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In its first visit to Texas, the legendary Wooster Group interprets Black work songs and toasts

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore in "The B-Side: 'Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,' A Record Album Interpretation," which will play at the McCullough Theatre on the University of Texas campus during the Wooster Group's first ever visit to Texas.

Go to YouTube. Search for "The Wooster Group."

Excerpts from more than a dozen performances by this New York-based experimental company, which makes its Texas debut Jan. 26-Feb. 3 on the University of Texas campus, will pop up on the screen.

While in Austin, the troupe will present "The B-Side, 'Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,' A Record Album Interpretation," along with a workshop version (for one public performance only) of its follow-up show, "Untitled Toast."

At first, it might be hard to decipher what's going on in these YouTube samplings from the immensely influential company that goes back at least to 1975 and grew out of The Performance Group, itself founded in 1967.

Even without previous exposure to the Wooster Group, which has informed the work of several top Austin troupes, certain patterns quickly emerge.

Lots going on: A Wooster stage is rarely still. Focus is often split among various onstage elements, giving the audience freedom choose where to look and listen, which can be liberating, but at times appears chaotic.

Screens and sounds: Video, livestreaming, audio recordings — sometimes taken from earlier experiments with the work — almost always accompany the fast, energetic, even rowdy live performances. The company pioneered this technique, now widely used.

Nevertheless, familiar words, music or action crop up: The typical Wooster show is not incoherent. It begins with a reasonably recognizable source in literature or, in the case of "The B-Side," Black prison work songs recorded in the 1960s. The fun comes in the ways those sources have been radically reinterpreted through a lengthy series of rehearsals and workshops.

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If that sort of creative process and staging sounds a bit familiar, you might have already seen Austin performances by this city's Rude Mechs, The Vortex, Salvage Vanguard, or perhaps a show at Fusebox, the city's global performance festival, that at times echo these titans of experimental theater. 

"It's an embarrassing cliché to say you've been influenced by the Wooster Group," says Shawn Sides of the Rude Mechs. "It's like name-dropping Beethoven or Shakespeare. They've influenced everybody. They've influenced people that don't know they've been influenced by them."

Eric Berryman wrote much of "The B-Side: 'Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,' A Record Album Interpretation," and he is the principal performer. The Wooster Group, which produced the work, is known for multimedia staging.

What we will see in Austin

Interviewing two members of the Wooster Group via Zoom is somewhat like watching a real Wooster Group show. In this case, talking with writer and performer Eric Berryman and longtime Wooster Group actor and director Kate Valk — who spoke from a workroom at the Performing Garage in New York – was like interpreting a live performance encased in an art installation.

Archival boxes rose in the background. The duo moved furniture and changed screens during the interview. Electronic noises burst out of nowhere and unidentified figures appeared on the margins of the frame.

How did "The B-Side," which has toured far and wide, come about?

"I had been developing a touring a show about the legend of John Henry, the American folklore hero, with Anne Bogart's SITI Company," Berryman says. "Researching the John Henry legend, I went deep into work-song collections, including a Lomax recording."

John Lomax (1867-1948) and Alan Lomax (1915-2002), father and son, were pioneering ethnomusicologists who, in the 20th century, rescued folk songs, in part by recording them. They were based at UT in Austin .

"I found Bruce Jackson recordings of the last remnants of the work song," says Berryman, who preserves a collection of vinyl albums. Jackson recorded material in Texas prisons during the 1960s. "I knew something about this music, and it was weighing on me artistically."

Then Berryman saw a performance of the Wooster Group's "Early Shaker Spirituals," a dance-heavy show based on an album of ecstatic spirituals.

"I had a light bulb moment about what they did. I thought the Jackson record could be a good place to start. It features my people in an amazing way," says Berryman, who is Black.

In order to understand the words in these prison work songs, Berryman transcribed them from the record, as he listened to it over and over.

Valk interjects: "That's a very Wooster Group method."

"I was having trouble with certain sections," Berryman says. "I Googled Bruce Jackson, emailed him, and within a day or two, I received a response. He said: 'There are liner notes that went with that record. And a book that I wrote.' Things started rolling. I didn't have the liner notes!"

Later, after "The B-Side" was born, demand for the original Electra album took off, and it was remastered. Jackson rewrote the liner notes for that version. 

"Jackson had recorded all up and down the Texas Department of Corrections prisons," Berryman says. "But the bulk of what you'll hear came from the Ellis and Ramsey units. ... He chose maximum security and geriatric wards to record songs of the oldest prisoners"

Berryman started to work with the Wooster Group in 2015 and premiered "B-Side" in 2016. Troupe founder Elizabeth LeCompte designed the show, which centers around a desk, a mic and an audio board and includes two other performers besides Berryman, who ends up sounding like a late-night talk show host, Valk says.

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"I'm really co-directing with Elizabeth LeCompte," Valk adds. "We've collaborated for more than 40 years. She reinvented the monologue form with Spalding Gray.

"Eric came to us with so much content, and he was attracted to our methods. We've always worked with recordings, and recreating recordings in a documentary way. Eric and I have been recording everything that happens in the rehearsal, so we've had an interesting time developing it."

The results have been widely praised.

"Nothing short of transcendent," judged a New York Times critic in a review. "An extraordinary masterclass in listening."

Berryman adds a key historical note about the timing of the Jackson recordings.

"The work song was dying out," he says. "Mechanization was coming in. Crews becoming integrated. White guys couldn't get the rhythm of the songs. The Black prisoners said: 'We'll end up chopping off our fingers because they couldn't get the rhythm right.'"

Philip Moore in the Wooster Group's "The B-Side: 'Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons', A Record Album Interpretation," which plays the University of Texas campus.

From work songs to toasts

Along with "The B-Side," The Wooster Group will present a one-night workshop performance of Berryman and Valk's next project, temporarily titled "Untitled Toasts." Both shows will be presented at UT's McCullough Theatre, which for these purposes will be reconfigured to put the audience on the stage.

The artists will spend much of their non-performance time in Austin working on "Untitled Toasts" in residence, while interacting with faculty and students. Still-new Texas Performing Arts director Bob Bursey can put together the resources and personal connections to make this kind of magic happen.

The subject of the workshopped play is "toasts," a folk street poetry form, often bawdy and now almost extinct. Usually performed by Black men for other Black men, each toast shares a structural affinity with previous toasts. Performers add their own material.

"It's very personal," Berryman says. "You could find it in any part of the country that had a Black urban center, not just the South. It was very popular, for instance, in Philadelphia."

Again, the starting point is a Jackson album that preserved this virtually lost form.

"One popular toast was 'Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me,'" Berryman says. "It is sometimes titled 'Shine in the Titanic,' or just 'Titanic.'"

In this toast, a fictionalized lone Black man working in the lower decks of the Titanic sees water pouring in and warns everyone to jump overboard and swim, but nobody listens to him. When they realize that the ship is really sinking, they ask him to return and help them. It ends with his retorts as to why he will not.

"Those are the points everybody uses," Berryman says. "There are hundreds of variants, but with the same beginning, middle and end."

"It has all kinds of complicated rhythms and forms," Valk says. "But when you take something that was done in smaller environment — and all male — and you bring that to all audiences — paying, mixed audiences — there's a push-pull to the content." 

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Valk and Berryman remark on the fact that, during their first time in Texas, the two works came out of recordings of culture from our state.

"What I think is special about the new piece is that we are showing it in process," Valk says. "We do work in progress in New York as a way of further defining a piece. It's a risk for us, but it's also an exciting challenge, and a special thing for audience. That charge that happens in the room — we love that part."

While Berryman is gratified to hear that the Austin theatrical community has expressed intense interest in the Wooster Group's Texas debut, he hopes other Austinites will come.

He hopes for as wide a base as possible, "people from all walks of life," he says. "People who are interested folklore, musicians, academics, poets, and those who are in Africana studies, too."

Jasper McGruder performs in "The B-Side" when the Wooster Group makes its statewide debut at UT.

The Austin theatrical link

I'm not going to try to disentangle the roots of the Wooster Group in this short space. Yet a bit of background can't hurt.

During the late 1960s, Richard Schechner emerged as the guru of performance studies, a newish field that looked at performance — not just theater — as a way to see and understand the rest of the world. In 1967, the editor, theorist, professor and producer founded the Performance Group in a large, open space called the Performing Garage.

Under trailblazing director LeCompte, the troupe grew into the incredibly prolific Wooster Group during the 1970s. As its earlier names indicate, the performer and performance remained at the center of the action.

For a small avant-garde company, it often provided theatrical freedom to actors such as co-founder Willem Dafoe, monologist Spalding Gray and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand. 

As early as the 1980s, Austin theatrical artists found themselves inspired by this troupe. Among them were the creators of the Vortex, perhaps the city's longest-running experimental theater. 

"The Vortex was birthed through inspirations from artists, including the Wooster Group, who were shaping postmodern performance," says Bonnie Cullum, who founded the active East Austin company in the late '80s with Steve Bacher. "I was personally inspired by Elizabeth LeCompte’s courageous vision and the way that the ensemble created together, shifted roles, took risks, and stirred up controversy."

The Rude Mechs, who have taken their leading-edge work far and wide as well, explicitly acknowledge the Wooster influences.

"The smartest thing I ever heard said of the Wooster Group was by Mark Russell — UT theater grad! — at some Indian restaurant in Manhattan," says Kirk Lynn, primary writer for the Rudes, who also teaches playwriting at UT. "He mentioned to a table of us that, for a time, something like: 'The Wooster Group has become the font in which theater is published.'" 

"Multimedia, fast, offensive, intertextual," Lynn recalls. "We wanted to learn their magic and make spells of our own. But maybe more than anything these days, I pine for the Wooster Group's acknowledgement in every show, that we are all in room the together. The actors might sometimes be characters, but they are also actors who can see the audience and celebrate with us our gathering to be confused together about the universe's big performance."

"The B-Side" interprets an album of Black prison work songs, which were beginning to disappear during the 1960s.

If you go

The Wooster Groups presents "The B-Side, 'Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,' A Record Album Interpretation"

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26-29

"Untitled Toast" (a workshop)

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4

Where: Both performances are at the McCullough Theatre on the UT campus (2375 Robert Dedman Drive)

Info:texasperformingarts.org, 512-471-1444