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"We'll Always Have 807 Congress"

The Raging of the Elements, or Indoor Theatre in Austin -- Al Fresco

By Robi Polgar, Fri., June 25, 1999

There are some days when it feels like PD operates en plein air: an Eden one day, tornado alley the next. That inspires the following elemental discourse.

The Heat

With the Austin sun baking the roof for over 300 days a year, the warming glow of the various light fixtures during a performance, not to mention the body heat generated by a full house, the PD has been reviled as an oven as often as it has been praised as an arts incubator. For shame! Ye of the air-conditioned conditioning: This is Austin. No, you shouldn't have to sit like the Sunday roast, pooling in your juices, but then again, at least there are no mosquitoes. And isn't it great to wander onto the heat-vapor city streets and feel relief from the oppression within?

Audiences who have complained about the heat upstairs should count themselves fortunate that they weren't rehearsing there before the admittedly weak air-conditioning system was installed. Night after night, while preparing for our opening production, Howard Barker's scathing and brilliant Scenes From an Execution, we sweated and toiled in the heat. Front windows ajar, rear door open, fans blowing with what little wind prevailed (usually from the exceptionally pungent Chinese restaurant across the alley, whose garlicky aroma interfered with our concentration), we slaved and slavered until, finally, just prior to opening night, the A/C was installed, the doors and windows shut, and the merciless nasal impulsion of Chinese food soothed by the whirring of pleasant, cooling blowers.

The Wind

That is, until Scenes' preview night, when the outdoors blew indoors during one of Austin's worst storms in years. A real squall, the kind that drowns fleets of mariners, bent the live oaks on Congress Avenue sideways. Suddenly, minutes into the preview, the rear doors blew open and howling gusts of rain-laced wind roared into the theatre. Closing the doors by hand secured the closer a bath but had little effect on the maniacally swinging portals. Soaked, I drilled them shut with a couple of strips of lumber, then turned to see the rain trickling from the ceiling in more than one location and cascading down the rear wall. End of preview. And a dramatic opening to our four-season stay.

The Rain

When I say cascade, I refer of course, as those who have been present at such sloppy, rainy occasions will recall, to our indoor waterfall: A wondrous deluge that continues even to this day during the wetter showers, new roof and all. It starts above the southeastern rear window, runs to the floor, through the floor and down the wall at the back of the rear stairwell. On impressively liquid nights, the water will divide to conquer: loosing ceiling tiles in the bathrooms on one side and swamping a ground floor closet on the other. As if it knew how to cause the most trouble.

The rain did not always need to flow rapids-like down the rear wall, threatening all in its path, to have a dramatic effect. Take, for example, the methodical beat of a single repeating drip, Poe-like in its monotonous, steady, angst-inducing rhythm (Is this the night the ceiling caves in?). In our staging of Nick Dear's adaptation of Ostrovsky's A Family Affair, we tried to turn the space into one giant living room, then marveled that the incessant drip could keep changing its position, turning our living room into a roulette wheel's fickle fortune-maker: Who gets wet tonight? Actor or audience member? In its most excruciating, yet beautiful drip/drone, a single beat of water plopped next to the glorious pate of a recumbent Steve McDaniel, whose character had just collapsed at the realization of his children's complicity in his destruction. That single drip splashing repeatedly against the sorry character's head was the theatre's profound, unsympathetic editorial on McDaniel's character's utter defeat.

The Noise

Congress Avenue is a major thoroughfare -- one of the reasons we so loved being on it was the sense that roads that take you to points all over Austin crossed right outside our door. Along with this intersection of roads comes the clip-clopping of horses' hooves, an asset during productions of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, in which foggy London town emerged upon the stage. Then again, there were the invasive sounds: the sirens; the car alarms; the protest buses with their amplified rants against abortion, against godlessness, against taxes; there were the parades (forget about parking near the place when a parade was a-marching), for gay rights, AIDS, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Ricky Williams (that one lasted longest). I'm only sorry that we missed out on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey the last year they marched up the street, elephants and all.

The Fauna

Speaking of elephants, never saw one at PD. Never saw a mouse at the theatre or a rat. We had ants for a spell, but they, too, eventually opted for other buildings. We have bats. Maybe it's ignorance (or perhaps science-based bravado), but I seem to recall learning that a bat will never get tangled in your hair or bump blindly into you as it wings pell-mell from one side of the dressing room to the other. So, when one is around a flying bat, one should stand still and watch it fly. And so I did, wondering the while if this flying creature was keeping various outdoorsy insects from pestering our patrons and offering it a silent thanks. Others have not been not so fear-free. Entire dressing rooms have been struck and reconstituted in other rooms downstairs when our flying beetle-eater found his way in. Nothing a stage manager can say or do will motivate an actor to get ready like a bat in the dressing room.

The Back Door

Margery Segal and Jason Phelps of margery segal/NERVE Dance Company reminded me of the inviting door at the rear of the theatre and the even more inviting roof beyond. Despite my warning of dire consequences, they incorporated it into their dance/performance work Ice (an ironic title for those steamy-hot summer nights when they performed it at PD). Out that back door, the roof over the rear part of the building beckons smokers and sunbathers (even we considered creating a little cafe space à la New York), but it is verboten to go outside on it, since the roof will eventually collapse, just like our sun will eventually nova, and we can't afford to have an intrepid smoker up to his neck in roof when it does. So, use of the back door was frowned upon, but it was always oh-so-tempting. Many groups have played with it, including the PD, as when it was thrown open to an audience-blinding white light while the Spanish army charged at the outnumbered and outgunned Gascony Cadets in our production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Donald Sneed and Robert Pierson in Americana Arcana

Donald Sneed and Robert Pierson in
Americana Arcana

The Ghost

Given the age of the building, we wondered whether there might be something else inhabiting that 150-year-old room, something not quite tangible, perhaps a spirit or a ghost. Something lives upstairs at PD and has made its presence known repeatedly. From smoky shapes to lost coffee cups to that unmistakable sense that there is someone else in the room, the ghost has dropped into rehearsals, performances, and the box office on various occasions.

During our production of The Bald Soprano, actress/dancer Holly Brown noticed an oddly placed audience member sitting above one of the onstage doorways. After exiting through the flimsiest of doorframes, the spectator's dangling feet above her head, Holly realized that no one could possibly be sitting up there! Even more bizarre spectral pranks have occurred. When we produced Sherlock Holmes, sometime PD artistic associate Michael Arthur was tending to the box office. During a performance fraught with bad timing, missed entrances, and other minor blunderings onstage and off (ask Mr. Faires, who was there in the role of the inimitable detective), Michael watched in amazed paralysis as a box of strike-anywhere matches danced off a file cabinet and, as they fell to the ground, burst into flames, unprovoked by human hand or quake of earth. The game was surely afoot that night.


Shoebox of Dreams, or Without Whom, Which, and Other Memories of the Magical Matchbox on Congress

Now, the above descriptions of natural and supernatural intrusions are true, if slightly irreverent, with tongue only partly planted in cheek (the ghost stories are reported verbatim), but those unfamiliar with the PD might wonder wherein lies its charm. What made the PD the fabulous venue it was, simply put, was you, and the artists you came to watch or in whose work you shared. A limited, all-too-brief collection of some favorite moments we shared:

Johanna Whitmore, ladder-bound in wrathful, candlelit defiance among the voices of the dying, in Scenes From an Execution.

Taking the cast of burnt upstairs into the pre-renovated space (complete with multiton furnace sticking out of the floor in the middle of the room) and telling them with near-drunken pride: This is where we're going to be.

Katherine Catmull's beautiful desperation as the title character in The Duchess of Malfi, unable to escape the gorgeous space.

Increasingly rakish Blake Yelavich's increasingly rakish dances with unsuspecting male patrons pressed into service as his girlfriend in The Beggar's Opera.

Seeing daughter Ariana take her first steps during a meeting of PD artistic associates in the PD lobby. Why is no one paying any attention to me? Oh my! Now -- parental nightmare -- every time she's there she want to get onstage!

Michael Stuart's heartbreaking final scene in Cyrano de Bergerac, making sweet Michelle cry like that!

David Jones' imploring look to the heavens in Betrayal.

Michael Stuart's ridiculously deep-voiced "I'll be in there" as he slunk into the closet in Sherlock Holmes.

Scott Segar's bountiful, colorful lighting for the guest production of Daniel Alexander Jones' Blood: Shock: Boogie.

Martin Blacker's frightening and mesmerizing stilt-bound entrance in Life of Galileo.

Hanging lights atop that very wobbly wooden ladder; one learns, I suppose, to ignore certain fears, and in no time we were all stretching like circus performers to hang lights and masking atop the wriggliest ladders known to man.

Doug Taylor tagging "out" Catherine Glynn during a game of red light/green light at auditions for Dracula. (Nothing like a little healthy competition to see who's playing for keeps!)

Finishing the lobby floor, then looking up to see the front arched windows reflected in it.

Mentioning corn and seeing what it does to Michael Miller. (This holds true for any theatre, no doubt, but seems to have received much mileage at the PD.)

Ehren Christian's death-defying leap as Renfield in the unscheduled blackout in Dracula.

Turning the space completely around during strikes; like an Olympic event, faster and faster, the company breaking record after record tossing platforms and chairs about.

Outlandishly huge crowds for Deborah Hay's Exit and Voil√°.

Outlandishly huge crowds for the Save Our Springs New Year's Eve bash.

Outlandishly huge crowds for Dracula.

Steve McDaniel taking out the railing in Scenes. (If the bats can fly in the dark, why can't an actor walk in the dark?)

Mingling crowds on the Congress Avenue sidewalk on their way to the Paramount, the State, Little City, or the PD.

Robert Fisher semi-inadvertently clearing Jim Eliot's drink in Betrayal.

Eric Schivel's shaggy-dog story/kung fu lesson at the end of the 28th hour of our first ever 28-hour Act-a-Thon.

Jim Fritzler playing keyboard for The Beggar's Opera.

The suspended tree trunk in Andrea Beckham's Wild Goose Chase.

The floor standing up to Physical Plant's group warm-up for The Whimsy.

Adding the archway between the lobby and the theatre.

Katherine Catmull, as curtain time for Duchess of Malfi neared, running onto Congress Avenue to ask the Harley-Davidson motorcycle parade gathering to please quiet it down for the performance. They did.

How a hot lunch drove a director crazy. ("No, no, it's only sage. To ward off the bad spirits.")

Sylvia Tate's breathtaking costumes for Einstein's Daughter. And Dracula. And Sherlock Holmes.

Losing that original pane of glass, fortunately killing no one in the process

"Every time I come up here, it's different." The most frequent and perhaps the best compliment we have received.


The Artistic Director's Lament

There are many more stories, anecdotes, myths-in-the-making, and odd one-liners that I hope will keep the old Congress Avenue theatre alive. For me, the hardest part about leaving our space is that I have chosen to step aside as artistic director of the PD company for a number of reasons, personal and professional. I had really wanted to deal with my own status separately from our move, but it seems like a good time to rekindle the company's artistic flame in finding and creating a new space -- and I hope a similar artistic fire is rekindled within me. Just getting to this point has been at times excruciatingly draining as well as rewarding in ways that defy description.

Don Howell, friend and mentor (though he might be the last to think he wields so much power!) once cautioned my wife and PD co-founder/partner Michelle with this tablet-like trio of commandments -- words of wisdom that, followed religiously, would prevent failure, burnout, or soggy art: Thou shalt not stage a full season of plays. Thou shalt not command a company. Thou shalt not run a space. With the PD, we broke these commandments with heathen-like, brazen consistency. Don's fourth, unwritten (un-chiseled) commandment, And don't start a family, Michelle and I have turned to powder.

It is not easy, the artistic director's life: Ask Bonnie Cullum, Vicky Boone, Don Toner, Dave Steakley, Ken Webster, Norman Blumensaadt, all of whom were at this long before I joined the PD and are still at the helms of their theatre companies as I move on. There are so many distractions to getting good art on a stage, so many holes to plug, so many hats to wear. You can spend days on the minutiae of production and miss the artistic endeavors, the camaraderie, the vision that starts as a scribble in the night, then gets shared by the many gifted and loving hands that shape a play in performance. Consider the efforts that go into keeping theatre alive the next time you sit in a fairly comfortable chair, in a fairly comfortable room, watching a performance. Without the tireless leadership of these artists and visionaries, Austin's theatres would just be a bunch of lifeless, ghost-ridden rooms.

The Public Domain's production of Antigone runs through June 26, Thu-Sat, 8pm, at The Public Domain, 807 Congress. Call 454-TIXS. The Public Domain farewell party and fire sale (just kidding, Eddie) is Wednesday, June 30, 6pm-midnight, upstairs at 807 Congress. Call 474-2448.

Robi Polgar is still artistic director of The Public Domain, at least through July, after which he plans to join its board of directors.Thanks to editor Robert Faires, who trusted me to put pen to paper on this subject that may be rather too close to my heart. Complaints of favoritism may be addressed to him!

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