“We’ve come a long way since ‘Pale Idiot.”
It’s a momentarily jarring comment from Madge Darlington. Sipping a cocktail in an Eastside dive bar on a chilly winter night, she blithely parses the origins of Rude Mechanicals. “Pale Idiot” was that Austin theater collective’s first play, and Darlington, one of the company’s founding artistic directors, laughs when she thinks back 13 years to some of the specifics of that crude initial production.
“The set was made out of cardboard, –donated cardboard,” she says of the Kirk Lynn play concerning a missing village idiot. “I had to drive to Buda to get these really big sheets of it. When we were striking the set, I remember we ended up throwing it in the dumpster of some business and getting chased out of there.”
From cardboard backdrops to the Long Center. The unique theater collective responsible for some of the wittiest original works to come out of Texas has toured its plays from Philadelphia to Finland. In April, Rude Mech’s newest production, “The Method Gun” will debut at the Rollins Theater in the Long Center –the first performance in the newly finished space.
It’s a fitting milestone for Rude Mechs, which has produced more than 20
plays and received over 170 awards and nominations for its work at home and abroad. Named after the performance troupe in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the company has roots with the British Bard. In 1995, at a reunion of students who had participated in a Shakespeare performance program at the University of Texas, Darlington met up with several old friends. Some who had left Austin to attempt a theater career in New York talked about how difficult it all was to make ends meet. Then the idea emerged: They would re-congregate in Austin and launch their own theater group.
“At the time we knew we wanted to be a collective and govern ourselves by consensus,” says Darlington. “But there wasn’t a lot of information about how to do that. So we looked to groups like Act Up and Lesbian Avengers for a model of a collective. I think it’s safe to say we’re pretty steeped in queer activist traditions.”
Most theater groups have one artistic director. Rude Mechs has five. Decisions on everything from new plays to business moves are made by consensus. New works are developed from scratch, often beginning with some iteration of the question, “What’s on everyone’s mind?”
“There really is no set process because we redefine it every time,” Darlington says of Rude Mechs’ play-development method. “We like to make work we don’t know how to make. We’re constantly putting big obstacles in our own way so that then the interesting thing becomes, ‘How do you solve the problem?’”
Rude Mech’s newest play is in part a response to questions raised about the creative process. “The Method Gun” riffs on 20th century acting techniques through the tragic tale of a fictitious acting coach.
“Get Your War On” remains one of the company’s most famous works. A play adapted from an Internet comic strip highly critical of the Bush administration’s actions since Sept. 11, 2001, “Get Your War On” has been performed by Rude Mechs off-Broadway and in Finland.
“We have a lot of humor in our plays, even the ones that tackle serious subjects,” says Darlington, the self-professed “backstage dyke” of the company who deals primarily with technical production. “I think we have a little more fun with our work.”
Still, it’s not just about the plays. Each winter, Rude Mechs stages “Throws Like a Girl” – a groundbreaking women’s performance art series that attracts and features renowned female figures in theater during the course of several weeks, such as Kristina Wong and Robbie McCauley. Another Rude Mechs program Darlington is proud of is Grrl Action, which started several years ago as a three-week summer writing and performance program for teenage girls. Through additional funding from Impact Austin, Rude Mechs has expanded Grrl Action to a year-round program, allowing the students to shape individual performance pieces around what they’ve written. That effort will culminate in April at the Off Center, the company’s East Austin performance venue, with an event in which the teens will present their work.
Rude Mechs relies on funding from a number of foundations and organizations including the city of Austin’s Cultural Arts Division, the National Endowment for the Arts and Impact Austin. But a great deal of support comes from corporate sponsors like Glass & Company CPAs, the Austin Motel and Go9Media, as well as a growing individual-donor base.
Darlington says Rude Mechs has allowed her and her theater family a great opportunity: to live and labor in a great city like Austin and occasionally take the show on the road.
“It’s a very strong connection that we share,” she says. “I get to work with my friends and carve out a life for myself where I get to do exactly what I want to be doing.”
Shakespeare would be proud.