Art Talk with Marcus Kyd of Taffety Punk Theatre
Marcus Kyd giving a make-up note to an actor on the set of Burn Your Bookes. Photo by Teresa Castracane
You wouldn't normally consider the punk rock music scene as inspiration for a theater ensemble, but its energy and collaborative environment were what Marcus Kyd wanted to emulate when he helped to form the Taffety Punk Theatre Company in 2004.
A finalist for the 2010 DC Mayor's Arts Award for Innovation in the Arts and recipient of the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company from the Helen Hayes Awards, Taffety Punk provides affordable classical and contemporary theater infused with the energy of punk rock music. Marcus Kyd spoke with the NEA about what makes Taffety Punk stand out in the crowded DC theater scene.
NEA: How did you get involved in DC?s arts scene?
KYD: I was born and raised in DC. And when I was growing up I got involved in the punk rock scene in the ?80s and ?90s. It?s an amazing music scene---just wonderful camaraderie. Hundreds of people were helping each other out all the time. I love DC and when I started acting, I started missing that---what I knew from punk rock---and I wanted to bring that to theater.
NEA: How did you transition from music to acting?
KYD: During the '90s I was doing so much music that I couldn't act. My brother and I started a band, The Most Secret Method, in 1995 that started doing really well and we pushed that as far as we could. In the meantime, I might have done an underground play, and in 1999 I put up a dance theater show at Joe's Movement Emporium. I got a master's degree in classical acting. All this was going on while I was in the band. And when the band broke up I just shifted back over to theater. But I've always done both---music and acting. I've always wished the worlds would collide more than they did.
NEA: How would you characterize the arts scene in DC?
KYD: Sadly, it's very insular. That doesn?t mean it's not fantastic and inspiring and supportive. But I don't see a lot of cross-pollination going on. Theater people go see plays and dance people go see dance and art people see art and I wish there was more of everybody going to see everything.
NEA: How did Taffety Punk come about?
KYD: I didn't start it alone; it was me and Lise [Bruneau], Chris Marino, Erin Mitchell, Amanda MacKaye. We just weren't seeing the work we wanted to see. We weren't asked to do the work we wanted to do. All actors train to such a high degree to be versatile in all sorts of mediums. And it?s rare that someone will call you up and say, "I'm working with masks" or " I have this movement play I want to do." And we?re all kind of dying to do that kind of work. So we just thought, let's start doing it. Let?s see what we can put through the distortion filter and send out the other side.
NEA: What sets Taffety Punk apart from the other theaters in DC?
KYD: That's an important question and I made sure we all asked ourselves that---are we doing anything different? Because it wouldn't make sense to start a theater company if you're just going to do what someone else is doing. You might as well just call them up and ask if you can help.
What we're doing that's different is our company is a place where music and dance and acting really do come together. Sometimes it just looks like a play with music or dance, which is fine for us, and sometimes we throw everything at it---like with suicide.chat.room, where the music and dance inform the narrative of the play. We just wanted to provide a laboratory for ourselves to push our own boundaries. And the real difference is we work like a band. We get together and talk about what we want to do. We want to be an operating ensemble and not just a pool for migrant workers to jump in and out of.
And we have pretty punk values---we want to make sure everybody can afford to get in. We've set up a lot of challenges for ourselves, but we also have really high standards. Making theater affordable does not mean theater has to suffer artistically; it just means we have to push ourselves to do more with less. But the story has to be told and it has to be the best show it can be and all of that matters greatly to us and I think people really appreciate that.
NEA: How has being located in DC shaped your company?
KYD: The music scene was really what helped us kick it off. When we decided, let's do this, obviously we needed a space. I knew Dante at The Black Cat and I called him up and said, I would like to do a play at your club, and he said, Okay - but I can only do one night. And I said, that's all I need, just one night. And it was great. The Black Cat was very accommodating, very helpful, and I think very pleased to see an appetite for this. We threw together a workshop show on their back stage and filled the place. So they had us back a few times and it was great and people from those shows started coming up, offering to help. I met one of my board members that way. That sense of community, that sense of sharing that I grew up on is still there.
NEA: Taffety Punk's Bootleg Shakespeare---a one-night-only, free performance with just a day of rehearsals---has been a hit with lines around the block. Why do you think these have been so successful?
KYD: I heard we had lines around the block too, and I was delighted to hear that. That was the goal when we started this thing. You know, we would roll up to a Dismemberment Plan show in the 90s and see the lines going down 14th street and around S Street. And I would always think, this would never happen at the theater. So when I got the message that the line was going around the corner, I thought, this is just fantastic.
The exciting thing is the room is full of energy. Everyone in the room---the actors, the technicians, the audience---they all know this is the first and only time this is ever going to happen. We don't have time for a run-through that day. The play is really happening for the first time and it's what you always want on stage---this is happening now, it's never happened before, and it's never going to happen again. The actors are really listening to each other because on a cheap level, they need their cue, but really they're getting the information they need to play against from the other actor for the first time. Sometimes there are mistakes, but the goal is to not have a lot of mistakes and to let the actors weave their way out of trouble and make it look flawless. It's just a magical thing that I'm so happy to be a part of.
The first one we did was a little like pulling teeth. We got 14 fantastic actors involved but I really couldn?t find more people that would want to do it. And now actors are really excited. We had too many people this year that wanted to do it and we couldn't accommodate everybody. There wasn't just a line at the door, there was a line outside of the acting door too.
It?s just the perfect event for me. It's free, it's high art that's really exciting, and it?s for the public. The audience was made up of all sorts of people---young, old, all sorts of colors. It was just fantastic; I'm so happy about that.
NEA: What are the ways you think DC can better support its artists and arts organizations?
KYD: I would love to see real, meaningful subsidized housing for artists. That is the most crushing thing that's going on in DC right now. There are a lot of subsidized artist programs going on that are like 10% less than market rate and that is still impossible for us to afford. Artists can usually pay half of market rate without killing themselves with three or four jobs. The theaters don't pay them enough; the bartending and waiting jobs they have don't pay them enough. And they're killing themselves to maintain their work. Their work is in their bodies - they have to take physical classes, dance class, strengthening classes like yoga, or have memberships to a gym. They have to take vocal classes. They have to rent spaces to do anything at all. I just think it?s impossible to have an arts scene this big and expect everyone to be able to pay $1,800 in rent.
As a small company, I don?t know whose responsibility it is to change this. And maybe it?s about us engaging in it. I don?t know how the larger groups get a hold of cheap space. I hear rumors that there are development deals that go on where someone gets an entire theater for a dollar a month or $10 a year. And the developer gets some breaks and I don?t know what all that?s about. I wish there was a way for the smaller groups to learn about that stuff. I wish there was a non-profit education center. Maybe that already exists but I?m not aware of it.