TRAMWAY WOOSTEB GROUP
THE WOOSTER GROUP is one of the world's most thrilling ensembles, even if they don't always get the joke in New York. \"v’ouls: Mark Fisher
GOING TO NEW YORK AND MISSING The Wooster Group is like going to Egypt and missing the pyramids. I reckon. Yet. when I visited the Big Apple last year. more than one theatre insider was surprised by my plan to see the celebrated company that spawned Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray. Their surprise was puzzling. It wasn't only that House/Lights was easily the most extraordinary thing I saw in a week of theatre-going. it was the idea that the New York theatre establishment hadn‘t noticed that one of the world’s most significant ensembles was on its very doorstep.
‘There‘s a great cultural wall.‘ laughs Elizabeth LeCompte. the company‘s director for over two decades, a woman who’s lost none of her pioneering spirit. ‘They still detest us as much as ever. I didn‘t set out to alienate them. but looking back over our career here, it has a lot to do with owning our own space. We’re one of the few people in theatre who can do what we want. If it doesn‘t work. nobody‘s the worse for it except us.‘
You’ll find the company’s HQ on Wooster Street. an unassuming road in the city’s SoHo district. As you approach the Performing Garage. you‘ll see a gaggle of people standing on the sidewalk; the theatre is. literally. a former garage. a big black box with no foyer and a ticket desk that‘s simply a doorway onto the street. In the auditorium. the back couple of rows of the steeply raked seating bank require the audience — well-heeled and high—heeled alike — to climb a ladder to reach their seats. It’s not fancy. But its home. And they can do what they like.
What they do — as those who caught Brace Up. L51) (Just The High Points) and Frank Dell ’s The Temptation Of St Antony at Tramway in 1990 will recall — is both highly precise and utterly bizarre. House/Lights somehow manages to blend a dodgy ()Os sexploitation flick called ()lga's House Of Shame with Gertrude Stein‘s I);- Faustus Lights The Lights. in itself one of the most abstruse plays ever written. To do this, LeCompte uses half a dozen TV screens, extreme vocal distortion and the alert sounds from an Apple Mac laptop. In the midst of this hi—tech
'When somebody says I'm not funny that's really disturbing' Elizabeth LeCompte
tomfoolery. Kate Valk gives a performance of compelling poise. It would be bewildering if it wasn't so funny.
And humour is the key. It‘d be easy to write off The Wooster Group as po-faced experimentalists. but to do so would be to miss the point. ‘Humour is built into everything we do.‘ says LeCompte. 'You're talking about “avant garde". but to me avant gardc is a liuropean joke. There‘s nothing avant garde in America: isn‘t it a French word'.’ But most of what I grew up with was television humour. So of course I‘m very attracted to it. Everything I do is based in some part of American humour. We always go back to the Marx Brothers. to Laurel and Hardy. to early sitcoms. I'm a voracious digger into our comedic history. It deeply inﬂuences everything that I do.’
But doesn‘t the extraordinary nature of what she does cause people to miss the humour"? ‘Well. they did for many years here.‘ she says. ‘I would do what I‘d consider was a broad comedy piece and people would write that there was certainly no humour in The Wooster Group. My sense of irony was so over-developed that it went way over their heads. or under their feet. That was galling. I don‘t mind getting bad reviews. but when somebody says I'm not funny that‘s really disturbing. Now they‘re catching up. In liurope it isn‘t the same. My favourite audiences are the British because they get every nuance.’
House/Lights, Tramway, Glasgow, Wed 7—Sat 10 Jun. For more theatrical merriment see The Cartoon, page 128.
Kate Valk gives a compelling performance that's half-Dr Faustus and half-B movie starlet
Tramway Exhibitions over page >
25 May-8 Jun 2000 THE lIST 21