A Theatre Mecca?
By Adrienne Martini
July 21, 1997: When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, there was an advertising campaign that showed lovely aerial shots of the city coupled with a nifty little jingle about the "feeling in the air that you just can't get anywhere." In hindsight, that feeling may have been the soot from all of the steel mills, but I was young and impressionable.
Now that I'm older and have ventured beyond my Steel Curtain heritage, I realize that that feeling is actually in Austin. While this city does not have quite the same blue-collar funkiness that the 'Burgh has, it does have a certain organic-food-buying, mountain-biking, live-and-let-live sort of atmosphere that welcomes people with open arms and invites them over for some barbecue.
This is a secret that is rapidly becoming known around the country, particularly if one has an ear to the theatre grapevine. My college advisor, when I asked her about Austin, almost drove me to my minuscule apartment in Pennsylvania and helped me pack. "Austin is a theatre Mecca," she said.
Part of what makes this place is that there is something new to see almost every night. The variety is astounding. There is also a communal bond among theatre types in this city, an attitude that helps so many companies thrive because they receive so much support from those around them. No, that doesn't mean that it's easy. But it does appear to be much easier than in other parts of the country. Plus, Austin has Barton Springs.
Currently, the local stage scene boasts at least a half-dozen companies created by artists who moved to Austin to start theatres. Scott Thompson, Dan Bonfitto, and Marshall Ryan Maresca are three such artists. Thompson, with partner Richard Byron, founded Austin Musical Theatre, which produced Peter Pan at the Paramount Theatre this past January and will mount West Side Story in the same space this November. Bonfitto and Maresca formed the Downstage Players, which is in the process of presenting Flame Failure, an episodic work in 12 parts staged over the course of a year in The Public Domain Gallery. During our discussion about a newcomer's view of Austin's theatre community, we were joined by another transplant: Vicky Boone, artistic director of Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre. She offered her own story of moving to Austin to found a theatre company, which is a fantastic model for those who have decided to enrich our theatre community a little bit more.
Austin Chronicle: What were you doing before you moved here?
Scott Thompson: Acting sometimes. Directing sometimes. But mainly leaving Los Angeles to work in other parts of the country. It was weird. I had my official residence there but worked everywhere from Washington, D.C. to Birmingham, Alabama to Connecticut. So I found out, really, you can work anywhere in the country and call it your home base. I think that old-fashioned idea that if I'm a theatre artist I have to be in L.A. or New York or Chicago is not so true anymore. People travel a lot to make their art and Austin seemed like a good place to be.
Dan Bonfitto: As far as my theatre career goes -- started out in State College (Pennsylvania), realizing that I could get some extra credit in a class by directing The Martian Chronicles, and I thought, hey, how hard could that be. Five years later, I graduated as a theatre junkie, directed every semester after that, play after play. A friend of mine was coming down here for grad school and I decided. Everyone says Austin is a good theatre town, so I just took a blind leap.
Marshall Moresca: Pretty much a similar situation. I studied film and to do film or theatre, it's like "it's either New York or L.A." Both of them were just far more city than I wanted to deal with. Again, I had heard good things about Austin and decided to move down here.
Thompson: I hadn't heard really anything. I thought there would be people who wore big cowboy hats here. I just had no clue. Then my partner in Austin Musical Theatre, Richard Byron, had family here. Texas was the last place on earth I envisioned myself. I came here and I thought, "Wow. What a cool, sort of liberal bastion, kind of hip, happening place." Film, theatre, music. Had a symphony, a ballet, and an opera company. All good signs for our musical theatre company. Plus, there's a lake. It's pretty. Green trees. I can run here. I like it.
AC: So you packed up your stuff...
Thompson: Not quite. It actually took two years. I came one Thanksgiving, really liked it and looked through the newspapers, went "Oh, they don't have the one thing I do -- a musical theatre company." Okay. Made a mental note of that. Went back to L.A. Worked a lot more, did some other things, and got busy. Then Thanksgiving rolled around again and Richard said, "Do you want to go back for another Thanksgiving and see what happens?" This time I started seriously making phone calls and talking to people. It was November. By January 1st, I had three suitcases in the car and I was headed to Austin. And I haven't been back to L.A. yet.
Bonfitto: One of my thesis advisors mentioned that Austin was a really good town for theatre and to look at it. I will honestly say that I didn't do any research, really, coming into this. I just figured a town is a town, took off, and discovered that this one is better than most, as far as theatre goes. It has people who are actually interested in it, who talk about it.
Moresca: For both of us, it's been this total leap of faith. We came down here sight unseen, an apartment rented sight unseen. We just went on the words of a couple people, "Yeah, it's a cool town." Okay. Better than where we are.
AC: So what do the Downstage Players do?
Bonfitto: So far? We've done one show called Flame Failure. It's a 12-month serial that runs off-nights or late nights. It is intended, for our actors, to be something they can do if they are doing another show at the same time. Although many of them aren't, which is flattering, I guess. They're short shows, about an hour long, and a lot more action-based than standard theatre. I wanted to put on a show that could compete with television as far as the "reach-out-and-grab-you" effect and with movies for special-effects.
AC: What is your plan for your company? Is it just, "Well, we're going to do this series and see what the hell happens," or is there more to it?
Bonfitto: Essentially, we'd like to be putting on 50 percent new material every season.
Moresca: That's years down the line. But we are looking toward the future.
Bonfitto: My ideal is for it to be more of a playwright's theatre. To sum up our mission statement, theatre that kicks ass.
Thompson: I like that.
AC: What niche does Austin Musical Theatre fill?
Thompson: We fill a really obvious one that a lot of people take for granted until you look at Austin really carefully and see that you don't have one. Where there is opera, ballet, and symphony, and where there are dancers, singers, and actors, usually you'll find an occasional musical. There were indeed musicals in Austin, but not on that grandiose, Broadway scale that a lot of areas that are Austin's size are used to. We definitely are more in the mainstream, more popular entertainment.
AC: Peter Pan was your first show in Austin. Has there been another Austin Musical Theatre show?
Thompson: West Side Story will be the next one. If we've done anything wisely, it's been that we've literally -- because once we do do something the product is so big -- we've taken nine months to build up to this one. Slowly the forces are gathering to make each project that we attempt a little simpler than the last because we've gotten more of a group of people together to do it. Maybe it will only take us six months to put together the forces for West Side Story. Then, hopefully, we'll be up to three shows a year.
AC: Have you noticed a difference between audiences here and audiences anywhere else?
Bonfitto: What I'm used to is a college audience, which is, well, these are our friends and these are some people who saw the flyer and came because they couldn't get into the frat party. Down here, there are a lot more people who have seen it in the paper or stopped in wondering what's going on. We ended up getting two science fiction authors at Sunday's show that had been told to come see the show by somebody else. The audiences seem pretty into it. So far, on what little I have to judge by, with this show, they seem interested in it because it is different, radically different.
AC: Have you found any differences, Scott?
Thompson: Not really. I think the material that we've been doing is kind of the old "give them the razzle dazzle" thing, sort of the things that appeal, touch people, and move them. People like dancing here. Big, old dancing extravaganzas. It did our heart good to know that dancing really got the blood boiling in Austin, Texas.
Vicky Boone: The common denominator in all of the aesthetics is dance, whether it is big old-fashioned or big new-fashioned.
AC: Just to introduce and catch everyone up here: this is Vicky Boone. And to get your story -- Did you move to Austin specifically to start Frontera?
Boone: For most of the Eighties and most of my twenties, I was in Seattle, then Boston, then Minneapolis. Then I decided that I wanted to start a theatre. After getting out of graduate school and freelancing for a couple of years, it became clear that was something I really wanted to do. We moved to Dallas to try to start it in Dallas, then aborted that idea very quickly. Left our apartment practically in the middle of the night. The light bulb went off and it was like, "We are in the totally wrong city. What are we doing in Dallas?" Then the idea came to go to Austin and start a theatre, which is what we did. And it just kind of worked. It was the right idea. The audience for our theatre was here. Plus the quality of life was so much more appealing.
AC: What is your mission for Frontera?
Boone: To produce new and emerging playwrights. We've always been a writer-based theatre in a way. Part of our goal has always been to choose really good plays by really good writers. I think that our first two or three seasons really did that. They presented a lot of people who were really intelligent, innovative playwrights to this city. Now we've moved into commissioning and development, which is a natural step from that. We're getting more into the development of the script, with the same kind of writer.
AC: Did you bring anyone from Dallas?
Boone: Nobody. But we got here and tried to twist arms of friends from graduate school, mostly, to come. I used the old ploy of "How's the weather in Chicago? Bad, huh?" We did our first show in February. It was such a cheap ploy. "Wouldn't you like to come to Austin for six weeks, two months, and do this great little play?" That's how we got our first batch of actors to come, just on favors and friendship. We had a great time.
Thompson: Along those lines -- I've worked for various musical theatre companies around the country and I've tried to get guest artists to go to some pretty far out of the way places -- trying to get New Yorkers or Broadway people to go to Birmingham, Alabama. But if you mention Austin, Texas, I've found an amazingly positive response. People just go, "That's pretty cool." You're in a better position here, really, than you might think, in terms of inviting people to come visit you.
AC: Have any of you had a problem finding actors?
Bonfitto: We had an incredible first audition. We actually were planning to cast our first three episodes and we cast our whole show. We were expecting to cast about 10 and cast 25.
Thompson: The weird thing about what we do, as musical theatre, is that we require people to be not only proficient but accomplished in three different areas: singing and dancing and acting. It's been a little bit more difficult. I think there are really good actors here, and I think there are really good singers here, and I think there are really good dancers. Why would there be all of these people who were proficient in all three when up to this point musical theatre hasn't existed on a big scale? But I think if we're going to be here for any period of time that we can make there be a reason for that kind of talent to be attracted to the projects that we want to do.
AC: Were there sources you used to get on your feet or did you just stumble out and see what happened?
Boone: ACoT [Austin Circle of Theatres]. Ann Ciccolella [ACoT's Executive Director].
Thompson: Us, too.
Bonfitto: Quite honestly, we got involved with a couple of people. I still work at The Public Domain. Marshall has connections at Planet Theatre and works mostly production-type stuff. Between Robi Polgar, Bonnie Cullum, and a couple of our tech people, we've had a lot of support. We've raided backyards of people who went "I've got all this spare wood." Well, I've got an empty van.
Thompson: People are that way here. There is a good Mickey-Rooney/Judy-Garland, put-on-the-show-in-the-barn attitude that's really great.
Boone: It's kind of lovely. No matter what your aesthetic is, people still pitch in and help. I just have to say that when we got here, one of the most wonderful things that helped that spirit grow in this city was Norman Miller, who used to run Deus Ex Machina and Inversion. I really remember this. We had only been here for about six months and were just getting started. I got this phone call one day and he was like, "Hi, I'm Norman Miller. I run these two theatre companies. We have some lights. If you ever want to use them, you can. Do you guys have anything?" I'm like, "No, but my husband is a really good carpenter." He was calling everybody who was a small, emerging company at that point and he, I think, is largely responsible for the familiar sort of network that a lot of these small companies have. We have kept operating in that way, but he did a lot for inspiring that work-together attitude in this city. There is a big legacy from his work.
AC: What do you think Austin needs?
Boone: More funding. More corporate and individual funding, speaking for Frontera. I think that would certainly be something that would help us go to the next level.
Bonfitto: More cheap space.
Thompson: Performing facilities. Performing venues of all sizes. What I and a lot of people who live here wish the city would do is value the art that is here more. That would be my observance from being new. I think they take an awful lot for granted. "These people will just figure out a way." Well, not forever. These things that are springing up and are so healthy now, unless it is addressed, in 10 years, the glut is going to be such that we'll strangle one another. We're not going to have any place to perform.
AC: Have your expectations been met?
Moresca: I would say yes.
Thompson: I think our expectations have been exceeded. We were hoping just to do a show and we did one big one. Now it appears that we're going to get to do two more. It looks great on paper and it's just a dream.
Boone: My expectations were definitely met. I had no idea. So many theaters fail. So many small companies start with one show. And then most of them cease to exist. I think that the fact that we did exist afterwards and have continued to thrive for six years is far more than I would have ever imagined the first time I started a theatre.
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