The late 1970s was a seminal time for two theatrical forces in New York – classic American playwright Tennessee Williams and the experimental company the Wooster Group. As one historical career declined with every new play, another was just beginning.
With founding members like Spalding Gray, Willem Dafoe, Kate Valk and director Elizabeth LeCompte, the Wooster Group has become world renowned since 1975 for its avant-garde interpretations of playwrights like Anton Chekhov, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, boldly blending technology and text together.
But decades after his death and career ruin, Tennessee Williams and the Wooster Group crossed paths again with the Wooster Group's version of Williams's Vieux Carré, a revival of his autobiographical 1977 flop set in a late-1930s rooming house in New Orleans, centring on a young man struggling with homosexuality as an emerging writer.
The Wooster Group’s Vieux Carré opens in Toronto on March 28 at Harbourfront Centre – the first time the company has performed in Canada since 1999’s House/Lights in Montreal. The Globe spoke with leading actor and founding member Kate Valk about the collective’s process, legacy, and what Williams’s play has in common with Andy Warhol.
How did you come across Vieux Carré, and how did it speak to you?
We wanted to do a play by Tennessee Williams, and our friend and cineturg Dennis Dermody suggested Vieux Carré because he wanted to see what Liz [LeCompte]would do with it. It’s one of Tennessee’s lesser-known works, so it didn’t have the lid nailed on it.… Vieux Carré reveals a writer at the end, you could say the bitter end, going back to his past, into his memory, his nascent time as a writer and as a homosexual. To that big stewpot of New Orleans that was his artistic birthplace, and the only place on Earth he ever felt completely at home.
What other cultural influences went into your production of Vieux Carré?
Liz was interested in looking at some seventies gay porn, what may have been “ au courant” at the time Williams was writing the play … and that reminded us of how much we loved the films Flesh, Trash and Heat directed by Paul Morrissey, produced by Andy Warhol.… But Liz wanted to cut that with something more modern and shocking in terms of performance style and visuals. She saw a show at the New Museum that featured the videos of Ryan Trecartin and was totally inspired. We later met him when he came to the show in L.A. What a sweetheart.
These videos are playing during the show, but there are other technological elements like sound and lighting cues and buds in the actors’ ears. Besides aesthetics, what do these elements achieve?
The performers take their impulse off of the videos on the monitors and respond to the tracks in their ears. The technical artists are cueing the performers with what they play and we are all in the concert together. It is scored, so [it’s]maybe a kind of controlled chaos.
So there’s no real division between the creative and technical departments. What’s the value in this collaboration?
The hierarchies are there but then they shift, mutate almost, as needs dictate. There is one director, Liz, and people are asked to perform certain jobs, video, sound, lights, costumes etc. but the walls between the departments are porous. No walls really.… You never know who may have the answer to the problem at hand.
You regularly welcome associate artists, like Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand, which keeps the group evolving. How do you keep the group’s original identity strong?
I can feel free to say it is Elizabeth LeCompte! She’s the original “original” identity.
The Wooster Group is the company other artists look to in order to see what’s coming next. How do you keep pushing your own boundaries?
By not being afraid to take on new big scary projects [collaboration on Troilus & Cressida with the Royal Shakespeare Company for the Cultural Olympiad]and at the same time by always imagining that we can go small and underground if we need to.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Wooster Group's Version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré runs at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre from March 28 to 31.
Special to The Globe and Mail