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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.

And yet art for art's sake, Topchy insists, is not a concept relevant to Zocalo's mission. "I don't believe in art for art's sake," he says. "I think there are certain meanings in everyday life, and the actions of everyday life. It's not only political to do something like get up in the morning, but it can also be poetic to brush your teeth in a certain way, to live a certain way. To take advantage of and to really realize that one's alive."

It only takes a few hours of the Zocalo Mobile Village's East Coast tour to let everyone aboard the bus realize they're alive, if only because the trip has already begun to stimulate the desire that one were peacefully dead instead. Everything that was once neatly packed is now scattered. The expensive reality of starving artists filling a 50-gallon gas tank for a 3,600 mile round trip in a vehicle that travels seven miles to the gallon has begun to sink in, as have the uncomfortable logistics of ten unsynchronized bladders.

Never mind that there are ten creative adults on board, ten self-styled artists with ten touchy, helium-filled egos. Never mind that Poet's Cafe henchman Malcolm MacDonald -- who once chased a small after-hours crowd around Catal HYyYk with his whizzing penis in his hand after an argument over $5 -- insists on challenging every personality characteristic of every member of the entourage, just to see if he can make them cry. Never mind that someone has to be in charge of an undertaking of this cramped magnitude, and not one soul on this bus likes to be told what to do. A sane planner would have ditched the Mobile Village concept as a wonderfully intriguing, but fatally impractical gesture, before the bus ever got rolling. But making such a gesture work is -- every bit as much as any resultant art -- the point. If getting out of bed in the morning is a political statement and the brushing of teeth contains poetry, lunacy on this scale must, everyone involved implicitly insists, be a grand gesture.

"What I'm actually doing," explains Topchy, "is I'm gearing myself to be less rooted. My ancestors, Cossacks, are nomads. But it's only the rich people that really get to be sort of nomadic in this country. They have summer homes in different places. Lower middle-class people and working class people -- like most of these artists -- can't. In Russia and in Eastern European countries, I think if you're an intellectual or a really talented musician or poet or something like that, the culture is more valued in those societies, so that's one of the ways to escape the stigmas of being lower class. Whereas in America, it's such a materialistic place that the best you can do if you're an immigrant or first-generation is to have this kind of hope, to say 'America is a great place.' I feel like that's the strength of immigrants, but it's not necessarily the reality of this country's culture. So what I'm doing, just for my sanity, is I'm finding a way to cheaply develop a sense of nomadic community. To travel and do art in a country where it's really hard to do that."

The Zocalo Mobile Village isn't Topchy's first attempt at a nomadic art community. A previous tour to New York in a steelenshrouded convertible family car last year paved the road (and experienced 33 instances of mechanical failure). Zocalo has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, New York's Buskers Fair and the International Performance Festival in Mexico City. The bus itself got a trial run two months ago with a road test and performance in San Antonio. The present tour -- with scheduled performance stops in New Orleans, Baltimore, New York City, Boston, Provincetown and Raleigh -- is itself loosely conceived as a preview for a more extensive college tour next year.

With a painted bus full of ne'er-do-wells recalling the acid-trip ramblings of Ken Kesey's famous bus Further, and with the hodgepodge Zocalo performances tapping into the American tradition of the traveling circus, and with the artists involved maddeningly insistent on the prime virtue of suggestive ambiguity, one might be excused for wondering just what the hell actually happens at these "performances." It's a good question, but it's not one satisfyingly answered beforehand.

It is, Topchy attempts, glossing the probability that he's not sure himself, "important to not know exactly why you're doing everything you're doing. But you can find out after a while."

Okay. Since it's now been a while -- and the bus has made it as far as New York, where, after two performances at the Brooklyn Anchorage under the Brooklyn Bridge, it's up in the air having its brakes fixed -- I'll tell you what parts of America have seen on loan from Houston.

The performance fades in with Kevin Jackson's turntable feeding kitsch-laden music into loudspeakers atop the bus. Malcolm MacDonald introduces the company, tells a funny story about whatever outrageous misfortune happened to strike the group the day before and suggests, without actually begging, that the crowd might want to make a small financial contribution before the night is out.

"What you're about to see," he claims before one performance, "is so incoherent as to defy any sort of description." Jim Pirtle, performing under the hobo-ish pseudonym Stu Mulligan, is introduced and, to the backdrop of Jackson's music, begins to sing karaoke. Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors" (remember that mask theme?) is the first tune. The bus itself, capped with a 30-foot aluminum tripod and draped with a long white projection canvas, defines the stage area, and while Pirtle growls out his song, Topchy -- dressed in pajamas and whiteface -- mimes and poses from a perch atop the guardrailed plywood performance platform that serves as the bus roof. Meanwhile Roger Schoenbaum, in a matching getup, walks a tightrope stretched from a light pole to the bus. Video collages are projected on a canvas behind Pirtle, who launches into "If You Go Away" as Topchy begins to climb a knotted rope dangling from the peak of the tripod. When he reaches the top, his mugging, contorted face is recorded by a video camera mounted above him, and that image is fed onto the screen behind Pirtle, who is by now writhing on the ground beneath Schoenbaum, who's strutting over him on stilts. People clap when this is over.

Pirtle follows with "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," during which he eats a bouquet of carnations, or roses, depending upon local availability. "The Way We Were" is next, and then "It Was a Very Good Year," during which Pirtle covers his face in mayonnaise. Somewhere in there Pirtle drinks a small bottle of picante sauce and Schoenbaum smashes a watermelon off a pedestal. Pirtle closes with "Close to You" while Topchy and Schoenbaum eat the fruit off the ground.

That's the meat of the show, and while it's difficult -- if not pointless -- to say whether it's art or merely act, it is an undeniably strange, alternate reality that is created for the brief span of 45 minutes. Afterward, Ponty Lutz plays some sensitive singer-songwriter musings on his acoustic guitar, and whatever members of the crowd haven't left climb on the bus to sit at candlelit booths and drink coffee as Jackson plays more acoustic guitar music and MacDonald recites poems. According to the Zocalo Mobile Village mission statement, the performance is supposed to incite "interactive collaboration with artists from the host community," but that lofty sounding goal is rarely represented by anything more than the hippie-dip from Baltimore who followed MacDonald's performance one night with the recitation of a bit of doggerel verse inspired by the news of the passing of Jerry Garcia.

But to summarize the Zocalo performance with a blow-by-blow account doesn't do justice to the not-so-simple fact of the bus itself -- a fact that ties the fractured performance together, sort of. "I see the bus as kind of monumental," Topchy says. "It's kind of like a sculpture on wheels. I tend not to separate industrial objects from art objects, so the bus has all these weird connotations like school, church, Partridge Family, utilitarianism, all these concepts. So no matter what you do with it, it's going to be a loaded plate. It's got a lot of intrinsic meaning."

Neither does a chronological account convey the ways in which the show evolves from gig to gig in response to the contingencies of the road. In New Orleans, for example, a faulty power connection and someone's failure to buy coffee canceled the Poet's Cafe. In Baltimore, Austin-based performance artist Chad Salvata joined the tour with a show-opening voice-manipulation chant-fest, only to bail out of the tour in New York after an ugly slap-fight in Baltimore and a near smashup on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway convinced him that he had better things to do than risk death for art that, so far, has been variously described by a New York City art director as "absolute horseshit" and by a Baltimore art school event coordinator as "great, really great."

Salvata, in fact, was only the first of several troopers to truncate the trip, and not without justification. If adventure has been the much trumpeted name of the game, risk and luck have existed in a frighteningly tenuous truce. No one thought much about pitching tents in the parking lot of the Maryland Institute of Art the night after the Baltimore performance, but when Pirtle woke the following morning to find the rear end of a moving station wagon backing over his torso, its wheels straddling his sleeping place, he spoke -- when he could -- for everyone when he asked, "How many times can you roll a seven?"

But any company of performers that heads out half-cocked on the great American highway seeking art and adventure would be poorly advised if it didn't expect a generous helping of both. And whatever the ultimate impact of the individual performances along the way, the root fact of the matter is the experience itself. Whether or not an audience finds that experience rewarding to watch is, of course, that audience's business.

"For me," Topchy says, "it's about living everyday life in an exciting way. And to me, the most exciting way is to take real stock of not only day-to-day activities, but the adventure and the freshness in going different places."

Songwriter Townes Van Zandt says much the same thing in "To Live Is to Fly," when he sings, "Where you been is good and gone / all you keep is the gettin' there." And so back in Houston, with the bus finally safe in the Zocalo compound, it's appropriately telling to take a last glance at the small chalkboard-paint "Destination" oval above the windshield -- and to realize that, after two weeks and 3,600 miles worth of performance art, nobody ever bothered to climb up there and write down just where Zocalo thought it was going.

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