Dallas — If you ask a theater-savvy non-Texan about theater in the Lone Star State, you might hear a mention of the state’s largest LORT theaters—Houston’s Alley Theatre or Dallas Theater Center—but more often the response will be Austin’s Rude Mechs. Formed 20 years ago by theater students at the University of Austin, the Rude Mechs—named after the ragtag troupe of humans in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream who end up with that play’s funniest scene—have been making wildly inventive, collaborative (the current buzzword is “devised”) work that has received much press in New York and around the country, in large part because they tour their work. The group has been praised for “genre-defying cocktail of big ideas, cheap laughs, and dizzying spectacle … [and] use of humor as a tool for intellectual investigation.”
Tonight, in AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Off-Broadway on Flora series, Rude Mechs makes its Dallas debut with the 2013 work Stop Hitting Yourself. It’s probably best to describe it by using the company’s official blurb:
With Stop Hitting Yourself, Rude Mechs is embracing the fundamental beliefs underlying late-stage capitalism and indulging in our version of 1930's Hollywood glamour. Part Pygmalion, part Busby Berkeley, part self-help lexicon—all while dancing around a queso fountain. Rude Mechs borrows from the plots of 1930's musicals to dig into the contemporary conservative dilemma: how to honor steely individualism without disavowing the virtue of charity. Tap dancing, fine dining, and the missionary position will be employed in order to help all Americans to stop hitting yourself.
We chatted with two of the founders, Kirk Lynn (of San Antonio) and Shawn Sides (a native of Canton, Texas), about the company, the rise of devised theater, and advice on how to Stop Hitting Yourself.
TheaterJones: Why did this group of theater artists decide to make work together?
Kirk Lynn: We have similar passions and like to hang out with each other. I think we have an expansive set of tastes. We all love everything from Lucille Ball and Laverne & Shirley to Robert Wilson.
Shawn Sides: I think we also found our taste together; I think we thought we might do our own versions of Shakespeare plays. We did a deconstruction of Taming of the Shrew. It grew into making original work.
What kind of people does it take to make up a tight-knit group that loves to collaborate and challenge themselves and make original work?
Kirk: We’re all Type A personalities. It sounds odd, but it’s the only way a bunch of people who like to be in charge can work together. We have always valued the structure of the collective.
Was it always the plan to tour your shows?
Kirk: Very early on we were ambitious. A lot of Texas artists want to participate in the larger national and international conversation, and we were ornery and wanted to show our work to people. We’re trying to do more now but it takes us about two years to make a new play.
What took you so long to get to Dallas?
Kirk: That’s a good question. I don’t know. We’ve [presented a show] in Houston, and we’ve wanted to come to Dallas.
What was it about Austin in the 1990s that was the right environment for Rude Mechs? Does it have anything to do with the culture of music?
Kirk: There was this magical time in the ’90s, and people were making theater everywhere, in all kinds of spaces. There was this culture of audiences going to see the work. I think there’s such a rich wealth of collaborators in Austin. As far as the music goes, it’s meant that live music has always been important to theaters in Austin. It’s frequent that a [theater production] will have live music, whether it’s a play with music or musical.
Tell me about coming up with the idea for Stop Hitting Yourself.
Kirk: We got really interested in contemporary Republican notions of free market and Christian values, like how you put together Ayn Rand and the gospels. We started reading Ayn Rand, especially Anthem. Then watching these 1930s movies like Gold Diggers of 1933, where there are these characters like the magnate, the orphan child, etc., and these films with these big dance numbers by Busby Berkeley.
As with most of our stuff, we wanted to task ourselves with thinking of ways to make it more complicated, rather than less complicated. What’s the most successful argument you could make for something you don’t believe? And the counterpoint to that: what could you make yourself belief?
Shawn: We first decided to do something with the idea of revolution … and we were going to make a play where over the course of the evening we would build something for the public good. That didn’t quite work out.
How has the show changed over the years?
Kirk: The change I’m most happy about is that Shawn took the script and cut about a one-third of it.
Shawn: We decided we spent a lot of time helping along the plot, so we cut a lot of that.
A queso fountain?
Kirk: Some years ago there was a Tex-Mex restaurant that opened in New York and the food reviewers didn’t understand the concept of queso.
What's to understand? It’s melted cheese. Yummy melted cheese.
Kirk: Right. Don’t explain it, just enjoy it.
Devised theater has been around for ages, but it’s now a theatrical trend around the country. Do you guys consider yourselves pioneers in this field, and are you asked advice by other theater makers who want to venture into this territory?
Kirk: I teach at the University of Texas, so I do get asked that by students. I just encourage them all to write on a daily basis. And I think a lot of what we spend time talking about is managing the friendships and relationships and the emotional part of it.
Shawn: In a sense that there was a zeitgeist, we got to be part of it, that was the time and the place where we’re making work. Did we contribute to it? Maybe, in the same way the drop in the river contributes.
The company has more than 40 members. Obviously people have come and gone, but how do you maintain so many members and remain friends?
Shawn: We do a lot of processing. We have a retreat, once a year, where we force each other to talk about our feelings. As ridiculous as that sounds and is, it’s the thing that’s kept us going. We have this amazing person, Pat Abrams, who came early on as an organizational development specialist, and she really taught us how to come to consensus, how to sit quietly and listen to each other, hammering at a problem until the outstanding concerns are at least acknowledged if not dealt with. We value the relationships as much as the art. You hear about clichés about throwing it all away with the art, but making the company is making the art.
What’s the next project?
Kirk: I always say the next project is an apology for the last project.