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The Wooster Group: Getting Down to the Confrontation

Elizabeth LeCompte, Kate Valk and Maura Tierney on the Wooster Group, still radical after all these years
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Elizabeth LeCompte, Kate Valk and Maura Tierney outside The Performing Garage on Wooster Street in SoHo, June 2019. Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

Founded in 1975 as the Performance Group, an avant-garde downtown Manhattan theater company, the Wooster Group has become one of the most revered—and polarizing—producers of radically experimental theater in the world and has helped launch the careers of actors like Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray.

With roots as deep in performance art as in the stage, the group continues, well into its fifth decade, to tilt at the boundaries of theater, a creative restlessness that has meant constant financial—even existential—uncertainty. One afternoon last summer, at founding member Elizabeth LeCompte’s SoHo apartment, a block from the company’s home, The Performing Garage, she and her longtime collaborator, the actor and director Kate Valk, sat down with Maura Tierney, a company member for almost a decade, to talk about the rewards and the cost of artistic reinvention. These are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Randy Kennedy: Liz, what’s the first piece of theater you ever saw? You grew up in New Jersey, right?

Elizabeth LeCompte: I saw Peter Pan…with Mary Martin. Music Man, Show Boat, My Fair Lady. My parents would bring us in. I saw all of them in the ’50s. And then I didn’t see any other plays nearly as good. So I didn’t become interested in theater. I wanted to be an artist, a painter. I still think I’m going to be a painter someday. [laughs]

RK: Was there something about the visceral nature of theater that drew you to it more than the solitary life of a painter?

EL: Absolutely. I had a lot of trouble being in the studio by myself. I liked having people around to talk about things. Even when I was in school, I would get a bunch of people together to make a project.

Kate Valk: Once you start a project, I think you see it in everything. But I don’t think you decide how something’s going to go or what it’s going to mean until you get in the room with the people you’re working with.

EL: In the early days when I was making pieces, I would do so much work outside the rehearsal room. I’d have ideas and draw and write, and then when I’d get in the rehearsal room I’d discover that I had to let a lot of it go. I had to start with who and what was actually there.

KV: Maura, I was curious about you, because you have worked with other directors in film, TV, theater. Would you say that most directors decide what they want from a text, and then bring you to that?

Maura Tierney: Any good director will, of course, take into account who the actor is, because that’s why they’re cast. But with the Wooster Group, Liz is hypervigilant about responding to who you are, specifically, as a performer and honoring that in a way that serves the piece.

FRANK DELL'S THE TEMPTATION OF ST. ANTONY_photo by Louise Oligny
Ron Vawter and Kate Valk in Frank Dell's The Temptation of St. Antony, 1988. Photo: Louise Oligny
NAYATT SCHOOL_photo by Bob Van Dantzig
Vawter, Spalding Gray and Joan Jonas in Nayatt School, 1978. Photo: Bob Van Dantzig

KV: I think Liz is also interested in behavior as much as she’s interested in acting. For instance, when we started working on The Town Hall Affair, there’s a scene that features a panel of writers at a table with a stack of books for each writer. I remember early on we were trying to figure out the intro, and Maura’s character wasn’t working, and Maura was a little frustrated. I spoke to Liz, and she said, ‘Maura doesn’t know she’s writing the piece by just being there, reading and going through whatever it is she’s going through.’ It’s like, with that commitment to time and space, you’re already writing it.

RK: When you started working on North Atlantic [in January 2010], how was it different from your other experiences working on the stage, Maura?

MT: In straight theater that I’ve done, you just show up for rehearsal. But at Wooster, you’re building your costume as Liz is building the piece. You come in every day dressed and ready, and the character starts to evolve. The sound people and the videographer are in the room—everyone’s in the room at the same time, which is why it’s so radically different. It’s not like Liz decides something and tells the actors to do it, and then the lighting guy comes in and then sound comes in—everybody’s there, creating the piece.

RK: Were you prepared for what that was going to be like?

MT: I had read about it, but that’s not the same. It was a shock in terms of how excited I was, but also how scared I was that I didn’t have the chops. I had just been on a TV show for eight years, which was so different. The Wooster Group is scary, but in a good way. [laughs] When I walk into The Performing Garage, I still feel so lucky that I can watch rehearsal or be in rehearsal. I walk in and I feel great.

EL: How about the time I made you cry?

MT: Which time? [Everybody laughs]

‘You’re almost pretending you’re a theater company. Then you become a theater company, and people’s expectations change.’—Liz LeCompte

EL: I can’t remember. But every once in awhile, somebody would cry. I’m not focused on how people feel when I’m working with them. They become objects, basically. I want to say, ‘No, do it like this,’ and that’s really hard for performers.

MT: Or, ‘Do it like you did before.’

EL: Isn’t that idiotic? I am a crummy director. I’m not a bad artist—I’m okay on that level—but traditional directing, well, I’m learning from Katie all the time about directing. That’s why I’m so much better. Don’t you sense that I’m having more fun?

MT: Of course you are.

EL: It’s because I’m thinking, ‘I’m not really responsible for this; they are. If it’s bad, I don’t care.’

MT: And Kate will translate a lot for you.

EL: But at the very beginning, when I was working with Ron [Vawter] and Spalding [Gray], I did care.

KV: Well, because they were giving you so much meta-material. They weren’t normal actors. I was reading something about groups like us who start from a place of ‘This is DIY, and we’re going to work with you and you and you and that lamp, because this is us.’ You’re just taking from what’s immediately around you. You’re almost pretending you’re a theater company. Then you become a theater company, and people’s expectations change. And then people are attracted to working with you because you have a certain reputation, and they come with skills.

NAYATT CHOOL_set drawing by Elizabeth LeCompte
Liz LeCompte’s set drawing for Nayatt School, 1978
BRACE UP!_rehearsal_photo by Mary Gearhart
Beatrice Roth, LeCompte, James ‘J.J.’ Johnson and Kate Valk in rehearsal for Brace Up! 1992. Photo: Mary Gearhart

MT: Well, a certain kind of skill.

EL: And then you realize you’ve been doing it for a while and maybe you’re good at it. That puts you in a complicated place as an artist, I feel.

RK: It was the conundrum of punk, too. Once you become skilled, then you’re in a pickle, in a weird way.

EL: That’s precisely what I’m talking about. I think we spent a couple of years in a pickle. Which could have been around Vieux Carré [2008].

KV: But we did some really good pieces with it—Vieux Carré and Hamlet [2006]. We found our way through it.

RK: Was it also because your audience changed? I’d assume that in the early days it felt like you were, in essence, playing to your friends and your cohort, and then at some point that changes. There’s a great essay by the art critic Dave Hickey in which he talks about what he calls ‘looky-loos,’ people who come to see something more as tourists once a thing becomes established.

‘We’ve been working together 41 years. Sometimes she will just look at me and go, ‘Help. Can you please tell everyone what I mean?’ And I do.’—Kate Valk

KV: That happens. There was a time when we could show a work in progress, and then go back and work and do another period of a work in progress, and then a third. And people would come back to see how the piece changed. It’s not like that anymore. People don’t have that kind of time. They see it once, decide what it is and never come back.

RK: There was a story in The Guardian where you talked about how, the longer this goes on, the more difficult it becomes. You were talking about expectations.

EL: Yeah, I went through that, but I lost that feeling about three, four years ago. The expectations got so huge. It was about how much money they were going to give us in grants, and when you were going to deliver—all of that kind of stuff. It was hard for me. I managed it, but just barely.

RK: It seems like the maintenance of being non-establishment is difficult.

KV: It’s hard to be a success, and it’s hard to be a failure. Both.

MT: Ain’t that the truth.

RK: Kate, I wanted to ask you about you being Liz’s translator, as Maura described you. How does that work?

KV: Well, we’ve been working together 41 years. Sometimes she will just look at me and go, ‘Help! Can you please tell them what I mean?’ And I do. [laughs]

MT: Kate has an ability to understand whatever is frustrating Liz and translate it a bit.

KV: But sometimes I need Liz translated for me, too, and then Scott [Shepherd] and Ari [Fliakos] will do the same for me. Everybody wants to know the crux of what Liz is saying, for it to be delivered in a less confrontational way but for it still to get to the heart of the confrontation. [The director and pioneering acting teacher] Jerzy Grotowski said that the very essence of a theatrical production is the confrontation between the director and the actor. And that’s what you’re seeing. Of course, you don’t see it literally, but that’s at the heart of it.

MT: It’s also exciting and liberating and challenging…

KV: Many times when I go to see theater, I don’t feel that they ever get down to that confrontation. It might be very well produced and interesting, and one performer might be very good, but it doesn’t seem like the director confronted everybody to get something that made a whole.

RK: Do you see that as what you’ve done over the years?

EL: I don’t know.

KV: But don’t you think you’re always trying to get a varied group of people to make sense in the same space together? You like to set people up so that they’re strong.

EL: When it works for me, everybody has to be the best they could ever be—as themselves—in the piece. Sometimes I’ve done pieces where some people aren’t their best. I haven’t been able to get something from them that makes me I think, ‘Oh, that’s the best they’ll ever be.’

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Elizabeth LeCompte backstage at The Performing Garage. Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

KV: Or maybe you’ve seen it and you can’t get it back. But you never give up. Liz is at every performance, which is very rare.

RK: Is that because the whole thing is a process and you can’t be away for any of it?

EL: I have no idea. I think it’s because I’m not a real theater person. I like making things, and so it’s a constant making and remaking. I like to come in and kind of poke around and reorganize a bit so it’s new. And a lot of times, now that I’ve given up trying to control a bigger situation, I love to watch everyone else figure it out.

KV: It’s not just Liz directing us as performers; it’s the openness of the room, where she’s asking us to help her figure out what to keep in and what to throw out. In a certain way, you ask us all to be dramaturges and also editors. You like to figure out the structure of something with the whole group around you. We’re almost writing together what the whole piece will be—especially with something like The Town Hall Affair, where we were deciding what parts of the film [the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus] to reenact and what other material to comingle with the primary source text.

EL: For a piece like that, I used to have to go off alone to think about what I was going to do, and now I don’t have to. I would worry that in rehearsal we wouldn’t be able to do what was in my head. But now, I’m creating when they’re there, and outside of that, I’m just entertaining myself—reading things, writing things
down, drawing things. But it doesn’t have
to do with anything that I might actually do in the piece.

RK: Liz, how did you first get involved in professional theater?

EL: I actually came in as an assistant director to Richard Schechner [the founder, in 1967, of the experimental theater company the Performance Group, which later became the Wooster Group]. He had only known me for a month or so. The reason I joined was because they offered me money. I had started a bookstore in Saratoga Springs, New York, and was traveling back and forth, living with Spalding in the city and going to my bookstore upstate. I wasn’t making any money at the bookstore, of course, and Richard offered me enough money to actually live on. Spalding had already joined the company, so I came in then.

RK: How did you and Spalding start your own thing within the Performance Group?

EL: We just kind of segued. By that time, we were doing two different things. I remember I was trying to find some other way of hearing an actor perform. Most of the time, when I would hear an actor on stage, I felt that the director was signaling what the actor was going to say. I was never surprised. So I was looking for some way of working that would surprise me. And Spalding was looking for some way to tell his own story.

‘Liz was sitting there and said, ‘This is my favorite part, right before we go on.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because everything could fall to pieces.’—Maura Tierney

MT: When you talk about looking for things to surprise you, I was reminded of North Atlantic, when we did the first show in L.A. at Redcat [in February 2010]. We hadn’t done a run-through, which I had never experienced before.

KV: We’d like to have run-throughs, but it just never happens because we keep making changes.

MT: Before the show, we were all in the dressing room, and I was bugging out. I just wanted to do it right. Liz was sitting there and said, ‘This is my favorite part, right before we go on.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because everything could fall to pieces.’ She was so excited by that prospect.

KV: I have a story about that. We were doing the last performance of Vieux Carré in São Paulo [in March 2013]. Liz, on the last day, changed all of the video cues for this one scene. I knew that the technicians weren’t going to get any of the cues right, and right before the show, I said to her, ‘You know, it’s going to be a total mess tonight.’ And she said, ‘I hope so.’

MT: That’s seeing an actor in a different way. Like, you’re going to see something completely different when they’re in that moment.

EL: Maura, I want to know about you, when you first came to the Garage. Come on, can you remember? Because we don’t have auditions for people in a traditional sense.

KV: She contacted us out of the blue. Maura, what interested you in working with us?

MT: I don’t know. I knew about the work marginally. I wasn’t, like, a super fan. I had been living in L.A. for 10 years.

KV: So it was a career move? [laughs]

MT: I mean, it wasn’t a career risk.

EL: Some career move!

MT: I just wanted to meet Liz, because she fascinated me.

EL: Somebody told me, ‘Oh yeah, she was on ER.’ I’d never seen ER, but I was like, ‘Oh really? Somebody from ER?’

KV: She wrote that she was a film and television actress who had just done a Neil LaBute play [Some Girl(s) in 2006].

MT: That was a couple of years before, yeah. I hadn’t been to the Garage before. And so I thought I was going to sit in an office and talk to Liz, like some kind of artistic interview maybe leading to an audition. I walked in and they were like, ‘Liz, Maura’s here.’ And then everybody in the whole company sits on the risers in the audience, and she puts a chair on stage, and I had to answer questions from Liz and everybody about what I was doing there.

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Frances McDormand, Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk in To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre), 2002. Photo: Mary Gearhart
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Ari Fliakos, Maura Tierney and Scott Shepherd in The Town Hall-Affair, 2017. Photo: Steve Gunther

EL: What did we ask you?

MT: ‘Why are you here?’ basically. It was good-natured, but it was not what I expected.

EL: Did we read something together that day?

MT: No, not until eight months later.

EL: Don’t you remember we made a joke? You asked, ‘What should I do?’ And we said, ‘Well, you’ll have to take all your clothes off.’

KV: And she goes, ‘Okay.’ And we all went, ‘Uhhh…’

MT: I was game!

EL: She was totally game, and that’s what I remember. You know, she was right there.

RK: Have there been actors who’ve come to you and you’ve realized they don’t actually want to be here? Or they’re not a good fit?

EL: They don’t get that far, I would say.

KV: But it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t happen every day. I mean the other person is Frances McDormand. She knew Willem [Dafoe, a founding member of the Wooster Group and LeCompte’s romantic partner for 27 years]. But she had seen the work. She saw House/Lights and the first North Atlantic. And after seeing House/Lights, she wrote to Liz personally and said, ‘I want to work with the group.’

EL: Right. But I had known Fran for years.

KV: Yeah, you knew you her beforehand. Not like Maura; that was a total cold call. [laughs]

EL: We’re always interested in people who are interested in us. The B-Side is a case in point. Eric Berryman [the play’s co-creator and principal performer] is not a famous person. He was someone who came to us and said, ‘I want to work with you.’ And we were like, ‘Well, okay. Let’s go.’

MT: Can I say one other thing that is personal…

EL: Oh, don’t say it.

MT: I know. Liz might not like it because it’s a little sentimental.

EL: No, I’m kidding. I just wanted a good exit. I have to get a little more wine. Anybody else for more wine?

MT: I’ll have a little more. I’ll tell the story very quickly. After I first met them, like eight months later, they called me to audition. What they do is call in a bunch of actors to read the script, and then the next day some other actors will come in. It’s pretty informal. In those months since I’d met them, I had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone surgery. So when I went to audition for North Atlantic, I told Liz, ‘I don’t know if you know what’s happening to me.’ At that time, it was unclear if I would have to get chemotherapy, so I said, ‘I may or may not have—

EL: You might be dead.

MT: I might be dead! [laughs] No, I was in the clear that way. But I did, in fact, have to get chemotherapy. I finished my last treatment that December and we started rehearsals like January 10th. So I show up, and I am bald as a fucking cue ball. And I didn’t really have eyebrows. I looked like a weird space alien. But I was on stage, and Liz came in and was just like, ‘Okay, cool, you’re here.’ It didn’t matter what I looked like; I was there. And what an incredible gift to be in a place where vanity did not matter. It was just about the work and getting the work done. It was just very special. But I won’t say anything else sentimental.

KV: The production Since I Can Remember, which we did some early showings of last spring, includes a lot of the group’s history. In it, I introduce the archival material of Nayatt School, which was an early piece that Liz composed with Spalding Gray and the Wooster Group. The archival material is from ’78, ’79, and the sound is really bad. I do a monologue over top of Spalding’s monologue. I tell you what he’s talking about, but I also tell you how I came to the Wooster Group. One of the things we had to address was how I would talk about Liz. She didn’t want to be mentioned at all. She always wants to frame the history of the company so that she’s hidden, or she’s the wry author behind the curtain. She doesn’t want anyone to speak earnestly about her: the director, the auteur.

‘Visual art is different. You can see the same work over and over again. With theater, you see a work once and it’s over. The presence of the audience is theater. Without that, it’s not theater.’–Elizabeth LeCompte

EL: I don’t like taking responsibility for things.

KV: But I also think that’s the kind of writer you are. Some writers talk quite directly as themselves, in a very immediate voice. But you’re more like Nabokov, where you’re commenting on the narrator at the same time that you want desperately to tell this story, a history.

EL: I have no idea why I want an incredible amount of attention and yet I also do not ever want to be seen. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman. Maybe I didn’t want to be responsible because I knew that people wouldn’t be as interested in me as the men fronting me. So I would hide behind the men, making it seem like they alone made the piece.

RK: Would you resent that?

EL: No, I never was resentful. I was totally thankful. It was a place of such freedom. It might have something to do with my mother being very English; you are never supposed to step forward and take credit. You could perform for people and be fabulous, but you don’t outwardly take credit for something.

RK: Maura, has the work you’ve done with the Wooster Group had an effect on you as an actor?

MT: I try, but it’s very hard to duplicate. It’s so special and very unique. On a TV show, my job is to interpret the lines in the best way I can in terms of what the writer intended or what the director wants. It’s a completely different way of working.

EL: But what you brought to us was huge—your ability to be present, as though the camera was always on you and to not be afraid to just be there.

KV: Maura taught me a lot about thinking autonomously about my performance, that I was in control of a lot more than I knew. You know, I identify a lot with Liz, and I function very well next to her as an associate director. Even when I first started with the company, I was making things and helping her with the scripts. So I don’t totally identify as an actor. Certainly, I’m a performer, but when I ran into trouble in Town Hall, I would talk to Maura. She would never give me advice directly about acting, but the questions she asked me spurred me to think, ’Oh, yeah, I’m in control of that.’ That was a big thing.

RK: In talking to you and Kate earlier, Liz, I know that even now, after almost 40 years, you still have to struggle sometimes to keep the doors open. I wanted to ask, how much do you think that has to do with your not playing by the rules that the theater world observes? Keeping critics at arm’s length, for example.

EL: I think, early on, I didn’t understand why the critics came in the first time you showed something. To me, coming from the art world, that was weird. But now I realize how present and immediate and time-based theater is. If the critics miss what you’re doing, if you miss that moment, then you have to wait for another time for them to discover who you are and what you’re doing. And then they will only have a memory of the earlier work to connect with the present work. Visual art is different. You can see the same work over and over again. With theater, you see a work once and it’s over. The presence of the audience is theater. Without that, it’s not theater. I didn’t understand how to work with critics early on. When I worked with Richard Schechner, he would say, ‘I’ve got to go meet with so and so from The Times, and I’m going to tell him what the piece means.’ And I was like, ‘Are you allowed to do that!?’ He must’ve thought I was out of my mind. Right from the beginning, I thought that such a system was corrupt. Then I got into this thing with Richard about the fact that critics didn’t have to pay to see a work, publications getting comp tickets and so on, and he actually went along with my thought on that. [laughs] So we wrote to The Times and said, ‘Critics are going to have to pay.’ I think that was the beginning of the end for me—they did pay, but they were very reluctant. And then I think there were aspects, from my very first piece, that people just couldn’t understand. It’s a little bit like painting, where there are certain structures that some people just don’t relate to, and there are other structures that they do. There was a structure here that critics, the main critics, couldn’t seem to see. It looked like mush to them or something.

RK: Even Times critics like Mel Gussow, who wrote a lot about avant-garde theater?

EL: Mel Gussow came to see several of our pieces and said something like, ‘Take away their funds immediately.’ And they did! But it wasn’t so expensive to make theater at the time. We could actually exist on the box office that was coming in and tours.

KV: Well, there was much more of an economy around small performance venues. The arts were more located in the East Village and SoHo.

EL: It was located there because it was cheaper. In the ’80s, when the art market went way up, the art community moved away from performance, so I had to make some kind of a shift. I would say, ‘Let’s run for four weeks, and then ask the reviewers to come to the show the last few days.’ Then if a review was bad, it wouldn’t affect our box office. We didn’t need their reviews for our reputation because Europe was supporting us at the time. After the Berlin Wall came down, we were really supported by a consortium of European producers who would invest in new work.

RK: You had more support there than you had in New York?

EL: Oh god, yes. After Rumstick Road, the Times gave us a good review. But The Village Voice—what’s his name? Michael Feingold.

KV: We used to call him Michael Find Fault. [laughs]

RK: Do you think part of the negative reaction was because what you were doing was closer to performance art, and that didn’t work for some critics?

EL: I think that’s part of it. They didn’t see it, didn’t see my system. You know how you can look at an artwork and have a sense of what the system is? Like if it’s a Pollock, you get a sense of layers of design interacting with each other in space, right? But some people just see drips.

RK: There was something in an interview with you in The Believer in which the writer said something about the ideal production for you being one in which there was no audience!

EL: No, I need the audience. They are essential. I have to admit, sometimes I have to sit in an audience that I sense has no idea what I’m doing. But that discomfort is what I work from. I face it every single night. It’s always a conversation between me and the audience.

RK: At times in the company’s history, you’ve been criticized for things that people read as culturally insensitive, pushing things up to the point where tough questions had to be asked. Can you talk about that a little?

KV: The experience we had with Cry, Trojans! in 2015 had a chilling effect on us. Our production, which was based on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, had a Native American motif. It had this imagined tribe; we worked with a Dutch artist on the costumes and the props. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get
to do it again because of the viral shit storm about appropriation.

EL: Folkert de Jong, who designed the costumes, imagined some kind of mythic tribe for us—‘tribe’ with quotes around it.

RK: Cultural appropriation is such a highly sensitive topic now. That’s something that you’ve been around for a long time, but I’d think it’s probably more hard-core now.

EL: It is harder core. The difference is that people used to have to come see the thing to get upset about it. Now they don’t see it; they see only a picture.

KV: Or hear about somebody else’s reaction on Twitter—somebody who didn’t see it either.

EL: Before, when we did Route 1 & 9 (The Last Act) [1981], which had actors in blackface, we would talk about it with the audience afterward. It was a very painful dialogue because there were a lot of people who were very upset. It was not in any way a traditional blackface routine; it was based around [the black vaudeville comedian] ‘Pigmeat’ Markham’s routines juxtaposed with the last act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town on the televisions. So it was blackface, but it was in that world of fantasy where you can’t quite touch it. The Pigmeat Markham routines were from an album of his that I loved. At the time, I was into reproducing artifacts from the past.

RK: I found a review of a revival of the play in which The Times used it as an occasion to describe the Wooster Group as a company that ‘unflinchingly contemplates psychic disintegration, chaos and violence’ and ‘represents the darker vision of New York’s theatrical avant-garde.’ Which I assume doesn’t make fundraising any fun. Could you tell me the story again about the prize you recently got—the one that essentially saved you?

KV: That was amazing. We were all in the office. It was three years ago. And we had an almost $300,000 deficit. We were desperate. We were going to have to just lay everybody off. I said, ‘Come on, guys. Let’s just get on the phone.’

EL: To beg for money.

KV: And the phone rang, and Liz answered it…

EL: I answer the phone and it’s a guy from Chase Bank. I start to yell at him, ‘You guys won’t even give us a loan, you fuckers!’ He keeps going, ‘Hello, Liz LeCompte?’ I can’t believe I did this. [laughs]

KV: She’s yelling on the phone, and then she stops and says, ‘Really?’ And we’re like, ‘Come on.’ And then she starts crying. And we’re like, ‘Oh my god.’ We thought she was faking.

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Elizabeth LeCompte, Maura Tierney and Kate Valk on stage at The Performing Garage. Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

EL: It was $300,000 for winning the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize [awarded to artists who push boundaries and effect social change]. The foundation was wonderful to us; it was a very positive experience. Through them, we met people from the Booth Ferris Foundation, who helped us out with The B-Side. It didn’t send us off into the golden future for five years, or even one year, but it wiped out the deficit. It was a life-saver.

MT: Okay, next question: I want to hear Liz’s recollection of meeting Kate.

EL: Can’t remember.

MT: When was the first time you worked with her as an actress?

EL: I don’t remember that either.

MT: The story I heard is that Kate went to the Garage, and Liz was sitting outside reading the Enquirer. [laughs]

RK: The National Enquirer?

MT: Yes.

EL: I don’t remember ever reading the Enquirer. I would have loved to have been there. It’s a good story.

KV: She was! She was sitting on the sidewalk with Libby Howes, a woman who was in the Wooster Group at the time.

EL: That was really what I was reading?

KV: You were sitting on the sidewalk, flipping through the Enquirer. I came down because a friend of mine from NYU had been volunteering in some way, like pasting pages of a script or something. I had already met people from the company at NYU. We had made a little piece together, and I had a real connection with Ron Vawter. I was a little bit intimidated by Liz because she was so formidable as a woman who was an artist, and things revolved around her. I said to my friend, ‘I would like to volunteer for them, too.’ And she said, ‘Well, come down with me and meet Liz.’

RK: You were still an undergraduate at that point?

KV: No, I had graduated. I was working as a seamstress at the time. So when I walked up to Liz, she looked up at me and said, ‘What can you do?’ And I said, ‘I can sew.’ And she said, ‘Oh, great. Come inside. Could you duplicate this gown?’ It was a blue satin gown that had been in Rumstick Road. And so I duplicated that gown, and then after that she asked me to make a lampshade. I just started making things with her and assisting her on scripts and anything.

EL: My favorite thing was going up and down Canal Street with you, hunting for props and things like that. And you would never say a word.

KV: I wasn’t a performer yet.

EL: I was not so socially inclined myself. So the two of us actually bonded on things we were working on.

KV: And that’s why I’ve never left the company, because I have access to all of that. In film, I wouldn’t get to decide how the curtains look. That’s somebody else’s department. I can’t say, ‘Shouldn’t they be sitting over there? Why are they wearing that?’ I’ve always had access to that with Liz. Like I said before, we all are involved in what we’re going to do together in all of the departments—it’s a wonderful amount of liberty.

 

The Wooster Group is a company of artists who make work for theater, dance, and media with productions that tour nationally and internationally. The Wooster Group develops and performs in New York City at The Performing Garage at 33 Wooster Street, in addition to larger theaters in New York including Baryshnikov Arts Center, St. Ann’s Warehouse, and the Public Theater.

Through 26 January 2020, Carriage Trade gallery, at 277 Grand Street on the Lower East Side, is presenting ‘The Wooster Group,’ an exhibition featuring archival material, props, and performance documentation from the company’s work over more than four decades. The group’s next New York performance will be ‘A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique),’ opening in early 2020, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte.