Discomfort Zone

How far can Rubber Repertory push you?

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Meyer describes the process of Surprise Annie as "us versus Annie," and says, "We wanted to throw some at her that would be kind of awful to perform in." And it's clear that in that battle, the boys won sometimes.

"One of the shows they did for me was a real surprise party the day after my birthday," La Ganga says. "It was at a restaurant, and there are my friends and family, who've come from out of town. I was just freaked out – there were a few people there who I really had owed an email to before I saw them. After the show was done, I was like, 'They fucked with my life.'" She laughs about it when she talks about it, but she relates this anecdote, too: "My sister said something really funny after [Surprise Annie]. She said, 'I think they're sadists.' And I said, 'I think that they are.'"

For their part, Meyer and Hislope play innocent when talking about that particular night. "Since the show was kind of a surprise party," Meyer explains, "We thought it'd be fun to have one show that really was a surprise party."

When I ask Meyer and Hislope about the way they push people and make them uncomfortable, they don't seem to love the question. "I know you," I say. "You're not mean people. And maybe the goal isn't to make people uncomfortable. But is that the cost of making really interesting art: That sometimes people are going to be really uncomfortable with the places it takes them?"

There's a full 15 seconds of dead silence between my asking the question and Meyer answering it. Finally, he does respond. "I think it would be a little dishonest for us to say that we don't take a little bit of pleasure in making people uncomfortable," he admits. "I don't think we necessarily look at it as a cost. But from an audience standpoint – oftentimes, if you're uncomfortable, then you're engaged."

Of all the practices and techniques that Rubber Rep uses to push the people they work with in uncomfortable ways, none are more aptly named or on-the-nose than the Torture Circle, which they unveiled in a 2009 workshop. "It's a clown college workshop where you get in front of the group of people and, without talking, you do whatever it takes to make them laugh." Meyer explains. "You can't leave until you've done something that's made the entire group laugh at once. You have time to prepare, but you basically go through your entire prepared material in the first three minutes, and it usually lasts up to an hour."

"And things just devolve," Hislope adds, pronouncing the word with obvious relish. "Everyone gets desperate."

Discomfort Zone
Photo by Sandy Carson

"It's easy to feel humiliated," Meyer says. "Almost everyone, the first time we did it, ended up naked by the end. Just because you have nothing left." The talk about the Torture Circle lends some credence to the "these guys are sadists" idea, but as Meyer explains where they learned the technique, something else becomes clear. "We first did it in [Physical Plant Theater Company's] Not Clown. We loved it during Not Clown."

Listening to Meyer and Hislope gleefully discuss the Torture Circle sounds kind of sadistic – until you realize that these aren't just hoops that they're putting other people through. These are hoops that both of them are eager to jump through themselves. Yeah, maybe they're going to insist that their cast of atheists pray to Jesus or put workshop participants through an hour of trying to make a stone-faced group laugh – but they led the prayer sessions and they brought the Torture Circle to the workshop because they remembered being in it as being so much fun. Maybe this isn't about sadism or cruelty – maybe these guys are just wired to think that being pushed to physical and emotional extremes is actually a pretty good time. Is that where the push to go to these extremes comes from?

"It comes from what we like as performers when we're in other people's shows," Meyer agrees. "I think we like things that are really hard. I far prefer having to endure something physically than having to emote as an actor. I like really doing things – I like the results for the audience more as a performer. If I'm really going through something, I like that better than having to act that."

If that's not you, that's OK, too. As uncomfortable as some of the things they've put their performers and audiences through, they've also offered a way out of them. One of the features of Surprise Annie was that La Ganga could end the show each night whenever she wanted to. During The Casket of Passing Fancy, people who didn't want to cover themselves in syrup and roll around in freshly-raked leaves could, say, participate in a watermelon-eating contest. During Biography of Physical Sensation, the duo devised a system of participation that allowed the audience to sit in either the "big chair" splash zone in which you could be made really uncomfortable, or the "small chair" section where participation was a lot more passive. The cast for Jubilee, meanwhile, knew that they were recruited partly because they were willing to go on whatever journey Meyer and Hislope took them on – and what kind of a journey is it if it just takes you to the same naked, rolling-around-sexytime places you were expecting to go when you signed on?

The last time Jen Brown, who is part of the Jubilee ensemble, participated in a show with Rubber Rep, she was just sitting in the audience for Biography of Physical Sensation. That didn't stop them from shooting her, though – after all, she picked a big chair.

"I got shot with an air gun," Brown says, "And I'm terrified of guns. It was one of the most cathartic, interesting experiences of my life. They shot me in the leg, and I erupted in tears in front of everyone. I just broke down. I had no idea that I would have that reaction."

This is sometimes what happens when you push the right people in these uncomfortable ways. You give them life-changing experiences. For Brown, agreeing to go wherever a director wants to take her isn't an easy thing – but she had an easy time promising that to Meyer and Hislope. "I trust them. I trust what they produce and what they do. I know that I'm in good hands," she says.

And ultimately, it seems like this is the lesson of Rubber Rep, and the answer to the question about how uncomfortable it's fair to make people, if the goal is to give everyone the chance to have an experience that can change their lives. How far can you push people? As far as they trust you to do it.

When Annie La Ganga reflects on Surprise Annie, she mostly doesn't use words like "sadists." She has a similar, but much softer – and seemingly more accurate – one that she uses. "It was a chance for me to engage with the archetypal trickster," she says. "That's what they embody for me. They were putting me in situations that were not always conducive to storytelling, on purpose, to see what would happen. And I wanted to do that. I got the prizes that came out of that experience."

Playing the trickster has its rewards for Meyer and Hislope, too. At the very least, it makes the work that they do so vital. Forget about "comfortable" and "uncomfortable" for a moment – maybe the right word to use here is "alive."

Meyer seems to think so. "There's definitely a focus on creating a very live experience for the audience, and trying to create work where it feels like anything could happen, where people feel like they're experiencing something that is only happening the night that they're there," he says. "We want people to have fulfilling, life-changing experiences."

And if that means getting really uncomfortable from time to time, that's a trade-off that audiences – from the company's beginning right up through Jubilee, and whatever follows the "indeterminate hiatus" that will ensue while Meyer settles into life in Los Angeles – have been all too happy to make.

Jubilee runs through April 21, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. For more information, visit www.rubberrep.org.

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Rubber Repertory, Matt Hislope, Josh Meyer, Annie La Ganga, Jen Brown, Avimaan Syam, Biography of Physical Sensation, The Casket of Passing Fancy, Surprise Annie

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