Alyssa Alpine sat down for what turned into an in-depth chat with Ari Fliakos, who plays The Writer in The Wooster Group’s production of Vieux Carré (at Baryshnikov Arts Center through March 13). Fittingly, everything we covered had both a practical and conceptual angle: the significance of the Performing Garage space to the Group’s longevity, the function of the in-ear pieces the actors sport, and The Wooster Group’s undeserved reputation for deconstructionist work.
How did you get involved with The Wooster Group? You went to Duke and have a degree in Chinese history, so what happened?
The history department at Duke was amazing. The professors were really intent on helping students think critically about their environment, about history, and literature. And pretty much everyone was a Marxist, a card-carrying communist. I didn’t learn a lick about dates and I didn’t take away factual history, but as far as an intellectually challenging education, it was totally unexpected. But I’d always been doing theater. My mother was a dance teacher, and I’d done theater all through school. I didn’t want to pursue theater professionally—I didn’t think it was a legit thing to do.
But then Bonnie Marranca was teaching a class at Duke—I wasn’t in it—and a friend took me along to see Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider. I’d never seen anything like it. Up until that point, I’d assumed that theater was a live version of what you see in cinema, that acting was some sort of translation of cinema to live stage.
After graduation, a friend of mine was interning with The Wooster Group [WG] and said I should check it out. So I did. I interned at the WG and went there once a week for a year and a half , totally unknown to everyone it seemed—I brought people coffee, helped answer phones, I was just there to be around. It was the best day of my week, and I loved being in that environment. I was watching artists make work in a way that I thought was interesting. It was rigorous and fun, everything I thought that being an actor wasn’t.
So I was working in a restaurant, taking some acting classes and interning at WG. Willem DaFoe was doing a film and they needed some one to replace him in Fish Story [last act of Three Sisters]. They were touring to Bogota, Columbia, and the story goes that Peyton [Smith], a long-time member, said, “what about that Ari guy?” I was brought in, and a week later, I was going to Bogota. And that was that. For a couple of years, I was kind of a utility in-fielder, stepping in when needed. The first piece I made with the company was House Lights. I’ve been full-time since 2000.
The Wooster Group has evolved—there are some core members left, but there’s been a lot of transition over the years. So what makes it still “The Wooster Group,” with a very solid aesthetic? How has this been maintained over 30-plus years?
First and foremost, Liz (Lecompte] and Kate [Valk]. Liz in particular has been a constant, she’s the artistic vision of the company. But I don’t think things could be realized as effectively without Kate there with her all these years too.
And I think equally important is the space itself, the Garage. Kate has called it ‘creative real estate’. Our offices are there, our workspace is there. We never have to worry about where we’re rehearsing. Whether we are on tour or performing in NY, we always return home to the space. There are these practical considerations that the space gives, just financially, but the space itself has a kind of crazy spirit. It’s been very consistent in my experience. You go away and come back, and here it is. It’s comforting and dangerous.
Tell me about the process of making Vieux Carre [VC]. How did it start?
We’d never done a Williams play, and there are two stories that converge in terms of how the idea came about. We were doing a fundraising letter, and as part of this, we offered people the opportunity to vote on what our next show should be. Tennessee Williams came back a lot. At the same time, a grant was being written in the office and Liz was having a conversation about who was the greatest American playwright. Scott [Shepherd] came in and said, “what about Tennessee Williams?”. We ended up going to our cinematurg, Dennis Dermody, for a recommendation and he said, “you should look at Vieux Carre.” So we read it. Liz is usually very hesitant to cast, but in this case, she told me to read The Writer, Kate read Jane Sparks and Mrs. Wire, Scott read Nightingale and Tye.
Did you do a lot of background research?
In the beginning, we always sit around and read a lot of materials to each other. We even get a little fire going on the video, and the sound guys will play the crackling. We read Williams’ memoirs and other plays of his to each other, and watched videos and documentaries about Katrina. At the time we were dealing with the material , New Orleans and Katrina were inseparable. We went down there several times and visited nursing homes to try to get the voices of the old ladies in the show. A lot of what I came away was the aftermath of Katrina, the neglect, the decay, the rotting wetness that was still there a couple of years afterwards. There are echoes of this in the set: a watermark runs along on the sliding door. It’s subtle, but it all visually makes sense, it makes this story about people who are decaying, feeling neglected, and lonely.
Our work develops in a way that’s difficult to describe. There’s never really an idea that we start with. Liz works with what’s in front of her, so there’s this awkward beginning phase when there’s no material yet. Sometimes there’s a set idea we can work with. Most of our ideas develop from set pieces from the previous show, and Liz had the idea of splitting the platform into two moving parts. The basic idea for the set for VC came in very early and that was kind of the jumping off point for us as performers because we then had this architecture to negotiate.
The performers, sound, video people, we’re all there in the beginning, and we’re all material until Liz has a chance to edit it down. It’s kind of a muddy soup. It’s a slow accumulation once you start rehearsing of things that stick to the wall. You keep throwing things against the wall, again and again and again, and then things start to stick. Sometimes you tear it all down, and then you come back to it and you know where it fits. We tend to work in four- or six-week chunks, which is a tremendous luxury. If we’ve been working on a show for 2-3 years, it’s really much less than that. To be able to leave something and come back to it isn’t something people usually have the opportunity to do in the theater.
We made the first part of the show, the first seven scenes, one night in Paris about two years ago and then we slowly added onto the end. So it became about the process of closing the gap between the first and second half of the show. We really found the show then, this idea of the writer making it—the anxiety, the frustration, and the ecstasy of creating became a reflection of our own process of creating the work, and also driving it. It made it come alive.
In terms of how you approach the role of The Writer, do you see it as central to the play, the conjurer of the characters, or more as a fly on the wall?
The role is very much written as a fly on the wall, but as the creator and observer at the same time. In all our work, we’re never pretending that the thing you’re watching isn’t being made by us. It does fit well with us that there’s this character at the center that is creating the show as it’s happening. It allows us to comment on ourselves in a fun way, in a way that sometimes we don’t have the luxury of doing. Once we hit on that, this idea gave us a lot of freedom, that these characters are figments in the writer’s mind. It gave us the freedom to do a lot of things Williams writes about in the stage directions, references to surreal, absurd moments.
After awhile, it become clear to me that this was a memory play, written in the 1970s about the 1930s, this old man looking back at his youth, but it’s also a fantasy play, with things being dreamed about. This helped us wrangle with the material and it really frees us from a sense of nostalgia—it’s not back in the day, but it’s actually moving forward.
You’ve been quite faithful to the script, more so in this show than other WG productions?
There is a priority, almost always, in our work to make the text clearer, make the material clear. Sometimes our reputation for quote/unquote “deconstructive theater” is unfair, it’s not an intentional thwarting of the playwright, but in fact just the opposite—it’s an intention to lift it into something we can experience today. It might be correct to say that the narrative and characters of the play, as material, might seem to have more prominence here. There’s very little to escape that as it’s written, we just use some of our tools to make this more legible.
Speaking of tools, what exactly is the function of the in-ear pieces you all wear?
It’s something we’ve worked with for awhile. In the past, it was a way of recreating something in real time, where we’re saying the things we’re hearing, and executing what we’re seeing. In this piece, it’s a little bit more advanced. We have a text we have to perform, and we’re listening to source material that informs the rhythms, speech patterns, the cadences of the words. It’s not at all what we’re supposed to be saying, but there are qualities in the performance of what we’re listening to that inform what we’re doing onstage in real time. This bumps up against the text in random ways, it’s not set. It’s a tremendous gift, it takes away the responsibility of creating something on your own. It’s happening in real time, and if there’s a skill to develop, it’s giving over to this.
Have you seen any performances recently that made an impression on you?
I’m not so interested in theater as a form. As a medium, I much prefer tv or film. Whatever I feel like what we do is much more related to that working process than theater usually is. You’ve got all these technical issues to deal with—the setting up, the waiting, the creative problem solving around the weather, the specifics of the shot. Within those technical restrictions, you have to find a performing freedom.
I’ve developed a real admiration for good children’s performers. If you can be cool and entertaining for a small child, that’s really amazing. I think a lot of good performance is about trying to temper of the humiliation of the performative situation and turn it into something powerful, transcendent, and experientially satisfying. There’s something inherently humiliating about the act of getting in front of people and performing. But at its best, it’s a kind of pure engagement, and it takes something really subtle to arrive at this, without being self-conscious.
Musicians have it the easiest, that mask is so strong—it’s all about their music and performing their instrument. The trick for us as live performers is how can we make our mask with our instruments and the tools we’re using onstage. To the extent to which we can do this, in the way a musician uses his guitar, goes along ways towards how successful we are.