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As Elizabeth LeCompte’s theatrical take on a controversial 1971 debate about women’s liberation heads to the Sydney Festival, the director talks about art and feminism, then and now. “We thought [The Town Hall Affair] was too urbane and distant for most people to be interested in,” she says plainly, but “things just broke around it”. By Josephine Tovey.

Theatre director Elizabeth LeCompte

Wooster Group co-founder Elizabeth LeCompte.
Credit: ZBIGNIEW BZYMEK

It has been variously described as the event of season, a landmark moment for feminism and a disaster for women.

On a spring night in 1971, Norman Mailer staged what was billed as “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” – an event at New York’s Town Hall, in which he would appear on an all-star panel with four women. Among them were a 32-year-old Germaine Greer, fresh from the publication of The Female Eunuch, and the lesbian separatist Jill Johnston. Both Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett reportedly refused to participate.

Mailer hurled epithets like “cunty” and “harridans” at female hecklers, suggested the “miserable, slavish” lives of women were the result of their own “profound reservoir of cowardice” and offered acerbic critiques of the women speakers. For her part, Greer delivered an elegant evisceration of the cult of the male artist, whose way, she said, was “strewn with the husks of people, worn out and dried out by his ego”. Johnston delivered a poetic manifesto on self-love and lesbianism, and capped it off by rolling on the stage floor with two adoring women. Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan, both in the audience, stood up to take on Mailer.

The event became a documentary, called Town Bloody Hall, and now a work of theatre, named The Town Hall Affair.

The latter is the work of the Wooster Group, an experimental ensemble founded in downtown Manhattan in the mid-1970s and known for taking existing texts – in this case the documentary – and deconstructing them, reimagining them as a kind of four-dimensional collage, often incorporating mixed-media, music and words. They are frequently credited as transforming the very concept of what makes theatre.

At the group’s helm is co-founder and legendary director Elizabeth LeCompte, who will bring The Town Hall Affair to the Sydney Festival in January.

LeCompte lived in Manhattan at the time of the original event, but she didn’t join Mailer and Greer in the town hall that night.

“It wasn’t in my world ... it was too conventional at the time for me,” the 73-year-old says with a small laugh.

We meet on a snowy Thursday in the Performing Garage – the Soho warehouse that has been home to the ensemble since its inception.

The neighbourhood is now home to designer fashion stores and multimillion-dollar loft apartments, but back then it was the heart of avant-garde New York, adjacent to Greenwich Village and a hub for artists, folk music and radical politics.

Sitting in the cluttered office upstairs from the small theatre, a rack of costumes behind her, members of the ensemble busily tapping away at keyboards in the adjoining room, LeCompte is warm but matter-of-fact.

Small and silver-haired, she has little of a star director’s pretension about her, and claims she doesn’t even like the title. “I only call myself a director because I have to,” she says. She expresses no sentimentality over the gentrification of her neighbourhood, either. “I don’t know if it’s affected the work,” she says. “It’s certainly affected our ability to have a cheap lunch.”

 

The idea for this show came after one of the actors in the company showed LeCompte the documentary Town Bloody Hall.

She was particularly intrigued about the way the women related to Mailer, who she described as “an elite”, allowing him to hold the event in the first place and more or less control the proceedings.

“Something that could never happen now, where nobody was screaming, ‘Fuck you,’ ” she says, before catching herself, “Well, a couple of people were.”

“I was also interested in the fact that—” she pauses, craning her neck around in the direction of her colleagues in the next room.

“Hey, what’s her name, who wrote the book we took from…” she calls out.

“Jill,” a voice replies.

“Thank you,” says LeCompte, turning back to me.

“Jill Johnston. I remembered her from when I was young. I was kind of interested in her when I saw what happened to her in the actual tape and how she dealt with her place in the line-up of literati and glamorous writers.”

Johnston was a rebel herself – a writer for The Village Voice, proudly gay and the woman who seemed to most irritate Mailer, on a night when many vied for that title.

She dressed casually – a denim jacket adorned with patches, jeans and aviator sunglasses – and eschewed the chance to give a conventional speech, instead delivering a kind of free-verse, poetic treatise on lesbianism.

Johnston told the crowd that night that “until all women are lesbians, there will be no true political revolution”.

As her manifesto ran on and on, a frustrated Mailer cut her off – “Come on, Jill, be a lady!” – and called on the crowd to vote as to whether she should be allowed to continue.

Moments later, two women rushed the stage to kiss Johnston, exuberantly tackling her to ground.

Mailer brayed. “It’s great that you pay 25 bucks to see three dirty overalls on the floor when you can see lots of cock and cunt for $4 just down the street,” he said, alluding to nearby Times Square.

Johnston left the stage and the hall moments later.

“I thought, I’m going to track Jill, instead of just doing it as it was done,” LeCompte says now. “So I recut it around Jill’s speech and had that frame it. That was very satisfying, because she hadn’t gotten a chance to complete it, and I gave her the chance.”

The character of Johnston, played by Wooster veteran actress Kate Valk, became the show’s protagonist. The piece is bookended with monologues developed from Johnston’s writing, including her real-life subsequent denunciation of the debate as a “disaster”.

“Just appearing at Town Hall was to acknowledge Mailer,” Valk, as Johnston, tells the audience.

“And to concur in the tacit premise of the occasion – that women’s liberation is a debatable issue. In this sense, that the event occurred at all, it was a disaster for women.”

 

LeCompte wasn’t part of any political group back then and didn’t necessarily identify as a “women’s libber”.

“I identified with men in my early years more than women because men were doing the things I wanted to do,” she says.

But it was impossible to be a female artist at the time – or indeed now – without being tuned in to feminist issues, she says.

LeCompte co-founded the Wooster Group in 1975. Born in New Jersey, she had wanted to be an artist since early childhood. She studied fine arts and went on to paint and practise photography. Though her background was in visual arts, she was asked to become a designer and then assistant director to Richard Schechner at the Soho theatre ensemble Performance Group around 1970. Her then boyfriend, actor Spalding Gray, was a member at the time.

“I really liked it, because I could design the sets and work with the actors. But I not only liked it, I thought, ‘Liz, you’re good at this.’ ”

She and Gray, along with Valk, Willem Dafoe, who would become her partner for 27 years and father to her son Jack, and three others, eventually established the Wooster Group in the same downtown warehouse that the Performance Group called home, and where they still exist today. Then, as now, she conceived of their work more as art than theatre.

“The traditional director usually starts with the text,” she says, “and then has an idea, a scene, about the text, and then he casts according to that theme and that idea, and then he works with the artists to come up to that idea. I find my idea in the people I have around me.”

The make-up of the ensemble group has changed a lot over the decades but at its crux remains three women – LeCompte, Valk and producer Cynthia Hedstrom.

Gray (who died in 2004) and Dafoe (no longer a member of the ensemble, though he remains credited as an associate) are perhaps the most famous members of the founding troupe, both crossing over into film. Dafoe is expected to gain his third Academy Award nomination in the coming months for his role in celebrated indie film The Florida Project.

LeCompte says the women performers in the company have typically had a harder time breaking out of theatre and onto the screen.

“The women don’t get those roles still,” she says. “They’re not beautiful in the conventional sense. And the men don’t have to be. It’s very difficult.”

In characteristic Wooster style, The Town Hall Affair is not a direct restaging of the debate but rather a sort of remix.

The documentary, by filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, screens silently in the background. Mailer is played by two actors simultaneously – a practical decision to use two of her strongest male ensemble members, LeCompte says – who fittingly take up a lot of space and eventually come to blows with one another. There is music incorporated, as well as moments from Maidstone, the film created by and starring Mailer from the same period. The actress playing Greer, Maura Tierney, also plays Mailer’s wife in re-enacted scenes from Maidstone, perhaps a nod to the flirtation LeCompte perceived between Greer and Mailer.

This style of theatrical pastiche is the group’s trademark – New York magazine once cheekily ranked their productions along a continuum from “cogent reinventions” to “impenetrable messes”.

Another consistency has been its propensity for controversy – from legal stoushes with playwrights such as Arthur Miller, who objected to their reinterpretation of The Crucible in a show called LSD, to criticism for cultural appropriation in a recent production called Cry, Trojans!, a reworking of Troilus and Cressida that depicted the Trojans in First Nation-style costumes. Time Out’s reviewer remarked the redface made her “stomach turn”.

“I’m really ignorant of that,” LeCompte says of criticism they received. “Because I look at Richard Prince and I look at so many artists who are using all kinds of things, I look at Gauguin, I look at Picasso, who are integrating other cultures. I think my head is in art always so sometimes I miss cues that say, ‘Uh-oh, you should not do this.’ ”

 

It is hard to watch the battle of the sexes in LeCompte’s latest work – Mailer’s unabashed sexism and Greer’s critique of vainglorious male artists – and not think of the misogynist in the White House, or the #MeToo movement that has seen giants of the film and television industry toppled by revelations about their history of sexual misconduct.

The Town Hall Affair inevitably makes one think at different moments about how much, and how little, has changed.

LeCompte, who began developing the show in 2015, said it was never meant to be a direct commentary on current affairs but the timing has been serendipitous.

“We thought it was too urbane and distant for most people to be interested in,” she says plainly, but “things just broke around it”.

She looks out at the room of activity happening beyond where we are sitting. “That often happens, that kind of thing where you don’t realise why, but it’s in the air, and you pick it up.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "Wooster source". Subscribe here.

Josephine Tovey
is an Australian journalist based in New York City.

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