There's no place like the hamper
"Try to zip up your head."
"Make sure you feel the cage against you."
"Look out for the wall!"
Shouts Josh Meyer at a rehearsal for Red Cans, opening this week at the Off Center. Josh must shout such things because his actors are encased in red plastic and have limited access to sound, sight, and limbs. They motor around the stage using only their arms, only their rear ends, or, at times, nothing at all, resorting instead to good old-fashioned rolling. The 12 actors are miraculously stuffed into tiny laundry hampers the show's "red cans" a sight that is both remarkable and bizarre. Meyer and co-director Matt Hislope felt lucky to find claustrophobia-free actors who were willing and able. The first auditionee to try to get into a can immediately began crying, and they wondered if they would ever get this show off the ground. Or to be more exact, on the ground.
Fortunately, they did find actors 10 women and two men, including Hislope. Flexible performers in mind and body, willing to crawl into a new idea and suffer for it. Talking with the actors who work inside the cans, you hear phrases such as "this lump on my ankle," "a huge bruise," "scrapes from the metal wires," "hard to breathe." Asked if they can see, they chorus a resounding "No!" Asked if the work is difficult, they say, "Frustration is the hardest part." Asked how on Earth they manage their blocking, they offer, "If your toes are pointing the right way, you'll probably go the right way."
Together Meyer and Hislope, the masterminds behind this zany breed of creativity, are Rubber Repertory, one of Austin's most intriguing young theatre companies. Last November they began talking with the Rude Mechs (co-producers of Red Cans) about the idea for the show. Meyer "looked at [the hamper] one day and decided to get in it. It was funny-looking and a little sweet somehow." He figured, "If one or two is engaging, we ought to try it out with lots more." Lots more has become 33 cans and counting. When creating original theatre, Rubber Repertory likes to explode one source force-feeding or home videos or laundry hampers. Meyer notes, "We start with something as simple as possible with the understanding that things almost always end up complicating themselves."
Heroic. That's what artists are. They go to insane lengths mostly undervalued and underpaid lengths in the pursuit of new, imaginative terrain. The effort here is no exception. Red Cans requires determination and humility. It is almost impossible to discern who is who from can to can. The actors are rarely seen. They are encased and working their fingers to the bone or at least to a really impressive bruise. But you won't hear complaints. This group appreciates the value of the work they are doing. "This is the most challenging acting I have ever done. After spending a few hours in one of the cans, you really feel you've accomplished something. It becomes home."
Red Cans runs Aug. 3-19, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at the Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo. For more information, call 476-7833, or visit www.rubberrep.org.