Power & Punk: New York's Avant Garde Lifers
Kate Valk with Sara Farrington
In this new recurring column, I will interview avant-garde performers, writers, directors, and designers who have dedicated their lives to forging New York's contemporary theater. These artists knew the rules and rejected them, gambling on new modes of expression and trusting impulses true to their experience. Each interview explores how they started, what keeps them going, the evolutions they've seen, what it takes and what it took to make a life as an artist in New York City.
My inaugural interview is with Kate Valk, who has worked with the legendary Wooster Group since 1979. Valk and founding director Elizabeth LeCompte are New York's avant garde elder stateswomen, defining and redefining experimental theater for a generation. I have a deeply personal connection to The Wooster Group. I interned at the Group when I was 25 and met my husband and artistic partner Reid Farrington there. I had a conversation with Kate about her life in the theater.
Sara Farrington (Rail): I thought of you right away for this series. You’re a gigantic hero of mine, and seeing you perform changed the trajectory of my life.
Kate Valk: Wow.
Rail: I saw you in The Emperor Jones at St Ann’s Warehouse in 2006, and all I thought when it was over was: I have to be around that. It never left me. Then I interned at The Wooster Group and met Reid there. So I have to just say that first. Knowing that I was going to talk to you, I re-consumed everything Wooster Group I possibly could. So I’m wondering: How did you trust yourself—at such a young age and up to today—to commit yourself to The Wooster Group?
Valk: I wasn’t making a conscious choice. I was following my intuition. I probably wasn’t going to pursue a career as an actor. I had gone to theater school—Stella Adler for God’s sake—then NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing. I had a wonderful time at school but I was looking for something else. At the Experimental Theatre Wing I met The Wooster Group, and I saw the work, and everything spoke to me without telling me exactly what. The whole world just turned on for me. I wanted to have a place to go every day and make things. It’s a precarious lifestyle. There’s not a lot of security in it. But there’s certainly great work. That’s still what I think. I’ve been lucky enough to stay in touch with that intuition. Even to this day, when I go to The Garage, I feel that. It’s a group situation, it’s not Liz—I mean, of course it’s Liz, she’s the visionary. But there’s this third thing. There’s me. There’s the people I work with. And then there’s this third thing we’re all working toward.
Rail: I love the idea of that third thing. Something that’s bigger than you, bigger than everybody. Making work that’s beyond your ego.
Valk: I’m thinking about it now because we are working on Brecht’s The Mother, and that’s in the play. The Mother is referred to by Brecht as a lehrstücke, or “learning play.” It tells the story of a mother, a widow, who has a son who gets involved in agitating at a factory. The mother doesn’t want him to be in a dangerous situation. So she gets involved with a strike, involved with the struggle. I don’t want to give away the end. But one of the song lyrics is about how she’s not just a mother and a son. They’re not just a mother and a son anymore because of this love of the third thing. That's a parallel I can relate to my own life. This group of people and this third thing.
Rail: Do you only understand that only after a lifetime of making theater? Because it’s a profound thing, that third thing, just as important as everything else in the room.
Valk: It doesn’t exist without the group of people.
Rail: To go back to you starting out: How was New York in the late ’70s/early ’80s different when it came to making a life as a theater artist?
Valk: Well, it was a lot cheaper then. There was more empty space. There was a different aesthetic. Every age has its medium. It’s much more expensive now. We’re grappling with how to keep the whole operation going. We’re so fortunate to have the theater, but we’re in an artist’s co-op. It’s three buildings with lofts—mostly painters, residential loft buildings, and The Performing Garage—called The Grand Street Artists Co-op. It was pioneered by artists. The warehouse had been abandoned, artists formed these coops or live-work spaces. You had to be an artist. They were all AIR buildings, Artist-in-Residence, which meant tax-exemption.
Rail: How could you prove that you were an artist?
Valk: Most of them were visual artists so they would show slides of their work or a view from a gallery show. That wasn’t the hard part—that was the good part, the tax exemption. They wanted people to rehabilitate these buildings. Then as real estate values climbed, there was The SoHo Agreement, which meant “yeah, you don’t really have to be an artist anymore.” And then all of a sudden it didn’t matter at all. Now the J51, the tax exemption, ended. So for the last decade there’s been almost half a million in real estate taxes every year. So it’s really changed. Really, really changed.
Rail: So it’s the expense then that changed contemporary theater making?
Valk: Don’t you think so? Space and time are at more of a premium. I’m not saying it's better or worse. I’m saying I was younger then, and I do feel like “Wow! I came up in a great time!” But young people now are coming up in a super interesting time. You can’t say things aren’t interesting.
Rail: Oh no. Which brings me to my next question: did you have a day job in the beginning, and how did that work with your artistic life?
Valk: Oh yeah. When I first met The Wooster Group and started making things for Liz, assisting her, I wasn’t being paid at all. I had a waitressing job at The Tin Palace, a jazz venue on The Bowery and 2nd. My shift started at 10PM and was over at 4AM. So I could run the show. I was stage managing Point Judith. I’d run the show, then go to my waitress job. The other job I had was at an all-night bakery. I was also a telephone operator at Ding-a-Ling Taxi—back when people called on a pay phone to get a cab. I’d answer the phone, “Ding-a-Ling, your address?” And the people would give you their cross streets. The radio dispatcher had to be a man. Otherwise I’d probably still be working there! I really wanted to be the radio dispatcher, but women weren’t allowed to be the dispatcher.
Rail: The one who sent the car out, like a 911 dispatcher?
Valk: The one on the radio who calls for the cabs. I also worked as a seamstress doing piece work, making bags and belts out of ultrasuede. That’s when I started working for Liz. That was the first thing she asked: “What can you do?” I said, “I can sew.” So I started first making things for her.
Rail: About the all night jobs: You would do a show, then work the job until 4AM, then did you go back to an apartment and crash for the rest of the day and do it all over again?
Valk: No, I gave up my apartment, I would go to The Garage and crash. I lived upstairs at The Garage.
Rail: There's a little dorm in the back, right?
Valk: Not anymore, it’s all storage, nobody’s lived at The Garage for a while. There’s so much stuff at The Garage now. All our trunks, archives, props, costumes, videos, scripts.
Rail: Moving forward in time, was there a role where you said, “Oh, I’m doing this forever, nothing’s gonna stop me?”
Valk: I loved all of them, I always felt that way. They're all different. Again, it’s that intuition thing. It’s engaging also because we own and operate The Performing Garage. It’s like running a small business. Keeping the company together, deciding what to do, where to go, who to do it with. But right from the beginning I had that feeling. I’d never met anyone like Liz. A woman, a director, an artist. People were in orbit around her visionary work. She was also so inclusive. If you wanted to be there, she would include you. If you really wanted to work. She likes to work with people who want to work.
Rail: I didn’t fully understand that concept when I was younger. I thought there was some magical Lana Turner moment when someone would point and say: “You!” But it’s completely the other way around. When Reid and I find someone desperate to be in the room, it’s a miracle.
Valk: Right?! You’re like, really? When they say, “I’ll do that! Let me do that! Here! Look what I did!” I kind of feel like crying.
Rail: I wasn’t very evolved back then. Now, having this road behind me, it’s much easier to say that.
Valk: Well, now you’re making your own work.
Rail: And being on the other side of it so long, I realize it’s just desire. Everything is. Writing plays is desire. Character is desire. Wanting to be in the room is desire. When it’s not there, it can be discouraging.
Valk: Again, it gets back to money. Not everybody is in a position to say, “I’ll do it because I want to.” We’re at a point now where we are a company. First, we pretended to be a theater company, and then we were a theater company; now we're a business, we pay people. Also, what’s different between then and now is our company is fairly big now, despite having to lay people off—we don’t have a bookkeeper or ME [master electrician] or TD [technical director] full time. We’ve done the “hire people when we need them” model because we can’t afford to keep a large company together. We did for a while, in the very beginning; as I said, time was different. The group could be smaller, and the work could take longer. It was okay that we made one piece every two years. But now we have to make practically two pieces a year. Because it is expensive to keep a company together and make theater which has no product at the end of it. When it’s over, it’s over. You don’t have some thing that’s going to accrue in value. It’s good that we’re doing Brecht because it’s all about that: means of production, labor, and value. We’re doing a Kickstarter for the first time.
Valk: You have to put a lot of work into it, but you put a lot of work into a grant. Write the grant, go through round one, round two, then all the accounting, maintaining the grant, reporting on the grant. We have to find different ways to survive. Of course we depend on individual contributions, box office, touring. This is another reason why it’s hard for people to form companies, make work over a longer period of time: the trend away from general operating support. It was after the NEA Four , when the NEA rescinded operating grants. There was a “chilling effect” on culture. People were doing work that maybe was viewed as obscene? Karen Finley? Was that obscene? Tim Miller? So now it’s project by project. You had to name the project, describe the project, tell what it was going to be. Then you’d get the grant. We’re doing that now, but on Kickstarter. We’re taking it to the people. It’s many small contributions, crowdsourcing. The way an outside candidate would get funds.
Rail: Exactly. So moving forward in time a bit: I re-watched Brace Up! and To You, The Birdie! (Phèdre), and I had questions about your process as a performer. And I would call you a performer. Because I don’t think it’s acting. I see a difference between performing and acting.
Valk: Oh yeah.
Rail: In Brace Up!, there’s an irreverence in that play that made me understand what Three Sisters was about.
Valk: Well, it certainly wasn’t irreverent.
Rail: What I mean is: it’s not museumy or precious when you do it. It’s got this real sound to it. Like, to most people, everything in that script is just so important to say. Then The Wooster Group comes in and just takes that out of it. And then suddenly you really understand it. For me, at least.
Valk: Oh yeah.
Rail: How do you do capture that tone as a performer?
Valk: You hit something right away when you said there's a difference between acting and performing. Liz wanted the frame outside of the play bigger than the play. This required a narrator, a person outside of the play telling you what’s happening inside the play. They used to have narrators in Japan for silent films called the benshi. They would tell the story, comment on the action, occasionally inhabit the dialogue. Precisely because I’m not an actress, I’m not going to be playing Masha, Irina, Olga, Natasha, or Anfisa. What I do: I’m good at physically executing tasks and talking to the audience.
Rail: That reminds me of To You, The Birdie! (Phèdre) and you sharing the role of Phèdre with Scott Shepard.
Valk: Totally, totally. That came out of doing the huge proportion of the physicality on stage and saying that very soap opera style language. They didn’t go together in one person. Splitting that came out of a long period of trying to make it work, where I did say the lines, then finally had to admit failure. This doesn’t work! Finally Liz said, “Kate, you stay on stage and move. Scott, you do the lines.” It grew together. It wasn’t a natural inhabitation of character, it was a construction of me almost like a puppet, like an inanimate object becoming the character telling the story. Scott, as the reader, was the voice.
Rail: I just think that’s the best thing about it. Did it feel like failure when you couldn’t get it right?
Valk: Oh yeah, terrible! Why can’t I do this? Then as soon as Liz liberated the lines from me, it was total freedom. It was deeply pleasurable to connect with Scott in that way. I was following him, and he was following me. Sometimes you didn’t know who was leading who.
Rail: I’ve worked on my own shows where I’m like: this script is shit. But I know it’s not shit, it’s just that we’re doing it wrong. It feels really bad to work on something for so long when you realize it’s dead. But then it can come back to life.
Rail: Which brings me to something Reid says he heard you say, which you heard [Wooster Group founding member] Ron Vawter say, which is, “Every mistake is an opportunity.”
Valk: Sure, but Ron wasn’t talking about rehearsal, he was talking about performance. If you’re on stage and something goes wrong, it’s a golden opportunity to be present. No one comes to the theater to see it done right. You go for transcendence. When something goes wrong, that means the room is open and there’s room for everybody. It just happened, it’s out of everybody’s control. So if you can watch somebody be in the moment, be present, deal with that, it’s the golden opportunity. I actually think there’s a lot of mistakes in the rehearsal room. And they’re not a golden opportunity. Sometimes they are despair. Despair that might last till tomorrow.
Rail: Oh I know. I wonder if you were starting out now, with the mind you had in—was it 1979, that you met The Wooster Group?
Valk: It must have been, yeah.
Rail: Would you have evolved the same way? Found the same like-minded artists?
Valk: I have no idea. What would I be doing? If I was born now?
Rail: Well, you would have had to be born in 1998 or so.
Valk: I was born in 1957. When I grew up there weren’t even ATMs in New York.
Rail: How did you get money?
Valk: You just had to borrow it from a friend! You would go over to so-and-so’s house and say, “Can you lend me five bucks?” To think of all the changes that have happened in my adult life is really amazing. I work with a lot of young people in theater who, for some reason, still gravitate towards it. I don’t know why. Does it have any relevance anymore? People can curate their own cultural experience. They’re all having very exciting lives. I can’t even pretend to know what it might be like or what I’d be like if I came of age in this time. There’s so much you have to stay in touch with now. What’s real, what’s true. Things are so unstable. There’s so much reality. Reality. Reality! How does a younger psyche deal with that? What’s the detrimental part of that? What’s the good part? Doesn’t that make you use more of your brain? There’s so much connectivity, yet they talk about how divided we are. But are we? I don’t know. Don’t people like to talk about it now not on a horizontal plain, but in terms of the stack? Stacked up realities?
Rail: It depends on where you’re getting your reality from. I get mine from like, The New York Times, which I feel is based in reality reality. But a lot of people don’t feel that’s reality at all. I think that’s why the theater is relevant, because we’re all experiencing the same reality for a minute.
Valk: But on the other hand, don’t all the same kind of people go see a certain kind of theater? That’s the trick. Maybe a different mandate in funding, more diversity in storytelling, maybe that will change things, bring more diverse audiences, hopefully. It’s hard to achieve that. What do they say? “Will there really be a disruption in hierarchy?”
Rail: Who says that?
Valk: I don’t know. Oh! “What does this do to disrupt hierarchy?” People want cutting edge, but do they really? Or do they want…I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Rail: I sometimes just want absolute silence. Another reason I love the theater. My kids are gone. Reid took them to go fishing.
Valk: Oh that’s nice! You have two boys?
Rail: Yeah, seven and four.
Valk: Oh, you’re so lucky.
Rail: Is that lucky?
Valk: Yes! I never had children, but I was always like, “I wonder what it’s like to be a mother and have a son?” It must be wonderful.
Rail: Yeah. They love their mom.
Valk: I’m sure you’re a wonderful mom.
Rail: Oh thank you, that’s really nice. But had I not seen The Emperor Jones I wouldn’t have them… I have to say: I studied O’Neill at the O’Neill Center, went to Connecticut College in New London where he grew up, took classes on O’Neill in his real house. I thought I knew him. But then I saw you do that show, and I was like: I know nothing about anything. It totally changed how I view theater, showed me how small minded I was. You’re just such a powerful performer—to avoid the word actor.
Valk: Some people can be both. I’m not really a very good actor. But that’s okay! Because I’m an artist, and I can be a very good performer. But acting is a real craft. I worked with Fran McDormand, Maura Tierney, really great people. And Scott and Ari [Fliakos]. They are really good actors. They can do both. But I can also direct! Just teasing. I’m really a performer.
The Wooster Group’s A PINK CHAIR (In Place of a Fake Antique), based on the work of the iconic Polish artist and theater director Tadeusz Kantor, will be performed at NYU Skirball Center (566 LaGuardia Place, Manhattan) January 23 - February 2, 2020. Tickets and further info: https://nyuskirball.org/events/the-wooster-group-a-pink-chair/
Through January 26, 2020, Carriage Trade (277 Grand Street, 2nd floor, Manhattan) will feature "The Wooster Group", the first exhibition of the Group, featuring archives, props, and performance documentation, emphasizing the Group’s unique contribution to both performative and visual culture of downtown New York for more than 45 years. Further info: http://www.carriagetrade.org/.