Dissections of classic plays on film

Wooster Group to show footage of six seminal productions as part of arts festival's The O.P.E.N.

A film still from To You, The Birdie! (2002). -- PHOTO: MARY GEARHART
A film still from To You, The Birdie! (2002). -- PHOTO: MARY GEARHART
A still from the video reconstruction of Rumstick Road (1977). -- PHOTO: CLEM FIORI

There is a YouTube video clip by The Wooster Group titled, self-deprecatingly, Generic Rehearsal Conflict.

In it, stage manager Teresa Hartmann - looking a little worn - addresses the camera against a backdrop of heated arguments: "We actually don't have footage from this rehearsal at all, because when they dumped all the files, they were scrambled. It was just, like, colour bars."

On stage, group co-founder and director Elizabeth LeCompte, wild-haired and voice raised, is frustrated. One of the actors is unable to replicate a specific move she desperately wants, because that crucial moment from a previous rehearsal has been lost on a corrupted computer file.

This 2013 rehearsal for their upcoming production of Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida) at the Singapore International Festival of Arts in September is one of many examples why the fiercely avant-garde American theatre company relies so heavily on video documentation.

This extends beyond their rehearsals to meticulous reconstructions and carefully curated footage of their stage productions. Next week, group archivist Clay Hapaz will be arriving in Singapore to showcase six of the company's seminal productions on film as part of the arts festival's public engagement programme, The O.P.E.N.

This includes one of group's earliest works, Rumstick Road (1977), which stitches together archival footage, audiotaped conversations, family letters, dance and 35mm slides to capture the spirit of the work, which was a response to the suicide of the late Spalding Gray's mother. Gifted monologist Gray, who himself committed suicide in 2004, was a founding member of The Wooster Group.

The group is known for its radical dissections of classic plays - whether those by the likes of American greats Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill, or William Shakespeare in the case of Cry, Trojans! - interrupting these works with technology, a blend of the high-brow and low-brow, and experiments with genre and form.

Speaking over the telephone from New York City, where the group is based, Mr Hapaz, 53, says: "At our heart, we are showpeople, and even though I'm officially the archivist, I think at heart I'm a showperson and we'd like to have people experience these shows - even if they are once removed as videos - as performances.

"The videos rarely, if ever, are just straight documentations of the shows. There's always an element we bring to them - sometimes out of creative necessity - to lift them up and out of just the straight video experience, which can be pretty deadly to watching performances."

These documentations did, in fact, grow out of the need to capture "the occasional fortunate accident" that occurred during rehearsals, as Mr Hapaz puts it, "when something goes wrong that isn't quite what is expected, but it's better - and you couldn't have anticipated that or thought it up".

He laughs and adds: "Probably just about every show has at least one experience, if not many, when something else happens, but it's better, and people want to do it again. Usually in those instances, you don't know what went wrong that was good and the tape can help you trace that back. Sometimes it's still a bit of a mystery, but you're still far closer."

The productions themselves can also be a source of inspiration for The Wooster Group. For instance, in the production To You, The Birdie! (2002), a video which will also be screened next week, the actors are actually following video footage of themselves from a rehearsal.

The production takes on Racine's Phaedre and splices it with a badminton game and plenty of technological bells and whistles, from television monitors to hidden cameras.

Mr Hapaz says: "Frequently, we look at old material for new pieces, for inspiration. We're known for how we would recycle plots and costumes and set pieces, revise them and reuse them, and sometimes it can be true with older material of our own as well."

There are also two pieces in The O.P.E.N.'s film line-up that are only videos and not reconstructions of plays - Rhyme 'Em To Death and Today, I Must Sincerely Congratulate You, both featuring well-known actor Willem Dafoe, a Wooster Group founding member. Actor Steve Buscemi also appears in the latter.

The final two films are, respectively, an interpretation of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1920) and the complete performance of House/Lights (1999), which blends American modernist poetplaywright Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights The Lights (1938) with the B-movie classic Olga's House Of Shame (1964).

Mr Hapaz says: "I think, if anything, there seems to be a strong feeling for keeping our past alive and wanting people to experience it as fully as possible."


Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan

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