Oct 10, 2013

Kitsch with Significance

A few weeks ago a friend and I met over beers and started brainstorming what a magazine article on each of us would look like. Neither one of us has even been profiled in a magazine, so we started just blurting out what each of our profiles might include. This ended up as a drunken challenge to each other to go home and write our own profiles. Though, in hindsight, this is seriously the peak of narcissism, I created one for myself, complete with a fictional interviewer and photo shoot. It ended up a neat introduction to who I am and what I do, actually. Here it is...

Brad McEntire playwright performer
Brad McEntire                                                   [photo credit: Cornelius J. Wonderblett]

Kitsch with Significance
Theatre maker Brad McEntire is figuring it out.
By F. Thomas Bonnigan - September 28, 2013

A conversation with Brad McEntire can be a multifaceted affair. One of the first things you notice about him is that he likes to talk. And though his topics range all over the map (Nikola Tesla, Texas Independence, YouTube, and so much more) what he always seems to come back to is what he likes to talk about more than anything. He talks about theatre. And let me tell you, this guy has thoughts on all sorts of aspects of the theatre.

We are sitting on the back patio of a mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant in Dallas. McEntire is a large man with broad shoulders. He has small almond-shaped eyes and a wide face. He talks with his hands. Despite his stocky appearance, he moves with an elegant fluidity. He becomes very animated with an edge of excitement in his voice when he gets off on a tear.

His speech pattern is a staccato rapid-fire stream of ideas. He speaks in unexpected patterns, sometimes peppering in hiccups of ums and uhs, sometimes sprinkling in big SAT vocabulary words alongside “awesome” and “sucks.” Sometimes he repeats himself. Occasionally he’ll stop suddenly, gather his thoughts, and then launch back into what he was saying. 

He is on his second beer. He nurses his beers. I’m on my fourth. When I ask him about it, he says it is a habit that he’s developed from being “light in the wallet.”

He holds a cigar between his thumb and finger in his right hand. He takes deep draws from it and lets the smoke drift out of his mouth in a thick cloud. He enjoys his cigars and that is why we are out on the back patio. He likes patios. He dislikes that there are so few places to smoke nowadays. He particularly dislikes how he is sometimes treated as a cigar smoker by non-smokers.

“People are sometimes extremely rude to cigar smokers. There is seldom a polite ‘would you mind?’ as much as they look at me like I impale baby heads on spikes.”

McEntire, 38, has had a productive year. His original commission for Denton’s Sundown Collaborative Theatre, CARTER STUBBS TAKES FLIGHT, premiered in April. It played to mostly good reviews both at Denton’s Green Space Dance Studio and at the Margo Jones Theatre in Dallas’s Fair Park.

McEntire wrote the play especially for the small theatre group, having company members offer suggestions by way of objects, text and images in a big bag. He then drew them out and discussed each item with the whole group. He took notes. He looked for common themes and arresting images. The end result was a play about an office drone who is given a rocket pack by a dying friend. He flies off to a Micronesian island and ends up fighting a tiger.

Rockets, tigers, mundane office culture - these are the building blocks of McEntire’s plays. They are often as weird and haunting as they are hilarious. Earlier this summer he debuted DINOSAUR AND ROBOT STOP A TRAIN. This fanciful piece follows how the two time-traveling main characters supposedly saved a small child from a speeding train. The piece was presented as a press conference. The premise being that the dinosaur and the robot addressed the audience who were, of course, obviously there to hear what they had to say. McEntire’s longtime collaborator Jeff Swearingen played the Dinosaur to McEntire’s Robot.

McEntire and Swearingen in DINOSAUR AND ROBOT STOP A TRAIN

His solo show CHOP concerns an emotionally lost man stumbling into an underground amputation fetish group.

His 2004 play FOR THE LOVE OF AN ANESTHESIOLOGIST has a cross-gender waitress, a sword fight and a Tiki-inspired café set in purgatory.

A reviewer for the Dallas Observer wrote " [In] For the Love of an Anesthesiologist, Texas-born writer and director Brad McEntire achieves, nay, creates new levels of hilarity in a Tarantino-meets-Twilight Zone effort."

He is writing a short one-woman piece for a local actress that concerns her adopting a chupacabra and his piece RUDNICK THE CANDLE-HEADED BOY, an absurd retelling of the Rudolph story, will be included in a collection of holiday-themed one-acts in December.

He is in the midst of rehearsals for a one-act he wrote and is now directing called RASPBERRY FIZZ. He is taking it to the Houston Fringe Festival. It premiered last year at a local festival in nearby Addison, Texas. This will be McEntire’s third appearance at the Houston Fringe in as many years.

He is working with two young actors, named Travis and Tashina. Both are hard-workers and came in knowing their lines by the second rehearsal. McEntire, who also acts in the piece in a small role, has yet to get off book. The piece opens in a week.

It is fascinating to watch him switch back and forth from the acting to directing. As a director he watches very closely and then gives notes at the end of a section. The actors are still adapting to his ways of working. He admits he has not been in a traditional rehearsal process as a director in a long time and he is reflective of how his approach has changed over the nearly twenty years he’s been directing.

“At first I was very detail-oriented and precise. I’d lead the actors through scenes and zero in on the strongest choices and then almost choreograph and micro-manage those decisions. I find nowadays that I have a greater interest in spontaneity and flexibility. I’ve eased up on the precision in favor of freshness and energy. I suppose I’ll eventually come back to a middle way between the two approaches.”

Travis and Tashina are enthusiastic and diligent, two qualities McEntire looks for in actors. He wants the process to be fun as well as demanding. They are just catching on that McEntire has some definite thoughts on some parts of the production and then just lets things unspool for a while to see what will happen on other parts. He says things like, “Well, that’s heading in a nice direction, but just try it a bunch of different ways.  No need to make decisions right now.”

McEntire is aware of how he comes across. This swing back and forth between exactness and spontaneity, he admits, can be disconcerting for traditionally trained actors.

When asked about his directing methods, one actress noted,”You can tell he has theatre training, but that improv thing bubbles up a lot.”

In RASPBERRY FIZZ, McEntire plays a mysterious carnival barker who has set up a record player on a street corner a little ways down from where a young adolescent is trying to work up the nerve to ask a girl at his school out to a dance. Without the Barker, the play would be a straight-forward two-hander, the kind two actual students might do as a scene in an acting class. It would be a sweet little coming-of-age scene between two young people, but nothing unique. The Barker adds both thematic underpinning and a small dose of weirdness. His presence is never explained. The character comes off as funny, but also a little threatening. And mysterious. He is an outsider in a play about two characters who already feel like misfits.

McEntire as The Barker in RASPBERRY FIZZ
“I seem to be drawn towards misfits who are looking for something,” states McEntire.

Indeed, if his style of theatre had a label it might be Kitsch With Significance. With each succeeding piece he pulls in even weirder elements – strange machines and beasts of yore - and does his best to imbue the content with important thematic weight.

“I dig retro novelty, but I want to make it something more than just fluff. I want the work to be universal and important. But still, you know, funny.  Like the way Louis Armstrong sang fluffy little pop songs and made them classics…”

Indeed, jazz legend Armstrong was known for raising lesser songs such as “It’s a Wonderful World” to the level of timeless by his unique delivery and musicality.

A more fitting analogy could be found with Carlo Goldoni, the great Venetian dramatist who renovated the commedia dell'arte form in the 1700s by replacing its masked stock figures with realistic characters, its repetitive action with tightly constructed plots and its predictable farce with narrative spontaneity. Goldoni blended the high and the low to create a new approach to drama. McEntire seems to be attempting a similar sort of thing in his own way.

In November, McEntire will mount RASPBERRY FIZZ in Dallas. Under the banner of his scrappy little company Audacity Theatre Lab. It will play at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park.

McEntire’s main artistic home is his small theatre collective Audacity. Like McEntire himself, the group has an original approach. It doesn’t operate the way most non-profit theatres operate.  It is almost militantly artist-centric. It has no set season, no subscription system, no set aesthetic and until recently had so set venue. This past summer the group was invited to be one of a handful of companies to use the historic Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park.

“We are pretty excited about it, actually. It means we can do more projects in town,” McEntire says.

McEntire has adapted his small group into a stream-lined little machine over the past several years. All the productions are original and created in-house by the artists involved. Most shows are bare-bones with small casts, sometimes one person, and are taken around the country to multiple venues and festivals. They often play for audiences numbering between maybe a dozen and forty people.

McEntire says he doesn’t mind the small crowds. “We don’t necessarily do big shows. We know this. We do smaller, more intimate projects. Those that like our stuff are welcome. There are other theatres doing other stuff, maybe larger-in-scope, for everyone else.”

His solo show CHOP premiered in Addison at the Water Tower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Festival in 2010 and has since traveled to over a dozen different venues and cities, including Seattle, Phoenix, Santa Fe, New York and New Orleans. He’ll take it back to New Orleans in November for a solo performance festival there.

“CHOP is great fun. Ruth (Engel-McEntire, his wife) runs the tech. I perform. We're a team. It is a great excuse for us to travel and meet other theatre people around the country.”

McEntire and his wife since February of 2012, Ruth, actually do travel a great deal. They met in Grad school at Texas Woman’s University. He was studying playwriting and she directing. They both ended up in Hong Kong after graduation working for the same company.

“We were teaching ESL to Chinese high schoolers using drama games. It was stressful, but really fun. We met some great people, other expats, and of course, we traveled a lot.”

They went to Macau and Bangkok and Nepal. On the way back to the States they meandered through Europe staying with friends and alternating between inexpensive youth hostels and more novel high end accommodations.

“We stayed in a castle one night in Ireland. We crashed a wedding reception in one of the ballrooms. The night before we were in a youth hostel on bunk beds, sharing a room with fourteen other people.”

Ruth is a tall blond who smiles a lot. When she looks at and listens to her husband her eyes gleam with a mix of maternal care, amusement and pride. McEntire teases her a great deal, but admits that her support is essential.

“She’s more than just my wife and friend, she genuinely believes in me. She is critical and harsh sometimes, but supportive. She’s like my closest patron.”

McEntire admits that he is a late-bloomer. Though he has been creating theatre for some time he feels he has just recently come into his own. Only in the last several years has he gained real confidence in his own work.

“I’m not shy about putting my name on everything I make now. Each project was kind of hit or miss for a long time as I figured a lot of things out. And as I was in the process of getting better. I’d act in things or direct something that I’d have trepidations about inviting people out to see.”

“Plus,” he adds, “I am generating and performing my own stuff now. A lot of the shows I was involved in either had me on stage as an actor for someone else's vision or had me behind the scenes with my own projects, producing and directing plays while the actors or playwrights I worked with profited from the exposure. I just really kind of helped a bunch of others rise through the ranks.”

Indeed, one of his longtime collaborators, Jeff Swearingen has been hailed as one of the funniest actors in Dallas. Swearingen has gone on to win awards and start his own theatre, Fun House Theatre and Film, where he works with young actors. He started out with McEntire over a decade ago and became a sort of protége. He ended up cutting his teeth for years in a variety of unusual roles under McEntire’s direction.

“Swearingen is great. We've grown up alongside each other. He’s like an artistic little brother.”

Swearingen and McEntire perform together as an improv duo. They call themselves Fun Grip. They only perform occasionally, but "we usually have a good time. And the audience does, too."

McEntire himself is no stranger to improv. A student of comedy whose interests range from European clowning to subversive and experiemental cabaret, he has produced and performed in a handful of sketch and improv groups. In 2005 he began performing longform solo improvisations, experimenting with a format he ultimately called Dribble Funk. It is a hybrid performance piece that draws on storytelling, improv and traditional theatre. In celebration of his 38th birthday, earlier this month, he performed a 380 minute Dribble Funk

"Yeah, I was alone on stage making up a continuous story filled with distinct characters for six hours and twenty minutes."

I ask him if he was nervous about such an undertaking. "Yes," he responds, "I was scared to death. But that was the reason to do it. I didn't want to end up like some sort of theatre equivalent of a high school quarterback, you know, with my best days behind me."

He looks directly at me. "Gotta walk out on the edge every so often and peer over."

The bill comes. The empty beer glasses are taken away. McEntire finishes off his cigar and sets it in the ash tray.

“I seldom stub it out. Better to let it simmer out at its leisure.” 

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