Kate Valk & Nahuel Perez BiscayartOne of a kind

Published in August 2008clockTime to read: 4m40s
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The Wooster Group, based in New York, has made its name with radical interpretations of drama classics, from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller. Through intense and rigorous re-imagining and recreations of texts via close collaboration between its members, The Group is reinventing theatre. Enter Nahuel Perez Biscayart, a young Argentinian who has made his name on stage and screen, but in more traditional productions. Paired with mentor Kate Valk, a founding member of The Wooster Group, Biscayart was immediately immersed in an all-consuming artistic experience that went far beyond the mechanics of acting.

by George Hunka August 2008
  • Kate Valk
    The Mentor
  • Nahuel Perez Biscayart
    The Protégé

One afternoon in May 2009 at The Performing Garage in New York’s Soho district, a theatre performance is taking shape. Elizabeth LeCompte, director of a world-renowned troupe, The Wooster Group, sits behind a rehearsal, flanked by video and audio technicians; in front of her is a large open space, with two video displays upstage and two more downstage, pointing in the direction of the cast.

On the screens, a solo dancer – a bearded man wearing tights, his countenance without expression – is performing a balletic dance to a vintage recording of chamber music. A woman wearing a negligee and a flowing blonde wig (Wooster Group mainstay Kate Valk, almost unrecognizable in her costume), is imitating the dancer’s movements as she moves across the stage, copying his gestures, steps and twists with her own body.

LeCompte then suggests that another actor joins her. Nahuel Perez Biscayart rises from his seat. Thin, tall and intense, he joins Kate Valk on the stage. Over the next hour or so, LeCompte encourages the actors to simplify their imitations of the video dancer’s movement, to imitate him first with their entire bodies, then just with their shoulders and backs, and finally with their backs alone, until what started as a series of comic, clumsy imitations becomes a graceful, fluid interaction with the video image. Through the entire rehearsal, LeCompte listens to suggestions and feedback from all the performers and offers direction and advice; both director and performers play close attention to the video image and the music score, manipulated by the engineers.

“Liz runs a very open rehearsal room, with a lot of different systems going on at the same time,” says Valk. “You won’t find another one like it anywhere. Our process doesn’t rely on the same kind of highly defined hierarchy – director, playwright, designer, performer – as the making of other plays.”

For almost a year now, Valk and Biscayart have been exploring the nature of theatre, especially the highly specialized, collaborative, avant-garde theatre that the Group represents ― making the protégé-mentor relationship between Valk and Biscayart one of a kind.

The match

When Biscayart was invited to apply for the mentorship, he already had five years’ experience as an actor. “Acting allows me to forget my life,” he says, explaining his choice of profession. “Being ‘changed for a while’, being someone else, being in another state of mind – this happens in theatre. It’s magic. It is a physical experience. I love it.” He was also profoundly aware of the collaborative nature of theatrical work, which made him particularly well suited to the programme.

But his year with The Wooster Group was still going to be different. “In the productions in which I appeared in Argentina before my mentorship, we didn’t have all the technology Kate and the Group have,” he says. “Here you have the resources to do whatever you want to do, and I was excited to think about using technology as one of the ways to ‘write’ theatrical pieces.”

The combination of disciplined movement, technology and intense collaboration over many months has been a hallmark of The Wooster Group’s work since the troupe’s formation in the late 1970s. The Wooster Group has created a style instantly recognizable as its own. The Group has become a significant influence on directors and performers around the globe.

Valk has been with the group since its early years, joining the collective as an assistant to LeCompte at the age of 21. “I came to the Garage after I met The Wooster Group through New York University,” she remembers. “I immediately took a mentor-protégé-like relationship to Liz. It was far from the formal relationship I have through the Rolex programme with Nahuel. I kept my mouth shut and listened, soaking up the ways in which Liz and this group were making work. I’d never encountered anybody like Liz before. It totally opened my eyes and ears about how to live your life as an artist. I just wanted to be at the Garage every day, to do whatever was necessary to make the thing happen,” she says.

So when Valk received an invitation to be a Rolex mentor, she was gratified and challenged at the same time: “It’s an esteemed programme. I was stunned to be selected.” But the selection process that led to her partnership with Biscayart was not easy. “I interviewed and spent time with three young nominees. It was emotionally draining, with these people coming from Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur and Buenos Aires – hosting them at our rehearsals and feeling responsible for them in the chaos of the rehearsal room.”

What then made Biscayart stand out from the three nominees? “He was the one person who didn’t want to leave!” she exclaims. “Watching us in the rehearsal room, he said: ‘No, I don’t want to go. I love it here!’ And I thought: ‘Fabulous!’ Because there was a connection, there was a spark.”

Unlike anything else

For Biscayart, the opportunity to work abroad with an actress of Valk’s standing remained a dream until he was nominated for the mentorship. “I wanted to get into an unknown theatre and have the scary feeling of not knowing anyone and just little by little beginning to feel a part of it. Create new places, expand myself – I think that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

“I’d never thought of having a mentor before,” he adds. “But having a mentor is a very personal and intimate experience. It’s been a very unique learning experience for me. I really enjoy the day-to-day work with Kate. We do a lot of work on details and small things, broken gestures and things like that. She has a big book of photocopies of gestures that opera singers use, and we’ve been re-enacting them, sometimes separately, sometimes at the same time. She’s even teaching me her parts! It’s a very creative and very enjoyable way to approach theatrical performance. We see each other almost every day,” says Biscayart, who spent several months of the mentoring year in New York to be close to The Wooster Group.

Nor, he notes, is the mentorship confined to the four walls of the rehearsal room. “We also go to see operas and go to art galleries together, so it’s been a very close working experience. What’s most exciting for me about this kind of relationship is that the only thing that joins us is the desire to spend time together, rather than just keeping to a tight weekly agenda. I believe it’s a good way of learning.”

Like Valk, Biscayart has had academic training, but both agree there is no substitute for getting into the rehearsal room.

“I don’t think you can learn theatre at a school,” Valk suggests. “I had formal training at NYU and with the great Stella Adler from the Group Theatre. I had such a good time with script interpretation and all those things. I had a Shakespeare teacher, a movement teacher and I said: ‘Well, this is fun, but am I going to be an actor? I don’t think so!’ Sending around a headshot and a résumé – I don’t have the ego for that, though sometimes I think it would be nice if I did. The necessity to work with practicing artists was crucial for me.”

Through the year, Biscayart and Valk have been learning not only about each other, but about the theatre – and the meaning of the protégé-mentor partnership. For Valk, “I didn’t expect it to be as much of a two-way street as it has been. Look, I’m not a single artist – it’s about Nahuel being a part of this process, and he has a very keen eye. But it is a formal mentor-protégé pairing, and I like that because I can ask him for things. It’s a heightened, formal and intense relationship, not like anything else.

“I can ask him for help because he’s both close and outside. I’ll tell you, at this point in my work, it’s a very special energy that has given me something – it makes things more buoyant. I can’t define it more specifically than that.”

In a sense, watching Biscayart and Valk together, you sense that this is more than a mentorship — in the tradition of The Wooster Group, it's a work/life collaboration, a formal relationship which has blossomed into a unique professional exchange between actress and actor, joining generations.

Extracted from an article written by George Hunka for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2008/2009 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

George Hunka is a playwright and the artistic director of theatre minima, a theatre company based in New York. His writings on theatre have appeared in many publications, including the New York Times and the Guardian.

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