Rattling Our Stage
A Survey of Austin's Rebel Theatre Scene
Fri., April 10, 1998
Alas, such theatre does exist -- we have the bruised tailbones to prove it -- but fortunately for Austinites, it's the exception and not the rule. In our town, experimental drama is more likely to be bitterly funny with startling flashes of rage or lushly poetic and seductive or whimsical, buoyed by a childlike sense of wonder. Its concerns have more to do with honoring the past, celebrating a heritage, or affirming the power of love or hope or forgiveness. It may well involve flickering lights or interpretive dance or even simulated sex, but the delivery will be anything but monotonous; it will soar and tumble and do backward flips, it will crackle with energy and drip with emotion. And while the seats probably will be uncomfortable (sigh), chances are you won't be conscious of it because you'll be so engaged in what's happening onstage. Austin's purveyors of experimental drama want to connect with people, and they work hard to bring the audience into the experience, to welcome them on a journey full of risks. The variety of work, the lack of pretension, the sense of hospitality -- these qualities are so far removed from the awful stereotype of experimental drama that it seems almost unfair to tarnish Austin's brand with that label.
Which is why, when Adrienne Martini, Sarah Hepola, and I sat down to pen a brief overview of experimental drama in Austin, we decided to cook up a different tag. We wanted a term that reflected this creative community's willingness to venture out of the mainstream and insistence on bucking convention in making theatre while still calling itself theatre. We wanted something that was short, punchy, and considerably less vague than the ubiquitous "alternative." We settled on "rebel theatre," which isn't perfect but which suggests artists who are "breaking the rules," challenging tradition, going their own way. And that's what these folks are doing.
Who are Austin's rebel theatres? Defining them proved tricky. These days, experimentation in the performing arts includes so much medium mixing that it's difficult to tell where one disciplinestops and another starts. When is a work experimental drama and when is it performance art? Or dance theatre? And just what constitutes "experimental," anyway? Non-linear narrative? Deconstructed text? Puppets? It would take a conference of NEA panelists and Talmudic scholars to settle such questions. We didn't even try. We just talked about what we'd seen, what shared qualities we found, and trusted our guts in deciding who to include.
The rebel theatres we see are companies that focus primarily on new drama, frequently self-generated, that play around with presentation, text, poetry, movement, music, ritual, projections, setting, and so on, in ways that heighten a work's theatricality and give it new vitality. The companies are all independent, all small, all poor, and they'll probably stay that way. But in a refreshing twist, they like it that way. Not having all the resources of a major resident theatre company forces them to be innovative in the creation of onstage realities. It makes them reinvent what it means to be theatrical. A peanut can be a boat. A milk carton can be a baby. A wading pool can be the ocean. They're finding new ways to see -- and to help us see. They find an edge and take us to it (and sometimes over it). In their work, we see ways in which theatre will survive -- better than that, flourish -- in the 21st century.
In the past five years, Austin's rebel theatre scene has grown substantially and has not only drawn a devoted audience here but attracted attention and acclaim across the country. We couldn't credit every company and artist who has helped forge this remarkable community, but we tried to name the ones which are among the most deeply involved or has had the most profound impact, that you can't look at the scene without seeing. Here's our take on the places and people in Austin's rebel theatre scene.
-- Robert Faires
Burnin' Down the House
Hyde Park Theatre: Little Stage That Could
Renovated storefront north of UT that, with its awkward L-shaped space, low ceiling, and cramped stage, just shouldn't work as a theatre. Yet it does, largely because of its intimacy -- you're never more than 20 feet from the action -- but also because home company Frontera will drastically transform the space to suit its productions. In Unmerciful Good Fortune, the main character was literally marooned on a stage suspended over part of the seating. In Enfant Perdus, the whole inside of the theatre was cleared out. For Weldon Rising, actors sealed off the exits with plastic. When Frontera isn't producing, it's often a good place to catch other rebel theatre work (e.g., Rude Mechanicals' Lust Supper and curst & Shrewd, root wy'mn's no mo' blues and dyke/warrior-prayers, Lisa D'Amour's Oscar Snowden and the Magic O). Also home to the annual performance jamboree Frontera Fest, where more original work is performed in a month's time than most theatre cities see in a year. A chamber space featuring serious work by serious artists.
Planet Theatre: Where No One Has Gone Before
What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so Bonnie Cullum's theatre would, were it not Planet Theatre called, retain that dear perversion which it owes without that title. Still, Planet Theatre is the perfect name for this funky, outlandish theatre; it's its own little world where no subject is taboo and no place is off limits for performance: Salvage Vanguard's The Battle of San Jacinto was fought in the lobby; VORTEX Repertory's same-sex Romeo and Juliet found love on the outside stage under the stars; and in the main theatre, cyborgs have sung opera and a beast-woman warbled Beatles tunes. Since Cullum and her devoted followers made a theatre out of a dilapidated metal barn in 1994, the Planet has been the place where home crew VORTEX mounts its signature shockers and national solo artists such as Karen Finley, Annie Sprinkle, and Tim Miller (who returns May 1-3). For all the Planet's kookiness, though, the welcome-to-wherever-you-are mentality also makes it warm and inviting.
The Public Domain: Presto-Changeo!
Shoebox loft space that gives Austin a shot of experimental drama in the shadow of the Capitol dome. It was rescued from disuse in 1995 by The Public Domain theatre company, which shaped it into a dandy little gallery venue of impressive flexibility. There is no formal stage and seating may be shifted with relative ease, so the performing area changes configuration and feel with virtually every production, an ideal quality for companies testing theatre's environmental qualities. The home company -- which specializes in a kind of classical Rebel Theatre (their current revival of Brecht's Galileo is staged with a circus motif) -- mounts four productions a season, leaving plenty of room for other theatre and dance companies to play here, among them local rebel troupe Physical Plant (The Whimsy) and touring groups such as Momentary Theatre (MultiMedea).
Electric Lounge: The Theatre That Smells of Stale Beer
Downtown music club which has also been home to some pretty vibrant theatre. There's something exhilarating about non-musical performance in a venue normally haunted by waifish, black-clad fans and too-cool-for-words musicians. Which is not to say that there isn't some audience carry-over when the thespians play; in fact, that's what the rebel companies who produce in this Bowie Street institution count on: attendance by the young club crowd who may not have realized yet how stimulating
theatre can really be. They're quickly finding out. From Rude Mechanicals' pastry-throwing Ubu Roi to Salvage Vanguard's fire-spewing The Bad Cowboy, the rebel diversions here are proving just how electric this Lounge can get.
Synergy Studio: The Big Sandbox
As kids' playscapes go, they don't come more basic than four horizontal boards encasing an ankle-deep layer of grit. Yet, think of the things you could do and places you could go in a simple square sandpit. That's the way Synergy works; it's nothing more a big, empty room -- well, it is a dance studio, after all -- but when the right artists jump into it, they can turn it into a wild and mysterious other realm, perhaps a shadowy domestic environ invaded by a strange guest, as in The Univited, the dance noir by Seattle's 33 Fainting Spells, or perhaps the creepy nursery rhyme spookhouse inhabited by a twisted butcher, baker, and candlestick maker in Salvage Vanguard's production of When You Know What It Is You're Doing.
Rude Mechanicals: Gifted-Kid Antics
The theatrical equivalent of that chess-playing, Sci-Fi-reading, smart-ass geek or geek-ette who sat behind you in high school, whose under-the-breath monologues always got you in trouble for giggling too loud. This theatre collective -- a hivemind without a titular leader which argues extensively over the details of every show -- may be composed of said geeks, a few years older and wiser and putting their talents toward good instead of evil. They burst on the scene in 1996 with a production of resident playwright Kirk Lynn's absurdist hit Pale Idiot, made spectacles of themselves with a food fight to mark the centenary of Ubu Roi and a manic race through 30 Neo-Futurist Plays From Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, then displayed their collective techniques in curst and Shrewd, a retelling of Taming of the Shrew that grew from the cast's contributions to the text and movement. The Rude Mechs are juvenile enough to try just about anything if it seems like a good time but intelligent enough to recognize which antics make for a thrilling, thought-provoking show. Current Rebellion: Prometheus Unbound. Past Actions: Ubu Roi, Lust Supper, curst & Shrewd, 30 Neo-Futurist Plays From Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, Pale Idiot.
Frontera: Detail Demons
Textually oriented company which has proven that daring, edgy new performance work isn't synonymous with bleak, alienating, or sloppy. Led by artistic director Vicky Boone, Frontera is committed to new plays -- it won't stage a work over five years old and enjoys commissioning new scripts -- and while its productions often examine the darkest parts of human nature, they typically end with a feeling of hope and expectation. In production, the Frontera folk are perfectionists; they consider every detail in a playwright's script, questioning the ideal presentation and committing to the decisions with a happy heart. And it pays, especially in a town where most companies are happy just to get the show up. Over the past five years, Frontera's work has run the gamut from absurd comedy (And Baby Makes Seven) to site-specific, movement-based drama (Enfants Perdus) to complete textual explosion (Deviant Craft), as well as founding a new Austin theatre institution, the weeks-long performance festival, FronteraFest. It draws artists from across the country, many of whom, such as Daniel Alexander Jones and Kristin Kosmas, have become an integral part of this fast-paced organization. Current Rebellion: blood pudding. Past Actions: David's Redhaired Death, Clayangels, Aria Inertia, Deviant Craft, Why We Have a Body, Enfants Perdus.
Physical Plant Theater: Mythic Undertow
A company that sacrifices narrative to create theatrical poetry, drama that's less about making you think and more about making you feel, in some deeply intuitive way beyond logic. Artistic director Steve Moore leads the way, generating scripts which do indeed tell stories but in the disjointed, surreal manner of dreams, defying rationality and reality yet compelling in rich -- often richly symbolic -- imagery: a large cylinder of blue liquid, a skeletal woman with red roses for eyes. Physical Plant's plays are fractured fairy tales, and to tell them, the diverse crew of Physical Plant collaborators draws on a broad range of theatrical styles and media: song, puppetry, naturalism, commedia, dance, film, and video. The result is a constant flow of theatricality that eventually frees you from the linear, analytical way of perception of everyday living. You don't worry about things not making sense; you just let the power of the images pull on you, like some mythic undertow. Past Actions: The Whimsy, (once.), barber, tallman, cora, clown, Tiller, Plant No. 1.
Salvage Vanguard Theatre: Gen X-Periment
Weird, witty, and irreverent, this company likes to convert nay-sayers to traditional theatre by sweeping them up in productions of swollen excitement, bizarre, grotesque fantasy, and foul, unpolished reality. SVT has riffed off of Tennessee Williams (Stranger Desire), turned Texas history into a barroom brawl (The Battle of San Jacinto), and resuscitated the radio serial (The Interplanetary Nemesis). Artistic director Jason Neulander wants to create work that grabs the twentysomething crowd that hates theatre (or thinks it does), so he endeavors to make every show as wild a ride as he knows how. Each production feels like an experiment. And each bears the exhilarating freedom of "who knows?" attached to the whole thing. The punk element of Austin's local theatre? Maybe. More importantly, a forum for new artists, a swift kick in the artistic trousers and a reminder for a generation that "almost did" that they "can." Current Rebellion: When You Know What It Is You're Doing (see sidebar for review). Past Actions: The Best Salvage Vanguard Holiday Ever, Scavengers, The Ravaging, The Battle of San Jacinto, The Invisible Medium, Stranger Desire.
Root Wy'mn Theatre Company: The Three Rs -- Rhythm, Ritual, Righteousness
The staging ground for the sensuous, liberating verse dramas of playwright Sharon Bridgforth. Bridgforth founded the company as a means of opening theatre up to "a herstory of Afrikan Amerikan wy'mn's stories... inclusive of and sensitive to homosexual issues and issues of concern to wy'mn of colour globally." To date, the company has achieved that goal through productions of three of Bridgforth's plays, all of which have expanded the realm of theatre not only in terms of subject matter, but in presentation, through Bridgforth's masterful use of poetry and ritual. Throughout root wy'mn's history, Bridgforth has benefited from her alliance with an invaluable collaborator: performer Sonja Parks. Parks has given breath and form to Bridgforth's jazzy, earthy texts with a fluidity of motion and delivery and powerful passion. Their collaborations have earned root wy'mn national attention, with appearances across the U.S. Past Actions: dyke/warrior prayersno no' blues,lovve/rituals & rage.>
VORTEX Repertory Company: Shock Jocks
The company you can count on to push the envelope where onstage nudity, profanity, social commentary, violence, and monkeying around with Shakespeare are concerned. Over the past 10 years, artistic director Bonnie Cullum has built her company's reputation through iconclastic and frequently controversial productions of new work plus the occasional odd tragedy by the Bard that gives new meaning to the term "edgy." While the community (and Cullum herself) may joke about the propensity for nudity in VORTEX shows, the company is far from sensationalism for sensationalism's sake. It's committed to theatre that challenges its audience, and if it has to engage them viscerally to engage them emotionally, intellectually, and politically, it goes there. Current Rebellion: Macbeth (see sidebar for review). Past Actions: The X & Y Trilogy (Triskelion, Panoptikon, and The Black Blood), Fur, Julius Caesar, Lucifa, The Pitchfork Disney.
Tongue and Groove Theatre Company: A Choreographed Daydream
A company that produces dreams, full of larger-than-life spectacle, odd fantasy, and ribald humor, with images that tap into our collective subconscious and touch our minds. No, not in some scary Borg-ish way -- more like a gentle breeze. T&G's work is finely choreographed and ripe with both slapstick and tenderness, thanks to the skills and sensibilities of director David Yeakle. The company tends to take the site-specific route for its highly theatrical interludes. The Saga of Billy the Kid was staged in front of the Club De Ville's limestone cliff (perfect for a story about an outlaw), and The Billy-Club Puppets, a romantic fantasy of love among the marionettes, was performed by the lapping waters of Lake Austin at Ski Shores. Their most recent show, Our Own Dear Anton's Abandoned Story Cycle, a show that lent itself to living in an actual theatre, was at the John Henry Faulk Living Theatre. Past Actions: Our Own Dear Uncle Anton's Abandoned Story Cycle, The Saga of Billy the Kid, The Billy-Club Puppets.
The Wild Ones
Vicky Boone: Ms. Silver Lining
Artistic director of the daredevil Frontera company who puts the lie to the alternative theatre truism that all directors of bold new plays must be nihilistic aesthetes whose primary goal is to convince the audience that life is a joyless void hardly worth enduring. Boone is soft-spoken, friendly, and -- dare we say it? -- an optimist. She brings these qualities to bear on the gutsy, intense dramas her company mounts, fostering a creative environment in which artists can explore dark places without fear and offering a light beyond the darkness. It may seem a paradox that such a positive-minded artist consistently tackles such grim material, but it works. In such troubling plays as Weldon Rising and Silence, Cunning, Exile, Boone's sensitivity preserves the humanity of the characters and keeps us mindful of the human spirit's resilience. Unfailingly generous and open, she's been key to Frontera's success locally and positive reputation nationally. Past Actions: Enfants Perdus, Silence, Cunning, Exile, Girl Gone, Weldon Rising, The Swan, The House of Yes.
Sharon Bridgforth: The Herstorian
Jason Neulander: The Leaper
Uprooted Brown alum and co-founder of Salvage Vanguard Theater, Neulander is bold, incisive, and risky. After fewer than five years prowling the Austin scene, he's planted a finger on some exposed nerve in America's twentysomething generation. Neulander is a man unafraid to leap from great heights and much of SVT's greatness comes from that pants-around-the-ankles feel he deliberately generates. The rest of it may have to do with the partners in crime he enlists -- actors Dan Dietz, Ben Wilcott, Japhy Fernandes, Travis York, et al., and playwrights Julia Edwards, Ruth Margraff, and David Bucci -- all of whom are dedicated to pumping out theatre that is edgy and unsettling. In an age ruled by technology, film, and television, Neulander knows the answer to the question: Why still go to the theatre? You should ask. Current Rebellion: When You Know What It Is You're Doing. Past Actions: The Ravaging, Stranger Desire, Kid Carnivore.
David Bucci: The Angrier Young Man
Texas Center for Writers Michener fellow who co-founded Salvage Vanguard with fellow Brown alum Neulander and is its resident dramaturg and house playwright. Bucci has authored the garage band saga Kid Carnivore; the one-act MedVegas; and Stranger Desire, a slick modernization of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. SVT will stage his Altamont Now! later this season. Bucci's scripts helped fuel the company's rise to underground prominence. "Pink Floyd rebel types make me yawn," one of his characters says. Like smarter, sexier, and angrier versions of ourselves, they speak in witty barbs, spew social commentary (both insane and inane), and always think of a comeback in time. But Bucci's scripts are more than clever; they're rife with insight, fueled by a jittery restlessness. Bucci wears the mark of his generation on his sleeve, and he is not afraid to embrace popular culture - then bite its ear off. In the wings: Altamont Now! Past Actions: Stranger Desire, MedVegas, Kid Carnivore.
Daniel Alexander Jones: The Jazzman
Multiple talent who blends a love of language, an innate feel for music, a yearning heart, and a wicked sense of humor into a singular wellspring of theatricality. Came to town to direct Frontera's production of Talking Bones and was charmed enough to move here, which allowed Austin to discover his skills as playwright and performer. Jones' writing centers on identity, sparked by his own mixed-race heritage and homosexuality, and he explores it like a jazz musician riffing on a soulful melody, in fluid, impressionistic cascades of sound. His word-intensive, non-narrative texts yield vivid images and Jones performs his words as colorfully as he strings them together, with elongated sounds and sinuous movements that seduce. In Austin theatre, he's our Coltrane and our Lady Day. Temporarily absent after a bout with appendicitis, Jones remains a core Frontera artist. Past Actions: Clayangels, Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery (director only, First Stage Productions), Blood:Shock:Boogie, Black Power Barbie in de Hotel de Dream, Earthbirths, Jazz, and Raven's Wings, Talking Bones (director only).
Kirk Lynn: Rebel in Brecht's Clothing
Picture an unholy but entertaining threesome with Brecht, Ionesco, and (gasp!) Neil Simon. Playwright Kirk Lynn would be their progeny. His plays, Pale Idiot, Lust Supper, and the forthcoming Crucks, are torrents of language and symbols that make the storms of El Niño look like gentle summer sprinkles. Lynn's plays thus far have used absurdism to explode ideas of community, but they are never excessively cerebral and they're always full of laughs. Definitely not fun for the whole family but a riot for those who love to have their brain tickled and teased by scripts that take themselves to the extremes while always remaining inherently Aristotelian, full of spectacle and catharsis. In the wings: Crucks. Past Actions: curst & Shrewd, Lust Supper, Pale Idiot.
The senior rebel on the Austin scene, with a full decade of producing new plays that break rules, challenge norms, play with forms. Cullum is a believer in Theatre with a capital T -- in its power to address social issues, to liberate the chained, to change lives. And through VORTEX Repertory Company, which she co-founded in 1988, and the spaces she has run -- the VORTEX Performance Cafe on Ben White Boulevard and Planet Theatre -- she has maintained a force for putting her belief in action. She has produced and/or directed probably more original drama than anyone in Austin currently working. She routinely takes big chances -- how else do you characterize a trilogy of trance music operas about incestuous cyborgs? -- and they don't always pay off. But her belief always restores her and keeps the Church of VORTEX open for another wild, weird service. Past Actions: The X & Y Trilogy (Triskelion, Panoptikon, and The Black Blood), Romeo and Juliet (three versions), The Pitchfork Disney, The M.O of M.I., Faustus, Beirut, King Lear.
Matthew Patterson: The Chameleon
An actor with an aw-shucks appearance and mild-mannered day job (receptionist at The Austin Chronicle, to be above board about it) who has nonetheless taken on some of the grittiest roles that VORTEX has offered. Recently, he has played such diverse parts as a cybernetic twin in Triskelion, a candy-snarfing orphan in The Pitchfork Disney, and an altruistic gentryman in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Patterson dissolves into every role, filling the stage with that ineffable quality that makes you think, "Damn, this guy is good." It's almost as if he is possessed by his parts, giving up his own personality to channel a magnetic persona from some wild beyond. You simply get sucked into it and forget about the actor himself until the curtain call, where you find yourself clapping wildly and wondering how in the heck he does it. Past Actions: Triskelion, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Lucifa, The Pitchfork Disney, King Lear, Beirut.
Mick D'Arcy: The Good Soldier
Jason Amato: Mr. Saturated
You could almost plot the entire Austin rebel theatre scene by looking at Amato's résumé. This whiz-bang designer has created lights for VORTEX, Frontera, and Tongue & Groove, as well as for Margery Segal. While most patrons never remember the lights, Amato's designs are the kind that make an impression. Always full of jewel-like color, always subtly shifting from one vibrant scene to the next, his designs are like being trapped in a stained-glass box. When you simply can't take the richness of it all, he hits you with a white shaft of intensity that is carefully timed to brilliantly underscore the most important bit of play. Past Actions: The X & Y Trilogy (Triskelion, Panoptikon, and The Black Blood), Fur, David's Redhaired Death, Lucifa, The Pitchfork Disney.
Steve Moore: Mister E
David Yeakle: The Clown
The most gifted director of comedy in Austin. That may seem a curious claim for an artist in a roundup of rebel theatre types, but it just goes to show how atypical our theatre rebels are. Yeakle qualifies for inclusion in the way he uses older theatrical styles and techniques which were popular for centuries but fell out of favor in the era of kitchen-sink naturalism onstage. Masks, music, movement, mime -- these are Yeakle's tools of the stage, and he employs them in ways that make them seem fresh and the theatre they're used in feel vibrant. Under his guiding hand, human actors convince us they are life-size puppets; a trio of storytellers open the second act of a play with a two-minute wordless re-enactment of Act One. Yeakle understands what enchants us -- magic, jokes, pratfalls, romance -- and he infuses his theatre with those things, simply but masterfully. Past Actions: Our Own Dear Anton's Abandoned Story Cycle, The Saga of Billy the Kid, The Billy-Club Puppets.
Margery Segal: Grounded Movement
Choreographer/dancer/writer who, with Boone, has created some of the most startling moments in Austin theatre: The pre-show mood-setter for Frontera's Weldon Rising, with each character trapped in a groove that no amount of shaking could reset; the party scene in Silence, Cunning, Exile, where drinks and small talk jerkily filled the stage and captured the robotic-ness of your average cocktail party; the extensive movement score for Enfants Perdus, which started in the parking lot of The Movie Store, burbled into traffic, and passionately concluded on scaffolding on the front of Hyde Park Theatre. But Segal has done so much more than this, including founding the troupe Margery Segal/NERVE and the Personal Dances solo dance festival, and creating works such as The Portrait Project, which she revives this week at Movements Gallery. Currently, Segal and playwright/director Laurie Carlos are collaborating on a new piece that should continue Segal's unique mergers of text and dance. Current Rebellion: The Portrait Project. Past Actions: Enfants Perdus, Silence, Cunning, Exile, Weldon Rising.
Jason Phelps: The Swan
Performer of enviable range and grace whose physical and emotional flexibility has enabled him to play tart-tongued transvestites, straight-laced fashion photographers, and Julia Child (!),and to give even the darkest of characters a soul. Phelps was a core actors for Frontera in its early years, taking lead roles in productions such as The Swan, in which he played a bird that literally metamorphosed into a human. It's a role that describes him well: elegant of appearance and movement, yet capable of great fierceness. In recent seasons, he has turned more to dance and performance art, appearing in Daniel Jones' Blood:Shock:Boogie, Walter Thompson's Sound Painting, and his own Aria Interia, but at present he's breaking out of the "rebel theatre" mold to perform in the Zachary Scott Theatre Center's landmark staging of Angels in America. Current Rebellion: Angels in America (ZSTC). Past Actions: Walter Thompson Orchestra's Sound Painting, Aria Inertia, Blood:Shock: Boogie, Enfants Perdus, And Baby Makes Seven, Weldon Rising, The Water Principle, The Swan.