Starting a theater company is a lot like starting a rock band--you need the right people, the right creative vision, and above all, the right name. Would the Beatles have filled Shea Stadium if they were known as Mr. Walrus and the Mop Heads? With that thought, I sat down for coffee with Ryan Rilette, co-artistic director of the Rude Mechanicals, whose production of Beckett's Endgame runs Off-Off Broadway at the 30th Street Theatre through May 28.
Unlike the world of rock music, theater companies trudge down a cobbled and fog-shrouded road. As arts funding buckles under political pressure, small theater companies struggle day to day with little hope of commercial rescue. Courage and passion motivate those who attempt to make the stage their cultural home but, as we all know, one cannot eat enthusiasm.
The nucleus that formed the Rude Mechanicals originated in 1996 at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, where Ryan Rilette met Dennis Trainer. They immediately became friends and embarked on their maiden production, Plug, a play written and directed by Trainer. The pair parted ways for a while and then found themselves in Gotham, pursuing their theatrical dreams. They batted around names for a new company, and a Shakespeare reference appealed to them both: the Rude Mechanicals, that rag-tag group of ne'er-do-wells who worked by day and acted by night. But unlike their Shakespearean counterparts--who stumbled through their midsummer night revels like rank amateurs--New York City's Rude Mechanicals work hard to play.
Call it the Visa Endowment for the Arts. For the most part, fledgling companies who expend their resources competing for NEA grants find that the proverbial stone yields no blood. So these groups make ends meet via credit, placing their bets (and their financial futures) on the idea that people will pay money for quality theater. Though not-for-profit, the Rude Mechanicals survive on personal and corporate donations--and have sustained themselves on "coffee and power bars." Their mission is simple: to produce classical works as well as works by new playwrights. Although it's neatly written on a piece of paper, this mission is embodied by Rilette, who articulates it to me over a cup of coffee.
"We're not interested in general, frivolous plays," he muses. "Theater is a place to discuss larger issues." An academic of sorts with commercial aspirations, Rilette cites both the Ancient Greeks and Bertolt Brecht as influences. Bill Shakespeare also figures into his oeuvre, as the company has produced, appropriately, A Midsummer Night's Dream and a rock version of The Winter's Tale.
Rilette believes that theater's function is to educate through the pomp and intimacy of live performance. "I'm not interested in 'living room dramas,'" he declares. "The stage is a place for public dreams...fervent dreams. And dreams are not simple. They ask questions that are difficult to answer, questions left to be answered by the audience." So, I ask, rather snarkily, why wouldn't one just go to a lecture if one wants to be educated? "Theater has its roots in religion," the artistic director replies. "It's more effective than a lecture."
Rilette's coffee cup is empty now, and he's overdue to run production errands as the rest of the company rehearses Endgame. (This rather reminds me of Clov, one of the despairing pair in Beckett's dark comedy, trying to peer out an opaque window to see if the world exists.) I ask Rilette what's next for the company, and he tells me they are planning their second annual New Play Reading Series and then two new productions. He can't tell me what they are--the group is still in the process of deciding. I use my journalistic skills to try to get the scoop, but he politely evades my question. For the Rude Mechanicals, play is serious business indeed.