We Don't Think They're Not in Kansas Anymore

Austin's Rubber Repertory rents a former church in Kansas and fills it with a diversity of artists

Those Rubber Rep Boys, Josh Meyer (l) and Matt Hislope, months before this project began
Those Rubber Rep Boys, Josh Meyer (l) and Matt Hislope, months before this project began (Photo by Sandy Carson)

If two people – one in Austin, one in Los Angeles – are going to, on a whim, rent a former church on the east side of Lawrence, Kansas, and turn it into an experimental artists' colony for a year, of course those two people will be the Rubber Rep boys.

Josh Meyer and Matt Hislope, founders and directors of the Rubber Repertory theatre company, had gone on indefinite hiatus following their original, stunning Jubilee at the Off Center in April 2012. After 10 years of bringing this city such odd and compelling spectacles as the Biography of Physical Sensation and Surprise Annie and The Casket of Passing Fancy and Mister Z Loves Company, the two University of Kansas alumni staged their final public show and parted ways: Meyer to L.A., to ply his commercial-acting trade and reignite a romantic connection there; Hislope to return to a gig among the hardworking jesters of Esther's Follies on Sixth Street.

But opportunities present themselves to those who are open to them, and the best laid plans of mice et cetera, and this so-called "hiatus" didn't last very long. Because now Meyer is leaving California and Hislope is leaving Texas, and for 12 solid months they're going to run what they're calling the Pilot Balloon Church-House in Kansas and ride herd on (and potentially collaborate with) a swiftly changing roster of 72 visiting artists from around the country and beyond. Specifically, according to the latest Pilot Balloon press release, "While Austin artists account for close to half of those invited, artists from 10 states and four different countries are represented."

The grand and roomy venue housing all this imminent industry began as a German Methodist church in 1872, erected less than a decade after much of Lawrence was burned to the ground during the Civil War. In the Nineties, the church was converted to a single-family home; it was more recently remodeled again, although, if you see the place, church is still the first word that comes to mind. It's a substantial chunk of real estate, yes, but was discovered by Meyer within the less concrete arena of cyberspace – where the Rubber Rep boys also raised enough money to fund this latest creative endeavor. And recently, we leveraged the digital realm ourselves to bring you this interview briefly illuminating the duo's process of discovery and engagement.

Austin Chronicle: What put this idea in your heads in the first place?

Josh Meyer: I saw the real estate listing on Facebook and got a little dreamy about it. "You mean, for the price of a one bedroom in Los Angeles, I could get a whole church in Lawrence, Kansas? And then maybe this church could be filled with all sorts of interesting visitors?" It's a trade that appealed to both my thrifty and impulsive sides. But really, the idea would have died on the page were it not for a few people who goaded me into action.

Matt Hislope: I'm not really on Facebook, but like so many great things that have happened to me during the course of our 15-year relationship, it began with Josh notifying me that he'd had an idea. We got sort of serious for about 15 minutes and then decided to go for it.

AC: Which meant ... renting it for a year?

Meyer: Yes – sight unseen. I sent an email to the owner that delicately described the artists' residence idea, then we talked on the phone for a bit. My email was so out of left field that he wanted to make sure I wasn't a Nigerian prince. As the project became more formalized, we also had to assure the owner that we weren't planning on erecting a stage in the church or hosting any big public spectacles. It really is a place for artists to come and hunker down and do their work.

Here's what that Pilot Balloon Church-House looks like on the outside.
Here's what that Pilot Balloon Church-House looks like on the outside.

Hislope: We're also looking at opportunities for visiting artists to get involved in the community, either through the Lawrence Arts Center or one of the universities or any number of service organizations. Josh and I have already volunteered to judge the potluck at the neighborhood association's annual block party.

AC: So, Josh, you're leaving L.A., and, Matt, you're leaving Austin in order to run this Pilot Balloon program for a year? You'll be there throughout the whole project?

Meyer: Yes, we'll be there throughout – learning to be good hosts, working on new projects together, mowing grass, shoveling snow. If this experiment is a success, it might be fun to do a pop-up artists' colony at a different site every few years. Marfa would be a good sequel.

Hislope: Yes, it's my farewell tour at Esther's. My last show is July 27th. Maybe I'll stick to my yearlong-stint-every-seven-years pattern and return when I'm 40.

AC: And you opened up these residencies to artists from all over? With a focus on ... ?

Meyer: We emphasized "experimental artists of all disciplines," but a hefty portion of the 85-plus applicants were performance-oriented artists. Not all experimental, but all creators of new work; and, most surprisingly, there wasn't a single dud in the bunch. We could've filled the calendar twice over if we'd admitted all the applicants and given them the full amount of time they'd requested. We mainly spread the word through our friends and artistic communities, but we also reached out to some people we didn't know. There's a book called Emergency Index that documents hundreds of performances from 2011. I dog-eared the pages of artists who seemed like a good fit and emailed them directly. We ended up admitting six people from that group.

Hislope: And that was really exciting, that it wasn't just our friends and colleagues who already trust us, but also artists who didn't know us from Adam.

AC: You've funded this through Kickstarter?

Meyer: Indiegogo, actually. We raised $9,186 during a monthlong Indiegogo campaign and were pretty much knocked sideways by people's generosity in helping us make this happen. We're still looking for a bit more money elsewhere. The funds are being used to reduce artist fees to $50 a week and cover a good portion of our utilities and household expenses. Matt and I will pay about 60 percent of the rent ourselves. On a sidenote, our $250 perk for the crowdfunding campaign allowed a person to submit a prayer or poem that will be recited out loud each day that we're in residence, and my Aunt Marie gave us the gift of "Pied Beauty" by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

AC: And will there be documentation of this Pilot Balloon project?

Meyer: I'm hoping the works that are created will provide their own sort of documentation, but, beyond that, we'll be vigorously maintaining our guest book and starting a Tumblr to keep people apprised of what's happening throughout the year.

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Rubber Repertory, Austin theatre, Josh Meyer, Matt Hislope, Jubilee, Biography of Physical Sensation, The Casket of Passing Fancy, Surprise Annie, Mister Z Loves Company, Esther's Follies, Pilot Balloon Church-House, Lawrence Arts Center, Emergency Index, Gerard Manley Hopkins

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