March 27, 2010

The Method Gun by The Rude Mechanicals

Thomas Graves and  Jason Liebrecht in The Method Gun.
Two weeks ago, in one of my classes, a professor asked us to remember a transformative theatre experience -- a play we had seen as an audience member that changed the way we thought about theatre forever. I could see the students around me all nodding, returning to an experience somewhere in their imaginations.

But I had nothing. I love theatre. But the bulk of my experience in the theatre is as a practitioner. I have directed and acted in more plays that I have seen. I was already aware of this problem. Since I've come to Baylor the faculty and I have frequently identified "production literacy" as a deficiency of mine. But in that class room, as everyone was transported to a transcendent theatrical experience, I felt like a fraud. I've dedicated the bulk of my remaining hours on this planet to the pursuit of theatrical excellence and I've never been brought into the Holy of Holies.  I felt like a member of the clergy who had never experienced the grace of God.

Yesterday, I experienced that grace.

While at the Humana Festival I had the opportunity to see The Method Gun by the Rude Mechanicals.  The group is based in Austin, TX and they are committed to highly collaborative, visually innovative theatrical pieces.  This was my first exposure to their work.

The Method Gun is an exploration of an acting company in the 70's whose acting guru, Stella Burden, has disappeared to the jungles of South America.  The group, deeply connected to one another by the perilously personal philosophies and exercises of their teacher, forge on, like Christ's disciples, trying to retain and embody the teachings of their prophet.  The group, as the story goes, continues to develop their teacher's last project -- a reimagining of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire that omits all the major characters of the play.  Their rehearsals last nine years and they perform the play only once.

The five members of the Rude Mechs address the audience directly and explain that the play will be a documentary-style accounting of Burden's company after the loss of their guru.  What follows is a pastiche of four different types of scenes: 1) depictions of the historical group's rehearsal moments and exercises, 2) scenes from their play, Streetcar minus Stanley, Blanche, Stella, or Mitch, 3) narration by the actors of The Rude Mechanicals--often explaining how their research of Burden's group was conducted, and 4) scenes where a tiger in dress pants compellingly makes the case for more tigers in American theatre. 
A tiger addresses the audience in The Method Gun.

Despite the high concept, the play is supremely accessible and compelling.  The first "act" is an affectionate send-up of the experimental acting companies that sprouted up in American theatre in the 60's and 70's.  Theatre insiders will spot exaggerations of the acting exercises they've been forced to endure, but even those who've never taken an acting class will be able to enjoy the earnest psycho-torture the actors are convinced they must inflict upon themselves in the name of truth.  And yet, the ridicule is loving, even sympathetic.  For example, early in the show, there is a depiction of a rehearsal moment that's called to order by one actress grabbing an egg timer and calling out "Crying Practice!" The actors move to their assigned spots on stage and while faced out to the audience, they work themselves into genuine tears.  Let me be clear, the goal of the exercise  is not pretending to cry, but to earnestly wrench tears from their psyches. As an audience member, I was initially amused by the silliness of the endeavor.  It recalled the story of acting lore where Dustin Hoffman recounts to Laurence Olivier his long sleepless night in the service of the scene they'll be filming that day.  Olivier, as the story goes, suggests "You should try acting, Dusty, it's much easier."  That story, like the first act of The Method Gun illustrates the earnest, but misguided, devotion of many American actors to find Truth in their own performances.  But it was larger than that too. As the five-minute(!) crying exercise continued and real tears started streaming down the faces of the actors playing actors I began to dissect the souls of the actors onstage and the actors being depicted.  I try to guess what emotional experiences they were recalling, or what horrible scenarios they were imagining that could generate tears on demand.  Initially, I found myself judging them for their success. Their lives must be so sad if they are so quickly able to induce tears.  But then, my mind turned to what pain I've seen or what events I might experience that would make me cry.  It was not hard.  There were so many loci of pain within my own soul, I wondered for a moment how I'm not on the edge of tears every every minute. Their Crying Practice was mine as well.

From there, the play grows and swells in its theatricality and its thematic territory in a tightly choreographed depiction of nine years in the lives of five people trying to be true to selves they've never known. The play is about the latent identity issues of the teacher-student relationship and about the obstacles to self-aware efforts at authenticity.  It is about creating history out of disparate and unreliable memories and its about the soul-withering realization that those things we dream most of accomplishing and becoming will be forever elusive.  It's about the tail-chasing madness that is standard issue in the pursuit of truth and/or beauty in one's art and one's life.

The climactic scene of The Method Gun is one that I refuse to describe.  For one, because I don't want to start crying as I type this here in Panera.  But secondly, I could never do justice to its beauty or its truth.  Suffice to say, it is surprising and dangerous and sublime.

It is here I wish to thank the Rude Mechanicals for their act of service.  There is no other way to describe what they've done.  The production is clearly the result of the kind of hard that only love can inspire. On March 26th, the Rude Mechs gave me my first transcendent theatrical experience as an audience member.  That's grace.  And for that they have my sincerest gratitude.

If you can... see this show.  This link has info about future performance locations and dates:


JayWittay said...

Maybe I'm a bit young to be giving you philosophical advice, but here goes:

I'm incredibly glad you had this transcendent experience. It must be transformative and inspiring. But I don't think you should have beaten yourself up about not having one before this. Maybe you were at fault for not exposing yourself to enough theatre, maybe you weren't. In any case, I don't think you should blame yourself for not finding that sublime moment of connection. All you can do is try. It's really a joint effort between the theatre artists and the audience. Keep going till you find something that touches you deeply, sure, but keep in mind that it's not entirely up to you to make it happen.

DAN BUCK said...

I didn't beat myself up about it. I just wanted that kind of experience.

Anonymous said...

Dan, thanks for being vulnerable about your experience. I've been in theatre for 25 years consistently, and the sublime has hit me only 3 memorable times. Once when performing Tom in "The Glass Menagerie", once when I saw David Suchet in Amadeus on Broadway. And finally while watching "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" at the Public Theatre in NYC. There were lots of "ooos" and "ahs" in between but little communion. I've actually become cynical of people who seem to claim that emotion every time they see a show. But, who am I to judge.