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