The 'West' Shall Rise Again
A new generation creates its own take on the show that changed Austin theatre
One by one, these individuals take the stage of the Austin Community College theatre, each standing alone in the spotlight and telling some story about themselves or simply sharing a glimpse into their lives. These episodes may be brief and simple in presentation, but they are also intensely personal and, taken collectively, form a compelling mosaic of life in a particular time and a particular part of our country. For Austinites of a certain age, this scenario may seem hauntingly familiar, a flashback to late Eighties Cap City. Wasn't there some play like that, with a bunch of different people getting up and telling stories about life in the West?
Indeed there was. In the West, as it was so aptly named, was one of the theatre scene's most unlikely success stories of the time, a show that wasn't really a play, just individual members of this upstart theatre company performing a loosely themed set of monologues written by other members of the theatre company (some of whom had little experience writing). It wasn't all comedy (like that earlier homegrown hit Greater Tuna), but it wasn't all drama either. The cast, which usually numbered a dozen or so, wasn't always the same every time it was performed, and sometimes certain monologues would be among the 20 presented, and sometimes they wouldn't. It really wasn't much like anything else out there. And yet people couldn't get enough of it. After its initial five-performance run in November of 1985, it was revived. And then revived again. And revived again. And again and again. Every run drew enough people to justify another run, despite the fact that the show was never heavily publicized and rarely produced in the same space twice. Over six years, it was mounted at least a dozen times, and its success led to a rave review in Variety, performances in Dallas and Fort Worth, a prominent spot in the 1991 Texas Festival at the Kennedy Center, and a film (sort of). (See "... And the 'West' Is History," p.42)
Now, In the West is back, though not exactly as it was in its heyday. Big State, the little company that launched the show way back when, has long been disbanded, and while a good two-thirds of the 22 contributors to the original production still make their home in Austin, all have moved on in life some to other theatre companies, some to enterprises beyond theatre: making films, making families. Some have ended up in academia, which is where this new incarnation of In the West, called In2 the West, was born. While the title suggests a sequel, that's not quite the case. Call it a continuation of that first show after a 14-year hiatus, an extension of the experiment that was the original In the West.
Son of In the West
A couple of years ago, with the show's 20th anniversary just over the horizon, the idea of revisiting In the West began to bubble up in the brains of some of the original Big Staters. Sidney Brammer and Marco Perella, two of the crew still in Austin, considered a commercial remount reuniting the old gang, but with so many of them having gone pro, the cost was beyond prohibitive: They'd have to charge at least $50 a ticket, they estimated an amount that, even if they really thought they could get it, would trigger their collective gag reflex, as back in the day Big State had vowed never to charge more for one of their shows than it would cost to see a movie. With that door closed, Brammer looked for an open window in an academic setting, where the show's big milestone could still be commemorated but at less expense, with students taking a crack at its memorable characters and tall tales (something Big State founder Jim Fritzler, who hatched the idea for In the West, was undertaking up at Hastings College in Nebraska, where he's now assistant professor of Theatre Arts). Brammer mentioned the idea to her sister Shelby, head of the theatre department at ACC, who was receptive. They then broached the subject in a staff meeting of the Arts and Humanities department, where it was applauded by some faculty members who recalled the original show with enthusiasm. It was there that the idea shifted from simply reviving the old yarns to spinning some new ones. What if the new production was also tied into the department's Creative Writing program? "What about a course in regional performance literature?" suggested interim dean Lyman Grant. And thus was born ENGL-2307-014, the playwriting class using In the West as its textbook. Amparo Garcia-Crow, another Big Stater who had graduated to a career in playwriting and another in teaching playwriting, came on board as instructor, and last fall a handful of students began gathering on Saturday mornings to try scribbling solo stories about life in the West.
In the West: Extreme Makeover
When this classroom effort to launch the next generation of In the West started, Garcia-Crow was at a bit of a disadvantage and not just because the course drew only some eight people (one of whom was Sidney Brammer). She couldn't draw from the same wells of inspirations that the Big Staters had. Not that the original pieces weren't inspiring just ask the company members who received stacks of monologues from enthused audience members who were inspired by the show to take up their pens but two other factors played a big part in the creation of the original In the West: 1) a critical mass of restlessness in a gaggle of young creative types just itching for something to do; and 2) Richard Avedon. In 1985, the local theatre scene was only half the size it is today, meaning there was a lot less drama going on to keep 20-something twentysomethings busy. So, as Fritzler remembers it, they kept calling him to find out what Big State was doing next. Fritzler came up with an idea for a monologue workshop in which all the Big Staters no exceptions would participate on three levels: writing a monologue for someone else; performing a monologue by someone else; and directing a monologue for a third company member. "It was never meant to be a play," Fritzler has said. "It was just an experiment. We drew names out of a hat, and you wrote a monologue for the person whose name you pulled." Still, there was to be some bonding agent for this experiment. To unify the material, Fritzler said, all the scripts would focus on life in the Southwest.
Which brings us to Mr. Avedon, the celebrated photographer who had just completed a series of black-and-white portraits that were being exhibited under the title "In the American West." The show generated quite the national buzz, with coverage in the media from Texas Monthly to Rolling Stone. Since the exhibit had been commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the Big Staters took a summer road trip to Cowtown to see it. To say they were not taken with it is putting it mildly. They felt that the stark images, focused almost perversely on figures who appeared either poor, dirty, or freakish, just perpetuated tired old stereotypes of Westerners as ignorant hicks. The fact that the photographs were the work of an outsider an Easterner, no less! and were being widely hailed as somehow "defining" the West got the Big Staters' backs up. They took Fritzler's challenge to create these monologues as a way to respond to Avedon's one-dimensional characterization of their home and its residents and an opportunity to portray the people of the Southwest in greater variety: rural and urban, poor and rich, from the Great Plains and the Gulf Coast, as sons and fathers, mothers and daughters, cowgirls and teachers, bar owners and students, football coaches and just plain neighbors.
That powerful and personal a starting point wasn't something Garcia-Crow could hope to duplicate, but she wasn't without her resources. As Brammer says, "She's a Michener fellow. She's been to every wonderful workshop in the world. She is equipped with so many ways to propel people into writing." And so she is. To spark her class' writing muscles, Garcia-Crow used a variety of exercises: One day she instructed everyone to bring an object from home and had them write a monologue that included every item as a prop. (Though the objects ranged from a door handle to a tube of Neosporin, one monologue from that session, "Rodeo Mom," made the cut for the new show.) She suggested a field trip, where writers could take inspiration from someone they observed. (A trip to Goodwill proved especially fruitful for Brammer and a new writer, Carl Gonzales.) She asked her writers to try playing off the characters in the original In the West, to see if they could take some part of one of the stories forward 20 years, through a sibling, a child, or an updated version of an experience from the original, such a greeting a new neighbor or being abducted by aliens. Every exercise stimulated at least one writer to begin a story for the stage. With an influx of new participants in the spring, enough monologues were being generated to start shaping In2 the West.
In the West & the Goblet of Fire
Now, just because this process was focused on the creation of New In the West, that didn't mean Classic In the West was shut out of it. In fact, before pen was ever put to paper on the first new piece, Brammer got the blessing of Big State, in the form of three members of the company who were elected to make decisions on behalf of all 22 writers with copyrighted material in the original. (Have you ever tried to get hold of 22 artists at once, much less get consensus from them on a matter of some timeliness? Well, then, you can see the usefulness of their approach.) The three reps Fritzler, Gene Fowler, and Lorne Loganbill all signed off on the deal, but that wasn't the end of it. Obviously, Brammer got Garcia-Crow involved, but she also extended an invitation to every Big Stater she could track down to take part. Most expressed an interest but cited conflicts that kept them away. Still, Rick Perkins and Aralyn Hughes took the class and agreed to perform and direct new pieces. And Tim Mateer, C.K. McFarland, and Marco Perella signed on as directors. So one-third of the original bunch is actively passing the torch to the new gang.
That new gang has a distinctly different look from the old, which was a pretty homogeneous crew, culturally speaking: almost all Anglos in their 20s with roots west of the Mississippi. They managed to suggest a range of character and experience, but now that range extends to age, culture, skin color, and even home territories east of the Mississip (like way east: Jersey and England). "The beauty of ACC is the diversity," says Garcia-Crow. "This time around, it's more ethnically diverse and has more authentic age range." African-Americans, Latinos, Anglos. Kids of 18 to seniors topping 60. Texans, a couple of Brits, and one transplant from New Orleans, who made his way here after Katrina.
You may think this ragtag mix of young and old writers, veteran and fledgling performers, would make it harder to pull the show into a cohesive whole, but it's no more motley than the original gang, where, as Sidney Brammer points out, theatrical types of varying stripes (Fritzler, Brammer, McFarland, Marco and Diane Perella, Joy Cunningham, Janelle Buchanan) collided with refugees from performance art (Fowler), music (Jo Carol Pierce), dance (Darla Johnson), punk rock (Mateer, John Hawkes), photography (Bill Leissner), and realty (Hughes). And look how their stab at a monologue show turned out.
Of course, at that first performance on the half-finished set of Bus Stop in the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, none of them ever imagined how far In the West would go, how many people would see it in how many places, how it would influence the local theatre scene. Likewise, no one can truly say what will come of In2 the West, but the originators have their dreams. They'd love to see the show become an annual event at ACC, with new monologues being developed and added every year, with new students and perhaps former students returning as guest artists and maybe some old-timers, too.
Why not? The West, as we've learned from them, is a mighty big place, where purt' near anything can happen.
In2 the West runs April 14-23, Friday and Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 2pm, at the Mainstage Theater of Austin Community College, Rio Grande Campus, 1212 Rio Grande. For more information, call 223-3352.