Fast, Cheap, and in Control

Cost-of-living increases are making local artists do more with less

Rude Mechs' Off Center On Screen: (l-r) Shawn Sides, Lana Lesley, Kirk Lynn, and Lowell Bartholomee at the Q&A after screening Lipstick Traces (Photo by Beverly Barrett)

OK, class, here's a pretty basic equation: Rapidly escalating rents plus sharp increases in the costs of living and of making art plus decrease in adequate spaces for showing that art equals ...? Logic would suggest a reduction in the number of arts events. I mean, math, right? So, then, with resources for artists in Austin shrinking as rents are skyrocketing and venues are closing, how do you explain Jennifer Sherburn's 11:11, her project to premiere 11 dances in 11 months? Or the monthly programs on offer this season from the Rude Mechs and Local Opera, Local Artists? Or Revel Unclassified, a series of 22 concerts presented in as many weeks?

That's right, four local companies have responded to our current crises in affordability and arts venues by creating more art, not less. It's a counterintuitive move given the circumstances, but it's also a classic Austin move – "When you don't have much, doing something big forces you to be more creative," a strategy that can be traced through such ATX success stories as Joe Sears and Jaston Williams' Greater Tuna, Rick Linklater's Slacker, and Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi. These new rapid-fire performing arts series are pushing the groups producing them toward working in nontraditional spaces, expanding collaborations, and connecting more casually – and closely – with audiences. And in every instance, the artists are finding substantial payoffs: building on their body of work, attracting new audiences, and garnering more attention at a time when, as Lana Lesley of the Rude Mechs says, "The arts in Austin and we artists are slipping away, getting edged out."

"We get to see and be in Austin all year. We get to kiss people we like to see. We get to laugh a lot," says fellow Rude Kirk Lynn, ticking off the benefits of the company's monthly series, a mash-up of readings and workshops of new work, screenings and a stage revival of past work, celebrations, and symposia. "We get to share our past, our present, and our future. And I do think a lot of people feel more connected to us. I also think we're making more new work than we have in 15 years maybe."

“We’ve learned that small-scale, lo-fi, low-pressure interactions with our people are doable, that our audience will come to them, and that we want to keep doing it.” – Lana Lesley of the Rude Mechs

The inspirations for these series are varied. The Rudes were hitting their 20th anniversary as a theatre collective and collectively agreed, says Lesley, "to stay home – not tour – for the whole year and just party. Which led us to deciding to pepper the year with small monthly events that would appeal to the different segments of our audience." For Local Opera, Local Artists, a company that's still rather new and channels most of its energy into one big show a year, a monthly series was "a way to engage artists and the community more regularly," says founding Executive Producer Liz Cass. Jennifer Sherburn, who felt "divided" between her full-time job and her choreographic career, wanted to take a risk on behalf of her art, to make a full-time dance project that would "engage more communities and open the doors wide for new collaborations." For Carla McElhaney, co-founder of the chamber music group Revel, it was another opportunity to act on her lifelong interest in "humanizing the classical music concert experience." She says that she's "always thinking about ways to draw the audience in and take them on a journey, whether it's through inventive programming, the use of themes, collaboration with artists from other mediums, bringing them into more comfortable and inviting spaces, or a combination of all of the above." After performing with an Albuquerque, N.M., group that ran what it called the "Church of Beethoven" – Sunday morning concerts mixing music and poetry, presented in "a cozy, eclectically furnished, funky warehouse" with a coffee bar – McElhaney began to think about how she could adapt the idea for Austin. The result, Revel Unclassified, is still weekly and on Sundays, but it's a little later than "church time" and the beverage of choice is craft beer – brewed on-site at the 4th Tap Brewing Cooperative on Metric.

The idea of presenting classical music in a brewery taproom was as appealing to Cass as it was to McElhaney, and both LOLA and Revel run their series out of 4th Tap, in part because the owners, John and Erin Stecker, are really supportive of both series, in part because the taproom has a baby grand already in place. Cass first saw 4th Tap while on a bicycle pub crawl about a year ago, she says, and it was love at first sight: "The minute I walked in and saw that glorious space complete with a baby grand piano, I knew we needed to be making music there. I reached out to [John and Erin], and they were absolutely game for anything. You really find this in Austin. When you are an organization that does not have a brick-and-mortar, every space you enter becomes a potential performance space. I find it to be liberating, creative, and, of course, challenging."

It's My Party and I'll Die If I Want To from 11:11:03 (Photo by Sarah Annie Navarette)

Sherburn encountered a similar response in seeking spaces for 11:11, which she intended to be performed at a number of different venues. "I spoke to friends and various business owners in town that I discovered were willing to open their doors to us," she says. "We have been incredibly lucky to have partnered with people in the community who have been extremely generous to host our performance and provide rehearsal space." Among the partnerships that the choreographer considers integral to the success of 11:11 is the one with lighting designer-producer Natalie George. "We have to consider sustainability and cost-effectiveness due to the quick turnarounds between shows. Together, we are implementing a system that seems to be working well, almost like being on tour."

Of course, a monthly or weekly series can necessitate some changes to the usual way of working. For all of the groups here, programs are scaled down, which helps reduce costs and facilitates quick turnarounds. Even so, the pace is a challenge all its own. "The creative process is fast and furious," says Sherburn, though that isn't always as restrictive or inhibiting as you might imagine. She says, "It's liberating to think quick and feel comfortable letting go." And McElhaney is in wholehearted agreement: "This is about the best way that I can think of to overcome the creative paralysis that often accompanies our desire to produce a 'perfect' event. When we are producing something weekly, we have no time to suffer over the finer details of whether this piece or that is the best way to convey the meaning we're after – we simply have to go with our gut instincts and get it out there. We are called upon to be more in the moment. It's a raw, powerful way to work. It puts the emphasis off of perfection and squarely on authenticity, where it belongs."

Working without that constant emphasis on perfection also frees up the artists to enjoy themselves in ways they might not in a traditional show. Speaking for the Rudes, Lesley says, "We, personally, are having fun doing this. It's fairly easy to put these small events together, and it ensures we see each other and our friends at least once a month. We've learned that small-scale, lo-fi, low-pressure interactions with our people are doable, that our audience will come to them, and that we want to keep doing it."

Cass also feels that doing this kind of series has taught her a lot. "LOLA at 4th Tap has been a great learning tool about the flow of an arts season. The space is great for larger or smaller crowds, which always makes for a different experience each time we're there. Sometimes concerts are wildly energized and sometimes they are warm and cozy." However, she says, she might not have taken on this kind of fast, cheap, and out of control series without the inspiration of the city's other audaciously venturesome artists. "There is so much great stuff happening in Austin and the creativity is contagious," she says. "I wouldn't be doing half the stuff I'm doing if I wasn't inspired by other artists and arts organizations in town. They made me realize that LOLA could exist and that you really can make your own art happen. Dreams are very easy to have, but making dreams happen, really seeing them through, is a whole other animal. A crazy, wild, sweaty, living, breathing, dream creature."

The February Schedule


From November 2016 through September 2017, Jennifer Sherburn is choreographing a new 20-minute dance each month for 11 months. She's also hosting an artist-in-residence who will create a new performance each month. The fourth installment features Sherburn's panning_memory, created in collaboration with composer William West. As his score is played, Sherburn will observe his computer files, then translate the patterns and data from the panning modules, tracks, and channels into movement. Preceding it on the program will be Darla Johnson's The Unbridgeable Distance, a ritual and meditation on the butte and the willow created in collaboration with dancers Anne Wharton and Melissa Watt, actor Tim Mateer, sound designer Bill Meadows, sculptor Bernard Perroud, set designer Curtis Gravatt, and videographer Sarah Wingfield. Feb. 8-11, Wed.-Sat., 8pm, 1800 E. Sixth.

Revel Unclassified

The Zenith Quintet at Revel Unclassified's Jan. 22 concert: (l-r) Rami El-Farrah (soprano sax), Sunil Gadgil (alto sax), Carla McElhaney (piano), Spencer Nielsen (tenor sax), and Michael Hertel (baritone sax) (Photo by Nathan Russell)
For 22 weeks, Revel presents a weekly themed concert series blending music, poetry, and art, both the experimental and the classic, in an inspiration-infused Sunday brunch. Each concert uses the symbolism and mythology of one of the 22 major arcana cards in the tarot deck as a point of departure. Sundays through June 25, 12:30pm, 4thTap Brewing Co-Op, 10615 Metric.

Feb. 5: Asking Shadows to Dance (The High Priestess), with Pat Harris, double bass; Paul Glasse, mandolin; and Jena Kirkpatrick, poet, performing original work exploring intuition, readiness, listening, and the mysterious subconscious.

Feb. 12: This Quiet Place (The Empress), with the Forgotten Prophets [Chris Bell: guitar, vocals; Jonathan Geer: piano, keys, vocals; Pat Harris: electric upright bass, vocals; Aaron Lack: vibraphone, percussion, vocals; Steve Schwelling: drums, cymbals, percussion, vocals]; Pat Harris, reader and composer, presenting his new, through-composed work about the mother, the world of nature and sensation, Mother Nature, fertility, and bringing something new into the world.

Feb. 19: Deep Roots (The Emperor), with Francis, Harris, Lack Trio [Graeme Francis, drums; Pat Harris, double bass; Aaron Lack, vibraphone & steel pan]; and W. K. Stratton, poet, performing original work that explores the father, structure and authority, rules, order, clarity, and turning long-held desires into reality.

Feb. 26: Essentials (The Hierophant), with Liz Cass, mezzo-soprano; Carla McElhaney, piano; and Carrie Fountain, poet, performing music from Carmen and Cabaret, Dvorak's "Song to the Moon," Bob Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm," Purcell's "If Music Be the Food of Love," and poetry by Fountain.

LOLA at 4th Tap – A LOLA Valentine

LOLA at 4th Tap
Local Opera, Local Artists presents a concert series focusing on classical vocal music as performed by leading Austin artists. For February, vocalists Amy Hackerd and Claudia Chapa perform with guitarists Eric Roach and Arnold Yzaguirre. Thu., Feb. 16, 8pm, 4th Tap Brewing Co-Op, 10615 Metric.

Rude Mechs 20th Anniversary Season – February

The Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo,

Fri., Feb. 24, 7pm: A Rude Salon, with Lisa Moore and Desiree Morales leading an all-star team of academics in a freewheeling discussion of performance studies, queer theory, feminism, whiteness, experimental art, running a collective, community building, big feelings, and more.

Sat., Feb. 25, 1pm: A Rude Workshop on collaborative creation, led by Co-Producing Artistic Director Kirk Lynn. Participants will work together in groups to create performance pieces, which will then be shared. Class size is limited.

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Jennifer Sherburn, Revel, Local Opera, Local Artists, Rude Mechs, Carla McElhaney, Liz Cass, Lana Lesley, Kirk Lynn, 4th Tap Brewing Coop, affordability

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