Two Generations, One Art
Terry Galloway and the Rude Mechanicals Make Loud, Messy Theatre Together
Any physical resemblance between writer-performer Terry Galloway and her "sisters" in the Rude Mechanicals theatre company is purely coincidental. After all, these women are not her blood relations. Still, they are close kin to Galloway -- close creative kin, born of the same love of art, with the same restless commitment to it racing in their veins -- and when you're with them all together in the theatre, there is a pronounced likeness you can catch sight of. See there, just behind the eyes, how they all have that same deep belief in the art of the stage? And right under the skin, every one of them has the same profound affection for play. And around the mind, there's that unmistakeable literary bent and relentless drive to be better. These artists are related, all right, and watching them prepare for the Rude Mechs' premiere of Galloway's play In the House of the Moles, opening this week at the Off Center, you might easily suppose that these and the other traits they share -- the fondness for being loud, messy, and nasty; the kick they get from throwing their bodies around; the smartness (and smart-aleckiness); the jones for collaborative work; the fascination (or maybe obsession) with Shakespeare -- are the result of years of the Rude Mechanicals and Galloway working side by side, the one absorbing something of the other's aesthetic, the other's way of working rubbing off on the one. But the fact is that In the House of the Moles marks the first time Galloway and most of the Rude Mechs have worked together. While Galloway has deep roots in Austin, she hasn't called the city home for a dozen years, and most of the women in the Rude Mechs weren't active in local theatre when she lived here last. In a way, their collaboration on In the House of the Moles is like one of those tales of twins who lived most of their lives apart, then were brought together and found that all along they'd been living parallel lives: wearing similar clothes, eating similar foods, holding similar jobs, marrying similar spouses. A generation past, Terry Galloway was on Austin's stages being ratty, being rude, roaring poetry and falling flat on her ass for a laugh, daring to break the rules, to get dirty and dark and be funny and smart in eloquent, original ways. Today, Shawn Sides, Sarah Richardson, Lana Lesley, Katie Glynn, and Madge Darlington -- all Rude Mechs deeply involved in the production of In the House of the Moles -- are on Austin's stages doing the same stuff. Though separated by miles of time, these women have been creating parallel art.
Galloway is in the midst of an existential ventriloquist bit; it's been part of her award-winning solo show, Out All Night and Lost My Shoes, since 1986, but the piece goes back further, to Galloway's days as one of the founders of Esther's Follies. With a ratty little wig draped over the knuckles of one hand and curved fingers and a bent thumb forming a mouth, she creates her low, low, low-tech comedy partner, the Señor Wences-inspired Mr. Hand. Her bit with "him" is a whacked-out variation of the old ventriloquism staple: having the dummy sing while the ventriloquist drinks a glass of water. Only here, it's the dummy who drinks and eats. Wild-eyed and all but screaming, Galloway rips open a bag of potato chips and empties it over her bewigged hand, chips flying everywhere on the stage. She then gives Mr. Hand a drink, pouring a bottle of beer into his "mouth," which of course winds up all over the stage. The punchline comes when Galloway has to punish Mr. Hand and pulls out a hammer to do the job. She delivers the blow in one of those funny-awful slapstick moments, the humor of which is grounded in physical pain. Galloway makes us aware that we're laughing at pain and rather neatly sums up the absurdity of humankind's penchant for blind self-destruction.
Flashback A: Feeding Mr. Hand
"Terry's very crafty, the way she'll make you laugh at something that's really very terrible and then catch you laughing. You get implicated in the horror," says Shawn Sides, the Rude Mech who's directing In the House of the Moles. "But one of the things that distinguishes her work, I think, is a sort of forgiveness for that laughter. Often, if you 'get caught laughing' at something horrible, as an audience member you just sort of sit there embarrassed for laughing. Terry never leaves you feeling alone in the embarrassment. She's been laughing, too. It's not a mean-spirited trick. Just a thought-provoking one."
Christmas is less than a week away, and the Rude Mechanicals are celebrating with a centenary tribute to one of the milestone works of modern theatre, a deliberately vulgar, noisome, tacky, crude, sneering, debased comic rip-off of Macbeth. Legend has it the first staging of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi sparked a riot in 1896 Paris, but given the somewhat mellow holiday mood pervading the Electric Lounge this night in 1996 Austin, a repeat of that chaos seems unlikely. Then, the Rude Mechs hand out the croissants. Every patron is given access to a batch of the baked breads and encouraged to hurl them at the performers whenever one of them utters the vulgarity "pschitter." Within minutes, an actor mutters the magic word and dozens of croissant missiles rocket toward the stage, where the cast members promptly pick them up and dispatch them right back at the crowd. This goes on the entire show, with every "pschitter" -- and there are many -- sending bread flying the length and breadth of the club showroom. It may not be the riot of outrage that greeted the original Ubu, but it's a suitably chaotic substitute, and it embodies the Rude Mechanicals' hunger to play, to revel, to be big and broad and jokey, and reflect the absurdity of our existence in that comic excess.
Flashback B: Raising Ubu
"They are a smart, smart crowd," Galloway says of the Rude Mechanicals, "but they love the whack-on-the-head stuff. I identify. That's what I love in theatre: eloquence and a good, hard whack on the head."
But before Ubu Roi, before the Rude Mechanicals existed as a group, before Terry Galloway created Out All Night and Lost My Shoes, before Esther's Follies even, there was Shakespeare at Winedale. This program of the UT English Department was the womb that nurtured Terry Galloway and a number of the Rude Mechanicals before their birth as artists.
When Galloway first took part in the program, it was still something of a newborn itself. Dr. James Ayres had only taken a few UT students out to the old 19th-century German farming settlement in Central Texas and put them to performing the Bard of Avon's dramas in an old cedar barn. But even in those rough days in the early Seventies, Shakespeare at Winedale had a powerful and transformative effect on its participants. Given the opportunity to immerse herself in big, rich dramatic characters such as Falstaff, Galloway bloomed from a shy, withdrawn bookworm into the lively, dynamic onstage whirlwind that dazzles audiences today. Her experiences at Winedale proved so profound that she was to return to it many times through the years.
One of those times was in 1995, when Ayres invited program alumni back to Winedale to create a silver anniversary reunion production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Galloway came and was cast in the plum role of Bottom -- a part, one could argue, she'd been living since her first visit to Winedale. "I particularly loved that production," Galloway says, "because I got to play Bottom, and when Bottom became the Ass and wore the donkey ears, in our production he also got to wear the, hmmmm, sexual equipment of an Ass, too. And that innovation arose (so to speak) from a kind of group complicity -- wanting to reawaken that play's raucous nature."
Among the assorted other Winedale alums to blame for this ribaldry were a few members of the still-to-be-formed Rude Mechanicals who had taken part in the program during the Eighties and Nineties. For them, Galloway was as a legend of some Golden Age, her name whispered with awe and used to inspire and intimidate them. Shawn Sides recalls, "When we were failing at Winedale, Doc [Ayres] would beat us over the head with stories of Terry and how wonderful she is and how we could never hope to approach her energy or vitality. And then I saw Out All Night -- and Lardo Weeping and realized he was right. I had met Terry at various Winedale functions, here and there. We got to be closer when we did the 25th year reunion play together. Terry was Bottom. I was a nameless fairy in a tutu and combat boots with an accordion."
And it was in that unlikely union of the weaver who was hung like an ass and the sprite who played polkas in GI surplus gear that the connection between the Rude Mechs and Galloway was born. Besides Sides, Moles cast member Lana Lesley was in the reunion production, playing Hermia. Both were to learn just how vibrant and energetic and out-there Galloway could be -- and how willing others were to follow her, no matter where she might lead them. Terry, Lesley says, "blew me away all day, every day, with her energy, her ideas, her will, how her presence made everyone work a thousand times harder than they ever had before just to keep up." Sides remembers that "one day Terry got it into her head that everyone in the court wore only their underwear -- a way to take their stuffiness down a notch or something. Anyway, you have to understand, these people weren't all actors, [they were] doctors and lawyers and professors. And I remember standing in the barn with 10 professional people in their underwear, and Terry's banging the hell out of a bass drum -- and I'm thinking, God in heaven, only Terry Galloway could get these people to do this."
Flash-forward: It's a few years after the reunion play, and Galloway is back in Austin for a semester as a visting artist at UT. By now, the Rude Mechs are a going concern, they're looking for new projects, and someone in the company -- Galloway thinks it may have been board president Lisa Moore -- asks her if she has anything the company might produce. The question seizes Galloway around the throat. She had seen the company's work and been very taken with it, especially Kirk Lynn's Crucks. "I watched them do that piece," Galloway says, "and went a little cold. I was feeling almost evil, see. At that moment, I wanted instantly to do something, anything, with them. It felt sinful, that feeling."
So she hears this question, this tantalizing offer to work with the Rude Mechs, which she wants so badly to do, but she has nothing for them. Well, she does have something, "this 'thing' of a play," she calls it, that had sprung from a vague idea she'd had in 1980 to re-tell Hamlet. "I was so intimidated by Shakespeare," Galloway says, "but this idea I had for re-telling Hamlet was an attempt to get out from under the weight of my idolization of him. I mean for years I couldn't write because I knew I wouldn't be Shakespeare. Then finally I realized nobody else was gonna be Shakespeare either, not even the boys who sometimes claimed to be. So I decided it was enough to simply love him, look to him for guidance, inspiration. Use him as a Daddy figure.
"So I stole the Hamlet structure from Daddy and started rooting around in music stores, book stores, the Harry Ransom Center, to see what other ideas were out there. And in the course of rooting, I found lots of different kinds of material that I loved, that spoke to me, and none of it was contemporary. It was old vaudeville bits, Punch and Judy, traditional German folk music. I was identifying like crazy with those particular forms, having done what was essentially vaudeville and Punch and Judy at Esther's, and having spent my childhood in Germany. Esther's, like Winedale, was where I developed a love of the knock-down, drag-out eloquence of pratfalls. And Germany? Oh boy, were those folks' songs revealing. Looking at them, I realized Old Germany, behind its soon-to-be Nazi black-leather exterior, was sappy. Reading them was kind of like reading all those sloppy sentimental paeans that tough-guy, wife-killer William Burroughs wrote to his cats. That folk music made me see that the roots of German fascism were treacly and sentimental. All those glassy-eyed Nazis shedding tears in their beer, weeping for their mamas and nursing a million grudges against Jews, queers, and anyone else they could think of to blame.
"I also found some sheets of original minstrel music that was written for black women. And it was totally unexpected. Most of the other minstrel music I'd found was written for whites, so they could get into blackface and do all that offensive Amos-and-Andy roll-your-eyes stuff. But this particular music written for black women was amazing; it was witty and physical, very in-your-face defiant and absolutely fun. I wanted to create something like that for myself.
"So I gathered a huge variety of material that seemed to fit this vague idea I had of what it might mean now to be a Hamlet and cobbled it together. In its earliest state, it was given a reading at the American Place Theatre in New York. And that was actually a very successful reading."
But the timing was not right to take the play further. Amid an almost Shakespearean tempest of psychological, emotional, and economic pressures, Galloway fled New York and set the work aside. "I didn't really know what I wanted to do, what I wanted to write," she says. "I didn't even really know how to write. And in New York, I didn't have a group to work with, to help me figure it out. I was on my own. Part of what would shut me down every time I returned to this piece (and for years I would return to it time and again) was that I felt this weight of expectation. I felt I had to be the One and Only -- that I had to impregnate, carry, deliver, and raise the thing all by myself. And I didn't know how to do it, how to see it through."
By the time Galloway is approached with The Question, she says, "I had rewritten and revised and rethought the thing to death. It had never had a strong organizing principle in the first place, and by this time it was in tatters -- just a bunch of routines and some pretty interesting monologues and scenes. But nothing coherent. But what little I had was enough to interest the Rudes. So they asked me if they could do an informal reading of the material. Of course, I jumped at the idea. Then I had second thoughts.
"I thought, Hmmm, I could really humiliate myself here. So I sat back down, looked at what I had, tossed out a lot of the junk, and cobbled it together again. My last thought was that it did indeed need an organizing principle. So I gave it one. And then gave it to the Rudes to read. And even in that rough ratty state, they got it, they liked it. So I'm doing this play now because finally at last there is a group of people who got it and wanted to do it and could do it. And who didn't mind sharing the burden of its creation."
So now here's this play, In the House of the Moles, Galloway's first piece with multiple characters, what she calls a tragedy in burlesque or even a "neo-Jacobean vaudeville revenge comedy musical." It is, in fact, two plays: a framing play, which involves a family that's based on the family in Little Women -- like theirs, it consists of four girls and their mother, but unlike theirs, the mother in this play is foul-mouthed and none too sweet; and a play-within-the-play, the drama the mother has written about her life which the girls must perform. The second play, says Galloway, "is 'about' the uselessness of women. The mother's play involves an ugly woman who's not interested in procreation, who doesn't serve men or children or business or the good of society. And to top it all off, she's an intellectual who spends her time thinking existentially, i.e., thinking about why anything in life should be considered useful. So, yes, this play is about family and the relationship of women to society." With Little Women combined diabolically with vaudeville and Hamlet.
Is there any question what the Rude Mechs think of this "thing of a play"? "First of all, we decided to do the play sight unseen," says cast member Sarah Richardson. "We knew enough of Terry and her work to know that there would be a match. Only snippets had been written at that time, but when she explained the basic idea of it, we were hooked. It's changed wildly since then, but we're still hooked. This play has all kinds of darkness and violence, but you're laughing at it the whole time. She manages somehow to get you to laugh at these things that you never thought you could laugh at."
Lana Lesley echoes Richardson's assessment: "Terry delivers the most unbelievably personal and difficult ideas so eloquently and then somehow makes you laugh. She exposes, through humor, all the secret nasty thoughts we all carry around. Terry's skill for making the tragic hilarious, for implicating everyone for laughing, and for finding brutal honesty in her language draws the audience into a story they might not otherwise be able to handle."
Listening to the Rude Mechs enthusiastically describe In the House of the Moles, you hear ideas, words, and phrases that crop up in discussions of the company's earlier works: the importance of ritual, the structure of the family, heightened physicality, wicked humor, Shakespeare, bawdy, shtick, being "loud and messy." We've seen these themes and qualities in the Rude Mechanicals' work again and again, in Pale Idiot, curst & Shrewd, Ubu Roi, Lust Supper, Crucks, Salivation, don b's Snow White. Clearly, In the House of the Moles is at home in the fold of the Rude Mechanicals; like the Dromios at the close of The Comedy of Errors, the united twins walk arm in arm, true family.
Asked to say just what it is that bonds Terry Galloway and the Rudes, to put a name to the shared spirit, the creative simpatico that exists between them, these literate, thoughtful artists choose to express it in mostly simple terms. From the Rude Mechs' side, Sarah Richardson says, "Like us, Terry instinctively understands the power of collaboration. She likes to go out and have drinks after rehearsal. She loves a good fart joke. She works her ass off and isn't satisfied until it's the best it can be." Company member Katie Glynn puts it this way: "We attempt profundity. And every week we get dirty and honest and we look real hard at what we need to do. We argue and we laugh and we love theatre. I think we love it in the same way Terry does." As it turns out, Galloway thinks they do, and she describes her bond with the Rude Mechanicals the most succinctly -- and yet eloquently -- of all: "You see, we all believe in what theatre does. And we're all smart. And we all like to play."
In the House of the Moles runs Feb 24-Mar 18, Thu-Sat, 8pm, Mar 5 & 12, Sun, 8pm, at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. Call 476-RUDE for info.