Based on the film Town Bloody Hall, directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker.
THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR delves into the revolutionary fervor of feminist thinking and art “happenings” in 1970s New York. The piece is based on the Hegedus & Pennebaker film Town Bloody Hall which documents a panel held at Town Hall in 1971. The panel featured feminist thinkers and activists – including Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling – with Norman Mailer serving as an (immoderate) moderator.
THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR features performances by Group members & associates Ari Fliakos, Greg Mehrten, Erin Mullin, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney, and Kate Valk, and is directed by Elizabeth LeCompte.
New York City
Work-in-Progress Showings May 11 - 22, 2016 Wednesdays - Saturdays at 7:30 pm Sundays at 3 pm
Buy tickets before May 1 and get any seat for $25!
The Wooster Group to bring 'Town Bloody Hall' adaptation to L.A., with Maura Tierney
pic- Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer in the 1979 documentary "Town Bloody Hall," directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. (UCLA Film & TV Archive)
Having married its far-out avant-garde aesthetic to numerous classic dramas over the decades, the Wooster Group will attempt to adapt a documentary film for the stage when it debuts its new production “The Town Hall Affair” in Los Angeles next year.
The production is an adaptation of the feminism-themed 1979 documentary “Town Bloody Hall,” directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. The run at REDCAT in downtown L.A. is set for March 22 to April 2.
Elizabeth LeCompte, the Wooster Group’s longtime director, will stage the new play. The cast will feature such Wooster stalwarts as Kate Valk, Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos. Actress Maura Tierney, who is Emmy nominated this year for Showtime’s “The Affair,” will join the cast.
Tierney previously appeared in the Wooster Group’s production of “North Atlantic,” which came to L.A. in 2010.
The original documentary captured a riotous 1971 panel featuring such feminist luminaries as Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston and Diana Trilling. Norman Mailer served as the moderator of the discussion, which took place at New York’s Town Hall.
At one point during the panel, Johnston infamously declared that “all women are lesbians, except those who don’t know it.”
The Wooster Group has partnered numerous times with REDCAT to present new works. In February, the company’s new production of Harold Pinter’s “The Room” ran into problems with the licensing company for the play, which said that critics could not review the show. (The Times reviewed it despite the ban.)
Other recent Wooster productions to come to L.A. include “Early Shaker Spirituals” in 2015, "Cry, Trojans! (Troilus & Cressida)” in 2014 and “Vieux Carré” by Tennessee Williams in 2010.
The upcoming 2016-17 season at REDCAT will also feature a new work from the musicians Stew and Heidi Rodewald titled “Notes of a Native Song” (Dec. 14- 17); and the previously announced “The Source” (Oct. 19-23 ), an L.A. Opera co-presentation based on the life of Chelsea Manning, the transgender Army whistle-blower.
THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR features performances by Group members & associates Ari Fliakos, Greg Mehrten, Erin Mullin, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney (New York & Paris 2016), Lucy Taylor (Antwerp 2016), and Kate Valk, and is directed by Elizabeth LeCompte.
Festival d’Automne à Paris Centre Pompidou October 6 – 8, 2016 More information » This engagement is supported by Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation through USArtists International in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The Performing Garage February 4 – March 4, 2017 Tickets on sale soon!
Roy and Edna Disney/Calarts Theater March 22 – April 1, 2017 Information and tickets »
Z Space April 6 – 16, 2017 Tickets on sale at Z Space soon.
THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte Based on the film Town Bloody Hall, directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
With Enver Chakartash, Ari Fliakos, Greg Mehrten, Erin Mullin, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney (New York & Paris 2016), Lucy Taylor (Antwerp 2016), and Kate Valk
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton with Ryan Seelig Sound: Eric Sluyter, Gareth Hobbs Video and Projections: Robert Wuss Additional Video: Zbigniew Bzymek Assistant Directors: Enver Chakartash, Matthew Dipple Costume Supervisor: Enver Chakartash Stage Manager: Erin Mullin Technical Director: Joseph Silovsky Production Manager: Bona Lee Video DAILIES: Zbigniew Bzymek
Special thanks to Wendy vanden Heuvel
This piece was made possible by support from piece by piece productions and the National Endowment for the Arts Art Works program, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts.
Maura Tierney to Lead The Wooster Group's THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR in NYC and LA by BWW News Desk Dec. 13, 2016
THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR, The Wooster Group's newest production, is based on Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's film Town Bloody Hall, which documents a rowdy 1971 debate on Women's Liberation at Town Hall in New York City. Debate participants included distinguished critic Diana Trilling, "saucy feminist" Germaine Greer, "radical lesbian" Jill Johnston, and Norman Mailer acting as an immoderate moderator. In THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR, The Wooster Group both re-inhabits the original film and derails it, redirecting Mailer's pugnacious propensities onto himself and spinning out into Jill Johnston's vision of a revolutionary future. The national tour will begin in New York City at The Performing Garage (33 Wooster Street) from February 4 - February 25, 2017. Critics are invited to review these performances starting February 9. Following its New York run, the piece will head to California: first to LA from March 22 - April 1, 2017 at REDCAT and then to San Francisco from April 6 - 16, 2017 at Z Space. Tickets for the New York engagement will be available starting December 5, 2016, at www.thewoostergroup.org. THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR is directed by Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte and features performances by Group members and associates Enver Chakartash, Ari Fliakos, Greg Mehrten, Erin Mullin, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney (New York and Los Angeles), Lucy Taylor (San Francisco), and Kate Valk. The full ensemble includes: Jennifer Tipton with Ryan Seelig (lighting); Eric Sluyter and Gareth Hobbs (sound), Robert Wuss (video and projections); Zbigniew Bzymek (additional video); Enver Chakartash (assistant director and costumes); Matthew Dipple (assistant director); Erin Mullin (stage manager); Bona Lee (production manager); Pamela Reichen (general manager); and Cynthia Hedstrom (producer). Founded in 1975, The Wooster Group has made more than 40 works for theater, dance, film, and video under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte. These works include RUMSTICK ROAD (1977), L.S.D. (...JUST THE HIGH POINTS...) (1984), FRANK DELL'S THE TEMPTATION OF ST. ANTONY (1988), BRACE UP! (1991), THE EMPEROR JONES (1993), HOUSE/LIGHTS (1999), TO YOU, THE BIRDIE! (Phèdre) (2002), HAMLET (2007), THERE IS STILL TIME. .BROTHER (2007), LA DIDONE (2009), VIEUX CARRÉ (2011), CRY, TROJANS! (Troilus & Cressida) (2014), EARLY SHAKER SPIRITUALS: A RECORD ALBUM INTERPRETATION (2014), and THE ROOM (2015). Based at The Performing Garage at 33 Wooster Street in lower Manhattan, the company regularly tours worldwide, including North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The Performing Garage is part of the Grand Street Artists Co-op, a 1960s project of the Fluxus art movement. For more information visit www.thewoostergroup.org. IF YOU GO: The Wooster Group THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte Based on the film Town Bloody Hall by Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker New York Performances February 4, 7-11, 14-18, 21-25, 2017 Tuesdays - Thursdays at 7:30 pm. Fridays at 8:00 pm. Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm The Performing Garage, 33 Wooster Street, New York, NY 10013 Tickets: www.thewoostergroup.org / (212) 966-3651. On sale starting December 5, 2016 Los Angeles Performances March 22-26, 28-31 & April 1, 2017 Tuesdays - Saturdays at 8:30 pm. Sunday at 3:00 pm. Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 Tickets: www.redcat.org / (213) 237-2800. Available now. San Francisco Performances April 6-16, 2017 Times to be announced Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA 94110 Tickets: www.zpace.org / (415) 626-0453. Available soon.
How Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group Changed Theater Elizabeth LeCompte, much-feted director of the Wooster Group, on her life at the apex of the avant-garde—and reimagining a legendary moment in ’70s feminism.
02.02.17 3:00 AM ET Elizabeth LeCompte has an impressive arsenal at her disposal—all charmingly deployed—dedicated to the business of not answering questions. Her favorite method is to claim that she doesn’t remember whatever event or moment in her life it is you’re asking her about. She professes genuinely not to remember—but her memory turns out to be better than she claims. Another method is to draw her colleagues into our conversation, claiming they would be better people to answer questions. One possible explanation of these diversionary tics is that the work she does is everything for LeCompte, and talking about the work is, at best, an irritation, and even an obstacle to a day of work she’d rather be immersed in. The 72-year-old co-founder and director of the Wooster Group, one of the country’s foremost and most storied experimental theater groups, claims she is always thinking ahead of herself. Economical with her words and drily witty, LeCompte affects neither to have the time nor the inclination for rumination and self-reflection. We met at Wooster Group mission control at 33 Wooster St. in New York’s SoHo, the theater group’s “Performing Garage” home since its foundation in 1975: an upstairs office space filled with costumes and scripts and books on packing shelves and wall-space, and then downstairs the theater itself. LeCompte helped found the group with Willem Dafoe (with whom she had a 27-year relationship, and a son), Jim Clayburgh, Ron Vawter, Kate Valk, Peyton Smith, and Spalding Gray. Their first play, part of a series called “Three Places in Rhode Island,” was Sakonnet Point. The theater LeCompte has overseen in those 42 years is bravely conceived and staged, whether adaptations of classics like Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, or original conceptions like Early Shaker Spirituals and its upcoming New York staging of The Town Hall Affair, starring Maura Tierney of ER and Affair fame. Tierney, a Wooster performer for several years, originally brought the idea to LeCompte, who then took some time to figure out how best to perform it. This inventive adaptation was inspired by Town Bloody Hall, the Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker 1979 documentary that—in all its grainy, weird glory—revealed what happened at New York’s Town Hall in 1971, when the author Norman Mailer chaired a panel about feminism. Guests included Jacqueline Ceballos, then-president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, The Female Eunuch author Germaine Greer (a scowling, glamorous young gun back then), the author and activist Jill Johnston, and the critic Diana Trilling.
It is a truly mesmerizing intellectual debate and occasional car crash to watch. Mailer is predictably sexist and awful (the debate was provoked by a piece he had written for Harper’s magazine, “The Prisoner of Sex”), but he is also funny, and the women, trying to counter his misogyny, are just as commanding and just as funny. Greer has her own swagger, Trilling seems too grand for the earth, and—among the audience asking questions—is an unusually coy Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan. The Wooster Group will not be simply re-enacting this evening of cultural and political fireworks, but taking the words spoken that night and creating a unique theatrical experience from that. All this time the Wooster Group has made the kind of theater it is committed to rather than to fit any expectation, trend, hype, or niche—and the public has come. The august laurels and fellowships LeCompte and the Wooster Group have been garlanded with is testament enough to their originality and ingenuity. Just last autumn LeCompte was awarded the $300,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. Chosen by a committee of arts leaders for their groundbreaking work in their chosen fields, previous winners have included Spike Lee, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Robert Redford, Frank Gehry, and Ingmar Bergman. Is the space on Wooster Street an emotional one, I asked LeCompte, given its theatrical history? “I probably wouldn’t be emotional until I was dead and thinking back from heaven,” LeCompte responded sharply. “I’m not very sentimental. I’m very into change. I don’t hold on to things. I have to work for nostalgia. I’m always very fascinated when it comes, and I’m always suspicious of it too. Everything seems to be in the present.”
LeCompte doesn’t have emotional attachments to memories, she said. She remembers the past, “but not in a faraway wonderful way.” Like me, LeCompte was struck by the humor of the Town Hall debate, and by the lesbian separatist Johnston, who freaked Mailer out by not playing nice or cute and polite as the other women did, culminating—much to the delight of the audience—with her kissing another woman on stage. “There was a certain kind of camaraderie between the sexes on stage, with the exception of Jill Johnston,” said LeCompte. “They all lived in the same universe. Most of the women had come up through men, so had learned a way of dealing with men that’s sometimes an imitation of men. “That’s interesting to watch. I don’t think we would see that now. Women can’t identify like that now—if you do you would be accused of submitting to patriarchy, and reinforcing it. We’re going through a change where women fight against that, and the younger women don’t recognize what we older women had to do in most cases to get along.” LeCompte laughed. For LeCompte, Mailer was “a performer with a certain kind of ego, testing the edges of his power” with the women on the panel and the audience. He gets upset with Jill because he senses she is not of his world, she’s an outsider.” LeCompte knew Mailer when he was older, and more avuncular than combative. “He reminds me of Donald Trump. He thought that women loved him, but didn’t understand that they had to.” LeCompte didn’t attend the debate herself. She had been aware of it, but it seemed like an establishment event. “I’m not a hippie, but I came up through the ’60s and drugs. It was too refined, it cost too much money. It wasn’t where my fight was at the time.” Watching the movie now, LeCompte is struck by Greer “passing off as an attractive feminist, which was huge for women back then. But her need for Mailer’s attention is much more obvious now. Diana Trilling is more interesting, because she’s working in an older system. She had a husband [Lionel] whose name was famous. Germaine had no man by her side but had the ability to make every man in the room be into her. You see these two ways of threading a way through patriarchy of the time.” The timeliness of the piece—with the expression of women’s collective anger against Trump—is coincidental, said LeCompte. “It really is a historical piece. It might be in dialogue with what is happening now, but I’m not trying to fix it. I’m not trying to make it relevant. It might not even seem relevant or forward-thinking to younger women. They might ask why we are reifying women who seem so behind the times.” LeCompte is not an artist who feels it necessary to engage with the Trump presidency directly. “For me, Trump is trouble for us in a whole different way. He’s bigger than that—and more dangerous than most art is. I don’t want to touch that. I don’t want to make it normal, make it part of culture. It’s too much for me.” Running the Wooster Group is “always perilous, and has been from the beginning,” said LeCompte. Laughing, she likened the situation to being an endangered heroine in a silent film. When a representative from J.P. Morgan rang to say they’d been awarded the $300,000 Gish award, he was told the group was rehearsing and couldn’t be disturbed. LeCompte was in “pure ecstasy” when she finally heard the news, after initially tetchily demanding of the representative, “What do you want to bleed us of?” She thought the call had to be about the group losing money, even the property—not the sudden windfall that she was informed of. The money immediately went to the company, and the salaries of 16 full-time employees. The award came at a time when the Wooster Group was a month away from having to lay off half its staff, said LeCompte. The last couple of years had been particularly trying because of “the rising cost of everything,” LeCompte said, and the Gish money was vital because “no one gives us money. We don’t make art that can be invested in. It goes away, and we’re political in a way that’s a problem.” With such hardscrabble times, did she ever want to give up? “No, another piece comes up and I go, ‘This is the last piece I’m going to do. I’ll just get to get this one finished, then I’m free.’” She laughed. “A little like Death of a Salesman. And they keep coming, and as long as they keep coming, things come into my head and we keep going. I couldn’t do anything else. I have no other talent than whatever it is that is here.”
LeCompte grew up in New Jersey, the second of four children. Nobody was artistic in her family, although her father was a musician who gave that up during the Depression when he got a degree in engineering, eventually becoming an architectural engineer. She spent a lot of time watching him drawing, designing buildings and products. Her mother, who attended Barnard, read a lot. Her father was from a poorer family, and won a scholarship to college. “Oh, you girls, you’re all going to be artists,” he said to LeCompte and her sister. “She was a very good piano player,” LeCompte said. “But he didn’t push or encourage us that much.” LeCompte acted out nativity scenes as a little girl, and at school she fought to be the only girl to be accepted into the architectural drawing course, especially enjoying drafting images of pipes and mechanicals. She recalled the girl gang she led at 7 or 8 that always fought a boy gang, and successfully, “as we could climb quicker and higher in the jungle gym and so we could kick them. I liked to win and I liked to compete. I was the head of the cheerleading squad. I wasn’t a cheerleader, but I liked to make the cheers. “Cheerleaders are supposed to be popular people, but I don’t think I was popular. I was always a little outside. I was always conscious I wanted to be an artist from 8 years old, but didn’t know what that meant. I knew I couldn’t join in regular culture. I had to figure out a place to stay outside it. I remember thinking I could learn all these cheerleading dances—Bill Haley & His Comets—because I was really good at that but didn’t want to put all my energy into it. I knew I was going to do something outside of that culture.” The book Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin impressed her by relating how West made his paints from natural materials. LeCompte attended Skidmore College and began working at the Caffè Lena, a Saratoga Springs coffeehouse whose patrons included Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Don McLean, and Arlo Guthrie. A theater company—whose number included Spalding Gray—would use an adjacent loft. LeCompte was the only young person, and woman, as most were “handsome gay men” enlisted by actor John Wynne-Evans. “He would dress me up, make me sit in a chair, and whisper lines into my ears, as I couldn’t remember them.” She and Gray became friends, and although she continued with her art—selling postcards when she returned to New York—she learned the craft of being a theater director alongside Richard Schechner of the Performance Group company. “I liked working with people and making them do the things I wanted them to do,” she said. In 1975, after five years with the Performance Group, she helped found the Wooster Group. As for how she feels about being called the queen of experimental theater, or even the term “experimental theater” itself, LeCompte seems nonplussed. “That’s for somebody else. I just make theater and make it out of the company.” When I asked if LeCompte ever wanted to direct on Broadway or TV, she said women in the ’80s and ’90s would ask her how to make it in theater, and she would recommend they go into TV. She suddenly said one of her actors had called her “a totally realized person.” Meaning what? “Meaning I am very happy in what I do and I do it very well.” LeCompte suggested Dafoe go into film, and that brought him huge fame. “I think the problem with film for me is that is too intuitive,” she said. “I’m not a good organizer. I’m a little bit scattered and intuitive, and that’s not a good thing for film or TV.” She loved going to Hollywood with Dafoe, but as a visitor rather than filmmaker. “I like trash television, but I never had any real drive to do that work.” LeCompte’s trashy tastes extend to the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, home improvement shows on HGTV, Supernanny, cable news, silent films on TCM starring Lillian Gish, and the movies of Fritz Lang. One has to love LeCompte’s relatively highbrow definition of trashy: It’s not exactly a rampant Real Housewives addiction. LeCompte doesn’t have a favorite Wooster production, though was annoyed not to have been able to secure the rights to Harold Pinter’s 1957 play The Room recently. She is not nostalgic. She doesn’t think about how SoHo has changed or see classic Wooster pieces through a golden-hued filter. “Every piece is a new configuration of ideas and people,” LeCompte said. Her love for theater is “active,” she said, then added vehemently—when I asked if she worried about the company closing down because of a lack of funds—“I don’t care. I don’t care if everybody dies and I die. I just want them to keep them alive enough so I can keep working. I really don’t have the feeling for what they call ‘legacy’ stuff. It’s not in me. And I don’t really like theater, frankly, if you want to know the truth.” What did LeCompte mean? She has devoted her entire her whole life to theater. “I think that’s enough right there,” she said grandly, to the laughter of her colleagues. Baffled, I asked if she was joking. “I’m not that interested in theater. I like musicals. I like big musicals. Oklahoma, West Side Story—they influenced me when I was young and came to New York City. I like opera, oddly enough. I go to the Met once or twice a year.” More laughter. “This is not who I am. I’m not a consumer. This is all a joke. You can’t make something of what I just told you.” What a conundrum. I’ll try to figure it out, I said. “Good luck,” LeCompte said. With Dafoe she attended the Oscars three times. “I loved it the first time. It was fabulous. All these old movie stars were there. It was a blast, but also tiring because there was so much ‘business’ Willem had to do at certain parties. The second time was really tawdry. I lost it. I saw everybody working in the same way I work, hoofing it. I lost interest. It was like one of those car shows where you just have to go and sell the goods.” She and Dafoe were together for 27 years (they separated in 2004). “I say 26. He doesn’t know I was seeing someone,” LeCompte said, laughing, adding again she is “a fully realized person,” an idea that apparently grew from attending therapy with Ari Fliakos, a Wooster Group actor she once had an antagonistic relationship with. The therapy they had together “worked brilliantly,” and their relationship improved, and helped her relationship with other performers and made her a better director. “I recommend therapy to anyone in a work situation and you think you’re not communicating properly, but not if you’re married,” LeCompte said, laughing. Had parenting changed LeCompte? “I don’t remember it, to be honest. Jack [born in 1982] was around all the time. He was with the company, and he just seemed to be part of my working day.” Now he’s a lawyer. There are no dream future projects for LeCompte. She doesn’t “sit around thinking” about what she’d like to do, as she is doing what she likes to do in that moment. She does not contemplate what being fulfilled means unless she’s had enough white wine, she joked. She likes it if people are happy watching the Wooster’s work. A pause. “Then it takes me a short time before I start to think, ‘Maybe they’re not very smart.’ That’s part of my personality. So then I start to think, ‘What am I really doing?’ So the next piece I try to do is what I really, really want to do, and if they don’t like it I feel really fulfilled too. “That’s why I think I am a realized person. If the piece is a failure in terms of a commercial success, I feel I’ve won. If it’s a commercial success I feel really good, like a child.” Was LeCompte still thinking ahead of herself now at the end of our interview as she was at the beginning, I wondered. “Yep. Right now, I am wishing to god I could get home and get a glass of wine, a cool glass of Riesling,” LeCompte said. “So we should speed this up.” She sounded serious, but also laughed. She also said, after my seeing The Town Hall Affair, she would like to chat some more—except this time she would be the one asking the questions. The Town Hall Affair is at The Performing Garage, 33 Wooster St., New York City, Feb 4-25. Book tickets here: www.thewoostergroup.org/the-town-hall-affair
‘The Town Hall Affair’ Recreates a Feminist Firestorm By ALEXIS SOLOSKIFEB. 6, 2017
Betty Friedan was there. Susan Sontag was there. Jacqueline Susann was there. So was Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick, who asked a mischievous question about Norman Mailer’s testicles. What was this wild night? A 1971 panel at Town Hall in Manhattan, marketed as a debate on women’s liberation and moderated by Mailer, whose incendiary essay “The Prisoner of Sex” had just filled an entire issue of Harper’s Magazine. The evening was chronicled in “Town Bloody Hall,” a 1979 documentary by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. And it is now the inspiration for “The Town Hall Affair,” a new piece by the Wooster Group at the Performing Garage, starring Maura Tierney (“The Affair”). Rousing and infuriating, cerebral and vulgar, the original event marked a flash point in second-wave feminism. In this Women’s March moment, it seems newly resonant.
Occurring a year after New York had legalized abortion and when equality feminism was giving way to something more revolutionary, this debate, a “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” enticed much of the New York literati. Why? In 1970, the feminist writer Kate Millett had published an unflattering analysis of Mailer in her book “Sexual Politics,” calling him “a prisoner of the virility cult.” Mailer responded with “The Prisoner of Sex,” in which he savaged Ms. Millett, called his penis “the Retaliator” and ultimately concluded, “The prime responsibility of a woman probably is to be on Earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself and conceive children who will improve the species.”
Ms. Millett refused to debate Mailer. So did Ti-Grace Atkinson and Gloria Steinem. Robin Morgan agreed, but only if she could shoot him. Finally, a panel was assembled and the event, which ran three-and-a-half hours, began. After a brief introduction by Mailer, Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, gave a cogent speech discussing inequalities. The poet Gregory Corso heckled her and had to be ejected. After a cynical question from Mailer, Germaine Greer, author of “The Female Eunuch” and a woman Life would soon call a “saucy feminist that even men like,” took the stage. Resplendent in a slinky black dress and ratty fox boa, she read a passionate speech that disparaged “the man of genius” (an implicit dig at Mailer), calling for a return of “the artist who had no ego and no name.” Ms. Ceballos recently recalled Ms. Greer, who declined an interview request, as “her usual bored, superior, disdainful self,” and added, “But she was glamorous!”
Jill Johnston, an essayist and dance critic for The Village Voice, spoke next. Her talk, somewhere between manifesto and tone poem, began, “All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it naturally.” When she exceeded her time, Mailer tried to cut her off. Instead, two women ran up from the audience to embrace her and the three of them fell to the floor in what Mailer described as a mess of “dirty overalls.” Finally, the literary critic Diana Trilling gave a deceptively fastidious speech that slighted both Mailer and feminist activists while staunchly defending the vaginal orgasm. The Q. and A. session followed, with questions from Friedan, Sontag and the literary critic Anatole Broyard, who asked Ms. Greer to describe women’s sexual requirements after liberation. Ms. Greer declined. “Whatever it is they’re asking for, honey, it’s not for you,” she said.
Mailer gave Mr. Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back”), who had filmed scenes for Mailer’s 1970 mockumentary, “Maidstone,” $3,000 to record the evening. But the Town Hall management did not agree, and as Mr. Pennebaker recalled, speaking by telephone from his home, he spent much of the evening dodging security, finally finding refuge onstage. Afterward, he didn’t know how to sculpt more than three hours of often jerky footage into a coherent film. It sat on a shelf until Ms. Hegedus, now his wife, took an interest. “For me it was fascinating,” she said, speaking on another line. “These women were some of my heroes in the women’s movement.” She tried to capture the comedy of the event, the seriousness of the arguments, and what she read as the heavy flirtation between Mailer and Ms. Greer. “It seemed like it was some kind of love affair,” she said. (She took the movie’s title from a sardonic remark by Ms. Greer.) Not many people saw the 1979 film in its first release, though Mailer came to a screening and told Mr. Pennebaker, “This is the night that Jill Johnston turned my hair gray.” Mailer also admitted that at that time, he hadn’t properly understood the women’s movement, Mr. Pennebaker said. For a long time, Ms. Hegedus said, she used to think of “Town Bloody Hall” as little more than a time capsule, a snapshot of a particular cultural moment. But she finds the spectacle of women arguing over their rights and their bodies newly relevant. She and Mr. Pennebaker hosted a screening in Los Angeles after the election this past November “and I was just shocked how much it resonated with people,” she said.
A few years ago, the actress Maura Tierney saw a listing for a screening of “Town Bloody Hall” at the IFC Center. She tore out the page and later wrote to Mr. Pennebaker and Ms. Hegedus, who mailed her a DVD. Finding it unexpectedly moving, Ms. Tierney gave a copy to Elizabeth LeCompte, the artistic director of the Wooster Group, with whom she has worked over the years. Ms. LeCompte liked it, but she didn’t see a play there — until she read Johnston’s account of the panel in her collection, “Lesbian Nation.” Then Ms. LeCompte was sold. In directing “The Town Hall Affair,” a playful and occasionally abstract re-creation of the panel, interspersed with clips from “Maidstone,” she has enjoyed seeing how the panelists’ arguments “crack up against each other and explode into different realms, different places and then return again into a kind of stasis.”
The Wooster Group started working on the piece more than a year ago and it has changed as America has changed, both before and after the election. “It feels like we’re in jeopardy right now,” said Ms. Tierney, on a break from a recent afternoon rehearsal. “Quite realistically.” The piece has engendered lively discussions in the rehearsal room, though Ms. LeCompte and Kate Valk, a longtime Wooster Group actor who plays Johnston in the piece, wanted to keep those conversations private. “They’re the subterranean root structure that we build everything on,” Ms. Valk said. At rehearsal on a recent afternoon, a table and a lectern sat onstage, mirroring those in the movie, which streamed on screens behind the actors. While technicians worked on the video, one actor playing Mailer strummed a ukulele; another chatted with Ms. Tierney, who plays Ms. Greer. When the video was operational again, the actor Greg Mehrten stood and gave Trilling’s speech. The cast laughed at his impersonation, though laughter faded when the speech turned to talk of tyranny and a “life-diminishing culture.”
“It used to be funny,” Ms. Tierney said. “Norman Mailer says these outrageous things, outrageously disrespectful and crass things to the women on the panel. But now our president talks like that. I don’t know how it’s going to play.” A version of this article appears in print on February 7, 2017, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Feminist Firestorm Redux. Order
Theater review: Misogynists and lesbians battle at the Wooster Group’s Town Hall Affair By Helen Shaw Posted: Friday February 10 2017, 12:02pm
When the avant-garde Wooster Group uses a source, the Elizabeth LeCompte–led ensemble usually tickles it, tortures it, splices it to other styles until it squeals. But in its latest, the swift and vivid The Town Hall Affair, the company shows a scrupulous care towards their main “text,” the 1979 Hegedus-Pennebaker documentary Town Bloody Hall. That account of a raucous 1971 Norman Mailer–led panel on feminism (his misogyny was part of the draw) appears on a monitor as the Woosters selectively reenact it, so we can compare Maura Tierney's Germaine Greer to the original and judge Greg Mehrten on his Diana Trilling. (Tierney's a touch too languid; Mehrten is deliciously droll.)
Mailer's pugnaciousness requires two vessels—Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos—who also imitate Mailer and Rip Torn in Maidstone, the 1970 film in which Torn “accidentally” walloped Mailer on the head with a hammer. (This little peek into Mailer's response to actual violence undercuts his “come at me, bro” challenges from the panel dais. We know what happens when someone comes at him—he whines.) The Wooster way is to layer and juxtapose, so the two films seem to be happening at once. Everyone is in simultaneous conflict: as the twin “Mailers” wrestle on the floor, the panelists turn viperish (“The main characteristic of an oppressed people is that they fight among themselves,” sneers Greer), and the footage of the Town Hall crowd shows it on an ever-increasing boil.
The real fight in this gigantomachia, though, is between the electric Mailer and the gentle Village Voice writer Jill Johnston (Kate Valk), who's determined to disrupt the panel proceedings. Johnston's address “Every woman is a lesbian” was beautiful for its eddying poetry and slightly blitzed humor; if you've never read Johnston before, you'll seek her out after seeing her here. Valk narrates events using the account from Johnston's biography Lesbian Nation, playing a version of the writer that's essentially Janice from the Muppets: spaced-out and dear. What we can see onscreen is much sadder. Johnston has the kind of radical vulnerability that made her too fragile for this world. “Can I finish my statement?” she asks, her smile doubtful, as Mailer barks at her for running through her time. The play then becomes a kind of wish-fulfillment, as Valk eventually escapes the panel, first drifting across the stage and then into a final, virtual presence on a large screen.
It may be Johnston's influence that converts the evening into something buoyant despite all the macho posturing. Certainly the show is a delight, a surprising leap into sweetness and reverence and nostalgia from a group known for a combative attitude to our cultural archive. Chris Hegedus's film has something of this same air. That 1971 night seems dangerous; the crowd wants blood, and you can tell D.A. Pennebaker was shooting it while running from security. But then you notice that everyone in it—Mailer, the audience, Greer at her most affronted—is always laughing. The Town Hall Affair is all-too-relevant; 45 years have passed, and the conversation about feminism is somehow still ugly. But back then, there seemed to be some relish to be found in the battle. You leave the Wooster's latest deconstruction convinced that you can always fight and laugh at the same time. Somehow after all the show's knock-out blows, you leave feeling lighter on your feet.
Performing Garage (Off Broadway). By the Wooster Group. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. With ensemble cast. 1hr 5mins. No intermission. Through March 4. Click here for full venue and ticket information.
Review: It’s Norman Mailer vs. Feminists in ‘The Town Hall Affair’ THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR
BEN BRANTLEYFEB. 10, 2017
“I’m beside myself. I’m beside myself,” mutters an anxious and excited Jill Johnston at the beginning of “The Town Hall Affair,” the very timely and time-bending new mixed-media piece that’s churning up decades of sexual discontent at the Performing Garage in SoHo. Johnston (reincarnated by Kate Valk), the poetic polemicist whose works included “Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution,” sure isn’t alone in feeling that way.
This, after all, is a production from the Wooster Group, those downtown masters of deconstruction and detonation whose perspective-muddling shows have a way of expanding the view of who and where we are. And “The Town Hall Affair” — which recreates one explosive night of public debate in Manhattan in 1971 — splits some very well-known identities by means theatrical and cinematic, so a number of real-life literary figures are literally beside themselves.
Johnston, for example, who frames this witty and deeply stimulating exercise in cultural archive-diving, shows up as exactly the way she was, in film footage from “Town Bloody Hall,” the 1979 documentary by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker that inspired this show. But she has also been reincarnated in the flesh by the peerless Ms. Valk, the Wooster Group’s longtime leading lady.
In “The Town Hall Affair,” directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, this same double vision is applied to other participants in the fabled and combative “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” which was the hottest ticket in town for the New York literati of 46 years ago. There are the glamorous Australian feminist Germaine Greer and her ratty fur stole, onscreen and in person (in the form of the actress Maura Tierney), and the august essayist Diana Trilling, whose face on film looks remarkably like that of the male actor playing her onstage, Greg Mehrten.
As for Norman Mailer, the M.C. of this fraught dialogue (which was convened in response to “The Prisoner of Sex,” his pugilistic essay on feminism in Harper’s Magazine), he’s really beside himself. When the show begins, Norman Mailer is seated next to the person he most admires, Norman Mailer. He and he are portrayed by Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos. (Wouldn’t you know it would take two actors to contain all that testosterone?)
Mailer, too, is, of course, also represented onscreen but not just in the footage from the Town Hall debate. We also see him running wild (and drawing blood) in the notorious 1970 film “Maidstone,” which he directed and starred in, playing a director.
Feeling a bit confused? Well, so were the audience members for that 1971 donnybrook — er, panel discussion — which lasted three and a half hours and quickly degenerated into name-calling, catcalling and (on Johnston’s part) a make-out session with members of the audience. (“Town Hall Affair,” for the record, is a fast hour.)
Of course, the subject being tackled, the repression of women in a male-dominated society, was pretty confusing, too, since even the debaters who were ostensibly on the same side couldn’t seem to agree on much. Thank heavens this is a matter that we have since worked through, systematically and sanely. Yeah, right.
Since its founding in 1975, the Wooster Group has taken a fracturing view of life, breaking down — and then remixing — the cultural components of the present and the past that shape our daily lives. Literary classics by old masters like Eugene O’Neill, Racine and Gertrude Stein have been regularly anatomized and reconstituted by means that include the latest in vision-shaping technology (computers, cameras, sound equipment, etc.). With all its performances, we are asked to see how we are indeed beside ourselves, and on top of, and behind, and ahead of — engaged in inescapable dialogues both with what came before us and with who we think we are now. The troupe’s gutsy and brilliant interpretation of O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” which had Ms. Valk channeling the African-American actor Paul Robeson portraying O’Neill’s idea of devolving savage manhood, became an electric consideration of American perceptions of race.
This may sound too academic for your tastes. And the (verbatim) language of the exchanges in “The Town Hall Affair” now registers as rather quaint in its free-floating, self-footnoting intellectualism. But like most of what the Wooster Group does, this is also juicy, visceral theater, translating outlandish concepts with highly disciplined technique. The synchronicity with which the cast members say what their alter egos onscreen are saying is a jaw-dropping marvel. So is the sudden, subversive techno-layering of voices, so you’re not sure where the sound is coming from.
And for pure, mind-boggling theatrical bravura, there’s the uncanny spectacle of our two-headed Norman Mailer becoming the man he plays in “Maidstone” and the actor Rip Torn (Mr. Shepherd) from that same film. Mr. Fliakos and Mr. Shepherd proceed to enact the movie’s notorious on-camera fight, which involved a hammer and a badly bitten ear. The impression is of Mailer wrestling with himself. But everybody onstage, it seems, is truly divided and truly alone. How can we begin to understand other people, especially if their bodies aren’t anything like ours?
“The Town Hall Affair” doesn’t provide answers any more than the debate on which it’s based did. Ms. Valk’s Johnston, who began the play reading from “Lesbian Nation,” ends with a hopeful passage from the same book about rewriting the ancient myths of womanhood. But that’s not the last word with which she leaves us. That would be a wondrous, bewildered “Aargh!” The Town Hall Affair •NYT Critics’ Pick Performing Garage 33 Wooster St. TriBeCa/SoHo 212-966-9796 thewoostergroup.org/ FIND TICKETS Category Off Off Broadway, Play Runtime 1 hr. Credits Based on the film "Town Bloody Hall," directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Cast Ari Fliakos, Greg Mehrten, Erin Mullin, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney and Kate Valk Opened February 4, 2017 Closing Date February 25, 2017 This information was last updated: Feb. 10, 2017
The Town Hall Affair: EW stage review MAYA STANTON POSTED ON FEBRUARY 10, 2017 AT 8:34PM EST
The Town Hall Affair TYPE:Stage GENRE:Drama RUN DATE:02/04/17-03/04/17 PERFORMER:Maura Tierney, Ari Fliakos, Scott Shepherd... DIRECTOR:Elizabeth LeCompte
File under “history repeating itself”: As Americans take to the streets in greater numbers than ever before, they’re not alone out there — they’re standing on the shoulders of previous generations of activists. The year before Shirley Chisholm would become America’s first female presidential candidate from a major party, when second-wave feminism was in its heyday, and the concept of women’s rights as human rights was a yet-unspoken radical one, Norman Mailer wrote a poorly received — some said sexist — essay on women’s liberation for Harper’s magazine. The backlash was swift and fierce, but instead of retreating, Mailer capitalized on the attention by hosting a publicity-stunt-cum-debate with notable “lady writers” of the day. That chaotic, seminal 1971 event would later become the subject of Town Bloody Hall, a documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, which would, in turn, become the basis of The Town Hall Affair, the experimental Wooster Group’s latest production, now running at the Performing Garage in New York.
In a play directed by Elizabeth LeCompte and bookended with excerpts from Jill Johnston’s 1973 essay collection Lesbian Nation, the seven-member cast re-creates scenes from the documentary as their dialogue seamlessly syncs with the film footage displayed on screens around the stage. And the sense of déjà vu is inescapable as the punchably smug moderator clashes with panel participants Johnston (downtown NYC theater doyenne Kate Valk), a stream-of-consciousness-style columnist for The Village Voice and self-proclaimed “lesberated woman”; writer Germaine Greer (The Affair’s Maura Tierney), author of The Female Eunuch and a “saucy feminist that even men like,” per that arbiter of hip, Life magazine; and renowned literary critic and elder stateswoman Diana Trilling (portrayed, with a gender flip, by Greg Mehrten).
Echoes of Mailer’s condescending responses abound today, both to Greer’s thoughts — her sentiments were exquisite, he said, but the means offered weren’t up to his standards — and to Johnston’s levels of decorum. (She caused a bit of a scandal when she made out with two women on stage, with Mailer scolding her to “Be a lady!”) Perhaps the parallels were most notable during the recent election, when another female presidential candidate ran up against a series of double standards: Required to be a lady while her opponent was less than gentlemanly, she was criticized for the manner of her delivery instead of the merits of her positions and forced to address not-so-thinly-veiled sexist questions about her health, stamina, and ability to act rationally, not emotionally. In a year in which millions marched in protest of such attitudes, only to be told they had few complaints in comparison to the “real problems” facing women in other countries, that sense of familiarity is a stark reminder of how much gender equality work still remains.
Both on-screen and as portrayed, in alternate moments, by Wooster company members Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, Mailer is so insufferable that it’s hard to believe the term “mansplaining” wasn’t spontaneously willed into existence when he opened his mouth on the subject of feminism 45 years ago. Mehrten so thoroughly embodies the snooty Trilling you nearly forget he’s not a woman, while Valk is a tour de force as the way-out-there Johnston. (The fact that she’s a dead ringer for Kate McKinnon only lends another layer of surreality to the proceedings).
The action briefly detours from the debate for a glimpse of Mailer vanity project Maidstone, a star vehicle that he wrote and directed for himself about a celebrity who runs for president and films his experience (timely!), but to say much more about the play’s nonlinear structure and unconventional approach might give too much away. Though the subject matter is often infuriating, the performances are engaging and the presentation is fascinating. A challenging but accessible downtown theater experience, this Affair is one to remember.
In New York, Still Arguing After All These Years FEBRUARY 10, 2017 5:13 PMby LYNN YAEGER
Maura Tierney, Scott Shepherd, Ari Fliakos, and Kate Valk Photo: Paula Court
April 30, 1971: In Washington, D.C., Richard Nixon is secretly taping conversations in the White House. Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” is at the top of the charts. And at Town Hall in Manhattan, an extraordinary debate, later billed as “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” with Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos, and Jill Johnston,” is taking place. Mailer, perhaps an almost cartoon version of a condescending male chauvinist and the then-recent author of the polemical The Prisoner of Sex, parries with the four women, though Greer is likely meant to be the star. (The May 7, 1971, issue of Life magazine put her on the cover with the headline: “Saucy Feminist That Even Men Like.”)
Now, the Wooster Group, under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, is presenting a deconstructed version of this historic evening: The Town Hall Affair, at the Performing Garage through March 4. In this production, D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s 1979 documentary film of the original event, Town Bloody Hall, unspools behind the actors, who read from the actual debate transcript. (The level of eloquence, the sheer verbal pyrotechnics on display that night, makes one hang one’s head in shame over what has happen to public discourse in the last 46 years.)
Literary critic Trilling, played by Greg Mehrten, discusses the absurd ranking of orgasms (believe it or not, this was a major topic in the ’70s); Maura Tierney as Greer offers a heartbreaking analysis of the two roles open to women—menial or goddess—“We broke our hearts trying to keep our aprons clean,” she declares. Experimental writer Johnston reads a long prose poem that includes the crazy proposition that a president of the United States has just appointed a lesbian. (Some things do get better! Obama did this!) The production is interspersed with mysterious bits of feature film, also re-created by the actors. (At first baffling, at least to me, these turn out to be snippets from Mailer’s 1970 independent film Maidstone.)
Who can say what lives on in the memory of those who were fortunate enough to be in the hall that night? In this retelling, the heroine is clearly Johnston, played by Kate Valk, clad in bell-bottoms and a hippie patched denim jacket. As Valk skillfully depicts her onstage, we see the real Johnston on the screen behind her—winsome, nervy, and desperate to be heard.
LET’S TALK That Time Norman Mailer Debated Germaine Greer, and All Hell Broke Loose: Review of ‘The Town Hall Affair’ The Wooster Group’s stage distillation of the 1971 documentary, ‘Town Bloody Hall,’ reimagines a night of verbal fireworks when male chauvinism clashed with feminism head-on.
TIM TEEMAN 02.12.17 3:15 AM ET
It was a tentative ascent, up the steep flight of steps to the seats of the Wooster Group’s performance space in New York’s Soho. Snow and slush on the bottom side of people’s shoes had left the steps slick and wet, and audience members trod carefully.
The show they had come to see was choc-full of its own set of perils. The Town Hall Affair is an hour-long meditation on Town Bloody Hall, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary, which captured what happened one night in 1971 when Norman Mailer chaired, and sneered his way through, a debate about feminism with Female Eunuch author Germaine Greer, lesbian activist Jill Johnston, the writer Diana Trilling, and Jacqueline Ceballos, then-president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women.
The Wooster Group’s co-founder Elizabeth LeCompte doesn’t merely direct a recitation of the speeches and antagonisms of the evening, though these are present. The handsome Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos both play Mailer, sometimes as himself, and sometimes reporting what Mailer did. The author is by turns witty, bullying, and menacing.
Maura Tierney, most famous for playing Helen Solloway in The Affair, plays Greer, a languid, eloquent force for mischief, who—while politically and diametrically opposed to Mailer—also, in both film and this stage show, smiles and laughs with him.
Their egos match in size, and it is significant that Greer’s speech that night is not about legal equality, but artistic power, and the primacy of the male artistic voice over the female. A young gun herself at the time—wearing a slinky fur stole--but one intensely aware of her own celebrity (just as Mailer was of his), Greer was seeking to advance her own star-power as well as the rights of her sex.
Jill Johnston (Kate Valk) is a force neither Greer, who she flirts with, and Mailer can contain. Just as on film, the moment when Johnston and another woman kiss proves pivotal—so it is here. And suddenly, in the screen behind the actors, scenes from the 1971 film segue to scenes from another film, Maidstone, made the year before, starring Mailer in which he and the actor Rip Torn wrestle each other to the ground.The use of that footage means we get to see Mailer’s violence in all its forms: linguistic, menacing, and brutely physical. The actors even produce a hammer to evoke the one Mailer used in Maidstone, also asking us to imagine it as a gavel in which to bring order to the debate at Town Hall.
Valk is a wonderful Jill Johnston: flighty of voice, mischievous in intent, and strangely childlike when Mailer tries to cut her off. Greg Mehrten as Diana Trilling also brings to mind the character’s basilisk-steady command. She who will not be interrupted is as lofty as Mailer and Greer, and similarly not to be messed with. On the sides of the stage, Erin Mullin, Gareth Hobbs and Enver Chakartash are voices of scattered audience members, and a kissing partner of Jill’s. Mia Fliakos, Ari’s daughter (who he sweetly holds in his arms at the end), is charming as a small girl disturbed by the violence of the adults around her.The fragments of the 1971 Town Hall event are not reconstituted in total. The company has not simply produced a piece of tub-thumping feminism, positing Mailer as a sexist jerk to be mocked and condemned.
Instead, the Wooster Group cleverly blurs the already blurred lines of that night to tell us something new about fractious masculinity and fractious early modern feminism. It was, like the social media universe of today, a time of so many voices, all jostling for attention. But back then, debates were conducted as debates, as opposed to landing zingers. Now, the notion of debate is more polarized, and—with the political stakes so high—there are few smiles to be had. What seemed like entertaining cultural prize-fights in 1971 are now urgent matters of rights, equality, and dignity being stripped from women and minority communities. If there is a nostalgia about The Town Hall Affair it might be a nostalgia about discourse. Here are a group of people—all well-known writers and cultural avatars—with opposing views, willing to talk. They may not totally respect one another. They may not understand one another. They are also arrogant—Greer’s putdown of one sexist in the audience is wonderful—but they are also an chaotic compendium of our own clashing political and cultural beliefs. The night might be a car-crash of personalities, but all its participants leave unscathed, smiling to themselves as the evening ends.In contrast, in today’s extremity-filled echo chamber we demand the right to speak having willingly forsaken the ability to listen.
NORMAN MAILER’S SNARLING ENCOUNTER WITH FEMINISM, RESTAGED IN TRUMP’S AMERICA By Rebecca Mead February 23, 2017
Norman Mailer’s Snarling Encounter with Feminism, Restaged in Trump’s America 1 In 1971, Norman Mailer moderated a cacophonous debate about feminism that was captured on film by the documentarians Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker. Now the event has been reinterpreted in the Wooster Group’s play “The Town Hall Affair.” Photograph courtesy Pennebaker Hegedus Films
One of the many memorable moments from “Town Bloody Hall,” the celebrated debate about feminism that took place in 1971 and was captured on film by the documentarians Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, comes almost at the end. The chaotic, cacophonous evening, held at the New York City Town Hall, has consisted of an encounter between a panel of women—cultural critics Diana Trilling, Germaine Greer, and Jill Johnston, along with Jacqueline Ceballos, who was the president of the New York chapter of now—and a snarling, acerbic Norman Mailer. The event has played out in front of a delighted, often outraged audience, among them many of New York’s most prominent literary and critical figures of the era. When questions are invited from the audience, Susan Sontag rises and, in a reasonable, even friendly voice, says that she has a “very quiet question” for Mailer. Why, she asks, did he introduce Trilling as “our foremost lady literary critic?”
“I don’t like being called a ‘lady writer,’ Norman,” Sontag went on. “It feels like gallantry to you, but it doesn’t feel right to us. It’s a little better to be called a woman writer. I don’t know why, but, you know, words count.”
This moment is not among those included in the Wooster Group’s dramatization and reinterpretation of the debate, “The Town Hall Affair,” which is currently running at the experimental company’s theatre in SoHo. But it captures something important about the conversation not just between the participants in the debate—which was staged for maximum controversy by the Theater for Ideas—but between the early nineteen-seventies and the latter twenty-teens. Mailer’s use of the word “lady”—with its archaic resonance, connoting diminishment wrapped in the guise of respect—has gone out of common currency in the four and a half decades since the debate. In recent years, however, the term has been reintroduced by young feminists themselves, layered with irony, as a badge of self-identification. We have had lady-blogs, and coy references to lady-parts. “Ladies” has become a term of endearment among female friends, a tongue-in-cheek summoning of sisterhood among a generation for whom the feminism of “Town Bloody Hall” has seemed so distant as to be almost quaint.
“The Town Hall Affair” uses technology combined with bravura performance to bridge the gap between the early seventies and the present. Video screens play extended clips from the debate with the volume turned low, while the company’s actors speak the words, synchronizing them to the video—an accomplished kind of ventriloquism, complete with ums, ahs, and stumbles. Kate Valk, one of the Wooster Group’s co-founders, plays Jill Johnston, who delivers an unruly, ecstatic paean to self-love and lesbianism: “I want she . . . who is the thingy and the balls and the breasts of me.” Maura Tierney plays Germaine Greer, queenly in a sleeveless dress and fox-fur stole, delivering a stirring call on behalf of the woman artist. “No woman yet has been loved for her poetry!” she says. “And we love men for their achievements all the time. What can this be? Can this be a natural order that wastes so much power?” Diana Trilling—impersonated, in a somewhat perplexing casting choice, by the male actor Greg Mehrten—dryly dismisses some aspects of feminist sexual consciousness-raising, suggesting, “As an added benefit of our deliverance from a tyrannical authority in our choice of sexual partners, or in our methods of pursuing sexual pleasure, I could hope we would also be free to have such orgasms as in our individual complexity we happen to be capable of.” (Jacqueline Ceballos, who was less colorful, does not appear in the reënactment.)
Norman Mailer’s Snarling Encounter with Feminism, Restaged in Trump’s America Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney, Ari Fliakos, and Greg Mehrten during a performance of “The Town Hall Affair.” PHOTOGRAPH BY HERVÉ VÉRONÈSE / THE WOOSTER GROUP
In her memoir “Lesbian Nation,” which is quoted at the beginning of “The Town Hall Affair,” Jill Johnston wrote that she belatedly realized the evening was a stunt—that she was a bit player in the drama that had been intended by its organizers, a staged encounter between Greer, who had earlier been characterized in a Life cover story as a “Saucy Feminist Even Men Like,” and Mailer. But the main object of discussion that evening, as the Wooster Group’s reinterpretation reminds us, was not so much feminism, nor was it what Johnston archly characterized as “the great matchmaking epithalamium of the century,” as it was Mailer himself. The novelist had published the essay “The Prisoner of Sex” in Harper’s, documenting a critique of the feminist movement in general, and of Kate Millett’s recent book, “Sexual Politics,” in particular. Millett declined to debate Mailer—a sensible decision, in retrospect—and the women on stage had been wrangled in her place to represent the movement. In what might have, at the time, seemed a logical choice, but which now looks like an expression of the limitation of imagination that the debate sought to illuminate, Mailer was cast as the evening’s moderator. He was appointed judge and jury, while his real place should have been in the dock.
“The Town Hall Affair” places Mailer in the center of the action, and reframes it as his psychodrama: the would-be dominant male rendered snappish and helpless by the women he seeks to corral. Mailer is played by two actors, Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, who alternate in the lickety-split delivery of his observations, which range from antagonistic to obtuse. (A characteristic example: “There’s been almost no recognition that the life of a man is also difficult and that all the horrors that women go through, some of them absolutely determined by men, even more of them I suspect determined by themselves, because we must face the simple fact that it may be there’s a profound reservoir of cowardice in women which had them welcome this miserable slavish life.”) Intercut with the video images of Mailer in “Town Bloody Hall” are clips from another movie of the era, one that has not enjoyed the durability of the documentary: “Maidstone,” a film directed by and starring Mailer, who plays a filmmaker, Norman Kingsley, who is running for President. Kingsley gets into a physical fight with his brother, played by Rip Torn. (The fight was improvised, and resulted in real injuries to both actors.) As spliced together and enacted by the Wooster Group, this means that Mailer’s two halves, Fliakos and Shepherd, end up rolling around on the floor, wrestling each other.
If this sounds confusing—well, it is, a bit. But the metaphor is clear: Mailer’s efforts to dissect feminism, and to assert his own voice over those of the women on the panel, end up with him foiled, fruitlessly battling with himself. Mailer thinks that his is the voice of reason. He considers himself misunderstood by Trilling; he finds Greer intellectually incoherent; Jill Johnston isn’t worth engaging with. What is most shocking about revisiting “Town Bloody Hall” today—either in the form the Wooster Group presents it, or without their commentary—is the raw misogyny of the language Mailer feels comfortable in using in the public forum that has been provided to him. When Jill Johnston persists at the podium past her allotted time limit—she is on a roll, and the audience is delighting in her performance—Mailer scolds, “Come on, Jill, be a lady.” To a female heckler who challenges him—“What’s the matter, Mailer, you’re threatened ’cause you found a woman you can’t f**k?”—Mailer drops any affectation of politesse. “Hey, thingyy, I’ve been threatened all my life, so take it easy,” he replies, the word falling like a schoolyard taunt, or a slap across the face.
At the Wooster Group, there were gasps from the audience at that line: from both those who were old enough to remember the early seventies—to remember the dismissiveness and the violence that feminism was a response to—and those young enough to have come of age more recently, in the relatively carefree climate of “ladies” feminism, when such attitudes were supposed to be in the past. One of the results of the rise of Trump—with his arrogant objectification of women, his nasty, casual reduction of them to their sexual organs—has been the realization that the misogyny Mailer didn’t even seek to hide hasn’t disappeared since the early seventies. It’s barely even gone underground.
With the denigration of “political correctness,” Trump and his followers have reasserted a right to speak of women however they want to. At the same time, young women, particularly those of relative privilege—the daughters of Trilling, Greer, and Johnston—have had their own awakening: they have realized that their battles are not won, and that the existential rights for which the participants in the Town Hall debate were arguing are still under threat. Words count; when the President says them, they count even more. The day after Inauguration Day, millions of people took to the streets to protest the new President, in the largest demonstration of resistance in U.S. history. Many of the young women in the streets wore pussyhats—a cute, coy artifact of latter-day feminism that, when seen en masse in aerial photographs, turned into an overwhelming flag of resistance.
What’s New in NYC Theater By ALEXIS SOLOSKIFEB. 23, 2017
Maura Tierney and Scott Shepherd in “The Town Hall Affair.” Credit Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times Our guide to plays and musicals coming to New York stages — and a few last-chance picks of shows that are about to close. Our reviews of open shows are at nytimes.com/reviews/theater.
Previews and Openings
‘THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR’ at the Performing Garage (closes on March 4). This Wooster Group piece about an explosive debate on women’s liberation between Norman Mailer and a panel of feminist scholars will soon conclude its Q. and A. Ben Brantley called this “very timely and time-bending new mixed-media piece” a perspective-muddling show that has “a way of expanding the view of who and where we are.” 212-966-3651, thewoostergroup.org
The L.A. Theatre Digest: Feb. 9–15 BY PATRICK PIZZOLORUSSO FEB 16, 2017 The Wooster Group, Forever Plaid!, and The Little Prince all come to Los Angeles. L.A._Theatre_Digest_Graphic_HR
Small Theatre Closure The building that housed Working Stage Theater has shut its doors. Located on Gardner Street off of Sunset in West Hollywood, the building is being torn down for development. The space also housed Turbine Arts Collective for the past four years. Working Stage has started the process of finding a new home.
The Wooster Group to Come to Los Angeles The Town Hall Affair, featuring Maura Tierney and based on the film Town Bloody Hall (Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker), will be leaving the Performing Garage in NYC and headed to REDCAT in downtown L.A. on March 22. The production is based on the 1971 Town Hall meeting in NYC focusing on women’s liberation that turned into a rowdy debate. Visit TheWoosterGroup.org for more information. ...
When feminist debate turns into an ideological free-for-all: It's the Wooster Group's 'Town Hall Affair' The Wooster Group: 'The Town Hall Affair'
Maura Tierney at REDCAT for the Wooster Group's "The Town Hall Affair." (Steve Gunther) (Steve Gunther /)
Charles McNulty Charles McNultyContact Reporter March 24, 2017
The Wooster Group, venerable purveyor of postmodern performance collages, has come upon a gender-politics gold mine in the company's latest adventure in cockeyed cultural excavation.
"The Town Hall Affair," which opened Wednesday at REDCAT, re-creates a raucous night in the annals of second-wave feminism. The year is 1971, and the occasion is a debate at New York's Town Hall with a misleadingly sedate title: "A Dialogue on Women's Liberation."
The historic panel was indeed a mouthwatering cultural event. The illustrious panelists included Germaine Greer, the glamorously contentious author of “The Female Eunuch”; renegade Village Voice scribe Jill Johnston, whose prose style veers in the direction of lesbian spoken-word; and Diana Trilling, distinguished critic, defender of the marital orgasm and card-carrying member of the literary establishment.
The moderator was Norman Mailer, fresh off the controversy of his anti-feminist polemic "The Prisoner of Sex." An immoderate choice, Mailer was clearly recruited to keep the evening feisty.
He succeeded. The debate, traditionally set up on stage, made a vain attempt at preserving a dignified academic air. But the proceedings quickly degenerated into a mud-wrestling match of irreconcilable worldviews.
Elizabeth LeCompte's compact production (lasting just over an hour) takes its cues from the 1979 film "Town Bloody Hall" by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. Shown on a screen placed behind the debate table, the documentary preserves with jittery camera work the clash of self-dramatizing personalities that was hyped as a titanic battle of the sexes.
LeCompte’s actors perform their famous roles in a stylized fashion that can uncannily hit the realistic mark. There's a karaoke element to the performances, but of a deliciously experimental kind that accentuates the rhetorical rhythms and idiosyncrasies of the various speakers.
"The Town Hall Affair" samples not just ideas but the minds they spring from. As Greer, Maura Tierney (of Showtime’s “The Affair”) tastily combines rowdy Australian seductiveness with formidable Oxbridge common sense. This wisp of steel owns her vulnerability so that male bullies can’t exploit it. Not even the notoriously pugnacious Mailer can land a decent blow.
Greg Mehrten, kitted out in matronly drag, draws out of his portrait of Trilling the pompous cadences of a New York intellectual who balances haughty convention with revolutionary fervor. (The gender-bending casting isn't played for laughs, but a droll irreverence guides this Wooster Group séance.)
Kate Valk, still the Wooster Group's most potent weapon, steals the show with her hippy-dippy portrayal of Johnston. A birdlike drone lacking GPS, Valk's Johnston delivers a free-associative monologue so rambling that Mailer transforms into a wisecracking circus ringleader to get her to stop talking.
Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos take turns incarnating the brash, bumptious Mailer, whose offensive remarks rile the panelists and audience member to the point of near riot. (Imagine Archie Bunker as literary showman and you'll have some idea of his antagonistic effect.)
The collision of disparate genres being standard artistic practice for the Wooster Group, another film is spliced into the production to provide counterpoint. Excerpts of Mailer's 1970 film "Maidstone" (for which Pennebaker served as a cinematographer) are re-created in small, obscure segments that don't communicate much in the way of story but reveal the ingrained aggressiveness of a domineering male artist.
Rife with violence, subjugation, fear and discontent, the flashing scenes from "Maidstone" add a menacing dimension to the issues hotly contested in the Town Hall brouhaha. Mailer, in his presence and in his artistic output here, proudly epitomizes here the weight of male patriarchy.
These “lady” writers and critics, as they are patronizingly called, still manage to best their arrogant moderator even though they spend a good deal of time fighting with one another. But “The Town Hall Affair” doesn’t want us to pick a single winner.
By presenting the arguments as a shifting kaleidoscope, the Wooster Group keeps us from identifying with one point of view. The historical lens that’s playfully imposed throws into relief the unresolved nature of these still boisterous conflicts.
Norman Mailer v Germaine Greer: how the Town Hall row still rages The Wooster Group’s new show explores the notorious 1971 debate between feminists and the American novelist. Almost 50 years on, the arguments they had still define our discourse
Maura Tierney as Germaine Greer in The Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair. Photograph: Steven Gunther View more sharing options
Travis Diehl - Friday 31 March 2017 18.16 BST
It’s no small provocation in today’s leftist circles to give a straight white patriarch a microphone. The Wooster Group give Norman Mailer four.
The Town Hall Affair, the stage and media group’s latest production, centers on Town Bloody Hall, a 1979 film by Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker that documents a notorious 1971 panel billed as “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” – less moderated than manhandled by Mailer, played here by two actors (Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd) with two mics each. This double-sized man-ego shares the stage with four second-wave feminists: the activist and organizer Jacqueline Ceballos; Germaine Greer (Maura Tierney); Jill Johnston, a radically free-associative columnist for the Village Voice (Kate Valk); and the New York intellectual Diana Trilling (played with deadpan archness by Greg Mehrten).
Has politically correct culture gone too far?
The Q&A portion of the event at New York’s Town Hall featured broadsides from the likes of Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan. “Women’s liberation betrays the poor!” cried a protester, as she was escorted out. When a male literary critic had the balls to ask what it was that liberated woman actually wanted, Greer told him, flat out, to relax: “Whatever it is they’re asking for, honey, it’s not for you.”
But these antics were also argument: Johnston later wrote that she’d questioned appearing at all (and indeed several women, including Gloria Steinem, turned Mailer down), since the panel’s very existence seemed to allow that women’s liberation was an open question, not a social ultimatum. Greer met Mailer’s challenge head on: her opening statement was a 10-minute vivisection of the myth of the genius male artist.
It was soon clear that Mailer’s idea of dialogue was more like a prizefight. “To be the center of any situation was, he sometimes thought, the real marrow of his bone,” wrote Mailer of himself in The Prisoner of Sex, his egomaniacal rejoinder to his feminist detractors, which took up some 50 pages in Harper’s. In 1969, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics had excoriated Mailer at length, among Arthur Miller, DH Lawrence, and other literary alpha males, for his patriarchal descriptions of sex. In his essay, published the March before the April town hall, Mailer doubles down. Divorced for the fourth time, he spends two weeks in Maine doing all the housework, then phones his mistress. For Mailer, the battle of the sexes was dialectic, not absolute – but it was a battle he relished.
No laughing matter … Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer in Town Bloody Hall. Photograph: UCLA Film & TV Archive
In Town Bloody Hall, Mailer is cultured, expansive, and condescending throughout. He refers to his peers as “lady writers” and “lady critics”. When Johnston’s genre-bending lesbian prose poem runs a little long, Mailer clips her off: “Jill, you’ve written your letter. Now mail it.” Yet in Wooster’s version, it’s Johnston who has the last word. The play ramps up with fragments of Johnston’s published postmortem of the evening, Tarzana from the Trees at Cocktails, and concludes with an excerpt from On A Clear Day You Can See Your Mother, the speech Mailer wouldn’t let her finish.
Indeed, it’s Jill Johnston’s style that comes closest to Wooster’s own. “She was a nest-builder,” says Valk – pulling together bits of this and that, pun and poem, braiding present through past with a wicked wit. That much, at least, Mailer shared with his sparring partners. “There is an element of women’s liberation that terrifies me,” said Mailer from his podium in 1971. “It terrifies me because it’s humorless.” And such joyless absolutism, Mailer warned, would open society to totalitarian creep – from the left – until we’ve all got “scrambled brains”.
Compared with the bona fide misogynist in the White House, Valk says, Mailer is “a mere chauvinist”. Mailer isn’t shocking so much as something of a well-read fossil. Yet for some, giving voice to Mailer still seems controversial. Could it be that – along with acculturated sexism and casual homophobia of the Mailer kind – the unequivocal defense of free speech is a notion best left in the 20th century? The debate today features not what is said, but who has the right to say it – or who is allowed to be present at all.
“One of the characteristics of oppressed people,” said Greer at Town Hall, “is that they always fight among themselves.” It’s a sentiment no less true today for sounding quaint. And what does it mean that The Town Hall Affair feels so timely, so intense, and yet arrives largely verbatim from 1971?
This is partly because the old battle lines have faded. In London, activists succeeded in shuttering an obscure gallery with “alt-right” sympathies. At Berkeley, students burned a light pole to keep a certain Breitbart writer from taking the stage. And at universities across the States, faculty who spent the 60s burning draft cards and bras now furrow their brows as their own students accuse them of insufficient sensitivity and demand their resignations. Even Germaine Greer, once on the right side of history, seems to have fallen into indefensible conservatism. In 2015, thousands signed a petition to revoke Greer’s appearance at Cardiff University, after she stuck to claims that trans women aren’t really women. In each of these cases, the issues are complex – yet too often the conversation takes the form of absolutes. Neither side finds any of this funny. As for the myth of the genius male artist: the Carl Andre retrospective at Dia Beacon met with protests over the unsolved 1985 death of Ana Mendieta in the couple’s apartment; it already faces a boycott at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca).
Which is why the Wooster Group’s choice of material comes close to roasting the present zeitgeist with an image of the radical past. When it comes to an uncomfortable idea, says director Elizabeth LeCompte, the impulse today is to “get rid of it. But that’s something that’s hard for artists, because we don’t like to get rid of things, we like to go into them. We like to explore the bad, the good, the beautiful, the ugly.” Which is why, although the last generation of television shows has made remarkable inroads toward equality, Adam Curtis claimed that the most relevant and unflinching document of today’s culture is South Park. In the past two seasons the show has not only defined PC culture as the gentrification of language, but has savaged a particular liberal taboo by mocking Caitlyn Jenner.
People who are against oppression, Jill Johnston often wrote, should be against all oppression. Turns out it’s completely possible to be against all oppression, but not be against all oppression enough.
The Town Hall Affair plays at REDCAT in Los Angeles until 1 April, and in San Francisco at Z Space from 6 April – 16 April
For the first few minutes after the as-yet unidentified character of Jill Johnston takes the stage and begins a slyly rambling introduction of the evening ahead, the audience struggles to grab and hold the reins of her thought and the narrative she’s weaving. For those unfamiliar with the late feminist lesbian writer’s demeanor and carriage, the thought might briefly flicker that actress Kate Valk, as Johnston, is unprepared, under rehearsed – a thought you quickly dismiss because rigor (artistic and intellectual) is the calling card and very foundation of the Wooster Group theater collective. Later in the program, as clips of the real life Johnston play on monitors and Valk syncs up her performance with the real-life figure, you realize there are flashes of brilliance in her performance. The whole evening is both inspired and exhilarating.
A heady mash-up of film clips, video, slides, computer effects, and songs, “The Town Hall Affair” uses the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall, co-directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus as its primary source material, along with scenes from Norman Mailer’s 1970 film Maidstone. The documentary was filmed April 30, 1971, capturing the electric panel on feminism, “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” which had been inspired by the many groundbreaking texts on feminism being published at the time (including Johnston’s biography “Lesbian Nation,” Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch,” and Kate Millet’s “Sexual Politics.”) Shirley Broughton, of the Theater of Ideas, had the gimmicky inspiration to have Norman Mailer, icon of brusque machismo and misogyny, moderate. Millett smartly turned down the offer to appear, and Johnston – as she outlines in her opening monologue – had thought to disrupt the evening and bend it to her own ends, but the proceedings snowballed out of control and almost flattened her instead.
As the panel unfolds and we, the 21st century audience, watch the droll and regal Greer (Maura Tierney) go toe-to-toe with Mailer, literary critic Diana Trilling (Greg Mehrten in a baffling but ultimately inspired casting choice) push back against both Mailer (portrayed by both Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd) and limited notions of feminism. Johnston’s witty poetics and polemics pull the audience toward her, though, especially when she is on the receiving end of Mailer’s most pointed barbs. It’s a scintillating mashup of technology and performance, of dense and abstracted ideas being whittled with humor and bite into gleaming political commentary that is as relevant today as it was over forty-five years ago – perhaps even more so. Though the panel is lily-white and issues of race aren’t mentioned, and class is only addressed through the lens of white womanhood, the event still took place at a time whose tumult seemed to be the birth pangs of a better America to come. As we watch the debate now, its issues still painfully relevant, it is from the position of watching hard won civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights – human rights – be eroded and the clock turned back as a head spinning pace.
For all that it deconstructs and lays bare, “Town Hall” also stokes nostalgia and illustrates the way it can gild memory. The language of the play is lifted directly from the documentary, supplemented by the critical work of the real-life figures. It is heightened and elevated (even in those moments of crudeness and meanness,) the kind of gloriously self-conscious linguistic performances given by people who reveled in living lives of the mind, where cocktail chatter and moderated political debates alike could be dizzying in both substance and wordplay – even if the politics could be absolutely risible. It is astonishing to take measure of the gap between public debate then, and what passes for it now. The degradation of language and public political discourse over the past four decades is not just a concern of prissy gate keepers, but speaks volumes about where we are now and how we got here. And yet, it’s to the credit of the cast that you leave the play inspired and fed, feeling that perhaps the good fight can still be won.
The best of Sydney Festival 6 Dec, 2017 8:00am 6 minutes to read Jurassic Plastic may have you re-thinking your views. By: Dionne Christian Arts & Books Editor, NZ Herald firstname.lastname@example.org Dionne Christian gives her picks for one of the world's most wonderful festivals.
The sun, the sea, the surf: actually, it leaves me cold or, to be more accurate, sweltering.
Give me an air-conditioned gallery, museum or theatre over scorching sands and possible sunburn any day. Which is why Sydney in January sings its siren song to me.
It's Sydney Festival time, when the city comes alive with must-see performing and visual arts. It calls itself one of the most wonderful festivals in the world and it truly is. If you're lucky enough to be there between January 6 and 28, here's a few suggestions: ...
The Town Hall Affair: Maura Tierney is coming to Sydney. She's the US actress famous for roles in ER, The Good Wife and The Affair and she's fabulous. Now, Tierney's playing feminist firebrand Germaine Greer in an "artful reimagining" of the 1971 debate A Dialogue on Women's Liberation where Greer and fellow feminist Jill Johnston exchanged views — not so politely — with author Norman Mailer. (The Town Hall Affair, Drama Theatre at Sydney Opera House, January 7-13)