Heather Woodbury loves words. She loves how they sound and act, and all the ways we use and misuse them; accents, drawls, grunge slang, radio rants. "For me, voices lead to the story," says the 42-year-old playwright/performer. "I just walk around a lot and I hear things that make me want to know more. I start off in a voice, and ask it to keep talking."
Woodbury weaves these aural equivalents of found art into super-sized montages in which dozens of characters zigzag through time and space, their adventures blending social commentary and soap opera, the graphically detailed and the absurd. "I like to take a lot of little bits and relate them to a greater theme," she says.
Her 1995 masterwork, "What Ever: An American Odyssey in 8 Acts," was a 10-plus-hour coming-of-age-at-any-age saga that included Santa Cruz ravers, Hell's Kitchen whores, an elderly bohemian, a crystal healer and her business-exec lover, and the ghost of Kurt Cobain. Woodbury played all the parts; 100 or so; over four nights. She was likened to Dickens, Shakespeare, Dos Passos, and a shape-shifter. (A mix artist also comes to mind.)
Woodbury's newest project, "Tale of 2Cities (An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks)," is about half as long but is weightier and more ambitious. Instead of her usual solo act, the play; which will have its world premiere at UCLA Live this weekend; will be performed by a cast of seven, including Woodbury. Directed by Dudley Saunders, "2Cities" is loosely tied to the upheaval caused by the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in the late 1950s. The team broke the borough's heart by leaving tiny Ebbets Field for a beautiful stadium erected in Chavez Ravine, from which mini-villages of Mexican Americans were rousted after a long, ugly political battle.
After relocating from New York to L.A. herself in 1998, Woodbury became fascinated with the notion of being in two places at once and with recapturing worlds lost to time. She began to wonder if she could build something around the Dodgers' migration. Once she saw Don Normark's landmark photographs of pre-eviction Chavez Ravine, she knew she could.
Another major influence was Sept. 11, which occurred while Woodbury was in New York developing "2Cities." Many works of art were inspired by the terrorist attacks. This piece was created before, during and after; the tragedy is not its focus, but an event that erupts midway through. "At first I had doubts," says Woodbury. "The narrative got interrupted. Could I go on? Then I realized that this also was a story about people's lives being interrupted by history."
In "2Cities," Miriam, a Jewish leftist from Brooklyn, comes to California in the '40s and tries to help residents of the ravine, including a girl named Gabriela. As an old woman back in New York, Miriam is left in a coma by a mugging at the housing project that replaced Ebbets Field.
Gabriela, too, becomes a spirit in limbo. After she dies of a heart attack at 61, her ghost reminisces while her body lies in her kitchen, a few miles from Dodger Stadium, awaiting help from grandson Manny, a DJ whose attempts to leave the barrio have their own ambiguous endings.
Swirling through these grimmer tales is the symphony of sorts that Woodbury composes from the cacophony of city life; frustrated commuters, erudite hobos, crooked cops.
Where does baseball come in? "2Cities" isn't really about the sport, at least the part that takes place between the foul lines. What Woodbury explores are the meandering threads; social and psychological; that have entwined players and fans for generations. "Baseball is the theater of America," she says, a role that was reinforced by Sept. 11. "Everybody was glued to the World Series, wanting New York to win. I saw how baseball was a way of teaching people to be American, and how it brought us together."
Woodbury always knew what she wanted. At 4, the youngest child of a Bay Area high school teacher and a librarian wanted to live in New York. At 7 she wanted to write; at 11 she wanted to act. In 1981, the day after she turned 17, Woodbury flew to her favorite city to attend college, but ended up exploring the East Village performance art scene. She studied acting; worked jobs, including go-go dancing; and created pieces she says were best described by a friend who called them "stream of consciousness with a suppressed narrative."
After 13 years she decided to produce something more polished. Saunders, a performance artist whom she had met through an arts space she briefly ran, agreed to serve as her director. "A lot of people didn't understand what she was after," says Saunders. "She was trying to bring together all these characters who seemed to have nothing to do with each other. She had too many good ideas. Not all of them could fit."
Saunders challenged her to present a show a week for a year, in part to accumulate material. Also, he says, "Heather's a brilliant off-the-cuff person, so it was a good experience for her to do the same thing over and over." Woodbury held forth, albeit for nine months, in the back room of a bar. The results, even when edited, filled eight evenings instead of one. Early reaction was divided. Woodbury and Saunders kept refining. "What Ever" toured the country and London and earned raves, as did a published version.
"It was great, but just part of a cycle," Woodbury says. "The significance is that 'What Ever' gave me my form," what she calls "the performance novel; a dramatic work that evokes the scope and narrative structure of a novel."
Woodbury was not a baseball fan but her mother had once lived in Brooklyn, so Woodbury knew how traumatic the Dodgers' departure was. After she moved to Echo Park in 1998 she learned the history of Chavez Ravine. She fleshed out her ideas through her own special research and development: "I don't like to do interviews. I like to go and spy on people, just eat burritos or walk." She also helped to organize public memory-sharing events and performed nearly a dozen early slices of the play in Brooklyn and L.A.
At first, Woodbury considered writing "2Cities" as a book, but she quickly changed her mind. She did embrace another big shift: "I decided to do it as an ensemble piece almost as soon as I started writing it. I always heard a lot of voices speaking at the same time."
The trade-off will be giving up the joy of watching Woodbury transform herself. "It was astonishing to see one person standing there with just a chair making you believe in all these people," says UCLA Live director David Sefton. "While we may lose that sense of virtuosity, the scale suddenly takes on a different level. It also will be much easier on the audience to follow a multiple narrative presented by a bigger cast."
Sefton met Woodbury in the '90s through performance artist Laurie Anderson, who booked "What Ever" into a festival Sefton was running in London. Once he arrived in Westwood six years ago, he talked about doing the show here. The discussion shifted to a co-production of "2Cities" with New York's Performance Space 122, where "What Ever" had its initial run. The two venues commissioned "2Cities" by giving Woodbury the first Spalding Gray Award, a tribute to the late monologuist who found a home at PS 122 and had also worked with Sefton.
" '2Cities' was a natural choice," says Sefton. The subject is relevant. On top of that, he says, "Heather is an indigenous artist with an absolutely devoted following who doesn't get used enough in this town."
"This is great," says Woodbury one sun-drenched afternoon as she guides her dusty Honda Civic up Echo Park's steeply angled streets near the bungalow she shares with her husband, painter Roberto Palazzo. The area's patchwork architecture, its history, and its eclectic population have intrigued Woodbury since her first visit. "It reminded me of the lower Lower East Side, even though it was completely different," she says. "It had the same feeling of fecundity, that things could grow." The neighborhood also appeared, at the time at least, to have escaped the gentrification that had driven her from New York.
She winds past houses; "eccentric, utopian, bohemian;" beyond the locked parking lot gates of Dodger Stadium and down by Elysian Park. Finally, she enters Solano Canyon, a modest enclave of older homes nestled against the Pasadena Freeway. "This is the barrio that got away," she says, "what the others could be like if they hadn't been torn down."
Woodbury sighs. "It's so peaceful, so magical." The woman who loves the noisy world of words can appreciate tranquillity. "I like coming here," she says. "I can imagine what might have been."