Vawter, Ron

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Ron Vawter (1948-1994) was a seminal figure in New York's downtown experimental theater scene from the 1970s until his death.

Born in Latham, N.Y., Ron Vawter was raised in a military family. In the mid-1960s during the Vietnam War Vawter joined the Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets. For a time he aspired to become a military chaplain, spending years in a seminary studying to join the Franciscan order before becoming disillusioned, although he continued his military career. Vawter was working in Lower Manhattan as a recruiting officer in the early 1970s when he became involved with the experimental theater troupe, the Performance Group. Founded by Richard Schechner in 1967, the Performance Group included among its early members Spalding Gray and Elizabeth LeCompte. Vawter joined the organization as an administrator, but gradually became an actor. In the mid-1970s, Schechner was forced out, and the new company called itself the Wooster Group, with LeCompte as its director. Vawter acted in productions for the Wooster Group as well as other troupes, winning an Obie Award in 1985 for "Sustained Achievement in Acting." He also appeared on television and in a number of films, including SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and PHILADELPHIA. In 1993-4 he returned to the stage in a one-man show, ROY COHN/JACK SMITH. Ron Vawter died of complications from AIDS on April 16, 1994, at the age of 45.

From the description of Ron Vawter papers, 1963-1994. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122607071

Ron Vawter was a seminal figure in the experimental theater scene in New York City from the 1970s to his death, from complications due to AIDS, in 1994. He was a major contributor, first as an administrator, then as an actor and writer, with The Wooster Group, one of the premier experimental theater companies in the United States. His route to an acting career, however, was a circuitous one.

He was born in 1948 in Latham, NY and grew up in Albany, where he graduated from Siena College in 1971. Mr. Vawter was raised in a military family: his father was a colonel in the Green Berets and his mother was a WAVE in World War II. His first name comes from a military acronym that his mother would teletype to navy pilots, RON or "Remain Over-Night". At the age of 17 he was given enlistment papers as a birthday present and joined the Special Forces, or Green Berets. He seemed destined to continue the military tradition in his family, but he soon became disaffected with the Green Berets and decided to become a chaplain in the Special Forces and spent four years training in a seminary, aspiring to become a Franciscan. He soon became dissatisfied, however, with the irreconcilable differences in the interpretation of Christianity that St. Francis lived by and the interpretation that the Catholic Church lived by and left the seminary.

In 1972 he was assigned as a recruiting officer to the recruiting center at Centre Street in New York City. Mr. Vawter was living in Soho at the time and his way home often took him past a former auto garage that had been converted into a performance space. The space had been renamed the Performing Garage and it was home to the Performance Group. The Performance Group was founded in 1967 by Richard Schechner, who remained the director of the company throughout its existence. It was a ground-breaking experimental theater group, whose members included Elizabeth LeCompte, Spalding Gray and Joan McIntosh, that flourished from the late 1960s into the mid 1970s. Its innovative productions included Dionysus in 69, Commune and Mother Courage and her Children . Mr. Vawter eventually became intrigued by the sounds emanating from the former garage and started attending the production ( The Tooth of Crime by Sam Shepard), seeing it 30-40 times over the course of a few months. Soon afterwards, at the invitation of the company, he started working for them. He first worked as an administrator, but as the company's focus and techniques changed he gradually worked his way into becoming a performer.

In the mid 1970s Richard Schechner was slowly forced out of the Performance Group and Elizabeth LeCompte and Spalding Gray, along with a core of actors, transformed themselves into The Wooster Group, with LeCompte becoming the director. The first pieces produced by the Group became known as the trilogy Three Places in Rhode Island : Sakonnet Point, Rumstick Road, Nayatt School and Point Judith (An Epilog) . These were autobiographical pieces centered around the life of Spalding Gray which Miss LeCompte presented in a highly theatrical manner that challenged the audience. They were very focused, brash, loud and yet also deeply evocative and highly provocative productions. Along with material by Mr. Gray, Miss LeCompte wove into the productions deconstructed texts of well-known classic plays, often speeding the text up or breaking its linear quality until they resembled more of a ritual than a "well-produced play". The aesthetic of the group also began to reflect more of an emphasis on non-performers, with the performers not so much acting as revealing. Mr. Vawter's lack of experience came into play here as he worked his way up to becoming a defining figure with the group. Along with Mr. Vawter and Miss LeCompte, the core members included Jim Clayburgh, Willem Dafoe, Peyton Smith and Kate Valk (Mr. Gray left in the mid 1980s to pursue a solo career as a writer and monologist). At the same time that he was leaving his military and seminary life behind and entering the spiritual world of the theater he also became openly gay. These changes would later figure in his work.

In the 1980s The Wooster Group produced a number of landmark productions that defined its approach as well as generating a fair amount of controversy. Mr. Vawter made his mark in each of these productions including Route 1 & 9 ; LSD (Just the High Points) ; North Atlantic, by Jim Strahs and Frank Dell's the Temptation of Saint Anthony . In addition to his work with The Wooster Group, Mr. Vawter made an impression working with other directors such as Richard Schechner in his production of Jean Genet's The Balcony . He was known for his honesty, willingness to take risks, intensity and complete commitment to the work at hand. As the company's work progressed throughout the 1980s, Mr. Vawter became a kind of spiritual father to many in the downtown scene in New York, owing to his deep sense of spirituality and engrossing performances within the Group and in outside productions. He was given an OBIE Award in 1985 for "Sustained Achievement in Acting", the Prof. Joseph A. Buff Award for Career Achievement from Siena College in 1986 and a New York "Bessie" Award for Acting in 1988.

In 1986, he suffered a brain seizure and was near death as he slipped into a coma. In an effort "to bring him back", members of the group read to him texts of pieces that he had performed in. Mr. Vawter eventually recovered and the episode reinforced his sense that the theater was his calling, but in 1989 he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, which eventually developed into AIDS. As a person with AIDS, Mr. Vawter initially tried to keep his illness a secret, out of fear of not getting work in television and films, but when Jonathan Demme cast him in the motion picture Philadelphia, the first Hollywood film to deal with the AIDS crisis, he openly admitted his illness.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Mr. Vawter, partly out of concern to be able to pay for his treatments, sought out and landed roles in motion pictures and television. Some of these roles included the Therapist in Sex, Lies and Videotape, Jamie Latrobe in Fat Man and Little Boy, FBI Special Agent Paul Krendler in Silence of the Lambs and Bob Seidman in Philadelphia . He also made appearances on the television program Miami Vice and appeared in ads for IBM. In 1992 and 1993 he appeared in his one-man show Roy Cohn/Jack Smith with a script by Gary Indiana and Jack Smith, directed by Greg Mehrten. Many consider this production to be his best work, one that was colored by his illness.

In a 1993 interview Mr. Vawter, although quite ill at the time and no longer able to tour with The Wooster Group, admitted that he had work booked up through 1995. In 1994 he was appearing in a production based on the Greek myth of Philoctetes, conceived by Jan Ritsema, using texts from André Gide, Heiner Müller and John Jesurun. The work, entitled Philoktetes - Variations, deals with a man rejected by others because of a diseased wound. In the midst of performing the play in the Netherlands, Mr. Vawter had to be hospitalized and wishing to return to New York, he was flown out of the country. In mid-flight, he died of a heart attack on April 16, 1994 at the age of 45.

From the guide to the Ron Vawter papers, 1963-1994, (The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Ron Vawter papers, 1963-1994 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
creatorOf Vawter, Ron. Ron Vawter papers, 1963-1994. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Godmilow, Jill. Jill Godmilow papers, 1974-2010. Wisconsin Historical Society Archives
referencedIn Creative Time Archive, 1973-2006 Fales Library & Special Collections
referencedIn Mabou Mines Archive, 1966-2000 (bulk 1970-1995) Fales Library & Special Collections
referencedIn Wooster Group ephemera, 1976-1999 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Creative Time, Inc. Creative Time archive, 1973-2006. Churchill County Museum
referencedIn Wooster Group. Wooster Group ephemera, 1976-1999. New York Public Library System, NYPL
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Cohn, Roy M person
associatedWith Cohn, Roy M. person
associatedWith Creative Time, Inc. corporateBody
associatedWith Godmilow, Jill. person
associatedWith Performance Group. corporateBody
associatedWith San Giacomo, Laura, person
associatedWith San Giacomo, Laura, 1962- person
associatedWith Schechner, Richard, 1934- person
associatedWith Smith, Jack, 1932-1989. person
associatedWith Wooster Group. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
New York (State)--New York
Experimental theater--New York (State)--New York
Experimental theater
Theater--New York (State)--New York


Active 1963

Active 1994



Ark ID: w6mw5p10

SNAC ID: 33175092