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Artists in the Time of COVID-19: A Conversation With The Wooster Group’s Kate Valk

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This Lower East Side Artist Spotlight was written by Robin Schatell.

What is this…Week 9 or 11? Day 56 or something…since we’ve sheltered-in-place? “New York Tough,” as the Governor said.  NY Smart, too.  And creative and proud.  We make music every night at 7pm for our healthcare workers–spontaneous, cacophonous, improvisational—ok, so we stole the idea from Italy, but we made it our own. LES composer Frank London (with fellow composers Hajnal Pivnick and Dorian Wallace) created a “symphonic fanfare,” to be played by numerous musician citizens out their windows, in orchestrated and timed movements.

Everyone talks about the arts as being healing and nurturing, a connector. Much of that is true, but artistic experiences can also be thought-provoking, challenging, and questioning.  Experiences that make us examine the world around us–the ordinary and extraordinary, that prompt us to look inward, to think about where we are in our lives and where we are as a people (yes, I am thinking about these things, daily, as I shelter-at-home, after each Gov Cuomo press conference). Even the visceral kind of art–the loud, joyful, crowded musical experiences, gatherings with multitudes of people dancing, singing, swaying and laughing in sync with each other—can be transformative.

This got me to thinking about how strange it must be to be a stage actor without a stage. What do you do when the show can’t go on?

That was one of the questions I asked Kate Valk, my LES neighbor, a long-time company member and now Associate Director of The Wooster Group. Kate reminded me that it is not just about the stage, that she is an artist; an artist who works in theater, dance and media. The Wooster Group Director Elizabeth LeCompte comes from the visual arts — and they are making work, plain and simple.

The Wooster Group is artist run — an artist collective, according to Kate. “We are not programming a season. We are the board, run by the same people who make the work.”  And so, as artists, they create. There are no limitations on that for them. Of course, yes–money–as Kate told me, is in short supply. But ideas and creativity are not.

When they had to abruptly close their performance space, at The Performing Garage, on March 15th and stop work on their production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Mother, which was to have had its world premiere at the Wiener Festwochen festival in Vienna in June, Valk described the experience as jarring.  Everything has changed. The proportion has changed, the live theater part. We cannot be together, but we can still make work,” she said. 

So the group started working on a new project, via Zoom, right away. “Our work has incorporated [electronic] media for decades–there’s what’s live, what’s pre-recorded. In that way we are not a regular theater company,” she said.

Valk went on to describe The Wooster Group’s main performers, actors Ari Fliakos and Maura Tierney, as “knowing about the small frame. They are in their bodies even if they are not in front of you live. They know how to shift.” I try imagining what that must look like, shifting to fit the small frame. I guess that’s what actors have been doing for decades, shifting from stage to screen, to the TV, to the phone.

I’m reminded that I can actually watch Fliakos, Kate and the rest of The Wooster Group, do just that in the their 2003 production of Brace Up! which they are streaming online through May 15th, along with four other classic productions, including 1977’s Rumstick Road, created by Spaulding Gray and LeCompte, and featuring Gray.

I saw Brace Up! live when it premiered at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2003: Performers move on, around and behind a stage, while various portable television sets and giant screens capture their faces and bodies. Directed and shot beautifully by LeCompte, with a crew of six, the video is more than mere documentation; it is a filmed interpretation of their reimagining of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.  An exhilarating pleasure to revisit.

Kate goes back and forth to the Performing Garage each day. For safety and caution, just she and LeCompte work there. Kate tells me she loves her walk from the east end of Grand to The Wooster Group’s home on Grand and Wooster. A straight shot through Chinatown to Soho.

She’s been taking this walk for half of the 41, or so, years that she’s worked at The Wooster Group, starting out fresh from an NYU experimental theater program where she saw The Wooster Group’s first three pieces. She tells me she lived at the Garage in those early years, then moved to the LES intersection of East Broadway, Canal and Essex, before settling into her current Grand Street apartment.

The new work, she tells me, is for a new era of physical distancing. “A multimedia Covid-19 sensitive, physically distanced, audiovisual work based on Daniel Paul Schreber’s book, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. The Wooster Group plans to re-open their fall season at The Performing Garage as soon as possible, with the new work “…whatever way it will have to be,” Kate says. “Everything is up in the air. We work with other people remotely. We cannot ‘turn off’ and stop. Why should we? We [are working] with video and recording, and we still want to keep the group. We still have each other and we still have the Garage.”

I ask her how important the Garage—their “brick and mortar” home of 40 years—is anymore. “That will be the question,” she shoots back. “Do we need to all go to The Performing Garage anymore? Maybe it will be a living installation space. We’ll work physical distancing into the mise en scene…Perhaps we’ll open for six hours a day, to audiences of one to five. Who knows?”

Our talk turns to our neighborhood and the things we miss: Moishe’s bakery. The restaurants. Petisco, Dimes. The regulars at Nobel Deli. Ost. And, most importantly, the people on Grand Street. Our neighbors, like us, who are reimagining their own relationships to each other, and to their city, as best they can through these times of isolation and pandemic panic.

“I don’t know exactly what I’m doing,” Kate confides. “The art of Zoom, or the art of making art in a socially distant way. I will let the limitations define the project. Define the medium of the age. Find out what the possibilities are. What can you do now that you couldn’t do before? What other channels will open? I can only have hope.”

Spoken like a true artist.

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