As a young man, Eugene O’Neill worked as a merchant sailor along the Eastern seaboard. Inspired by languages and cultures from around the world as well as an unforgiving existence at sea, O’Neill’s canon of plays often captured authenticity of character through authentic dialect and hard-knock themes.
Nearly a century later, the experimental Wooster Group and New York City Players joined forces to develop three of O’Neill’s one-act Glencairn plays — Bound East for Cardiff (1914), The Long Voyage Home (1917), and The Moon of the Caribbees (1918). Their production of Early Plays comes to LA’s REDCAT with four performances this week.
Formed in 1975, Wooster Group has built a reputation for innovating and for defying the conventions of theatrical performance. Housed in the Performing Garage, a workshop space in lower Manhattan, Wooster has developed over 30 performance works embracing all elements of theater, dance, film and video. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times described Wooster as “known for taking a playfully freakish approach to theatrical texts.”
The group’s leading director and one of its founders, Elizabeth LeCompte, says Wooster is her “life’s work.” After 35 years with the company, she has no intention of stopping. “I try to follow impulses to the most absurd and natural conclusions,” says LeCompte. “I want to work with people who see their art coming to the highest fruition through that process.”
Wooster has toured throughout the US and internationally, presenting West Coast premieres at REDCAT since 2004. Most recently, REDCAT hosted Wooster’s interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré (2010). Wooster is no stranger to O’Neill, having produced both The Hairy Ape (1996) and The Emperor Jones (1993, 2006).
In the early ’90s, a young Richard Maxwell joined Wooster as an intern. He credits Wooster and its members as a nurturing influence for his artistic voice and the eventual founding of his own company. Maxwell’s New York City Players launched in 1999, with Maxwell primarily writing and directing his own projects.
Maxwell still maintains a relationship with Wooster. LeCompte saw his work directing Vision Disturbance in 2011 (written by Christina Masciotti) and made the decision to approach Maxwell with the Early Plays. Vision marked the first production with the Players in which Maxwell directed a writer’s work other than his own.
“I thought [Vision Disturbance] was beautifully directed,” says LeCompte. “So I thought maybe we should bring a writer’s feeling to this [O’Neill] text to try and find a new way into them.” Reviews of Early Plays were mixed, but Maxwell won an Obie for his direction.
Of Life and Longing
O’Neill was a poet and journalist before dedicating himself to playwriting. His dramatic characterizations often utilize vernacular dialogue to portray struggles of commoners, men and women alike. He won a record number of four Pulitzer Prizes (Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, Long Day’s Journey into Night) and the 1936 Nobel Prize for literature.
His early plays demonstrate his first efforts depicting the dark underbelly of the early American Dream. Four of his 20 one-acts are known as The Glencairn Plays, telling stories of characters on a fictional ship named Glencairn.
“O’Neill has a musical way in which he wrote”¦it’s like hearing a piece of music that is twelve-tone as opposed to an older piece of music,” says LeCompte. “[This production] makes us listen to O’Neill in a whole new way and hear how he was constructing things. It’s like an early Van Gogh painting.”
LeCompte describes one of her biggest challenges as keeping the Wooster artists as well as herself interested in each project at hand. She believed Maxwell offered a point of view to invigorate the Early Plays project for Wooster.
Maxwell began Early Plays anticipating that he would trim and possibly re-write the text. But after experimenting with actors who spoke O’Neill’s specifically written dialect, Maxwell determined no re-writes were needed, with “99 percent of the original text” used in the final 85-minute production. In the end, Maxwell contributed as a writer by composing three original songs in what he calls “a response” to O’Neill’s plays.
He describes the hands-off approach by LeCompte once rehearsals began. “She understands that artists need creative freedom but they also need limitations. She has really found a balance”¦I think of [LeCompte] as an editor as well as a director.”
Maxwell also fully adopted the Wooster process for the first time with designers and technical staff in the rehearsal room, enlisting some of them as actual performers. And with O’Neill’s texts already written, the director — who more often writes his own scripts — felt a sense of freedom.
“I was surprised how much of my brain was alleviated not having to worry about the script”¦that’s the usual routine for me,” says Maxwell. “It was a relief to be able to devote more of my brain to the directing and the visual elements.”
Both LeCompte and Maxwell reflect how their individual companies find satisfaction in the realms of both original work and re-imagining existing texts such as Early Plays, particularly in challenging preconceived notions of what theater should be. For LeCompte, leadership plays a key role.
“You should have a very strong artistic censor no matter what,” says LeCompte. “There has to be a strong continuing presence of someone [within a theater company] who is not looking for a springboard to another career.”
LeCompte also emphasizes the importance of having a space dedicated to creating work that doesn’t keep artists beholden to an individual landlord or promoter focused on ticket sales and the commercial viability of an individual project. She credits her understanding of theater to her own beginnings in fine art where she spent years in an art studio before becoming a theater director. Before founding Wooster, she was also part of Richard Schechner’s experimental Performance Group, since 1970.
“Attach yourself to the artistic community and not the theater community,” recommends LeCompte to aspiring experimental companies. “Look to the artists because they’re always doing new work.”
Maxwell agrees. But he adds that using such labels as “avant-garde” or “experimental” can create problems. “Experimental theater in a small way seems to reflect what happened in the music industry when it coined the term “˜indie’,” says Maxwell. “Now it’s something you can strive to be, but there’s an expectation that it has to be cool or edgy and somehow draw attention to itself that it’s experimenting” — when in fact it sometimes means simply that artists are following their own instincts and creating new work through less conventional means.
Maxwell and LeCompte are constantly juggling projects and looking ahead. Wooster will host a March 3 benefit screening of newly restored film footage from its very first production, Rumstick Road — featuring Wooster co-founder Spalding Gray’s first live performance. Wooster also presents a retrospective in Brazil later that month. The Players are currently re-mounting Vision Disturbance at Emerson College.
In spite of their commonalities in creating new work, Maxwell recognizes an unusual quality to have emerged from the collaboration of Early Plays.
“In the end, I think it’s interesting how little this show reflects either company,” says Maxwell. “I guess it’s because both sides are applying a generosity that forgoes what the “˜correct’ thing needs to be.”
Early Plays. REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, LA. Feb. 21 ““ 24. Thu-Sat 8:30 pm, Sat-Sun 3 pm. Tickets: $45-50 (students $36 ““ 40). www.redcat.org. 213- 237-2800.
***All production photos courtesy of The Wooster Group.Print