Poor Theater in SoHo?
With their latest work-in-progress, Poor Theater: A Series of Simulacra, The Wooster Group take on or, as they say, "channel" the work of two visionaries of contemporary experimental performance: director of the Polish Theatre Laboratory and author of Towards a Poor Theatre, the late Jerzy Grotowski, and choreographer William Forsythe, currently of the Ballett Frankfurt.
Director Elizabeth LeCompte and the four member cast of Ari Fliakos, Sheena See, Scott Shepherd, and Kate Valk, allow worlds and bodies to collide as they explore two distinct experimental performance practices, filtered through their own unique methods.
The first act, "Our Akropolis" depicts the Group’s efforts to represent the ritual intensity of Grotowski’s 1964 classic of the theatrical avant-garde, Akropolis, itself an adaptation of a 1904 work by symbolist poet Stanislaw Wyspianski. The second, "For Billy," is part mockumentary, part improvisational ballet, with some Wild West iconography thrown in for kicks. The result is a thrill ride that indulges homage and parody in equal measure.
Ari Fliakos, a member of the Group since 1995, met with the Brooklyn Rail at the Performing Garage in mid-March to discuss their process.
Kilpatrick (Rail): When I heard Poor Theater was the title of the new Wooster Group performance, I was shocked, thinking it couldn’t be about Grotowski and that it must be some kind of pun, no movie stars this time or something.
Fliakos: I think it works on many levels, the term "poor theater." It’s the ambiguity that’s interesting. So I don’t want to place anything on it. The way Grotowski talks about it is in terms of using in the theater only what is essential. So in that sense he’s a proponent of a more stripped-down theater. Only what’s necessary.
Rail: The antithesis of everything the Wooster Group has ever stood for, isn’t it?
Fliakos: That’s for other people to decide. It’s a different tack for us.
Rail: Who suggested pairing explorations of Grotowski and Forsythe?
Fliakos: Liz LeCompte had seen the original Akropolis, so it was her impulse to go and revisit that. And she was reading in the paper about how there was going to be a funding cut that would end the Ballett Frankfurt as we know it. Liz had both in mind. It wasn’t clear how they would relate but as we performed it, it came together.
Rail: Did you spend time with the Ballett Frankfurt?
Fliakos: Billy came in actually and worked with us for a day, a workshop on dance stuff. We worked with a couple of his dancers who schooled us in modalities, points in space, dropping lines, things like that to get our bodies to do that work. Without being dancers. That’s the point, we’re not dancers. It would defeat the purpose to have a real dancer in there.
Rail: I know Forsythe uses the alphabet for improvisational choreography, but cowboy movies?
Fliakos: The cowboy thing was an impulse from when the work was almost like three pieces. There was a western thing we were doing, there was the Billy and then there was the Grotowski. Somehow the western sort of became absorbed with the Billy as dances. It’s all modalities.
Rail: In a way this work marks a return for this space to theory Richard Schechner put in practice some thirty-five years ago with the Performance Group. Grotowski was a major influence on Dionysus in 69, the piece that brought widespread attention to what was happening here at the Performing Garage. But the Wooster Group emerged out of the Performance Group in part as a rejection of that ritual orientation. Was any of this history discussed?
Fliakos: There’s not a lot of talk, really. We watch a lot of TV. So we watched Dionysus in 69, a videotape of that. We watch a lot of material before we get going, and then once we start generating material we continually revisit the videos and pictures. We watched Dionysus in 69, and we watched Jim Carrey, Buster Keaton and Acropolis. It’s just accumulating information. There’s not a lot of analysis.
Rail: Akropolis is filtered through archival video, and this seems to manifest itself in your physicalization, as if the only parts of your body simulating Akropolis are the parts exposed by the camera, not the whole body.
Fliakos: From the physical, all we have is what’s captured in the frame, the camera that was shooting. It was pretty clear from the beginning when we started looking at the film that the physical would be the hardest to recreate, because we only have that thing. So we have like an arm. First we tried to physically recreate the vocal, but we didn’t know Polish. So once we started exploring the language more, the verbal stuff became almost primarily about that. And then once we got proficient at that, the physical stuff started creeping in.
Rail: Did you ever work with the Wyspianski text of Akropolis or was it exclusively video of the Grotowski-directed performance that you were working from?
Fliakos: Scott [Shepherd] actually ripped from the Internet the Wyspianski text and then ran it through a program that translated the Polish text into a form of Polish gibberish that we could sort of understand as English speakers, and an English translation of that next to it in the script. We started looking more closely at what we had and tried to nail down the poem, and what that was, without being so concerned about what Grotowski was trying to do with the text.
Rail: So there was a certain point in the process when you went to the Wyspianski text and neglected what Grotowski did with it in performance?
Fliakos: Not necessarily neglected because we have the relic of Akropolis that we were channeling. So we had that performance, but in terms of setting it in the Holocaust, which [Grotowski] did, that seemed like something we didn’t want to tackle head-on. If that was there it would filter through via the ritual of conjuring up the performance.
The nature of their performance that we are hearing and watching is so different from our own. To be as true to what they are doing as possible hopefully will create the effect that is necessary. But because I’m not Polish, I don’t have that cultural history, and none of us do. So there is never really any attempt to tackle all that. But as a performer I can understand the emotion of the performer that I’m listening to.
Grotowski goes on a lot about the dangers of dilettantism. The work is always rigorous that we do. But we really took that to heart, in terms of getting to understand the language that we speak and being committed to what we were doing emotionally and technically.
Rail: Polish isn’t a lost language, of course, but the piece comes across like a fragment from antiquity.
Fliakos: Liz uses the word "relic" a lot, for what’s in the TV. We’re going back in time. Grotowski talks about singing the songs of your ancestors. I’m not sure, but I think that is what we’re doing, we’re singing the song that’s been made. Using that relic as our text, as a source. What we do is totally not Grotowski, and at the same time we absorbed something.
Rail: You incorporate, on video, a friend of Grotowski who expresses resistance—even anger—towards your project. How did you feel about her anger? Obviously it wasn’t going to stop you.
Fliakos: Well it didn’t. But she asked very good questions: "Why?" "Why would you want to do something like that?" That’s the kind of thing we’re tackling and we’re continuing to tackle.
Poor Theater: A Series of Simulacra will run in preview performances through Saturday, April 24th, at the Performing Garage, 33 Wooster Street (between Broome and Grand Streets). Tickets are $25.
For reservations: (212) 966-3651.
For more info: www.thewoostergroup.org