Cindy Marie Jenkins

Cindy Marie Jenkins

The Wooster Group Enhances Memory at REDCAT

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It’s really all taking place in the writer’s mind. He’s writing it, it’s happening, he’s thinking of it and that allows us to be free from a kind of literal sense. It’s the writer’s mind so people morph into whoever he needs them to be. – Kate Valk, a member of the Wooster Group

If the writing is honest it cannot be separated from the man who wrote it. – Tennessee Williams

Kate Valk and Scott Shepherd. Photo by Franck Beloncle

The Wooster Group presents Vieux Carre by Tennessee Williams at REDCAT. No need to read that sentence twice; there’s no mistake. REDCAT Executive Director Mark Murphy had no trouble picturing the union of the Wooster Group and Vieux Carre. “A Tennessee Williams memory play is a wonderful work for their aesthetic,” he says.

Williams finished the original play over a 40-year period, while his work matured and time warped his memories. “The Wooster Group’s approach,” Murphy continues, “to recalling memories and telling a story is also warped. The moment they mentioned this play, I pictured the tone and tension and dream-like state of it.”

Why is a production of Vieux Carre such an event? Not only because of the obvious reason — that the cast boasts 12-16 characters so it’s rarely produced outside of academia — but also because the Wooster Group as an ensemble was multi-media before it was trendy. It’s a living and breathing chapter from your History of Theater textbook, usually incorporating old films and creating new ones for use within the live narrative, which is typically projected through lavalier mics. Wooster’s re-telling of Racine’s Phedre (To You, the Birdie!) reflected its story in ongoing bouts of badminton. To some, Tennessee Williams’ play may seem a mismatch.

Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going. – Tennessee Williams

There was no trouble acquiring the rights, despite the tradition of a strong hold by the Williams estate. Wooster simply has to use this official title: The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre. Valk (who is one of only two “original” members of the company who remains on the group’s active roster) finds this arrangement completely fair. “That’s what it really is, after all… We don’t really have a reading and talk about what the play means. Liz tries to hear it from us in the space….we start to figure out how to hear it.”

Liz is Elizabeth LeCompte, the other still-active founding member and director of the entire Wooster Group canon, whom Murphy refers to as “unmatched in her vision…The Group has this unique way of collaborating within an ensemble, remarkable examples of real interaction… It makes you want to run away with the circus. I’m amazed at how many young theater artists say The Wooster Group is a major influence but have never seen them except in videos, textbooks or only seen one piece…[now] a new generation of theater artists have seen quite a body of work.”

Time is the longest distance between two places. – Tennessee Williams

Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins

Vieux Carre played at French festivals and the Edinburgh International Festival before landing in Los Angeles the next two weekends. This February, the work will appear at the Baryshnikov Theater in New York City even as Wooster sticks to its roots and rehearses in The Performing Garage in SoHo. From the group’s website: “The Wooster Group owns The Performing Garage as a shareholder in the Grand Street Artists Co-op, established as part of the Fluxus art movement in the 1960s. Following in the tradition of Fluxus, the Garage has become a laboratory where all the Group’s work is developed and shown.”

Fluxus, translated from the Latin “to flow,” boils down to four factors: attitude, intermedia (fluxus thrives on intersection of media), simplicity and fun. The Wooster Group has intermedia, attitude and fun hands-down; simplicity may stretch the ideal. Murphy believes an audience’s first experience of Wooster may be overwhelming, focusing on the chaotic nature of the group’s multimedia collage. But it’s the “intense discipline of their craft, hard and thoughtful deliberation– that’s why it works.”

UCLA Live presented To You, The Birdie! (Phedre) in 2002, the first time Wooster Group had been to LA since 1986. UCLA’s Freud Playhouse required more intimacy for Birdie, so the entire audience (limited in size) joined the performance on-stage, sitting on risers. David Sefton, then Director of UCLA Live, decided Wooster’s next piece Poor Theater was not right for the international festival, and Valk remembers that Murphy picked it up right away for REDCAT.

“It is as it should have been,” she continues. “REDCAT was the right spot for Poor Theater and the audiences were the best… REDCAT’s really great for us: the size, the sound, the space. The LA audience is very adventurous. They do not have a problem if you’re mixing some film and video elements into your theater.”

Murphy agrees with the appeal Wooster Group has to LA audiences and REDCAT’s audiences specifically, who “exemplify an openness overall true of LA.” He recalls the Group’s trip to the West Coast after finishing a long run of Hamlet at The Public Theatre in New York City, where “the audience clearly wanted to experience Shakespeare.”

Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos. Photo by Franck Beloncle

Los Angeles audiences, on the other hand, mixed traditional theater fans with visual and media arts fans, who “haven’t been trained in a rigid way of how a well-made play should be performed… They enjoy the highly visual, non-linear theatrical structures” The Wooster Group brings.

The Group also offers LA its history and evolving ensemble work. Rehearsals for Vieux Carre began two years ago while older shows ran in rep. The process sometimes begins with a “hangover” from a previous production. Valk explains: “A lot of the robes we’re wearing are from The Temptation of Saint Antony. We had a trunk in the basement, and there was a flood and that worked really well with the New Orleans theme. Some of the pieces are tattered…”

We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it. -Tennessee Williams

The Wooster Group researched and filmed in New Orleans to prepare for Vieux Carre. Williams lived in the boardinghouse at 722 Toulouse Street in 1938, the year the play takes place. He didn’t finish the play for 40 years, which accounts in Murphy’s mind for the “vivid Williams characters who also seem like amalgamations of people. That enhanced and partial memory is just how I remember Wooster Group pieces.”

Valk’s own memories of how the trip to New Orleans informed the piece are vague. “Some of the voices are [in the play], I’m not sure any of the visuals are there….We visited several nursing homes and listened to the way people spoke. Not only the older people…who may have been alive when the play takes place; we are looking for maybe something authentic and maybe the new voice of New Orleans…We did readings and had singalongs in the nursing homes and met and interviewed people who had met Tennessee Williams.”

The play evokes Tennessee Williams at the end of his life, Valk continues, “looking back on his own awakening as an artist. He even says:

This house was occupied once. In my mind it still is but by shadowy occupants like ghosts.

And for him he’s going back to maybe even loss of innocence.” Valk continues, “There was no need to highlight any images of Katrina through the stories… I don’t know how it’s there but it’s there… It really does resonate; we just try to resonate with it.”

Photo by Cindy Marie Jenkins

“It’s a reunion each time,” Murphy says of  Wooster Group’s return engagements to REDCAT. “The group fits REDCAT like a glove. It’s a cliché but it does… When the Wooster Group comes, [the REDCAT crew] is so eager to do it; they have fun even as they’re working harder than they ever have.”

The work includes a lot of advance preparation, conversations and creating a sort of shorthand between their teams over the years. Because the sound, stage dimensions and stage-to-audience relationships were so ideal for the way the group works, aspects of the REDCAT space were referenced while Wooster Group built a new space in New York City.

The Wooster website posts new videos almost daily, coming close to accurately representing the experience of the group for those who can’t see them live. One video chronicles strange tales under the stage at REDCAT in 2004. Valk says she and the entire ensemble are very involved in the video’s creations:

Making the daily blog “““ … it’s been really fun…we’re working with editors, filmmakers, and then we all come together after rehearsal in a big mob situation and we’re like, what did we get? And then we’re all together on what goes up.”

The daily blog is made possibly partly through a four-year, $1 million fund awarded by the Doris Duke Charitable Trust and the Non-Profit Finance Fund. Part of Wooster’s award also went towards a digital archive, partnerships overseas and residencies at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and REDCAT. Thanks to this funding, LA audiences can look forward to at least three more years of The Wooster Group visiting our downtown inter-media center.

All good art is an indiscretion. – Tennessee Williams

Ari Fliakos and Kate Valk. Photo by Franck Beloncle

Equipment arrived at REDCAT in the days before Thanksgiving. Rehearsals took place on Monday and Tuesday before the opening on Dec. 1. Valk agrees that although a week in each space would be “great,” the restricted schedule “galvanizes us… We work very well with the time constraints. You must be attracted to it… The people who stay here, if you’re here, you really want to be here. And if you’re not, you leave.”

Would Valk suggest any advance knowledge of the experience, for those audiences not familiar with Wooster’s work? “I would just say come. It’s more fun that people don’t have expectations.”

The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre plays Tues.-Sat., 8:30 pm; Sun., 7 pm; through Dec. 12. Tickets: $45-$55. REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles (inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex); 213.237.2800 or redcat.org.

A co-production between Theatre National de Strasbourg, Wiener Festwochen, Les Spectacles Vivants-Centre Pompidou, Festival d’Automne a Paris, the performances at REDCAT are funded in part with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the “Leading for the Future Initiative,” a program of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.