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Wheels of a Dream

With the long-awaited Topfer Theatre, Zach races full-throttle into the future

By Robert Faires, Fri., Oct. 5, 2012

Wheels of a Dream
Photo by Sandy Carson
Zach Theatre board member Tom Terkel takes in the Downtown skyline from the second-story terrace that bears his name. Terkel was instrumental in getting the $10 million proposal for Zach's third theatre on the 2006 bond election and for working for its passage.
Zach Theatre board member Tom Terkel takes in the Downtown skyline from the second-story terrace that bears his name. Terkel was instrumental in getting the $10 million proposal for Zach's third theatre on the 2006 bond election and for working for its passage.
Photo by Sandy Carson

Yes, that's a car on the Karen Kuykendall Stage inside Zach Theatre's new Topfer Theatre: a full-size automobile (albeit one built from the scraps of early 20th century Model Ts). And in a town dominated by postage-stamp stages that'd be hard-pressed to accommodate a soap box derby racer, that might seem an impressive enough signifier for this $22 million addition to Austin's performing arts venues. But it isn't like Zach hasn't put a car onstage before – remember Aralyn Hughes' pink, pig-encrusted sedan rolling onto the Kleberg's thrust in Keepin' It Weird a few years back?

Just outside the Serra Skyline Lounge, Zach Theatre Managing Director Elisbeth Challener stands at a spot overlooking the Topfer Theatre lobby.  Challener joined the Zach team in 2007, and her extensive experience in capital campaigns has made a huge difference in raising funds for the Topfer.
Just outside the Serra Skyline Lounge, Zach Theatre Managing Director Elisbeth Challener stands at a spot overlooking the Topfer Theatre lobby. Challener joined the Zach team in 2007, and her extensive experience in capital campaigns has made a huge difference in raising funds for the Topfer.
Photo by Sandy Carson

No, the remarkable thing here is not the machine, which is just the vehicle for understanding what this new facility means for Zach, but the space around it – the space between those 21-foot tall proscenium sides, expansive enough to hold four dozen actors, comfortably spread out, to ooh and aah over the auto; space beyond the proscenium's frame – 20 feet on either side – into which said auto may be moved and stored without crowding out cast, crew, or scenic pieces; space above it – 70 feet above – into which the car, were Zach mounting Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, could be flown out, and out of which all manner of set-pieces can be flown in; space below it, a basement's worth, into which parts of the stage may be lowered for the exits and entrances of actors (or cars) or for creating an orchestra pit; and, far from least important, the space in front of it, large enough that 420 people may peer at the auto from their seats in the auditorium yet with even those most distant from the stage's edge no more than 10 feet farther from it than the back-row patrons in the Kleberg. It's a theatre that allows Zach to do so much that it never could in that 40-year-old mainstage, or the Whisenhunt Arena Stage built 20 years ago, to produce shows of a size and technical complexity comparable to those in major resident theatres across the country and even in Broadway houses. The Topfer represents possibilities.

Bruce McCann, immediate past president of the Zach Theatre board, stands at the entrance to the building to which he devoted himself, making sure it was built as designed, on time and on budget.
Bruce McCann, immediate past president of the Zach Theatre board, stands at the entrance to the building to which he devoted himself, making sure it was built as designed, on time and on budget.
Photo by Sandy Carson

That's just what the car – okay, now turn your attention to the car – means to its owner, Coalhouse Walker. The African-American hero of Ragtime, the musical adapted from E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, imagines himself, his beloved Sarah, and their new son traveling the country via this mechanical marvel – visiting the South, the West, who knows where. With it, he's no longer bound to one place or restricted by old modes of transportation – foot, bicycle, streetcar. Owning his own car, the possibilities for where Coalhouse can go are limitless – placing him on equal standing with any other man in modern America. And he believes he'll be able to bequeath this freedom to his son. The car enables the future.

The view from the back row of the James C. Armstrong Family Auditorium, looking at the Karen Kuykendall stage. The dearly departed actress' ashes are at center stage.
The view from the back row of the James C. Armstrong Family Auditorium, looking at the Karen Kuykendall stage. The dearly departed actress' ashes are at center stage.
Photo by Sandy Carson

When you consider the future that this latest addition to Zach's burgeoning theatrical complex on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake enables for the company, Ragtime seems as fitting a show to open the Topfer as any out there. It's big – Broadway big – on a scale that Zach has rarely attempted before, and never on its home turf. It calls for a large, multiracial cast, at least 15 locations across New York and the Eastern Seaboard, and a large orchestra. Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley might have mounted a slightly less epic version of the show in the Kleberg, as he's done with shows such as Dreamgirls and Evita, but now he can treat Austin to a homegrown version that doesn't cut as many corners, that's closer to the show's original panoramic vision in its presentation. As Ragtime sweeps from the composed gentility of 1900s New Rochelle to the robust festivity of a ragtime-revved Harlem night club to the fervid outrage of a Manhattan labor union rally, gathering as it goes the noteworthy and notorious figures of the day, from Harry Houdini and Henry Ford to Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit, Steakley will be able to employ 50 actors to transport us and give voice to the stirring, anthemic (not to mention Tony Award-winning) score of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, with grander representations of its landmark settings, from the Polo Grounds to the Atlantic City boardwalk to the Morgan Library.

The view from above: A network of catwalks above the auditorium seats makes for easy access to the lighting instruments that illuminate the stage.
The view from above: A network of catwalks above the auditorium seats makes for easy access to the lighting instruments that illuminate the stage.
Photo by Sandy Carson

You don't have to spend much time with the members of Steakley's theatrical family – those designers, musicians, technical personnel, and actors who have worked with him at Zach for many, many seasons – to grasp the level of anticipation they're feeling about the Topfer. Michael Raiford has spent most of his career at Zach designing sets that had to hew to the horizontal and shallow, since the Kleberg wasn't tall enough for scenic elements to fly in or out above the stage or deep enough for sets to have multiple levels; he had to keep sets relatively small, on just one level (right in the audience's lap), and able to move out the sides. On the new stage, however, "We can create layers of images front to back," he says, and with the fly system, "we can orchestrate visual ideas vertically as well!" Moreover, he can not only create scenic pieces of a size and scale not possible before, but he doesn't have to worry about crew pushing them on and off. (An automated deck handles that.) And for musicals, he'll no longer have to design around a space onstage for the band; musicians will have a space all their own: a pit that can hold 16 of them.

Fly's-eye-view – inside the 70-foot-tall fly tower in which set pieces may be raised and stored when not in use.
Fly's-eye-view – inside the 70-foot-tall fly tower in which set pieces may be raised and stored when not in use.
Photo by Sandy Carson

Not surprisingly, audio supervisor Craig Brock has sound on his mind, and it's the sound of the larger casts and orchestras in the Topfer: "It makes me excited to allow audiences to experience a wider range of instrumentation than previously possible." Longtime music director Allen Robertson seconds that emotion; he finds a large orchestra "deeply enriches the audience experience" and "is a powerful tool to be placed at the service of the story we want to tell, the dialogue we hope to spark with our community. Some stories are better served with just a piano or small group of musicians – and we'll continue to do that as well. But the epic scale of Ragtime, its characters, its themes, are served in a thrilling way by the orchestration. I could play this music on the piano alone, and this cast would certainly make the story reach people in a powerful way. But when a Sousa-esque march is played instead by brass and winds, it transports you through time; when a klezmer clarinet accompanies the struggle of a Jewish immigrant, we feel the cultural context that informs his choices; when a tuba and banjo play a vaudeville number, perception shifts from watching satirical pastiche to immersion in a world."

For resident lighting designer Jason Amato, such immersion comes through illumination, and with the Topfer's technological upgrade, he's like a kid with a new box of crayons – the big 64-color box. The new LED system lets him choose any color as a wash for the stage or cyc and change colors smoothly without any transitions, a capability he considers "revolutionary." Among Amato's new toys are also lights that move and that have adjustable shutters, and he's as eager as Raiford to apply them to the Kuykendall Stage's width and depth. "I've never been able to use sidelight in a show at Zach," Amato says. "I'm really looking forward to something as simple as that. Just having the depth adds so many layers to the pictures. If done correctly, the layering will add tremendously to the complexity."

Outside the Topfer, as the light of day fades, the Zach logo on the front facade brightens, beckoning you past the 8,600-square-feet People's Plaza into this palace of play, of drama, of dreams. That last word hangs illuminated in the upper reaches of the lobby, a reminder of Steakley's words on the frigid February day 20 months ago when Zach broke ground for its new theatre. "Zach is a place where dreams are realized," he told the 300-plus supporters packed into the Nowlin Rehearsal Hall of the Zach Production and Creativity Center, and, while this one dates back to Steakley's first days on the theatre staff as business manager, pretty much to the day that the Whisenhunt was completed in 1991, it has come true.

Two decades is not an unusually long stretch for a cultural construction project – the Long Center took almost that much time, and the Mexican American Cultural Center and the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center took longer – but in the lifespans of the humans striving to make it happen, it's significant. And to persist in it through not just so many changes of the seasons but through three downturns in the economy is a testament to the Zach community's commitment to their dream. The first downturn forced the withdrawal of Zach's initial choice for architect, New York superstar Steven Holl, and the second delayed finding a replacement. By the third, though, Zach had secured a place on the city's 2006 bond election ballot and won the approval of voters (by a 2-to-1 margin) for $10 million toward construction of a theatre at Riverside and South Lamar. Combined with almost $2 million that it still held from a 1985 bond election supporting construction of Zach's second theatre and $1 million each from arts philanthropists James Armstrong and Bill Dickson, Zach had two-thirds of the funds needed for the new theatre when the Great Recession hit. While raising the remaining $8 million in an imploded economy has been no stroll on the Hike and Bike Trail, the theatre has been steadily gathering the cash. Less than $5 million was left to be raised at the Topfer's ground breaking, and less than $2 million is needed today. Those names adorning almost every nook and cranny of the Topfer speak to the many steadfast souls who had a hand in seeing this dream through (not least among them Mort and Bobbi Topfer, for whom the theatre is named), but in a sense that glowing logo out front does, too – because architects Arthur Andersson and Chris Wise have designed it as a multitude of lights, a veritable thousand points shining in concert in service to this dream.

When, in Ragtime, Coalhouse sings about his Model T – yes, we're back to the car one last time – and what it represents for him, his family, and their future, he describes it as something "full of hope/ [that] will always gleam/ with the promise of happiness." It's a vehicle that will take his son "just as far as his heart can go." The same might be said for the Topfer Theatre and Zach. It's the means by which this theatre can grow and serve this ever-evolving city as richly as it has since its beginnings as the Austin Little Theatre 79 years ago. And it can take Zach into the circles where the nation's finest theatres travel, exchanging work with them, and even to the theatrical mecca of Broadway. It's a dream today, but Zach has proven how it can make dreams come true.

As the musical says of ragtime, "It was the music of something beginning ..."


Ragtime runs Oct. 17-Nov. 18, Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2:30pm, at the Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar. For more information, call 476-0541 or visit www.zachtheatre.org.

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