For a while, it looked like the City That Eats Its Young was also going to make a meal of three independent theatre troupes from Texas. As they prepared for their four-night stand at Ice Factory '99, SoHo Think Tank's festival of fringe theatre, Austin's Theaterless Theater Corps, Rude Mechanicals, and KAIROS! Co. faced the kind of production challenges that have caused hardier companies to implode. All three were hitting the Ice Factory with new work, which meant the few days they had to prepare for their opening were intense in that way that preparing new work demands and left them little time to promote the shows. On top of that, Josh Frank, the Theaterless Theater Corps founder who masterminded the Austin assault on SoHo, had opted to stage his new script Snowdome with half Austin actors and half New York actors, only to find when he brought them together three days before opening that the two didn't quite speak the same artistic language. And even closer to opening, the light cues for all three shows were accidentally erased. Not the sort of activity that bodes well for one's Off-Off-Broadway debut.
But in true hokey theatrical tradition, those plucky, never-say-die stagehounds pulled it all together by curtain time. Frank got the New Yorkers and Austinites talking -- and working together. A late-night lighting session created a new set of cues which, at least as far as the Rude Mechs were concerned, were better than the first set. And people came. Three of the four nights, the Austin troupes filled the small Ohio Theatre, where the Ice Factory series is held. This made them successful even by New York standards, Frank learned. "On closing night, all the companies from Austin went to the Butcher Bar, a bar on Ludlow in the Lower East Side," he says, "and I bumped into the artistic director of another fringe company from New York, and he asked how the show went. I said that it had been our closing night and that we had around a hundred. I thought I was going to have to staple his mouth shut; it dropped to the ground. He told me that it's very rare to have that many people at an Off-Off-Broadway show, especially one running for four days!" No one among the three companies is quite sure what is responsible for the strong attendance, but Rude Mechs company member Sarah Richardson suggests that "the quality of the piece apparently generated quite a buzz."
If anything was more gratifying to these artists than big crowds in the Big Apple, it was the Big Apple's response to the work itself. Frank's Snowdome, set in an Eastern European dance club built on the site of a World War II factory, won some enthusiastic praise for Frank, the most important coming from an older audience member, a European who told the young playwright his piece had successfully captured the post-war mood of turning one's back on the Second World War. Rude Mechanicals earned an even greater endorsement with their new literary adaptation/deconstruction of Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus' "secret history of the 20th century." In the audience one night was esteemed New York Times writer John Rockwell. When the show was over, Rockwell reportedly whipped out his cell phone and made a phone call. He then sought out the show's director, Shawn Sides, and told her there was somebody on the line she needed to talk to. It was Greil Marcus, who then told her that his good friend Rockwell had praised the production as "not good, but very good." Needless to say, Sides and the rest of the company were thrilled. In fact, Richardson considers the entire experience "a real shot in the arm for all of us. It really made us feel so alive, to be so consumed with making a piece and not have to worry about our jobs or anything else, to live the life of the theatre for the week."
Frank was similarly charged by the experience, which he considers just the beginning. "I plan on doing this more often," he says. "My plan is to bring three or four theatre companies up a year, once a year from now on, using festivals and the contacts I've made on this first run. I will be importing some New York acts to Austin, and they will be returning the favor. This was for me a first step, in connecting the pipeline!"
Frank may have boosted interest in that pipeline and in Austin theatre in general with more than his Ice Factory showcase. One week after the Ice Factory gig, Frank was touting the local stage scene and the benefits it holds for a young director from no less a soapbox than the New York Times. In the August 15 feature story "Yearning for Recognition From Behind the Scenes," in which writer Brendon Lemon explored the challenges facing young theatre directors in New York, Frank is quoted at length as one of those young directors "who feel thwarted in Manhattan" and try to improve their lot elsewhere. It describes his move to Austin and quick success with Night of the Werewolf ("It was a hit and got me a lot of write-ups in the paper. If I had done it in New York, with all the competition for attention, would it have made as much of a splash?" Franks asks in the piece), then goes on to quote Frank as saying that in Austin he's "getting on more plays than most people my age in Manhattan," that he "doesn't have to struggle for an audience," and most important, that he's "able to do a lot of the visual stuff my work requires for a lot less money. I can rent a fog machine for $10 a week; in New York, it costs $80 for roughly the same period. And -- can you believe it? -- people still ask me why I moved away."
Rude Mechanicals will stage Lipstick Traces in Austin September 9-October 2 at The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. Theaterless Theater Corps will stage Snowdome in Austin October 7-30 at a location to be announced.
Sundance Theatre Laboratory, Sundance, Utah
You couldn't blame Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre artistic director Vicky Boone for being a little nervous upon arriving at the Sundance Theatre Lab in Sundance, Utah last month. Here she was, coming to one of the most prestigious play development programs in the country, her project one of only eight selected for this year, with the companion projects coming from the likes of such high-profile artists as Mabou Mines and Craig Lucas and Moises Kaufman, and the script she and playwright David Hancock were walking in with, well, wasn't exactly the script that they had submitted with their application and had won the approval of the lab directors. It had grown a little since then. It was now about 600 pages. And it had about 40 characters. Who knew if it even could be produced? Boone was expecting the Sundance powers-that-be to turn her away at the door.
Fortunately for her, the program at Sundance is one of those rare oases in the American theatre where process is genuinely prized above product, where the exploration of the new work, in whatever form, is the point. The Theatre Lab brings a select group of artists into the mountains of Utah for three weeks in July and lets them work whatever they need to work in whatever fashion they like. A certain structure is followed -- projects are rehearsed only every other day, building in time for artists to reflect on work done in each rehearsal, for playwrights to write between rehearsals, for artists to visit rehearsals of other projects and absorb other creative energy, outlooks, approaches to material, or for artists simply to relax in the natural splendor of the Sundance compound, surely one of the most beautiful arts complexes in the country -- but largely Sundance Theatre Lab participants are given freedom to develop their projects in the manner they find the most rewarding.
That freedom was especially valuable to a writer like Hancock, Boone says. He is someone who imagines a play so completely that every character, every detail, sometimes every object, has its own distinct -- and full -- history. "Do you know how long he worked on his first two plays?" Boone asks. "Those plays, The Conventions of Cartography and Race of the Ark Tattoo, David basically just created by himself in his basement over years. If he needed a card, he sat down and wrote a card. At one point, all the objects in Race [a piece set in a flea market where the histories of the objects for sale are related] had their own histories. When people respond to David's work, when they feel like in one line he's established a complete character, it's because he has; he's imagined everything about that character. That's the way David is." So, for him, exploring a new play may mean writing 600 pages about 40 characters in order to develop the universe of that play. For The Invisible Medium, the script which Boone and Hancock were at Sundance to develop, that much text "was important for what he was dealing with," says Boone, "to put it all out there."
The Lab participants, and especially Lab Artistic Director Robert Blacker, recognized that in what Hancock was doing and had no problem with the current novel-length draft of the script. "That was cool," Boone says, "but it took me a while to really accept that that was cool." What helped was the relaxed atmosphere -- "like camp," Boone notes with a grin -- and the openness of the lab. Except in the case of one project, all the rehearsals were open, Boone says, and as a result, "everybody knew where you were," what level of development your project was in and how it was going. "The level of exchange was really high," she adds. It helps shape the pieces, as Hancock noted in the feature story "Sundance: A Place to Reinvent Theatre" in the August 1 Salt Lake Tribune. He tells writer Nancy Melich, "This lab has a strong take on how to develop a script. The people here understand how to let the uniqueness of each project develop. They do not categorize or pigeonhole. They allow for a dialogue between projects that lets us see each other's work and discuss it. You never feel isolated at Sundance. Watching the rehearsal of The Laramie Project allowed me to figure out some of the problems."
And that was another, perhaps unexpected, plus of the whole Sundance experience, notes Boone. In addition to nurturing and growing your own project, you were contributing to the growth of other new work in the American theatre, to the breaking of new ground in the American theatre. Says the Austin director, "It felt great to be there in the center of all those artists and feel like you were contributing to the dialogue."
The Invisible Medium will continue to be shaped by Hancock and Boone here in Austin, but no production dates are set at present.
HBO Workspace, Los Angeles, CA
To look at the audience in the HBO Workspace on July 12, you might not have been sure if you were in Los Angeles or Austin. Apparently, the L.A. industry showcase that night for local writer-performer Brently Heilbron brought out a crowd heavily packed with Austin expatriates. "A lot of folks from here are out there now," says Heilbron, "and Austin all came out: Chip, Howard Kremer, Johnny Hardwick ..."
Having so many old pals in the house was just fine as far as Heilbron was concerned. It helped make the tryout for the Comedy Big Time seem a little less daunting. While the Austinite has logged a fair share of stage time, as a solo performer and as a member of the comedy troupes Monks' Night Out and Only 90% Effective, he hasn't had much experience performing for Industry Types. And there was no mistaking that this was an Industry Gig. "They have these three seats up front that are labeled 'Reserved for HBO,'" Heilbron says, "but I tried not to look at them. I didn't want to be, you know, Waiting for Guffman and be watching them the whole time and have nobody come."
As it turned out, all three seats were filled and the HBO reps "seemed to dig it a lot. They were very supportive and had nothing but nice things to say. Which made it seem less scary."
Based on his performance, Heilbron was set up with a 10-minute set at the Improv three days later. Most traditional comics handed that kind of opportunity would have a polished short set of their best material to trot out. But Heilbron is not a traditional comic. Rather than take 10 minutes out of Wonderous Pudding of Joy, the solo piece he performed at the Workspace, Heilbron "did a bizarre character bit. But it went over really well," he says.
It went well enough for him to be approached afterward about management and for him to consider a move to Los Angeles in the new year. In the meantime, however, Heilbron is pursuing another comedic opportunity in a different metropolis: He and comedy compatriots Andy Fisher, Roy Koshy, and Leon Mandel have a chance to take their recent collaboration Bucket of Shins to Second City in Chicago in October. "I have some friends at the Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, and they put me in touch with a woman at Second City. I sent her a script and she really liked it. They have this space called the Second City Skybox Theatre, a little experimental black-box theatre, and she's booked us there." To raise funds for the Chicago gig, Heilbron and friends will be hosting a benefit in September at Club DeVille.
National Theatre for the Deaf Professional Theatre School, Chester, CT
Sometimes the working vacation of a local artist doesn't involve getting to the next stage of his or her career, but involves helping others get to the next stage of their careers. Such was the case when local director and master of comedy David Yeakle left town for New England this June. The Tongue and Groove Theatre artistic director was headed north to spend his third consecutive summer on the faculty of the Professional Theatre School of the National Theatre for the Deaf (NTD). The school offers training for the members of its own professional stage company, for both deaf and hearing theatre artists from around the world, and for deaf high school students with an interest in theatre. For a few weeks every year, Yeakle is able to use his skills in the fields of mime, masks, and commedia dell'arte to help a couple of generations of artists develop their craft and to learn to create theatre that can be fully appreciated by both deaf and hearing audiences.
For Yeakle, the appeal of the program is both personal and professional. He describes the work as "intense, challenging, highly rewarding, and unique in its approach to training actors." When he was not teaching, Yeakle had the opportunity to take classes himself and thus advance his own training. This year, he was able to observe celebrated avant-garde director Ping Chong teach a course in "Exploring Theatrical Frontiers," where, Yeakle says, Chong "pushed the company to discover simple paths to interesting expression, to avoid symmetry and cliché, and to relish the process before product."
According to Yeakle, Chong wasn't the only illustrious artist on the theatre school's faculty. He also worked alongside Genji Ito, resident composer at La Mama, ETC; Viewpoints adherent Leon Inglesrud; playwright Shanny Mow and Willy Conley; SMU movement professor Sara Romersberger; and legendary deaf actor Bernard Bragg. "There were countless other instructors of note," says Yeakle, "all living, eating, and working together with 40 tireless performers for four full weeks of creativity and sharing of new ideas. I hope that I made as much of an impression on them as they did on me; indeed, I must have, for a collaboration between Genji, Sara, and myself at La Mama is already in the works for next year and an invitation to return to NTD has already been extended to me."
With those kinds of results, agreeing that Yeakle made an impression is, as they say, a no-brainer. And taking no more sense to figure out is how Yeakle feels about going back. "All in all, it was a fascinating few weeks," the director says. "I learned a great deal, networked like crazy, and look forward to going back."
We figured as much. You'd be crazy not to go.
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