Bastion Standard Time
Austin theatre's 'enfant terrible' swapped his poison pen for a Poison Apple, but he still gets people talking
Playwright, actor, director, and onetime theatre critic Bastion Carboni has a weird sense of humor. He'll start a sentence by laughing loudly at something he just thought of and say the joke that just occurred to him out loud. It doesn't always get the same reaction from others.
This time, we're at Home Slice Pizza, and Carboni has just come up with an idea that he's thrilled with for a photo to accompany this Chronicle profile. "It should be a photo of me with an apple shoved into my mouth, like a suckling pig, in skin-tight jeans, with the words 'c'est ne pas un enfant terrible,'" he declares, a reference to a number of things: René Magritte's famous painting, The Treachery of Images, of course, but also the name of the theatre company that he started last year, Poison Apple Initiative, as well as a blog post by local author Spike Gillespie, in which she castigated Carboni as an "enfant terrible" for his decidedly no-holds-barred approach to theatre criticism. Carboni served in that role for the arts and culture website Austinist for a little over a year, finally leaving last February to pursue his endeavors with Poison Apple Initiative full time, and, one can safely conclude, because he was tired of how angry people got with him for saying the things that he said about Austin theatre.
I was theatre editor for Austinist during the time that Carboni wrote criticism for the site, and he definitely made people angry. In addition to Gillespie's blog post, at least one notable theatre company in town has reacted, banning him from attending its performances ("They won't even sell me a ticket," Carboni says, his voice incredulous), and the comments sections on his Austinist reviews were full of irate responses.
Since leaving Austinist, however, Carboni's career as a theatre maker has seen some real gains. He received his first Austin Critics Table nomination for Outstanding Director, for the Poison Apple production of Jakob Holder's Housebreaking. The company's FronteraFest 2012 piece, Holier Than Thou, which Carboni wrote and company member Bethany Perkins directed, was described as "a thoughtful production that benefits from restraint and subtlety" by Michael Graupmann of CultureMap Austin, and Will Bass of UWeekly called it "one of the most promising shows" at the festival. Outside of town, he was invited to the writer's colony at the Vermont Studio Center last February and will spend the month of August writing on Long Island with the Edward Albee Foundation.
In short, in the 18 months since he put down his critic's pen, Carboni has gone from being one of Austin theatre's most despised names to one of its more acclaimed. And the community is noticing. While he began producing work under the name Poison Apple Initiative in early 2009, it became a real company last year, with the addition of core members Perkins and Lindsey Sikes. In 2010, he directed a segment of the Vestige Group's production of Neil LaBute's Bash, and the following year, he recruited performer/director Kelli Bland to helm the production of his script Sometimes Callie and Jonas Die in the FronteraFest Long Fringe. His current project, directing Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, by former Austinite Jennifer Haley, is a joint production with the Vestige Group, which put up the money for the show. For someone who was unrepentant while making enemies, Carboni's managed to build himself an unlikely core of allies.
He'll need them. Now that he's started to succeed in rehabilitating his prickly reputation, his next challenge is even bigger: After pissing off important segments of the Austin theatre community by telling them what the city's stage work should look like, now he has to show people.
I first met Carboni to interview him about his Long Fringe show, A Matter of Taste, for the A.V. Club Austin. During that interview, he railed against a laundry list of things in Austin theatre that offended him, but his own production was a juvenile sketch show with little substance besides a few clever lines of dialogue – another one of those jokes that worked better in his head than aloud. He followed it with a production of the Jean-Paul Sartre classic No Exit – a curious decision given his statements about the staidness of the producing choices in Austin. I admired the fact that he was outspoken in his opinions though, and, after taking on the role of theatre editor at Austinist, asked him if he'd like to write for the section.
The first show he directed that showed real promise was a late 2010 production of Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), which garnered mixed reviews and was buoyed by playwright Sheila Callaghan's strong script and a powerhouse lead performance by Elizabeth Bigger. Following this production, he dedicated his efforts to working full time as a theatre maker and resigned from Austinist.
It's hard not to wonder if the decision to abandon criticism is responsible for Carboni's growth, not just as someone people are interested in working with, but as a creator. For his part, Carboni rejects the implication that producing one's own work makes one less effective as a critic.
"One of the reasons I kept doing it is that I thought the idea that a critic couldn't produce work was bullshit," he says. "I still think that. Not just ideologically – I also think that there is a very possible way that those things can happen. I just gave it up because I got fucking exhausted."
It's certainly possible that one can serve as both critic and theatre maker, as a number of members of the Austin community, both at the Chronicle and elsewhere, have proven. But it's fair to wonder if Carboni is an example of someone who can fill both roles at the same time. Since stepping down from Austinist, Carboni's track record shines much more brightly. Sometimes Callie and Jonas Die, while produced at too early a point in its writing cycle, was significantly more mature than A Matter of Taste. His work on Housebreaking showed serious growth (the Chronicle's Jillian Owens called his direction "meticulous" and wrote that "Housebreaking left me in stunned silence"). And the script to Holier Than Thou finally delivered on Carboni's potential as a writer, adding fully realized characters and powerful themes to his talent for a clever turn of phrase.
With Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, the stakes for Carboni are higher than ever. Not only is he still very much in the "prove it" stage of his directorial career, but in partnering with the Vestige Group to produce it, he has someone else investing financially in him for the first time.
Vestige's co-artistic director, Susie Gidseg, is confident that it will pay off. "Vestige was looking to partner with a smaller company to help produce a work that excited us. We read the script, really dug it, and decided to move forward," Gidseg explains. "After working with Bastion once [on Bash] and seeing Poison Apple's work, it was very clear that they were a professional company."
So he's producing sophisticated work. He's found a team to work with on those projects. He's about to start honing his talent as a writer at the Albee Foundation's retreat. ("Edward Albee is going to deliver my mail," he enthuses. "I have sworn to myself that I am not going to meet that man unless I'm in my underwear.") So it's fair to ask: Is Bastion Carboni even the same enfant terrible he was when he pissed all those people off?
"I've been doing the same fuckin' thing since I got here," Carboni insists. "Perception of me might be different, but I always had good intentions. My heart was always in holding this community to a higher standard. The voice in my head would always be like, 'Well, whose standard?' And then I would tell the voice, 'My standard!'"
Now that Carboni has left the role of critic for that of theatre maker, he's free to create work that meets that standard. At the same time, he's no longer involved in the critical conversation about what theatre in Austin should look like. The subjectivity of holding work to a higher standard is now in the eye of different beholders.
Carboni, meanwhile, seems to accept this challenge with the same prickliness that he's always exhibited – "doing the same fuckin' thing since he got here," indeed. "I have a liberty that a lot of people haven't given themselves, which is that I have my own fucking company," Carboni says when he contemplates whether his time as the enfant terrible of Austin theatre cost him anything. "So I can make what I want. And fuck you guys."
Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom runs July 12-28, Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm, at the Blue Theatre, 916 Springdale. For more information, visit www.poisonappleinitiative.com.