How far can Rubber Repertory push you?
When Rubber Repertory started auditioning for its new show – the company's last before an "indeterminate hiatus" as half of its producing duo moves to Los Angeles – they didn't know much of anything about what they'd be putting on stage. "Our one thing was that we didn't want audience participation," co-Artistic Director Matt Hislope says.
"We wanted to put on a show," his creative partner, Josh Meyer – the moving-to-California half of the duo – adds. To help them create the performance that is Jubilee, running now at the Off Center, they looked to cast 10 people they'd never worked with before – but whom they trusted to follow them wherever they might be going.
"One of the reasons this group was selected was that they were literally up for anything," Meyer says. "We knew they'd be game for going on this journey with us. They seemed willing to go anywhere. They were all really committed." At this point in the company's career, Rubber Repertory is likely to attract the sort of performers who find being "up for anything" and "going on a journey" to be especially appealing: This is the company that built its reputation on performances including the "X-rated self-help odyssey" Mister Z Loves Company, the outright pornographic A Thought in Three Parts, and the audience-participatory performance pieces Biography of Physical Sensation – which involved an audience member wearing a vibrator throughout the duration of the show, among other experiences – and The Casket of Passing Fancy, in which audience members were offered opportunities like "Who wants to be made into a sandwich and eaten?" and "Who wants a one-on-one yoga session in the nude?"
"This is a cast that was really willing to go to really sexual places," Meyer says, and Hislope agrees. "They wanted to be naked all the time."
So, great, right? Let's hear what sort of acts of radical depravity and erotically charged boundary-pushing the "up for anything" cast got up to.
"We had 'Youth Group Week,'" Meyer says cheerfully. "We were feeling what it would be like if we were Christians. We got the group to participate in activities as a youth group. We shared personal experiences and had a lot of activities and games, and then culminated it with a worship service together at the end of the week."
"And what were you worshipping?" I asked, curious if the pair had managed to find a way to push the group of mostly atheists they had assembled to one of the few places that was likely to be well outside their comfort zone, too.
"... Jesus," Meyer says.
It's a very specific skill, figuring out precisely what it'll take to make seemingly any group of people deeply uncomfortable. It also seems to be one of the crucial parts of what makes Rubber Repertory's work so transformative and life-altering for the people who participate.
Before Jubilee, Rubber Rep's most recent show was Surprise Annie, a series of performances they enacted with solo performer Annie La Ganga, who delivered improvised monologues each night. The hook for this show was that La Ganga would be taken to the performance each night wearing a blindfold, and every performance would be in a surprise setting. Some of those environments were novelties – a private room at Dart Bowl, for example, or the back of a stretch Humvee limo – and some of them were unique, unlikely performance spaces that enabled La Ganga to create something special.
"My favorite night was at Austin Market Research," Meyer says. "The audience was in the room usually reserved for the clients. Annie was on the other side of the one-way mirror, so they could see in, but she couldn't see them at all. That was a great show."
This is the sort of thing that happens, sometimes, when you're constantly looking for ways to push people – you push them to places where the unexpectedly magical can happen. During Biography of Physical Sensation, audience members who elected to participate as fully as possible by choosing a "big chair" had similar reactions. In his review of the show, Avimaan Syam wrote in the Chronicle: "An anesthetic was rubbed across my lips and gums, paper towels were stuffed up my nose, a chin strap was placed so I could barely move my jaw, a hideous mask was placed over my head, a brace was applied to my neck, some sort of weight was applied to the small of my back, and my legs had to be propped up at an uncomfortable angle for the next hour of the show. ... Even though I missed chunks of the show and was subject to intense discomfort, I wouldn't have traded my seat for anyone else's."
For The Casket of Passing Fancy, the entire point of the show was to give people experiences that had the possibility of being transformative. On the stage, an actor playing the Duchess offered audience members the opportunity to perform the sort of actions that a person is likely to remember for the rest of their lives: "Who wants to tattoo an ass with their name?" before accompanying Hislope to a tattoo parlor on Sixth Street, or "Who wants a ride to the border right now?" before venturing forth toward Juarez for an overnight trip with Hislope. This pushing of boundaries and this attempt to find ways to do things that haven't been done before – certainly not onstage or as part of a theatre piece, and definitely not in Austin – has made the opening of every show a bona fide event and helped them recruit a cast of 10 "up for whatever" types who'd commit to 55 nights of rehearsal over an 11-week period for Jubilee. It's given them the opportunity to create something very special.
But there's a question that comes with all of this, too. If you're willing to push boundaries in ways that no one has done before in the context of Austin theatre, there are times when "making people uncomfortable" can cross from an opportunity to see things in a different light into something that is downright unpleasant. So how do you walk that line?
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."
"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.