Pioneering a new kind of stage magic
New York — When her picture appeared on the cover of New York magazine not long ago, nobody was more surprised than Elizabeth LeCompte herself. As leader of the Wooster Group, an Off-Off-Broadway theater company, she has earned a growing reputation for her ground-breaking artistic explorations. Yet her fame and following have remained modest - partly because of the originality of her work, and partly because critics have a hard time fixing labels on her.
Nowadays, pinning her down is harder than ever, as she turns her talent to different media, including films and video. Her latest major work, ''Route 1 & 9 , (The Last Act)'' now running at the Performing Garage in New York, includes a movie and two videotapes, all directed by Miss LeCompte, as well as performances by members of her troupe. Her last show, ''Ray Whitfield and the Johnsons in Hula,'' was a dance piece incorporating elements of burlesque, Hawaiian dancing, and old-fashioned charades. Earlier works have blended film, slides, dance, music, literary classics, and performance into multimedia extravaganzas. And there is no telling what her next production, scheduled to open next month, will look like.
''I consider myself an entertainer,'' Miss LeCompte said during a recent interview in the SoHo neighborhood where she lives and works. ''I don't mean my work to be difficult or obscure. It's meant to be enjoyed.''
Still, many viewers find her work challenging. When the powerful ''Rumstick Road'' was presented at an Off-Broadway theater, several blocks uptown from the troupe's usual turf, a large number of spectators were openly befuddled by its lack of conventional plot and characters. While this bothered Miss LeCompte, she noted that audiences seemed to catch on as the engagement continued. In any case , she has not compromised her style. Her future work promises to be as complex - and, she hopes, as enjoyable - as her past shows.
In terms of subject matter, there is nothing esoteric about Wooster Group productions. Indeed, one theme in particular has fascinated the troupe since the beginning: American family life, of the everyday middle-class kind. ''Sakonnet Point'' was a string of daydreams based on fragmentary childhood memories. ''Rumstick Road'' was a pitchblack comedy about an ordinary family under extreme stress. ''Nayatt School'' combined these elements into a phantasmagorical study of stagecraft, society, and sanity itself. ''Point Judith'' carried this exploration a step further, with a view of human experience as an explosive mixture of psychodrama and slapstick.
The troupe's technique is based on ''layering,'' which is Miss LeCompte's word for combining different artistic elements into a single experience. ''Every element has equal importance,'' she says, ''and I am totally serious about creating each one, even if it ends up with a minor place in the finished show.'' The group may travel to distant areas, study research materials, and develop lengthy improvisations, all for one ''layer'' that will eventually be overlain and underlain by various others.
The troupe's last major show, ''Point Judith,'' illustrates this method. The first section was a play by Jim Strahs, about three men and a boy on an offshore oil rig. The second part was a slapstick condensation of ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' accompanied by taped dialogue and the ''Roman Carnival'' Overture of Berlioz, with a film projected on the stage area as the performers went through their paces. The third section also mingled film and performance, including the projection of an image onto the face of a live actress. All these layers underlined the themes of the work - the turbulence of family relationships, the pervasiveness of memory, the ambiguity of attitudes toward masculinity.
Clearly, such complicated and precisely crafted productions are ''director's events'' - that is, the skill and personality of the director are always dominant aspects of the show. Miss LeCompte agrees with this observation, but reluctantly. One of her chief complaints about critical response to her work is that the dedicated Wooster Group performers rarely receive enough individual credit. ''As performers, they need recognition and attention,'' she says, ''and they certainly deserve it. But they get overlooked because their contributions are so thoroughly integrated into the work as a whole.''
At least one performing member of the group has built a flourishing reputation of his own, however: Spalding Gray, whose life and dreams were the basis for the company's first four shows. A believer in ''autobiographical theater,'' Gray supplied the materials for such works as ''Sakonnet Point'' and ''Nayatt School'' from his own experience, sharing his past with the audience in a startingly (and, some feel, unsettlingly) direct way.
The collaboration between LeCompte and Gray has flourished partly because they have complementary artistic personalities. She has an Apollonian talent, meditative and painstaking, willing to spend six or eight weeks developing a 20 -minute segment for a new production. Gray is a Dionysian sort, working on impulse and instinct, happiest when he can confront his spectators directly, without even a script between them and himself.
Discussing her own background, Miss LeCompte stresses her lack of conventional theatrical training. After studying art and graphics, she came to the stage through a community theater in upstate New York, where she stepped into roles whenever a need arose. ''It was always a last-minute thing,'' she recalls, ''and I wouldn't even know the lines. I'd walk onstage and fake it, sometimes reading directly from the script. Nobody seemed to mind, and I enjoyed it.''
After moving to New York City, she joined the highly regarded Performance Group, headed by director and theoretician Richard Schechner. Working as his assistant, she gradually moved into directing on her own, starting with a restaged edition of ''Commune,'' a show originally developed by Schechner and the entire company. Then came ''Sakonnet Point,'' the first production to be created wholly by Gray, Vawter, Howes, et al, under Miss LeCompte's guidance. Three shows later - including the acclaimed trilogy ''Three Places in Rhode Island'' - the troupe became an entity unto itself, dropping the Performance Group name and adopting their own Wooster Group identity, named after the street on which their theater is located.
Distinctive as her methods and results may be, Miss LeCompte maintains a fresh and unjaded attitude toward her work. Her shows often refer to earlier plays - ''Nayatt School'' quoted liberally from ''The Cocktail Party'' by T. S. Eliot, while ''Point Judith'' and the new ''Route 1 & 9'' incorporate Eugene O'Neill and Thornton Wilder, respectively. Yet these are not authoritative musings from an old theatrical hand, Miss LeCompte insists. ''I don't really know these plays until we start exploring them for our own purpose,'' she says. ''I'm discovering them for the first time, right before your eyes.''
It's a risky process, but a fascinating one, with results so volatile that they often seem to shift and change from one performance to the next. They have made the Wooster Group one of the most invigorating presences on the current theatrical scene, marking Miss LeCompte as one of the fresh talents able to combine the emotional impact of traditional stagecraft with the conceptual rigor and formal innovation of today's most advanced theatrical thinking.