FIND 2023: „You absorb those performances“

Ari Fliakos. Copyright: The Wooster Group
Ari Fliakos. Copyright: The Wooster Group

Sometimes it`s not easy to keep track, so I lost it while waiting for a picture of my interview partner, Ari Fliakos from the Wooster Group. So here it is along with a recommendation to visit this year’s FIND-festival in April. You can always discover a lot there.

Last year’s artist in focus was Elizabeth LeCompte with her collective „The Wooster Group“. The Wooster Group is a pioneer of postdramatic theater. LeCompte was not in the mood for an interview, so I had an inspiring talk with Ari Fliakos, who became a full member of the group in 2000. At FIND, a festival of new dramatic theater, they showcased their pieces „A Pink Chair“ and „Nayatt School Redux“. Fliakos talks about Elizabeth „Liz“ LeComptes method of developing pieces and explains why it reminds him of a piece of art by Max Ernst.

Ari, why did you join the Wooster Group as an intern in 1996?

I hadn’t seen their work, but a friend of mine said, that I have to come by “and see this”. I was interested in theater and I trusted my friend. The performing garage had a quality to it, that was very magnetic and appealing to me. I hesitate to use the word magic, but the garage had a kind of magical quality, and I was already kind of in love with the energy there in that space without knowing the Wooster Groups’ work. And then I saw the work and I felt like I was doing some kind of psychotropic drug.

How would you describe the Wooster Groups work? Is it postmodern theater?

So what we are is constantly changing. Liz didn’t come from theater. She’s not attached to any ideas about what theater should be. She’s an artist and works with the material she has. She works musically, she works visually, she works emotionally. But she doesn’t come to an emotional story by interpreting the words of the playwright, which is what a traditional theater company might do, for example.

So how does Liz develop a piece?

She uses the text as material. She is interested in the mind of the playwright and what their intention might have been and what they were exploring. And then other materials, the set pieces, the performers, the sound, the lights… All these things are also materials that are not necessarily one better than the other, one dominant over the other. Together they tell a new story. When Liz read in the in the New York Times, that William “Billy” Forsythe was stepping down as the head of the Frankfurt Ballet, she turned and said to us “this is the end of post modernism right now”. Immediately she wanted to make a piece about the end of postmodernism and about Billy Forsythe.

We trained with a Forsythe dancer to learn his techniques, but we were so far from being real dancers. In our piece “poor theater”, there was a piece about Jerzy Grotowski, who thought that actors must think with their bodies, a piece about Billy, who invented a new, minimalistic form of ballet. And in the middle there was a piece about Max Ernst. For me, this has always been the most poetic expression of what Liz has approached to theatre.

In what way?

Max Ernst wrote in his diary entries that he was interested about letting his gaze wander on the floorboards of the room that he was living in. He would see patterns in the floor. And he felt this urge to put paper on top of the patterns and rub a pencil on top of the paper and then this new form would happen. It would be an owl or another animal, or a new shape in nature or some kind of new shape would appear with the rubbing. And that expresses best what Liz does. What we do. We take a piece of paper which is us. We put it on top of some other artist or some text and we rub ourselves on it rigorously until a new form appears and this new form is the piece that made.

Is it true that you did a lot of video editing on “Hamlet”?

We were using Richard Burton’s Broadway production. When it was performed in 1968, they filmed it with 17 different camera angles. So we used those camera angles and interpreted them and we used the shifts in the camera and the close-ups. But because they didn’t speak in strict iambic pentameter verse as a way of performing, Scott, who played Hamlet, actually edited the entire video so that they would be speaking in iambic pentameter.

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The first piece you showed at FIND 2023, was “A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique)”. Could you explain the title to me?

In one of his manifestos, Kantor wrote about a kitchen chair in place of a fake antique. So we replaced that with our pink chair that we used in so many pieces of ours for decades.

Kantor was a postdramatic theater maker. Wasn’t it difficult to do a reenacting of postdramatic theater?

Yes, it was. We’re always coming up against our own failure to really be as good as, or as authentic as the thing we are replicating. We’re also very interested in what that gap is between us and them. But of course, as you do a piece over and over again for several years, you do get better and better at it and you start to internalize some of the qualities that you’re watching. You absorb those performances, and it becomes less difficult.

Do you have any space to be spontaneous?

No, it’s a very specific script and it`s very highly choreographed. We run one moment again and again and again until it’s exactly right. But even with all that, the goal is to be present and that anything can happen. As choreographed as everything is, the important thing is that we as performers are totally present. We have a lot of our materials playing in our ears and we’re looking at them. So there’s cues that we all know and that video people know, that sound people know. But mistakes happen so we use Google docs that`s updated all the time.

But what happens when a mistake is happening?

Sometimes it’s an opportunity and something fun happens, but it’s usually OK. Liz is there every day. When it`s bigger and Liz is not happy with what happened, then we’ll work on fixing it in the next rehearsal.

When I turned around during “Nayatt School Redux” I saw a child speaking the text. Normally the audience shouldn`t turn around. So what does it mean?

Erin who’s performing the part of Celia Cobblestone is watching my daughter, when she was ten. We had her say all of Cobblestone’ s lines, because Cobblestones spirit is a little bit of naive spirit. We didn’t end up using my daughters voice, but she has this amazingly, youthful energy, that Erin uses and watches during the show to get a kind of emotional tone that kind of feeds her emotionally.

The Wooster Group exists since 1975. Why does Liz look back so often? Is the Wooster Group a kind of living archive?

I just think that there is a an impulse from Liz and Kate as they get older personally to look back. Liz reflects on her work and to explores what nostalgia is without sentimentality. I myself personally wonder sometimes why we are looking back, but then we do it, I understand. It’s a complicated and fascinating thing to do.

More information
Elizabeth LeCompte was the artist in focus with her collective „The Wooster Group“ of FIND 2023, they showed „A Pink Chair“ and „Nayatt School Redux“ at Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz. The interview with Ari Fliakos took place at #find2023