LIPSTICK TRACES IS THE WIDElY AND WILDLY ACCLAIMED stage translation of Greil Marcus' erudite guide to punk theory and praxis through the ages. The show is the brainchild of Rude Mechanicals, an Austin company formed in 1995 by five Texans who all met each other in New York. Last month I invited myself to join Rude Mechs' co-founder Audrey Sides and the artistic director of Manhattan's Foundry Theater, Melanie Joseph, while they had breakfast outside Veselka's in New York's East Village. The morning after all the 9/11 memorials was windy and brisk, and Joseph wanted to be at the anti-Bush demonstration then under way at the U.N. She and Sides settled for talking to me instead.
"I'm always interested in work that comes through your head and out your gonads," Joseph said about her first encounter with Lipstick Traces. "What really grabbed me was how spectacular and very fun the show was. I recognized all these ideas, and they moved me emotionally and politically, making me feel left alone in the world."
The show's very first incarnation was a 40-minute workshop entry in a 1999 theater festival staged in Soho's Ohio Theater -- exactly where Joseph would open it as a Foundry production in 2001. But there was much in between and a priori, as it were. Joseph missed the festival viewing, but eventually flew to Austin to find out for herself what the increasingly loud buzz was all about.
"We e-mailed invitations to people who liked the book to help write scripts," Sides said of Lipstick Traces' creation. "About 10 people participated for three or four months, and we came away with a big ol' box of paper. Then we split up into camps to do research and wrote scenes, personal narratives, monologues. Kirk Lynn started sifting through the paper and began to write the script. I think the hardest part was figuring out how to stage a riot without it being really, really lame."
Although singer Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols are the nominal focus of Lipstick Traces, Sides, who directs the show, was quick to stress that this is no rockumentary.
"We're not trying to put on a re-enactment of punk," she said, "but a theatrical expression of punk. If punk were theater, what would it look like? Our goal is to awaken the personal politics of your life -- not party politics, but your personal goals."
WHEN JOSEPH OFFERED "THE RUDES" her company's clout and the aura of a New York run, she insisted on recasting most of the roles with New Yorkers -- only two Austin actors (Lana Lesley as the Doctor Narrator and Jason Liebrecht as Johnny Rotten) made the move.
"We put New York actors in it," Joseph explained, "partly because there are actors I like to work with, and because I thought it would have a better life here if it was somehow anchored in the community here instead of bringing it in as a transplant."
Joseph seems to play big sister to Sides, who abruptly punctuates her conversation with a staccato laughter.
"I think there was some disappointment," about the cast change, Sides recalled, "but there was a lot of generosity of spirit. We work on a consensus and sat down and said, 'How does everyone feel? If any one of you says, No, then we won't do it.'"
The Rude Mechs' value of collective work, after all, had defined the birth of Lipstick Traces in the first place.
Their staged riot became a popular and critical success in Texas ("It was really funny to them," Sides said. "Austinites are a laughing, beer-drinkin' crowd") and New York. It also was a hit with two particular audience members -- Greil Marcus and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. But what of punk avatar Johnny Rotten?
"We really hope he comes," Joseph said, then noticed Sides' apprehensive look. "Should I not say that?"
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"I think he would be pleased," Sides said gingerly. "It's so difficult to figure what his reaction would be."
When I pointed out that Rotten and the Pistols played her home state on their fateful 1978 U.S. tour, Sides admitted that she was only 10 at the time and that it was considerably later when she first heard them.
"I think I was a senior in high school," she recalled. "I grew up in a really small town. We didn't have a bookstore, we didn't have a record store -- AC/DC was our devil music. There was a guy who'd gone off to Dallas and come back, and some of us were riding around in his Trans-Am. He popped in this tape and the entire car fell silent and we all stared at the radio for a while with our mouths open. One of us said, 'What was that?' The guy said, 'That there's the Sex Pistols!' Oh my god, we wanted to crawl into the radio!"
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century is being performed at UCLA's Macgowan Little Theater, as part of UCLA's international theater festival; Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., until October 20. Call (310) 825-2101.