WHO WE ARE
Rude Mechs is a theatre collective based in Austin, Texas. We make new plays, produce them in Austin, and when we’re lucky, we tour them nationally and internationally. Our work has been commissioned, developed and/or produced by Lincoln Center’s LTC3, Center Theatre Group, the Guthrie, and by Yale Repertory Theatre. We make our work collaboratively — that means we hope and wish and strive for every artist involved to be in the room as much as possible influencing, arguing for or against, and/or working toward consensus around all of the choices that eventually create a new play. Collaboration can be dreamy, easy, effortless, nightmarish, difficult, and impossible. We fail at it probably more than we succeed, but it’s what we aim for. Still. After 22 years.
One of the first plays we made collaboratively was an adaptation of Greil Marcus’ book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. It remains one of our most ambitious undertakings. We created a 70-minute stage adaptation of a 465-page critical history of 20th-century artistic rebellion viewed through the lens of punk rock, especially the Sex Pistols.
So when 53rd State Press approached us with an offer to publish one of our plays, we chose Lipstick Traces because we’re proud of it, because it struck a nerve, and because its life was so short.
It was workshopped at the Ice Factory Festival in 1999 where we presented just 40 minutes of it. John Rockwell (then editor of the New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure section) was there. Marcus’ book is dedicated to him. Rockwell called Marcus when it was over, in front of us, to let Marcus know we were not ruining his book (Rockwell said it in a much nicer way, but I can’t remember what he said).
We came home and worked on the play some more and presented it in 2000 for the Arts Midwest Conference. Foundry Theatre produced it off-Broadway in 2001. From there we produced our own national tour in 2002, then Foundry toured it to the West Coast and then to Salzburg, Austria. The New York Times dug it, The Wall Street Journal did not (look that up yourself), and some reviewer in Ohio likened us to the Taliban. Yeah.
It almost became a movie produced by Malcolm McLaren — manager of the Sex Pistols and the man who claimed to have invented punk. He’s a character in our play, and McLaren wanted to play himself. The irony was so thick we could only run with it, smiling. McLaren saw the show in LA and I went out for a drink with him and Henry Stram, the actor that portrayed McLaren in that production. It was, at best, surreal. Canal + was on board for a heartbeat – we had a meeting with them in New York. But then it all evaporated. I don’t remember why or how.
WHY A GRAPHIC NOVEL
I took responsibility for getting Lipstick Traces ready to publish. Originally we thought we would simply publish the play script with a forward of some kind, but were looking for an original way to do that — which meant answering these questions:
- How do we get the performance into the form of a book?
- What should the script look like?
- How to describe the topography of the piece? Tempo? Directionality?
- Make a list of elements that feature prominently in the work: what do you hear, see, touch, feel, consider (psychologically/emotionally)?
- How was the structure developed?
- How did you bring yourself to the performance?
- List rehearsal moments you remember.
- What can’t be missing from the book version of this play?
So I made this list – ELEMENTS I REMEMBER / THINGS THAT CAN’T BE MISSING
- Opening sound cue scared the shit out of me every single night – even 150 performances later.
- The Monk with the light on him.
- Cabaret Voltaire’s ridiculous/amazing chaos.
- Boredom, Boredo..o..om
- Phoneme B is so sad.
- Paper bag with eyes poked out.
- Dumpster jukebox
- Mic drops
- Dylan placards
- Maps / Munich Airport Security
- A slide projector.
- Slow dance with McLaren
- Peggy Shaw’s apartment
- Mi Madres
- Cocaine and Jaegermeister
- Ellen Lauren’s phone call
- Travis High School
- Ice Factory Festival / The OHIO
- That fucking cat / 30-degree rake
THE SCRIPT SHOULD FEEL LIKE:
THE SCRIPT SHOULD SOUND LIKE:
Can we have a midi – a player to play Greil’s soundtrack while you read it?.
WHAT WE HAVE TO WORK WITH:
Nobody in our world draws anything ever… no sketches, nothing but our memories and pages and pages of words, shitty video, and good photos…
I wrote about the process and the structure and the collaborators. Who cares? No amount of describing the process gave any sense of the world of the play. What format could deliver the play’s energy, its design, its direction, its performance? Each of those elements were vital to the play’s creation and its brief life. The only answer I kept coming back to was that it should be a grimy, DIY, shitty, stupid scene-for-scene document of the production — a graphic novel. I spent a hot second trying to farm it out to a real artist, but it’s not DIY if you don’t do it your fucking self.
I drew a few frames and sent them to 53rd State to see if what I could do was good enough. Part of their mission is to think expansively about writing for performance, so they were down. When I asked Greil Marcus for permission, he said: “Yes — it’s yours, do what you want.” So chill. As soon as Harvard University Press said yes, I dug in.
I worked with Karinne Keithley Syers over at 53rd State to figure out what size the book should be, how many frames, what font, bleed or no, color or no, how many pages they could afford — the basic rules of the graphic novel road. Once we landed on all of that, I made a template page in Illustrator and an Excel spreadsheet called “bookmath” with all of the frame and picture size calculations.
Meanwhile, I was looking at all kinds of graphic novels for inspiration – like Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Perspolis by Marjane Satrapi. But I looked really long and hard at Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot – wanting to place the characters in collages of their real-world spaces with the competing narratives of Dr. Narrator and Malcolm McLaren ripping through them contextualizing everything. I took some runs at that using the first John of Leyden scene. But then I realized I couldn’t really draw – I didn’t know how to handle scale and perspective, that vision couldn’t support a DIY approach, and most importantly, I lost the theatricality. It was more a shitty illustration of Greil’s book than a graphic rendering of the play itself.
The way forward was to use the actual video footage as source for the drawings. We had a slick video of the NYC performance, but I chose to use our unedited and much less excellent archival video of our 2002 Walker Art Center presentation of it at The Southern Theatre in Minneapolis for a few reasons: the Southern Theater is a cavernous, stony space with a palpable history, but also a timelessness, and a beautiful proscenium arch; that performance featured most of the role originators, and at our most hyped and terrified; and it marked our entrance onto the national scene, it reflected our shabbiness and our greenness and our uneasy overexcited-ness, as a company and as performers, and I wanted the book to capture all of that.
STEP ONE – START ALREADY
I dug up our video – I found a wide shot positioned at the stage manager’s stable in the middle of the house, and a mid-range shot from somewhere stage right. I storyboarded the whole thing trying to keep it to what we agreed should be around 40 pages.
STEP TWO – CREATE A PROCESS
So how to draw when you can’t draw. I started drawing a lot. I bought Lynda Barry’s books and worked through them. I bought Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. I tried to work through Brunetti’s book, but couldn’t. I tried to draw the book using the video frames as reference, and couldn’t pull it off. I experimented a bunch in Photoshop and I almost gave up – thinking it’d be better if I just submitted the storyboard with video frames. But then I decided to just cheat. I took each still, desaturated, inverted and then did a minimum pass to yield enough of an outline of the images that I could stop worrying about scale and perspective, but also leave enough blank that I could do what I wanted artistically. If the scene was particularly well-lit, I just had to try not to ruin it. If it was a darker scene, I had to work much harder to create detail.
STEP THREE – FIND A STYLE
Then I started drawing – replacing the video stills in the storyboard frame for frame. I tried to get through the whole thing without going back and redoing or fixing anything — just embracing the shittiness so I could keep forward momentum.
Early on, quite naturally, each scene took on its own style. It had to do with the quality of light in that scene, and the content — dark and spooky, light and funny, dim and somber — light changed the texture of the walls, the floor, clothes, and content changed my technical approach – how precise or sloppy I was, whether I used a Sharpie or a brush pen or a regular pen for the background, what the proscenium arch and/or the floor would look like.
STEP FOUR – GO BACK AND DRAW IT AGAIN
In the first draft, which was made over the course of about 18 months, there is an obvious and truly funny progression in the quality of the drawings.
I spent the next year drawing and re-drawing. I had the most trouble with the opening scene featuring John of Leyden – I couldn’t find a style and I couldn’t draw the actor’s face. It was so dark and grainy, I couldn’t really find even bad outlines to work from. When I realized I wasn’t really dealing with light in a convincing way, I played with that until I found something more abstract, more theatrical (and neatly sidestepped the face issue).
I had to attack two other scenes over and over: Johny Rotten’s audition to join The Sex Pistols; and the Cabaret Voltaire scene. Both of those scenes are dynamic and loud. Sound and movement featured heavily and nothing I did captured the feeling those two scenes evoked. By the time I took my third or fourth stab at them, I could really see what the style should be for each scene and how they’d feel against the scenes on either side of them. And I had enough confidence in my process to allow for the possibility that not only did those scenes need more drawings to really depict the action… the whole book needed more drawings.
Once 53rd State agreed it could be longer, I started back at the beginning and added drawings to reduce the amount of text in each frame, helping the rhythm and flow of every scene in the book. For Johnny’s audition, I added 33 drawings, tracking the actor’s almost every move in that scene. For Cabaret Voltaire, I allowed the characters to break free from their text and to break frame, creating a version of the chaos they created on stage.
STEP FIVE – FINISH ALREADY
And then I went back to the beginning and filled out all the monologues and a few more scenes – 40 pages became 80 pages. And then I went back to the beginning to find a visual way to deal with sound. And I had to figure out how to start the book in a way that felt like the play’s opening. Darron West had created this sound cue that is the opening to a Slit’s song followed by a guitar riff. Brian Scott created a light cue that blinded the audience and dumped to zero with that sound. The audience jumped out of their seats, lost sight, and then searched for John of Leyden as he began his sermon. I still think I failed, but I had to finish the book. Not because anyone really cared whether or not I ever finished, but because I just had to be done, to move on to other projects. I went back one last time to reformat it – realign, recrop, center the text, fix the bubbles, dump it into InDesign, and send it away. Kate Kremer at 53rd State is my forever-friend for sticking with me through the edits and production process.
After a couple of decades of collaboration, it was some serious sweet relief to just sit in a room and make art alone. So big loving thanks to Kirk and Shawn and 53rd State and Greil for letting me do whatever I wanted with this monster. And to all the women that opened their homes so I could hold a thousand mini-retreats to get it done. Special gratitude to Liz Engelman for the Tofte Lake Center and for introducing me to northern Minnesota – the birthplace of my next big project, Art Tramp, creating live performance on the trails of our national park system.
I am so so glad I didn’t let my need to be trained or qualified or practiced keep me from starting it, and that I didn’t let anything keep me from finishing it. I now possess the confidence of a mediocre white man and will probably do a ton more shit I have no business doing. Here’s three chords, now start a band.