A Report on Heather Woodbury on the Verge of Fame
Heather Woodbury is standing on the brink, looking into the current which may whisk her away to a new level of recognition and appreciation.
The New York performer and writer has been touring her one-woman show, The Heather Woodbury Report, for over a year. She has been lauded by critics and audiences on both coasts and in Austin. Academics have taken note and made her the subject of theses. And it appears the world's gaze is finally moving her to the edge of huge success.
Woodbury has spent the last week in Austin, recording her 10-hour "performance novel" for the Meltdown Festival, an event in London this summer being curated by Laurie Anderson and featuring Spalding Gray and Richard Foreman, among others. Woodbury may also be gracing festival stages in Edinburgh and Amsterdam.
Why is this work, which doesn't have any flashy effects or a huge cast or a lavish budget, suddenly leaping to a new level of acclaim? The answer may lie in its simplicity and grace, its ability to make you care about the characters that Woodbury has created. The Report's simple humanity draws in audiences, regardless of their regional identification or individual experiences.
The show, created on a dare from co-conspirator and director Dudley Saunders, weaves a dense tapestry of America from rich characters and Woodbury's talent, à la Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby or Maupin's Tales of the City. While it is, at its essence, a one-woman show, Woodbury's work soars beyond that limiting description. And while it is possible to view any of its eight episodes in isolation and feel as if you've had a full evening of theatre, it is difficult not to come back to find out what happens to your favorite characters.
What will happen to Woodbury in the next few months is not as easy to pin down as what has happened to her characters. But it will probably be big and exciting.
As she prepared to return to town to re-mount her report -- now titled Whatever: An American Odyssey in Eight Acts -- Woodbury spoke with the Chronicle about her past, present, and future.
Austin Chronicle: What were you doing before you started The Heather Woodbury Report?
Heather Woodbury: I had done a lot of performance pieces that were anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half long. They were a little bit more agitprop performance art where I would basically ruminate on a theme or question with leitmotifs. I would kind of use character to make my point and have lots of different characters, but I would never come back to a character. I would do short -- sometimes really short -- little character things, like 30 seconds. Or sometimes a five-minute monologue. But you would never see that person again. They'd just be a character I created to illustrate my point. In that sense, they were more tight but they were also more impressionistic.
AC: What were some of your themes?
HW: They were all packed into the names. The first one I did was about go-go dancing. It was called "Hollow Venus: Diary of a Go-go Dancer." I guess I should say that I was always a character in my pieces, too. I would go into characters, but I would also return into my own sort of mock version of my character, where I would wander around in a confused state and talk to the audience, sort of make fun of myself. And the audience was a character (laughs). So that one was about the exotic dancing dialectic, which we are familiar with since every woman who ever did it has done a performance piece about it now.
I had a lot of pun things in the titles. There was one called "Dream Interpretation," which sort of pondered what dreams were. It had a lot of people with different dreams, then their dreams would end up having stuff in common. It examined whether dreams were purely psychological things or whether they were a collective thing that was about what was going on in the world.
"Virtue, Sin, Corruption." It was also kind of a pun: "Virtues in corruption." Things like that. All of them were puns and paradoxes. In a strange way, they are related to those morality plays that they used to do in the Middle Ages. They are actually quite moral. They're really fascinating. They're really folk theatre.
AC: Who commissioned The Heather Woodbury Report, or Whatever?
HW: P.S.122. Performance Space 122 in New York.
AC: Had you worked with them before?
HW: No. It was my first foray into the "funded art" world, shall we say. I don't think I could have developed The Heather Woodbury Report anywhere but in the back of a bar. I think that, ironically, that anarchistic marketplace nurtured the art. I think more artists should be aware of that. Even if I had gotten a grant, it just wouldn't have been the same doing it in a theatre. It had to be in the particular atmosphere where anybody was free to walk in. It was free, and then we would pass the tip jar. Ironically, I think I made more money that way than in a funded institutional environment. I described it as performing on the street only with a sound system and a roof. Also, the place was run by this really great musician. You need people like that who create an atmosphere for something like that to happen.
AC: Did any of your characters from your earlier work translate into the Report?
HW: It's interesting. I just did this retrospective in New York, so I looked at all of my old videos, as well as all of the videos from the development of Whatever. I saw how many of the characters I had were precursors. They were people I had been coming at from different angles for a long time. But I wouldn't really say that they were the same. For instance, I've always had a crazy teenage girl character with a slightly creepy, almost messianic overtone. I've also always liked to play men, but I think in Whatever my men took on a whole new, more developed aspect. I think I went from a satire of men to a desire to actually be men, obviously filtered through my female persona. But others just seemed to come. Violet was completely her own, just kind of came out of air. I noticed a few little glimmers -- glimmers of Clove, glimmers of Violet. Definitely Paul had a lot of prototypes. I was always interested in conservative older men.
AC: How did you hook up with Planet Theatre and end up coming to Austin?
HW: I had cousins in Austin, and I had always wanted to go to Austin. But I always had it in my mind that I must go there as a performer. For some reason. I'd never been to Texas, but I just had this feeling about Austin. So I was phoning different places all over the country, and I phoned a place in Austin called Women & Their Work. They said the usual thing of their funding was low and they didn't know if they could book anybody until 1998. And I said, "Would you be able to recommend any place in Austin that is friendly to women's work that could possibly book me in a more timely fashion?" They recommended Bonnie [Cullum, of VORTEX Repertory Company].
I was fortunate to get Bonnie the first time I called her, which, now that I know Bonnie, I know was a miraculous event. I just knew as soon as I heard Bonnie's voice that I was going to do it, but I really had to call her a lot and keep pressing on it. I just had a feeling that it was going to be a good thing. I sent her my material, and she really liked it. And she booked me.
I think she took a really big chance that very few other arts administrators were willing to take. She didn't really know more than the five minutes of video of my work. Unlike a lot of people, instead of thinking it was unusual and hadn't been done before and wouldn't work, she thought, "Oh, it's original, maybe people will really like it."
AC: Had you traveled with it before coming here?
HW: Austin was the last stop on my virgin voyage. I did San Francisco and Los Angeles simultaneously.
HW: I did Wednesday in Los Angeles and Friday in San Francisco. I flew back and forth 16 times. I became very fond of Southwest Airlines.
AC: Did you find the audience in Austin different from New York or L.A.?
HW: Yeah. I found Austin to be the warmest audience since New York. Austin had a really good sense of humor. The interesting thing to me is that there are a lot of characters from the West Coast and a lot of characters from the East Coast, and East Coast people tended to take a little while to warm up to the West Coast people. Then West Coast people didn't immediately warm up to [the East Coast people]. It's really interesting to me that different regions betray their own prejudices by who they warm to, who they get, or what they think is real. There aren't any characters except one who's from Texas, but it seemed like [Texans] accepted everybody off the bat. In some ways, it seemed like Austin was more open-minded from a regional perspective.
I found Austin audiences to be really warm, smart, and to have a really good sense of humor. New York audiences are just a little more sharp and a little less shockable. But I think that the Texas audience is a bit more emotional. I really love the Austin audience.
I'm coming to Austin before the performances to record an audio version of the entire thing in a studio, which is being paid for by a philanthropist down in Austin -- yet another incredible gift that Austin has given me. I'm really excited about that, particularly because I am in this festival in London, which Laurie Anderson invited me to be in. It's a festival that is all about listening. There's going to be a room, called the Listening Room, where people can just come in and listen to audio versions of everybody in the festival. I'm so happy that I'll be able to offer people the complete Whatever in a radio play version with sound effects. It's wonderful and I'm hoping that somewhere in Britain I might be offered distribution.
AC: Were you inspired by other performance artists, like Anderson?
HW: I'm embarrassed to say that I never really followed Laurie Anderson's work all that much. I was aware of it. People who inspired me were Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin. A lot of rock & roll inspired me in my early days, just because it was what I thought should happen onstage: Somebody should get up onstage and do something very visceral and immediate.The whole performance art scene that I came across in the early Eighties in New York -- that was inspiring to me. It wasn't even about talent or skill -- in fact, in some ways it was antithetical to talent and skill. It was about bravery. Anyone could get up and perform anything, as long as they'd go where they were afraid to go. I was always attracted to that, what I call the gladiatorial aspect of performance art, which is just the joy of watching somebody feed themselves to the lions.
In a way, I was in conflict because I was very drawn to that. I liked doing that. It was very therapeutic and ecstatic for me. It exorcised a lot of demons. But on the other hand, I actually did have this skill with words and character that I was simultaneously developing that I was trying to fold into these much more wild, kind of messy rituals. And they didn't necessarily fit together very well, but I couldn't drop either one.
So I was very inspired by that scene. And I think I was also inspired by different filmmakers: Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, Gillian Armstrong, Martin Scorsese. If you look at them, I think you would see some connection to my work. It's employing naturalism and improvisation but it's not really realism. It's hyper-realism.
I was also really inspired by -- in fact, my major inspiration and what really turned the key in the door for me and let me open the door was Latin-American fiction. Magical realism. That really freed me from a lot of constraints. I naturally have a narrative bent, but I thought that narrative had to be logical and linear.
AC: Do you see yourself as a writer or a performer?
HW: As both or neither. In some ways, I've always seen myself as a writer who has this performance disease that eventually she'll recover from. I think what I do is genuinely a hybrid. I think I'm capable of doing either. I probably more naturally have the temperament of a writer. But I don't know. One reason I perform is because it makes me write. I won't write just because I have a good idea for something. I'll only write if I have an audience waiting to see me perform.
That's how I decided to do this "one performance a week for 37 weeks" dare anyway, because all of my early performances I would write the night before or the day of. At first I thought this was a terrible problem, that I was this horrible fuck-up, then I realized that was just my method. So I became more and more accepting of it and more and more outrageous about it until I was just writing the day of or improvising it. Then my friend Dudley said to me, "You should write a new show every week for a year." And I said, "You're crazy. Maybe once a month." And he said, "No, every week you should write a new show." I thought that nine months would be more on the fertility model. So I took up his dare. Really, Dudley is the midwife.
AC: Now that you've given birth, where do you want Whatever to go?
HW: In some ways, half of what I've hoped for seems to be happening, which is traveling around the world and getting to perform it for people, for English-speaking people with wildly different origins. I'm very happy about that. I'm going back to Los Angeles, and then to London, and then it looks as though I'm going to be in the Edinburgh Festival. I may also be in a festival in Amsterdam. In '98, I'm trying to go to Australia. So that's one aspect of it. My characters travel all over the place and I had to stay put to create the whole thing, so now I feel like, "Okay, you guys get to travel, now I get to travel" (laughs).
The other goal I would like to realize for it would be a really nice video or film documentation of the whole thing. Then I would really love for it to be a television miniseries, à la Tales of the City, with actors playing all of the different roles.
Then I would rest. Then I would move on to the next thing. I feel like I have about two more years of it, to get it out of my system. I'm already starting to work on new projects, but I'm still very much focused on it. It took so long to create it and I created so much material. It took a long time to assimilate all of that material. It's so long.
The Heather Woodbury Report will run April 24-May 4 at Planet Theatre. Call 454-TIXS for info.