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Essay

The American Voice: Not-Knowing

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Perhaps the world’s most obscure guru of actor training, Stella Burden is among some circles the most legendary. The details of her biography are hazy and too weird to be true, but we do know that after decades of teaching in the States she expatriated to South America to found an academy in the jungle. Save for an enigmatic manual for acting students and a catalog of physically hazardous exercises, we’re left with mere fragments of “the other Stella” (as she was known) and her version of “The Method,” which she called “The Approach.”

In 2008, the Rude Mechanicals, the shape-shifting ensemble company based in Austin, created a play about Stella. Written by Kirk Lynn, The Method Gun centers on a group of Burden’s followers a decade after she disappeared: student-disciples abandoned by their leader. For nine years, the group has meticulously, dutifully rehearsed a drastically abridged version of A Streetcar Named Desire (minus Blanche, Stanley, Stella and Mitch); but now the company is frayed and drifting, left practicing these unorthodox acting techniques without a guru. Accustomed to believing there’s a known path to greatness, the ensemble is cast into uncertainty about where they’re headed or what they’re even pursuing. “I have no idea how to act,” one character says. “I don’t mean on stage—although that becomes a bigger and bigger mystery every time I show up at the theater—I mean—I have no idea how to act in my life.” They had come to rely on Burden’s authority; like “The Method,” imparted by Adler (the more well-known Stella) “The Approach” presents itself as the one correct way. But it’s in her absence that the actors create something beautiful—a breathtaking, daredevil theatrical feat, performed at the end of the play, that they could only have made themselves.

In 2010, playwright Adam Szymkowicz interviewed Kirk Lynn:  “If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?” Kirk's response: “I am casting a magical spell over all true theatres to protect them from experts. The moment an expert enters a theatre, or the moment someone becomes an expert while inside a theatre, he or she will be transported to a classroom, or a lecture hall, or a marketing firm, or anywhere in the world where an expert is truly needed or desired. This magical spell will ensure that only novices, beginners, children, wild animals, lunatics, lovers, penitents, addicts, hobbyists and deeply dedicated artists can be in the theatre. The mystery is in exile in the presence of an expert. It’s only in the presence of a student that the mystery can reveal itself.” 

One can't take stock of Kirk’s playwriting without first pointing at his longtime collaboration with the Rude Mechs, where he's a founding company member, resident playwright, and one of six Co-Producing Artistic Directors. A company of about thirty committed actors, designers and directors who swap roles with each show, the Rude Mechs have since 1995 concocted an idiosycratic and ever-surprising roster of works, mostly written or adapted by Kirk Lynn, self-described as “a genre-defying cocktail of big ideas, cheap laughs, and dizzying spectacle.” Each of the 20-something original plays they've made defies categorization, employing a style and structure determined only by itself; though I'm not sure it's useful to find any thematic link among the company's works, what's immediately apparent is that each project seems born of a wide-eyed spirit of inquiry, of a curiosity that doggedly strives to stay untainted by cynicism. It's noteworthy that five of the seven paragraphs that make up their artistic directors' statement begin with the words “We are lucky.” It's also noteworthy that, more often than not, articles written about them tend to begin with questions: “What makes a genius?” (from a review of Requiem for Tesla, 2001); “What is an idiot?” (Pale Idiot, 1996); Have you ever been to one of those strange parties…? (Cherrywood, 2004); and “What is history?,” this last one from an article about Kirk's 2001 adaptation of Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, in which the author wrote the following sentence about punk rock, a sentence that to my mind also describes the Rudes' idealist-over-nihilist mindset: “The music came forth as a no that became a yes, then a no again, then again a yes: nothing is true except our conviction that the world we are asked to accept is false. If nothing was true, everything was possible.”

The situation of The Method Gun, in which an absent guru leaves a group of students searching for a path, strikes me as an entryway for Lynn's writing, not just his work with the Rude Mechs but the plays he's made on his own. How Much Is Enough? (2011) is built entirely out of questions posed by its performers about how we attempt to create lives of value.  Major Bang (2005) is a tightly-wound inquiry into our 21st century culture of fear. And in The Jinn (2005), a couple on the cusp of divorce is given a chance to see all the possibilities of how their lives might have otherwise unfolded. Each of these reflects a yearning for freedom from the assumptions we've unavoidably, inadvertently accumulated along the way towards being grown-ups, a longing to slough off the brush that keeps us from seeing with open eyes. The Animals (2011) centers around a couple who have decided to excise what's unnecessary in their lives, to rid themselves of the objects they don’t need and live freely like wild animals in their suburban home. “What about we just get rid of everything and start over?” Carlo barks. “I’m talking about starting over in my heart. … We’re living like robots. The alarm clock buzzes and we get up to flip the little switch on the coffee maker and dial in the perfect shower. But for who? Not for our bodies. We only take care of our bodies so they can push down the pedal in the car and punch the buttons on the keyboards where we work. … Marissa and I are gonna start our lives over. We’re gonna try to live right by what we think ‘right’ means.”

In Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, a couple creates a ritual to eradicate the hang-ups and shame they've amassed in their sexual histories; when, years later, some teenagers have entered the picture, they find themselves struggling to keep them from falling into the same traps. “Let's not kid ourselves,” Tony says to Bernie. “Your dad's not trying to protect your body from boys. He's trying to protect that (Tony pokes Bernie's forehead) from that (pokes Bernie's forehead again). Finding a way to escape isn't the deal for you. You need to find a way to stay.” In the landscape of Kirk's plays, the toughest knots are the ones we unwittingly, inevitably tie for ourselves when we rely on answers we've found in false places. In the cosmology of his plays, and in his process of making them, when we let go of what we think we know and stare into the face of what we don’t, we can expand to meet the possibilities opening in front of us.

Adam Greenfield
Director of New Play Development

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