– Spring/Summer 2005

Devotion and Betrayal: Air Time/Hang Time in The Passion of Wooster

Jane Philbrick

House/ Lights, directed by Elizabeth Le Compte, 1999/2005. Pictured (left to right): Kate Valk, Suzzy Roche. Photograph by Mary Gearhart. Courtesy of The Wooster Group

House/ Lights, directed by Elizabeth Le Compte, 1999/2005. Pictured (left to right): Kate Valk, Suzzy Roche. Photograph by Mary Gearhart. Courtesy of The Wooster Group

An aviation industry maxim characterises an airplane as a cluster of 'four-million parts flying in close formation'. The legendary Wooster Group operates on a similar model. Their downtown New York productions have, over the last 25 years, defined the 'explosively postmodern' and hi-low 'deconstruction' of experimental performance.

A self-described ensemble of individual artists working under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, the group swaps around the multiple tasks of production - tech, dramaturgy, performance - as it displaces and recombines such 'dead texts' as Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Chekhov's Three Sisters, Racine's Phaèdre and Stein's Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights.

In a video of a post-performance discussion held at New York's American Place Theatre in 1980, the company introduces itself: Spalding Gray, Ron Vawter, Libby Howes, and - coming down from the tech booth after working the lights - Willem Dafoe. The piece just presented, Rumstick Road, is part of the Group's first trilogy, Three Places in Rhode Island, and is based on Gray's childhood, most specifically his mother's suicide. It incorporates extracts from Gray family letters, photographs and recordings. Throughout the audience's questions, Gray emphatically disavows the work as autobiographical, insisting that although Rumstick Road (his family street address) draws on personal history, the work itself is a company creation. Both product and process are collaborative. 'Everyone does everything', says LeCompte, - except for me. I always direct.'

The Wooster Group's newest offering, Poor Theatre: A Series of Simulacra, is a provocative incarnation, a cadavre exquis of three lives, three artists: Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99), the founder of the Polish Lab Theatre whose seminal text titles the production; visual artist Max Ernst (1891-1976); and William Forsythe, the American choreographer whose three-decade-old experimental Frankfurt Ballet

  1. The author in correspondence with curator Helen C. Evans, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 3 January 2005

  2. Annemarie Weyl Carr, 'Images: Expressions of Faith and Power', in Margaret C. Evans (ed.), Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004

  3. Ibid., p.150

  4. Quoted in Julia Reinhard Lupton, Afterlives of the Saints: Hagiography, Typology and Renaissance Literature, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, p.42

  5. Quoted in Judith Tannenbaum, 'On the Wall: Wallpaper by Contemporary Artists', in J Tannenbaum and Marion Boulton Stroud (eds.), On the Wall: Contemporary Wallpaper, Providence: Museum of Art RISD, and Philadelphia: Fabric Workshop and Museum, 2003,p.20

  6. J.R. Lupton, op. cit., p.40

  7. Mr And Mrs Smith in Eugene Ionesco, The Bald Soprano, Donald M. Allen (trans.), New York: Grove Press, 1958, p.18

  8. Alberto Veca, 'Honest Lies: The Meaning, Language and Instruments of Trompe l'Oeil', in Sybille Ebert-Schifferer et al. (ed.), Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting, Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2002, p.57.

  9. Sybille Ebert-Schifferer, 'Trompe l'Oeil: The Underestimated Trick' in Ibid., p.28

  10. A. Veca, op. cit., p.61

  11. J.R. Lupton, op. cit., p.48

  12. A. Veca, op. cit., p.60

  13. J.R. Lupton, op. cit., pp.51-52

  14. Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Paul Carus Lecture Series 21), Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 2003, pp.131 and 139

  15. J. R. Lupton, op. cit., p.52.

  16. Cynthia Marshall, The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity and Early Modern Texts, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002, p.4

  17. Quoted in Bruce Mau, Lifestyle, London: Phaidon Press, 2000, p.427

  18. B. Mau, op. cit., p.427