Stage and Screen

Left: The Wooster Group, House/Lights, 1999. Performance view. Kate Valk. Photo: Paula Court. Right: The Wooster Group, Rumstick Road, 1977. Performance view. Spalding Gray. Photo: Elizabeth LeCompte.

NEW YORK’S WOOSTER GROUP is renowned for the incorporation of film and video in its theatrical productions. In To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre) (2002), for example, video mediates live action, as monitors placed in front of the actors’ lower halves show their movements both delayed and sped up. In the 2003 version of Brace Up!, on the other hand, one character appears entirely on video: translator Paul Schmidt, who had died since his appearance in the original production in 1991. The company’s 2007 Hamlet set its actors the task of re-creating a 1964 filmed staging, directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton, projected behind them. Film is also used as an element of collage or commentary: House/Lights (1998) is a mash-up of Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights and the 1964 B movie Olga’s House of Shame, scenes of which are screened onstage.

Numerous productions since the Wooster Group’s founding in 1975, however, have included videos produced by and featuring the company. These are now on view in Anthology Film Archives’ retrospective “The Wooster Group in Film and Video,” along with stand-alone video works not destined for the theater and, finally, straight documentation of productions. The series, organized by Wooster Group archivist Clay Hapaz, spans the company’s career thus far: The very first program (which will be screened again on February 23) features clips from its inaugural production, Sakonnet Point (1975)—as well as from the three following plays that comprise Three Places in Rhode Island (1977–79)—and a current work-in-progress documentary about the group.

The videos vary in quality—that is, both content and condition. The earliest works, which have never been revived, will be of greatest appeal to Wooster devotees, but the clips of Three Places are so short, and the video and audio at times so degraded, as to be basically unintelligible to those not familiar with the original productions. The Road to Immortality is more edifying, featuring excerpts from three controversial productions: Route 1 & 9 (1981), in which Our Town meets Pigmeat Markham, with an infamous blackface routine that cost the group funding from the New York State Council on the Arts; L.S.D. ( . . . Just the High Points . . . ) (1984), which mixes The Crucible with quotes from Timothy Leary, although the presence of the Arthur Miller text was diminished after a cease-and-desist letter from the playwright; and Frank Dell’s The Temptation of St. Antony (1988), a reimagining of Flaubert’s poem from the point of view of Lenny Bruce and the Channel J soft-porn TV station.

Anthology is also screening complete recordings of a number of productions, including Brace Up!, To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre), House/Lights, and North Atlantic (1984), as well as two early dance pieces, Hula (1981) and For the Good Times (1982). Most of the videos present a static view of the entire stage, but the filming of House/Lights is more considered, featuring close-ups and shots from different angles. The Emperor Jones (1993) was entirely reconceived for video in 1999, but the purposely rough green-screen effects distract from the legendary lead performance by Kate Valk, a founding member of the company.

Other evenings showcase the short films featured in Wooster Group productions as well as two full-length works included in 1990s Whitney Biennials that, according to the Anthology program, have been “rarely seen since.” All of these were made with filmmaker Ken Kobland, whose retro aesthetic contrasts with the contemporary, technophilic approach of the group’s theater. (Immediately following the Wooster Group series, Anthology will be screening additional films by Kobland over three evenings.)

Altogether, Anthology’s series presents an impressive overview of the Wooster Group’s oeuvre, but it is necessarily handicapped: This is clearly not the best way to watch live theater. At a time when museums are turning away from film and video documentation in favor of reperformance, more art-centric audiences might wonder why the Wooster Group doesn’t just do the same. The answer, of course, is that a full theatrical production requires extensive rehearsal time and is much more expensive to mount than, say, the simple performer-and-ponytail setup of Marina Abramović and Ulay’s Relation in Time, 1977. Yet, while the Wooster Group has frequently revived productions, it has never restaged works from the late 1970s and early ’80s. On February 20 at Anthology, company director Elizabeth LeCompte and Kobland will present their efforts to reconstruct Rumstick Road (1977) through Super 8 and video footage, photographs, and audio. The production is intimately tied to the late Spalding Gray, another founding member. Perhaps LeCompte views Gray as irreplaceable, but the preference for film over performance comes across as more conservative than the group’s reputation would suggest. Or might the archival project be a first step toward a revival? That might be the biggest treat to come out of Anthology’s series.

Interestingly, the Wooster Group has recently embraced video as a way to attract new viewers online. In 2010, realizing that its audiences were declining, the company began posting short videos on its website—these include clips from its archive as well as footage of the group rehearsing, performing, and even commenting directly to the camera. This kind of YouTube-ready backstage confessional might seem irrelevant to what true fans want from the Wooster Group, but it could be the final stage in the demystification of the theater company.

“The Wooster Group in Film and Video” runs through Thursday, February 23, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. “The Wooster Group at Large,” a program of experimental films and videos featuring members of the company, runs February 24–March 1.