Elizabeth LeCompte sits on a coil of rope piled onto a faded green plastic-covered sofa in a basement office at the New Playwrights' Theatre. Unlike the rest of the playhouse, the room is warm, probably because the furnace is in it, a desk nudged against its looming, yet comforting, bulk. Upstairs the stage is being altered to accommodate the Wooster Group, of which LeCompte is the director, and its production that opens tonight, "North Atlantic."
The Wooster Group has been brought to Washington under the aegis of the American National Theater's Peter Sellars, who is determined to blast through our theatrical parameters. In this case he may be thundering through on a bulldozer, scraping aside our expectations of such things as plot and character development. The Wooster Group is to traditional theater what the color green is to the number seven, to paraphrase radio humorist Garrison Keillor. It is part of the cutting edge, and LeCompte wields the blade.
"My feeling about everything is, if someone says 'you can't do that' -- especially in the theater -- then I want to do it immediately," says LeCompte. "Because that seems to me the only exciting place to go."
Thus the Wooster Group, whose seven members have been working together for about 15 years, is usually in some form of hot water.
*In the group's production called "Route 1 and 9," which used parts of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" as a focus, actors in blackface did a vaudeville routine, talked about how much they liked watermelon and talked in a stereotyped "dese and dose" type of speech. The segment was called racist, and the New York State Council for the Arts, finding "harsh and caricatured portrayals of a racial minority," withdrew its funding for that production.
*The most recent production in which the group has been involved, "LSD (. . . Just the High Points)," can be performed only under the threat of legal action from playwright Arthur Miller, whose play "The Crucible" is used in barely recognizable excerpts.
*A 1977 work, "Rumstick Road," was based largely on biographical recollections of actor Spalding Gray (who later took off on this idea to develop the monologues he brought so successfully to New Playwrights' last year). At one point Gray quoted his grandmother's begging him not to use anything she told him in a play, and played unauthorized tape recordings of his conversations with a psychiatrist who saw his mother before her suicide. The controversy around this play, LeCompte says, "brought up questions about the responsibility of the artist."
*"North Atlantic" has offended some because the women characters are all sort of generic "helping arms" figures called "nurse word processors." The dialogue is also, LeCompte says, "disgustingly obscene." At the same time, she says, "it is not real speech. It is obscene in an absurdist way."
If you don't understand, try this description of Part 4 of "LSD . . ." from The Drama Review:
"The video monitors project a Brecht-like legend: 'What is this dancing,' which is a line from 'The Crucible.' Certain of the performers, still at the table, recreate a scene from the G. Gordon Liddy- Timothy Leary debate . . . It begins with an obscene poem by Liddy and goes to an attack on Leary's morality by a Vietnam vet who was blinded by a shotgun blast fired by people under the influence of LSD. Leary's reply is confused and pathetic. This is followed by a grotesque and intense dance by four performers in cartoon style "Spanish" costumes -- the men even have grease-paint mustachios. 'Donna Sierra' stands on the front platform with the men on floor level on either side of her with sneakers on their hands. Donna Sierra dances to the accompaniment of pseudo-South American dance music. As she finishes a passage, the men slam the soles of the shoes onto the platform with great energy and flair . . . the action is repeated several times."
"I don't mean to suggest that we try to be controversial," says LeCompte, a lean woman in black corduroy jeans and close-cropped hair. "It happens. It's pretty hard now to break the rules. There's almost no reward in it anymore. You have to start looking for other reasons to continue. Yet I still manage to break the rules. It's a surprise to me." She says this with a genuine air of puzzlement. "In 'Route 1 and 9' I wondered, 'can I possibly make a piece with blackface in it that is not about race but is just about color?' Well, right in that is the impossibility. You can't get away from it. I don't think we'll ever know about that piece until it's separated itself from its initial controversy, years from now when the actual act of blackface is not taboo."
She has deliberately kept her profile low, unlike other figures of the experimental performance world, such as Robert Wilson. But she thinks her modesty is not necessarily to the advantage of the Wooster Group. "I don't like being watched in any way," she says. "So I tend to put a lot of barricades and covers in front of me."
At Skidmore College, LeCompte majored in visual arts, but she found that too lonely. She met Spalding Gray, who was performing in a small theater group nearby, and through him got involved with theater. After college she experimented with photography and ran a bookstore in Upstate New York, but gravitated to New York City with Gray, where both became involved with the Performance Group. Although she had little experience, LeCompte was asked by director Richard Schechner to be his assistant director.
"He was away a lot during the time we were making a piece called 'Commune,' so when he would go away on these jaunts to India I would just take over," she recalls. "So I got a lot of training in basically every aspect of the theater." In 1969 Schechner gave up directing for teaching, and LeCompte, Gray and a few others spun off into what became the Wooster Group, named after the street on which their theater is located. In the early '70s the group bought the space, known as the Performing Garage.
"What he Schechner wanted to see was a single-minded linear system where the person on stage would try to inhabit the emotion of the character he was representing," she says. "We have no interest in that. I don't like that redundancy. There's a separate life that happens on stage that is not reality . . .
"I work, oddly enough, very classically. I work from a script. And a lot of the images that come out are practical. Like someone will say, 'Why did that person lie down, stick one foot up in the air and put his head between the chair legs?' Usually there is a reason -- like there is a plug under the chair that the character had to get to turn the light on, and that was the only way I could cover."
Performers in Wooster Group pieces also run the sound and lights and change the scenery. They double in other ways, too. The technical director, Jeff Webster, understudies all the roles, including the women, and actress Kate Valk is also the costumer. Ron Vawter is a performer and the company manager.
LeCompte, 41, and Gray lived together for many years. Now she lives with company member Willem Dafoe (recently featured in the film "To Live and Die in L.A."), with whom she has a 3 1/2-year-old son, Jack.
"North Atlantic" is the first script the group has worked with that the members didn't create themselves. Author Jim Strahs has worked with the group before. LeCompte describes him as "a nihilist to end all nihilists . . . He's also a moralist. An American Beckett. He's talking about talking, thinking about thinking."
The process of forming a Wooster Group piece usually begins with a question, pursued in several arenas concurrently without any plan for hooking them together. One part may be filming one actor in Miami making calls from telephone booths, another working with the text of "Our Town," a third figuring out how to read from a book without being boring. LeCompte finds the patterns and puts the disparate elements together, sometimes while sitting for hours in a warm bath with a work board across it.
"I'm basically lazy," she claims.
Another work, based on Flaubert's "La Tentation de Saint Antoine," will be performed in open rehearsal at the Kennedy Center's Free Theatre next month. Sellars is codirecting with LeCompte. The piece is currently called "The Road to Immortality."
A recent $170,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its Ongoing Ensembles project has put the group on a secure financial footing -- comparatively -- for the first time, and has inspired plans for making films concurrent with theater projects.
LeCompte identifies with the German Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters, who made collages. "He made a kind of collage sculpture in his house that he added on to year by year until it finally burst through the ceiling and up to the attic. That's what happened to this work. One piece leads to another. And we just keep going . . .
"I have this vision of myself as a populist artist. I think the reason we're small is because of the ways of distribution in America. Yet I have a fantasy that if we could be properly distributed our audience would be much larger."