The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

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APR 2014 Issue

The Theater of Outlaws
The Wooster Group’s Rumstick Road

As the theater dies, it is being protected by a clique of people who are narrowing it back to the writer and because we don’t work that way, we trespass everywhere. We plagiarize. We steal. We are outlaws.

—Elizabeth LeCompte

Following its 2012 week-long series the Wooster Group on Film and Video 1975 - 2004 at Anthology Film Archives in 2012, the long-standing experimental theater and media ensemble, returns with Rumstick Road, a video reconstruction of their 1977 performance, the second installment of the trilogy Three Places in Rhode Island conceived by the company in 1977. Led by Elizabeth LeCompte, director of the company, and Spalding Gray, leading actor and co-creator, the piece was woven together like a scientific demonstration intercut with recorded conversations between Gray and his family members about Spalding’s mother Bette Gray, who had a nervous breakdown in 1966 and committed suicide the following year. Spalding Gray died of an apparent suicide in 2004 at the age of 62, and the similarity between Gray’s fate and that of his mother is just one of the reconstruction’s many uncanny effects.

The Wooster Group’s Rumstick Road. Pictured (l-r): Libby Howes, Ron Vawter, and Spalding Gray. Photo: © Clem Fiori.

During the performance, all the elements including the recordings are explicitly presented to the audience, and then LeCompte appears to filter and mediate through the raw materials. Her focus is more on the work itself than any individual performer, a dramatic shift from her apprenticeship with Richard Schechner, prominent professor of Performance Studies at New York University and former director of the Performance Group, which later evolved as the Wooster Group under LeCompte’s direction in the early ’70s. How to measure the degree of mediation of the materials is one of the major disagreements between LeCompte and Schechner, who favored the rawness and ritualistic dimension of theatricality over LeCompte’s more mediated and technology-driven approach.

Rehearsals for the performance started on the second floor of the Performing Garage, the company’s theater at 33 Wooster Street, in 1976. It was one of the few pieces in which the text came first; by contrast, most of the group’s work evolved through improvisation. Spalding Gray, who originally had the minimalist idea to only play the tape for the show, acts as himself in this piece, delivering a monologue about his early childhood in Rhode Island. The spatial beauty of the divided set resonates with the piece’s fragmented nature. The central control booth, which was operated by the technical director Bruce Porter, then Jim Claburgh and Bruce Rayvid, serves as the demonstrator’s pulpit, dividing the performance space, and flanked by two large recesses. The audience sits on a triangular bank of seats whose apex lies directly in front of the control booth. As David Savran has suggested:

While arrayed much like a Renaissance anatomical demonstration, the performance space for Rumstick Road also suggests a horizontal section of a human face. The two recesses become eyes separated by the control booth, the bridge of the nose. Seated before this tripartite setting, the spectators study the giant face and the enormous eyes—or three, the control booth is also an eye—which in turn study them.*

Rumstick Road could be easily taken as the tragic story of Spalding Gray’s mother, but it was meant to be a more general take on scientific examination and modern autobiography, with Gray’s case as the point of departure. The personal could be taken as something universal: the work is Spalding Gray’s investigation of his mother’s suicide, but also the cultural analysis of the notion of examination and all the sorts of violation that come along with it. Except for Gray, the rest of the cast is not easy to identify with. Ron Vawter, the excellent and understated company member who sadly passed away in 1994, plays The Man, and Libby Howes appears as the romantic and idealized midwestern woman.

LeCompte plays with the strategy of deliberately telling the audience that the tape from Gray's maternal grandmother from the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, was meant to be kept as something personal. But does someone still own his or her words once they are spoken? The confrontational nature of the piece upset some critics when the piece was first performed in 1977: most prominently Michael Feingold at the Village Voice protested the use of private tapes in a public performance. The counterargument from Gray, which was also printed in the Voice, pointed out the multifarious causes of Bette Gray’s suicide and likened the use of the private text to the painful and “exploitative” mode common to modern autobiography. The investigator may engage, with the best intentions, to find the cure, little suspecting that his or her own intervention has become part of the disease.

The video construction of Rumstick Road was created by LeCompte and Ken Kobland, artist, filmmaker, and long-time collaborator with the Wooster Group, along with the Group’s archivist, Clay Hapaz. Just as the performance was constructed from fragments of human voices and live performance, the “restoration” of this piece also relies on the collaging of numerous archival fragments, including U-Matic video, Super-8 film, reel-to-reel audio tapes, photographs, and 35mm slides, an index of the migratory nature of the media itself. The evolving color, light, and resolution of the images deliver a sense of uncanniness, unconsciously documenting the evolution of the technological development of this high-tech troupe, and the digital age offers an opportunity to stitch the parallel universes back together.

*Savran, David. Breaking the Rules: The Wooster Group. 1988. Pp. 79-80.

Click here for an interview with Ken Kobland with about the video reconstruction of Rumstick Road.


Xin Zhou

XIN ZHOU is a curator and writer, currently working on the film program for the 2nd Shenzhen Independent Animation Biennale (December 2014 - March 2015). He has curated programs and exhibitions at Anthology Film Archives, UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art, and The Wooster Group. His writing has appeared in, Film Comment, and Modern Weekly.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

All Issues