Disturbed, disruptive, and displayed across projectors and television screens, Norman Mailer infects the Performing Garage’s stage with his patented brand of misogynistic bravado.
Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte for the Wooster Group, The Town Hall Affair rehashes one raucous night in April 1971 when the now-defunct Theatre of Ideas staged a panel on Women’s Liberation with Mailer serving as an immoderate moderator for a group of distinguished feminist academics including Diane Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, and the culture critic Jill Johnston.
Using footage from Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s record of the panel titled Town Bloody Hall, LeCompte has her actors speak in sync with their counterparts on screen, blurring the line between the historical and the staged. Assisted by a team of designers and technicians, LeCompte introduces an element of subterfuge with a stream of audio, film, and media clips. For example, when Mailer and Greer begin to argue, a video feed suddenly appears on the theater’s back wall depicting two men wrestling each other; meanwhile, two of the actors begin to slap each other and tussle upstage.
This level of multimedia integration, although rare in the performing arts, is par the course for the Wooster Group, a theater troupe that has led the way toward a theater for the digital age, one that invests in technology’s capabilities for storytelling. What results is often closer in style and spirit to performance art or conceptual art, a deconstructed theater for expressionistic work.
Founded in 1975 by a group of diverse artists with interests in television production, music, and architecture, the Wooster Group’s plays have become battlegrounds for avant-garde theories on the way we tell stories, which, of course, is not without controversy. In 1984, the Wooster Group infamously received a cease-and-desist letter from Arthur Miller’s lawyers who were displeased with the troupe’s use of text from The Crucible in an aptly named show, L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…), which presented a stoned version of Miller’s play mixed in with texts from Beat poets, like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, as well as live rock music. In January of this year, the Wooster Group’s production of The Room drummed up controversy in Los Angeles when Samuel French Inc. leveled a restriction on publicity, promotions, and press reviews due to what they called “outside circumstances.” Samuel French did not release specific reasons for their decision to the press, but did eventually lift most restrictions except the ban on reviews.
So far, The Town Hall Affair has avoided ruffling any feathers. And while the play does revolve around the arguments of Mailer and Greer on the so-called “battle of the sexes,” the central figure of this piece is Johnston. In addition to her work as a journalist for the Village Voice, Johnston was a crucial leader for the lesbian separatist movement of the ‘70s. Throughout the Town Hall event, Johnston tries and fails to defuse mounting tensions with jokes and non sequitur comments. However, her comedy was not potent enough to dislodge either Mailer’s belief that women were physically and emotionally inferior to men or the panelist’s narrowed pedagogies on how men have historically tyrannized women. (For example, when all mayhem breaks out between Mailer, the panelists, and his largely female audience, Johnston whips out a referee’s whistle and starts to blow. Incensed, Mailer yells at her, and the female audience by proxy, “Hey cunty, I’ve been threatened all my life so take it easy.”)
Johnston’s pure outsiderness during the panel is what attracted LeCompte to her story. “Everybody else was an intellectual and she wasn’t,” LeCompte says, “She was a critic and a jokester.” At one point in the night, Johnston tries to upend the panel debate with a Sapphic audacity, bringing her friends on stage to simulate lesbian sex. Never at a loss for words, an emasculated Mailer mutters into his mic, “Come on, Jill, be a lady.” For LeCompte, Johnston’s anarchy that night was evocative of Fluxus art and happenings occurring in New York’s downtown scene during the late ‘60s — the same kind of events that Johnston wrote about for The Village Voice.
What the Wooster Group excels in is telling stories that are more than plot. This is threatening to the commercial theater world, which traditionally mounts plays with clear morals and tight narratives — plays that require minimal critical analysis. The Wooster Group is a rebuff to all that, turning the theater space into a stage of inquiry into the spectacle and ephemerality of performance. As such, The Town Hall Affair focuses on Johnston’s satiric presence as a remark on how absurd pedagogy surrounding gender can be. By investing time and technology into Johnston’s clownish role, this play avoids commodifying or neatly parceling the Women’s Liberation into any one box. Peering through the Wooster Group’s technological menagerie, we can see the battle of the sexes more clearly.
Advanced showings of The Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair continue at the Performing Garage (33 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through May 27.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Wooster Group received a cease-and-desist from Samuel French Inc. for The Room. This is incorrect; Samuel French Inc. leveled a restriction on publicity, promotions, and press reviews due to what they called “outside circumstances.” This has been amended.