Out of the Boomers' Shadow
David Bucci, Playwright for Today's Young Theatre Haters
What do you do when you're face with centuries of tradition and text, when every idea has been done to death? Easy. Chuck them all in a blender, add some art noise and a driving pulse, save the old clichés for a post-modern garnish, and purée. Bake it up and the result is like apple pie, with a flaky crust and full of razor-sharp pieces of fruit.
Such is the approach of Austin playwright David Bucci. Bucci is the epitome of the twentysomething artist in Austin: from somewhere else, trying to do something else, blurring the boundary between two disciplines in an effort to force relevant meaning out of the same old shit. A transplant from Providence, Rhode Island and Brown University, the multi-faceted Bucci mixes music, scholarship, and theatre in a convenient package, complete with a pack of Parliaments. When he isn't playing what he describes as "jagged, blues-based noise rock" with the band Enduro (just back in Austin following a relatively trouble-free tour of the East Coast), Bucci is shaking up the theatre scene with plays that grind up the drama of old and spike it with loud music and intense action.
Austin will get its latest taste of Bucci's sharp but tasty work when Salvage Vanguard Theater opens its production of Bucci's Stranger Desire July 26. Salvage Vanguard is the company which has staged the world premieres of most of Bucci's work to date, and it's the reason Bucci came to Austin in the first place. Bucci and fellow Brown grad Jason Neulander were looking to start their own theatre company, one that would foster, as they say in the Salvage Vanguard Theater manifesto, "a collaboration between all artistic disciplines in a theatrical context." More importantly, they wanted to revitalize an art form that has been slowly sinking under its own weight, to rescue theatre from lavish budgets and over-produced scripts and bring it to a new audience, an audience in its teens and twenties without pre-conceived ideas of what a theatrical experience should be. They wanted to "take the theatre out of theatre."
What Neulander and Bucci needed for their brave new company was the right city. After studying various urban centers around the country, they settled on Austin. "We had all of these reasons for coming down here," Bucci relates as he takes another drag on his cigarette. "There are a lot of young people, there's a good music scene already, and there aren't any large Equity-level theatres. I also like not being in New York. I'd rather be on the outside. It's just too cut-throat and weird there. You make a mistake, everybody sees it, and that's it."
The company established itself in 1993 with a production of Bucci's Kid Carnivore at the Electric Lounge. Salvage Vanguard has continued to use the Lounge as its home space, preferring to stage its work in a club rather than a traditional theatre space, and to produce work by Bucci, the better to connect to its target audience of the college-age and post-grad crowd.
Jesus, Stranger, if you'd taken Social Skills in high school, you would be so amused with yourself that you'd never need to do anything but observe your own behavior. That in itself would be a lifetime's worth of entertainment. -- Blake, Stranger Desire
In all his plays, Bucci holds a mirror up to the "slacker generation," a term that is painful to use but still remarkably evocative. Kid Carnivore follows a young band desperately trying to have some sort of impact on a world that has labeled them useless. In MedVegas, a couple of teenage hoods try to break out of small-town life and collective destiny. Stranger Desire examines young lives trying to discover their boundaries.
"I feel like I have a really good sense of social machinations, especially among younger people, that aren't necessarily there for other playwrights," Bucci observes. He is able to give voice to a generation which is slowly realizing that there is more to life than Nirvana, Schoolhouse Rock, and the long, oppressive shadow of the boomers. His generation is discovering the power of cynicism, darkness, and an immunity to conventional marketing. His characters -- like his audiences -- cry out, "Give it to us loud and fast while we try to absorb all the lessons of the past and re-invent them in a language and a style that makes sense to us."
"What I like about the audience is that they hate theatre, which I kind of do, too," Bucci confides. "It's a good medium and there's just a lot of stuff that's been unexplored in it. By choosing an audience that is sort of naïve to its conventions or has skeptical expectations, I feel we are starting at the same point. When I write, I try to make sure that, on the most basic level, it is entertaining and engaging. There's something else for other people if they want it. But that stuff should never make it impenetrable to people who don't have that training. It should be visceral."
So why write? Why not just be a rock star? Does Bucci have some great inner angst which he needs to exercise?
"God, no," he insists. "I think it's just to please my mother. She would be really freaked if I was only doing music. Playwriting is something close to a real job, she thinks, which isn't really true. Every so often I don't think I'll ever write again, but then I just get so guilty about it, an idea nags at me long enough that I have to write it because I just feel bad if I don't."
Pressure from Mom notwithstanding, it is also easier to keep writing if folks are interested in what you need to say. Audiences and critics in Austin have been very receptive to Bucci's work, and last summer, Salvage Vanguard Theater toured Kid Carnivore along the West Coast, where Berkeley Express critic Christopher Hawthorne described it as "sticking your head in the freezer for a few beautiful seconds."
Still, getting his work produced by theatres outside Austin has been a struggle for Bucci until lately. "With the exception of theatres where I have friends, I have rarely gotten the good kind of rejection letter, the one that has specific comments so that I know they have read it." But thanks to Salvage Vanguard's participation in the loosely structured movement called RAT (which may stand for regional alternative theatres or raggedy-ass theatres or nothing at all), Bucci's work attracted the interest of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, a troupe known nationally for its work with young playwrights. At last year's RAT conference in Seattle, Neulander had occasion to schmooze Howard Shalwitz, the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth, and hand him a copy of one of Bucci's one-acts. Shalwitz liked what he read and wanted to see a full-length play, so Bucci sent him Lynwood Pharmacy. This past spring, Woolly Mammoth produced the play in Washington, D.C.
The occasion was a coup for the young playwright. Woolly Mammoth, according to Shalwitz, "is the standard-bearer for alternative theatre." It focuses on "new plays, new voices, and new energy" and likes to follow the development of a new writer. Throughout its illustrious 25-year history, the company has championed the new work of such writers as Harry Condoleon and Wallace Shawn. While it is unusual for Mammoth to produce a work by a writer in his twenties, Shalwitz was attracted to Lynwood Pharmacy because of the "energy with which the language comes out."
Rick Fiori, who directed Bucci's script for Woolly Mammoth, felt that Bucci offered a fresh perspective, that on an iconographic level the script showed "the American culture gone bad." At the same time, the director notes that the script's bizarre conglomeration of characters "felt like my own family. I could attach to the outrageousness." The production was well received and was held over for two additional weeks. Fiori believes that show's popularity was a result of its heart, "a warped heart, but heart nonetheless."
You know, a conversation about Candace Bergen's hair wouldn't make a good scene, but a conversation about whether a conversation about Candace Bergen's hair would make a good scene would actually be a good scene. You know, 'cause it's got more levels. -- Pie Face, Stranger Desire
Stranger Desire may be Bucci's closest brush yet with traditional theatre forms and styles. It is a new treatment of familiar material -- the college-reading-list staple A Streetcar Named Desire -- and strays from the Salvage Vanguard standard of meshing live music from local bands with the action. In Bucci's opinion, this show is a chance for the company both to prove itself to the Austin theatre community at large and to introduce its core audience to other styles of performance. "We come down here to try to fuck with theatre conventions as much as we can," says Bucci. "We never showed that we know how to do the basics really well. Stranger Desire is a chance to show that this is, more or less, what regular theatre can be. And it can be cool anyway."
While the play contains many of Bucci's tricks -- hip, fast-talking characters and gritty scenarios -- Neulander insists that "an educated viewer will realize that more is going on. This play is really meta-theatre, aware of itself as a play while masking its awareness." As in Pie Face's comments above, where the dialogue points to the play as a fiction, a clever and accessible fiction to most audience members, and a treat for those who know what else is happening behind those words.
What's interesting is that Bucci's most traditional play to date coincides with his return to the hallowed halls of academia to obtain an MFA in playwriting. He's pursuing the graduate degree with the help of a Michener fellowship, which will essentially cover his expenses for three years of graduate work at the University of Texas. Is the mainstream about to dull Bucci's rock & roll edge? "I think after having worked with Salvage Vanguard for three years and having done all this non-academic stuff, I feel I can handle academia on my own terms," Bucci relates. "I can use what I need and not use it as a crutch -- not to be writing plays that are constantly quoting theory."
Indeed, the evidence indicates that David Bucci knows what he wants to do. His work reveals his intelligence, his knowledge of the conventions and restrictions of the genre, his realization of the importance of an intense experience, the power of live music and performance, and the poetry of carefully constructed language. It transcends the labels and monikers thrust upon it by a public trying to categorize what it is trying to do. In essence, it is just good theatre, with all of the energy and spirit of the past but with a fresh vocabulary.
Stranger Desire runs Jul 26-Aug 17 at the Electric Lounge.
Adrienne Martini regularly reviews and writes about theatre for the Chronicle.