Taking the World Stage
How more theatre made Here is getting Out There and what that means
By Katherine Catmull, Fri., Sept. 21, 2007
Exhibit A: An Austin-born theatre piece wows audiences from Galway, Ireland, to Seattle, snags a top honor at the renowned Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and zooms briefly back to Austin before heading on to – well, obviously – Finland.
Exhibit B: An Austin comedy troupe's YouTube video is well past 400,000 views and counting, stirring international applause and a hellacious blog-storm.
Exhibit C: A local sci-fi radio spoof tours the country to acclaim, performing for audiences of up to a thousand, with plans for graphic novel and film versions in the works.
Austin theatre is all over the map. And here's the cool part: That's just this month.
If you haven't been to the theatre since they made you go back in high school, or if you only see touring productions – since for sure any show conceived in this pokey old town can't be all that – then you're missing an increasingly enormous boat. Eight Helsinki hipsters already have secured front-row seats for the Rude Mechs' Get Your War On visit next month. Nearly half a million people worldwide have watched and quarreled over the Latino Comedy Project's 300 parody on YouTube – not to mention thousands who have seen the multimedia sketch-comedy group tour the United States and Canada. Salvage Vanguard Theater's The Intergalactic Nemesis has been touring the country for two years and is now negotiating an off-Broadway run.
Austin theatre's getting friskier, escaping the city limits, touring not just to Houston, Dallas, and Louisiana but also to New York, San Francisco, Canada, and Europe. And people are lining up to see it.
So what's got those Helsinkians (Helsinkites, Helsinkables) and their like so intrigued? What do they see in Austin theatre – and what of Austin do they see in this theatre? What, if anything, makes it "Austin" theatre, other than originating at a particular GPS position?
The Freedom of the Low-Stakes Game
"The time and space and the freedom to fuck around a bit more." That's a big part of what makes Austin theatre, according to Ron Berry, artistic director of Refraction Arts Project and the primary writer of Orange, which had a New York workshop production last month (and which this writer, as a Refraction Arts company member, helped write). Berry also appeared in Get Your War On (hereinafter known as GYWO) when it toured to New York, Seattle, Galway, and Edinburgh.
Berry recalls friends in New York telling him admiringly that GYWO could never be made there. "Things are naturally much more expensive in New York, so you've got those pressures, but you're also very worried about who is going to see this and where is it going next. I think in Austin sometimes you are freed from some of these pressures. I think this idea of 'deep play' is essential to art making," he concludes, adding, "You can really follow your whims here and take chances and play."
What an unexpected idea. It takes two seemingly bleak facts about theatre in Austin – there's very little money in it, and there's relatively little at stake professionally (no one's theatrical career was ever made or broken by an Austin show, lucky for some of us) – and redefines them as strengths.
For one thing, lack of resources forces artists into creative problem-solving.
"Creativity will always solve a problem in a more interesting way than money ever will," says Lowell Bartholomee, who is performing in the current GYWO tour and is co-artistic director of the dirigo group.
Lower stakes also make it easier to take risks, Bartholomee says. You see "more wild ideas given a chance to run than you might when the stakes of putting up a production are so high."
Shanon Weaver of a chick & a dude, whose HIT. won an award at the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) in 2005, says, "Theatre is not done for money in this town. It's done, pretty much across the board, by people who love what they do, who have that passion for whatever project they're working on, and who are driven to see it through."
Community & Collaboration
"One of the greatest things about working here is the very incestuousness of our community," says Bartholomee. "To a large extent, we aren't cordoned off in our own little worlds."
"Highly collaborative," says Kirk Lynn, one of the artistic directors of the Rude Mechs and chief adapter of GYWO. "More so as an entire scene than anywhere else in the country."
The Philomel Project "was very, very, very collaborative. That's an emerging thread around here," says Sonnet Blanton of the piece that she developed with Julia Smith for Refraction Arts Project and which went on to draw sell-out crowds and a New York Times rave at the 2005 FringeNYC. Smith concurs: "When we first started that process, we asked for roughly 13 Austin playwrights to 'translate' a portion of the myth into a scene of sorts. [Full disclosure: I was one of those playwrights.] When the cast of six, along with Sonnet and I, started playing around with the material, we essentially had more than 25 different voices or takes on a very old story."
Collaboration is not limited to other theatre companies. Jason Neulander, artistic director of Salvage Vanguard and co-creator of The Intergalactic Nemesis, which has an extensive and ongoing national touring schedule, remembers asking local musicians to create sound effects for the original show, "figuring that their sense of rhythm would make a huge difference in terms of making the sound effects a character in the dialogue. I'm not sure I would have gone that route had the show been created in a city without such an incredible music scene."
Talent Pool Bigger Than Lake Travis
All the freedom and collaboration in the world would mean nothing, though, if Austin weren't swimming like an overstocked bass pond with talent. "We have an amazing talent base here in Austin," says Bartholmee. "All of the potential investors in the off-Broadway production of Nemesis have expressed interest in the original cast sticking with the New York production," Neulander notes.
Words like smart and intelligent also came up a lot when people talk about what makes Austin theatre – and Austin audiences. Ste-ven Tomlinson, the local economist whose American Theatre Crit-ics Association Osborn Award-winning solo show American Fiesta played off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre this spring, says his piece "tried to convey an essentially Austin mix of smart and heart."
"The best of Austin theatre is smart, daring, and of the moment," according to Adrian Villegas, artistic director of the Latino Comedy Project. "And Austin performers have the rare luxury of knowing that their audiences will usually be as intelligent as the most challenging work they could ever dare present."
Original Work on the Edge
Mical Trejo of the Latino Comedy Project immediately cites "Austin's ability to crank out such good, rich, original material" as a big part of what makes Austin theatre itself.
Neulander agrees: "Austin is pretty unique in the sheer volume of original work that gets produced here. The most Austinish thing about Nemesis is the fact that every element was created locally: the original story, the writing, the music, the acting, the sound effects, the design."
And that material tends to lean toward the theatrical edge – or "revels in being weird," says Steve Barney, more bluntly, "pushing the audience out of its comfort zone and inviting us to think." Barney has taken two shows to FringeNYC, both of which originated locally at Hyde Park Theatre's annual FronteraFest performance festival, where many local performers and playwrights try out new work.
Austin theatre is often political, as well, but not always in predictable ways. In our curious role as the liberal ulcer deep in the belly of Texas Republicanism, we have a clear view of the rest of Texas – or as Lynn puts it, "Austinites know what it's like to live surrounded by a bunch of conservative yahoos."
But at the same time, we are Texans ourselves and have a hard time demonizing – okay, well, at least a hard time making two-dimensional demons of – the folks back home in Tyler or Port Arthur. Tomlinson says, "Austin's rich and complex relationship with the rest of Texas gives an artist lots to work with. When you play Texas characters in Austin, you can expect both critical distance and sympathetic identification from the audience. We're laughing at these characters, but we know they're ours – in fact, on some level, they're us."
Those yahoos are us, which makes our liberalism fiercer but also more lighthearted and complex – more Molly Ivins. We know that Austin would not be Austin if it were not in Texas (and Texas would not be Texas if not for Austin, although certain conservative yahoos would never admit this). Asked if his group is Texas-influenced, Lynn replies, "Fuck yeah! All five artistic directors are Texan. The Rude Mechs have drunk theatre companies from Ireland and Australia under the table, we've had a fistfight with a theatre from Brooklyn, and our work won't be done until there's sawdust on the stage at Lincoln Center."
But that very belly-of-the-beast quality means that political argument is a lively, deeply felt part of much Austin theatrical work. Politics aren't theoretical here – we aren't surrounded by people who agree with us. And we don't fear passion. Writing of GYWO, which is based on the brilliant Internet comic by David Rees, Village Voice critic Alexis Soloski praised its "surprising moments of unguarded emotion" and wrote, "Rarely has political theatre so enmeshed the sardonic and sincere."
Not every local theatre company sees an essentially Austin quality in their work. Josh Meyer, co-artistic director of Rubber Repertory, which recently took Wallace Shawn's scandalous A Thought in Three Parts to Marfa, of all places, after a hit local run, says he does not believe their show had a "sense of Austinishness." But he adds that "there's no doubt that the openness of Austin audience helped make the show a success. We're always interested in finding out how far is too far – what content is too risqué or what form is too strange. But so far, Austin audiences have been receptive to almost everything we've presented."
Zell Miller III, who recently won the Austin Critics Table's David Mark Cohen New Play Award, also does not think his work "has that handprint as an Austin writer." His one-man poetry/rap performance piece The Evidence of Silence Broken, originally developed by Hyde Park Theatre, "did very well in New Jersey, and in San Francisco it translated because it's a story about growth," adding "if you can tap into that human story, that breaks racial, socioeconomical, and geographical lines."
They Do Theatre in Austin?
Austinish or not, what kind of reaction is theatre made Here getting Out There? Outside of Texas, do they even know who Austin is?
Bartholomee says, "I ran into a great number of people – the majority of the people I met, actually – who knew about Austin, knew how it was different than the rest of Texas and a lot of the country."
(The woman who reviewed GYWO for England's Guardian newspaper was not one of these, however. Of the play's liberal politics, she wrote, "Hailing from Austin, Texas, where one imagines they must go down like vegetarians at a steak barbecue." No, dear Guardian, that's the great thing about Austin – we'll eat any damn thing.)
As for the work itself, on the whole, the reception has been very good – in many cases much better than the Austin artists expected and sometimes even better than in Austin. A few examples:
• Last month, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, GYWO received the Total Theatre Award for "best original work by a collective/ensemble."
• "Puppet Government was on a bunch of Top 10 lists for 'best bets' at the [FringeNYC], and we sold out almost all our shows." (Barney)
• a chick & a dude's HIT. received the Overall Excellence Award for Outstanding Cast Performance at the 2005 FringeNYC.
• "All of us involved in Philomel were a little blown over by the response in New York. We canceled performances in Austin because literally no one showed up. Walking around the East Village during [FringeNYC], some of the girls would get stopped on the street by fans of the show." (Blanton)
• "A Thought in Three Parts played extremely well in Marfa," although a local Catholic church held "a special prayer session for our hosts the week after we left." (Meyer)
• "We had great houses for the six-week run [of American Fiesta] in New York. Audience response was good; reviews were mixed." (Tomlinson)
The Message in the Bottle
If local theatre is one of Austin's ambassadors to the world – an idea that would fill any sane theatre artist with dread, but bear with me – what message from our city do they bear?
Lynn's evaluation of the impact of GYWO is modest but fine. "It would be nice to believe that a half-dozen Scotsmen think of Texas as less politically backward than before. It would be awesome if the next time Bush was on the news in Europe, a handful of people remembered that he doesn't speak for America."
The Latino Comedy Project has successfully toured across North America, but perhaps their most surprising impact has been in what became the No. 6 comedic video on YouTube last month: a wonderfully well-done send-up of the film 300, in which Mexican immigrants storm the U.S. border led by a cry of "Mexicans! Tonight we dine in San Diego!"
The video generated instant controversy, "seen by right-wing anti-immigrant people as reinforcing their illogical and paranoid 'undeclared invasion' theories," says Villegas, whereas "Über-Chicanos see it as degrading and stereotypical and feeding the hatred of the aforementioned people already hating us. Other activist types see it as a statement of empowerment and the inevitability of Mexican immigration to America. The vast majority, which includes everyone else, sees it as funny." (The video was also part of LCP's recent live show AlienNation.)
Finally, Bartholomee tells the story of a retired Irish army officer in Galway who caught up with the GYWO cast in a pub. "He said: 'It is a great thing you bringing this show here. You don't know how much we admire your country, how much we love you here. For the last six years, we didn't know what had happened. We thought you'd all gone mad. You don't know what it means to have you here showing us that the country we believed in is still alive over there.'"
So what's next for Austin theatre and its quest for global domination? Bartholomee is eager to march on. "I think I have to recalibrate the scales I previously used to measure awesomeness," says Bartholomee of the GYWO tour, calling it "an incredible creative recharger." "The more we get out there, the more we show the world what we're doing, the higher our global profile will be, which will drive us to do even better and better work."
And that certainly will raise the stakes around here, which might be a reason to pause. Will success, and the money and prestige that come with it, kill what's great about Austin theatre – that sense of freedom to play?
Maybe it will; maybe it won't. But there's no stopping now, and that's just as well. Berry, whose Refraction Arts Project brings in groups from across the country for its yearly spring Fuse Box festival, offers the best reason for keeping up the dialogue between Austin and the whole wide world. "I love that we have a character and an identity here in Austin," he says, "but we are also very much a city of the world and part of the world, too, and I think that we have to embrace that notion. It's essential to our growth as artists and people."