Photo: Zbigniew Bzymek
I met with the director Elizabeth LeCompte over a number of months in her loft, two blocks from the Performing Garage, where her actors and technical team, the Wooster Group, rehearse on an almost daily basis when they’re in town. Liz, as everyone calls her, lives in a dimly lit space, eclectically furnished. The front part of the loft—you step directly into it, off the lift—contains a bed and screen for guests; several paintings Liz made early in her career are stacked on the floor. Liz’s own bedroom is in the back, off a tidy screened-off bathroom. The main feature in the space is the kitchen; it runs the width of the loft, and even though Liz doesn’t really cook much and eats relatively little—for our meetings I’d bring some Italian takeout, easy to heat up; one saw a number of frozen pizzas in the fridge—it is a homey area, with a wide countertop and high chairs and a television nearby: the director is an avid baseball fan.
The Wooster Group’s latest production, The Town Hall Affair, is at REDCAT in Los Angeles through April 1, then at Z Space in San Francisco from April 6 to April 16.
It smells good.
You sure? Because I’m not so good at this, but I love pretending.
No, it’s delicious. I feel great. I feel very content. Okay, what were your parents like?
Well, my father came from a lower middle class family from New Jersey. His father was a tugboat engineer, on long sea hauls, so he was away most of the time. My father didn’t go to college at first, because they had no money. Later he became a very successful designer and engineer at a small company that made rubber boots. But he was depressed. I don’t remember ever having a conversation with him longer than three or four sentences. Then there was my mother, who had four children and hated it. She was terrible, totally self-involved. She was the baby in her family, sent off to a great college, and was suddenly like, How did that happen? Who are these people puttering around my dinner table?
Was art your escape?
I didn’t need an escape. I was very happy because I wasn’t ever in that house. We always lived in the country, and I spent my days climbing trees, making forts in the woods. I would ride horses bareback, they were all around, and camp out at night. I don’t remember ever being inside or having toys. It was a different time. So I didn’t really know my parents all that well, they were just our keepers. They let us be who we were. They didn’t expect anything from us, they didn’t care whether we succeeded or not. And I just wanted to be an artist from the time I was eight years old. The theater, it’s all I ever wanted.
Where did you go to school, Liz?
Skidmore, when it was a girl’s school, because high school gave me trouble.
What sort of trouble?
Well, I wanted to take courses that I wasn’t allowed to take, like architectural drawing, mechanical drawing—I had to fight to get into the class. I couldn’t play the sports I wanted to, there wasn’t a baseball team or football team—that would’ve been interesting to me—so I became a cheerleader because that was the only option for women. This was in rural New Jersey in the fifties, so it was very different, and I thought, I don’t want to compete with these boys who have such a big advantage. I want to be able to develop without having to be a second-class citizen. I felt so strongly about that, so I went to a girl’s school, was at the top of my class, and didn’t have to fight with some guy.
What did you study?
Art—painting, drawing, art history. I loved thirteenth- and fourteenth-century German work. Especially Flemish work—the combination of form, the triptych and those large panels. Pure visual, but there are all these stories inside, even when it’s abstract—each one about another person. And it’s still got the architectonic thing that I like.
What kind of painting were you doing?
I was drawing.
Do you still draw?
Well, I only draw the spaces we make, but I don’t draw outside of that. I got into photography right out of school and did that for several years. I had my own darkroom, and I’d take pictures, decompose them, change the chemicals—they’d become these abstract, very architectural landscapes. This was during that time, you’re too young to know, when I paid fifteen dollars a month, and we had four people in one railroad flat, so I could afford it. I made my living selling postcards at the Guggenheim, then at the Met. First they sat me down at a typewriter, but I could never type. I’d say sorry and they’d put me on postcards. That’s why I’m not a curator or something, because I could never type. And that’s how I knew I had to be an artist—it didn’t require a typewriter.
So if you’re working selling postcards, let’s say, thirty hours a week, the rest of the time you’re in New York, just looking at things?
A lot of looking at things, yeah. But I also had a studio in the little apartment. And Spalding [Gray] came down, too, and he was trying to make a living as an actor. We lived together during that time.
How did you two meet?
I met him while I was working at a café—Caffé Lena, in Saratoga Springs. I helped bake, and then I served. Lena, of Caffé Lena, she wanted to have a theater company. I didn’t know anything about it, but she went down to the city one summer and hired a bunch of actors from New York and brought them up to live in her big old house on Union Street. She was going to make theater.
Then there was John Wynne Evans, who was just an incredible, brilliant man—out of his mind, too. He was very gay, very flamboyant, and, at the same time, centered—an odd combination. He hired all of the actors with Lena, who was on the long-toothed end of forty at the time. But he didn’t hire any ingenues, he just hired young, beautiful men. There must have been four or five of them, and Spalding was there. And anytime John wanted to do a play they’d come to me and they’d say, Can you—
Can you play Laura in Glass Menagerie or something.
Nothing like that. Lena would play the big parts, even if she wasn’t right for them. But John Wynne Evans would dress me up, push me out on stage, and would whisper the lines into my ear and I’d stand there and say them. He put on these strange plays, like The Constant Lover, and I couldn’t remember any of the lines—I was terrible. But that’s how I met Spalding, because he was there at that time. In ’67, we moved in with two friends of mine into that apartment on the Lower East Side. Then we moved somewhere else, to Ninety-Third Street and Third Avenue, on the border of Spanish Harlem and Yorkville. A big brewing factory was right around there, and we were the fifth floor walkup—toilet in the hall, four people on a floor, tiny little place. I was working selling postcards and Spalding was trying to get work in the theater. Then he got involved with Richard Schechner, the director of the Performance Group. When Richard said to me, Why don’t you come and be the photographer for the Performance Group and be my assistant director, I just went, Wow, seventy dollars a week!
A lot of money for you.
Huge. I was getting seventeen, eighteen dollars a week as a postcard lady. I think it’s kind of ironic that I took a job in theater because of the money.
What intrigued you about it, when you started?
I have no idea. I was attracted to the scene and to the people. They were all doing something they were really crazy about and I just joined in. And living theater was all around—it was such a vibrant time.
Were you at the Garage?
Yes. In ’67, ’68, two of the people who were in Dionysus in ’69 found the Garage. Richard put the down payment on it. Then they all got together, cleared it out, and made it into a working space. But they didn’t all get along. There was a lot of contention—screaming, anger, slamming doors. After that, Richard was left with the Garage and a couple of people from the old group. Then Richard brought a number of new people on and made a whole new company around this piece Commune, about the Sharon Tate murders and Manson.
Did a light bulb go off when you started working with Richard?
That’s when I really knew I wanted to work in theater. I was doing research for Commune, and Richard would say, Go find out about this, and I loved it. I would go anywhere to find what he was after because I wasn’t from the same academic world as him—he was a professor at NYU. So I would turn to pop culture to find things out about Manson. I would turn not only to the New York Times but to the Post, too. That’s where we differed—I wanted the lie and the truth. I loved the psychology of it. I also found I loved working with the performers and using documentary material with other texts.
Was Richard taking and cutting up news stories and using those as the script?
Some of the time, yes. We would take the actual dialogue from the trials, too, and we’d work that in throughout, but we’d also integrate all these different happenings that were going on at the time. Richard was often away, too—he would travel or have to teach—so I eventually became a stage manager, in the old sense. I oversaw the company, made the piece work, gave notes, staging, everything. And I realized then that I could take multiple ideas, put them next to each other, and connect them. I was good at it, and that gave me pleasure.
How did Richard hand it over to you, do you remember?
I always felt that I could take over because it was Richard’s company. He would let me do anything, and it was rare for a woman to get that kind of support. Eventually, Richard’s company fell apart, and I was in the middle of it. We were in India doing Mother Courage. It was the last piece that I would work on as assistant director. He had brought on a lot of people after the initial group formed, and many of the strongest people left over fights with him around the dumbest stuff, usually about the big father figure picking the young girl to be his girlfriend—things I wasn’t interested in. I knew they weren’t quite going to make it. So when Richard left, we kept the Garage and changed the name to the corporate name, from the Performance Group to the Wooster Group.
And other actors started to accumulate?
Yes, lots of people were around.
Then you started work on Sakonnet Point and Rumstick Road.
That was a little earlier, in the midseventies, when Spalding was really sick and had a breakdown. We were working on Sakonnet Point, a small dance piece about his past and his mother—no dialogue, just sound. He’d asked me to help him with it. And we did it, and he got better. We immediately started working on Rumstick Road after that. Spalding was the impetus. He wanted to tape his father and his grandmother, and I went along to help with the taping. And then we would edit the transcripts. Spalding and I recorded his father very closely, so you could hear everything he did, and Ron, who played Spalding’s father, had to lip-sync to the taping so perfectly that people thought he was talking. So he listened to it over and over to know exactly what to do with his lips. And then we went into staging it, my favorite part. I designed a set and Bruce Porter and I built it. And we did it! It was controversial. A lot of people liked it, but like, Michael Feingold—he didn’t quite say it was obscene, but he made a thing about how you could betray your people, your family, by saying things they might not want to hear. But it was just about Spalding.
And for me, it was just a matter of figuring out how that guy was gonna move through the space, dancing, making it like a triptych. I was very into scientific examinations at the time—pictures of the body lying down on a table and three-part triptychs where donors are on one side and there’s something else in the center. The person running the whole thing was God up above, looking down. And as soon as I had that form, I knew what we were doing. Each piece was another examination of this problem Spalding was dealing with.
When you combine different media and source material, how do you arrive at the final version?
I often see a picture in front of me at first. But when I go into the theater, I have to forget the picture. I have to throw my vision away, deal directly with the materials in the room, and work at understanding who’s in front of me and how I can pull them into what I want to see.
When you start rehearsal, does everyone come in and sit around and talk about the record or the text or …
It depends. I never read a play alone. I always read it with the company first. Sometimes we’ll just read a lot of plays and say, This one, let’s do this one. And if that’s so, then I have them read it a couple of times and get them on their feet almost immediately. But if I can’t see how the thing is going to be or hear the language right, then I just let it go. And I prefer doing things somebody else wants to do—I want to say I had to do it because somebody else made me, then it’s an abstract responsibility, and that’s freeing. I can do whatever I want because it’s not about me. I’ve only selected two works for us, like The Crucible in L.S.D.
Tell me more about that.
There’s a section in L.S.D. that has a little piece of The Crucible in it, and I had them all take acid. They all knew their lines by this time. They’d rehearsed The Crucible, we’d even performed it for small audiences. Then they tried to do The Crucible again on acid, and I taped it and they had to memorize their movements from the videotape. So everyone watched themselves, and if they were trying to say their lines and they put their hand up like this, then they had to do just that—they had to memorize it and re-create it, as though it was a symphony of motion. I was trying to find ways the movement wouldn’t be redundant to the words. This kind of thing happens a lot in theater—the gestural language becomes redundant to the source, because the text is the primary thing in most theater. But for me, it’s not.
Do you consider yourself a writer?
I don’t, no. A writer writes. I construct—it’s a physical action.
Western theater is stuck in this insanely boring naturalism. But what about the so-called avant-garde—what direction has it gone in?
I love naturalism and realism, but I think of the theater as a three-dimensional canvas where anything can happen, where things can be out of a “natural” order. I want to create an atmosphere that transcends ordinary life. It’s a problem that a lot of experimental theater is done by people coming out of Ivy League colleges. All the people who came to me were crazy people.
Money is another problem for experimental theater. Going against the grain and finding something new requires you to commit yourself to things people think are insane. And that takes time, and it takes a producer who is willing to go there. Now everybody has to have a producer that wants it there right away. I didn’t need that, I still don’t.
What are you thinking of doing next?
Well, we have a commission from Poland. I have to ask the people there what agency the Polish government has. Do you know this guy Tadeusz Kantor? They want us to do a piece in celebration of his hundredth birthday or something, but I only saw one piece he ever did. We worked with Jerzy Grotowski’s Akropolis in Poor Theater and performed it in Poland. Every night, half of the audience would get up screaming. The other half, the younger half, generally, would get up trying to defend us. So it was infamous but not in a great way. Why they’ve asked me to do Kantor, I haven’t a clue.
You know, I think there should be a big Wooster Group book.
Too much work. I don’t really care, you know?
The fans care.
Goddamn it, get out. What fans?
Hilton Als is the theater critic at The New Yorker and an advisory editor of The Paris Review.
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