An Interview with Elizabeth LeCompte

[Artistic Director, The Wooster Group]
“I’m not a person who loves to see everything fall apart all the time, but I realize that sometimes that has to happen to make something more.”
Things actors in the Wooster Group never do:
Sit around talking about the text
Assign roles
Stop working on a piece

An Interview with Elizabeth LeCompte

[Artistic Director, The Wooster Group]
“I’m not a person who loves to see everything fall apart all the time, but I realize that sometimes that has to happen to make something more.”
Things actors in the Wooster Group never do:
Sit around talking about the text
Assign roles
Stop working on a piece

An Interview with Elizabeth LeCompte

Hillar Liitoja
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The Wooster Group has its origins in the Performance Group, the groundbreaking theater company founded in 1967 by Richard Schechner, the legendary American experimental-theater director. Elizabeth LeCompte joined the company in 1970; five years later, she began to create her own work with Spalding Gray, apart from Schechner’s company yet still in its venue, the Performing Garage, located in SoHo in New York City. This former factory on Wooster Street still serves as the group’s home base, where they develop—and often perform—their work. While the details are not public, several decades ago a rift occurred between LeCompte and Schechner, leading to his departure and the 1980 formation of the Wooster Group with LeCompte as its artistic director.

Since its beginning, the ensemble has been in a continual state of flux, with members involving themselves in other pursuits only to fluidly rejoin. Simultaneous to these comings and goings has been an equally constant artistic evolution that has produced a considerable body of work: twenty-one meticulously crafted pieces for theater, along with twelve for film/video and five for dance. The group does not present “plays”; they serve merely as springboards for some of the most complex, bewildering, and intellectually challenging work ever seen onstage. Add to that list of attributes the word controversial: just last year, the group’s performance of Cry, Trojans! sparked debate when LeCompte made the provocative decision to have her Trojans appear in redface.

LeCompte has received nearly every artistic honor imaginable: a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an appearance at the Whitney Biennial, and many others. Relaxed and imperturbable, LeCompte fielded my questions for an hour in the quiet of a Toronto hotel room.

—Hillar Liitoja

THE BELIEVER: In Toronto there is an organization called the Theatre Centre that is devoted to supporting every kind of experimental theater. It promoted your last visit by starting off with “Just two words: Elizabeth LeCompte.” How does it feel to be the object of such intense respect and scrutiny in the very circumscribed world of dance? ELIZABETH LeCOMPTE: Well, right now you’re saying all that, and it feels great, but I don’t really experience it like that in my regular life. I feel that I’m still at the very beginning of my career, in some ways.

BLVR: Your involvement with theater started off with Richard Schechner’s Performance Group.

EL: Not really; it started before that. When I was in school, I was involved with a company in Saratoga Springs called the Caffé Lena. It had a full café on one side and a loft on the other side. This woman named Spencer started a theater company, so on the weekends I would waitress at the café and then began to become involved in the theater company. And this company, for a year and a half, included Spalding Gray— so I met him there and then we went together to New York.

BLVR: So it was Spalding who led you to the Performance Group.

EL: Definitely.

BLVR: What is it about a given play—or source material— that makes you decide to use it as a springboard to create a Wooster piece?

EL: It’s different every time. Maybe before I die I’ll see some kind of system, but it seems to me that I just go from some kind of question that comes up in the piece, before the question can be articulated. It was like that with [the play] L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…). Or it could be something that’s intuitive that I wasn’t able to develop in the piece before. It could be a performer; it could be that somebody lays an idea down and I just have nothing else to do in that time and so I pick that up, just because I like to work; it could be that somebody approaches us and says, “I can get money for this,” and I’ve never heard of it before or I haven’t read it, like Chekhov. Ron Vawter [an actor and founding member of the Wooster Group] said we should do Three Sisters. There are a lot of women in the play, and we have women in the company… so we did that. It’s so many ideas that I don’t want to look back. I don’t want to know what it is.

BLVR: I’m sure it varies, but how much time does it take for you to go from the first glimmer—maybe we could do something with Chekhov’s Three Sisters—to the final decision—we are definitely going to base something on Three Sisters?

EL: That happens almost immediately. When we read the translation by Paul Schmidt of Three Sisters, I saw it almost immediately, and then it took a year and a half. I have a kind of a picture that’s out of focus, that comes up, and I think that makes me say, “I can do it. I can make the piece.”

BLVR: What are the first things you want to explore and nail down?

EL: I like to get, as soon as possible, some physical space marked out. At the same time, I like to hear the performers say the text. So when we read a text, we read it together or we do it together. But we never talk about it, and we never sit down at a table and assign roles. I have an idea about who I think should play what, but sometimes that doesn’t work out. We switch around. I like to have a general idea of what the three-dimensional space is going to consist of, and I like to have one or two things from a piece before that I didn’t TB112_FINAL.indd 118 6/17/15 7:56 PM 119 really get to use in a way, architectonically. I’m curious about how to use these things spatially.

BLVR: Have you ever considered—or accepted—a commission?

EL: Yes, several times. Early on, I guess it must have been in the late ’70s, a company from Europe commissioned us to do a piece with their company in Holland, and that later became North Atlantic. And then Peter Sellars, the theater director, offered us a commission to do Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony with Ron Vawter playing St. Antony; La Didone, the opera, for the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels; and Hamlet for the Barcelona Festival.

BLVR: Would you accept a commission if it didn’t interest you?

EL: Well, I don’t know whether it interests me until I’ve accepted it. So there’s a problem there.

BLVR: There is a problem there.

EL: Because I see what I want to work on in everything. When I’m ready to work, almost anything can become material. It feels porous to me. If I have an idea, it will flow through.

BLVR: You call the process of making a show a collaboration. In so many companies, the lighting designer, for example, has no right to say anything about the decor or the sound and so on. Whereas with you, everyone who is involved with the project has the right to make a comment about any aspect of the production.

EL: You’re right. But it’s that word: right. It’s not about “right,” because no one comes in for that. It’s more about the fact that there’s always an argument. I don’t mean an argument in the sense that there’s a fight. There’s an argument in the sense of a dialogue that’s always in the room, and sometimes there are disagreements and sometimes I’ll go with the person who I don’t agree with as far as I can go until I can’t go there anymore and I have to go back and retreat.

BLVR: Whenever you face uncertainty, do you look to your co-creators?

EL: Totally. Not only look to them; I demand that they give me something.

BLVR: However, you retain the right of “final say.”

EL: The freedom. No, maybe here it’s a case of “right.” I don’t know. I mean, if anybody argued enough that they didn’t agree with me, they would leave. Or I would leave.

BLVR: Leave the room?

EL: No, leave the company. In other words, there’s some kind of given thing; there always has been from the beginning—and I guess this must be a theater thing—that people defer to the director. I’m not a traditional director, but I’m lucky enough to have that instilled in most of the people I work with that they give me that right without my having to demand it.

BLVR: Are you also, in a way, implying that things get hashed out until a common agreement is reached?

EL: Sometimes. Sometimes people just look at me like I’m crazy and do what I ask.

BLVR: During the creation of House/Lights you say that Roy Faudree refused to say any of Gertrude Stein’s lines— and when you coaxed him into speaking a few, he would just subvert them in various ways until you relented and he was spared speaking any of her text.

EL: You know, he did retain two lines.

BLVR: To what extent will you submit to your performers?

EL: If they really don’t like doing something, I don’t want to watch them do something they don’t like to do. So I’ll try to find what they love to do and follow that track, always. I mean, sometimes I’ll force a performer toward something that I think I need, and every once in a while that works out brilliantly, that I force someone to go someplace they don’t want to go. It’s very hard to do; I don’t like to do it and I only do it when I feel I have to.

BLVR: When I watched the last rehearsal of Vieux Carré, you cut a line, added words, assigned new tasks, changed blocking—all hours before opening night. That makes me think the company is so familiar with the work, with each other, with continual changes, that you have total confidence that they can assimilate and execute. It makes me wonder if there’s a huge safety net in the actors being allowed to openly speak up mid-performance to rectify anything that goes awry. And it also makes me think you don’t really mind if something misfires, because it’s live, it’s exciting, it’s palpably real.

EL: Well, that’s a case where I guess it’s particular to my personality. I love the possibility that there’s an accident going to happen that night. When it happens, and if it doesn’t give me something new, I’m horrified. If it gives me something new, I don’t care. You’re right, it’s a big risk, and I suppose you could say that I enjoy that risk. But I don’t enjoy it when it goes awry. I’m not a person who loves to see everything fall apart all the time, but I realize that sometimes that has to happen to make something more.

BLVR: Do you ever get really angry?

EL: Usually if I’m angry it’s because I haven’t been able to come up with something. So I’m throwing it off. The only reason I know this is that for so many years I’ve known the only way to correct that, for me, is to turn it back on myself and to figure out what I really want, and to go a different route to get it. Because the anger usually is coming up against something that the other person isn’t understanding. I don’t like to take on my own frustration; I like to throw it out onto other people. The performers help me with that. If I say, “Why don’t you do something? Why don’t you do that right? All I’m asking you to do is this,” they’ll turn it around on me and say, “You’re not being specific enough,” or “You didn’t tell me this,” and I’ll have to go back and go in. I have to take another route. I have to walk around the wall instead of bashing into it.

BLVR: What’s happening during those moments is that you’re not expressing anger at a particular person; you’re expressing frustration at the situation.

EL: No, it could be a specific person. It could be the situation. Sometimes I’ll pretend it’s the situation, but it is a specific person. But they do the same thing to me.

BLVR: Do they ever scream at you?

EL: Absolutely. It’s frightening. It’s like my painting has suddenly come alive and is coming at me. I’m confused and upset. When they turn on me, I’m confused. When I’m working, I don’t think of them as…

BLVR: Enemies, antagonists?

EL: I don’t know. I don’t think of them as… people, individuals. We’re all working; we’re all like atoms of some sort; we’re all colors; we’re all things; we’re all moving; we’re all spirits. So when the spirits become live and actually confront me, it’s like ghosts becoming live, coming up from the grave or something—not the grave, or down from… I don’t know where. There’s suddenly, like, Oh my god, these are people and they’re mad at me. I’m just confused. But we work it out and we go back in—’cause they’re confused that I don’t see what I’m doing with them. Sometimes there’s a mutual misunderstanding, and we always get through that.

BLVR: You always just talk it out?

EL: No, we just go back and do work. We don’t often talk it out, not in the way you’re thinking. Somebody will say to me—it’s like click for me; it’s sort of like a Zen thing where they come up and just slap me in the face. And I go, “Oh, yeah,” and then we go back.

BLVR: I’d like to turn your attention toward critics and the press. I read that ostensibly your feelings about advertising and promotion are so ambivalent that you seem to cultivate marginalization while eschewing fame and the spotlight. Is that an accurate assessment of your intent?

EL: No. It might be an accurate assessment, but it’s not my intent. Because of the kind of work we do, I know we’re always going to be a little off from whatever is happening traditionally or even in the avant-garde at the time. Because I’m always trying to push something a little further, find out something I don’t know. I’m always going to be doing something that’s not quite in the stream of things for critics. Even avant-garde work becomes codified so quickly.

BLVR: Codified?

EL: “This is what the avant-garde should look like.” And then I’ll do something and they’ll go, “What is she doing? It’s not right.” So I know I have to deal with a certain lag in the critical establishment coming up to what we’re doing. So that means I would like to—and have spent my life trying to—figure ways to get around that lag. It’s only a couple of times when we joined with the critical establishment totally at the time the piece opened. So I bring the pieces back so they can see them again, and that helps. People always say to me, “L.S.D. was such a great success,” or “Brace Up! was such a great success.” Well, Brace Up! got a bad review in the Times the first time it ran, and it’s been one of our most famous pieces. L.S.D. was dismissed critically—so was La Didone when it first opened in Europe. Most of our pieces have been marginally critically accepted in that way. And that’s painful, but it’s also a healthy thing for us, work-wise. It’s been forty years, and the Times has never written a preview piece on me the way they do with most everybody who comes up with a big piece. I’ve never had that, and I probably never will. So we’ve figured ways to get around that. That’s been very exciting and creative for me.

BLVR: What, for you, is the purpose of showing a work in progress when you know full well it is not finished?

EL: To get audiences down early, to get them in on the process so they want to come back, to keep a profile in our world so people are talking about it and coming to see it, and to make money along the way, to finance the piece. Because if we haven’t gotten a commission, we have to finance it ourselves, so we charge money. It’s like a little art tax. And that helps us to continue working.

BLVR: You are one of the incredibly few directors to attend every performance of every show. Would you tell me why you do that?

EL: I don’t know. I think it’s because I’m always working on the pieces. I think once I stop working on them—and that’s really true at the end of the run, ’cause for me working in front of an audience is the best way to complete a piece—I really just want to be there.

BLVR: Do you at all care if the audience understands your “take” on a given piece, that it “gets” the rationale behind certain major, bold decisions?

EL: Well, I care very much that they do, but when they do, I want to move on as fast as possible. When they don’t, I’m disturbed, but I keep going.

BLVR: Do you imagine how an audience will react to any given event in a piece? Do you hope they will respond in a certain way?

EL: Both, yes.

BLVR: Do you have a general, overall desire concerning the effect of the group’s work on an audience?

EL: I guess I want them to be stunned and amazed. And I want them to laugh and to cry. I don’t know. You might qualify that and say I just came up with that ’cause I was looking at the needle [Toronto’s CN Tower] and I was stunned and amazed at why they would build something like that.

BLVR: You love exposing the machinery of theater as performers—not stagehands—move set pieces around, rearrange props, speak audibly to technical operators. What makes you derive so much pleasure from that? Why do you consistently make this an integral part of the Wooster experience?

EL: We always talk about [how] if someone spoke out in the middle of the performance, we’d be able to incorporate it into the show.

BLVR: One feature that repeatedly occurs in the group’s work is the superimposition of other source material onto a play’s text: Pigmeat Markham’s vaudeville routines colliding with Wilder’s Our Town; Timothy Leary’s babysitter-reminiscences as counterpoint to Miller’s The Crucible; Joseph Mawra’s soft-porn B&D film Olga’s House of Shame in a mash-up with Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights. Why do you find these disparate combustions so fascinating?

EL: Well, I think a lot of that has to do with me liking a story. And sometimes we’re working with texts that don’t have a strong narrative. And when they don’t have a strong narrative, I’ll look for it in another system that will come through, so you can see the main text we’re working with, but you can follow another narrative. I like the stage with time and story.

BLVR: I imagine you would agree that the human mind cannot help but make connections. House/Lights actually began with the Olga film, and it suddenly occurred to me that you could marry it with Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France.

EL: No, absolutely not. Because it wouldn’t have a narrative that I was really interested in. That’s like saying I could stage the phone book. There was a time in my life when I really thought I could stage the phone book. But I now know that was hubris.

BLVR: When you look back over all those Wooster years, what have you accomplished that most surprises you?

EL: I think what most surprises me is that I’m still working, that I’m still excited about the next piece. I can’t believe it. I must be an idiot.

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