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Got On the Bus

Zocalo Theater takes its act on the long and winding road

On a recent Saturday morning at the Zocalo Theater and Performance Art Company compound on Feagan street in the Heights, the sun beat down on a scene animated with the frantic scurrying of a kicked-over anthill. The two acre light-industrial property, leased by Zocalo from landlord and District Attorney)

Johnny Holmes, is crammed into an unlikely slot between receding plank-board homes and encroaching prefab condominiums. To the left of the property's main building -- a truck-washing station converted to theater space -- stands a two-story drive-in movie screen where homemade videos are screened periodically. To the right, there's a tin-roofed pavilion crowded with giant, sculptured spheres dangling from the rafter beams. Beneath the theater's eaves, an indoor/outdoor cafe space ceilinged with polyester shirts serves as a sometimes home for spoken word and musical performances. Shacks and office spaces converted to low-maintenance residences dot the property. And on this particular day, more or less in the center of the lot, a highly modified, 30-foot 1971 International school bus painted in shades of pink and yellow anchored the scene.

Resonantly enough, the Zocalo Mobile Village school bus once served as a transport vehicle for the Texas Department of Corrections; Zocalo founder Nestor Topchy bought the vehicle last year for $1,000, reconditioned it and built a 25-foot-by-seven-foot performance platform on its roof. Onboard gasoline generators provide the power supply, and a traveling troupe of ten artists and technicians provide the art.

This Saturday morning, the bus provided a focal point for the last-minute activities of the Zocalistas, who, by 9 a.m., were already encased in a sheen of gritty sweat. They were busy packing the bus with provisions that would allow ten people to live, sleep, eat and perform on the road for two weeks: Zocalo was taking its show out to meet America.

Sculptor, performance artist and bus owner/operator Nestor Topchy directed the activity like a harried father figure while the motley collection of performers, technicians, documentarians and hangers-on loaded the bus with suitcases and tents, ice chests and backpacks. Crates filled with electronics were stowed under seats; a platoon of bicycles was strapped to the railings on the bus' roof. Theater lights and public address speakers bungee-corded into sky blue tarps were secured with heavy canvass straps. At the last minute, someone remembered that the route Zocalo planned to follow would carry them through Washington, D.C., and, almost as an afterthought, a questionably maintained canoe and American flag were loaded on board for a latter-day crossing of the Potomac.

When the bus finally pulled out of the Zocalo compound and into the bay of a Washington Avenue gas station, it was realized -- too late and yet awfully early -- that the turn signals were inoperative and the brakes were questionable. But Zocalo was on the road and, for better or worse, there was no turning back.

"Zocalo" is a word for a dying, in the U.S. anyway, concept: the town square as public meeting place, the central hub of evening activity, a place where musicians and poets and performers of all stripes may peddle their wares to passersby and, oftentimes, the boundary between artist and audience is crossed without a second thought. The communitarian zocalo concept -- popularly embodied in Mexico City's city-central zocalo -- retains some currency in south-of-the-border towns and villages, but in this country it's been long supplanted by the shopping mall, where the point is purchases rather than performances.

Pulling on that communitarian artistic spirit is part of what Zocalo Theater is about, though in truth, describing precisely what the Zocalo Theater is about is almost impossible. Ambiguity and suggestion are the cornerstones of much Zocalo-generated art. It's much easier to define what Zocalo isn't, and it is definitely not, for one thing, a mall.

Topchy has leased the property on Washington for five years now, using its unorganized sprawl as a free-form studio and crash pad for a variety of artists. A little more than a year ago, he finally organized the Zocalo Theater and Performance Art Company as an officially recognized nonprofit arts organization, allowing it to pursue grant money to support its myriad projects. On the underground-to-Alley Theatre scale of local art spaces, Zocalo occupies a sub-subterranean profile somewhere between the Commerce Street Artists Warehouse and your neighbor's basement -- which is precisely where Topchy and his alternative art sensibilities seems to like it. Subsisting near the bottom rung of the local theater ladder, Zocalo can do pretty much whatever it likes, whether it be hosting Nick Cooper's recent theatrical outing Deus ex Chocula or serving as the set for condiment auteur Jim Pirtle's no-budget video remake of Forrest Gump, abbreviatedly entitled Gump. As art, much of what comes out of Zocalo's group-think could be defensibly described as self-indulgent crap. And the company has been criticized for its fuzzy-headed exhibitionism and male-dominated aura. But that hardly seems the point.

Topchy's performance characters -- such as the frown-painted, mop-headed Spunky the Anti-Clown and the mock rapper MC Poodle -- come off more as fleetingly clever ideas rushed into production than as finished art with any intention of staying power. Pirtle, along with Topchy one of the most consistently productive members of Zocalo's loose-knit company, appropriates schmaltzy pop songs, smears mayonnaise on his face, chugs picante sauce and suggests that his work is about "masking," though its greatest impact more often lies in the realm of the freakish gross-out. As a theater, Zocalo exists primarily as a much needed, if under-utilized, alternative space in a city poorly equipped for non-professional theater. And the company's sidelines, such as the drive-in and the Poet's Cafe, serve as a free-for-all of good intentions. If there's any cohesiveness to the company's mission, it doesn't seem to be any more, or any less, than the pursuit of artistic (or arty) anti-constraint: if you can think of it, do it, final execution be damned.

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