Ask about the Taffety Punk Theater Company and you’re sure to get a multitude of answers like, “they’re punkers,” “no, they’re a band and they act,” or “they are the coolest group of artists in theater.” With artists who dedicate themselves making to their passions and things that they love doing, the “T Punks” are redefining the theater industry by giving everyone the opportunity to experience theater arts for a low price. Known for their “Bootleg Shakespeare” and the” Riot Grrls” series, we caught up with some of the members of theater’s most refreshing group. Marcus Kyd, Lise Bruneau and Kimberly Gilbert discuss the origins of their company, their philosophy behind the price points of their shows and the roles of women in the theater industry.
L&W: Taffety Punk describes itself as a “theater band,” how did Taffety Punks come together? What is the meaning behind the name? What are some of the inspirations behind the plays?
MK: We were a handful of punkers who realized that we were also classically trained actors, and dancers. We believe theatre is dance and dance is theatre. We love music. We were all pretty disenchanted by the theatre and dance world. We missed the camaraderie of punk shows. We wanted to bring everything we loved about punk rock to the theatre. That includes low ticket prices, and intense questioning of what we do and why we do it. We try to merge dance, theatre and music as much as possible because we feel they are part of a whole. Our first show was, naturally, at the Black Cat. It was where our bands would play. Our inspirations come from many sources. But our company members look at the world, and ask questions and we take those questions into the studio. This is how suicide.chat.room came to be. Sometimes we ask those questions through material that already exists, which is how our adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece came to be.
LB: We are a labor of love envisioned and constructed by Marcus Kyd, with many co-conspirators along the way. Marcus is from a DC punk background - which is a community of folks I would describe as the following - DIY-with-a-little-help-from-your-friends, positive impact, no frills, a passionate drive to create by creatively using its resources, and a commitment to include everyone that wants to be included. Our name is always cut from All’s Well That Ends Well, and means “a well-dressed whore.” I take issue with that, of course, as I see us as shabbily dressed Duchesses! We are all highly trained Classical actors, working out of a black box in a community arts center with about 18 lighting instruments and using a volunteer actor for Wardrobe on each show - usually me. As far as the work we do, we like quirky or undiscovered or unmined plays. We honor the text like the author’s widow, and do our best to turn up the volume on the meaning both to make the stories more accessible and more fun!
MK: It is amazing to me that Lise wouldn’t take more credit for starting this. I suppose Erin and I were the driving forces behind Taffety Punk, but we couldn’t have done it without Chris and Amanda and Lise. Erin was a Richmond punk and classically trained ballet dancer, who ultimately found her way up here. Erin is amazing at starting things. She ran off to Kalamazoo for a while and founded the RAD Festival (Midwest Regional Alternative Dance Festival). Then she came back to us.
L&W: Marcus, can you elaborate more on Taffety Punk’s philosophy of making the theater experience more affordable and giving everybody the chance to experience the art and talent of Taffety Punk.
MK: It’s pretty simple, really. We believe theatre is a gift to the community. It should not be a luxury. We’re shocked at how expensive it is to see a play or a dance in DC. This is a vibrant, living art. We love this art. Why would you shut people out by jacking up the prices? Theatre is an expensive form. It always has been, and it always will be. There isn’t a single non-profit theatre that survives from ticketing alone. They can’t. Capitalism doesn’t work here. We accept gifts from people, to give gifts back. I’ve heard talk about perceived value ticketing (which is why orchestra seats are more expensive than the balcony); I think there’s even a theatre in town that is now pricing tickets the way airlines do. But that’s all crap. We make art. We’re not selling cars. Everyone should have access to this, or what is the point of doing it? Our feeling is that if you can afford to see a movie, or a band, then you should be able to pay about the same amount to see play, or a dance, or who knows, we may do a concert version of a Purcell opera one day. That’s just how we are.
L&W: Lise and Kim, you both have great bodies of work within many aspects of the theater industry. What attracted you all to the idea of Taffety Punk? As women in the industry, do you all find that there is a major difference of how women are portrayed and the roles given vs. men?
LB: In working for the bigger regional theatres, it tends to be harder for them to make challenging choices and take big risks. Especially with the more Classical plays, there tends to be a preference not to shake things up too much. In my opinion, shaking things up is exactly the way to let them breathe! Taffety Punk is able to be more muscular, and I think, really take performance to a more intense place. One of the things I’ve dreamed of for years is the simple hope that one day casting “against type” would allow actors with a deep understanding of and desire to play a certain role might get the chance no matter what their age, gender, race or physical attributes are. That’s the sort of thing we’re able to pursue. As well as doing a live rock version of Rape of Lucrece with original music, dance, and the actors playing the instruments.
KG: When I started working with the T Punks I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be, per se. What I DID know is that they were comprised of some of the most dynamic artists I had known. What has evolved since its inception has been a company devoted to creating opportunities for professional actors to sink their teeth into. Now on the subject of gender differences in our “theatreverse, “ I feel I have been a VERY fortunate actor in that I have had the bulk of my theatre experience with amazing companies that have been quite responsible in terms of equality. That’s not to say there aren’t issues with gender equality, the bulk of the world has issues with gender equality; but it is companies like Taffety Punk and Woolly Mammoth (where I am also a company member) in this community who keep striving towards making it a level playing field.
LB: As far as the women vs. men thing, we can just start with the simple truth that with women having been largely in the background of great historical moments (with notable exceptions, of course), naturally men have more to do. I don’t want to change history to make it more palatable to modern generations, but I sure would love girls to have a chance to sink their teeth into some of the male roles built around those moments! And I’d love to afford men the same opportunity with some of the Lady roles. It’s also worth mentioning that the numbers of women to men in plays is still staggeringly in the favor of men. I’ve been to many auditions with an equal number of men and women reading, when there’ve been 8 male roles available and 2 women. Your portrayal question is a very good one. I went through a typical period in my 20s when I wanted all of my characters to be Amazons, but that certainly isn’t a solution. Desdemona is a strong woman, but she isn’t going to pull a knife on Othello - she loves him too much! It’s important to keep the female characters doing the job of taking their place in the story. But I think it would be less tempting to turn everyone into a warrior goddess if we got to actually play a few of those along the way.
L&W: Lise, how did idea of Riot Grrrls come about? Is it true that it started out as rival performances against an all-male group?
LB: So, yes, Marcus gets the credit for that one, too. I was going off on how unfair it was for the big Shakespeare company in our town to decide to produce an all-male R & J, and denying us girls 3 whole parts (one of them JULIET!) in a show that had so many men in it anyway. I also couldn’t help noticing that while theatres often went the all-male route, no one EVER seemed to think it was fun to go the all-female one! (Which goes back to my old whine about how for some reason it’s always funnier to put a man in a dress than a moustache on a woman, right?) So Marcus said, “Let’s do an all-female R&J, run it at the same time as theirs, and we will totally crush them.” Well, who could resist that? We knew one thing for sure - there would be no shortage of wonderfully talented and superbly trained women absolutely chomping at the bit to play any part they could. It was a terrible challenge to juggle everyone’s schedules (we began the planning process 7 weeks before Opening!), but it was a huge success. And I have heard from many folks that Kimberly was the best Mercutio they had ever, ever seen.
MK: She is too kind. I am an enabler. I was only echoing what the women in the company were saying. Once we discovered we had the space and time to give to it, the women were so driven that there was no way it wasn’t going to happen. They did crush that other show.
L&W: Kim and Lise, can you both tell us about the sisterhood in Taffety Punk? What is it like to create and perform with such great artists like Erin [Mitchell], Esther [Williamson] and Tonya [Beckman}?
KG: Erin, Esther, and Tonya are some of the smartest women I know. They are true collaborators, incredibly hard working, and talented beyond all get out. So what is it like to create with these grrrls? Humbling.
LB: I have to say that the Punks really thrive on equality, and where in other situations a sisterhood is vital to keeping your sanity, here it is just a wonderful launching pad and creative engine. Some of the boys on the team are better feminists than some of us! But what does thrill me about our ladies is the enormous amount of talent - and the fact that while few of us would ever be called for the same roles, we often think of ourselves interchangeably as far as casting. My dream!
For upcoming shows and updates, check out their website: www.taffetypunk.com