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Inviting the Audience to the Rodeo: I’ve Never Been So Happy

“If we aren’t having fun doing it, we stop” – Rude Mechs’ website

I’ve Never Been So Happy, the new production by Rude Mechs, exemplifies the work that comes from an interdisciplinary collaborative process. This piece, which Rude Mechs still classify as a work-in-progress, pushes the boundaries of song and dance while challenging our assumptions about the value of family, love and nature. The artists promoted an inclusive process that could “let every idea in, develop it, and give it a home.” As a result, the piece incorporates a wide range of theatrical elements, including rope tricks, three-part harmony, media projections, and puppetry. Rude Mechs work to “incubate ideas” that would extend beyond the performance venue to resonate in the city where the piece was being performed, creating a unique, entertaining and interactive experience for all audiences.

Corralling the Crew: A Brief History of Rude Mechs

The Austin-based Rude Mechs, currently housed in The Off Center, were founded in 1995 by Madge Darlington, Thomas Graves, Lana Lesley, Kirk Lynn, Sarah Richardson, and Shawn Sides. Having met while working together at the Shakespeare at Winedale program at University of Texas at Austin and other Austin-area theaters, these six artists were disillusioned with the “traditional hierarchical structure of … one artistic director.” Led by a desire to make the collaborative spirit present not only in the creation of work but also in the infrastructure of the company itself, these artists created Rude Mechs, with all six founders running the company together as co-producing artistic directors.

Over the past 15 years, Rude Mechs has grown to 28 company members who specialize in dancing, acting, singing, or other media. Together, Rude Mechs seek to create visually and intellectually challenging original theatrical productions as well as to co-produce work of local Austin talent in their space, present national tours, and engage with the community. Rude Mechs credit their success not only to the collaboration in the rehearsal room and among company members but also to their relationship with the audience that they cultivate through presentations of works-in-progress. The development and production of I’ve Never Been So Happy epitomizes this collaborative approach to theater making.

A Western Trans-media Interactive Performance Party

The seeds of I’ve Never Been So Happy were sown with composer Peter Stopschinski and Co-Artistic Director Kirk Lynn’s successful collaboration on the production of El Paraiso in 2006. Having established a good working relationship, they quickly began work on a new project, and at the end of 2007, Rude Mechs presented a short workshop viewing at First Night Austin, a public celebration of Austin’s diverse arts programming that takes place each New Year’s Eve. After the viewing, Rude Mechs presented it again in December 2008 as a works-in-progress piece at The Off Center. At this point, early in the development process, the artists began to cultivate the audience’s relationship with the text through pre-show activities. For the first half-hour of the experience, audience members were encouraged to participate in dancing, painting, playing an instrument, and other related activities. They then took their seats for the “traditional” play-in-progress, which was presented in three nonconsecutive scenes: “A Dog’s Life,” “New Condition,” and “The Wedding.”

With the results from this initial presentation at The Off Center, Rude Mechs took off for a summer of development. In June 2009 they had a two-week residency at University of Texas at Austin’s Musical Theater Initiative. Soon after, they took the piece to The Orchard Project, a residence in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, where artists are secluded and given resources to work on their art.

After this summer of work, I’ve Never Been So Happy was presented again at The Off Center as a works-in-progress production in September 2009. Defying the audience’s expectations, Rude Mechs started the performance with the audience seated and watching the five scenes of the “traditional” play: “Annabelle Dream,” “The Wedding,” “Search Party,” “Western Way,” and “Funeral.” After the performance, the audience went to “a Western trans-media interactive performance party” with margaritas, beer, dancing, karaoke, rope-making, fried food in the shape of famous Texans, a country cage-match competition, the chance to touch a real gun with a stranger in a pickup truck, the opportunity to get a haircut from a real Texan barber or styled by the world’s best country stylist, the chance to prank call a Yankee, and to use the outhouse for “good ole fashioned dirty jokes.” In so doing, Rude Mechs created a space in which audience members could be both consumers and creators while experiencing I’ve Never Been So Happy. Through this “post-show” engagement with the audience, Rude Mechs were able to create an overall aesthetic environment for the piece that has allowed them to progress steadily in its development.

Although Rude Mechs are a notable company for many reasons, their proclivity to push their theatricality beyond established borders and incorporate audience members from the early stages of the development process make them truly unique.

Check out some video clips of the September 2009 workshop here.