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How The Wooster Group brings a 1971 debate on feminism to new life

Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk in the Wooster Group's
Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk in the Wooster Group's "The Town Hall Affair."
Paula Court

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What happens when a 1971 town hall debate about women's liberation gets dramatized by an experimental theater company?

The Wooster Group’s production, called "The Town Hall Affair," is playing now at REDCAT in Downtown L.A. The original debate at the center of all of this took place in New York City nearly 50 years ago.

It ignited after a literary feud between two prominent authors. In her book "Sexual Politics," Feminist writer Kate Millet painted Norman Mailer as a sexist. Then, Mailer fired back with a controversial Harper’s Magazine essay called "The Prisoner of Sex." This caused an uproar in the feminist community and so a debate was arranged to hash things out.

On stage, Mailer was joined by feminist thinkers Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling.

In the audience were the who’s who of New York’s literary scene, including Susan Sontag, who took the mic to address Norman Mailer:

This clip comes from Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's 1979 documentary about the meeting called “Town Bloody Hall.” The Wooster Group's actors perform excerpts from the debate as captured in Pennebaker's documentary. Kate Valk, plays feminist essayist Jill Johnston and Scott Shepherd plays writer Norman Mailer.

The Frame host John Horn recently spoke with Valk and Shepherd about “The Town Hall Affair." 


On how D.A. Pennebaker filmed the panel for the 1979 "Town Bloody Hall":

SS: The story, as I understand it, is that Mailer and D.A. Pennebaker had worked on Mailer's movie "Maidstone" the year before. So Mailer invited him to come and film this event. But apparently he didn't get the right permission from the venue. 

KV: He told us that basically security didn't want them to film. Basically they got up on stage and hid behind the furniture. It's pretty vérité. They're up there on stage and that's why you get a lot of close shots from the side and a lot of shots of the audience, which is terrific because they were so prominent in the experience.

Kate Valk plays feminist essayist Jill Johnston in the Wooster Group's
Kate Valk plays feminist essayist Jill Johnston in the Wooster Group's "The Town Hall Affair."
Steve Gunther

On how the source material is used in the play:

KV: Think Rauschenberg... We recreate the major moments in each speaker's prepared statements and then we do highlights from the question and answer period. It kind of pools out into a "happening." 

SS: We use a couple of scenes from "Maidstone" one of which is the most notorious fight scene, which was meant to be a fake assassination. Rip Torn is in the movie and his assignment was to assassinate Mailer who's running for president. So in doing his pretend assassination, he accidentally hit Mailer on the head with a real hammer and they got into a real fight.

The Wooster Group's
The Wooster Group's "The Town Hall Affair" reenacts the famous fight scene between Rip Torn and Norman Mailer.
Steve Gunther

On Jill Johnston and her role in the play:

KV: She was the dance critic at the Village Voice. Mailer was one of the people who founded the Village Voice so they knew each other. She took her column and turned it into a mode of self expression for herself. She came out as a lesbian really early. To say dance critic wasn't really accurate. She was really part of the performance art scene and she was notorious downtown. She was a real character. She was really pretty modern and seems to me like an original blogger. She started talking about herself and her own life. She also had just published "Marmalade Me," which was a collection of her columns for one year from '68-'69 and that's what gave her enough notoriety to be asked to be part of the panel. No other lesbian really wanted to get onstage with Norman Mailer and a lot of her friends didn't want her to do it. She was conflicted about it, but she was into showing up and f***ing up.

KV: She went on too long and [Mailer] cut her off. We close the piece with part of the speech that she didn't get to finish. So we've given her a happy ending.

Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos in the Wooster Group's
Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos in the Wooster Group's "The Town Hall Affair."
Steve Gunther

On Mailer's intention being the moderator for the original event:

SS: I think the reason he was the moderator was because he was this series of events called "The Theater of Ideas." So he always moderated them. It seems egregious to us, and it is, that he was the moderator of this talk on feminism. But the feeling I get from him is that he was into women being liberated. He was not opposed, but just sort of disinterested in the details of it. He wanted to get on to what the cosmic implications were of the sexes being equal, and women rising up and revolting and becoming something unknown that would be a new challenge to men. So he was impatient with suggestions that men needed to curtail themselves to make room. He wanted women to come and fight for their own territory and become a real challenge. 

On synchronizing the on-stage performance with the video:

KV: We are wearing in-ear receivers where we're listening to the people that we're channeling. We're the live embodiment or presence of these people. The audience sees the film as a relic in black or white. There's the opportunity to cross reference to go back and forth between the original film and the live person in front of you who is representing or playing that character. For us, we have to learn the score almost musically to be right in the moment with it, in the pocket of it.

SS: It's interesting the difference between us and the people we're being inhabited by is something we're interested in. We're not trying to eliminate that difference. We are trying to eliminate something and that is a kind of gap between the impulse that comes from the recording and what comes out of us. So when we first begin working on something like this you have to listen to what they say and then you're a second or two behind. And you slowly try to eliminate that gap in time and by eliminating that, you're eliminating the difference between your impulse and their impulse and sort of trying to replace your impulse with this recording from another time.

Kate Valk in the Wooster Group's
Kate Valk in the Wooster Group's "The Town Hall Affair."
Paula Court

On the relevance today of this 1971 women's rights conversation:

KV: It's extremely relevant. I can't even begin to articulate it. For me it's interesting how relevant it is. But for me, more importantly, is how different the conversation is. The manner of the conversation that we're having now and the way ideas are developed is very different than this debate. In this 1971 debate, it's amazing how they're able to land extemporaneous thought and actually agree to disagree. The art of debate. It's super interesting how that doesn't take place much anymore. But on the other hand, they're all from pretty much the same social class. They're all extremely well-educated. They're all white. So I feel like the conversation is very different now because of the internet and because of a lot of opinions are expressed on the internet and you don't have to debate face to face. It's a good thing now that the conversation is more myriad and involves a lot more people. But it's also more difficult at the same time. 

KV: This one is more obvious than other pieces that we've done on how it's relevant or relatable. But what's interesting to me is material is chosen from — it's like desire comes before the idea. Often times, it's surprising how real life fills it in. That's what I like about it. It's like what Susan Sontag and "Against Interpretation." We don't take a script and decide what it means and decide what we're going to say. It's not theater by thesis. But it's that thing about theater as mirror. We just hold the mirror up and life get's reflected.

SS: You bring something into your house for a while and it just naturally gets infused with what's today. It's not about choosing material that's relevant to now. Now takes over.

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