The Poetic Terrorists of KAiROS Co. Prepare to Confront NYC
By Ada Calhoun
JULY 10, 2000:
"We had decided to try and not come across as this company of anti-socials who are constantly trying to subvert the system but you brought it out of us. Every one of our sketches has an agenda, something under the jokes that the audience is supposed to take home with them. And if they don't wanna take it home with them, then we at least want to hit them in the face. Our punk rock attitude will never die, our comedy is terrorism, and our gods are spontaneous. Cut wires, set fires, stop your world!!! Okay!" -- KAiROS Co.
This blend of new bohemia poetry slam and Dr. Bronner's Soap mantra is the kind of e-mail a writer gets from the KAiROS Co., a theatrical sketch comedy troupe who will be leaving Austin this fall for the less green pastures of New York.
Writing a story about performers with a self-proclaimed "punk rock attitude" is tricky, because at work is a constant (if subconscious) effort to subvert not only the system but also the patience of your average journalist. Not only were they no-shows for the first photo-shoot appointment, but every phone call to the group resulted in postponement -- of either their show, their departure date, or our meeting. One Chronicle editor reports calling the troupe to clear up holes in the press release only to hear the rare question, "Uh, what's the title of our show?" then laughter and astonishment when the title -- Get Off My Mama, Who Got the Stinky?! -- was read.
The group admits to being "not really manager material." Once one has all the slackers together, however, they are completely present, their intensity level rising as they chain smoke. Perhaps appropriately enough, the three-person group is named after a scene in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in which KAiROS is the supreme moment when everything comes together. It's also a religious term, meaning "God's time," and the name of a prison outreach program. Young, optimistic, and flaky in a way that belies their revolution-for-the-hell-of-it satire, the San Antonio-spawned company is rounding out their five years in Austin with a revival of their 1994 play The All Night Unlikely Teacup at Hyde Park Theatre in July and the introduction of their newest play, as yet untitled, at this year's MOMfest.
The company's core is comprised of actors Clint McCown and Le Easter and writer Richard Hinojosa, the "structure guy," as he puts it. The trio, along with two fringe members, actress Teresa Ryno and keyboardist Tim Girardot, met in the theatre department of Southwest Texas State University in 1991. Their first show was a multimedia extravaganza, with bands, poetry readings, and art on the walls. They billed it as an anti-drunk-driving affair so they could hang out all night in the courthouse. Since moving to Austin, they've expanded their corps and cultivated a name for themselves as "poetic terrorists."
Hinojosa was reared Catholic and sticks by the motto "write what you know." Writing religious parodies, perhaps KAiROS' best-known work, Hinojosa says his goal is to "subvert the one-dimensional belief system" and humanize religion in a light, loving way. KAiROS admits to spending their college years being "preachy, righteous, and all about tearing things down." If they've mellowed a bit, their goals are still to "put archetypes under the spotlight and to fight apathy and ignorance." They have little patience for artsy-fartsy stuff and believe good entertainment and provoking thought go hand in hand.
Friends for years, these artists are tight as can be. In fact, two of them -- writer Hinojosa and actress Ryno -- are so comfortable with each other that they married in June. But all four core members are cozy as can be sitting around drinking beer and reminiscing about the years they've spent working and occasionally living together. McCown winks and lights everyone's cigarettes with a suave flick of his Zippo. Ryno is as demure off the stage as she is hard-talking and skirt-hiking on. Easter is the glamorous and slightly neurotic girl-next-door. Hinojosa has his little spiral notebook in hand at all times. Eminently distractable, he occasionally turns to McCown or Easter and says something like, "Okay, you know that scene with the sheep? Well ... " All ooze stage presence.
As for day jobs, Easter teaches public speaking at a high school. Hinojosa and Ryno work at Pinky's Wireless. McCown works at Ruta Maya and in the Zachary Scott Theatre Center box office. Once they get to New York, they're considering telemarketing, waiting tables, anything that will leave time for auditions during the day. Some guy they met the last time they were in New York offered them a writing job for the World Wrestling Federation, a job McCown and Hinojosa are prepared for, having once worked in a sub shop called No Bologna Here with a WWF fanatic who had trouble with pronouns and conjugations, as in: "You have last be used the remote and now I has missed the playoffs."
The brutal mockery of their sub shop co-worker is tinged with affection. KAiROS lives by the slogan "If you love something, be able to laugh about it." One thing they love is dada, so much so that they in fact invented a Texas version of dada called "derder," which takes the form of a recurrent sound-poetry skit. In the course of their derder performances, one of the three invariably chants the KAiROS theme-rant, printed on the back of their programs and spoken fervently into this writer's tape recorder: "We are KAiROS. We can do what we want. We are medicinal. We are subversive. We are ambiguous at most. So you should make your own decisions ... We understand absolutely nothing, so don't listen to us! Everything is misunderstood."
The troupe is endearing in their sincere emphasis on their own naughtiness. Sweet as can be, they talk about how they are "garage-y," "really punk rock when it comes to sketch comedy," and love manifestos. Hinojosa's play Obsessively Sam, staged at the Vortex last fall, was, according to them, their first attempt at mass appeal. It was originally supposed to be the ultimate roommate play, told in "the language of glaring, shoe-throwing, and door-slamming," but it turned into an anti-TV murder mystery of sorts. Though successful, it was also their last attempt at mass appeal, they say, for since then they have been doing almost exclusively sketch work, including a hit parade for two nights the first week of May at Hyde Park Theatre, which packed the house.
They got a walk-out or two the night I attended the Hyde Park show, and it is a phenomenon to which they are no strangers, especially over skits such as "The Next to the Last Supper," in which Judas tries to convince Jesus to have sex with a diner waitress, lest he die a virgin. Religious satire such as these isn't for the whole family (for example, Ryno's mother, a born-again Christian, won't come see anything her new son-in-law writes), and it was this kind of episode that two or three years ago got them cordially disinvited to return to Esther's Follies unless, so KAiROS says, the venue pre-approves their material.
They also get their fair share of hecklers. One time at the Hole in the Wall, they did a mock version of the Pledge of Allegiance called the "Sledge," which includes the line "regulation under fraud, inflammable with scrutiny and nightsticks for all." A guy shouted slurringly at them, "Do you have a voter registration card?" In response, KAiROS got the audience to chant "Vote or Swallow!" Once they even got heckled by McCown's mom. In one show, McCown was playing a character who cradled his sister as she lay dying. "Mom's gonna kill me!" he said, to which McCown's mom shouted from the back of the theatre, "Damn right!"
Not only do they get heckled, they also get thrown out of places, in part because they tend to think messy things are really funny. Thom the World Poet told them to wreak havoc during the International Poetry Festival. "Go take stages!" said Thom, who was programmer for the event. "Be mercenaries! We need guerrilla poetry!" So take stages they did, only they ignored the caveat "Don't go to Barnes and Noble. They don't want you." With ski masks, terrorist T-shirts, and drums, they showed up at the mega-bookstore, interrupted a workshop, threw toilet paper around, and gave a two-minute lecture on "how to take a shit and write poetry."
KAiROS' good-natured keyboardist Tim Girardot, who also plays piano for the comedy troupe Monk's Night Out, laughs out loud when recounting the time the group went to Mexic-Arte Museum during the International Poetry Festival and had a pillow fight. After getting feathers everywhere, the group began to march out. Thom stopped them and asked if they weren't going to remove the feathers. One of the KAiROS clan replied in astonishment: "We're not going to clean it up. We just did it."
But what finally put them into some disfavor with the World Poet was their performance at "Love Poetry Day" at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden a few years ago. In front of an audience dense with little old ladies, KAiROS re-created an event they had witnessed once at the International Poetry Festival. In the original scene, a girl from Dallas was reading a "sappy" poem with lines like "If only he would touch me the way he touches his guitar ... If only he loved me the way he loves his guitar ... " and a really angry woman at a table stood up and shouted, "Learn to masturbate!" The slightly shaken woman onstage tried to continue, but the angry woman stood up again and shouted, "If you learned how to fuck, maybe someone would want to fuck you!"
The KAiROS folks love that story, though their rendition of it at the Umlauf event didn't go over very well. Despite the fact that they changed "fuck" to "screw" in deference to their aged audience, no one got it and Thom says it was a bad idea. "Terrorism is a serious thing ... I don't think art should be used to make people afraid," says Thom, who has known the company members since they moved to Austin in 1995 and has participated in poetry performances with them. Praising their skill as performers, their social satire, and their use of poetry in a way that "gets the audience active," Thom says, "I applaud their vitality ... With KAiROS, you are always confronted."
KAiROS' brand of confrontation doesn't go over well with everyone, especially those who see it as superficial and purely aesthetic. "Real rebels don't come right out and say, 'We're subversive,'" I overheard an audience member say at their last show. But without fail they'll get one or two people at the end of a performance who will come up and say, "Thank you! Thank you! I thought I was the only person who thought like that!" Typically, according to McCown, this person is a "sweaty little guy with big glasses in a Rush T-shirt." Or an angry slam poet. The "Learn to masturbate!" woman gave KAiROS the thumbs-up as she stormed out cursing. Portrait of a KAiROS fan.
Despite the aggressive character of many of their shows, in person the KAiROS artists are a laid-back bunch, and so optimistic that they think they're going to find affordable housing in Manhattan's East Village. So why are they leaving, anyway? Well, because even though they love Austin, they see it as "a great place to have a great time and not have to extend yourself." And their ambition to get published or pursue acting careers has made them feel a little pent-up. That, and they have a bunch of well-connected friends up in Gotham, where they have performed at the Ohio Theatre in SoHo and the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village. They also had a good time there last year at the Ice Factory Theatre Festival, which they attended alongside Theaterless Theater Corps and the Rude Mechanicals.
Hinojosa is insistent that KAiROS is not leaving Austin because they think they can't make it here or because Austin isn't good enough for them. Asked if they see Austin as a training ground, fervent assent comes from all corners of the table, but more in the sense of "a place to put down roots" than a place for dry runs. Still, until that whole "third coast" thing comes through, New York is the place to be, according to McCown. In her current hometown's defense, Easter shouts, "Austin's going to be huge!" and states her faith that in 10 years it will be as great a place to move to as New York is now, and almost as expensive.
McCown sums up the boom thus: "It's coming here. Austin's exploding. I don't know, I mean French theatre's happening. They're building new theatres. Established theatres are getting new spaces, and they're upscaling. All that airport stuff. Tarantino and the Linklater thing. Animation and the computers. Yeah ... it's hard to drive." So traffic will be about four cars lighter come fall, and we will be one performance troupe in the hole. Farewell, KAiROS. Good luck up north.
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