Everything Is Possible ... Again

The Rude Mechanicals' 'Lipstick Traces' Is Back

Lana Lesley and Jason Liebrecht, <i>Lipstick Traces</i>
Lana Lesley and Jason Liebrecht, Lipstick Traces

Work is a sin. Work is for suckers. No boring leisure! Celebrate the millennium by getting the hell out of the 20th century. NEVER WORK!! This is not nihilism. It's a call to ... something else.

A play was here and then not here and now is here again. That's about all there is to say. But there was still a beginning, or rather there was a series of beginnings. Two such occurred at two independent bookstores hundreds of miles and a few years apart. One: Director Shawn Sides is working at the now-defunct independent Austin bookstore Garner & Smith. She picks up a certain book and begins to read. Two: Playwright Kirk Lynn, working a couple of thousand miles away and several years later in the windowless basement of New York's famously chaotic Strand, picks up the same book. The book is Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, and Sides and Lynn both have yet to put it down.

Cut to a dark Eastside bar two weeks ago. Actress Lana Lesley is leaning over her beer, asking the rhetorical question, "What happens when you go see a band that kills you?" Marcus' book answers that question -- and others that no one before him thought to ask -- with a cohesive what-if theory, a version of history whereby an impulse, a current, runs undetected through our collective consciousness, worms its way into the ever-present in the guise of dada, punk rock, the Situationists, blasts conventional notions of cause and effect, eschews talk of "influence," and ignores time, death, and all the other rules.

Chain smoking and drinking Diet Coke at a diner by the highway, Sides speaks of the the book's "careful exaltation" of "moments where anything could happen," those times when what the daily grind, "how you think everything has to be -- you have to do this, you have to go to the DMV, and then you have to get your license plates, and then you have to get up and go to work, and then you have to take this route 'cause it's the best route, and you have to avoid the traffic ... " ceases. In Marcus' book, says Sides, "the have-to's fall away, and you get this vision of 'what-if-not,' and that's the negationist impulse. It's different than the nihilistic impulse. It's not just 'Nothing is true and so we should all go kill ourselves.' As Marcus writes, 'Nothing is true, and so everything is possible.'"

That's the spirit which the Rude Mechanicals' stage adaptation so enticingly captures. So seemingly unadaptable, what with its plentiful sidebars, its sweeping scope, Marcus' 1989 opus proved to be the foundation for the Austin theatre collective's strongest and most successful work to date. Sides, Lynn, Lesley, and the rest of the Rude Mechs are proud as punch of their translational feat, and rightly so. Characters in this alternative history lesson/rallying cry to "something else" include such antiheroes as dada's Richard Huelsenbeck, Guy Debord of the Situationists, and punk rock's Sex Pistols. Audiences left reeling from a theatrical experience akin to the holy late-night revelation described by Lesley as "Ah! I'm in a bar watching the best band ever!"

During the the play's initial run last fall, audience members understandably mistook the cast for rock stars, not for Johnny Rotten (who, poor dear, has been flailing around in TVland of late), but for his latter-day Austin incarnations. The proverbial stage door was, for the first time in the Rude Mechs' three-year history, frequented by groupies -- or, more accurately, initiates: people in on the cosmic secret that is the domain of those who are are, as Lynn puts it, "living these stupid lives on the fringes and pretending to be artists." Reading about them in Lipstick Traces over the past few years, Lynn has felt that "these are my people! This is important!"

Jason Liebrecht
Jason Liebrecht

And why is it important? "Because," says Lynn, hearing bands like the Sex Pistols "actually changes something somehow." In Johnny Rotten's voice, Lynn says, "is the affirmation that nobodies can say whatever they want." So when Rotten opens his mouth, "suddenly Cabaret Voltaire is born again, which," Lynn says, "is a beautiful sentiment and strangely possible."

"We are not punk rock!" Sides, Lesley, and fellow Rude Mechanical Sarah Richardson all scream in answer to Lynn's insinuation that the troupe possesses something of the Sex Pistols' cursing, chaotic "playfulness and stupidity." Of course, grants Lynn, "We like being known around the community as hard drinkers, loudmouth, potty-mouthed people, but ultimately that's not very punk rock. We don't ... "

... Throw TVs out windows?

"Well, we do that. But then we wake up early and actually do work in the office and get concerned about our corporate sponsorship. Maybe if we had a good manager, we could turn into a punk rock theatre ... we need a Malcolm. We need to put an ad in the paper. 'One Malcolm needed to sell us out.'"

But they're doing okay without any help from a clone of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (who, as played by Ehren Conner Christian, oozes through Lipstick Traces like the entrancingly vile creature he's purported to be). In fact, since the play's premieres -- first in New York, in an abbreviated version for the Ice Factory Festival, then in Austin, in the complete version -- critics and audiences have praised it to the skies. At its annual awards ceremony, the Austin Theatre Critics Table named it the Outstanding Comedy of the year and bestowed honors on director Sides, playwright Lynn, and actress Lesley. The November 1999 issue of American Theatre magazine ran a story on the show by Chronicle Arts editor Robert Faires. Lynn is up for the coveted M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, a national prize for emerging playwrights, thanks to a nomination from Austin American-Statesman arts writer Michael Barnes. And the eyebrows of some powerful people on the national theatre scene have risen in interest (the impulse for the revival opening this week at the Off Center), though no offers are firm enough to divulge yet.

The highest praise for the Rude Mechs' Lipstick Traces, by far, however, came straight from Greil Marcus himself. Marcus granted the book's dramatic rights to the Rudes and has stayed in gracious, though resolutely hands-off contact with the troupe throughout. He had but one request: that he not be a character in the play. Then last fall, Marcus flew down to Austin to see the show. Afterward, he went up to Sides as they were standing by the door to the bathroom and said (Sides blushes even recounting his words): "You staged the book I wanted to write."

Marcus later wrote the company a letter saying, "I've always believed that when you write a book, it goes out into the world, you lose control of it, and, if you're lucky, other people make of it what they will, and it comes back to you in unexpected form -- but I never expected, could never have hoped for, anything as inspired, as funny, as moving, as complete as your version." (More blushing ensued.)

There were moments in the play, Marcus said in that letter, which made clear things he had never been able to figure out, for example, why the Cabaret Voltaire (the Zurich literary-performance movement, circa 1915) left such a mark on those who lived through it. Last week, a vacationing Marcus explained by phone from Colorado: "I never could put my finger on why the people who were there and took part in it never got over it, no matter how old they got or how successful or distinguished they became. And they never put it into words either, and yet the play made that absolutely clear to me.

Robert Pierson, Lana Lesley, and Jason Liebrecht
Robert Pierson, Lana Lesley, and Jason Liebrecht

"In the Cabaret Voltaire sequence, when the guy playing Richard Huelsenbeck [Robert Pierson], with his monocle and his three-piece suit, begins to dance on splayed feet and the other people are whirling around him, I was seeing something I had never seen before and never imagined, and it was just astonishing."

Are there no wrinkles in this admiration-fest? Try as he might, Marcus (whose new book Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives comes out in September) has as much trouble dredging up criticism as the Rude Mechanicals do feeling anything but adoration for him. "I wish I had something intelligently critical to say about their staging," says Marcus. "I think in fact there was one date they had wrong that it was impossible for them to change," but that's as negative as it gets.

"He's just the coolest," Sides says of Marcus. "When he sends faxes, he attaches little news clippings, like 'Man gets arrested for singing "Margaritaville" too much in a bar,'" fawns Lynn.

Marcus is disappointed that he won't be able to make it down to Austin during this run (damn that Telluride Film Festival, and work in general). He's particularly upset because when he saw the show last year, as soon as he walked out of the theatre, he says, "I just wanted to see it again. Right away. That night."

Validation like that has galvanized the Rude Mechs at this stage on the hard row they've hoed for themselves. Though they all say working as a collective and doing original work (with no workshops) beats the more rigidly structured alternative, there is a maximum of risk and a minimum of cush involved. In fact, this remount of Lipstick Traces will be the first time they have been able to revise a piece until they were fully satisfied.

Richardson, who with Lesley is responsible for marketing and publicity, considers Lipstick Traces "in some ways as a real synthesis, a real coming together of this kind of benchmark aesthetic, choices that we believe in, and they're risky," risky meaning they don't shy away from "starting a rehearsal schedule and getting people involved before there's a script, and just trusting that we're going to get something together and have something by the day we say we will," Lesley says.

About 70% of the play came straight from the book, according to Lynn, and while he is billed as the main adapter and writer, nine other writers contributed to the script, four of them coming from the six-person cast. Everyone was assigned sections of the book to research and developed material through what Lynn describes as "wacky writing exercises." From a huge stack of papers all that generated, Lynn and Sides put together the rough draft of the script in about a week.

The process is a far cry from the one used in mounting most plays. "A lot of times," says Sides, "the play is already written, finished, closed, and all you need is some warm bodies to say the lines." In that process, the actors still possess some freedom to contribute, but Sides hopes the Rude Mechs' collective technique make the actor's voice even more prominent. "A lot of people who come in who are not part of the collective want that final one voice that makes all the decisions," says Sides, and while in this case Sides and Lynn did ultimately have that final say, much was left open right until the last minute.

Everything Is Possible ... Again

With all that input, Sides is amazed that the script wound up as tight as it did, though she does say it wasn't too difficult agreeing upon a final draft because she and Lynn have similar aesthetics, and "where they diverge and when we argue with each other ... that's when it gets good."

There were, inevitably, a few compromises. Lynn wanted to do something on the 1968 student riots in Paris, "but we only have five people" (in addition to the intrepid Dr. Narrator). "Five people rioting onstage just looks stupid." But the corps members agree this is the least-compromised piece they've done. For it to have such broad appeal at the same time is a vindication of all their hard work, a sign that it is possible to have a satisfying career in the theatre.

The Rude Mechanicals' first glimpse of what it would be like to live the life of the artist full time (without day jobs) occurred when they took Lipstick Traces to New York last year just before the Austin run. On her way to the airport to fly to New York, straggler Richardson stopped by the company office (the one before the Rudes took over the Off Center) and found an eviction notice on the door. (Apparently, the person from whom they were subletting the space hadn't been passing along their rent checks.) But as bills and messy business situations were piling up back home, the Rude Mechs were experiencing their most intense week ever as a company, staying up all night, going to sleep for four hours, then waking up to build the set and rehearse. They did three sold-out shows and nailed each one.

The New York experience had its weirdnesses. There was the malcontent Situationist -- believe it or not, says Lynn, there are still some of them around -- who came to see the show. He wouldn't pay, but was let in anyway, and started prowling around the aisles. When the show was about to start, he was asked if he wouldn't mind taking a seat, and he replied (and each of the Rude Mechs do a slightly different but invariably hysterical impression of this): "I will not sit in your audience box." He instead sat off to the side and kept moving around. (Richardson says that was all very amusing, but if anyone tries it again, they'll be thrown out; "Tell the audience they have to sit in the audience box.") And Lynn says everyone was about to kill each other before the first show. Lesley qualifies that with something like "Duh." "Of course we were. We were all hung over and working our asses off and all the light cues had been erased and stuff had to be built -- the whole set had to be built there." And yet no one suggests for a second that it wasn't worth it, particularly with all the national attention this show has brought.

The Rudes' professional fortune was born of "really, really hard work and just dumb luck," says Sides. One now-legendary example of the dumb luck is the fact that John Rockwell, the editor of The New York Times' Arts and Leisure section, happens to be the person to whom Marcus dedicated Lipstick Traces. That connection got Rockwell to one of the shows at the Ice Factory. He liked it. Then, Sides suspects, he spread the word. (Marcus has made quite a few phone calls himself.) So while everyone's ears are perked up, here's the perfected remount complete with the entire original cast. Even Ehren Christian and Jason Leibrecht, New Yorkers now, will be flying in.

But, as Lesley insists, "None of this happened by accident. We worked for six very long years to get our company to the place where we can do really challenging work like this. It's so the beginning of this process. We know we have this stuff in us now, and it's only going to get better."

"There's always a tendency to want to do a Cinderella story with this, but for us," Richardson says, "we know that it was just really hard work. In some ways it's a culmination of this effort, and in so many ways it's just the first step."

"This was really a shot in the arm," says Lynn, "especially with our AC breaking and losing all our money, we're always on the edge of burnout city and we always get sort of exhausted -- for everyone [Lipstick Traces] was like, 'This is the reason we do this.'"

"We're moving forward and we're really happy," says Lesley.

"It doesn't make for a good story, does it?" asks Richardson. Indeed, no. There's nothing fairy-tale-friendly. The story lacks drama. These artists have worked really hard for years, made up this way of doing things that works singularly well for them, have this show that they love, a show that is, at once, a culmination of all their best effort and a new, auspicious beginning in a world in which everything is gloriously possible. end story

Lipstick Traces runs Aug 31-Sep 16 at the Off Center.

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