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Performers Unearth Fresh Terrain: Edgy experimental theatre challenges audience and artists to imagine new roles

When the theatre collective Rude Mechanicals (known as Rude Mechs) decided to create a play about the genius and inventor Nikola Tesla, they didn’t opt to offer the audience the expected birth-to-death biography. Instead, they imagined a world where Tesla sits down on stage with a Martian, where Tesla and Thomas Edison speak into microphones while screwing and unscrewing light bulbs and where Tesla’s direct addresses are punctuated by dance numbers.

Fresh Terrain will offer students and audiences an 'intensive crash course in emerging experimental theater'
Fresh Terrain will offer students and audiences an “intensive crash course in emerging experimental theater.”

Their creation, “Requiem for Tesla,” is one of seven works audiences will be treated to when The University of Texas at Austin hosts the groundbreaking Fresh Terrain performance theatre festival. Performance theatre, as Rude Mechs’ piece illustrates, pushes the boundary of traditional theatre, surprising audiences with broken narratives and a mix of theatre, dance, music and the individual personalities of the performers.

Fresh Terrain was the dream of Mark Russell, a University of Texas at Austin alumnus and artistic director of Performance Space 122 (P.S. 122) in New York City. P.S. 122 is one of the country’s premier organizations for new performance, and Russell dreamed of bringing the innovative work he was seeing to a university campus in a festival format.

Richard Isackes, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, was looking for ways of opening up new avenues for students to explore. He knew that a changing theatre world demanded that students re-imagine their future as artists.

Together, Russell, Isackes and a host of people in New York and in the College of Fine Arts organized Fresh Terrain. Never before has a university offered the wacky and thrilling world of performance theatre to its students and community in such a comprehensive way.

Rude Mechs' 'Requiem for Tesla' freshly imagines the inventor of radio and flourescent light
Rude Mechs’ “Requiem for Tesla” freshly imagines the inventor of radio and flourescent light.

From Jan. 22-26 performance artists from as far away as Argentina and as near as East 7th Street in Austin will perform works in a festival format.

Concurrently, a symposium that convenes scholars and artists will run Jan. 25-26. Free to the public, the symposium will provide critical commentary on the works performed and on the state of performance in contemporary theatre.

Finally, artists Ann Carlson, Gamal Chasten of Universes and Shawn Sides of Rude Mechs will remain in residence to collaborate with students on new works. These works will be performed Feb. 14-16.

The approach is unprecedented. For some participants, this will be a first introduction to performance theatre. For others, it will be a unique opportunity to see a large number of cutting-edge works over a short time. For everyone, it promises something new.

Watching performance theatre is not like settling in to watch an Arthur Miller play. The work is experimental and often raw and edgy. It is even conceived of in unique ways, as was apparent in rehearsals artist Ann Carlson held in November with the dance students with whom she is collaborating. Carlson is perhaps the most established artist involved with Fresh Terrain, and her work blends dance, movement and theatre.

In a classroom in the F. Loren Winship Drama Building, Carlson sat eight students in a circle. She asked them each to move to the middle of the circle and while performing a repetitive movement speak a “postcard” to someone with whom they were angry. Dance students are not used to vocalizing, but one by one they stepped to the middle and kicked legs to the side or jerked elbows while ranting to roommates and loud neighbors.

Eight students use movement, voice and dance to create new work with artist Ann Carlson
Eight students use movement, voice and dance to create new work with artist Ann Carlson.

Lindsey Taylor is a third-year dance student working with Carlson. She explains that the intention of the postcards and similar exercises was not to make them explicitly part of the final piece, but rather to start knowing the students and understanding their stories.

“Ann is really more about process than product,” she says. “A lot of the rehearsal process was about getting to know us and trying to find common ground among us.”

Performance theatre operates with the understanding that what is happening onstage is dependent on the individuals who are performing it. The performers remain individuals rather than dissolving into a role.

Carlson says she approached the collaboration by “culling the collective sense of the group and finding out who [the students] are and what they want to do.”

The piece will ultimately meld personal experience with memory with cultural touchstones. It will combine dance and theatre, voice and movement in a way that is new to the students. The idea is that if it resonates with the individuals performing it, it will resonate for the audience.

“It’s in the room,” says Shawn Sides, artistic director with Rude Mechs. “I think a lot of the difference for us and for performance theatre is that it lives inside the space that the audience is also sitting in. It doesn’t recede into a fiction.”

Cited by the New York Times as one of three theatre companies in the country “making theatre that matters,” Rude Mechs are the one local group participating in Fresh Terrain.

Universes' 'Slanguage' fuses poetry, theater, jazz, hip-hop, politics, down home blues and Spanish boleros
Universes’ “Slanguage” fuses poetry, theater, jazz, hip-hop, politics, down home blues and Spanish boleros.

When asked what distinguishes performance theatre from traditional theater, Rude Mechs’ Kirk Lynn says that, for example, instead of auditioning actors and deciding which one looks the most like Willy Loman (the main character in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”), the idea is to gather a group interested in creating something and then use the resources in the room.

“If you have an actor who moves more like a crazy monkey man, then you can make the character a crazy monkey man,” he says.

Sides adds that the same is true if there’s a pipe running across the top of the theatre or they come upon an amazing sale on Chinese flapping birds. Performance theatre uses what’s present, forging new connections, just as Carlson uses students’ anger, obsessions and favorite songs to imagine new work.

Thus, the work grows out of the performers’ experiences of their own lives and of the world. The work can sometimes be jarring, sometimes be shocking. It may make the audience uncomfortable. The goal is not to shock, but rather to be true to the space—personal, historical and physical—in which the work is being conceived.

“If there are moments in the performances that may strike audiences as a little off-kilter,” Russell says, “it is because those moments grew organically from the working processes of the artists.”

The value of bringing Fresh Terrain to the university is not just in experiencing this exciting new work. For students studying in the Department of Theatre and Dance, the artists participating in Fresh Terrain represent new ways to conceive of being an artist.

Ann Carlson's movement-based work questions the very definition of dance
Ann Carlson’s movement-based work questions the very definition of dance.

Most theatre departments are built on a regional theatre model, where students train as actors or playwrights or designers and then go out and find a job. However, because of cuts in arts funding and the changing face of American theatre, that model is rapidly becoming outdated.

“More and more,” Isackes says, “students needs to conceptualize themselves as their own means of production, so that when you get out of here you’re not looking for someone to hire you. You’re looking to begin to create your own work and your own company and marketing that company, considering yourself as a total kind of artist as opposed to a narrow, skilled artist who will be hired by some other institution.”

When Russell chose artists for the festival, he was interested in finding people who would provide “an intensive crash course in emerging experimental theatre.” Isackes asked that he also choose artists who are in the early stages of their careers.

“For the most part,” he says, “these are young people, not far out of school themselves, who have created their own work, who have figured out a way to get it seen by people, figured out how to make a living as an artist.”

It’s unusual for a university to present alternative models to students, but Isackes believes it is necessary if students are to really work as artists when they graduate.

Lynn admits he didn’t see the regional theatre model as available to him when he graduated from The University of Texas at Austin in 1993. Instead, he helped form Rude Mechs, which operates as a collective. Five artistic directors share responsibility for the company, and the synergistic creative energy of the collective enables new work to happen.

da da kamera's 'In  On It' is an electrifying two-actor, multiple character play
da da kamera’s “In On It,” winner of a 2001 Obie Award, is an electrifying two-actor, multiple character play.

“This is the only kind of theatre I have known in my short career,” he says. “It’s less the idea of the single auteur and more the model of a band, with everyone pitching in. Except everyone gets to be Keith and Mick, not just Keith and Mick.”

Graduating students may choose to form or join a collective, or they may choose to create individual works and find ways of performing them, as Carlson and other Fresh Terrain artists do. They can explore those options as artists visit classes, participate in the symposium, and perform and collaborate on new work.

“It really does help out with my idea of being okay with graduating,” says fifth-year dance student Jillian Ardoin. “There’s not only acting, and there’s not only modern dance. There’s so much more than that.”

Fresh Terrain is the first time a university audience has had a chance to discover just how broad the field of performance can be. Russell admits that like the work it presents, it will be something of an experiment. But if it’s successful, it may be a model for how experimental work can intersect with universities in the future.

The performers are what Russell considers “the most vital voices in contemporary theatre”: Toronto’s da da kamera, New York City’s Richard Maxwell, Big Art Group, Carlson and Universes, Argentinian director Diana Szeinblum and Austin’s Rude Mechs. Audiences will see everything from the spoken word to a staged boxing match.

“It’s like tossing somebody seven planets and saying, ‘You know, you’re on all of these, or have the possibility of being on all of these.’” Carlson says. “Like or dislike, repelled or attracted, however you feel about the work, this is an amazing opportunity.”

[Tickets for performances can be arranged by calling the university’s Performing Arts Center Box Office at 512-477-6060 or visiting the Texas Box Office Web site. Ticket prices range from $10 to $22.]

Vivé Griffith

Photo of dance students: Marsha Miller

Banner image from Ann Carlson’s “Grass/Bird/Rodeo”

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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