Elizabeth LeCompte

Elizabeth LeCompte discusses Tennessee Williams and Vieux Carré

The Wooster Group, Vieux Carré, 2010.  Performance views. Left: Scott Shepherd. Right: Ari Fliakos and Kate Valk.

Elizabeth LeCompte is a founding member of the Wooster Group, an experimental theater company based in New York. She has directed all of the pieces that the company has performed since its creation. The collective is currently in residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and its latest work, Vieux Carré, runs February 2–March 13. Here, LeCompte talks about Tennessee Williams, the idea of the “tortured writer,” and Ryan Trecartin’s influence on the piece.

I WAS STRUCK BY THE PLACES Tennessee Williams goes in his writing. There’s a sense in his work, especially in Vieux Carré, that he’s trying to figure out something deeply personal; that he’s criticizing himself at the same time that he is writing.

The character of the Writer, for me, is the artist at his most desperate. I relate very much to that. Tennessee is writing about the idea of the writer—himself, maybe. Then again, he was dealing with self-deception too, so who knows? The character is some kind of writer from 1938, but it’s also Williams as he was in 1977, when he finished the play. It may not be as nostalgic as that implies; people talk about Vieux Carré as a “memory play,” but I don’t think it is, really. I think it’s a play about being an artist. At the time, I am sure Tennessee was coming up against all the newer playwrights who were more monosyllabic compared with him, and he must have been aware his style was going out of fashion. He was so trapped in his own history and what people expected of him. In Vieux Carré, it seems he’s monitoring himself in a different way than he did in his earlier work.

We worked with the Writer as someone being seen penning dialogue, and we focused on what that would be like, how it comes out, and how he’s editing himself. It’s almost as if I am trying to find out where Williams felt safe and where he felt at sea and when he felt at sea.

The Wooster Group rehearses Vieux Carré (2010).

To develop a style for the dialogue, we watched a lot of Paul Morrissey, who Williams was kind of enamored with at the time. Then I happened to catch the “Younger Than Jesus” show at the New Museum where Ryan Trecartin had several rooms. His work referred me to a whole new style and way of looking at the world of the play, so we just watched a lot of his videos and we worked on incorporating that performance style into certain parts of the piece, and visually as well. What was so nice about coming to Ryan is the kind of liberation from sexual roles he exhibits; it’s so inspiring. For instance, in our production Kate Valk’s playing two roles, Scott Shepherd’s playing two roles, and they mutate into each other and it’s not a problem. There’s a certain kind of freedom that Tennessee didn’t have in the naturalist theater of his time.

I want to say that Tennessee would have bloomed in a post–gay liberation age, but I am not sure. He couldn’t let go of the past for a lot of reasons, and one of them was that he wanted to make a perfect play and yet, at the same time, he saw that wasn’t what was happening anymore. If he made the perfect play he hated himself, and if he didn’t he hated the people who hated him. And that writer in Vieux Carré is caught there: in a place where he has so many ideas of how to make a good work but finally what soars above it all is those beautiful arias, and the language that just holds everything together.