New York Times, Sunday Arts and Leisure, Jason Zinoman, August 31, 2003
THIS IS HER LIFE, AND IT MAY BE YOURS TOO
Sleeping is so conventional. Think about it: people go to bed at night, and they do it in generally the same way. At 15, Heather Woodbury, a bohemian growing up in Berkeley, Calif., decided to be different. She was going to stay awake, permanently. Sure, there were some obstacles. "After three days without sleep," she discovered, "you become clinically insane." But madness wasn't going to stop a rebellious teenager with a defiantly stubborn streak. Armed with bottles of caffeine pills, Ms. Woodbury spent a long four-day weekend with a friend, awake.
Eventually, of course, she collapsed. It was one of the few times when Ms. Woodbury put her mind to something and didn't follow through. Look at her childhood. At 4, she announced she would live in New York. At 7, she started training to be a novelist. At 11, she settled on acting. Flash-forward to today and everything worked out as planned. Ms. Woodbury, 39, lived in New York about half her life, until she moved back west in 2001. On Thursday, she opens in a revival of her own epic solo piece, "What Ever: An American Odyssey in Eight Acts," at P.S. 122, the first stop of a tour. Her first novel, a version of "What Ever" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, hits stores in September. (For the book, Ms. Woodbury added some scene description, but the dialogues remain the same.)
Sitting in the Odessa Restaurant on Avenue A the other day, a youthful-looking Ms. Woodbury explained that she had not changed much since her terrible teens. "I recently looked back at my old journals, and it's alarming how much I'm the same," she said. "I've discovered that life is like an orbit of a planet and you just keep passing the same point as you spiral around."
This theme runs throughout "What Ever." The sprawling play, which she began working on in 1994, demonstrates that teenagers aren't the only ones who can come of age. A young raver, for instance, confronts the same problems as a middle-aged corporate executive. The show runs eight hours stretched over four nights, and as with a soap opera, not every installment has to be seen for the play to be understood.
"What Ever," which involves more than 100 characters, has a little bit of everything: highly poetic language and base melodrama, hard-headed realism and cutting satire. There is romance, magic, tragedy and a bracing liberal critique of the world that somehow manages to avoid pessimism and didacticism. With the scale of a Dickens serial and the melodramatic punch of "The Young and the Restless," it is, along with Lily Tomlin's "Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" and Danny Hoch's "Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop," one of the masterworks of the solo form."
"Like Laurie Anderson, who mixed visual art and music to create her own type of theatrical experience, Heather made her own medium," said Mark Russell, artistic director of P.S. 122. "It doesn't fit into the box."
Working without props, except for two straight-backed chairs and a microphone, Ms. Woodbury prowls the stage like a nightclub comic, switching effortlessly among her characters and their idiosyncratic accents. Her voice rising and falling, she never lets the audience lose track of who is talking as she creates an entire world by using one major instrument -- her voice.
Ms. Woodbury emerged out of the East Village performance art scene in the 1980's but didn't find her major influences in the theater. An unhappy experience in acting class with Stella Adler ("She was a horrible woman," Ms. Woodbury said, "not very nice to the women") soured her on traditional theater. As inspiration, she cited 18th- and 19th-century authors like Henry Fielding, Jane Austen and Dostoyevsky, as well as Latin American writers who employ magical realism. But her real alma mater was the Baby Doll Lounge, then in Lower Manhattan, where she danced topless for six years. "I learned there that I was funny," she said. "I would do elaborate pantomime. Some of the men put up with me because I was young and not wearing many clothes. Some of them actually liked it."
"What Ever" begins in an Upper East Side diner in the early 1990's. Two older women (portrayed in turn by Ms. Woodbury) are chatting about an article in The New York Times describing the latest craze -- dance parties called raves. As their conversation trails off, ambient trance music fades in and, with the quickness of a remote control, the scene shifts to a rave near a Northern California beach. Two lyrical teenage hipsters, Clove and Skeeter, share a romantic moment before the scene shifts again to the boardroom of a multinational bank in midtown Manhattan.
The characters, all recognizable if not predictable types, are blessed with a love of talking. Turning stylized slang into verbose monologues, Ms. Woodbury has created her own rich language, as densely intricate as a Shakespearean sonnet.
She reserves the wildly poetic flourishes for the ravers. Even the most plugged-in West Coast dude will find some lines indecipherable (any idea what "Yur just thwackin' on the neg slope" means?). And when in an altered state, the ravers often speak in verse ("I mean, 'In Utero' was a good album,/ some songs on it were stoked, I suppose/ But it's a ravin' girl-dude I am/ Not all yoked by a hoaxish pose").
The creation of "What Ever," like so many reckless flights of fancy, began with a dare. In 1994, Dudley Saunders, one of Ms. Woodbury's best friends, challenged her to write and perform one half-hour monologue every week for a year. Ms. Woodbury took him up on it (although she trimmed the period to nine months), opening for music acts at the Fort, a dingy back room at the Sidewalk Cafe on Avenue A.
"I would perform it Wednesday and rest on Thursday and Friday," Ms. Woodbury said. "On the weekend, I would start soaking stuff up." By Monday, she would begin to get nervous. And then more nervous, and more and more until -- a chronic procrastinator -- she would panic. Friends and family members knew to expect a hysterical phone call right before showtime. It was what her brother Brian called her "pre-performance performance."
At first, the audience was sparse, and she competed with the waitresses for attention. At the time, the Fort did not have a stage, so performing there was like doing stand-up on a street corner. "I certainly didn't want to perform in a theater," Ms. Woodbury said. "There's something churchlike about theater spaces." Gradually, the show gained a cult following. By the end of 37 weeks, she had created more than 20 hours of material. In the next few years, she and Mr. Saunders edited it down to about eight hours.
Ms. Woodbury grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. After a couple of "sad suburban years," she and her family moved to Berkeley, where she spent her tempestuous youth. "I wasn't doing anything hugely juvenile delinquent, just flirting with it," she said. "I tried drugs, tried them all. My parents weren't letting me do all this; they just couldn't stop me."
In a telephone interview, her mother, Marda, a librarian (her father, Mark, is a retired high school teacher), said, "She's a good daughter as a grown-up, but I'd hate to live with her as a 14-year-old again."
For her part, Ms. Woodbury could not wait to leave home. "The day after I turned 17, I was on a plane to New York," she said. "I needed a break from my parents."
She skipped college and started performing solo shows at East Village hangouts like the Garage and Cafe Bustelo, which she founded in 1987. It closed in 1988 after the Tompkins Square protests. She moved back to the West Coast, she said, because "I was tired of competing with the same people for the same piece of cheese." She also married. Her husband, Roberto Palazzo, is a 33-year-old artist whom she describes with a smile as "young enough to be a younger man but old enough to be a man."
She's no stay-at-home, however. Her current tour will take her to Washington, Chicago and Austin, Tex. After that, she plans to unveil a new work about the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, "Tale of 2Cities: An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks," next July at the Galway Festival in Ireland.
"Heather's an eccentric in the classic sense," said Larry Fessenden, director of the film "Habit" and a friend of Ms. Woodbury's since the 80's. "She's like a dotty old aunt who still collects albums." Indeed, Ms. Woodbury often comes across as vaguely old-fashioned, a survivor of the tie-dyed 60's.
Slender and blue-eyed, she was the picture of West Coast health recently. Wearing a floppy straw hat, thin black and brown corduroys and an airy blouse, she could have been the fifth member of the Mamas and the Papas. In the somewhat gentrified East Village, it's a look that, to say the least, stands out. After all, is there anything less fashionable these days than a hippie? Besides a performance artist from the 1980's, of course.
Ms. Woodbury has always been refreshingly out-of-step. You can even hear it in her sunny politics: "If you look at the state of the world, you can get really despondent and bitter. The environment is too far gone to be salvaged. Our response to violence is to kill other people. But I think you have to see that and then say, 'Let's live with all positivity and courage and love.' Even if we are on a path of destruction to hell, it's all the more reason to embody heaven."
Ms. Woodbury has always been na�e enough to believe in the impossible. She believes in visions and miracles and happy endings, as evidenced by the magical conclusion of "What Ever," an extended homage to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which the dead come back to life and long-lost lovers reunite.
"There are really two endings," she said. "First, I'm saying, 'Here's life, here's what really happens,' and then, 'Here's the miraculous.' I believe in the miraculous." She smiled, almost as if she were slightly embarrassed. "It's the Southern California disease."