Are You Running with Me Zeus?
A young impresario is putting on a play called Dionysus in 69. It's full of blood and naked skin, so you'll like it.
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THE MEN LIE FACE DOWN on the floor. One by one the women come and stand over them, straddling them lengthwise, one foot below their buttocks and one above their shoulders. They are all naked. In unison the women raise their arms, reach down between their legs and begin to pull the inert body of another man through the tunnel they have formed with their legs. The man offers no help; his body is passive. As the women heave, they shriek and howl, their faces contort, their heads roll, their pelvises push forward until, when the man is through and lies at the other end of the tunnel in a coil, the women collapse in exhaustion. They have given birth to a god.
It’s all from Dionysus in 69, the play where you can leave your seat to join in the birth of the god, mingling with those nude, sweaty bodies to splash around in the ritual blood. Or you can perch high above the crowd and watch what happens when one of the members of the audience leaps up and wrestles an actor to the ground. They roll and grapple with one another. The spectator’s glasses fall. It’s frightening. The show stops. The other actors come to offer help, while the spectator wonders just what has happened. Surprises like this make each night a revelation and sometimes a shock for everyone, including the actors. Just imagine how shocked the New York director was when his star was kidnapped by a group of teenagers, who had seen the play four times and just wanted to spark some new action. This constant change, this possibility for shock, this closeness between actors and audience is what experimental theater is all about.
To understand all this and why it’s here, you have to take a close look at Bruce Bowen, because he dreamed up the Houston Laboratory Theater, and he’s directing Dionysus in 69. The idea for it, the building it’s in, the company that’s performing it, they’re all his. Against heavy odds, Bruce just kept on believing in what he’s always believed in, kept on wanting what he always wanted and never considered taking less. If that sounds deceptively naive, so is Bruce. But one day, there it was—bloody, ritual, experimental theater complete with nude actors.
Zip-zing-boom-boom-bounce: HI! It’s Bruce. He doesn’t walk, he strides, he leaps, he bounces. He wears these striped short-sleeved T-shirts and with his jeans and sneakers he looks like a first grader bounding into school early to help the teacher because school is FUN! He’s Dudley Do-Right. He looks something like Dennis Hopper, too. Maybe he’s Dudley Do-Right disguised as Dennis Hopper, and Dudley Do-Right knows that things will turn out in the end, he doesn’t have to think about it, he knows; all he has to do is pursue. When I asked Bruce why he had attended a 7:30 A.M. motivational workshop, he boomed, “It’s great to get the day started with a smile!” POW. He meant it. Bruce is 24.
Bruce’s uncluttered devotion and ambition have kept the theater going. The actors revere his abilities not just as director but as leader, as manipulator of energies, as keeper of the flame. As Jan, one of the Lab members, says, “It’s Bruce who keeps us together. We need him.” They call him Zeus.
Bruce saw Dionysus in 69 five years ago in New York. “I knew that someday I had to do that play, preferably in my own theatre so that I could do it as I wanted to.” What he really wanted was a big enough place to stage it so he could also sublease part of it as a restaurant or cabaret theatre, gallery, screening room, or a sound stage. To establish a small cultural center based on the idea of the Mercer Arts Center in New York. Nothing fancy. Just a cultural center.
One night last fall, when Bruce and his roommate David Drury were playing bridge with friends, Bruce passed around his copy of Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in 69: The Performance Group, a book written by the original director of Dionysus in 69. The book includes script, nude photos of the production, and a chronicle of how the original idea became reality.
The friends were astounded. Did Bruce actually want to stage it? Yes. In Houston, with all those naked people in it? Yes. Within a month Bruce and David, who was nervous but willing, had $4,000 from one of their bridge partners and an opportunity to lease the old Macatee Building, 22,000 square feet of cultural center possibilities. Bruce was not surprised.
Because David had had an accounting course and some business experience, he was made business manager. A corporation was formed: Bruce, David and the two bridge partners, W. E. Crissey, an engineer with Texas Instruments, and Enrique Abascal, a wine connoisseur for Cobweb Liquors.
Meanwhile an actor named Gerry Metcalfe showed up at the theatre. Gerry’s been in theatre over 40 years. The work he does for the Houston Lab Theater is technical, and his skill at it is invaluable to them. Gerry supervised all the rebuilding and has himself done most of it; and with architect Harry Blethroad works on the building plans. He also puts his considerable charm to work in providing a liaison between the theater and the outside world, a liaison which, given the nature of the group and the play they are doing, was needed time and again.
Finally, in November, 1972, the lease was signed on the Macatee Building, which needed extensive rewiring and plumbing. The building was cold, dark, and huge, but the possibilities were obvious: beautiful brick walls, white square columns, wood floors and most of all—space, wonderfully uninterrupted. It was a gorgeous, dirty, cold warehouse. The second floor was converted into the environmental theater, donated carpet was laid by professionals, the windows sealed and covered, a wall moved back, and an elevator shaft covered. Three-tiered wooden platforms were built to be used interchangeably as set and as seating for the spectators who will be free to roam and sit as they please. Toilets, fire escapes and a sprinkler system were installed to satisfy city building codes.
They had the building. Next step, the actors. So they held auditions.
“We got one person out of those auditions.” Why only one? “I needed actors who had the versatility and the desire to enter into this kind of experience. Most people were doing other things besides acting which they did not want to give up. Also, they had severe reservations about taking off their clothes.” They wouldn’t? “They wouldn’t. One person said, ‘I’d have to be pretty hard up to take a role like that.'”
Undaunted, Bruce flew to New York to hold auditions. He placed an ad in the Village Voice, which reaped 30 actors and actresses; chose four—Matt, Sue, Magda and Jan—and drove them back, 32 hours in a Camaro, to Houston, which none of them had ever seen, and where they had agreed to work for $20 a week plus room and board.
All four of the actors had known each other in New York, although they were not particularly close. I asked them why they came. “I wanted to get out of New York,” Magda told me. “I was very impressed with the audition and with Bruce. It was probably the hardest audition I ever did, but it was a good, thorough audition, and I was ready to leave right away. I was ready to go before Bruce was.”
“It was a logical second step in a progression I was working on,” says Jan. “I had done Liquid Theatre in London—I wanted to move on into this kind of theatre. It is a chance to do work where there is involvement between actor and audience, to reach out to people.” “I would not have come to do any show,” says Sue. I saw the original Dionysus and was very impressed. I had no reservations at all about coming. It’s the kind of theater I want to do; I don’t know how to put on an accent and do funny things.”
“First of all Bruce was paying,” Matt says, “It’s just about impossible to do this kind of work in New York and get paid for it. I had a good part, winter was coming and I was ready to get out.” Also, Matt says, and all the actors agree, “We were drawn together. Call it karma, call it whatever, it was, like, destined.”
The other actors came from Texas. John was in Huntsville, going to school and living “in the woods” when Bruce called. “You know, when somebody asked one of the Hell’s Angels how they initiate a new member, he said ‘We don’t initiate him, we recognize him.’ The same thing was true here. When I talked to Bruce and auditioned for him, I knew I had finally found a place. And when other actors came to audition I could tell when they would be company members and when not. We recognized one another.” Jean lives with Bruce and was involved in the theatre from its inception; nevertheless, she did have to audition. “You can’t imagine how hard it was for me. I wanted to audition. I didn’t want to be cast just because I knew Bruce. But, still, it was really hard.”
By January the company reached its present number, eight, with the addition of two people living in Houston, Lawrence and Gordon.
For Lawrence and Gordon, Houston Laboratory Theatre came along just when they needed it. Lawrence grew up in Houston, had spent some time at the University of Houston studying theater and mime, and had acted in several theaters around town. “But there was no place for me to act in anything worthwhile, and I still had to do other things during the day. When I read about the auditions, I had just finished being a surveyor and was looking into becoming a taxi driver.”
Gordon, oldest member of the company, is small and quiet, something of a loner. The other members talk of “bringing Gordon out” and “Gordon’s come a long way” in becoming a real group person. He was managing a restaurant/bar when he heard of Houston Laboratory Theater and went down to audition. “I’ll stay as long as it works.” Gordon says little during the interminable discussions that sometimes take place during rehearsals; when he does, everyone shushes to listen, it’s that rare.
The script for Dionysus in 69 is as unconventional as the actors and the theater itself. It is loosely based on Euripides’ The Bacchae, his last play written in 408 B.C. From Euripides’ 1,300 lines the original cast chose about 600. These lines can be said in any order and with any additions that the actors want. The script, then, constantly changes. The play is about the introduction to Thebes of the cult and rites of Dionysus. Half-god, half-man, Dionysus comes to Thebes garlanded with promises and joy and ecstasy for those who recognize and worship him. What happens within that rough framework depends upon what happens each night between the actors and the audience.
John plays Dionysus. He strides around the room, his long legs reaching out like stilts and announces to the spectators, “I am a god.”
Dionysus is soft, magical, blonde and polymorphous. The women of Thebes are entranced by his beauty and by his promises and “driven from shuttle and loom, possessed by Dionysus,” run to the slopes of Mount Cithaeron to be initiated into his rites and mysteries.
In direct contrast to the wily god, the king of Thebes, Pentheus, a macho warrior who believes that his armies and physical prowess make him the stronger of the two, confronts Dionysus with his disbelief and disobedience. Matt plays Pentheus. He paces angrily around the floor storming and exploding, pure energy, as ferociously attractive and commanding as a raging fire.
The women roam the countryside which flows with the honey and wine Dionysus has brought forth. They attack the men who spy on their revels; suckle wolf cubs then rip open the animal’s throat and drink its blood; they tear apart the bodies of cattle and hang the bloody flesh from trees. They have fun.
Pentheus calls out his weapons; armies, chains, prisons, none of which contain Dionysus. John/Dionysus, challenges Matt/Pentheus to get himself a woman to satisfy him without the god’s help. Matt goes into the audience asking women to go with him, at times forcing someone into an embrace, a kiss, commanding them to come with him, then asking them to. John, meanwhile, sits entwined with Jan who caresses him. Dionysus gets anything he wants. Matt/Pentheus is defeated. In order for him to become one of the chosen, who experience Dionysan joy and ecstasy as he wishes, John demands that Matt orally massage his genitals, and give the god satisfaction. Matt, beaten, agrees and the two leave the room; John grinning and winking, Matt with his head bowed.
Dionysus then allows Pentheus to watch the revels of the women from a treetop. In The Bacchae, the king’s humiliation is achieved by having him go to the mountainside dressed in women’s clothes. When the Bacchantes spy Pentheus watching their private ceremonies, led by Agave, Pentheus’s mother, they attack. Seeing him as Dionysus wills them to see, as a lion cub, they shake him from his perch and despite Pentheus’s cries for mercy from his mother, Agave “was mad, stark mad, possessed by Bacchus. Ignoring his cries of pity, she seized his left arm at the wrist; then, planting her foot upon his chest, she pulled, wrenching away the arm at the shoulder—but not by her own strength, for the god had put inhuman power in her hands.”
John holds a bowl filled with red liquid. The others come to him and smear their hands with the red stuff. They attack Pentheus. They are all streaked with bloodstuff. Screaming “I don’t want to die!” Matt is pulled through the same tunnel Dionysus went through, being born, except that he goes through backwards. The birth ritual turned to death ritual.
Magda, playing Agave, prances around the room like a circus pony, pounding her chest, throwing back her head, raising her arms. Her breasts bobble. She stands with feet apart like an Amazon. “I did it!” she repeats over and over. “Share my glory!” There are red streaks all over her body, her hands are covered in red, the blood of the son she has killed while blinded by ecstasy. It is a fine moment.
The bodies of her fellow revelers lie in a flesh pile beside her son. Agave dances and shouts. The scene is pure theater: the irony of Madga/Agave’s happiness is set against the truth perceived by the audience, that she has torn her own son’s head from his body.
To perform in Dionysus in 69 without a conventional script, in an unconventional setting that changes from night to night requires a new breed of actor. The actors themselves speak of their bodies as instruments, as tools. Everyday, the actors meet at 9:30 for a series of workshops. There are workshops to encourage group psychophysical communication, workshops in acting, and workshops to allow the actors to be mentally and physically free enough to act in the nude in front of an audience.
From 9:30 until 10 the workout is individual; each actor warms up in his own fashion. John and Sue, who both have extensive dance training, start by running around the room. Jan sits in the lotus position, Jean lies down and goes into dance and slow calisthenics. Matt runs forward and backward and sideways, coming as close to a post as he can without hitting it, then backing off without losing a beat, an athletic kind of workout which is much more explosive and high-powered than anyone else’s. Magda, who has the week before driven a nail into her foot and is gently crippled, does what she can without putting pressure on her purple-wrapped left foot. She does tumbling exercises and stands not only on her head, but on her neck, her head all twisted to the side. It looks impossible.
So does acting in the nude. The reason for nudity in the show, according to Bruce, is the reason for Dionysus in 69 itself. “For most people, nudity is the ultimate step in openness. One of the major points in the show is an invitation for them to be open, an invitation to experience the ecstasy that is in them, to express their own joy. The birth ritual is a structured way for the cast to say ‘I open myself to you’ to each other and to the audience.”
I asked the actors what it felt like to run naked in the theater, to go naked through the birth ritual of Dionysus, to fall naked in a flesh heap. Sue: “Exhilarating. I feel free and wide open. This is me.” Gordon: I’ve done it before in another show.” Matt: “I don’t like the idea that somebody might be looking at me just to look at my cock. You know? I mean, it bothers me.”
Lying in a body pile is simply that, bodies piled up. “Sometimes you wonder whose arm that is across you—Is it Gordon’s?—but you don’t really feel the other people unless they’re lying someplace where it hurts.” And is there any sexual reaction? “No.” Unanimous. “The show is asexual.” Sensual, they grant, but not sexual.
I go to the workshops as a writer, but end up putting my pencil aside and taking part. We do exercises in trust of one another, in order to get the group together and to encourage psychic communion, “which is what the workshop ought to be about.” (Jan)
A big wooden ladder is propped in the middle of the room. The actors groan. “Not the ladder! Anything but the ladder!” They are like captured spies in a war movie, being tortured by heartless Nazis.
It is an exercise in trust. Jean climbs up three rungs. We form parallel lines straight back from the ladder. She puts her hands beside her body and, eyes open, falls straight back without bending. We catch her. Everyone applauds her success. She climbs resolutely back up the ladder to the fourth rung and then to the fifth. Now this is a big wooden homemade ladder, and the rungs are far apart. The fifth rung is high, about six feet. She does it. Whoom and we catch her. Gordon is next, His body small and round as an angel’s, he bends slightly each time and is harder to catch. It is my turn. I climb up three rungs and feel what I am feeling, which is terror. My heart flutters like a thousand birds, my legs quiver, my head cries WHAT AM I DOING THIS FOR? Bruce speaks lovingly, encouragingly to me from behind the ladder and I believe him, I know they will not, would not let me fall, I trust them. But—I cannot let go. Twice I pump my legs, but no go.
Finally what urges me to fall is not a gathering of courage but a sense of timing. They are waiting, it is not even my workshop, it has gone on too long, now or never, it’s getting boring, do or don’t, and I do and die on the way down. Stop. Dead. Come alive again in their arms. I hate it. But I am after all participating and believe in earning credentials and so continue. Fall from the fourth and the fifth rung, it gets no better and no worse but six feet up is pretty high. I cannot keep my eyes open. One time, because I reach my arms out for support, I hit John in the chin, which among other incidents proves that this exercise is much more dangerous for those doing the catching than those getting caught. The actors reassure me that they are frightened every time and while they have all done it before, that repetition does not lessen terror. They fondle and pat me. Still, you’re never prepared for the fall or the jolt when you hit and no matter how many times you do it, you still die on the way down and it grabs your heart like lightning every time.
Everyone does it, even Bruce. All are afraid. But I am the only coward.
Group working and group living is not always easy for the company. They did get a larger place, which helped but still, as in any nuclear family, tensions arise and build.
Sue: “The problem is, we are never away from one another. And what we do at the theater is an extension of how we live at home. It’s a continual working-out.”
John: “I not only have to learn to relate to Matt at home, it’s my job to do it at the theatre too.”
Matt’s enormous ego probably has more difficulty confining itself to group priorities than anyone else’s. “It’s good for me, living in a group like this. But—I can’t help it, it drives me crazy. I need to be alone sometimes. I lived in a commune once, but it was in the woods and whenever I needed to, I could just go out and be by myself.” Matt’s dark and strong beauty, his drive, his cunning, his competitiveness and his talent give him the capacity to really make it in theater, movies or television.
He and Lawrence are the only members of the company who admit to being actors, to feeling any life’s ambition towards performing. Lawrence: “I’ll never do anything else as a career. Either an actor or a mime, it’s all I want to be. Anything else would be a drag.” Matt: “It’s my destiny. It’s what I have to do.” Magda: “I have no feeling of career. If this doesn’t work out I’m going to move on to something else. Maybe medicine or living in the country.”
The actors’ salaries will increase if the show is financially successful as will the staff’s. How Houston theatregoers will react to the nudity in the show and the show itself is an open question. What the people who burned down the movie house that tried to screen I Am Curious Yellow will do is an unknown factor. How many people care about seeing Dionysus in 69 at all is another. If this show doesn’t go, or if it does, Bruce has other shows in mind, one on the life of Billie Holliday, not necessarily the same kind of show as Dionysus.
The people at Houston Laboratory Theater are serious, Deadly serious. You might get an investor to talk about the nudity in terms of commercial drawing power, but not an actor, or any member of the company. Matt: “This is the most perfect theater I’ve ever worked in. However bad it gets sometimes around here, it’s the best any of us has ever had.” Lawrence: “It’s harder than I ever thought it would be.” John: “We have to make it work.”
Gordon: “You do understand what we’re trying to do here, don’t you?” Jan: “Reaching out and touching people, that’s what it’s all about. People you don’t even know.” Magda: “Please, people, we have to stay together!” Sue: “Anything you reach out for, it’s usually ego that keeps you from getting it. That’s what I fight against, ego.” Gerry: “Theater is a temple, a shrine. Actors worship there.” David: “We’re going to open. It’s going to work. If we have to build it with our own hands. Tell me, what do you think of it?” Bruce: “I’ve always wanted my own theater.”
This is where they are as I pack up my pencil and paper and go home. Thinking back about why they let me become a part of their explorations, I think they would have let in anyone who did not disturb the “process,” who did not impinge, impose or disrupt. I have heard them say to other people, to potential investors, to curious hangers-on, “Come, join us in a workshop.” I thought I’d like to be in the show, too, at one time, but I don’t think so now. Somehow for me to gambol naked at the Macatee would be ridiculous. I’m going home and let the process continue without me.