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Interview

Artist Interview with Kirk Lynn

Adam Greenfield: Where do you hail from? 

Kirk Lynn: I hail from Texas. I was born in San Antonio, and I’ve really spent most of my life in Texas. I went to school at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin, and in Austin at that time there was this huge performance explosion, everybody was making plays in bars and bank lobbies and abandoned warehouses, and the big grocery store in Austin would let people do plays down in their basement. 

Is that where you met the Rude Mechanicals? At UT Austin?  

Yes. In undergrad at UT, I had this sort of foundational experience. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I was doing the good work of sending things away and getting rejection slips, but I felt really lonely. I was in this little one room apartment at college, and I honestly had the thought of, like, “Man, if I wrote plays, I’d have friends, and that’d be great.” And so I wrote a play and I had friends come over to read it, and it worked, I guess. I was like, “I guess theater is where I should be.” And so I wanted to learn how to do everything in theater, to understand it. 

There was a program at UT called Shakespeare at Winedale, where you go out over the summer to the middle of Texas, nowhere Texas, and you perform Shakespeare in the woods. But you do your own lights and costumes and set and, you know, build props, do all that sort of stuff. It was a great crash course. And in one production I was the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, and Lana Lesley, who’s also one of the founding members of Rude Mechanicals, was Hamlet, and Madge Darlington was Horatio. So three of the Rude Mechs met doing Shakespeare. We thought we were gonna be a Shakespeare company first. 

Right. Which of course explains why you called yourself the Rude Mechs… 

...Yeah, the name, the Rude Mechanicals, from Midsummer. They have day jobs, cleaning out shit from the Athenian stalls, and at night they’d meet in the forest to do plays. And that was very much what we thought we’d do always.  

You mentioned you already knew you wanted to be a writer when you were going into undergrad. What was the first kind of writing you did, and who were the writers that made you want to be a writer? 

I think for a lot of young men, it’s Kerouac, Bukowski—sort of, poetry written on bad wine—a little bit like those guys in Annie Baker’s play The Aliens. “I’m gonna be free, baby, spill my heart out....” I read On The Road every year for years.  I used to think it was this joyous celebration, and then suddenly one year I read it and I thought, “This is the saddest book ever. These people are so fucked up.” And I haven’t read it since. But, I mean, I think still in a weird way, it’s sort of in the vein of On The Road. I’ve really found that a lot of the literature I like, there are people out walking somewhere, or going somewhere: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jim Crace’s Pesthouse, Lonesome Dove. In a weird way, I think they’re related to Reggie of Kama Sutra: people who find themselves sort of verbally wrestling with their own sense of how to behave in the world. And who’re just sort of spasmodic in some ways. 

So the Rude Mechanicals was forming. What was the first step? 

So, there was gonna be a Shakespeare company that I was not gonna be a part of, that was gonna be men and women. But the men rigged the vote because they didn’t like the name that the women liked, and the women found out, and split from the men and formed the Rude Mechs. And then sort of by happenstance I had written this play called Pale Idiot that Sarah Richardson, one of the founders, had read, and was like, “This is a really great play. We should do it.” And so it somehow became that I was gonna be a Rude Mech, and that, instead of doing Shakespeare as their first production, they were gonna do this play. And then it sort of snowballed from there. 

One thing we knew was that we wanted a sort of alternative structure; we didn’t want a single leader. I mean, just being a feminist company—it was myself and six women that started it, and the ethos of Second Wave feminism sort of ran throughout the early days of the Rude Mechs. We read all these books about how you could structure an organization that was non-hierarchical, and so we came up with the notion of being a collective. It’s actually quite complicated to establish yourself as a 501(c)(3), as a non-profit, if you don’t have hierarchy. But I think it serves us well to this day, the idea that we make all our decisions by consensus. And consensus for us means that everybody sort of agrees, and you can have one person outside of it, but at any point anyone can put up a moral block and stop things. 

A moral block? 

We only had one in the history of Rude Mechanicals. It was about the color we were going to paint the building. 

What was the moral objection? 

I mean, I think the moral grounds were just that it was ugly! We’re a theater company, it’s aesthetic! It was one of our worst fights. Is it really about painting the building, or is it about everything else in the world? The funny part was that we had volunteers out there, already starting to paint, and we’re in the office just like bickering at each other, and then we had to go out and stop them and send them all home. Which is a funny story, but really I think 99% of the decisions we make are more efficient than any sort of hierarchy. We work really well together, really efficiently. 

It’s clear in the fact that you guys have stayed together for so long. You guys have been together for—

Nineteen years. 

So when you started, it was around 95

We came to New York for a few years, I think around ’93. And we did a play here in St. Mark’s Studio Theater, which I think is now a tattoo parlor? Like, right at St. Mark’s and A? And it was great, but to self-produce in New York, it cost us all of our money, like, everything we had in the world, and we thought, “If we go to Austin, we can learn to make theater and then come back to New York.” And it worked out great that way. So we moved back to Austin. And lord knows what the future holds for me, and I don’t know that I wouldn’t ever live anywhere else, but I feel like Austin is very much home.

And that time was, like, right at the height of the Regional Alternative Theater movement, right?  The R.A.T. movement. Which was, mostly it was centered in Austin and Seattle.

It was. And I think we were really feeling that in Austin, that suddenly plays were getting done everywhere. A bunch of new small theaters, like Savage Vanguard and Frontera@Hyde Park. And suddenly we were getting raised on, you know, Ruth Margraff and Daniel Alexander Jones. And Lisa D’Amour was doing work in Austin, and Dan Dietz... These great playwrights were doing this very fringe-y, and wild, and I would say almost, like, modernist theater. Very language-driven, very dense language. And we were thrilled with it. I think the Rude Mechs had a more populist, slapstick-y, goofy sort of angle, but we very much wanted to be in conversation with what was happening in Austin at that time. 

You guys were initially going to create a Shakespeare company. Was the fact that all this R.A.T. activity was happening around you in Austin a contributing factor to what you ultimately started to do instead?

Absolutely. I think Austin sort of made us, and all the things we were being fed, we spit back out. Shawn [Sides] was at NYU and came back to Austin to be part of the company, and she essentially brought downtown theater and injected it into us, and that gave us that sort of angle on the conversation. So while we were mostly populist, we were also much more interested in non-traditional narrative, you know, Wooster Group-y sort of stuff, SITI Company sort of stuff. She had been infused with [Richard] Schechner and Anne Bogart, and Liz LeCompte, and was sort of feeding that into the company, which wasn’t really a part of the Austin ethos at the time. 

One of the phrases from the R.A.T. conversation that became really meaningful to me, and it continues to be, is the notion of “Big Cheap Theater.” I think Erik Ehn coined that phrase. And that just seems to me so very much the Rude Mechanicals. Even your show Stop Hitting Yourself [recently at LCT3] is about opulence and excess, but it still looked like it was intentionally made from cardboard and paint.

Yeah, which we always want to do. Even when we get fancy stuff, we’re always like—There will be like a cord hanging down, or there’ll be a set piece that’s all floppy, and I’m like, “I love that! Do not fix that. It’s part of the piece.” ’Cause we like things to feel handmade. There’s a certain DIY aesthetic that is so valuable to us. You could just do this yourself! That’s the thing that makes it theater. If they don’t fucking like it, make your own play! It’s so easy to do. You’re gonna get four people in a room together, and two of them can be your audience. Erik Ehn also wrote this essay about theater being a host for people, and that really impacted us. We want people to feel comfortable, to feel welcome, and to feel conversational about what was happening, and to drink beer and relax. And that’s become a part of our aesthetic, too. Not just that it’s big and cheap and smart and at you, but that it’s with you—that we’re doing this together.

I have two questions about that—

Wait, were you out in Seattle at that same time?

Yeah, I got to Seattle right after the R.A.T. conference. I remember this big drunken softball game that all the small theaters came together for, and it really felt like there was so much energy there. Kind of a spin-off of the grunge movement in Seattle. That DIY aesthetic. You can make stuff in your basement

It was the same in Austin. The sort of shitty DIY quality was part of the music scene. And there was crossover between musicians and theater, and performance artists. There was no separation.

And it was right around the same time that you guys decided to do an adaptation of [Greil Marcus’s book] Lipstick Traces.

Yeah. We had started making about five shows a year by then that were all sort of devised, and based on other things. And somewhere in there we hit on the idea to adapt Lipstick Traces, which changed things. 

Lipstick Traces is about the history of punk, and traces it to other art movements like the Dadaists that have taken that same revolutionary, unapologetic, uncompromised stance. And one of the takeaways from that book is that, when you look at the world, and you see it for all of its falseness, you see it for what it is, suddenly you’re at zero—and that becomes totally liberating. Everything becomes possible. Which I have to say, to me, that seems like it could be a description of Rude Mechanicals’ work. 

I think we both, aspirationally and spiritually, met ourselves in that book. I mean aspirational in the sense that I don’t think we find ourselves to be influential like the Dadaists did. But we recognized ourselves. We were, like, people sitting around and drinking wine, playing songs, but yet honestly trying to confront the world. We really wanted to both be having fun and be aggressively engaged with making art. And art that wanted to speak to the world somehow—our frustrations, our longings. And I think over and over again we had to meet ourselves. And by that time we started to feel ourselves aesthetically, and we could be free in this sense. ...It was a pretty bold gesture to take this, like, 500-page book of cultural criticism and history and be like, “We can make an hour-long play out of this, this will be no fucking problem.” We say all the time to each other that one of our great strengths is that we don’t know that we don’t know how to do something. So we just end up doing it and finding out. I mean, if we thought about it, we’d be like, “We should never do that. We could never shoot a soap opera.”- I’m trying to think of all the weird shit we’ve done. -“We could never shoot off a Tesla coil. We could never adapt Streetcar.” But we find out too far down the road to turn back, and then we’re like, “Oh fuck, this is gonna be hard.”

Do you think you would have the same perspective if you had stayed in New York, or do you think it’s specific to your choice to go back to Austin? 

I think it’s specific to the choice to go to Austin. I just think for me, but maybe for everybody, there’s just too many entropic forces in New York. In Austin, you’re more able to balance work and life. You don’t have to “make it” in that sense in Austin. I mean, there are examples, like Robert Rodriguez doing Pharmaco studies [medically supervised clinical studies with healthy volunteers], or Linklater borrowing a couple thousand bucks to make a film. You could make it, sort of, because you don’t need to make it. Nobody gives a shit if you’re also working at the video store and smoking dope and doing theater. So I think we were able to hang out more, and spend more time together, and make more work because we didn’t have any need to succeed in some way. I mean, we were making five shows a year on budgets of, like, less than two grand a show. And they were epic shows-—they were, like, 40-people shows. Crazy.

You did with an interview with Adam Szymkowicz in which he asked if there was one thing you’d want to change about theater today, what would it be? And I’m paraphrasing you in the answer, but you said, “Abolish all experts.” That in the presence of experts, the mystery disappears. Could you speak to what you mean by that, and how that influences your work? What does the presence of an expert do—and how do you avoid becoming one, now that you chair the theater program at UT? 

[Laughter, and Kirk bangs on the table.]

I think it has a lot to do with who we are. You know, you’re from Austin, you don’t have any fucking money, and you’re having a good time with your friends; you can feel very outsider-y, you don’t feel like an expert. My dad’s a barber, and my mom’s a school teacher. You feel like an idiot, but an idiot with something to say. So experts feel like an enemy so often. Like just last night, there was a guy [at the post-play discussion]. I didn’t mind his comment, but afterwards he came up to me and said, “You only think some of these things because your daughter’s little. When you’re older, you’ll know.” And I don’t mind getting notes on my play, but my parenting is not any of your business. To speak to someone else with the perspective of, “I know about love, I know about parenting, I know about God, I know about art.” Maybe you know about it for you, but don’t try to get inside my little bubble. I think: Give people the freedom to think and speak about how they feel without experiencing any shame that they might sound stupid, or they might sound naïve. God bless naïveté. 

There’s this Scottish writer, James Kelman, a working class writer, who won the Booker Prize for this novel How Late It Was, How Late, and we adapted that novel into a play. It’s written in Scottish dialect, and the whole book, every other word, is “fuck” and “cunt,” and the words are spelled the way he hears them. And when we met him, he said this great thing to me that’s really stuck with me ever since. We were walking up onto a stage at UT for a talkback, and he leaned into my back, he’s like 70 years old, and said, [in a Scottish accent] “Kirk, it’s very important to inject the word ‘fuck’ into the conversation as quickly as possible.” 

People want you not to speak in your natural idiom, they want to act like there’s a right way to speak. And it really struck me as a Texan—thinking of the way my father speaks, the way Texans naturally joke and tease one another, or just the idiom I grew up in—that the freeness of feeling that the way I speak is not only not incorrect, but it’s actually valuable to the full understanding of the world. So to translate this into the way a theater makes work: I think experts dampen a broader dialogue. Without the fullness of the perspective of many voices and many kinds of people speaking, you don’t understand the world. You actually get dumber sometimes in the presence of experts, of people who “know.” People always know something right up until the moment the whole world changes and we’re proven wrong. 

So many of our greatest artists are living proof of that. Daniel Johnston, Patti Smith… 

I drive my students crazy—if you know something and repeat it, I don’t think you’re learning. It’s like exploring the forest, the path goes this far, and as soon as I take a step off the path, I’m in a new place. It’s harder to articulate, it’s harder to work with that place, but that’s the place I want to be in my life. And I want my art to be in that place.  

In [the Rude Mechs show] The Method Gun, there’s an expert who disappears: a great guru acting teacher, Stella Burden, who abandons her students and leaves them to figure out what to do in her absence. I feel like that’s the state from which I’ve sort of learned to read your plays. Like, that’s where Kirk’s coming from when he’s writing his plays. You mentioned that when you were in college you were writing plays about the struggle to live in the world, and that seems like it’s still true. Certainly it’s true of Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra and The Animals. In both of these plays, the characters are trying to get rid of all the bullshit we can’t help but accumulate, in order to see things with clarity. 

I think it relates back to what you said about Lipstick Traces. When you start to sense that things around you are bullshit in some sense, there’s anxiety that comes along with that freedom of, “Well, what do I do?” To a certain extent, we live in an ironic or post-ironic age in which we feel like struggling for success is kind of stupid. We see the limitations of the structures of the world we’ve made, but we don’t really talk a lot about what’s on the other side of that. If you’re not going to be part of [the struggle], where are you going to be? Or if you are going to be part of it, are you doing it half-heartedly, or ironically? Like, “I’m gonna play the game, but I don’t really mean it?” What happens after that?

That makes me think of Kama Sutra, and how we see Tony learning from Carla. When we first meet her, we love her because she seems so savvy and knowing, and she seems to have smart opinions about things that’s informed by her experience. It’s like she’s gone out into the world specifically to gain experience in order to arm herself with it, so she can be an authority. But that’s not the same person we see at the end of the play.

I think Tony’s also really good at manipulating people—not necessarily in a bad sense or for ill, but she understands the way people work. She thinks she understands what motivates them. But yeah, I think she ends up being challenged by Carla—like, what if you want to manipulate yourself? What if you want to put yourself in a position of vulnerability? What does that mean? How do you get an authentic experience? I think she has to shed some of that armor to achieve that. 

She has to stop being an expert.

I honestly think the more you know, the more you study any one thing, most authentic experts feel their sense of the world opening rather than closing. People who understand deep math, or Biblical scholars—the depth of the world just keeps expanding before them. You realize, there’s no end to all the mystery and wonder. So I think there are experts who come close to that sort of depth of the world, and who want to speak from that position, and be excited about it. 

The most legendary scientists say they’re ultimately trying to understand God. I suppose I’m thinking of Einstein, who said all of his work is just details in the larger goal of knowing what God is, how the mind of God works. 

I do feel like there’s a new willingness today to put ourselves in the embarrassing position of saying we’re interested in that. “I want to know the world, I want to know the mind of God, I want to be in relationship to whatever this world is.” Which can be an embarrassing thing to admit, but when you find other people who want to be embarrassed like that it’s like, “Hey great! We can be embarrassed together!”

You’ve talked about a struggle to live in the world, to know more, and to live better. Has that always been a struggle that’s present in your life? 

I do think there was a big change in my life. Specifically, I’m an alcoholic. And quitting drinking was this weird experience. I think everybody should do it. No I don’t. All the Rude Mechs drink, we still hang out in bars. I’ll try and describe it as efficiently as I can. I was a drunk, but in the most fun, fantastic way, I would say. I was a really wild person. And as you get older, it starts to be more and more like, “Oh my God, I’m actually doing damage.” When you wake up: “Who did I either try to fight or fuck last night?” or, “I’ve gotta start repairing whatever the fuck I did last night.” I think sometimes in the outside world, it seemed like, “Oh Kirk is so weird and funny and wild,” but as you’re actually living the life—I wasn’t a drug addict, although I like drugs as well, but there’s a line in a Flaming Lips song that goes, “The needle’s in the needle’s disguise.” I thought I was pretending to be a drunk, but, in fact, I am a drunk. 

I went to one AA meeting, it was the closest one geographically, and it was like ex-cons and homeless people, and I left, like, “I can’t be in this room with these people.” That was a moment of realization: I need their help, but I judge them too much. I feel like an expert in some sense because I have money, because I’m middle class. It really opened my eyes. I never went back to another meeting, but I felt changed by the humility of it. 

My wife sort of knew what was going on, and the Rude Mechs sort of knew, but no one really knew what I was going through. The self-doubt, whatever the feeling is, a real crisis of “Am I still funny? Can I still dance?” Just simple stuff like that. “Can I go to parties? I don’t know how to do it. Everyone will notice me.” But while going through all that, people kept coming up to me and going, “You seem so happy, what’s going on?” Everybody sensed a transformation in me, but nobody knew what it was, and it really felt amazing. Since then, the openness of feeling all sorts of clichéd things—“I really need help from all sorts of people,” and, “I really want to be in this moment, rather than performing in this moment”—I think it changed me. 

And it made me open to all sorts of new things, like what marriage would be for me, what having a child would mean for me, and being authentically open to those moments. All of those things, there’s no right way to do them. I don’t know if I’m a person of faith or not. I don’t really believe in God, but I like the spiritual practice, especially of parenting, and of marriage, of, “I don’t know the right way to do it.” You constantly feel unbalanced. “Am I being too strict? Am I being too coddling?” And having to consciously ask myself, over and over, “Am I doing this right?” And it’s the same for teaching: “Am I being too lax? Am I being too strict? Am I relying on methods and techniques that I don’t really believe in?” But it helps. Just having to constantly examine yourself is good for me. Has been good for me. 

That’s something reflected in your play. In Kama Sutra, you examine what the knot is in order to untie it. Like Reggie wants to just make his past go away, but it’s only in looking at it, in dealing with it, and talking about it, and examining it that he can be free of it. That same kind of yearning is also in The Animals. The characters in that play want to go back to zero, get rid of everything.

Furniture, alarm clocks, clothing, yeah. “We want to live as purely as we can within our house, but in the world we’ll act like normal people.” Which in a weird way is like my experience with any sort of intimacy. With really close friends like the Rude Mechs, or with marriage. When we’re together we can act a certain way, but when we go out into the world, we have to be civilized. 

You recently started running the UT Austin Playwriting and Directing program. What’s your pedagogy? What’s required reading in your playwriting courses?

I want my students to think a lot about consciousness, articulation, and discipline. I want them to make themselves more and more aware of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, within the larger world of American theater. What theater they respond to, and why, and then to be able to attempt to articulate that to other people: “This is what I’m doing and why.” I’m a bit of a hard-ass in terms of discipline. I think my students don’t work hard enough. I try and challenge them to meet the discipline. It really worked for me to marry the studio, or the table, or the desk, and to really spend your time in relationship to your work. I do have sort of a Bruce Nauman belief in what you do in the studio. As long as you’re in your work space, anything you do is work. Even if you’re just reading, if you’re just thinking, if you aren’t necessarily pushing buttons and making sentences. In this sense, I think people don’t spend enough time working.

The most controversial thing about me as a teacher, which surprises me, is that I—trained by my wife, who’s a poet—have really come to believe in a catholic taste: you should like everything; you should read everything. And this ties back to the no-experts thing. If you see something and think it’s totally full of shit, then you probably haven’t studied it enough. And you should spend time in its presence. I say this sentence, which I borrow from this classical music scholar Charles Rosen, who’s now dead. He said, “Admirers are never wrong.” For example, I find Shaw to be really stuffy. But people who authentically like Shaw aren’t lying. They’re not idiots. They’re not wrong. And if I place myself in their proximity, I can learn to appreciate—you can learn to appreciate any kind of art. I say this to my students and, more than any other crazy shit I say, that’s the one where people just get outraged. They think the avant-garde is full of shit, or they think the Well-Made-Play is full of shit. They don’t want to task themselves with the possibility that they’re full of shit and they can learn something from all of these. 

When I was first dating my wife, I would wake up and she’d be sitting up in a chair, with a little light on, reading poetry constantly, every morning. I would always ask her, “What are you reading?” She would tell me, and I’d be like, “Do you like it? Is it good?” And she’d be like, “No.” And, just, the discipline of reading everything in the world because you’re an artist, and to be in conversation with it, seemed so radical to me. It has since become a practice of mine, to try and place myself—as much as I want to be in the company of plays that speak to me about my life—to put myself in the company of Shaw because I do not understand what he’s doing or why, and I need to stretch those muscles. 

If nothing else, it’s just a more interesting world to live in. 

I believe in this Wittgensteinian philosophy that words don’t correspond to meaning. There’s not a thing called “love” that actually corresponds to the word, there’s a kind of cloud of understanding that is different for each of us. So if I say I love you, you understand it as you understand love, but you don’t understand it as I understand it, and there’s a Venn diagram of how we sort of overlap in understanding. And if every word works like that, then making meaning together as humans is very complicated and we have to agree that there’s some leeway, that there’s not a right understanding of those things. That there’s not a right way to live, even. 

So you got a text from your wife last night after the preview, about how your daughter Olive has a crush—

—I don’t know if we should say his name! It’s Daniel.

We’ll just call him “D---.” And you were so excited about it. Can you talk about why?

Yeah, this’ll probably make me cry more than anything else. Some of it’s just longing, because I miss my daughter and it’s fun to know about her life. It’s also such a great mystery.  It’s interesting to have kids and realize that I’m not the central character in Olive’s life; Olive is the central character in her life. And [my son] Judah is the central character in his life. …I think there’s a little bit of fear in me that it will turn out that something like Christianity’s true, and I’ll become a crazy person who, like, wanders up and down the highway with a cross on my shoulder, shouting like, “Pleeeease repent.” Because if any of that is true, if what Christians believe is true, then everything you do is all wrong. There’s no sense in doing any of this. Making plays, being married. There’s just heaven and hell, and everyone’s fucking up really bad. I’m fucking up really bad. I don’t believe that’s true, thank goodness, but I do think placing yourself in service to people, there is a kind of—

You sort of make up for your narcissism by loving people. Does that make any sense? So knowing that my daughter is having this life, outside me, where she has her own friends at school, and she won’t tell me about any of them, and she has a crush at age three and a half, it just seems like a miracle. It seems like magic. And my job is to serve Olive so that she can have better and better crushes with crazier and crazier three year olds, and then four-year-olds, and then five year olds. That seems to me to be in the presence of the great mystery. It is insane that there’s a living being that I’m responsible for in some sense, and then that living being will jump ship and go off into the world and have the same experiences, both terribly traumatic and hard. And just the crushing sorrow and depression and, god forbid, addiction, anxiety, abuse, all those things. But then she’ll also have the experiences of friendship, and love—it’s insane. It’s a terrible system that we’re involved with! It seems poorly structured. My daughter’s life is this great thing that’s gonna unfold before me, and I get to watch it, and even participate a little bit. By recommending Daniel over, say, Ethan.