Yippee-ki-ay! The West is about to get even wilder with the arrival of the Texans who make up the Rude Mechs, the experimental theater company whose latest creation I’ve Never Been So Happy will begin performances this Thursday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Continuing their relationship with the Center Theatre Group (audiences may recall their production of The Method Gun at the Douglas during the Radar L.A. festival in June), the “Rudes” are blazing new frontiers with their first bona fide musical — that is, if a “musical” is what you’d call it.
Otherwise called a “transmedia hootenanny,” I’ve Never Been So Happy, written by Kirk Lynn, centers around two star-crossed lovers in the wild wild West who, along with the help of some talking dachshunds (it’s true), must fight to stay together despite the efforts of their parents, a mountain lion, and whole slew of colorful characters. Composer Peter Stopschinski’s score ranges everywhere from down-home country, to ballads, heavy metal, opera and R&B. During the extended intermission, there is a shindig, which is described as a “interactive carnivalesque performance party.”
From the sound of it, one might think that this production intends to break free of musical theater conventions, but for co-director Lana Lesley, it’s more about reinterpreting the musical than redefining it. “I’m interested to know if this show is really all that different from the typical musical. What it is to us is our best version of a musical. It’s not something that our company has really ever done before. We’ve certainly had live music and dance inside our plays, but we’ve never done a full-blown musical. I think that we’re well-schooled in what the musical is in the world, but in terms of our own aesthetic and how we operate inside of the convention, it’s fun for us to take a real run at it.
“The music is unconventional and the story is really concise, which leaves a lot of room for the visual elements and choreography, but I think it’s really dangerous to say that we’re ‘breaking the mold of musical theater’. We’re just trying to do it the best we know how. But I don’t know. Kirk was just saying the other day, ‘Guys, we forget how weird our play actually is’. Because we’ve been with it for so long, I’ve really lost perspective on what audiences take away from it and how they feel when they’re watching it.”
Who are the Rude Mechs and what exactly is this aesthetic that they bring to each of their shows? For the company members, the Rude Mechs’ trademark is found more in the method of creating than the madness that ensues. The Rude Mechs (short for Rude Mechanicals) was founded in 1995 in Austin by seven artistic directors, including Lesley. “We all met each other through various ways in undergrad at the University of Texas. We had all done this program called Shakespeare at Winedale, which was a program in the English department that taught you Shakespeare through performance. That introduced us to this idea of a more flat structure.
“Then everyone went off to grad school or to different coasts to work for awhile, then we came back in 1995 and realized that we wanted to start our own company so we could continue to work in that flat way and move laterally from acting to designing to directing, whatever worked best with each play. We started the company as a collective. There were seven artistic directors — five of them are still with the company 16 years later. Over the years, our structure has managed to stay relatively flat.
“Obviously there’s some hierarchy, because there’s six artistic directors and 24 company members, but when we work in the room we try to be as collaborative as possible and invite all of the voices. We still take on specialized roles; for example, someone will write the piece and someone will direct it, because of course we still need to have an editor and an outside eye. The playwright and the directors work very closely in concert with the performers throughout the entire process. We really believe that it’s best to have as many heads as possible, and we’ve really tried to stay with that over the years.”
For the actors playing the leading roles, company members E. Jason Liebrecht and Meg Sullivan, it’s that flattened structure and collaborative process that makes the Rude Mechs what they are, rather than sticking to one particular vision or style. “Our work is so varied from piece to piece that it would be difficult to pin down what our ‘style’ is,” explains Liebrecht. “It’s work that is devised by an ensemble. Everybody in the room has a voice, including designers and writers — whoever happens to be working on the project. The great thing about this is that we’ve all agreed to do this for as long as we’re having fun — and as long as we don’t run out of money — so we’ll keep going.”
“I would say that one of the things that draws me to the Rudes and what we do is how everything is new,” says Sullivan. “We make new work and the work that we make is really physical, inter-textual, lots of multimedia, and it’s really experimental. We value each other’s voices really highly in the room, which is another reason why I love working with them. It’s a collective and collaborative experience, and it has been since the first day that I’ve been a part of it. There’s a real sense of purpose and non-hierarchy in art making. Everybody’s brain and imagination are equally valued and ideas are tried out and experimented and played with. Some ideas fail and some are totally fantastic. It’s just about the practice of real collaboration, which is trying what we have to offer and playing until we figure out what’s going to work the best. I think that’s what makes it so fun. We also really love each other a lot. There’s this sense of family and mutual respect.”
When asked to describe the particular artistic style of the Rude Mechs, Lesley laughs, because it is a question that many find difficult to answer. “It frustrates our manager a whole lot when discussing it, because we’re not pursuing one singular vision with every play. We really let the project dictate a lot. I think that the through lines for us are that we have a good sense of humor, and we very much don’t like to take ourselves too seriously. But we are heady and a little bookish. We’re also in the room with the audience. We rarely ever drop a fourth wall down and recede backwards into a fiction, to the point where we expose the actual room itself and don’t try to hide the pin rails. We really love to use the architecture of whatever room we’re in as much as possible. Overall, however, we are very different from play to play. For instance, The Method Gun could not be more different from this one, and I don’t know that if you saw both plays you would know — other than recognizing some of the same performers — that the same company did both.”
Despite the large ensemble and collective voices involved in the project, everyone connected to the production is quick to proclaim that this show is first and foremost the vision of its creators, Lynn and Stopschinski. For Lesley, this entire project is grounded on that creative partnership.
“Kirk Lynn and Peter Stopschinski worked together on a project called El Paraiso, and they enjoyed working with each other so much that they wanted to start a side project together, so they began working on I’ve Never Been So Happy. They asked me if I wanted to be a part of it back in 1997, so I started helping them put on concert readings of it. So we started putting on readings of it and workshopping it, and then I actually became the formal director. When we decided to do a formal production of it, CTG got on board, and the piece started to take on a life of its own. But it really just started from us trying to facilitate what we think is a really exciting partnership between Kirk and Peter.”
For the actors, Stopschinski’s score is a particularly exciting prospect. “Peter’s a musician of some renown known locally in Austin,” explains Liebrecht, “but lately he’s become more known as a composer, and he is a mad genius in my opinion. He’s got a pretty interesting musical aesthetic, and it definitely can be felt in the songs of this show. Stylistically, it ranges from hard rock to soundscapes all the way through country western. It’s pretty eclectic. And Peter collaborates with us as well. And he lets us use our own unique voices. We’re actor-singers, so he’s definitely open to you making songs your own.”
According to Sullivan, Lynn’s script is as novel and compelling as the score. “The text that Kirk Lynn has written is such a beautiful, simple story. There’s some real traditional wild Western scenes, but those scenes are experimented and played with. Gender is played with. We take the typical Western story and we explode it in a lot of fun ways.
“Ultimately I think it’s about how we’re all connected to each other — everybody on that stage and everybody in the audience. There’s a song about how everything is tied to each other, and for me, that really is what the play has become about — this idea of being tied to each other in both good ways and bad ways and being tied to the possibilities of our future because of the mistakes of our past. In those moments of live performance, we all have these invisible ropes connecting us to each other and the music really helps make that happen. We have a lot of fun, I can tell you that!”
In keeping with this theme of connectivity and that physical presence of the Rudes, there is the intermission “shindig” — “this sort of interactive dramaturgy to the show,” Sullivan explains, “and the collaborative spirit of the show has really carried over into this event. We all contributed to every element of the shindig. For example, I was in charge of the clothes horse, and I bought all of the clothes and was sort of the curator for that project. The other cast members were curators for the different booths.”
From a directorial standpoint, the shindig offered both Lesley and her co-director Thomas Graves the opportunity to expand the show both in terms of content and creativity. “The shindig originally started as part of the artistic process for us,” Lesley says. “When we collaborate with the whole company, we have a lot of lab nights where people are invited to help generate work towards the play itself. Our plays are very edited and short, so a lot of that work ends up getting thrown out. We were looking for a way to keep some of that material and have it be a part of the life of the play itself.
“Thomas and I, as directors, haven’t had as much of a hand in this play as we normally would, since this is very much Peter and Kirk’s baby, so we were looking for another way in to have an influence on the piece and bring in other artists without messing with the very tight musical structure that they were creating. So we decided that we would have that work generated and let it be more of an audience-interactive experience, so that all of the artists that we wanted to have involved on the project, but didn’t have room for in the actual play itself, had a chance to express their feelings about the West and about parenting, dachshunds, land development, power structure, gender identity. The play is really broad in that sense — when you’re talking about ‘the West’ you can really dive into it from a lot of different angles. So we wanted to bring in a bunch of artists from around Austin to create around those ideas for the show.”
Fourth-wall breakdowns, talking dachshunds, and multi-genre scores aside, the fundamental theatrical elements still apply. The Rude Mechs are just doing it their own way. “I just really hope that everybody has an excellent night at the theater,” says Liebrecht. “It’s not your typical musical or your typical play. It’s pretty goofy, but it’s also very heartfelt and it breaks a tear. It’s something that I think could appeal to a broad range of ages and demographics. It’s not typical of our pieces, but I guess none of our pieces is really typical. I’ve often said it’s our most approachable piece, in a way. You don’t have to think very hard. You might have to try to figure it out, because in the beginning you might be like ‘Wait, what? They’re dogs?’ There’s some weird stuff that the audience is going to have to make a jump with, but as long as you’re on board and you’re willing to take the ride, it’s a fun ride!”
I’ve Never Been So Happy, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Previews Fri-Sat 8 pm. Opens Sunday Oct 9, 7 pm. Plays Thur-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm, through Oct 23. 213-628-2772. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
***All I’ve Never Been So Happy production photos by Bret Brookshire