Young Guns and Typewriters
By Robi Polgar
SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: Austin bursts at the seams with writers. At any given moment, someone is writing a song or penning a screenplay; poetry and prose litter Austin's diverse literary circles; papers shuffle and flit in academia; a robust appetite for information keeps the presses rolling for daily, weekly, and monthly publications; even the legislature gets in on the act every other year. The local theatre scene boasts strong, unique writers of its own: Steve Moore of Physical Plant Theater; Sharon Bridgforth of root wy'mn; Ellsworth Schave at Live Oak Theatre; Kirk Smith, Aaron Brown, and Chad Salvata at VORTEX Repertory Company. And the universities and colleges around town harbor dozens of students with aspirations of Broadway -- or at least Off- Off-Broadway. In a year, Austin might see 50 fully staged new plays.
Currently, the spotlight beams on two local playwrights, working for fresh -- some may say loud -- theatre companies. Kirk Lynn of Rude Mechanicals and David Bucci of Salvage Vanguard Theater are both in the thick of it this year. Rude Mechanicals has just staged the first two parts of Lynn's "Faminly Trilogy" -- it produced Lust Supperlast fall and Crucks this past summer -- and it's mounting the final part, Salivation, in November. Bucci has his latest play, Altamont Now, on the boards at Salvage Vanguard's new digs: a warehouse out by the airport. A one-shot collaboration -- Bucci worked as dramaturg on the production of Lynn's Crucks -- brought these two young guns together for a moment before each ricocheted to new projects.
Both have set their sights on success. But unlike many who apprentice in Austin only to move on to struggle in the grime of New York, the glam-land of Los Angeles, or at a regional theatre queen-for-a-day like Seattle (or Chicago, or Minneapolis), Bucci and Lynn have committed to remaining in Austin. Here, they say, are advantages for a working playwright that other places can't match: young and interested audiences; audiences that expect something new and different for their theatre dollar; cheaply executed productions; and, most important, the support of two strong companies committed to nurturing their work and the work of like-minded artists, both homegrown and from the great outside. How these two playwrights got here, and why they stay, exemplifies many a writer's story of homing in on and flourishing in his chosen city.
The connect-the-dots story of Lynn's involvement with the formation of Rude Mechanicals begins with a stint at Winedale, working a summer of Shakespeare with UT English professor Jim Ayres and crew. There, Lynn, a native San Antonian, met Lana Lesley, a Houstonian, and the two of them decided to go try their luck in New York City. They staged a version of Lynn's play Lust Supper, with Lynn directing and Lesley and newfound comrade Shawn Sides -- another expatriate Texan -- acting. The experience made clear to Lynn and Lesley that New York was much too taxing a place in which to explore their respective crafts and remain solvent, so they returned to Austin, followed soon after by Sides. The growing troupe hooked up with local gal Sarah Richardson, then performing in the Boxtree Players' Two Gentlemen of Verona. All the women shared a history of working on projects with short-lived companies. Their experiences gave rise to a belief that they could make things work for a company of their own.
Joining a company that stoked his need for "a tension between high art and the continuing pursuit of postmodernism" and that would produce a whole season of such challenging work exhilarated Lynn, "especially having done one play in New York," he notes. "Having your own theatre company and getting to wreak havoc on the local arts scene is in some ways more than I imagined when I was living in New York. And especially, God, what was I then, 22? I mean, you want to try some things out, perhaps make some mistakes, which you can't do in New York for $4,000 a pop. When you fuck up [in New York], it's your entire life savings."
In Austin, Lynn has discovered an open-minded environment for his work -- plays that combine post-apocalyptic folk tales and a Beckett-ian barrenness. "I'm definitely interested in things that have a philosophy in them, that push a world view," he says. "Things that challenge an overall world view. Things that are political in a capital 'P' sense, that have a sense of their place in their world and not just in the theatre." Such intellectual sensibilities fit easily in a town full of well-read, smart theatregoers who embrace Lynn's work as they embrace plays like John Walch's Craving Gravy. This intellectual push sometimes creates icily esoteric work, plays that suffer from over-calculation. But these are risks that Lynn takes readily. "The faults that were in Pale Idiot, [for example:] I had a chance to put it on and learn from it and do another play in, what? Eight months. There's a lot more room to hone and to try things out. The critical world here is such that if they savage you, you still get another shot."
Bucci's part in the formation of Salvage Vanguard Theater (SVT) is more straightforward. While attending Brown University in Providence, Bucci and Jason Neulander (who would become SVT's artistic director) shared a class taught by guest artist Anna Deveare Smith. Soon after, Neulander directed a workshop production of Bucci's Lynwood Pharmacy at Brown. "That was our first collaboration," says Bucci, "and it went very, very well. [Then] we did Kid Carnivore in Providence, at an arts space." The newly formed SVT, thinking of flexing its theatrical muscles, began to look beyond the Northeast for a home. "We thought that there were too many small theatres already in Providence, so we came to Austin," explains Bucci. "There didn't seem like there were so many small theatres in Austin at the time, but we didn't really know. It turned out that a lot of my best friends from school just happened to be Texans, and when they moved back to Texas they moved back to Austin. And music was a big impetus for me to move here, because I thought I could do both."
For Bucci, whose first Austin venture, Kid Carnivore, and current work, Altamont Now, revolve around characters in and out of rock & roll bands, and have bands playing live as part of the presentation, Austin seems the perfect city in which to work: "There are a lot of tie-ins. I write for a young audience and there is a large young population here. And there's definitely a strong musical element to my playwriting because I'm a musician also."
Bucci and Austin work in symbiosis. He writes for an indigenous rock & roll audience to whom he offers plays that reflect rock concert roots. From his rock & rollers, he absorbs a sense of what they want for their money. "Young audiences and rock audiences: what's very important to them is that realism is somehow present. Even if it's being deconstructed. If there is somehow an element of story, even in its barest phonetic shape." And there are inherent rules to keeping his audience interested and included: "No breaking of the fourth wall. Nothing scares a rock kid more than being talked to by an actor. And things should be dark. Things should be funny. I feel that a sharp social eye is also something. People in my audience are really critics of each other constantly. Maybe that's true of every group, but I know my own better."
Not all of Bucci's work has included live music or rock settings. Stranger Desire was a bold riff on Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. But even such forays into more mainstream theatrical antecedants won't stop him from considering his youthful support. "I think the audience at a rock show understands its role a lot more," he says. "If you take that same audience and put them in a theatre audience, I think that they feel that there's a certain way that they're supposed to respond to things. And they don't necessarily know what those expectations are. I think it's important to make sure that there are no expectations. All you've got to do is just watch it." Indeed, Bucci knows his audience, and his playwriting aesthetic ensures inclusivity for all his fans, whether they hail from the audiences of theatre or of rock & roll.
Lynn places similar weight on connecting with an audience, describing Rude Mechanicals with an eye on inclusion: "We try to be playful, and we try to be accessible." Austin in particular, Lynn thinks, fosters inclusion. "There's still a way to find entry in the community. There's easier entrance, I think," says Lynn. And as the community grows, Lynn sees greater rewards, "The people are out there. I think there's a way to pump up the community and have them carry you along. Obviously, it's grown in the last two or three years, and the community has stepped up and said, 'We'll come and see more theatre.'"
Each playwright acknowledges how his integral connection to theatre companies for whom the wheel of fortune turns only upward these days has provided a nurturing environment for his work.
Co-founding Salvage with Neulander helped Bucci influence the company's direction. "I definitely think that having a playwright as a co-founder and having studied with Paula [Vogel at Brown], we're definitely a playwright's company," he says. When they founded the company, "it was very important at the time to try to find a new league of writers: Is there a community of writers in an atmosphere nationally?"
Answering that question has led to SVT hosting playwrights with whom Bucci has had the good fortune to work closely. Proximity to these varied and distinct voices is paying dividends in Bucci's work. "I feel so lucky," he says, "that Jason will produce a play like [Thalia Field's] Hey-Stop-That or [Ruth Margraff's] Battle of San Jacinto and I'll have inside access to how all of that is going. In that respect, the company has a lot of influence on what I'm doing because that's the theatre that I know the best, because I'm at rehearsals. Right now, the company feels so much like it did when we first started. When we're producing something of mine and when Jason and I are working on a daily basis, we go together good. I feel that this show [Altamont Now] is going to feel more like a really mature version of what we started with."
Bucci cites influences of local writer/director Daniel Alexander Jones and Margraff for his approach to Altamont Now. "There are musicality and identity construction issues from Blood: Shock: Boogie and I really love the way Daniel put together in a collage way an identity piece. And working with Ruth on Wallpaper Psalm, I suddenly decided, 'Why am I working so small? I gotta work big.' And then she came back with Battle of San Jacinto and she starting getting me to see things phonetically. So I started thinking in terms of collage, in terms of phonetics: mixing and matching the content that fill the different structures." And, not to forget the influence of Bucci's other passion, music: "A lot of these ideas carry over from the way I feel about music. This is a bigger way to do it."
"I'm the mascot," jokes Lynn about his role as playwright-in-residence for Rude Mechanicals. "I get to sit in on all the meetings." More seriously, he understands that his role as a co-conspirator means sharing the drudgery of company chores in order to reap the rewards of the collective's approach to art. "I'm part of the core, and so I get to help with crazy decisions and with tracking down print sponsors, all the horrible stuff. One of the things that's nice about having a collective is that it's spread out over seven people. It's almost like it's a bicycling team where somebody takes the lead for a while and they get completely exhausted and burned out, somebody else rides up to the lead and takesover for a while ... If anything, I keep things light."
Playwright-in-residence status means Lynn has the ear of the collective which is eager to try new material. He obliges readily. "One of the great things about having the other Rude Mechs is I sort of pitched them the idea that Lust Supper was really a trilogy. I had this weird sketch for [Crucks] and had an idea for what Salivationwould be when I thought up the trilogy. And with nothing more than that, they said, 'Yeah, sure, do it.'" Then there's the process itself, "Another thing about having people that you work with consistently is they understand my language and metaphors and they hopefully understand the change I'm making into a less obvious sort of writing. They give me feedback and they help fundamentally with how the scripts turn out. They're willing to try out new things."
A further benefit to being a core member of the collective is Lynn's inclusion in the Rude Mechanicals' training regimen. "I participate in training so that when I work on Lipstick Traces and work on Snow White [two new works being developed for Rude Mechanicals' 1998-99 season], or when they work on one of my plays, we have a similar vocabulary. And they tend to put up with me fairly well. For me, it's not to get onstage; it's to understand the craft of acting, to work better as a Rude Mechanical."
Most rewarding is seeing the work in action. Lynn describes a typical response by the Rudes to something of his that needs defining. "'Let's argue this out, let's figure out what this means.' None of the Rude Mechs ask me, 'What does this mean?' or 'What are these symbols and what are we doing with them and how do they make sense?' They sort of play them out and say, 'All right, let's pretend [it] means this, and let's see what happens then.' They have a good critical response themselves to it. Seeing Sarah do Lust Supper after I had directed it, it was a completely new play. It was very exciting. And Shawn doing Crucks: She made of Crucks what wasn't on the page, what I couldn't put on the page."
For these writers, whose work on the page may travel more easily to arts communities across the country than the work on the stage, Austin has proven a satisfactory leaping-off point. Contacts are made and scripts sent out, and both Salvage and the Rudes have an interest in getting their resident playwrights a national peek. Says Bucci of his out-of-town travails, "Things have been going really well on a national level. And we're continuing to push that." Recently he has had staged readings of Altamont Now at Printer's Devil, Seattle, and at Bottom's Dream, L.A. A full production of Lynwood Pharmacy was produced by Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., and there's hope of getting a New York production of Stranger Desire.
Of course, as Bucci puts it, "The second production is the hardest production because everybody wants the world premiere credit, like, 'We discovered this writer.' And it's so risky to do new work, so I'm told that if they don't get to be the one to discover the writer, then what's the point?"
Lynn appears nonchalant about such opportunities as a second bite in another city, though he is no less interested in getting his work distributed. "I'm just now sort of drying out my wings," he says. "In some ways, Rude Mechanicals is self-satisfying. If this is all that ever happens, that we get to put on plays for a while and have a ball, cool, that's fine. At the same time, I am being introduced to different theatre companies and dramaturgs around the world. And Rude Mechanicals is starting to push my stuff in other locales. If Pale Idiot never gets done again, yeah, I guess I'll be pissed off."
As it happens, a San Antonio Unitarian Church (of all things!) has expressed an interest in producing Pale Idiot. And Lynn admits that he's overstated his affrontery at being ignored. "The larger issue is that there will be newer plays and other work that I'll want to have precedence. At the same time, I'm trying to retain a consciousness that I'm 26. In the timeline of things, when you look at other writers, I'm not supposed to have productions at certain places now. If I did, it might do more harm than good. There's still tons to learn. I'm trying to learn how to write novels. How do you learn that? What's the process?"
What the playwriting process is for these two playwrights seems contradictory: They both share and eschew aspects of each other's writing style and playmaking philosophy. One marked similarity is their shared sense that a play can take on diverse structural elements and still maintain its cohesion. "Where I imagine myself," offers Lynn, "is having broken past the narrative; now you can borrow from all these different schools. You don't fit in the timeline anymore, the timeline is broken. In some ways, I think theatre is just catching up. I think eventually it will realize that maybe the purpose of a play is just to put on a play. In the same way that a purpose of a painting is to make a picture, rather than to explore paintbrushes and canvas."
Bucci sees borrowing structures from established forms as the key to creating something new, "I think maybe that is where new stuff can happen, by mixing and matching structural elements from different signs to create a hybrid structure that can be filled with a third content of some kind. I think that's what happening with Altamont Now: It's all cultural elements that have been reassembled in a skewed way to project a different meaning.
"I think that that's my goal right now," says Bucci, "to break things down so small to find the essence and the most economical way of what you need to get across. Then you can have three or four different reactions to the same thing simultaneously. I don't know how to do that yet, but I can sort of see it in my head. As I talk about it, it sounds collage-like and broken up, but it should, from the outside, look like a play. It's kind of punk in that it's D.I.Y. You have very little to work with. I think that those constrictions can do a lot to help you. I work with realism and the pop/rock song structure as the two main structures that I spin things off of, and those are two restrictive things."
Lynn continues confidently, "I mean, the sort of style of writing I'm into -- and I think the world is going to come around to -- I'm not into this sort of over-exactitude and this infatuation with form. You know: paintings about paintings or plays about plays about plays. We've gotten to a point where it's so self-loving. It's almost like taking your little airplane engine and instead of putting it in an airplane, putting it on stage and showing everybody, 'Wow. Look how powerful this is,' instead of getting in a plane and doing loop de loops. It's burying your tricks and putting on a show."
Both playwrights concur that sharing their work -- its liveness and its community nature -- keep them writing for the theatre, and for this community in particular. "Why am I doing theatre?" muses Bucci. "It's because live for me is so much more -- there's something you can get with your audience that you can't get when something becomes recorded, when something becomes commodified." Lynn echoes the sentiment: "I think I'll always write plays. Writing is such a sit-in-your-chair-by-yourself, and plays are -- especially the way we do them in the collective -- are the exact opposite of that. Let's argue this out, let's figure out what this means. So I'll always write plays; it's always got that sense of community, which is easy to miss being a writer."
Are these two playwrights missing out on fame and fortune in bigger but more hostile scenes? Lynn tells a harrowing tale of going martini-á-martini with New York writing scene old boy Gordon Lish and company. He ended up detoxing in a cab that a friend had to call for him. A brief letter defaming Lynn's ginful shortcomings arrived soon after; he might have been out of his league, but this is not Lynn's league. Austin provides far more stimulation and gratification, without the scene-making, drinking afficionadi. Bucci, too, finds himself disinclined towards any old boy sycophantry. "I want them to come to me," he says, adding that he senses an internal transformation. "The longer I stay in Texas, the more I'm like that, too. 'Come to me, buddy, come out to my shack. I've got my gun and my dog.'" And a typewriter with a hot new script.
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