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Unsung Heroes Ron Vawter

Rose English

Artist Rose English remembers the experimental stage actor

Ron Vawter as Irma in Jean Genet's The Balcony, from the Connecticut College version of The Performance Group's production, directed by Richard Schechner, 1979 - Richard Schechner Papers and The Drama Review Collection, Princeton University Library

Ron Vawter as Irma in Jean Genet’s The Balcony, from the Connecticut College version of The Performance Group’s production, directed by Richard Schechner, 1979

Richard Schechner Papers and The Drama Review Collection, Princeton University Library

In 1995, I moved to a new studio and one of the first images I put on the wall was this photograph of the great American actor Ron Vawter (1948–1994). It remained on my wall for the next 10 years, from where it transmitted the calm, constant, intense reflection of Vawter as Irma in Jean Genet’s The Balcony, directed by Richard Schechner in 1979.

During his lifetime, Vawter worked predominantly with two legendary American theatre ensembles: The Performance Group directed by Richard Schechner, and The Wooster Group directed by Elizabeth LeCompte – both based at the Performing Garage in New York. Within the collaborative milieu of these remarkable ensembles he drew on the particular discipline of his earlier life as a soldier in the US military to become a consummate performer.

In July 1993, I witnessed Vawter in two productions in London, and the memory of both is indelible. Firstly, at Riverside Studios in Brace Up! – The Wooster Group’s version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters – he distilled the essence of the character of Vershinin with an incandescent, focused intensity.

The following week I saw his legendary solo monodrama Roy Cohn/Jack Smith at the ICA, the recreation of a performance by filmmaker and actor Jack Smith. I have read that Vawter prepared for the role by mixing Smith’s ashes into his eye make-up. He also meticulously replicated his idiosyncratic speech rhythms by listening to a recording of Smith’s performance, What’s Underground About Marshmallows?, via a hidden earpiece during the performance. It was not an impersonation of either of the protagonists – instead something other/deeper occurred, and a kind of ‘channelling’ or charged state was palpable.

I admired the way that, as a performer, Vawter simultaneously transformed completely, but remained himself, maintaining his dedication, technical virtuosity, political commitment, humanity and generosity of spirit until the day he died. The epitaph that accompanied this photograph, in an article in The Drama Review written by Schechner shortly after Vawter’s death, still inspires and moves me today: ‘Enormous courage, integrity, and clarity of vision marked Ron Vawter as a very rare occurrence. He never failed to draw on that ‘‘human potential’’ he so admired. He never gave up.’

Rose English is an artist and performer based in London. Her installation Quadrille 1973/2013 is included in the display 60 Years at Tate Britain.

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