Listen to Austin 360 Radio

How the ultra-creative theater artists of Austin's Rude Mechs have spent their pandemic

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Jay Haffelder, a volunteer, helps build a canoe, the first step in the Rude Mechs' artistic project to build or buy larger boats to navigate inland waterways for floating "Great Loop" arts residencies.

They stayed quiet yet engaged.

The ultra-creative artists of Austin's Rude Mechs have spent the pandemic cooking up the types of performance projects that have made them national sensations, at least since 1999, when their "Lipstick Traces" took the American theater world by storm.

"We sat still," founding troupe member Lana Lesley says about the past year and a half. "And we thought about things."

During that time, the artists got together for regular Tuesday "poker nights" at their rough-hewn Crashbox space in East Austin to toss around new ideas and test older ones.

Kirk Lynn, playwright and also a founding member of the collective, happily reports: "We have never yet played poker."

I sat down with Lesley and Lynn on the patio of Hank's Austin in the rapidly changing Windsor Park neighborhood. We caught up on pandemic strategies, reading lists and tales of Austin theater past, but also chatted about several ongoing Rude Mechs projects, some fueled by stratospheric ambition and, at the same time, tempered by still-youthful modesty.

More:Broadway and Ballet Hispánico: A guide to Texas Performing Arts' 40th anniversary season

But first some background: The Rude Mechs formed in 1995 during the early days of a national alternative theater movement that found some of its most gifted innovators dreaming up performances for small troupes in Austin. They broke out of the pack with a miraculously chaotic version of Greil Marcus' punk meditation, "Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century."

"We had to get this out on the road," recalls Lynn. "After the Austin run, we were  supposed to play a theater festival in Philadelphia. We let all the theatrical managers on the East Coast know about it."

"But they were all going to be at a conference in Austin at the same time as the festival," Lesley says. "So we performed it instead at the Off Center (the Rude Mechs former home in East Austin), and all the managers came to it."

That led to a New York gig and exposure in the New Yorker magazine and The New York Times, among other media outlets.

"Since then, it's been like 'home games' and 'away games,'" Lesley says about the group's propensity to perform and eventually build shows in, say, Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Louisville, as well as in Austin. 

Sometimes, they have been stunned by the resources available at larger theaters in other cities where they were treated like visiting royalty as they performed or workshopped hits such as "Get Your War On" and "Method Gun."  

Along the way, they got to know all the progressive theater managers or bookers around the country, then followed them when they changed jobs to another city.

Currently, the Rude Mechs are in the middle of a second two-year residency on the University of Texas campus, attached to the department of theater and dance, where Lynn teaches playwriting and other Rudes have taught. They give master classes, hold office hours, look in on new student work, and encourage the younger artists to take advantage of their Crashbox space, which is more informal than campus venues.

More:See This Art: Portraits, quilts and George W. Bush at the Blanton Museum of Art

They recharge their own creative juices on a regular basis.

"We go into retreat once or twice a year," Lynn says. "We don't want to make the same thing twice. We are always looking for something that we are not sure of."

Here are some projects that beguile the Rude Mechs these days:

"Art Tramp": Recently, the Rudes have been exploring nature more carefully, very much in line with national pandemic coping strategies. "Art Tramp" will begin in Austin at McKinney Falls State Park as a way of interpreting the land and the people that it supported. Lesley actively wants to work with the goals of park employees, then — wait for it — shape a custom performance for every national park in the country. 

"Great Loop": If you thought "Art Tramp" was enterprising, this venture will blow your mind. The troupe is building a canoe. They want to follow that with a sailboat to explore the "Great Loop" of inland waterways in the eastern part of the country. After that, they would purchase a manufactured boat to serve as a floating short-term residence for artists, scientists and researchers wandering on that same watery loop. At least one member of the troupe would always be on board and, of course, a performance piece would emerge in the end.

"Cyrano Plays": This is an interactive app in post-beta stage, but not yet fully launched. The players hear the lines of their chosen parts in a preexisting script over headphones and they speak them out loud. "It's sort of karaoke theater with friends," Lesley says. The app promises a potential practical application as a rehearsal tool. 

"Heroic Dose": The digital and live elements of this project, already underway, deal with the early days of LSD. Timothy Leary, Albert Hoffman and J. Gordon Liddy figure large in the exchanges. The name derives from an unexpectedly large dose taken by Hoffman in the early years, often referred to as "Bicycle Day" because of the wheeled trip taken by the scientist. The Rude Mechs caused some concern among their core audience for this show by inviting them to turn in their correspondence on LSD to the authorities.

The Rudes have not abandoned their longtime roles as agents provocateurs.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. he can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.