They've administered the postmodern smackdown to Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill and Racine. It was only a matter of time before The Wooster Group appropriated and busted up some Shakespeare. The Group's Hamlet is playing now through March 25 at St. Ann's Warehouse. Here's my preview in TONY. For Jason's Zinoman's excellent oral history article for TONY in 2005, go here.
And, as an extra special treat for Histriomastix readers: Q&A with David Savran, author of Breaking the Rules: The Wooster Group, the major guide to the Group's work from 1975 through 1986. I spoke to Professor Savran (Distinguished Professor, Ph.D. Program in Theatre, and Vera Mowry Roberts Chair in American Theatre at CUNY) to get a quote on the Group for the article. Unfortunately, the way it turned out (these are punchy, 750-word affairs), there wasn't space for it. Still, I think it could be of interest to fans of the Group or folks just getting to know their work. Enjoy.
DAVID COTE: I’m really enjoying rereading your book. It’s practically the only Wooster Group book around. Although there is a new one coming out this fall, called The Wooster Group Work Book, by English professor Andrew Quick. Does it surprise you that there are so few books about the company?
DAVID SAVRAN: Actually, it’s difficult to get monographs published. So no, it doesn’t surprise me. There are plenty of theorists and critics who have dealt with the Group in chapters in books, and so that’s a much more likely scenario these days.
COTE: I suppose in the ’80s you were able to get access to the group in a way that many writers can’t these days.
SAVRAN: Well I was incredibly lucky because I was there at a great time. It was just before Platoon was released and Willem Dafoe became a big star—and just before Spalding Gray became a big star as well. So yes, I was lucky in that, and they did grant me access to a lot of very personal material. And I had many, many conversations with them, taped—formal interviews—that were, in fact, very probing and intimate. For about a year I just had a really wonderful relationship with them. It was great.
COTE: Twenty years is a long time, but I assume you’ve been following them and seeing all their shows—
SAVRAN: Oh, of course.
COTE: —since the publication of your book. There have been several more shows. I’ve been in the city since 1992. I saw The Emperor Jones in early ’93, and I’ve tried to catch everything since then. At the risk of asking you to ridiculously over-generalize, can you tell me what you think the major changes have been in their work?
SAVRAN: Well, by far the biggest change—and I think in some respects the most important one—has been their use of technology. The fact that they are now—well, for some time now—they have been doing extraordinary things with technology, and I’m thinking specifically of different kinds of video technologies, but it’s not exclusively video. I mean, going back to even some of their earliest work, Liz was using at that time TV monitors, really. And indeed, that was a very important part of the performances, of something like Route 1 & 9. Oh, and even earlier, using film, I guess 16-millimeter film, in Point Judith. And they’ve just become more and more sophisticated. One thing that Liz has always been fascinated with is trompe l’oeil: sort of playing the illusion of theater itself. And with the technology she now has at her disposal, she is able to do so in the most complicated and brilliant and sophisticated sort of baffling ways. In To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre), there were parts of it where you didn’t know whether what you’re seeing on the screen was real—in other words, was happening at that moment—or whether it was a prerecorded tape. And they play so much with the mechanics of performance itself. Again, this is not something that’s completely new, but they’ve just become real masters of it.
COTE: I guess you could say that technology has caught up with them. Do you think that the advent of more sophisticated live editing techniques and sound design programs changed their work?
SAVRAN: Well, the other thing is that when Willem became a movie star, it meant that they had money to be able to buy that equipment—which is why, especially in the ’90s, all of these changes happened. That’s not to say that the Wooster Group is [rich]. I mean, their last piece was called Poor Theater. They’re still not a rich theater by any means. I mean, back in the early 1980s, they almost went under because of the controversy over Route 1 & 9, and the withdrawal of funding. And those days are behind them.
COTE: In both Poor Theater and now, with their version of Hamlet, they seem to be reconstructing video and film texts rather than deconstructing. I guess in a sense they were always reconstructing, like the Pigmeat Markham blackface routines in Route 1 & 9.
SAVRAN: Right, there’s a long history of that. I’m trying to think if there’s anything in terms of reconstruction…probably not really before Route 1 & 9. And I think in virtually everything that they’ve done since then, there’s some theatrical or performance text that they’ve reproduced in one form or another. It’s one of their stock techniques. And one thing that I find so interesting about it is that when they repeat it: It’s never the same. There’s always a difference, and that difference is really illuminating and powerful.
COTE: Do you mean from performance to performance?
SAVRAN: No, I’m thinking of when they reproduce something. When, for example, you’re seeing a video, and they’re reproducing it live as they did in Poor Theater. But of course, it’s not exactly the same. They bring something else to it, and I’ve always been fascinated by the way that these play off of each other. I guess it’s one of their most important methods.
COTE: As a spectator, when I saw Poor Theater, I had a double reaction. On the one hand I was admiring their technical prowess, specifically recreating the Grotowski excerpt from Acropolis—Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk—just technically, their amazing acting ability. But part of me also had this misplaced protectiveness of Grotowski: He and his actors did all the work, and the Wooster Group comes along and simply reproduces the surface of it!
SAVRAN: I’m not sure it was exactly the surface, because they really learned what the text meant. They’re not just mouthing gibberish. They really learned the Polish. So it was considered reproduction. But you’re right. One thing that the group has always loved to do is desecrate sacred texts—I think beginning with The Cocktail Party and Nayatt School, and certainly with many of the plays that they’ve tackled—very clearly with Our Town and The Crucible. I think that with Emperor Jones and Hairy Ape I would not call that a desecration at all. But in a way, that’s also what they were doing with Racine and To You, the Birdie! It’s this mixture of high and low. In House/Lights, taking Gertrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights and running it up against this soft-core S/M porn film from the 1960s or whatever it is: Olga’s House of Shame. And it’s precisely that kind of collision that they love.
COTE: And on the performative level, having Kate Valk and Suzzy Roche having sort of this sexualized relationship, but not quite—alluding to Stein’s biography. So, of course, with Hamlet we have a possible desecration—
SAVRAN: —of perhaps the most sacred theater text. And also, the theater text that is in certain respects most profoundly about theater itself.
COTE: Did you see this production? In Europe?
SAVRAN: No, I haven’t yet.
COTE: One of their jumping off points is the Richard Burton 1964 film. I’m going to be talking to the actors about it. I guess what has surprised me is that I’ve known Scott Shephard and Ari Fliakos for years, having been a little bit in the downtown theater scene, and I was surprised that Elizabeth LeCompte asked them to join the Group. I always thought of the Wooster Group as this sort of exclusive club, but they’ve changed actors and company members. How has changing company members has affected the work?
SAVRAN: In many respects, it’s affected it tremendously because all of the pieces are collaboratively created. Although Liz is the director and the one who oversees everything, all of the pieces are built around and with and for the performers. One change that I noticed after—this was especially clear in both The Emperor Jones and To You, the Birdie!, was suddenly Kate becoming the center of the group. Because before that it had pretty much been men. I mean first it had been Spalding, then Ron, and then Willem. And I found it really exhilarating to see Kate really become the center, as she obviously is in both of those pieces. Another thing, of course, is that every piece is in part about the group itself, and what’s happening between and among them—the way that Brace Up! was in part about Ron Vawter dying. I wrote an essay on House/Lights that you might find interesting. I was published in TDR in the Fall 2005 issue. And there I go quite a bit actually—more than I have in my other stuff about the Group—into the personal life of the group. About how Poor Theater is so much about loss. It’s about Spalding’s death; it’s about Liz and Willem splitting up. I really see it as an act of mourning. Obviously, I don’t see everybody as being attuned to that, but that’s part of what’s going on. Actually, one reason why I’m really looking forward to seeing Hamlet is to get a sense of where they are now. In a sense, of course, mourning is never finished, and Hamlet is also very much a play about mourning and loss. So I’ll be curious to see sort of where they’re taking that now. Virtually all of their pieces are ghost plays.
COTE: I guess that was happening in the earliest pieces, with Spalding Gray: the use of autobiographical material.
SAVRAN: Oh my God, yes. The ghost of his mother.
COTE: But not being in touch with the Group on that personal level, I have no idea whether they’re continuing to use the stuff of their personal lives in the show. Do you know or suspect that that is happening? Or are they being more formal these days?
SAVRAN: Well, it always happens in one way or another. In some cases, for example I felt in Brace Up!, it was pretty obvious. In the more recent work I think it’s less so. To some extent, you have to know what to look for. And I’m fortunate enough that I’ve spent enough time with them that I know what to look for. So it’s always part of the piece.
COTE: Back in 1986 when you published the book, did you foresee that a whole generation of artists would be influenced by the Group?
SAVRAN: I’m fascinated by the fact that the Group by far has really become the most influential of all of the sort of downtown theater groups or practitioners of that period. Their influence is so far-reaching. I mean groups like the Builders Association…Marianne Weems worked with Liz…which is one reason why they have that connection. Or Elevator Repair Service, Richard Maxwell, I think, and plenty of others. Did I foresee this? No, I don’t think I did. Because when I was working on the book, I had no idea where experimental theater was gonna go, really. I mean, in retrospect, I’m not at all surprised. Now I understand it. Because part of what these playwrights, directors, groups have adopted is the Wooster Group’s way of working: a particular kind of collaborative work under the direction of a very strong, powerful, brilliant director. I think it’s so attractive to so many theater groups in part to make work out of what’s happening between and among them—what’s happening in the room.
COTE: I know the group is very careful about maintaining an archive and their site of course is an excellent resource… In terms of the future of the company and their work, is it a type of terminal aesthetic? Will it die with them, or can it be institutionalized?
SAVRAN: No, it can’t. It’s only recently that they’ve started releasing—selling—video of their work. For a long time they were so opposed to that.
COTE: Has the work become more accessible over the past few years?
SAVRAN: I always think that that’s the case until I go to see their next show. And then I realize that, in many ways, they’re still as brilliantly baffling as always. In some respects I suppose the work is somewhat more approachable, sort of “user-friendly,” but fundamentally I don’t think it’s any easier. I suppose the two exceptions to that would be The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape, because in those cases, basically, they did the plays.
COTE: I’ll be very curious to see how they approach Shakespeare's language.…I mean, it has its own sort of opacity, so I’ll be curious to see how they handle that.
SAVRAN: Yeah, I have no idea, no idea… I know that with Hamlet we’re just going to get all sorts of interesting fragments.