Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte describes how the framing device applied to Chekhov's Three Sisters in Brace Up! and Fish Story drew on a documentary about an itinerant troupe of traditional Japanese geinin performers reduced to putting on ropey productions for tourists. The device echoed Donna Sierra and the del Fuegos dance troupe in LSD and the vagabond magicians in Frank Dell's The Temptation of St Antony. After losing funding due to supposed racism and sexism in Route 1 & 9, having Arthur Miller take out injunctions against them over LSD, having mystified audiences with St Antony and with people "barely coming to see our work", LeCompte saw the geinin troupe as a prophesy of what life might become for the embattled Wooster Group.
Of course, they have long since left behind their status as renegade outsiders. As regulars on the international festival circuit, their reputation as key figures in an evolving postmodern canon has been buttressed by a swathe of academic articles and books.
The group's layering of various source texts and cultural artefacts (especially film) against each other has now become so familiar that last year's Edinburgh Festival collage of Francesco Cavalli's Baroque opera La Didone with Mario Bava's 1965 sci-fi B-movie Planet of the Vampires had a deceptive ease to it that made some see the coupling as obvious rather than shocking.
LeCompte has often maintained that each show is a "piece about the making of the piece", and individual productions undergo a long process of evolution. It is fitting, therefore, that Andrew Quick, rather than attempting to document individual performances (the practical and theoretical problems of which he is very aware), goes behind the scenes to focus on the process, juxtaposing rehearsal notes and photographs, physical scores, technical drawings, video stills, promptscripts and so on to illustrate the diverse ways in which St Antony, Brace Up!, Fish Story, House/Lights, and To You, the Birdie! (Phedre) came to be presented.
Much of the information in this lavishly illustrated volume may be familiar to aficionados: David Savran, Susan Letzler Cole, Euridice Arratia and others have provided previous accounts of rehearsals, and the interviews with LeCompte and founding member Kate Valk that accompany each show's archival material frequently recycle old stories about how productions came about: how LeCompte often responds to others' suggestions for texts to work with (notoriously not having read Three Sisters, for example, and disliking Phaedra, before agreeing to work on them), how material is recycled from one production to another, the trial-and-error approach to decisions on what to include and how to present it, the pragmatic way in which casting often responded to circumstances of key personnel (such as Willem Dafoe's absence when filming, Ron Vawter's illness), and so on.
But the discussions of acting, the frequent use of in-ear devices and of how videos were used to create physical scores in House/Lights and Birdie! are very informative, and the reproduced scripts and physical scores annotated by the performers reveal much about more detailed choices and developments of moments in the productions. In passing, they also reflect the frequent frustrations that arise from working in an extremely open-ended experimental way, as LeCompte experiences "complete despair" on "the worst day of my life", and the work seems to pursue an "arbitrary unproductive tangent" in Birdie! (which she almost abandoned).
Quick's brief introductory and concluding essays make cogent points. While student readers might have benefited from a little more annotation of some materials, this book will be enormously useful to anyone teaching the company's work.
Greg Giesekam is a former senior lecturer in theatre at the University of Glasgow who now works with Ankur Productions. He has written extensively on contemporary performance, including the Wooster Group. He is the author of Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre (2007)