The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
One of New York’s most respected stage actors, Ron Vawter is a member of the renowned Wooster Group, an ensemble of artists who, for almost twenty years, have collaborated on the development and production of daring and innovative theater pieces under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte.
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In May of 1992, I saw a most astonishing piece of theater performed by Ron Vawter at The Performing Garage. Roy Cohn/Jack Smith was directed brilliantly by Gregory Mehrten, with Roy Cohn sharply and wittily drawn by Gary Indiana. It was theater of profound comedy—chilling, black, and in the case of Jack Smith, strangely exhilarating. A tour de force performance by Ron Vawter compelled me to return for a second time before the show went to Los Angeles. One of New York’s most respected stage actors, Ron is a member of the renowned Wooster Group, an ensemble of artists who, for almost twenty years, have collaborated on the development and production of daring and innovative theater pieces under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte. Vawter’s film work includes, sex, lies, and videotape, The Silence of the Lambs, and an upcoming role in Steven Soderbergh’s King Of The Hill. The Wooster Group’s Fish Story, will be presented as a work-in-progress early this winter at the group’s permanent home, The Performing Garage in New York City.
Jessica Hagedorn Let’s start with the history of Ron Vawter. Legend has it that you were in the marines.
Ron Vawter The Special Forces. The Green Berets. I had just completed a year and a half of training and was all set to go to Vietnam but I didn’t want to go. At the time, there were a couple of Green Beret Chaplains going to Vietnam and they were looking for people to replace them. Now, to be a Green Beret chaplain, you have to be trained as a Green Beret and then as a Chaplain. Very few people could get through both the theological and the military intensive training. I had already finished all of the military and as a kid I had always been religious … So they released me to reserve status and put me in a Franciscan Seminary Upstate. I spent the next four years training to be a Roman Catholic priest, and by the time I finished, I didn’t want to be a priest or in the military.
JH How was it, to live monastically?
RV If it was more monkish, it would’ve been good. I became something of a zealot and the institution was so far away from the doctrines of St. Francis and Christ that I left. I kept a lot of the ideas and found ways to live my own life outside the confines of what I saw as a totally corrupt manifestation. In fact, the Wooster Group was far closer to the ideas of Francis and Christ than the Church was.
JH How did you become an actor?
RV I left the seminary and worked in a downtown recruiting office of the Army. I used to walk past The Performing Garage to get to my apartment in Greenwich Village. And I’d hear sounds coming out of the Performing Garage and wonder. This was ’72—then I met Spalding Gray, Liz LeCompte, and Richard Schechner.
JH You literally knocked on the door?
RV Yes. They were showing The Tooth of Crime, Sam Shepard’s play. I was so taken by the production that I would come back nightly, in uniform, from the office—I would get out of work at 7:30 and go to the show over and over again. I never thought I was going to be in the theater. Nothing had ever propelled me to want a theatrical career. My parents were both military people; I was programmed to be in the military. When I first worked for the Performing Garage, it was as an administrator. I wanted to get out of the military—I was taking a lot of LSD at the time—and Spalding (Gray) and Liz (LeCompte) really helped me.
In the Special Forces, the military activity is organized around a small, 12-person team whose mission is to infiltrate behind enemy lines and train guerrilla armies to wage a war of liberation. The Wooster Group came out of the ’60s counter-culture which was very anti-establishment, very much about challenging the way things were defined. In a parallel way, the Franciscans were small groups of dedicated friars, who had devoted themselves to the good of others and had taken very heavy vows of poverty.
JH The military, the monastic life, and the life of an actor, are these profound connections for you? Is it all about spiritual quest?
RV The central tenet of St. Francis was the passage from the Bible: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the gates of heaven.” The thing that upset me most about the Roman Catholic Church was their worldly power and wealth, which I thought was antithetical to the beliefs of Francis. Then I found myself in the confines of The Wooster Group which was this totally non-commercial endeavor. So really, from the military training that I had and from the religious beliefs that I developed, The Wooster Group was the right place for me to land.
JH How did you feel about all that controversy regarding The Wooster Group’s infamous “blackface” minstrel show Route 1 & 9?
RV Oh, you did see that? How did it read to you? Was it a transgression, a violation, a stimulating experience?
JH Frankly, I’m not sure. I wish I could see it again.
RV One of the problems was that we didn’t provide the audience a frame or an outside voice which looked back on the action and said, “This is bad behavior.” We just took the behavior and threw it in the audience’s face. It was clear to us, that’s why we didn’t think we needed a voice over, that we were dealing with racism in America. But by taking such a non-judgmental stance, a lot of the racist quotations we were using were pinned on us. Instead of saying “Wow, America really is racist,” The Wooster Group was labeled racist and irresponsible.
JH Do you get scared sometimes, exploring that kind of theater? I mean it’s a wonderful fright.
RV Roy Cohn is quite frightening. I’ve always been fascinated with extreme expressions and persons who go way overboard.
JH Was doing Roy Cohn/Jack Smith a big leap from the collaborative work you’ve been doing with the Wooster group?
RV It really was. In the last 20 years I’ve been in a total ensemble situation. All of the plays and productions The Wooster Group has done have been materials generated by a group. There was the kind of precedent that Spalding Gray took when he began to make solo pieces, monologues, about ten years ago. But I never really had the desire to make solo work. I mean in 20 years this was really my first attempt at it.
JH What inspired you to “resurrect” these two seemingly very different characters in 1992?
RV A couple of years ago, after the death of Jack Smith, a group in Amsterdam put together an avant garde review and asked me if I wanted to be a part of it, totally by myself. Jack had just died and I had wanted to make a piece about him, so I decided I would reconstruct one of his performances from the early ’80s. Later, I thought that if I combined this portrait of Jack Smith with a very contrasting portrait of someone else that I might have an interesting evening of theater. For the Wooster Group production, LSD, we spent a lot of time looking at videotapes of the McCarthy hearings. But Roy has always been a haunt of mine—he was one of the early television images. I remember this whispering haunted figure leaning into the ear of Senator Joe McCarthy; something about him stayed with me. After he’d come back to New York and had this incredible legal career in the ’70s, I’d heard of his homosexuality and then watched him become the gay community’s worst enemy. So I’ve followed his career through the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He was such a different personality to Jack Smith, and I thought the two placed together would make for an interesting spectrum of male homosexuality.
JH Having had this experience and knowing what you know about the perils and satisfactions of solo performance, would you have tried doing this kind of work sooner?
RV I don’t think so. I’m quite satisfied with the results but there’s really nothing to compare with the pleasure of performing in a group like The Wooster Group. It takes a long time to be able to create with other people whom you trust. It’s a little bit like the Ouija Board or divining for water with a rod. We’ve worked together for so long and put these various materials and texts among us, and, as much fun as working on Jack Smith was, the process really doesn’t compare with the process of making a group piece. I really miss not having my pals around me to share the experience. It’s quite a solitary act. Except for the pleasure of working with Gregory Mehrten. Before this, we seldom had the chance to work together. He was busy with Mabou Mines for the last 15 years.
JH There seems to be a lot of love for Jack Smith?
RV And a lot of hatred for Roy Cohn?
JH No, not at all … But what connects you so dearly to Jack Smith?
RV Well there’s something about being an artist on the fringe—on the periphery, that I identified with. One of Jack’s big thrusts was being non-commercial. He was very much against art museums and commercialization of his art, which has been a deep impulse of The Wooster Group and myself. We’re opposed to the idea of commercial theater in deeply political ways. I was very impressed with Jack’s idea of theater and what made it separate from other art forms.
He took the theater very, very seriously and used it as a way to examine who he was, vis-a-vis the world. I don’t know that Jack saw himself as successful. He was very embittered, but his theater pieces deeply influenced me—the way he saw himself as the center of the dramatic experience and the way he chose to theatricalize himself.
JH Did you see all of Jack Smith’s pieces?
RV I saw several versions of the slide shows which he would choose either to perform live with, or not, depending upon his mood. Sometimes he’d construct a whole monologue and with other evenings, he would just lie there and look at the slides. He had a kind of violent, highly unpredictable energy. And you never quite knew if the violence would be directed at you. There was a good deal of menace to his psyche, and he had a cruel streak. I knew a lot of his friends who had been around him for a while. Jack had this capacity of turning people who worked with him into his betrayers. You were a friend of his for a few months and then, suddenly, you were his worst enemy. I didn’t seek to get close to him. He scared the shit out of me as a person. Very, very powerful personality. Great ideas, but difficult to be around.
JH Are those physical acts you do on stage—for example, at one point you stuck your tongue out petulantly at someone in the audience—actual things you’d seen Jack do in his performance?
RV Ruth Maleczech gave me a very good piece of criticism. She said that whenever she saw Jack perform, he would just look at her, as well the rest of the audience, as if she had ruined the evening by simply showing up. He had this contempt for the audience.
JH That’s very funny.
RV It was very funny. Everything was going to be perfect until you showed up. And Ruth said, “I’m missing that feeling from your performance; you’re being too respectful.” I examined my own memories of Jack’s performances and decided to make it a little more hostile, on the edge and confrontational. Everyone has a Jack story. Michael Smith, the performance artist, told me about this extraordinary evening he saw in 1981 at the Times Square Show. Evidently, Jack sat down to perform and began one of his collaging-on-the-spot monologues. He spied people in the front row whom he didn’t like the looks of so he devised this dance that brought him up to the first row, stuck his finger down his throat, and vomited right on them. They responded with total disgust, tried to clean themselves off, and left. With an air of triumph, Jack danced his way back into place and continued his monologue.
JH What made him so free?
RV A very bold nature. He was such a product of his own imagination, his own persona. His imaginative life was so rich that he was able to live within it and not care what people thought about him … and was not ashamed to say, “What you think makes no difference to me whatsoever, because I know how perfect, how wonderful, and how elaborate this thing I’ve made is.”
JH He didn’t think it was “bad” art, kitschy?
RV Oh, no. His big thing was that this art was very deliberately made from garbage and trash—what was thrown away by society. What he did deeply influenced Warhol, the appropriation of the garbage of society. Bringing trash forward as a cultural artifact of the time.
JH Your Jack Smith reminded me of The Cockettes back in San Francisco. The Angels of Light.
RV Jack’s whole aesthetic predated them by about five or six years. What Jack began to do in the mid-’60s was a direct precedent, wild gender crosses and extravagant displays of a homosexual fantasy life. You almost couldn’t say the word homosexual in ’65 and there he was, having women play men’s roles and men cross-dressing … The complete and utter opposite of Roy Cohn. They both were very, very powerful personalities; they enjoyed powerful positions. But Roy was about wealth and Park Avenue, the kind of success and money that was inaccessible to Jack.
JH And Jack was about poverty and a tradition of trash culture as a kind of enlightenment? If Jack had gotten some kind of recognition, do you see him continuing to be as wild and bold?
RV He wanted to be recognized for his inventions and visions, that was his nature—but felt that others had taken his ideas, exploited them, made a lot of money and gotten a lot of attention, and he didn’t. Jack saw himself as having failed, not in the creation, but in its dissemination. Conversely, Roy Cohn saw himself as a successful person—that he was no dupe or chump, but a real power broker. If you wanted something done, he could get it done in or out of the court. He was connected with the Church, with the Mafia, with the political establishment in New York.
JH What about that juicy bit about Cardinal “Kitty” Spellman? Did Gary Indiana make that up?
RV We wanted to put something about Spellman in. Roy did have a yacht docked off the Upper East Side, and he and Spellman would often retire to the yacht with a bunch of paid companions for wild orgies—and then go back to their respective public positions: fag bashing. Throughout their careers, both had clearly been homophobes in an attempt to distract people from the truth of their own sexualities.
JH Were you drawn to the sinister aspects of Roy Cohn’s character? Was he a great challenge for you as an actor?
RV I’ve been a downtown actor for 20 years. My life in a way is much closer to Jack’s aesthetic. So it’s easier for me to relate to his sensibility, less of a stretch to go into Jack’s psyche and play around in there. Roy was a much more complicated construction for me because I don’t travel in those circles and I’m not around people like Roy a lot. I spent a lot of time researching and playing around with the idea of presenting Roy in a way which was true to me—to my sense of humor, and my sense of being which could pass itself off as something which Roy might’ve been like. I’ve had a number of people who’ve known Roy come to the show. His chauffeur, his tailor. I had a couple of his boyfriends, his chef, come down and tell me that I’m on the right track. It’s not an impersonation of Roy, but it’s an approximate replication of his mental process. That was a much more difficult thing to come to.
JH Was it more exhilarating, because it was harder?
RV With Roy Cohn, I had to kick up to a place where I seldom go in my psyche. The first month or two of performing was a real exercise of labor. Gary didn’t write it as simply satire. It’s deceptively earnest and self-deceptive, and also satire. We really use Roy Cohn, laugh at him. Roy Cohn was a first class louse. I’ve got friends whose lives have been really damaged by the way he chose to be, and I don’t forgive him. This is Roy Cohn, “Bastard Extraordinaire.” I wanted to use the play to get even, as a warning to others and to myself. I know he’s not around to defend himself anymore, but his actions during his life were quite horrifying. There are people who think that only positive images of homosexuals should be brought forward. I think it’s really important that we not forget the bad homosexuals and to examine what creates such monsters.
JH Have you worked with Greg Mehrten and Gary Indiana on other projects?
RV Both of them. We asked Gary to come in at The Garage about ten years ago when he was doing a biographical dramatization of Roman Polanski. Then Gary did another piece at The Garage, Phantoms of Louisiana, a family drama a la Tennessee Williams, but much more perverse. And Greg and I worked on his earlier play, Pretty Boy, and Mabou Mines’ production of Lear.
JH Both of your characters died of AIDS-related complications. Is your piece also about that?
RV I had learned that I was HIV positive just before working on the Jack Smith piece. I was diagnosed this March, 1992 with AIDS. It was incredible serendipity or perhaps an unconscious drive. But I did not sit down in ’89 and think, what I will do for my own well-being is create something that speaks to and of my own anxiety, dreams, and fantasies about AIDS. I didn’t do that.
JH It wasn’t the illness that attracted you to these two characters?
RV No. There’s no question that that’s a profound commonality, but the fact was, I was interested in how these two very different people reacted and responded to a society that set out to repress their sexuality. I sometimes refer to them as chameleons, creatures that changed the color of their skin to avoid being eaten. The particular coloration of Jack Smith and Roy Cohn were so wildly different. I wanted to look at how the homosexual hides and disguises, camouflages him or herself from a hostile society. When you get these negative signals from society over and over, in every possible way, from housing to education to employment, you, even if you are a proud homosexual, make little automatic adjustments to pass, to find some way to get through it.
JH That was a most chilling and brilliant moment in your piece, when the Roy Cohn character says …
RV ” … A homosexual who doesn’t draw attention to his own private behavior in some obnoxious way is not going to encounter any discrimination.”
JH What about those moments of silence onstage as Roy Cohn—when you’d walk off and wipe the sweat off your face with a handkerchief?
RV What happened for you? How would you describe it?
JH You’d look at us, and it was as if we were in complicity with your lie. It reminded me of being on LSD—you come down for a moment and all of a sudden, you’re looking at yourself. You were as Roy Cohn, making this speech, and then you’d go off to one corner and wipe the sweat off your face; and that was the real Roy. It was this moment of truth and fear. And then you’d put the mask back on. Maybe what I mean is, what I saw in your face was like looking at someone on acid. You let us “see” Roy Cohn—disguised and undisguised.
RV Jessica, I liked your response, but for me, I’ll tell you what I was trying to do. It was Greg’s idea to have these glimpses—these moments of silence where we were able to watch how the mask is totally produced.
JH Let me ask you about the “acting lesson,” the onions in your Jack Smith piece.
RV That was part of his regular ritual. The chopping of the onions.
JH When I went to acting school, I couldn’t cry. Ever.
RV And there were always some actors who could cry at the drop of a hat.
JH Yeah, and I always hated them. (pause) Robbie McCauley says the voice doesn’t lie. You have a compelling voice—do you think what she says is true?
RV I do think it’s true. There are some voices, regardless of what’s being said—something else is being communicated.
JH Were you “trained” as an actor?
RV No, I never had any acting lessons. In the mid-’70s, there was this movement or trend, that the purest actor was one who hadn’t trained in a school. I sort of sneaked into theater at a moment when being a non-performer was an approved and preferred way of performing. Once you get to the stage, it doesn’t take long to see when an audience falls asleep, becomes disinterested, and loses focus. I learned every cheap trick in the book, just by being onstage. And in reveling in my ignorance of how to act! (laughter)
JH Why do you think in movies you’re always asked to play those deadpan detectives or cool, blue-eyed shrinks?
RV I was never the ingenue, pretty boy type. Even when I was younger I wasn’t that type of actor. I think if casting directors see me at The Garage, they know I’m capable of a certain presence in a theater space, so the first thing they do is to translate that presence into a role that reflects a position of power …
JH Would you like to play a powerless role?
RV Oh yeah. Although I’ve got to be frank with you. I’m not interested in film. I’m much more interested in theater.
JH Because it’s immediate? The audience is right there with you?
RV Theater is charming to me in that it’s so archaic and so artificial. And most film is an attempt to appear “natural;” I’m more interested in an artificial, stylized creation. Everyone thinks that the important “conversation” is going on in film. Consequently it’s become populist. I’m not trying to say that theater ought to be elitist, but anyone interested in making a few bucks is not going to stay in the theater for long. So I find that there’s this singular art form left to a few of us. The experience becomes about the quality of touch not the quantity. What exactly and specifically you can communicate to a small group of people in a small room. And because it’s unexpected, because we expect our communications to come to us through film and television, that gives it a special power. Theater is a forgotten art form; it’s almost gone. There’s only a handful of people in New York who really take the form seriously.
JH Could you name some of them?
RV Sure. Richard Foreman, Jeff Weiss, Elizabeth LeCompte of course—could you name some others?
JH I would say Robbie McCauley, Laurie Carlos, Anna Deavere Smith …
RV There’s something about walking in on Anna Deavere Smith in a theater; she goes through an experience which attempts to raise the consciousness of everyone in the room, including herself. It’s a kind of prayer, in the old sense of what theater used to do for the Greeks, a ritual exorcism, a catharsis—opening the mind and soul up to higher motives, higher callings.
JH What are your plans after Roy Cohn/Jack Smith?
RV I’m working on the Philoctetes of Sophocles, a very rarely performed Greek tragedy, written late in Sophocles’ life. Never done because it’s one of the most boring plays ever written. Philoctetes was this General/Warrior who went to Troy with a magic bow and arrow. He was a gifted warrior who could hit anything. On his way back from Troy, he was bitten by a snake within the precincts of a sacred temple. He developed lesions on his leg and, in a great deal of pain, he started to moan and groan. The sailors on the ship exiled him, as his lesions stank, on Lemnos, an island very close to Lesbos—a bleak and barren rock. The whole play is set on this island with him looking up to the heavens, saying, “Why me? Why do I find myself exiled and lying here and suffering?”
I want to largely chant this text in several languages. Begin in English, pass into German, French … these long laments to the Gods. I’m going to have it made for ’93.
A couple of weeks go by, after our long lunch and intense conversation at that noisy, affable restaurant known as Cal’s. The soft-shell crabs were appropriately crunchy, the hazelnut chocolate cake, sinful. I call Ron on the telephone for one last question which of course turns into two:
JH Did you always know you were gay?
RV No. Not until I was 23. I felt these feelings, but I’d been programmed into the military … It dawned on me late.
JH Maybe what I’m trying to ask is—did you “discover” your sexual identity as you discovered yourself as an actor?
RV It was a parallel process, yes.
JH Thank god for acting and LSD. (laughter)
Jessica Hagedorn is the author of the novel Digesters (Penguin paperback) and the forthcoming collection Danger and Beauty (Penguin). She is part of the performance trip Thought Music, along with Laurie Carlos and Robbie McCauley.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.