"It was familial, incestuous, dysfunctional."

As the Wooster Group turns 30, its surviving founders (and some of their peers) relive the saga of the provocative company that's still revolutionizing New York theater

Wooster Group

Photo: Seichi Tanaka

The 30-year story of the Wooster Group, the premier experimental-theater company in America, can be as melodramatic as a soap opera. Tangled romances, political brouhahas and shattering tragedies abound, alongside the troupe's trailblazing narrative manipulation and high-tech innovation.

At the center of it all is an unlikely protagonist: an unassuming, maternal, 60-year-old creative dynamo named Elizabeth LeCompte. In a field filled with drama queens, LeCompte, who has directed all of the group's productions, does not seem starved for attention; in fact, she comes off as a little shy. She had little interest in the theater until, while attending Skidmore College in the mid-'60s, she met and fell in love with a handsome New York actor named Spalding Gray. After she graduated and moved to New York, Gray helped usher her into the world of Richard Schechner's influential Performance Group, which worked out of a dank Soho space on Wooster Street known as the Performing Garage. It was there that LeCompte encountered and began collaborating with a core group of fearless actors: Jim Clayburgh, Ron Vawter, Kate Valk, Willem Dafoe and Peyton Smith, along with Gray.

In 1975, LeCompte launched a series of now-legendary plays—in effect the first Wooster Group productions—known as the Rhode Island Trilogy, in which Gray explored his childhood, his mother's suicide and the monologue form that he would eventually master. The company soon established its house style, working communally round the clock to build shows from found texts and improvisation. (The group eventually took over the Performing Garage when Schechner disbanded the Performance Group in 1980.)

Early productions like Rumstick Road and L.S.D. (...just the high points...) are now studied in universities and imitated by countless young directors and actors. But along with their many successes, the seven founding Wooster members have endured more than their share of turmoil and heartbreak, from the mental illness of actor Libby Howes and the early death of Vawter (from AIDS in 1994), to the dual blow last year of Gray's suicide and the breakup of LeCompte and Dafoe, who had been a couple for 27 years (the pair declined to be in the same room together for these interviews). But through it all, LeCompte and Co. remain resilient and stubbornly avant-garde, producing boundary-pushing work with an all-consuming dedication. In early February, a new rendition of House/Lights, originally staged in 1998, opens at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. According to LeCompte, the Wooster players' new show—like all of its predecessors—is about themselves.

The early days

Peyton Smith (Wooster Group founding member): The difficult part was living that life—the totally involved, communal life. I had a family and a child. I wasn't looking to make this my life. First of all, there's no money, and I had a child to support. I worked at bars—that's all I'll say.

Kate Valk (Wooster Group founding member): I was amazed how un-middle class it was. I grew up in a solid middle-class home, but I was never interested in marriage and children. When I met these people, it was very exciting.

Richard Schechner (founder of Performance Group): Those Spalding shows were a totally new idea, disarming and autobiographical. It was before Eric Bogosian. Lenny Bruce may have done it, but not like Spalding, who had that New England reserve.

Elizabeth LeCompte (Wooster Group founding member): One reviewer from The Village Voice said [1977's] Rumstick Road was exploitative because Spalding had illegally taped a conversation with a psychiatrist talking about his mother's suicide.

Richard Foreman (experimental playwright and director): I remember Spalding running around pushing a lawn mower and everyone screaming. I used to like the sudden explosion of wild manic energy. Everyone remembers the scene in Rumstick Road when Libby Howes stood on stage waving her big black mane of hair back and forth in a very violent fashion. It was for, like, five minutes.

Valk: Libby was a like a mad aristocrat. It's a long story.Schechner: [Howes] was nuts. She was put in a mental institution. It's ironic that she represented the spirit of Spalding's mother in Rumstick Road.

Meredith Monk (artist): Liz once told me that in the early '70s she saw lines around the block for one of my works, and she came in and saw Education of the Girlchild. She told me that this made her rethink what theater was. Seeing work not anchored in text was liberating, I think.

Foreman: Back in those days, Liz was just Spalding's girlfriend—in that sexist world. She didn't talk that much. She was an attractive young woman.

Valk: In Liz, here's a woman who was identifying herself with, by and for men, but ultimately she was the primary artist in her work.

LeCompte: I was surrounded by big egos, all of them, and part of the reason that Spalding and I broke up is that I like to see a lot of people on stage and he really wanted to be seen alone.

Valk: It was familial, incestuous, dysfunctional. Spalding and Liz were breaking up and Willem and Liz were just getting together. I just remember being amazed at how they negotiated new relationships and still worked together.

Smith: I was helping to care for Spalding. He had gone up and down in his mental heath. In 1979, that was not a good time for him—he was having some kind of a breakdown. That was part of my job, taking care of him and cleaning his dressing room.

Willem Dafoe (Wooster Group founding member): When I first saw Liz, she was turning off the lights to start Rumstick Road and I was like, "Who is that?" I saw Spalding, but I was attracted to Liz.

Valk: There was a lot of energy between Willem and Liz. They had just fallen in love. Once in rehearsal, Liz read something; she was always reading to us. She read a passage from [French playwright] Artaud, and Willem grabbed a laundry-detergent bottle and read with the same authority from the back of the bottle. He was always for cutting the highbrow stuff.

Dafoe: The audiences in the early days were small. I remember someone offered to hire us for a private party after seeing Hula, in which we dance wearing very little clothes. It was, like, a lot of money—and all we had to do was go there and dance for ten minutes. So we went to this party, not knowing what it was going to be. They thought we were like Strip-O-Gram people. And they wanted to know what we were doing after the show.

Insight and infamy

Route 1 & 9 (1981), the Wooster Group's first major production without Spalding Gray (who was concentrating more on his solo career), was so inflammatory that the critics almost overlooked the fact it featured a porno movie on stage. The show opened with a video reconstruction of a 1950s educational film, in which Vawter dryly analyzed Our Town. Next, four white actors in blackface performed an Amos 'n' Andy–style routine based on a sketch by vaudeville comedian Pigmeat Markham. The final chapter included the sex tape, starring Howes, Vawter and Dafoe. The show angered just about everyone, including the Thornton Wilder estate, the New York State Council for the Arts (which withdrew funding for the Wooster Group) and many in the audience who cried racism. In terms of provocation, it was a home run.

LeCompte: We were looking to structure a show in some way other than sense memory or techniques based on [Method acting]. We looked at all kinds of performance styles and started to act out the records that we had of comedians. We were going about it the opposite of the way most people build character: We were doing it from the outside in. We listened to an old Pigmeat Markham record and tried to figure out what made it funny. Was it the timing? The rhythm? So we built the show around that.

Jim Clayburgh (Wooster Group founding member): Route 1 & 9 caused an incredible scandal. The blackface brought up a lot of questions that were poorly answered by many critics. There was kind of a knee-jerk liberalism that came to light.

Valk: We had public discussions where people were very angry.

Smith: Liz responded articulately and I cried. I remember it in such a visceral way. It's hard to do a work that hurts people.

LeCompte: I was shocked. I had no idea putting on black makeup would make people call us racist. We were in the theater!

Clayburgh: Spalding's taping of his family never struck me as exploitative, but what struck me as questionable was when in Route 1 & 9, Kate would call people in New York—ice-cream stores, chicken stores, bars—and have conversations that were amplified into the theater. I think this was a larger question of invasion of privacy. But since the people were never identified, it was more like an early version of sampling. Sampling our world, our society.

Valk: The audiences were strange. People came because they heard others say, "You can't do that." The audiences were very charged.

Smith: The controversy made the Wooster Group much more recognizable. There was so much press about it and people heard about us and came down.

Valk: When we played the show in Zurich, there was also controversy, but it had nothing to do with blackface. They couldn't have cared less. They thought we were Americanizing their grand theater tradition by putting screens on stage. They screamed, "Go back to Disneyland!" before hurling eggs and tomatoes.

House/Lights
STAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE A new production of the 1999 Obie Award winner House/Lights begins in February.

Photo: (top) Paula Court; (bottom) Mary Gearhart

Miller's crossing

The Wooster Group has faced a number of legal battles, none more famous than when Arthur Miller's agent sent a cease-and-desist letter for the unauthorized use of The Crucible in the production of L.S.D. (...Just the High Points...) in 1984.

LeCompte: I was so upset when people said you can't use blackface. I was hurt by that and driven to examine why that was. I found The Crucible, where Arthur Miller had written a black character. Well, if we can't play a black character, why can a white writer write a black character? That was one of the driving forces behind L.S.D.

Valk: That was the second show in which I wore blackface.

Clayburgh: L.S.D. was the first time when there was an attempt to use microphones on stage, and that gave the company a new performance style.

LeCompte: I got the idea from the McCarthy hearings. It was the image of the politicians in front of the microphones that made me think of using them.

Smith: I heard that Arthur Miller was going to be at an event at the Chelsea Hotel, so I went. I thought I would get some wine—and who's there, pressed up against me, but Arthur Miller. I was so nervous that I said, "Mr. Mi-Mi-Mi-Miller?" I gave him the address and invited him to the show. And he came.

Valk: He came upstairs afterwards, and he seemed really bemused, like, Who are these people and what are they doing? He didn't understand it. Liz had terrible eczema, and I remember her bandaged hands going to shake the hand of this great American playwright who I had studied in school. And then the next day, I remember the cease-and-desist letter.

LeCompte: I think he didn't get it—and that probably bothered him. So we rewrote the show using the original testimony from the Salem trial.

High-tech happenings

After a particularly harsh review of L.S.D. in The Village Voice, the Wooster Group stopped inviting critics to its shows—but its notoriety continued to grow. The film careers of Willem Dafoe and Ron Vawter took off, adding Hollywood glamour to the 99-seat Performing Garage. American academics championed Wooster, and even the mainstream press, which had been decidedly cool in the early years, started praising the productions. By the '90s, the company, whose work had become increasingly rigorous, abstract and technologically complex, had joined Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman as the most celebrated avant-garde theater artists in America. Two decades after Route 1 & 9, the Wooster Group, in a sure sign it had entered mainstream culture, received a B+ from Entertainment Weekly for its production of To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre).

Andre Gregory (director): The audiences were very intellectual, and unlike my audiences, they didn't care what the critics said.

Dafoe: I started having people come up to me and say, "I wrote my dissertation on you." Very weird.

Smith: Ron started to leave before he died. But we made [Frank Dell's The Temptation of] Saint Antony around and about his dying, and he was part of it.

Monk: Ron was completely fearless, a whirlwind, a lightning rod.

Smith: When Ron died, it changed things a lot. He was the glue. We still had Liz and her brilliant mind, and that held things together. When he was gone, we had to do more and be better. Liz loved to look at him, and it felt like it was up to us to fill that spot. And that was hard, because none of us could fill it.

Clayburgh: Brace Up! [1991] was the first time that characters who were live on stage were also presented live on video. The layers of sound had gotten continually more complex. The maturity of Liz is the ability to bring all of this together. To get the necessary precision of timing requires hours and hours of work.

Dafoe: It can be a kind of mechanical process. It's tedious. Something happens, then you technically refine it. You find something and then you crystallize it.

Ken Kobland (Wooster member, film director): In the early work, the film pieces were separate narratives. Now with film and monitors, Liz integrated the technology into the physical space. In [Birdie], the screen is used as an almost illusionary window and a whole fake reality. Liz is brilliantly playing with the illusion of being live.

Monk: The recent work is so much more structurally complex. The images and text are put together so beautifully that it's like musical orchestration.

LeCompte: Gradually things changed with the critics. I think our success in Europe had an effect here and they warmed up.

Foreman: A couple years ago, I told Liz, "I hate coming to your shows. I get so paranoid. You have so many glamorous people in the audience and I think, Why aren't these people coming to my plays? Can't I come to a dress rehearsal?" She said: "We don't have a dress rehearsal, and when I came to your show, I sat next to Eric Bogosian. What are you talking about?"

Endings and beginnings

The past year has been a difficult one for Elizabeth LeCompte. One decade after the death of Ron Vawter, Spalding Gray committed suicide by jumping into the East River. Around the same time, Willem Dafoe ended their relationship of nearly three decades (the couple has a son, Jack, who is currently making a documentary about To You, the Birdie!). Through it all, she has poured herself into her work, directing Poor Theater (about director Jerzy Grotowski, choreographer William Forsyth and visual artist Max Ernst) last year and House/Lights (opening February 5). Next up, she has set her sights on the Everest of drama, Hamlet.

Smith: I feel like Poor Theater was a return to a more personal work for the group.

LeCompte: Perhaps I felt nostalgic about the loss of Spalding because we saw Grotowski together in the '60s. Spalding came to see Poor Theater the month before he died. He was late. We waited and waited and sure enough, he eventually arrived.

Kobland: He was a gem. I was supposed to meet him for a drink before the show and I was deeply worried about him. He was not in terribly good shape. I think he had gone to the ferry. I don't know if you know any people who committed suicide, but they practice.

LeCompte: I remember he said that he liked the play. But he was so not Spalding the last few years.

Dafoe: In the group, you're involved in all aspects of the others' lives, so there's none of that coming home from the office and saying, "Honey, what did you do at work? Oh, nothing much?" You create a camaraderie in work and you become accomplices in life. There's a terrific power in that. The other side is there's no place to run.

LeCompte: [Willem and I] had a life, 27 years together, and we had a child, and one day he left with my life. He, like Spalding, just wanted more attention than I was willing to give him. And that's one way to explain it; that's one narrative.

Valk: I think it got harder and harder for [Dafoe] to move in both worlds [film and theater]. There were more demands. I miss him and love his energy, but I think when someone is having a difficult time managing their life, it doesn't make for a pleasant work experience.

LeCompte: How much he was worth was determined by what his quotes were, how much money he was making or how many times his picture was in the paper or people recognized him. I'm not putting that down. That's part of that business, and if you don't pay attention to it, you better have something else up your sleeve. And for many years, he had [Wooster] up his sleeve. Gradually that became corrupted.

Dafoe: Look, this could get all tabloidish, but sometimes we would try to exploit any celebrity—though at other times, I'm determined to deny it and give over to the identity of the group. But to put it in crude terms of money, it's really hard when someone in the room is making $30,000 a year and the other person is making a helluva lot more. And you can try to help out to even things out, but it's never enough.

LeCompte: I've heard from [Dafoe] off and on but the truth is, I'm on to something new and so is he. I can't imagine working with him again, but he's still part of the company.

Dafoe: I maintain that though I haven't worked with the group in a year, I intend to work with them again. This is only a new beginning, another chapter.