By JOAN ANDERMAN
Published: February 22, 2011
IT began, as actors’ stories often do, with a guru. Her name was Stella Burden, a k a “the other Stella.” Ms. Burden created a risky suite of training exercises called the Approach, attracted a fervent band of followers and abandoned them nine years into rehearsals for a high-concept production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” to be performed without Stanley, Blanche, Stella or Mitch.
What in the name of madcap Method acting is a company member to do?
That’s the absurdly literal and keenly figurative question at the heart of “The Method Gun,” a play about the creative process by the Austin, Tex., ensemble Rude Mechs, which since it was founded in 1995 has become one of the nation’s leading proponents of devised theater: works developed collaboratively by a company rather than an individual playwright.
“The Method Gun,” which comes to Dance Theater Workshop from March 2 to 11, is the most autobiographical of the company’s pieces. It’s satirical and celebratory in roughly equal parts, exploring ideas of togetherness and loss, the dynamics of being part of a tight-knit group and what it means to take care of one another.
While the show’s premise nods to celebrated acting teachers like Stella Adler and to extreme, emotion-based techniques like the Method, specifics are left aside in favor of merciless riffs on codified approaches to art. But the Rude Mechs’ wicked sense of humor tempers a sincere streak that the company wears like a badge of honor.
“Humor leavens the cringe-worthy part of being totally earnest,” said Kirk Lynn, who wrote the script. “It makes a little space for us to speak our desires or, God forbid, our message.”
Themes of community bubble up in many of the Rude Mechs’ shows, including the current work in progress, a musical exploration of the American West called “I’ve Never Been So Happy.” It is a big moment for the company, which received one of only five inaugural grants from the National Endowment for the Arts’ New Play Development Program.
Last month the company presented a concert staging of “I’ve Never Been So Happy” at Arena Stage, in Washington, which is administering the Endowment program. “One of the things that’s so disarming about them is how much they are themselves,” said the Arena Stage associate artistic director David Dower of the members of Rude Mechs. “It’s challenging, not so much for them but for East Coast audiences, which are much more used to irony.”
The company’s unstructured methods place it alongside the New York contemporaries Radiohole, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and National Theater of the United States of America. Six of the Rude Mechs’ seven founding co-producing artistic directors , or co-pads, shared (or, as they put it, survived) a common guru in the late 1980s and early 90s. The University of Texas professor emeritus James Ayres ran the school’s demanding and rigorously communal Shakespeare at Winedale course, a nine-week play-performance program 75 miles from Austin.
“I’m not going to say that Winedale is a cult,” said Shawn Sides, who directed “The Method Gun.” “But we were isolated, there was sleep deprivation and a charismatic leader.”
The Rude Mechs’ 1996 debut was staged with cardboard sets and clip lamps in a rented hall. Three years later they landed the lease on 10,000 square feet of cinderblock and tin in east Austin, dubbed it the Off Center and christened the space with an unlikely adaptation: “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century,” based on rock journalist Greil Marcus‘s mind-bending, plot-free ode to fringe cultural movements. It toured internationally, and blew Mr. Marcus away.
“There was an energy, a flair, a looseness, a daring in their play that I felt I was always reaching for,” Mr. Marcus said in an interview. “For me their production was the completion of the book.”
“The Method Gun” was the Rude Mechs’ first play to receive significant development support, including grants from the Creative Capital Foundation and the MAP Fund. It was hatched at the Orchard Project, a theater retreat in the Catskills where company members began to build the Stella Burden myth and formulate the fictional Approach. In one series of workshops members masterminded their own training methods and put their colleagues through the paces. It was intense.
“At some point one of us just sort of had a tantrum and screamed and got up and left the room,” Ms. Sides recalled. ”We were all pretty sure it was a put-on, but we were 20 percent worried that she was going to quit the company.“
It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. “The collective remains tenuous,” Mr. Lynn said.
The idea for “The Method Gun” stretches back to 2005, when after receiving numerous invitations to teach master classes on the company’s process the co-pads realized they didn’t have a process. Soul searching ensued around notions of structure, self-transformation and what on earth it is that actors do. “I feel like this show is, in a lot of ways, as silly as some of the moments are, pretty naked,” Ms. Sides said. (In one scene some of the actors are thoroughly naked, if you don’t count the balloons tied to the men’s penises.)
Because the Rude Mechs operate as a consensus democracy, with forays into a sort of ardent autocracy, there is no hierarchy, no decider. A reporter is instructed to e-mail the co-pads en masse; a response from one is accompanied by an invitation to the others to confirm or deny. Asked to explain how they make choices, one of the co-pads, Lana Lesley, said, “Sometimes there’s a particular person who’s particularly passionate about a particular thing.”
That’s an arduous way to create, and a rarity, even in experimental theater.
“It’s very, very tricky,” said Anne Bogart, the artistic director of the SITI company in New York and, as co-developer of another performance-training technique, called Viewpoints, something of an expert. Rude Mechs has close ties with SITI, having trained and worked with that company over the years.
“My company is very collaborative, but there has to be, I think, a leader,” said Ms. Bogart. ”Somebody has to say, ‘We’re going over here.’ What Rude Mechs manage to do is nothing short of remarkable.”
The secret to the Rude Mechs’ success? Amnesia. “Putting on a play is hell. But once we get the production up, we forget about how hard it was on all of us to do it and how hard we were on each other,” Ms. Lesley said.
The payoff erases the memory of pain, a version of transcendence that “The Method Gun” captures in its penultimate scene.
Think of Indiana Jones dodging boulders and knives. Onstage. While performing a classic.