Professor Stephanie Vella
Theatre History II
The Wooster Group Takes on the Nation: A Backstage Look
Behind the Creations
Beyond the doors of the Performing Garage theater in SoHo, New York City, this was where the creative landmark works of the Wooster Group was born. In the year 1975, Spalding Gray and Elizabeth Le Compe produced numerous of works that focused on Gray’s personal history, called “the Three Places in Rhode Island trilogy.” Soon after, Jim Clayburgh, Libby Howes and Ron Vawter joined the Wooster Group to contribute to their production of Rumstick Road, then Willem Dafoe and Kate Valk accompanied them for Point Judith. The members prefer to create their new works based on the history of an individual, including a member, and/or a group in society. However, they do produce existing plays, including the works of Chekhov and Eugene O’Neill. As time progresses through the years, so does the Wooster Group. They are not afraid to go beyond the boundaries of traditional theatre and have created impactful productions with the use technology.
The Wooster Group has been known for their experimental ways in the theatre community in order to make impacts within society. Through the use of technology, the Wooster Group’s numerous production encapture viewers and result in society becoming more attentive to current issues that a majority of the population are facing. One of these productions uses ingenious themes and visual technology in order to unearth the struggle of people who suffer from acts of suicide, this production is called, Rumstick Road. This production is revolved around the tragic family history of Spalding Gray’s mother, Betty, who committed suicide when he was only in his 20’s at the time. The play uses visual technological effects, like letters, photographs of Spalding Gray’s family members, the family houses, and recorded conversations of numerous family members and people who were involved in his mother’s care before her death; one of these recordings is a conversation between his father and his grandmother consulting over the state of his mother’s mental health. Within a recording of the preview of the production, Spalding’s grandmother says, “…she was all through with any sex life. She was up here, she didn’t…down with ordinary mortals that did things like that. He had no one else that he was interested in, and he loved your mother” (Benefit Screening). This use of technology brings the audience into the mindset of Spalding Gray and the numerous of events he had to endure at this moment in his life. After his mother’s death, clues are delivered as the play progresses, but to the viewers knowledge, they are simply questions that will never be answered. Viewers that have or will witness this filmed performance will witness a man desperately trying to find answers and reason, while knowing the horrible fate of Spalding Gray, himself. Spalding Gray was found dead on January 11th, 2004, where his body was found in the East River and authorities concluded that it was a case of possible suicide; “We, too, find ourselves looking for or imaging clues.” (Brantley). Within the show, on one of the recorded conversations, it is revealed that Spalding Gray might have acquire his mother’s mental illness, which lead him to the same fate as his mother. The use of the visuals were also accompanied by choreographed movement, which created a form of “abstract fragmented imagery” (Brantley).
The ability to see the home of Spalding Gray, to connect voices to their faces, this experimental way to expressing this production encompasses the audiences state of mind and abandones what they knew or thought of suicide, for this moment in Spalding Gray’s life is occurring in numerous of viewers lives at the very moment. We are their with him, watching how he reacts to this situation and we find ourselves full of frustration, anger, grief, we gain an emotion bond to this character, this representation of a tragic moment that no one wants to relive again in their lifetime. As New York Times, Ben Brantley, describes, “We know that exact firsthand experience can never be completely recaptured any more than time itself. The idea of filmed theater is a contradiction in terms. What’s on screen is only a set of shadows of the reality that was.” It must have been an experience witnessing this production live, but to see it film and know of the history is a tragic journey. Suicide was very common during the mid-70’s due to the Vietnam soldiers suffering from PTSD, widowed wives of fallen soldiers and numerous of other people, not just nationally, but globally who have been impacted by suicide; during a time where mental illness wasn’t fully understood. It’s a recurring problem that must be addressed, in order to save more lives instead of digging more graves.
Now speaking of recurring problems that must be addressed, the Wooster Group have witnessed the violent and unspeakable history of racial tensions and violence in American history, in response, the show’s originator Eric Berryman accompanied by the Wooster Group’s own Kate Valk stage The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons.’ Now this show has made a tremendous impact with the use of technology in order to express the long history of wrongful treatment towards the African-American community, all from the use of a single vinyl disc. Within this vinyl disc is a compilation of work songs, blues songs, preachings and toasts from 1965 that were performed by actual African-American convicts in Texas; this was done with the aid of Bruce Jackson, an American folklorist. Songs that Eric Berryman explains contextually were sung by for certain jobs inmates had to perform, like, “Move Along, ‘Gator” is traditionally a logging song; and it becomes apparent as imagery starts to build through your mind as you witness these people. As the disc is placed down and the music begins to play, the story starts to flow through the melody of the songs and the lives of these convicts are revealed. On stage, Eric Berryman is accompanied by two other actors as they harmonize and sing along with the music. There doesn’t seem to be a line of distinction as their voices meld and so do their troubles and suffering. These songs reveal the harsh truths of the life of an African-American convict; having the strength to wake up every morning to work long, hard labor, to deal with abusive prison guards and knowing they’ve lost their loved ones and purpose in life. “…they become conduits for the songs of prisoners who were themselves conduits for an oral tradition that stretches back to at least the early days of slavery in this country. This is music that feels viral not in the technological sense of current usage, but in the sense of residing in the bloodstream” (Brantley).
Today in American history, we are suffering from a problem that we keep believing we’ve solved years ago with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Movement, but this problem still lurks today in our society. It seems in today’s society that everyday, a black teen gets shot by police or that a black gang member shoots a cop, and what do people do? They tweet about it, spread it all around the internet, but it stays there. A production like this is a wake up call to both black and whites alike. It is a performance that can allow the African-American community to be proud of their history and how they’ve endured this harsh background and try to make a stand without violence. Also, this hopefully, opens the eyes of the white community in America to reveal how we’ve treated this community for years and for what? Because they’re not like us. We need to stop the violence because violence results in more violence and death. At the end of the play, it is revealed to be Eric Berryman’s home, with shelves full of vinyls, in Harlem. “His home could be said to have always been the setting for this show—or rather any place where you feel safe developing an intense and intimate relationship with the art of others” (Brantley).
Therefore the Wooster Group’s ability to experiment the use of technology within their production, not only creates depth within the plot itself, but widens their influence on audiences across the nation and the globe itself. The use of imagery and musical elements allows the viewer to experience a connection that isn’t confined through what a person sees on the stage, but what these technological elements make them think and feel. Everyone in the world, at one point or another, finds themselves emotionally connected to a simple photograph or a piece of music that they’ve experienced at one point or another in their life. On the surface, one person could see it as having no value whatsoever, but to another, it could represent their whole upbringing into this world; a priceless treasure from their past.
A production like Rumstick Road, represented a story of an individual losing a loved one to suicide, while The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons’ represented a history of discrimination towards a whole race. Even though these are two different productions, of different times, they both use the same method in order to create a human connection to either an individual or to a community. As Don Shewey, of the NY Times, published in 1982, ” Many people in the New York arts community have rallied in support of the Wooster Group while at the same time engaging in sometimes heated debates about the relationship between content and form, images of racism in our culture, and the social responsibility of art.”
Brantley, Ben. “A Suicide Stalks Young Spalding Gray.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Dec. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2014/05/01/movies/spalding-gray-on-video-in-wooster-groups-rumstick-road.html.
Brantley, Ben. “Review: ‘The B-Side’ Is an Extraordinary Masterclass in Listening.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/31/theater/b-side-negro-folklore-from-texas-state-prisons-review.html.
Callens, Johan. The Wooster Group and Its Traditions. P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2005.
Marks, Peter. “Review | Sometimes, a Play with Music Can’t Be Improved upon – like the Wooster Group’s Impeccable ‘The B-Side’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 31 Oct. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2017/10/31/sometimes-a-play-with-music-cant-be-improved-upon-like-the-wooster-groups-impeccable-the-b-side/?noredirect=on;utm_term=.193a06c1a646.
Savran, David. Breaking the Rules: the Wooster Group. Theatre Communications Group, 2005.
Shewey, Don. “THE WOOSTER GROUP STIRS CONTROVERSY WITH AN AVANT-GARDE SERIES.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 May 1982, www.nytimes.com/1982/05/16/theater/the-wooster-group-stirs-controversy-with-an-avant-garde-series.html.
TheWoosterGroup. “RUMSTICK ROAD – Benefit Screening Preview 02.20.13.” YouTube, YouTube, 18 Apr. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIclSdMMGow.
THE WOOSTER GROUP, thewoostergroup.org/blog/.