Features Published 18 April 2016

Greg Wohead: “It is really swirling and slippery on purpose.”

Rosemary Waugh talks to Greg Wohead about ideas of reconstruction and replication, and his "haunted" performance 'Comeback Special'.
Rosemary Waugh
Greg Wohead in Comeback Special. Photo: Manuel Vason.

Greg Wohead in Comeback Special. Photo: Manuel Vason.

On 3rd December 1968, NBC broadcast the Elvis Presley concert which has come to be known as the ‘Comeback Special’. Watching it now it is easy to understand this as Elvis’s ‘midway point’, a stop-over between his 1950s youth and the bloated, drug-addicted Elvis of the later 1970s which has, for many, come to act as the resounding image of the musical icon. However, as Greg Wohead, writer and performer of the Elvis-inspired show Comeback Special, states, “Then, nobody knew what was going to happen to him. But now, looking at this event from this point, we can’t help but watch with all of the knowledge of his trajectory. This event contains his past and his future. It contains it all at once. Because that’s how we’re watching it.”

This confusion of time, knowledge and interaction between audience and performer informs Wohead’s show in a number of different ways. Throughout our conversation he keeps coming back to the words “slippery” and “swirling”. Not enough credit is given to the value of answers like Wohead’s that deliberately eschew certainty. In a world where the ability of politicians to wiggle out of a question is cited as a cause of public disengagement with politics, genuinely complicated answers to questions like those of US President Barack Obama are more illuminating than any sound-bite certainty. Wohead does the same in making a real virtue out of answering in ways that demonstrate a constantly evolving collection of thoughts. “Whenever I talk about this piece, it isn’t for me a piece that can be summed up in like two sentences. So I have to talk around it and around it. Because if I could sum it up in like two sentences I wouldn’t have made this piece…or certainly not this piece about Elvis…It is really swirling and slippery on purpose because I think that is the only form with which you can explore these ideas around queerness.”

One of the ‘slippery’ concepts that feed into the Comeback Special work is the idea of masculinities, particularly those that have so far avoided easy categorisation. As explored in his blog post, Wohead was influenced by the article Queer Masculinities of Straight Men: A Typology by Robert Heasley, an academic at the University of Pennsylvania. In the article, Heasley discusses the status of the “non-traditional male”, those who do not conform to the traditional, heteronormative view of masculinity and therefore – despite exhibiting a whole realm of differences – are lumped together under the banner of being “non”. Heasley states, “being ‘non’ means ‘not having’…The very labelling of a person as the absence of something (such as labelling women as ‘nonmen’) reifies the dominant group while subjugating the subordinate. ‘Non’ erases. And in the process, it problematizes the other.”

When discussing Heasley’s article, Wohead says, “I have a very personal connection to that, I felt like it was articulating some my own experience.” Expanding on the idea of non-traditional identity, he goes on to say, “So there are some aspects to that identity that you keep quiet about…that you can’t let show because there is that image of a straight white dude that you see and don’t fit in to. It’s a slippery thing, trying to reach out for…the idea of being defined as non-traditional, being defined in the negative…a negative space, always defining yourself by what you’re not, but by defining yourself by what you are not, you are always privileging the dominant group…so it’s a struggle to find that non-traditional, there’s no term for it, it’s always going to be defined as being ‘not that’.”

This idea of the negative space, of being a non-being, is explored further in relation to the idea of re-enactment. As with Wohead’s previous work on projects such as The Ted Bundy Project, Comeback Special is not a show in which Wohead acts Elvis. At all times both Wohead and the persona of Elvis or the idea of Elvis are on stage. “In some ways I do adopt different people in my work, but I think for me, I am also always myself. So I am never just playing a character. I’m never tying to suspend disbelief. But to channel other people or personas…but always a consciousness that it is always just me here. And being inside of it and outside of it at the same time. So reflecting off, rather than trying to disappear into it.”

The concepts of the stand-in and having multiple personas on stage at one time are taken a step further in Greg Wohead’s Celebration Florida. In this work, two performers who are new to the piece each time are placed on stage wearing headphones, through which they start to receive instructions. “So in the same way that in The Ted Bundy Project I wore the headphones and tried to talk in the voice of Ted Bundy and tried to wear that persona while also still being myself, it’s now flipped a bit and I’m now making performers wear me as a persona and speak in my voice.”

Performers are mostly people who bear little or resemblance to Wohead, which allows for “a consciousness that whilst they are putting on the persona of me they are also always themselves.” As with The Ted Bundy Project and Comeback Special it is gradually becoming clear that Celebration Florida is closely related to its predecessors. “The performance is revolving around ideas of stand-ins and surrogates…which I am now starting to realise is really a part of everything that I do!”

Greg Wohead by Richard Eaton.

Greg Wohead by Richard Eaton.

Comeback Special is a re-enactment of an event that occurred in 1968, but it’s at one remove from the celebratory approach of occasions like the Elvis festival in Porthcawl, which Wohead once went to. Rebecca Schneider’s book Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Re-enactment (2011) also influenced Wohead in a significant way when first starting to create Comeback Special. Schneider, like Heasely, explores the idea of the negative. “One of my favourite phrases in this book, Performing Remains, talking about battle re-enactment, is when she says something like ‘when they re-enact the Civil War, it’s not the Civil War, but it’s not not the Civil War’ so the idea of the not not is taking that negative space and putting a language to it.”

Taking the not and turning it into the not not is crucial to understanding Comeback Special because, as grammar bores like to intone, two negatives make a positive. “The idea of the not not is taking that negative space and putting a language to it, so that it starts to seem positive or future-facing. Because the idea of the not not means that it could be or it is…”

The implicit pathos that’s created when we link Elvis and the words ‘comeback special’ is far from the full story of the show, or the event as it happened at the time. “There is a sadness…because it’s about loneliness, but there’s also reaching out for a connection, a sense of possibility and facing the future. It’s about what it could be to make a comeback and what it could be to try and be seen as yourself, rather than keeping whatever it is quiet. To be seen as yourself. ‘Hope’ is a bit of cheesy word for it, but I think more, like, future-facing.”

There’s a kind of mysticism to his approach, as well as the future-facing historicism. Comeback Special uses music design by Timothy X Atack from Sleepdogs and lighting by Ben Pacey. Both have been involved in the project from its inception, and from early on in the process they talked about the idea of the show being ‘haunted’. Because of this, “I made them all do a constructed séance, and actually a lot of ideas for both the set and the music and the concept of the show came out of what was at the time something I made people do. That was to do with hearing echoes or traces of something from the past. And all of us together in a circle trying to believe in something enough that it makes it real. Feeling like a presence has arrived and how that happens. So the original Comeback Special was in the round and this really solidified the importance of it being ‘in the round’. In the centre of this world, trying to conjure this thing up.” Wohead laughs continuously whilst telling this story, even promising to take “full responsibility” for the confession.

Unfortunately the Bristol Old Vic failed to prove home to any ghoulish friends or fiends. “So nothing really ‘real’ happened. It’s so much about ‘buy in’. You believe what you want to believe. If there’s something we can do in the space to allow ourselves to buy-in and believe or want to see something or feel something, well then we can. And then what is the difference between real or not real?”

Comeback Special is touring the UK until 15th May 2016. Click here for more information. Celebration Florida is going to be touring in the near future. Click here for more information.

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

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