourselves, or commit to finding a way to do something by working at it, but actually lately we have brought in professionals to help us try to acquire specific kinds of expertise. For Poor Theater we did a lot of training with the Forsythe dancers Helen Eve Pickett and Natalie Thomas, and we had a Polish teacher for the Grotowski sections. For To You, The Birdie! we had first a ping-pong master and then Chi Bing Wu, a badminton champion. I didn’t end up playing badminton in the piece, but I did all the training in order to develop the vocabulary. Frances McDormand was a baton twirler, so we did lots of twirling.
DS What was it like to work with Frances McDormand?
KV Fran was a real lesson to me. She always had an impulse—she always had an idea—and she worked very, very differently. There were times when I wouldn’t even understand what she was talking about, usually when she’d be talking about a kind of psychological relationship to the text and words that you could figure out as an actor. But I think we were a good influence on each other. It was hard to get us on stage together because I was so huge and physical and she could make the language work very easily, very naturally. That wasn’t so easy for me in that piece. It was hard for Liz to figure that one out, but I think it came to something interesting.
DS I thought that was a very fruitful collaboration. You can see that Frances completely absorbed the Wooster Group style: all those crazy gestures she had, the way she walked. Her performance was very physical.
KV She said, “I’ve never been in such great shape as when I worked with the Wooster Group.”
SF How, and when do you evaluate your work?
KV What do you mean by evaluate?
SF Did I say that? (laughter) I mean, how do you talk to yourself about your work?
KV I have perhaps the strongest director that you could have in theater. She’s at every performance. When I was young, at notes before the show, I never heard, “Good, Kate. Kate, that was great.” I heard other people get that. And one time I asked her, “Why don’t you ever tell me I’m good?” She said, “Well, I want to see where you’re going to go. I don’t want you to stop. I want you to know when it’s good.” And believe me, I do. It’s true. You do know.
SF Can you describe that?
KV It’s a feeling of liberation. I feel completely free when I know the performance has hit the marks and transcended. And transcendence isn’t something you can go for. That’s why theater is theater, because there are all these things that any one person isn’t in control of—especially the way we work, where it really is the unity of all the players, including the sound and the video and the light people. You can’t say, “Oh, I played really well tonight.” It’s bigger than any one performance.
DS Do you ever think about the audience?
SF Are they part of the concert?
KV A huge part! They make it; it’s nothing without them. Liz thinks about the audience all the time. Me, I’m their subject. I feel it. It just happens. If the audience is yin, you naturally go yang. It’s a really symbiotic relationship. You don’t know what a piece is going to be until it’s been seen. That’s why we develop the pieces in progress in front of an audience. There’s no better experience than the first night we perform something. The work totally morphs into something else. And it’s something you could never imagine.
DS I’ve never not had fun with the Wooster Group. (laughter) Never. Is that a conscious goal on Liz’s part?
KV Oh, definitely. I’m envious, because I don’t get to see the shows. I remember when Ron Vawter had to leave Brace Up! and we replaced him. He came to see the show, and I saw him in the audience: he was lit up like a Christmas tree, he had such a great time. He said, “I had no idea!” And Peyton [Smith] had the same experience during The Hairy Ape when someone took her part. She saw the show and said, “Oh, my God! I wish you could see this! It’s fantastic!” But of course, I had that experience; I saw those first three shows. That’s why I was drawn to the group.
DS Have you directed?
DS Any interest?
KV It’s not in me, no. I’m a great organizer but not a visionary. Liz asks me sometimes to help her figure this out, or how to get that person to do that—
DS And you offer suggestions like, “I could get from here to there by doing this”?
KV Yeah. Actually, the suggestions come more easily when I’m outside. If we’re working on a part I’m not in, I love to sit by her. I love to watch the other parts get made because then I get a sense of what I’m in.
SF Do you ever feel alone? I’m thinking of the phenomenon that you can’t see yourself performing, and, too, that your work is so unique. One doesn’t exactly look around and see another Kate Valk, another Wooster Group.
KV I’ll tell you, I do feel that what we do is so specific that sometimes when I lose faith in myself—or I can’t find something, I’m floundering, or I’m sick of myself—it can get really depressing. And that does happen.
SF Does it tend to happen at a certain point?
KV Yeah, in the beginning. I’ll just feel like I don’t know who I am. I’m always lost… . until I find the right pair of shoes. (laughter)
SF Thank God for shoes! Do you think it’s required to feel lost?
KV I think I have to go there to be able to find something new. And it is painful.
DS How long does that phase last?
KV A couple of months.
DS Wow. It’s hard to flounder around for that long.
KV It’s hard to be a beginner over and over and over again. The company now is really, really skilled. The people who gravitate toward us have got skill. I’ve got depth, but I don’t always have skill for everything, especially right away.
SF What skills don’t you have?
KV Acting or timing or an ear. Other actors have those things. I’ve been working with Liz for a while, so she’s already drawn on the things that come easily to me. So now with the newer people she’s going, “Okay, wow,” going for their rich treasures right away, and I have to come up to them. I’m competing with Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos, and these guys are hot.
DS Different people have come and gone from the group. How does that work?
KV People don’t audition. It’s more that they gravitate to us. For instance, Casey Spooner, who’s a great performer in his own right with his band Fischerspooner, he came to Liz and said emphatically, “I want to work with you!” Again, it was a situation where Liz took from him what he was good at and what he was interested in and that’s how we got those great songs in Hamlet. Not to mention a few nice items from his personal wardrobe! (laughter)
SF And do you always work with the whole company, or is there work you do on your own?
KV The work I do alone is usually some kind of preparatory study. I have to learn a text, or watch a videotape. I think what really marks our company is that we do all the work together, meaning the costumes, the video, the sound—it’s all in development together. There’s lots of great organic activity, lots of fantastic accidents. We get to create a lot that doesn’t end up in the final show but that might inform the whole world of what we’re doing. Some things that we’ve developed we might throw out, and then they come back as we keep developing it, layering it in again.
DS Do you ever go see straight theater?
KV Now more than ever. I especially like free tickets. (laughter)
DS What do you think it is about the moment we live in that has brought you to this specific aesthetic? Are you at all surprised by its popularity? What was happening in ’70s culture that pushed people in the direction of manufactured narrative as opposed to naturalism?
KV Or—the idea of the artifice seeming more authentic and true than a kind of realism or naturalism.
DS Do you ever think about what this says about us, if anything? The analogy in recent painting is to a kind of mannerism—which used to be a pejorative term. Mannerism was thought to follow a period of disillusionment, a sense that naturalism had failed, that there was nothing original to add. Do you ever think about those kinds of broad cultural shifts and in what ways you participate in them?
KV Probably not enough to articulate. I can go back to what spoke to me about seeing Liz’s work in the first place. Even though there were a lot of devices that you could see were being manipulated, it felt more authentic and real to me. For example, to see Ron put the glycerin in his eye and cry—that was incredibly moving.
DS Somehow, representing something actually deepens the emotional impact. That’s your art.
KV Somebody once said to us, “The microphones and the TVs are inhuman!” But they seem so human to me. It’s human to make them part of you and to dance with them—why keep that out of the theater?
DS Theater has always evolved with the technology around it.
SF I have always thought that the technology is beautifully scaled. The screens are small—human scale. You could be using great big screens, but it seems like one way they work to reveal emotion is by being small.
KV I grew up with a TV in every room, and my friends and I used to play with them. My friend’s TV had cabinet doors, and we would sit behind them and “do” the game shows. I was never a purist that way. I think that’s why I gravitated toward working in this certain way. When I saw Liz’s work, I thought the way she worked with the technology was so much fun. It was a joyous thing. The point wasn’t to comment on how inhuman we are.
DS Warhol used to say that Pop art was about liking things, and the Wooster Group makes me feel a similar way. It’s about liking theater and movies and Shakespeare, and why shouldn’t we like all those things and not have to elevate one over the other? Is that something that the Wooster Group thinks about?
KV Yes. That’s what it’s about. Liz hasn’t sat down with a script and decided what it means or decided what ideas she wants to interpret or manifest on stage. She’s curious, and she wants to get it up on its feet, and put it in a place, with things, and to keep finding out. When we go back to a piece and time has passed and everybody’s slightly different and the world is just a little bit different, the piece resonates in a different way because it’s got all that room. She’s set up this dialectic; she has all these elements vibrating, resonating against each other so there’s plenty of room, for you, for everything.
SF What’s it like when you go back to a role?
KV It’s great because whatever we’re working on that’s new always informs the other pieces. We’re working now on La Didone, the opera with singers—not that I’m necessarily singing—but we had to learn the music; we learned the whole score, and that gave us so much information about singing and the voice, and then we went back and did Hamlet and it had a profound effect on the work.
SF How did you prepare for the roles of Gertrude and Ophelia?
KV I started with the costumes. The wigs.
DS The costumes are always fantastic. They are so finely detailed; they have a kind of cultural texture.
KV Again, I think that comes from rehearsing in the costumes and having them evolve along with the performances.
SF They never seem exactly fixed, either. They’re not those costumes that come to a grinding halt on an actor’s body.
KV Right. It always used to bother me when I was in school and I’d go to plays and say, “The clothes they’re wearing—that’s not their clothing.” When we did Fish Story, I heard someone in the audience go, “Strange clothes,” and that was so huge for me. I can’t rehearse without the costume on.
SF Do you start by wearing bits and pieces, as the costumes are evolving?
KV Oh yeah. And then they are yours because you’re wearing them. Liz is very honest when it comes to talking about the costumes. She’s amazing. This is why I don’t think I could be a director—if somebody went to the trouble of making something that you asked for and it’s wrong, just to say, “No,” or “Change it,” or “Turn it,” “Cut this off and wear it backwards” … Liz has got such a strong vision. She depends, of course, on the people around her for that leap of faith to go with her on that. She goes through periods of incredible doubt.
SF She lets you know she has doubts?
KV Yeah. Oh, yeah!
SF Is it fair to say that doubts and uncertainty are essential to the Wooster Group sensibility, contributing to the overall aesthetic?
DS Do you ever question Liz’s decisions, think that she should have taken a left turn versus a right turn?
KV Just on minor things. Again, being inside of it, I have to trust her completely. And I do.
DS What about the feeling that this is the performance, yet it keeps going to another place? Do you ever think you should have solidified it two steps back, or are you just happy to go to the next place?
KV I’m not always happy. I go kicking and screaming a lot, because sometimes you like something and you don’t want it to go, but I’ve gotten better at that over the years. It’s getting easier to let go of things.
DS Do you think there may be a new Wooster Group on the horizon that could be even more mind-blowing than the original? Or do you think the era of the Wooster Group could end?
KV I hope not. I haven’t seen a lot recently, but I hear people talking about the Nature Theater of Oklahoma or Pan Pan. I’m always surprised that people want to do theater because it’s so hard. There’s nothing left to sell when it’s over. It takes so long to make, and you have to support a lot of people during the making of it. I remember when I first started working with the Wooster Group there were a lot of symposiums about the death of theater, but it seems to keep on happening.
SF Everything’s always dying. (laughter)
DS How does the fact that the work cannot be preserved affect you?
KV Sometimes if I think, “Well, we’ll probably never do House/Lights again,” I can get a little sad because it was so much fun. I loved that show. But I’m probably more attached. I asked Liz once if she was sad that we would never do this or that again, and she was like, “No, they’re all alive. They all live in my head.” I think it’s hard for me because I haven’t seen them. I’m compulsive: I want to do it again. I want that hit again.
DS Now audiences also want that hit again. We were at a dinner party recently where people were getting competitive about how many Wooster Group plays they’d seen.
SF It was, “But how many times did you see House/Lights?”
KV That’s the great thing about theater: it’s in people’s imagination, and they own it.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee