This past spring our friends the Rude Mechs were forced to leave their longtime venue, the Off Center, which was home to their collective, along with many members of Austin’s artistic community for the past eighteen years. Anna Gallagher-Ross talked to members Lana Lesley, Kirk Lynn, Shawn Sides, and Alexandra Bassett about mourning the loss of this space, how they’re making work happen now, and the ramifications of these losses for the Austin arts community moving forward.
Anna Gallagher-Ross: Your 2017-18 season crushAustin consists of ten events taking place in ten locations over ten months and views the “city as a collective and collaborative structure.” Could you tell us how this idea came about?
Lana Lesley: crushAustin is a reaction to losing our space. Rather than creating a crying baby donation poster, we wanted to put a happy baby donation poster out in the world. We said to ourselves, “Since we don’t have anywhere to do our work, let’s do it everywhere. Let’s make a point to the city by presenting work in every single city council district.” The idea of the city as a collective and collaborative structure came out of a manifesto we wrote just before crushAustin. We were trying to figure out how to celebrate our twenty years as a collective and were thinking about how unlikely our 20 year run has been considered by everybody, except us. I think Kirk actually came up with the language around the city as a collective and as a collaborator. We were thinking of the city as an extension of us. We knew we were losing our space so we thought, let’s just expand out even further and bring the city into what we are, so that in future the city might take better care of us. Right, Kirk?
Kirk Lynn: Yeah. I think it’s typical of many artists and performers to make a virtue out of necessity and say “We only have this much time or this much money.” Our brains are trained to think creatively. So instead of giving up or throwing in the towel we thought “OK, because we don’t have a home that means we can be free to be everywhere.” And I think there is a lot of, I hope, impishness and threat in that idea. The other side of crushAustin is to smash the notion that Austin is just a “lifestyle city.” I think there’s an impish notion that we are now airborne and viral: if you used to be able to avoid the Off Center so you wouldn’t see the Rude Mechs, too bad because now we’re coming to your neighborhood. We talk a lot about performance as a time-based art but it also takes place in space, and while we can do performances in each other’s garages or living rooms, there are still the demands of generosity. If we want more people to be able to access our work, we need a certain kind of space. Losing space has had an impact on your ability to be generous in certain ways.
AGR: Has losing your space gained you new audiences in this process?
Shawn Sides: It’s too early to tell…
LL: I’m going to say no to that no matter what because that’s the spin everyone would hope for; everyone who didn’t help out, everybody who isn’t trying to find a solution. We’ve only had three months of the crushAustin season so far—we did one performance at a private home in district ten for about 30 people; our second one was this past weekend at the Carousel Lounge for about 30-50 people and the third was for 30 people in district one at the Sahara Lounge. Aside from two larger main stage productions, where we can present work dictates how many people can be a part of it, and that’s what is limiting. We can’t be as generous if generosity is measured by how wide our doors can open. If we can only let 30 people in at a time, that doesn’t feel very generous. In terms of straight up capitalism—something that everybody can understand—if you can sell a hundred tickets, you can sell them all for cheaper, but when you only have small audiences, the financial burden on audiences is different. We saw this coming and so this year we did a Kickstarter campaign to support these monthly events and make them free wherever we can. We raised fourteen grand so that these performances could be free; the workshop in September was free; Thomas’s show Gin & Tonix in November will be very, very cheap, if not free. All of the things we can make free, we will make free.
KL: I think the thing we haven’t quite reckoned with yet, that to me will have the greatest impact, is that the Off Center was really a clubhouse where we allowed ourselves to do anything. We shot off a Tesla coil; there were nights when we dipped arrows in kerosene and tried to shoot them at flash paper to create a certain effect; we tied balloons to our dicks and wandered around and threw darts at them! These aren’t things we can do at UT if they want to share space with us, these aren’t things we can do at a new theater that somebody builds with us. What we’ve lost is a laboratory and artist studio where we can try out things, some of which become magical moments. Like with Method Gun, which has a lovely relationship to the American theatre, with these giant swinging pendulums, and some of them don’t ever go anywhere. But having a space, a laboratory where we can experiment, we just don’t have that and I wonder when we are going to have that again. And god, when somebody emails you and says “Hey, I don’t have a space. Can you help?” Just the ability to say yes! We get those emails all the time and we used to be able to just look at the calendar real quick and jam people in and that flexibility has really changed too…We are still sharing our space but it’s not fully our space when we’re renting it, there’s a level of bureaucracy now, we have to run everything by security.
LL: And people need performance space! We’re able to give them rehearsal space, and storage space, and office space, and meeting space, but the one thing everybody really needs is performance space and we’ve done our best to make what we can happen happen, but this city is fucked for performance space.
KL: It’s interesting the kinds of space that you need. Even in a world where more and more virtual space offers you different kinds of connections, there’s no virtual space where you can shoot a flaming arrow and find out if it works or not. We need actual, shitty space.
SS: Ya. The shittier the better.
KL: It is literally immeasurable when you think about the theatre companies that are not going get started or are not going to get founded because of the impact of rent or because of the lack of these spaces. We feel really fed by all the new people founding collectives and companies and communes and making weird, shitty work like Frank Wo/Men Collective. And it’s hard to quantify this loss of creativity because you can’t quantify something you don’t see or miss something you don’t know. But I do think the culture of the city changes when there are fewer punk bands and fewer young collectives and fewer weird dance groups.
LL: And this goes right to what we’ve been talking about for years. I think it was our answer to Richard Florida: the idea of the ecosystem. Austin depends on these giant music and film festivals to run its tourism industry and we feed all of those industries and we get fed by these new groups, but these new groups can’t stay here because there’s nowhere to work and nowhere that’s affordable to live, so they move away and we’re left being the last people standing. And there’s no certainty we can stay.
LL: We talk about these young groups as though we’re not in the exact same situation that they are. Some of us have outside jobs and things that plant us here but some of us don’t, some of us are like “shit this is expensive and I can’t afford it.”
AGR: A lot of your recent work has been portable. I’m thinking of Replacement Tapes, which provides audiences with a mail order cassette-play which they can listen to and perform in their living room and Grageriart, a musical exploration of the Ikea catalogue. Is this work shaped directly by these conditions?
LL: Yeah, we picked work that fits the portable platform.
KL: These pieces that are so portable and don’t need a theatre because we don’t have a theatre. All Grageriart needed was a stage and so we picked a music venue. Music venues are something the city will still have for a while. I thought it was magical to be in the Carousel Lounge because I hadn’t been in it in a decade and I thought to myself, “My god this place is beautiful.” I was glad to be in there again before they turn it into a condo.
LL: This year these monthly events were selected because they can fit in a tiny space and be performed once or twice. I don’t know how we are going to do our bigger plays Fixing Troilus and Cressida and Christmas Karaoke. Those plays are going to be shaped by the spaces that get picked for them and I think it’s a fifty-fifty split: we’ll try to find a place that works for our vision but as always, the vision, as it always does with our work, will change based on the space that will accommodate that work.
SS: Alex and I were just meeting about trying to figure out where to do Fixing Troilus and Cressida and in our meeting we just stared at each other for a while. You know, we started out as an itinerant company, we had three or four years where we were making plays and didn’t have a space. But back then there used to be more places to go and rent. So now we are thinking about our good friend and company member Jose, he’s a location scout manager for film, and we are going to go to him and say “Hey find us something, somewhere!” That’s our one lead…a guy that looks for spaces for a living.
KL: I’m afraid the answer is moving to Philadelphia.
KL/LL/SS: I know, right?
AGR: You are actually leaving Austin soon, right? To the Yale Rep?
LL: Yes, Yale Rep put one of our plays, Field Guide, in their season. We were there earlier this summer and in January, February, we’ll be back there working on it.
KL: And this summer we were also at the Guthrie. Yale gave us time to experiment and make and test things out and the Guthrie did as well, so some of our national producing friends and partners are helping us out with space, which is nice. We could definitely use more of that. I think it really helps the company as a whole, gets us away from the office and the day-to-day shit, gives us temporal and physical distance from the things that are not the art.
AGR: Is it unfortunate to have to leave Austin to find space?
LL: No, it’s not unfortunate, its normal. And when it’s a good time for everybody, there’s something about the collectivity of getting away too, just for everyone to be in a space together. It’s not just sloughing off the day-to-day stuff, which is super important but also being in a space together in a real hippy commune way; getting to live, breath, drink, and party the art for seven days and see if we can make a thing. It makes a different kind of work, I think, then going home at the end of each work day and having to spend the first part of the next day finding your creative self. It’s totally different.
KL: I remember when we were at Orchard Projects with Method Gun we were with each other and fighting and making work and trying things and then fighting some more and there was some wine-based bonfire fight and Thomas wandered off …. You could rehearse in the middle of the night and that only happened because it was 24-hours a day Method Gun.
AGR: That sounds amazing. Is there anything else that’s on your minds that you’d like to talk about? Anyone want to have the last word?
KL: Tangential to this conversation, I had lunch with an ex-student yesterday, great playwright named Lydia Blaisdell. She’s also a tape play-maker; we’re doing a Rude Fusion with her called Bear Eats Bear. And when we met she was expressing how much she loved the Minneapolis Fringe. And this made me think: we long for the Guthrie or we long for Yale, we want to be at these theatres or we want X amount of money but there is something to just remembering, and I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a Pollyanna, but there’s a benefit to not being a subscription-based theatre. This is not the end of Rude Mechs, this is just another reinvention. We were born as little fringe weirdo’s and theatre makers and we can’t be killed in this way. This is all hard and shitty, but our subscription season is not damaged. If this happened to the Guthrie, with their giant space, they’d just disappear. It’s nice to be adaptable. If I have to choose between seeing a weirdo experiment and a mainstream show, I’m gonna see that weird experiment. I do think when we look around, over the past twenty years since we started, a lot of people who lost their spaces just disappeared. There were these theaters that were so closely related to their space, and so when they lost their space, they just stopped existing. And we do need to mourn those lost spaces. Austin is poorer for not having those spaces. But back when we started, there was a moment where we thought about being a more norm-ified regional theatre. And we can’t be a subscription, regional theatre, that’s just not us.
SS: Thank god. Can you imagine? “This season… we don’t know what we are doing in the spring and then…look out for AN EXPERIMENT in the fall….”
LL: “And for our next play… it will be in space. At a time. Marketing done!”
KL: Well, I tried.
AGR: It was a valiant effort!
SS: I think it was successful.
Don't miss the next Rude Mechs CRUSHAustin event Doves CrEye Ball in District 3 on October 28, 2017, at Springdale Station. Click here for tickets and more info.