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Heather Woodbury performing "What Ever" at Surf Reality, NYC, 1996. Photo: Robert Strain.
Tracking America

Heather Woodbury in Conversation with Caridad Svich







[Heather Woodbury's epic tales for the stage take audiences deep into the unexamined crevices of American life. In her solo-show "performance novel" What Ever: An American Odyssey, Woodbury charts the stories of more than a dozen characters that make up a cross-country, cross-generational tapestry of outsider U.S. history. A raver from Oregon, a boho octogenarian artist, and a street-wise, crack-addicted prostitute are chief figures in What Ever's saga of displaced utopian dreams. In her most recent multi-actor piece, Tale of 2 Cities: An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks, fifty years of Los Angeles and New York history collide in a live "mix" spun by a young DJ. Spanning the years 1931-2001, the piece centers on the razing of a Latino barrio to build Dodger Stadium and an attack on an elderly Brooklyn woman at the Ebbets Field Housing projects. The text samples news stories from the past and present, creates an imagined audio grid of Los Angeles and New York, and mixes these with extended narratives of the extraordinary ordinary people who live in these cities. What distinguishes Woodbury's work as a writer-performer is her ability to capture a wide variety of linguistic idioms. High and low, uptown and downtown, country and city sounds all mix effortlessly in her texts. Poised between fiction and drama, her work refuses to enforce strict generic boundaries on the linguistic and imagistic streams of thought that enter consciousness. Elaborately woven and unruly, her plays are documents of forgetting -- of neglected and disposable pockets of a country tossed out onto the junkheap of history -- that are recorded by Woodbury's exacting and compassionate sensibility. I first met Woodbury in Atlanta, Georgia in 2005 where we were both contributors to Dad's Garage Theater's Live and Uncensored 8 ½ X 11 Festival. Since then we have kept up with each other as we have traveled disparate but simpatico artistic routes. This interview was conducted via e-mail from September 2006 to January 2007 as Woodbury was writing, staging and performing Tale of 2 Cities in Los Angeles at UCLA's Live Series and in New York City at PS 122, where she is currently in an artistic residency. ]

Caridad Svich: Realism is often a narrowly defined genre, especially in the American theater. We are obsessed with realism and its supposed by-product and chief value: authenticity. In the process, we often forget that it is all, after all, artifice. How do you approach the realistic conundrum?

Heather Woodbury: I like to tell students, and other captives to my windy pronouncements, that it's called realism and there's a reason for that. Naturalism is just another form of artifice, as is everything that happens on stage. There was this article that Margo Jefferson wrote some years back about how artifice is what distinguishes theater, or actually, what makes it necessary and unique. In film the artifice is much more total and enveloping and therefore less underlined. Theater, from the outset, is totally false. There's a bunch of people in front of you in the same room pretending to be elsewhere. So, it's truth, or authenticity, as you call it, that we're looking for by practicing these antics on a stage, which sometimes mimic believable behavior and sometimes not. When the whole project is overtaken by the pretense of being "real," then, in effect ALL you're doing is being artificial; you're hung up on a staging gimmick, essentially, and missing the boat on revealing anything new or moving or funny about being human.

Artifice needs to be boldly acknowledged. As a solo performer I had a scene in my play What Ever where the crack whore Bushie is beaten to death by yuppies near the Hudson River. Now, how does a person act out beating themselves to death? It's absurd. It's the height of it, the yuppies screech off in their car, and our bloody anti-heroine crawls to a cement overhang, watches the sunrise and dies. So, during this sequence, I had a big bottle of ketchup which I'd squirt all over myself after the yuppie characters "exited." What I found was that the audience would laugh and then be more horrified. By making them laugh, and using the fake ketchup blood, I was breaking through the "reality" of my story enactment, acknowledging that I was one person pretending. This dissipated the suspension of disbelief and made us all in one reality, a collectively imagined one, in which we knew that Bushie wasn't "real" but at the same time, we knew she existed and was beaten and kicked and bloody and dying as the sun rose over the Hudson. So it made it less realistic and more true. Somehow or another.

CS: A false dichotomy is often imposed on new theater writing: if you are to write a serious, political play and talk about the world, then it must be, well, SERIOUS and not engage simultaneously in the magical, outrageous, or frivolous aspects of culture. I'm amazed by how embedded this kind of thinking still is.

HW: Yes, and yet I've often thought that if one were to airlift, say, one thousand clowns into a war zone, hostilities would cease, through puzzlement alone. Art is on a different wave-length, a different vibration. It is social and political BECAUSE of that, not in spite of it. I really get tired of this demand from the arts funding establishment (which is probably a passing along of a demand made on them by their benefactors) for art to be "more" than art. For it to be social work. You know, outline precisely how you are going to educate and facilitate under-served communities. I believe wholeheartedly in connecting people, especially marginalized people, but I dislike when art loses quality in the name of inclusion. A work of theater can celebrate a community without didactically speaking for it. Let people speak for themselves. A lot of socially earnest theater is neither fish nor fowl. It's this muddy mash of intentions, where real people's experiences get grafted onto some Greek myth or another. I say, let the playwright be inspired by the social foment, by working with people on their own individual expression but let the playwright -- or director, actor, whatever -- be a complete individual too.

This de-glamorization is very old school communist, the "don't wear lipstick at the rally or you're not a real radical" syndrome. Ironically, these faintly Soviet or cultural-revolution-style theories, of art having to empirically and materially -- rather than transcendentally and spiritually-- serve the masses, are filtered down to the institutional theater world through funders who are generally corporate. I'm always amused how this outdated communist idea that imagination must be sacrificed to the "team" or collective is alive and well and flourishing in global corporatism. Okay, I went off on a tangent here. The point I'm trying to get at is that corporate funders want non-profit theater to prove how they are serving the under-served, addressing social ills, but it's superficial and a kind of bromide at best because they strait-jacket vision and imagination. Non-profit theaters have so many commercial pressures AND pressures to demonstrate this "feel-good multi-cultural all one big diverse family" social good that they don't often enough produce work that is alive (and I'm not saying it isn't good, but) that is alive enough to be transcendent, to galvanize people. Sometimes art seems more possible in the commercial world, where there's only the ideology of the sale to contend with, not that plus lip-service to, without the true support for, socially conscious ideals.

CS: What's doubly unfortunate is that in all of this social realism has been branded with the stamp of dullness and earnestness. But if you look at the roots of dramatic realism, at Ibsen's plays, for instance… it's hardly so.

HW: I think this may have to do with class. Ibsen wrote candidly about the bourgeoisie. People are afraid to deal with class and ethnic particularities in American theater. So, you get a lot of stuff about upper middle class people that is quite accurate and well done, but doesn't really SEE any other classes out there, that just assumes that their middle class existence is the human condition, and then you also get works rather overly respectful of the oppressed classes, which is de-humanizing. So, yes, it does get dull and limited and you can see why people might run screaming from it.

CS: Aren't we writers responsible, though, for seeking out and crafting new languages (emotional, pictorial, linguistic) for our stages that reflect the world?

HW: This is the question, really, if theater -- maybe live performance of ANY kind -- is to continue to offer something which can't be gotten elsewhere. Theater is the original interactive site, virtual reality, conjuring place. It, etymologically, is a "place" for looking at something. So, it is an atmosphere. It surrounds us in the texture of our contemporary reality. An example I use in music is that folk music, almost universally, incorporates nature sounds: flutes imitate birds; drums: water and thunder -- these aural signs composed the contemporary life texture of tribal and peasant people of the past. Now industrial rock music is the sound of the age of industry -- of the machine, of thrashing, grinding, screeching, pounding. So, those are scavenged from contemporary reality and put on a stage. It seems to me, in theater, we need to scavenge, quite assiduously from our contemporary worlds, if we want to remain pertinent. In this age of technology, of mind-boggling deterioration of nature and of post-modern advertising, what are the languages? I think, wow, so much content comes to mind: everything from billboards, to words on discarded candy wrappers, television, especially the sort of interstitial bits in television, what happens between the big splashy numbers. I find infomercials endlessly revealing and hilarious and who knows, maybe the natural world is returning to consciousness again? What do polar bears sound and look like as they drown? What did Hurricane Katrina look and sound and feel like?

Heather Woodbury as "Sable" in "What Ever," at P.S. 122 in 1995. Photo: Dona Ann McAdams.As for form, well, I gave my last piece, Tale of 2 Cities, the structure of a DJ mix, in an effort to reflect the kind of form I think people are receiving and synthesizing their world in. The DJ samples fragments from all over, and keeps a beat under it and repeating melodies that tie it all together. The DJ makes the fragmented and isolated world whole, or at least something you can dance to. I tried to do that with dramatic and literary tropes as my samples: lyric laments, old newspaper articles, lonely e-mails, interrogations, etc. We have to look at the forms we actually communicate in and respond to. Little portable screens, little bitty phones, blogs, group e-mails, video games. There already seems this urge on the part of video game aficionados, an incipient movement, to make the games real. To play them out in the world of the flesh. This sounds on the face of it kind of creepy and sinister but it could have some brilliant theatrical results. I do think there's a basic human need to see stuff acted out, live and in the flesh. Arte con carne, as it were. theater artists need to have fun with that, go find the new audience.

CS: What critics have started calling "post-dramatic theater" has managed to make an art of the current flesh, reflective of the fragmented, disjointed lives we lead and the connective strands that join us together. Why do you think the post-dramatic form hasn't found its way as prominently into the U.S. theater vernacular as it has in Europe?

HW: Money. There's a huge amount of support here in the USA for dramatic storytelling. Movies, TV and all that trickles down to theater, especially as so many plays and playwrights are auditioning to be in TV or movies anyway. And it is done brilliantly. America is at the top of this art form of witty, wry, engrossing, socially engaged yarns. Theater is often a sort of subsidiary art form, a lesser form that fertilizes the apex of the form which is TV and movies. In Europe. there's enormous support for theater to keep evolving. So, it has. And there's a much richer history of theater as a total, elaborately sensual art form. But in America's defense, we like drama. We're a dramatic nation. We're self-dramatizing. We like big, noble ideas and that's a good thing in some ways, though it can be dangerous and phony, but there's something very hopeful and romantic about it, earthy even, that I like.

I feel that I humbly follow in the footsteps of American writers and gatherers such as John Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, Imogen Cunningham, all of whom, with their disparate and glorious talents, had in common that they were acute believers in the cumulative eloquence of individuals' life experience. There's a deep extravagance in taking the time to collect and cull these voices, whether fictional or documentary, and there is perhaps something almost taboo or faux-pas, anyway, about taking that time to sift through and listen. Although my work is entertaining and dramatic, often even whimsical and melodramatic, there's also a weird anti-dramatic quality to it. The joy of just hanging out in the little ebbs and flows of incidental people and their conversations. There's a luxury in spending a stretch of time with characters. Instead of insulated television time why not communal time in a theater? It relates to what Jane Jacobs defined as what makes city neighborhoods unique: they're about unplanned human interaction, the alchemy of accidental connection with strangers, and to get that sort of deeply human, off-the-cuff kind of experience, you have to be willing to hang out for awhile, to let the unexpected unfold.

CS: Your work reaches for multiple perspectives and revels in contradiction. I have the feeling that this multiple perspective actually helps you acquire and mold your stories. Is that true?

HW: I do think the performing aspect helps me listen and transcribe, because it's oral literature. If you like. I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker once about these ancient bards in India who still recite these epic memorized poems or sagas in verse. These are a thousand years old at least. Tales passed from one illiterate peasant bard to the next. Now there are none left who know the complete story but between them the story is still told. People gather for a festival and hear one particular saga. It takes 30 days, twelve hours a day, to tell. Apparently someone once taught one such bard how to read and write, to facilitate writing these stories down. He immediately began to lose his memory for them and became dependent on the written word. I LOVED this fact. There's something passed from ear and eye to tongue to body that is immediate and wholistic and which the pen, the technology of writing, can interrupt, much as the technology of the camera disrupts the transmission of what happens in live performance. So, I do think I listen a bit subconsciously as well as deliberately and this can be the glue that makes my observations and imaginings more complete when they come out for the first time, either on page or stage. What I'm trying to describe is an almost instinctive, reflexive ability which I think EVERYONE has, to sort of instantly record and store other people's perspectives, but it's something that's gotten fuzzy and half-forgotten, this channeling, this intuiting. It's no longer practiced. I guess I'm trying to invent some new contemporary version of a ritual that would help us synthesize, and conjure up, who we are and what we want, truly want.

CS: Cultural tourism creeps into a great deal of new writing for performance, often disguised as travel. Storytellers and dramatists drop into a culture or several cultures, use what strikes them, and then move on and present the work under a veil of ethnographic, empathetic reading, but the voices and figures used still do not have their say or presence on stage. I am fascinated and troubled by the proliferation of cultural tourism (sometimes presented through the lens of commentary on globalization) that goes un-checked on our stages and performance spaces, especially with work that takes from the other Americas and Africa. I wonder how you position yourself in relationship to travel and being in effect a migrant artist who is also an L.A.-based artist .

HW: A friend of mine brought an Armenian woman to see my play Tale of 2 Cities and there's a one-minute scene where two customers are in a famous Armenian chicken place in Los Angeles and the man is trying to impress the woman and talking about a massacre -- a gun attack -- which occurred in another Armenian chicken place several months ago. He's just telling her this story to have something shocking to relish and chat about in line. Then they get their chicken and the conversation abruptly ends. All of this I overheard verbatim and it had a resonance for me about how horrific losses become just lurid, entertaining small talk, how everything can be consumed. Now the scene is quite funny and one thing that makes it funny is the spot-on imitation of the sort of no-nonsense, deadpan Armenian women who work the counter in this particular famous chicken take-out place. Apparently my friend's Armenian friend was dismayed by the scene and felt that Armenians only got represented as these chicken ladies with funny accents.

Heather Woodbury overlooking Dodger's Stadium, 2001. Photo: Nick Amato

Now, I would argue that the scene kind of referenced that there was more to Armenian experience than this, the echoes of another, discarded story of massacre within the lurid report of the urban L.A. gunman massacre. I would argue that the whole play is about the specifics of class and race and cultures and how as individuals we are both absolute products of those particularities and also absolutely transcend them, how these horrific losses and mindless consumings connect and bind, separate and implode us. But I could completely understand how that scene might have been, from her perspective, the most cursory and paltry representation of her culture. I don't know quite how to position myself other than as a human being with a specific class and race and cultural heritage and, yes, privilege and then take it from there by acknowledging those specifics and transcending them through empathy and imagination. It's like traveling. You can stay at the stupid resort and go on the guided tours, or you can meet local people, hang out with them, stay somewhere modest, try to contribute somehow to the place you're visiting. You're still an outsider though. Hopefully you find commonality as well as the delicious exotic. Hopefully you even see something about their culture they are too close to see and in turn they tell you something about yours.

CS: There is a spiritual element in your work -- a strong spiritual communion, sometimes trance-like -- that is suffused with concrete humor and detail. How do you seek communion and understanding with an audience? And have you ever engaged with audiences who have not been in communion, and how have you bridged the divide?

HW: I pray every day. I'm serious. I think we have to take faith back from the kooks, globally. To me, the stage is an altar and all art works are a form of elaborate prayer, an offering to the awesome, to that-which-is-beyond-articulation, the unnameable. Art is the repeated attempt and failure to name God. And that failure is something in itself and an offering to the ineffable.

In many venues, but especially in Austin, Texas, I had the pleasure of performing for audiences that were hugely diverse -- blue-haired Republicans from Abilene, Texas, together with nose-ringed squatter girls and everything in between -- and it was my greatest pleasure that the piece, my play What Ever, had characters with whom there was immediate identification and recognition and others who repelled and grated so that eventually the story wove not only the characters together but the audiences. To create this feeling of community with audiences was the deepest satisfaction I've ever had as an artist. As for the not-in-communion, in Galway, Ireland, where I performed for the most blessed, avid audience imaginable, I came to a climactic scene where my octogenarian heroine Violet has had her poodle gunned down by an anti-abortion protestor while she was escorting a girl to get an abortion, and she tells the comatose poodle about a frightening and life-threatening back-alley abortion she had as a young woman. Now, suddenly I realized I was performing the scene for an audience 100% with me but perhaps fifty percent divided on this moral, religiously freighted question. I was in a nation where abortion was still illegal. It was very emotional. Some older people left the house during the story; one, apparently, even got sick. But they returned and finished out the piece. I don't know what other art form can directly address something terribly divisive like that to those who passionately, sometimes violently disagree, and yet, keep everyone together in it, listening. Okay, perhaps music, but we all know music wins hands down as the great bringer-togetherer. Let's give theater this one.

CS: Are there artists whose methodologies or way of being in the world you are trying to pass down? And how?

HW: What I love about both Hurston and Mark Twain is that they were performers too. Zora, who was the first anthropologist to collect black American speech and folk tales, could reportedly hold a party spellbound for hours as she riffed in her "subect's" voices, embroidering on the overheard conversations she'd collected. Even those who despised Zora -- as many of her Marxist peers did -- admitted that she was endlessly entertaining and riveting, channeling these voices at parties. And Mark Twain, of course, was some form of proto-performance artist with his hilarious, prankish and brilliant extemporaneous lectures, which he performed to sold-out halls across the USA and in Europe and beyond. I love their celebration of the American idiom, and their rampant employment of that idiom for the exercise of their own imagination and erudition. So, there's that and also, not one particular person, but I think a movement, a cultural moment I grew up with, then came of age in -- the late sixties, the seventies, the early 80s -- everyone from Richard Pryor, whom I was lucky as hell to see at Radio City Music Hall when I was eighteen, to Ethyl Eichelberger, whom I saw doing her drag King Leer in a basement place called Eight BC in NYC, back when East 8th Street between Avenue B and C was about as bombed-out-looking as Dresden after WWII. There was a whole air of experiment, of freedom to riff, of riding off a whole MOVEMENT of people, a whole culture of irreverence and impatience and a belief in the magic of chance, of exploring the random, and that's quite gone, but I try to keep it as a beacon, that pure ecstatic avidity. I try to encourage youngsters to recognize it in themselves and let it burn, baby, burn.


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