On the evening of May 8, just after eight o’clock, Kate Valk stepped onstage and faced the audience. The little playhouse was packed with hardcore fans, theater people and artists, but Kate was performing, most of all, for one person, hidden among them, a small, fine-boned, black-clad woman, her blond-gray hair up in a clip, who smiled, laughed, and nodded along with every word, swaying to the music and mirroring the emotions of the performers while whispering into the ear of the tall, bearded fellow who sat beside her madly scribbling notes. The woman was Elizabeth LeCompte—known to all as Liz—the director of the Wooster Group, watching the first open performance of the company’s new piece, Since I Can Remember.
It had been a tense day, full of opening-night drama. Gareth Hobbs, who would be playing a leading role, had been sick in bed for days with a 103-degree fever, and he’d only arrived at the theater, still shaky, at three-thirty that afternoon. During the final closed rehearsal, performer Suzzy Roche fell on her elbow, then felt faint and had to lie prone while her colleagues fanned her and fetched ice. At one point, Erin Mullin, the stage manager as well as a performer, shouted: “We have one hour left, and we’re on page eight of fifty!” Not to mention that the piece still had no ending.
Icome from a family of Broadway fans, so I’ve always hated theater. I spent many childhood evenings squirming in my seat—bored, restless, and oddly ashamed—as folks in costumes sang or cried onstage and I pretended they didn’t know I was there. I was better suited to hiding in dark movie theaters or lurking in smoky clubs. But in the mid-Eighties, a girlfriend took me to see the Wooster Group, and I was instantly obsessed. Here was the theater I’d been waiting for. The actors spoke directly into microphones, facing front, like singers. The technicians running the show were visible, with their equipment, though they were often in costume themselves, and even spoke lines. Video, music, lighting, dance, speech, and action went off with amazing precision, while still feeling as though it was all being freshly improvised. Seeing them was like seeing a favorite band, and over the years I went to every performance I could. I became convinced that Liz LeCompte was one of our greatest living artists.
At some point, I conceived the idea of attempting, somehow, to learn how the group operated. I wanted, if possible, to grasp the inner workings of genius by trying to understand a great artist who also happened to be living her everyday life—seeing the dentist, shopping for groceries—a short subway ride away from my own. Aside from a few post-performance thank-yous, I had never met Liz, until she visited a colleague’s class at the college where I teach. At the start of the question period following her talk, the students hesitated, and my hand shot up. At the dinner that followed, I told her I wanted to watch her make a new piece. She agreed, and she gave me her email address.
A year went by. I emailed periodically, never receiving a reply, though when I encountered her off-line, she greeted me warmly, apologized, and asked me to write again. At long last, Pamela Reichen, the general manager, wrote: Liz had invited me to rehearsal. On December 14, 2018, I knocked on the door of the Performing Garage, the converted space in SoHo where the Wooster Group has been rehearsing; storing props, costumes, and sets; and performing since the mid-Seventies.
When I first walk in, nothing much seems to be happening. No one even acknowledges me. I simply take a seat in the back of the black-painted theater. The stage area is filled by two long tables on wheels, arranged diagonally, with a counter directly in front of the seats. A large flatscreen monitor sits atop a mobile totem, high in the air. Ari Fliakos is in costume, wearing a cartoonishly wide striped tie with a shirt and jacket, sitting on a pink chair that I recognize from other pieces (including, of course, A Pink Chair), occasionally checking his phone. Suzzy Roche sits perfectly still, legs straddling one of the tables, back arched, looking chic in a slinky costume and forbiddingly high heels. She remains there, almost motionless, for hours, a soldier on guard. (Wooster Group performers often seem like athletes, running in place, playing badminton, fighting, memorizing speeches in languages they don’t speak, and attempting heroic feats of discipline and endurance.) Kate Valk stands at the table, before the audience, though now it is Liz who is seated front and center, with her assistant director Matthew Dipple beside her. To the side is Erin Mullin; as well as the costumer, Enver Chakartash; and another assistant director, Michaela Murphy. All three transcribe what is said and improvised, then update the script via Google Docs, so that the text as it appears on the actors’ iPads is itself an organic, fluid form. The sound guys, Eric Sluyter and Omar Zubair; lighting designer David Sexton; and video designer Wladimiro Woyno are also present.
An old black-and-white video plays on the monitor. Ari copies—“channels” or “transmits” are the group’s preferred terms of art—the onscreen action. He carries around a record player and tries, in a sort of dance, to untangle the cord, coiling it around his body, whipping it free. Meanwhile, Kate delivers a monologue based upon the audio playing in her ear. Liz leaps down from the risers and runs out to drag the giant totem and move the tables. Various crew members twice her size and decades younger rush to help, but she waves them off. They try it again. Again. After a couple of hours of this, they decide not to double the film here after all. Ari protests wistfully, “But that means that what we’ve been doing all week. . . ,” then drops it.
There is something strange and mysterious about the work of the Wooster Group, their performances so thrilling and yet inscrutable. Since they are often speaking lines they are hearing via earpiece, then stepping out of character to discuss the lines, then incorporating the recordings and transcriptions of those same conversations, one quickly loses the sense of what is real and what is art, of what qualifies as performance. (Kate recounted to me how, one night during Nayatt School, a piece from 1978, the actor Ron Vawter fell off the stage and broke his arm. When Liz called for a doctor, the audience thought it was part of the show.) You leave the theater blinking at the late-afternoon noise and light with that feeling of climbing out from a dream.
At the end of my visit, Pamela pulls me aside to tell me that I am welcome back anytime. (As I found out later, it was the sound of my often embarrassingly loud laughter that won Liz over.) I say I’ll be back the next day.
The Wooster Group was founded in 1975 by Liz and her then partner, Spalding Gray, who were soon joined by Ron Vawter, Kate Valk, Willem Dafoe, Peyton Smith, and Jim Clayburgh. (Liz and Dafoe later had a long-term relationship and share a son.) Radically experimental, the group used text, performance, dance, film, music, and other elements to create original “autobiographical” work and to reinterpret classic theater (Hamlet, Three Sisters), combining a highly sophisticated, rarefied aesthetic sense and a rigorously intellectual critical practice with an intense, often subversive energy. They became notorious for things like reenacting videos of themselves tripping on acid, while also working with dedication to refine their craft and achieve their unique theatrical effects, built on virtuoso performance and flawless timing. Deconstructing texts, combining multiple sources of material, splintering representation, pioneering the use of cutting-edge video and sound technology, all kept the group constantly at the forefront of theater.
Over the past forty years, Liz has moved from obscurity to fame, winning heaps of awards, including a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” a Gish Prize, and a Guggenheim. Today, she is probably the leading experimental theater director in the United States and a tremendous influence on younger artists worldwide. She has also endured, and generated, constant scandal and upheaval: Arthur Miller pulled the rights to the group’s version of The Crucible after seeing it; more recently, the estates of Harold Pinter and Tennessee Williams withdrew permission for shows they disapproved of. In 1982, New York State ceased funding after the group re-created old Pigmeat Markham records, performing the black comic’s acts in blackface (as he did). Years later, Kate gave an astounding performance in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, her skin darkened and her voice a deep rumbling Louie Armstrong bass. It was widely hailed as a masterpiece.
At the next rehearsal, Liz talks about her preparations for the company Christmas party she is hosting. She had spent the morning at home hiding embarrassing personal items in case her guests, who are all present and listening as she tells me this, “start looking for things to steal.” For example, there is her set of “smarmy asshole” photos. Apparently, she once called her crew a bunch of smarmy assholes, and they responded by taking Polaroids of their butts and presenting them to her on a ring. Ari admits one was his and Liz waves it off. “I recognized yours!”
Later, practicing a scene from the new piece, Liz wants actor Scott Shepherd to “channel” Spalding’s voice and movement from a videotape while Erin bases her speech on the original recording of the play they’re using, T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, while also copying movement from a recording of Ari’s young daughter giggling, fidgeting, and biting her lip. As Scott notes: “It’s going to be a mess, but that’s where the genius comes from.”
During this rehearsal I solve one of my longstanding Wooster Group mysteries: the lip-synching. Many productions achieve astonishing, even disturbing feats of mimesis: talking or singing along with records and tapes, reproducing movement and mimicking speech—Richard Burton’s Hamlet, a blustering Norman Mailer debating Germaine Greer, an avant-garde theater troupe writhing and moaning in Polish—or even mirroring one another. In one of the first shows I saw, Ron Vawter did all the voices in a video that he was pretending to edit, a fake late-night porn talk show featuring a nude cast of Woosters, imitating their accents live, switching from male to female, even moving the mic to approximate distance. When the tape “fast-forwarded,” he spoke faster as well, and when it paused and restarted, he’d be back in perfect synch. Impossible.
As it turns out, both this obsession with lip-synching—again, Liz prefers such terms as “channeling” or “transmission”—and the repurposing of found source materials originated with Liz and Spalding’s attempt to make use of the material surrounding the suicide of Spalding’s mother: Spalding had taped interviews about her with his father, his grandmother, and even the psychiatrist who treated her. It is these tapes that he and Ron reenact in the early piece Rumstick Road, eventually arriving at a degree of verisimilitude so perfect that even the breathing and throat clearings seem to be issuing from their bodies. They are not so much actors portraying characters in a conventional sense as mediums conducting a séance.
This kind of performance requires an insane amount of rehearsal, relentless in both its duration and its microscopic focus. When developing a show, the group works five days a week, all together in the Garage. Today, group performers wear in-ear receivers, which play back their source recordings, and tiny mics that amplify and record their voices, while also watching strategically placed miniature video screens that sometimes are and sometimes are not showing the same footage the audience is seeing. Snatches of movement and speech, even individual words or sounds—a cough, a chuckle—are drilled again and again, to the point of madness, and a single scene might combine movement from one source, speech from another, and music from something else entirely. Of course, members practice and review on their own, but there is no real way to learn a Wooster Group “part” other than by doing it, over and over, refining along the way. That’s why Suzzy Roche, who has been working with Liz for years—her performance as the devil in House/Lights was indelible—sat silently through hours of rehearsal when her own part was not even being performed. “You can’t really just memorize it,” she told me. “You’re steeped in it. You have to be here, even when you’re not doing anything. You have to surrender to the greater thing, which can be difficult.”
“Difficult” is putting it mildly. There are times when it is excruciating just to watch. A tape or recorded bit of sound is played, the actor starts to recite the words or mime the action, and almost immediately Liz interrupts, corrects, and the whole thing is rewound and reset. Other times she is whispering notes, or signaling David to adjust the lights, or asking Eric to add music or noises, humming what she wants while he improvises on a keyboard or searches online. Still lithe and graceful at seventy-five, she bounds up and down the risers, jumps and runs and demonstrates the dances, and fixes her performers with a fierce, intense energy that seems both utterly focused and instantly distractable. She laughs at the same joke over and over and snaps at the slightest flaw. At one point, a character played by Erin drinks a glass of water, and Liz fidgets, tormented by having to wait for Erin to accomplish this task. She considers cutting it. She considers speeding it up. Then she realizes that the sound of Erin drinking has been inadvertently picked up by her mic and is playing at volume throughout the theater. She is entranced. This is the lucky accident she spends so much time waiting and preparing for. Despite the fixation on exactitude and the constant corrections, she is paradoxically delighted by errors, and nothing seems to make her happier than when the cast messes up; laughing and slapping her thighs, she declares, “That was a good mistake!”
Over six months, I attend about forty rehearsals. After a while, I come to feel as though I am living inside one of their shows.
This then is the method, such as it is: no plan, no theory. Liz never goes in search of a new project; they are brought to her by her actors or else by chance. She slowly develops a piece in rehearsal, building everything—sound, light, video, props, costumes—at the same time, with long detours to discuss a constantly accumulating body of source material (a late-night movie, a used book, a half-remembered song) as she intuitively finds elements that might illuminate or obscure, elucidate or complicate. This is completely unlike a conventional show, in which the actors might rehearse for a few weeks while set designers do their thing at a studio and music is added later. This is everyone together, every day, for months, maybe years. In this case, they spend a lot of time discussing books about Eliot and watching videos related to suicide and the New York underground, like the Alexander McQueen documentary or the infamous Lower East Side episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. A whole video was actually made in that documentary style, focused on SoHo, then discarded. The group spent a week “transmitting” the video of a French performance of The Cocktail Party, a “bad TV version” with a visible boom mic and a grip hiding behind a couch, but it is unclear whether it will ever be used. Fiction writing and painting have both been described as the sum of thousands of choices, as big as cutting a novel’s ending or as small as a brushstroke, and this describes what Liz is doing as well: feeling her way forward, sculpting in time and scoring in space, through an endless number of micro-adjustments and sudden, wild insights. The whole evolves toward a form that could not have been planned, only discovered, but one that feels inevitable because it is totally organic, as the elements start to connect and a “picture” or “image” of the final piece comes into focus.
I am not surprised when Liz tells me that her father played jazz. One of her mottoes, repeated constantly, is “close enough for jazz.” Ari laughs at the thought of how often he hears this, but notes the paradox it contains: jazz is a loose form that requires total precision; it is improvisation by people who practice obsessively.
The new piece, the one I’m watching them create, is entitled Since I Can Remember. It was conceived when Liz and the filmmaker Ken Kobland decided to create a DVD of Nayatt School, one of TWG’s first productions, composed by Liz and Spalding Gray, part of a trilogy drawn from Spalding’s autobiography: his family life, his acting life, and his mother’s suicide. It included the first of the monologues for which he became famous, in which he discussed his early love of radio theater and played records, particularly one of The Cocktail Party.
Eliot’s play concerns the fate of Celia Coplestone, a young woman in love with Edward Chamberlayne, who is unhappily married to Lavinia. These three mutually and comically miserable characters consult a psychiatrist, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, who, along with Julia Shuttlethwaite and Alex Gibbs—society types who double as mystical, fates-like figures—guides them toward their destinies: Edward and Lavinia reconcile, and by accepting their own lot in life, as more or less ordinary souls who will never truly understand each other, they attain a measure of peace. But in Celia, Sir Henry (played originally, and on record, by Alec Guinness) realizes he has encountered a rare soul capable of pursuing the lonely, “terrifying” path to spiritual transcendence. She makes her choice and, after visiting his mysterious sanatorium, ends up crucified in Africa, after refusing to abandon plague victims whom she is nursing when a violent insurrection begins. Eliot’s witty comedy ends as a profoundly serious mystery play, and it was this aspect that so fascinated Spalding.
In Nayatt School, the Wooster Group mounted two scenes from that play, one performed with local children. But when they dived into the archives for old footage, all they found was a low-resolution black-and-white reel-to-reel video from the Netherlands, in which much of the sound was indecipherable, as well as some 16-millimeter footage shot with the kids in New York. Liz decided to have the current group reenact the missing parts and present it as a “teaching piece”—a performance that would itself demonstrate the group’s methods—as well as a “theatrical history” that would explore its past.
In the new work, Kate relates all this while playing the records Spalding played (including the same library copy of The Cocktail Party), in the space he first played them, and also providing the soundtrack for the gorgeously faded video running on the screen behind her, speaking Spalding’s lines, narrating her own experience, or chatting with Ari, who sits beside her now, impersonating Ron Vawter in the original show, staring down the absent audience. Ari joined the group as an intern in 1998 and went from answering phones to performing, much like Ron, who was a Catholic seminarian and National Guardsman before starting in the group’s office. Kate herself started out sewing costumes, though they didn’t call them interns then. Everyone did everything: Willem Dafoe was doing carpentry when she arrived.
Kate plays a little of an old horror record, Drop Dead, the source for several slapstick doctor skits in the video: while Kate narrates, Spalding plays a mad dentist onscreen, chasing patient Ron around the room with a drill. Then he is a doctor, and Ron a nurse who gives dancer Libby Howes an absurdist breast exam while Kate delivers both sides of the jokes in alternating male and female voices.
Kate Valk is herself an artist of legendary talent (Times critic Ben Brantley called her “the most accomplished actress in New York”), and her decades-long collaboration with Liz is now more like a partnership, or even a creative marriage, as she has begun directing as well and helps run the company. But today, for some reason, she can’t quite connect. She needs to introduce the piece, and do so in the manner of Spalding, chatting confidentially with the audience while he’s onscreen, but she is awkward, stiff. Liz keeps interrupting as Kate grows more frustrated and upset. The others keep reminding Liz to “be kind” and pointing out possible solutions, which of course only embarrasses Kate more. Finally, stretched to the snapping point, she cries and asks for a break. Erin calls for five minutes.
“No!” Liz yells. “You can use this! I want her to do it crying.”
On the next run-through, Ari recites Spalding’s lines, and they return to Kate for the text she originated herself, about her own first days with the group. Everyone seems back to normal, the tears dried, until Kate delivers her speech about their former comrade Libby Howes.
As Kate describes it in the piece, Libby was a talented dancer and fearless performer who suffered a breakdown at the Garage, bringing in trash from the street, sleeping under the risers, letting homeless addicts use her own apartment, growing increasingly incoherent. Finally, Kate took her to Bellevue, where she was committed, though later she escaped and hitchhiked to Canada. Kate took over her role in Nayatt School: “A classic theater story,” Kate says.
At this point, Ken Kobland, who shot much of the old and new footage, interrupts. He is upset with Liz and argues that this is exploitative and not “her experience to use.” Liz is adamant: It is Kate’s story too. She is merely relating her own personal experience. And it is important, because of the theme of women suffering breakdowns. Spalding connected deeply with the character of Celia; his own mother, a Christian Scientist, was also treated by psychiatrists before taking her life.
Arguing passionately, Ken reminds Liz of all the things he knows about her that she wouldn’t want him to expose. “Go ahead,” Liz says, “I want you to. I don’t care.” Ken says that he’s worried people will focus on this alone, criticize her, and the show will be ruined. Again she says she doesn’t care: “I’m an artist and I have to do this. I don’t care what people think.” When he won’t relent, she tells him, “You can leave!” He doesn’t, but he goes quiet. The whole place is very quiet. I am holding my breath. A dozen people have been silently observing all this. “Does anyone else feel like this is offensive?” she asks the whole theater. No one speaks. “Tell me now so I can furlough you.” There is laughter; this is during the government shutdown. All this is being recorded for posterity on video, bits of which are randomly posted on the group’s website by a program Wlad designed. It is chilling, too, that this story of madness took place right here, in the same space where it is now being argued over.
Before the next rehearsal, Liz announces that she wants to apologize. “I wasn’t patient or kind,” she explains to the assembled group, then sighs: “I’m just really afraid that someone is going to call the lawyer!”
“So,” Ari points out, “you’re not really apologizing.”
“No,” Liz admits, and everyone laughs merrily. Work for the day begins.
The problem, Liz decides, was trying to get Kate to reproduce Spalding, who was, she says, “uniquely uncomfortable, yet open.” So, if she tries to push Kate to be more like him, “stop me and say, Let her be uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s going to take an immense amount of will.” Kate gets frustrated and wants to cry again. “No,” Liz says, “go straight to anger.” I realize how angry Liz is, especially about the struggles of women like Celia, who is “sent off to be crucified.”
Liz cries a little, too, and everyone tries to comfort her. “Do you need someone to yell at?” Kate asks.
In the end, Kate’s long opening speech becomes a tour de force, a true monologue of her own and another testament to the strange alchemy she shares with Liz. Ken, who had been so angry about including Libby’s story in the speech, sees it in its new form and says: “It was great. It was exactly what Spalding would do, finding those connections through the language. I think it’s fantastic.”
At the next rehearsal, Kate reads from a used copy of Spalding’s novel, Impossible Vacation, in which he discusses, in fictionalized form, how he and Liz first began making theater together. Liz asks Kate what she was doing when she first read the book. Turns out she was in Florida, waiting for a death certificate so that her mother could be cremated. Kate describes how she visited a secondhand shop with her niece, after touring the funeral home where her other niece worked. (“She’s hardcore. She digs out pacemakers.”) Kate found Spalding’s book for just a few dollars. All the characters were versions of people she knew (Liz is Meg, Ken is Barney, Spalding himself is Brewster North, named after his local train station). “It was like I had a friend there.” She says the book ends happily. He’s going to be okay, she thought about Spalding’s character when she finished, though she knew that, in reality, he would eventually take his own life.
Spalding went on to attain great fame, more or less inventing the stand-up (or in his case sit-down) performance-art monologue (Swimming to Cambodia, Sex and Death to Age 14), as well as acting in movies (The Killing Fields) and straight theater (Our Town) and writing books. His last performance with the group was in 1984, but he continued to be a supporter of it and was Liz’s loft neighbor until, after a long battle with depression and trauma related to an injury, he leaped from the Staten Island Ferry in 2004.
Liz talks about the impulse behind their early pieces: “He had made recordings of his father and grandmother discussing his mother, and in the back of his mind he knew he wanted to do something with them.” In his novel, Spalding describes his performance as “a giant, scandalous, gossipy audition for the audience.”
As Kate says in her monologue, their attitude back then was, “Why not put a transcript of a 9-1-1 call next to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?” The two elements were set beside each other “without too much interpretation or analysis.” Now Liz feels that they need to research, debate, build up layers. Something once like collage, with discrete elements on the same plane, has become more, she says, of a “palimpsest.”
“It was so easy in ancient Greece to make a pot, but now to get that pot out of the ground and put it together and clean it takes twenty times as long,” she says, reflecting, it seems, both on her own development—sharing the sense many great artists have that the work gets more difficult, not easier, the further you go—as well as on the decline of culture. As the actors try to separate and connect two tables that roll on casters along tracks, a wheel snaps off and she groans tragicomically: “This feels like the end of an empire!”
The new piece is also a personal excavation of private history lived in this very space (“I feel ghosts here all the time,” Liz says) and a way to reach Spalding through his work. “I always thought,” she says, “that Spalding identified with his mother so strongly.” The group shot video from the ferry of the spot where he likely jumped, where the currents would be right. But that won’t be in this show.
“Anything nice about Meg in the book?” Liz asks.
Kate: “He says your notes were really helpful. He also says you had a great ass.”
Everyone laughs. Kate continues to scan for mentions of Meg in the book. “He says, ‘I trusted her instincts.’ . . .”
“No, that’s too nice.” Liz is leery of using positive remarks about herself, of having her name mentioned or even being called the director. (In her monologue, Kate says that when she joined the group, Liz “seemed to be in charge,” which always gets a big laugh, to Liz’s chagrin.)
Kate reads on: “Meg said surely a lot of people will walk out. . . .”
Omar is playing Peter Quilpe in The Cocktail Party, a part that in Nayatt School was played by a child. “Did he wear his green jacket?” Liz asks before seeing him. He did. They also give him a fedora and shoulder pads, sunglasses and a big fake cigar. “Looking good so far, kiddo,” Liz says. As he falters his way through his lines, making hilarious mistakes (“I don’t understand nothing!” he moans, hardly how Eliot would have put it), Liz mentions in passing: “Omar is a sound guy,” who has been with the company for a number of years, and now is premiering onstage. This is his first time acting, ever; his first day of rehearsal for his first appearance. And she has tossed him in with some of the top performers alive. She laughs gleefully at the result.
Later, Omar tells me he was overwhelmed, but that working with Liz, “more than in any other professional opportunity, you’re allowed to really do everything you can.” On the other hand, “no one is allowed to have the limelight. It’s the group.” His only acting experience was a grade-school production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, but one day Liz just asked him, and he said yes, basically because of his belief in her and in her belief in him: if Liz thinks you can do it, then you can.
Children were first used in Nayatt School, because, Liz says, “Spalding saw kids performing Shakespeare in Washington Square Park and got a flash of insight.” He cast actors from the local public school. Some of the children were natural performers, but the kid who played Peter Quilpe was so awkward, he was unable to find a mark onstage, so Spalding would pick him up and place him there. Now Liz has cast a first-time actor to play that awkward kid playing Peter Quilpe. After five days, she has Omar go off script: “You’ve gotten too good.” The combination of amateurism and virtuosity is emblematic of the group’s aesthetic.
Costumes and props are recycled and patched together, with the feeling of a rainy day spent rummaging in the attic, but at times achieve a striking aesthetic complexity, like the lawn chair worn by Dafoe in The Emperor Jones, which he would occasionally unfold to sit down on. Most of Liz’s actors were, essentially, trained by her. (One day, I watch her and Kate spend an hour working through a speech with Erin, word by word, breath by breath. It’s like a master class.) As Kate says, “Liz’s company is built by attraction, not solicitation.” The people who belong here find their way. Some stay for one piece, some for decades. Almost all of them see it as a defining experience in their artistic evolution.
Forgetting the names of longtime collaborators, whom Liz might call “the redhead” or “that guy,” barking at people for unwrapping candy while she is listening, noting happily that Scott’s bald spot matches Spalding’s, complaining repeatedly that Gareth is “too tall” for her stage design: much of this is the price of doing all your thinking out loud, in real time, with people watching. Part of it is simply her nature. One day, we discussed the Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century, a screwball comedy about a crazed, scheming director trying to manipulate his former lover and star (Carole Lombard) into working for him. Liz is a huge fan of slapstick and screwball, quoting Groucho Marx (whom she calls Macho Grouch) and pratfalling down the stairs, but now she tells me, “I have never related so much to a film character.” On the one hand, she is casting herself as the monomaniacal, down-and-out director. On the other, he is played gloriously by John Barrymore, one of the titans of theatrical history. Both sides are true. And this is why I believe her company stick around, laboring on with a fierce loyalty and total devotion: they know this is where great art is being made, that they themselves will be better than ever under her direction, and that they will never be bored.
Rehearsing a scene from The Cocktail Party, Eric accidently plays Julia’s voice on the record fast and high, weirdly distorted, and Kate goes along with it, impeccably speaking each word in a crazed, cartoon blur. Liz loves it, but all three agree it could never really happen again. It is a one-time performance made just for Liz. And for me, I suppose.
In a sense, Liz has created a kind of private theater, in which a company chosen and trained by her endeavor to please her. And since, unlike most directors, she attends every performance, at home and on tour, continuing to adjust and rehearse along the way, she is the group’s most important audience member. Both harshest critic and biggest fan, she will happily watch them improvise or dance around, like kids competing for the attention of a doting but moody parent. Ari and Scott goof and gag, fooling with props and silly accents, until Liz pleads, “Stop entertaining me!”
One day, she conceives and then rejects an amazing ending. While the footage of Nayatt School’s version of The Cocktail Party plays in silence, a languid dance version is performed live. But Liz ultimately doesn’t want to repeat herself. TWG is famous for their dances, which have been widely imitated, and she has decided to move on. I admire her rigor but feel sad for the work to lose that beautiful ending, a Wooster Group dance. Then I realize, I saw it. I recall an early conversation about how rehearsal can sometimes be better than performance, which I took to be about the added frisson of watching something shot on set or seeing a band rehearse. But now, watching Liz painstakingly construct and then erase this ending, I grasp its more literal sense: amazing things happen that have to be cut or simply can never be reproduced (Kate speeding up as the tape does; Ari clowning with a fake hand in a jar, pretending it is his arm; Scott and Gareth dancing gracefully together, imitating Spalding and a child). They appear and disappear in the process yet leave their traces, like those paintings under paintings revealed in X-ray, or a photo series of twenty versions of a Matisse or Giacometti, painted and scraped down and painted over, that make you think, I would actually be happy to hang any of them on my wall. It is this process that is at the heart of things. The final version is almost an afterthought.
Scott is out of town, so first Gareth and then a young actor named Niall Cunningham stand in for him, playing the part of Spalding, playing Sir Henry, originally played by Alec Guinness. This is a practical reality for a troupe like TWG, but despite the huge inconvenience of working around these absences, their technique actually lends itself to having actors “stand in” for one another. That’s what acting is, after all, standing in the place of a character, filling a role that another actor could or already has filled. As Liz points out, even Shakespeare wrote his roles with particular actors in mind; he was running a company, like her. At the same time, of course, any number of players can step in and be Hamlet. The difference is that, while most directors labor to make us forget the awkward fact that someone who might have been beside us on the subway that morning is now in makeup and costume onstage, Liz insists that we remember it. “Film acting is all about trying to convince yourself it’s real,” Ari told me. “Theater, or Liz’s theater anyway, is about remaining committed to the unreality of the situation.” In this piece, as I said, Ari stands in for Ron, a mesmerizing performer and one of Liz’s great collaborators until his death, from AIDS-related complications, in 1994. At one point, Ari opens a bottle of glycerin drops and dabs some in each eye. Immediately he begins weeping. I actually saw Vawter do this live and it was a formative aesthetic experience: openly dripping “fake” tears, he composed his face into a striking mask of sadness, then gave a speech, so beautifully that I was somehow even more moved than had the tears been real. It was akin to the magician telling you he is going to trick you and then doing it so skillfully that it still seems like a miracle. Liz recalls being upbraided on a panel by the other directors (all of them male) for using the drops instead of getting her actors to recall past feelings, Method-style. But Ari tells how, when he tried the glycerin, it burned: actual physical pain, not metaphoric sense memories. It is “real.”
Godard noted that every film, even a Hollywood feature, is also a documentary of its actors. We see them live and age, just as we see clothes and cars and interiors from a period, and eventually we are seeing ghosts in a world that has passed. Similarly, onstage, the primary truth is the existence of the performers, who are there, alive, before us, something that became profoundly moving in shows such as Frank Dell’s The Temptation of St. Antony, performed as Vawter’s death approached. Part of what the Wooster Group activates is this sense that, first and foremost, we are seeing them live their lives onstage, inhabit their breaths, movements, and glances. The show—play, text, character—seems to hover like a mirage between us. One has the sense of multiple layers of reality present all at once, alive in the air.
Ken, Liz, Wlad, and others have completed the video of the martyred Erin. She looks like a lovely Pre-Raphaelite image—until they superimpose a photo of a rotting corpse from a body farm on her. The effect is creepy and beautiful at once. Liz says Ken is going to crack open an ant farm and film it to add ants crawling on Erin/Celia.
Liz thanks Michaela for her work on the script and she replies: “I’m so happy you remember my name!” Unfortunately, later in the day, she calls her Monique. Liz is notorious for forgetting names. Enver has been Emerald; Gareth, Garth; the intern Hunter, Plumber and Hummer. While arranging the now seemingly pregnant Suzzy (Enver sewed a half basketball under her skirt) at the base of Erin’s crucifixion, Liz gushes at the effect. “You look so Elizabeth.” Suzzy is confused. “Wait,” Liz asks, “who was Jesus’s mother again?” “Mary!” Suzzy exclaims. “Then who’s Elizabeth?” “You are!”
Old records have been brought in for Ari to break during the big line Edward delivers at the news of Celia’s death (“It’s the waste that I resent!”), but he plays one instead and Liz loves it. “We need to use this!” Everyone dances to the old-time jazz. This will become a running joke and finally an inspiration, as Liz keeps wanting to save the junk-shop records.
Now Niall raises the screen and we see the full video of Erin for the first time, fading from the taped performance into the image of her feet, then traveling up her body to her face as the screen is hoisted on the totem. The picture looks great, but timing the raising becomes an elaborate task—Niall has to match the camera movement so that the screen lifts as the image itself moves up Erin’s body, but he can’t see the screen, since he’s behind it. Again and again Liz interrupts; everyone is counting the beats and coaching at once. Frustrated, she yells: “Can someone count for him?” Kate laughs hard and tells him: “Now you’re really working for the Wooster Group.”
Niall finally gets it, and the image of Erin imposed on the rotting corpse thrills everyone. Liz: “Wait till we get the ants on there.” She also tells Ari, “You might have to darken your hair for this, or maybe we can just stencil a hairline.” He deadpans it. Erin, regarding her now rotting corpse, says, “I’m glad I got my toenails done.”
Meanwhile, since the lack of deodorizing spray in the restrooms was one of the hot topics at a recent company meeting, Liz has presented the group with two possible solutions: a large scented candle and a spray bottle of deodorizer. One option has been placed in each bathroom. Then, throughout the day, she keeps asking if anyone “took a shit” so she can test whether her odor-relief plan worked. No one volunteers.
Big discovery: more tape of the Amsterdam performance has been found. Completely blown out and unwatchable in places, it nevertheless shows the original, outrageous ending of Nayatt School, the section that followed the last scene from The Cocktail Party.
In the chaos of the final party, Ron had mimed shooting all the kids with a toy gun while they staggered around elaborately. Liz told them to play dead and keep their eyes shut. “The last part was not for them,” she said, though one later admitted peeking from behind his mirrored glasses. Then Ron, Spalding, and Libby return to the front table. Spalding pulls his pants down, squats over the turntable, his bare bottom to the audience, mere inches away, and drills holes in a record, using the drill from the crazy-dentist skit. Libby scratches a record while sticking her hand down her dress to simulate masturbation. Ron leans over and puts his penis on the record as though using it as the stylus arm while also lighting matches and dropping them on the turntable.
Now, as the group discusses whether to include this footage, they are reminded of the criticism Eliot himself faced when The Cocktail Party premiered in Edinburgh. Celia’s violent end was described by the players in much more graphic detail, her body said to be in an “advanced state of decomposition” and “smeared with a juice attractive to ants.” Eliot’s producer, among others, felt it was too shocking and would distract the audience from the larger purpose of the play. He removed it. Now, Liz points out, she has not only reinserted those elements, but actually depicted them, made an explicit image. This is both a transgression against the taste of those earlier times and a violation of the text as such: she has made a picture to replace what Eliot painted in words. On the other hand, she feels that time has flowed the opposite way regarding her own explicit footage, which should not be shown but turned into words, discussed. In 1978, it felt natural and right that this would happen: her performers liked getting naked, and she simply saw this image in her mind. No one questioned it. In our current age, somehow both more jaded and more easily offended, this would be too shocking or not shocking enough or shocking in the wrong way.
I’m reminded of another discarded ending, with a speech Kate derived from the Anthony Bourdain Lower East Side episode: “We just want to make things that are so beautiful we get lost in them. We return to it over and over, and it begins to break down. It loses meaning, then it returns to meaning. I’m going to die one day and these shows won’t exist. Does it have to end badly? I’m glad I survived. I’m glad I have my own liver. I’m sure glad I didn’t miss it.”
They read over a negative New York Times review: “Nayatt School is not really an ironic commentary on The Cocktail Party, but a savage assault on phonograph records.” Liz contends that it’s both. She notes that this principle—and, not but—was already taken for granted in music and visual art but not in theater. After all the destruction, Spalding takes the record player into a little house in the rear of the stage and plays a Bach partita while Ron and Libby climb to the upper reaches of the theater and exit, as if into heaven. The two ideas, both equally present, are of destruction and transcendence. Kate, who saw this show from the audience, describes it as “ecstatic.”
Liz often shows up cheerful and eager, then plunges into despair. “I don’t know what this piece is yet. I’m lost. There are like four different ways to go.” Eric unwraps a snack. Matthew blows his nose. Liz snaps, “What is that sound?” Watching the wild ending again, Liz thinks back to Ron miming shooting all the kids, who gleefully play dead. Ron also dances with a young girl. Years later, at eighteen, she died of a brain tumor, and Liz notes that the child’s parents are coming to the show and might be upset by the footage. In the film, though, she is having a ball. When she and Ron worked on that dance together, she would shout with joy each time.
“Maybe I come down and say I’m sorry,” Liz suggests. “I’m the only one here left. Is that what the teaching piece is about? I wouldn’t do this now? I just thought the lid was off civilization and they should do something outrageous, but you could never do that today. And the piece is called Nayatt School—it’s a school shooting. If we’re being honest and trying to show how things evolve and how we work.”
Kate says, “You didn’t know you were invoking the later atrocities, school shootings, brain tumors.”
“That’s when you weren’t afraid of your own mind,” Liz says. “Now I’m afraid of my mind.” Then, looking at the screen, which now shows ants crawling over the fruit heaped at Erin’s feet, she addresses Wlad: “Can’t you have one ant eating her toe?”
Suzzy brings up Eliot’s Four Quartets, which Spalding referenced in the original Nayatt School. They read the last section, which Eliot said is about his own failure as a poet. Failure as an artist? A late masterpiece that looks back not in glory but in despair and then, finally, acceptance? Next, Ari reads from Prometheus Unbound, the lyric drama by Shelley that Eliot’s Harcourt-Reilly quotes in The Cocktail Party, and a long discussion ensues: What is a magi? Whose dead child? Who’s speaking? The earth, addressing Prometheus, as dead child. Liz seems re-energized. After lunch, she thanks them all for their help. I’m not sure what was resolved really, but “for the first time,” she says, “it feels handleable.” As Eliot has Harcourt-Reilly say, following this recitation: “A sudden intuition in certain minds may tend to express itself at once in a picture.” Or, a scene onstage.
I hate when writers or documentary filmmakers try to make their own style an imitation of their subject’s, but out of sheer necessity, the composition of this article has reflected the group’s own process. I began reporting with only the vaguest sense of what they were working on, and as I watched rehearsal after rehearsal, I was constantly thwarted in my attempt to impose structure or design: long, complex discussions I faithfully transcribed would never be mentioned again; speeches would
be labored over for a week, then suddenly dropped. “First we have to get it right,” Kate joked, “then we cut it.” It could be a motto.
In late April, with the beginning of open rehearsals now less than two weeks away, Liz continues to reconsider everything, to happily spend precious time on a phrasing, a gesture. All she needs to discover, she says, is how to get to the “picture,” the central image of Celia crucified, what she now considers the heart of the piece. The actual ending can be worked out later, that is to say, after the show is already on and she’s seen an audience reaction. Maybe, she jokes (jokes?), they will ask the audience how it should end.
In fact, I begin to realize, there will be no end, there is never an end, just more rehearsals, some of which an audience is invited in to see. Matthew, who sits beside Liz at every performance, says it is like seeing a painter finish a canvas, again and again. Indeed, this theater is her mind, as much as any painting is for another artist. Erin says she has come to realize that Liz is the one true audience. The cast and crew all see their opening nights as beginnings, not endings: it is the first time that the piece has ever been played straight through. There are no run-throughs in the traditional sense, since Liz can never resist interrupting. I imagine her in front of the live audiences, conducting.
Perhaps this is why, however anxious or stressed she might be, one thing she does not seem at all worried about is whether the piece will be ready in time: it is in fact unclear what this would mean. The rest of her group don’t take it so lightly. Wlad describes feeling like he is having a meltdown as opening night approaches.
Rehearsing the Shelley lines, Liz decides that they feel too stilted and dry—unless they are sung. That morning, once again, she has become distracted by the pile of junk records Matthew bought (five for a dollar). The one Ari was about to smash was of Enrico Caruso singing Donizetti’s “Una Furtiva Lagrima.” Liz has someone play it, then, hours later, has the idea of setting the poem to this tune. They revise the text to fit the melody while different people try singing it and argue intensely over the changes. Scott is bugged by the elision of the word “till,” which alters the syntax. Gareth, a musician, gets pushed past the point of patience by Liz’s interruptions. Suzzy, a singer with the Roches in her non-Wooster life, renders it beautifully, and for a while, she, Kate, and Liz harmonize. “Come up here, asshole,” Suzzy tells Scott, who is lurking under the table. Next, with a rough melody fleshed out, Eric drops the recording and starts to play the tune on an electric piano, adapting it to fit their new song. The whole group sings it, thrillingly. (“Idiotic yet moving,” is Liz’s judgment.) Then she has the three men in the scene—Scott, Ari, and Gareth—sing together. It is added to the show, where it is powerfully affecting: a dazzling example of how her seemingly impulsive moves, her digressions and associations, are somehow exactly right.
I began this project with two aims in mind: to learn how the Wooster Group make their work, and to learn about the mystery of talent itself by studying, at close range, an artist I considered to be a genius. Now, after six months of class, as it were, I feel I have come a long way in achieving the first goal. But what of the second, to understand something about genius? Here I must admit total failure. That’s not to say I haven’t come to know Liz better. She is warm, eccentric, hilarious, wise, brave, shy, generous, and stubborn. She loves to argue but loves to laugh most of all. I think this might be why she hires whom she does—they are fun to argue with and they make her laugh. I like her very much indeed. But what, if anything, all this has to do with her unique body of work is beyond me.
I’ve noticed a few traits that she has in common with other artists I admire: First of all, she has an incredible work ethic—pretty much every day, with few vacations, year after year. (Wlad, young enough to be her grandson, describes her energy as “electric.” She has been known to go in on Sunday to clean or repaint the theater.) She is relentless, both patient and impatient, and always ready to rip up what she’s done, to destroy in the name of creation. She is tough in the way good artists are tough, with a hard core that leaves her, despite the fretting, ultimately unswayed by what others think. But this is far from an explanation, and frankly, I knew most of it already.
In her theater, Liz is the indisputable boss, the dictator of this anarchic ministate—as Kate says, “a master.” Yet, as Freud reminds us, when speaking of the human mind, we are not even master in our own house. In the end, I realize, I cannot understand Liz’s gift because she does not understand it herself. She merely serves it, following her own impulses like a trail of clues, getting lost until she finds her way again. Even for an outside observer, it is thrilling when a piece suddenly begins to come together. There is almost an audible click. In the final moments of the (for now) final version of Since I Can Remember, Kate describes the wild ending of Nayatt School: “I never asked Liz why it ended that way. She just said it was a picture that appeared in her head.”
The destination cannot be described;
You will know very little until you get there;
You will journey blind. But the way leads towards possession
Of what you have sought for in the wrong place.
At five-fifteen on opening night, Liz arrives at a provisional ending:
The company gathers at the long table and reenacts Eliot’s final cocktail party as performed in the original Nayatt School. While the actors onscreen cavort wildly, grown-ups swirling the kids around in their homemade Halloween-style costumes, props flying, the present company re-creates the scene as a stylized, hypnotic dance, speaking the lines as the kids did forty years before. At the news that Celia, who joined a nursing order, has been crucified by natives while caring for plague victims, an image of Erin as Celia appears onscreen, transforming from a beatific saint on the cross into a rotting corpse. As the characters plunge into rapturous mourning, we see the past company in black and white, and we see them reanimated, embodied by the present company; we see the dead and the living. The ghosts are present in the room with us. The séance has been a success. Kate removes her wig and outer costume, puts on a sweater, and comes back up to the mic. “That’s all we have for tonight.”