Going against the grain of commercial theater

After years of low budgets and small audiences, Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group are in the spotlight. Like all theater people, they enjoy the attention. But not all of it has been favorable -- and their unorthodox work still breeds controversy.

On the bright side, they have captured a valuable prize: a five-year National Endowment for the Arts grant. This provides a needed financial cushion and lends ``establishment'' credentials to a company that many critics felt was too eccentric.

In addition, LeCompte was recently named an associate director of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington -- a major endorsement of her talent and techniques.

Less happily, a recent Wooster Group show had to close after threats of legal action by a leading American playwright. Arthur Miller objected to excerpts from ``The Crucible,'' his drama on the Salem witch trials, being used in a LeCompte production. Reportedly he feared that a conventional revival of his play could be hindered if sections were included in this highly stylized work. As a result, ``L.S.D. (. . . Just the High Points . . .)'' shut down shortly after opening night -- despite the precedent of other Wooster Group pieces that used snippets from classic plays.

While it's disappointing, a set-to like this comes with the territory LeCompte and company have staked out for themselves. Mavericks through and through, they have earned praise and blame for working steadfastly against the grain of commercial theater. ``Lots of charges have been made against us,'' says director LeCompte, recalling the troupe's history. ``They said we're too self-indulgent, too inward-looking, not grounded in the real world. And sometimes I've wondered if it's true -- if the work was all superfluous, and we've kept going just because I'm a good businesswoman.''

Her confidence is higher lately, since institutions like the NEA and the Kennedy Center are careful in bestowing their favors. ``Some people out there are looking at things differently,'' notes LeCompte.

``But you never lose the sense of wondering who's interested in all this,'' she adds. ``We still have a very small following of people who come to everything we do. The rest of the audience changes, according to what our current piece is. And we can't convince many people who could be interested . . . because we get shabby reviews from the popular press.''

LeCompte knows her offbeat methods can puzzle viewers who come unprepared -- especially if they expect to see regular plays when visiting the Performing Garage, her home base. While other theater groups deal with stories and characters, she prefers dreamlike images that suggest ideas instead of defining them. ``L.S.D.'' was a plotless study of American social and political hysteria. Other productions have treated such broad subjects as racism and memory. LeCompte finds ``very little connection'' between her work and Broadway-type shows, which she almost never attends. ``I used to say we did regular theater,'' she says. ``Maybe I didn't want to be too far out on a limb. But I'm starting to realize I do something very different. I must say I am way out on a limb. A sturdy, flexible limb -- but yes, it's a limb!''

Her individualism extends to the financial aspects of her work, giving her a healthy skepticism about money. She uses the word ``problem'' when discussing her new government grant, which could double or triple the group's budget.

Why worry? ``Because grants are given to make you get larger,'' she maintains. ``And in our case, larger is not better. I don't think a good experimental theater, on the model we've chosen, could exist on a large scale. It's very hard to do this kind of work without constant reflection . . . and reexamining your methods and goals. When you're running a large organization, it takes over. The framework becomes more important than the internal workings.''

The trick, then, is to use a grant without letting it use you. ``We've been functioning at peak,'' the director says. ``The change we needed was support for salaries. Beyond that, change is not a good thing for us.''

LeCompte's work is based on group cooperation. Key members of her performing team include Willem Dafoe, who also plays Hollywood roles; Ron Vawter, who won a recent Obie award for sustained excellence; and Spalding Gray, whose credits include a part in ``The Killing Fields'' and an international tour of his one-man ``monologues.''

LeCompte's troupe members collaborate with her in creating shows, which are rarely written down in advance. The basic method is improvisation. ``We laugh, we groan, we make a dance,'' says LeCompte, describing the process. The starting point is a ``text'' she has chosen. It may consist of words, images, music, or anything that strikes her fancy. Once chosen, the text ``is there for good, no questions asked,'' LeCompte explains. ``It's like the rocks and sand in the ocean, or another person I can't change. . . . I must come up against it without asking why. I question its meaning but not its presence. It's an `other' that's outside myself, and the images come out of my dialogue with it.''

She avoids using material she feels close to. ``I gravitate toward things that are confusing, alien, or a mystery to me,'' she muses. ``I think that's why our pieces are so hard to pinpoint: I'm usually dealing with something I can't explain. The work shows my search for solid ground, which I generally haven't been able to find.

``And that's why I work! Each night I try to figure my pieces out, to reach some understanding with the `other' that I've created.''

Hence the gulf between LeCompte's theater and ordinary plays. ``Most people try to illustrate some feeling they have about the world,'' she says. ``I'm illustrating -- or demonstrating -- my confusions and questions.''

It's an intimate way of working. ``My life falls together when I'm in the theater,'' LeCompte says. ``There's peace here.''

Yet she thrives on adventure. ``If something's working really well,'' she says, ``I'll throw in a wrench -- something that disturbs the pattern. It would be like death to me if all the gaps closed and a piece became perfect. . . .''

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