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Fleshing out innovative '60s theater

With help from 'Dionysus in 69' director, Rude Mechanicals tackle free-form production.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
For 'Dionysus in 69,' actors let the audience be part of the production. Richard Schechner, the original director of the 1960s production, will give a pre-show talk on Friday.

Time was when a stage with no boundary between audience and actors — and a play that changed each night according to how the audience might react — seemed all so terribly new.

It was in 1968 when theater pioneer Richard Schechner led the collective known as The Performance Group in a radical new version of the Greek tragedy, 'The Bacchae,' which Schechner called 'Dionysus in 69.' In a converted garage in New York City's Soho, Schechner and his troupe explored the limits of audience participation, kept the focus of the action always variable and flexible and even moved the show out to the street at times. Actors shed their clothes and spent most of the play naked. They switched characters and invited the audience to dance. In response, audiences staged spontaneous sit-ins or other group actions.

'Dionysus in 69' gave a 1960s spin to Euripides' tale of the struggle — to the death — between self-control and collective passion.

Schechner dubbed his approach 'environmental theater,' and in the four decades 'Dionysus in 69' shocked, its groundbreaking techniques have had an indelible influence on today's theater makers, dancers and performance artists. So indelible, in fact, that many today don't recognize the origins of the edgy performances that regularly appear on stages.

As Austin's most lauded boundary-breaking theatrical troupe, the Rude Mechanicals know acutely where their influences originated. In fact, troupe co-founder Shawn Sides studied with Schechner while at graduate school at New York University.

What better way, then, for the Rudes to let their Austin audience in on the theater movements that have shaped them than to restage 'Dionysus in 69.'

'The classic plays, like Shakespeare, are staged as they originally were all the time,' says Sides. 'But we wanted our audience to know (the kind of theater) we're quoting from and what we're building on.'

Great idea. But then again, just how do you restage the complex immediacies of a performance that was the ultimate expression of 1960s zeitgeist?

Fortuitously, unlike many loosely presented experimental theater works, 'Dionysus in 69' was well-documented. Director Brian De Palma filmed two performances, the resulting movie a critical favorite in part for its then-edgy use of split-screen images. (The Austin Film Society is offering a screening of the movie Sunday.) Sides and the Rudes troupe have relied heavily on De Palma's film to re-create the play's physical staging and movement. Also fortuitously, Schechner has been in and out of Austin this fall as the Cline Visiting Professor of the Humanities Institute, giving a series of public lectures and visiting classes at the University of Texas.

Hooking up with her former professor to restage his most famous work has been exhilarating and daunting for Sides. 'The stakes were raised enormously when he was in the (rehearsal) room with us,' says Sides. 'But it's been an honor and a blast.' (Schechner will give a pre-show talk at 7 p.m. on Friday and will be available for audience talk-backs after the shows Friday through Sunday.)

Like the original production, in this 'Dionysus in 69' there will be plenty of nudity. The audience will scatter around the theater space, sitting on the floor or taking up perches on platforms.

And you just might be invited to dance. After all, isn't the best way to understand the theater you've likely been seeing all this time to participate in it?; 445-3699

'Dionysus in 69'

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through Dec. 20

Where:Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo St.


Note:Nudity and adult themes. No one younger than 18 admitted without an adult.

'Dionysus in 69,' a film by Brian De Palma. Richard Schechner will host an audience talk-back after the film.

When:1 p.m. Sunday

Where:Alamo Downtown Ritz, 320 E. Sixth St.