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Theatre Thinker

In the online dialogue about the art of the stage, Travis Bedard is a star

By Dan Solomon, Fri., Jan. 18, 2013

Travis Bedard
Travis Bedard
Photo by Jana Birchum

If you're reading this at two o'clock in the morning, there's a good chance that Travis Bedard is awake and on the Internet.

He's probably poring over a vast assortment of theatre blogs from around the world, but he might be on Twitter. If he is, he's either telling the more than 2,500 theatremakers who follow @TravisBedard about the best things he's read on those blogs or treating them to cranky, pithy bon mots framed as advice. ("Approaching what you do as though it's holy can be the beginnings of beauty. Forcing others to do the same never is.") Or he could be preparing a post for 2amtheatre.com, the theatre discussion blog for which he serves as managing editor. But it's a safe bet that, if it's the middle of the night, Travis Bedard is awake, online, and thinking about theatre.

The amount of time that Bedard spends thinking – and talking – about theatre has built him a not-insubstantial international following. Searching for his name on the Guardian's website nets you results in the double digits from coverage by the British paper's theatre writers. The people who participate in discussions with Bedard online include names like National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman and Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls. The Guardian cites his "wise words" and "vehemently passionate response[s]"; current Washington Post and former New York Times theatre critic Peter Marks says on Twitter that Bedard's "input [is] always valuable." There's a fascinating ongoing conversation happening online about the future of this old, endangered art form, and Bedard is in the thick of it, serving as Austin's representative.

Which is a little bit strange, when you think about it. In the online theatre community, Bedard is an important figure who gets cited in the Guardian and followed by the head of the NEA. But if you're enthusiastic about the stage work actually happening in Austin, you could live a full and varied theatregoing life without ever encountering any of Bedard's work. He's artistic director of Cambiare Productions, the company that he co-founded with playwright/director Will Hollis Snider and stage manager Amanda Gass, but since the beginning of 2009, Cambiare has staged just two shows: that year's premiere of Snider's new script for Orestes and, in 2012, Messenger No. 4 (or ... How to Survive a Greek Tragedy), also by Snider. After Orestes, Bedard didn't take part in another production for a year and a half, when he acted in the Capital T Theatre production of Spirits to Enforce.

He hasn't made much work, but if you were to ask someone on the Internet who makes theatre in Austin, Bedard's name would probably come up before, say, Ken Webster's or Bonnie Collum's.

Bedard is aware of the disconnect between his body of work – especially as a producer – and his influence in theatre discussions outside of Austin. "I don't make enough theatre in town to match my reputation," he says. "I've been covered more in the Guardian than I have in the Chronicle. I can go to New York and sit in on a rehearsal for [award-winning off-Broadway company] Flux Ensemble. If I walked up to an average group in Austin and said, 'Can I sit in on a rehearsal?' I'd have to show ID. But if I call Gus Schulenburg, who runs Flux Theatre Ensemble, he'd be excited. They'd make an extra cake."

They may not be making cakes for Bedard here, but he's finally begun to match the time he spends discussing theatre online with the time he spends creating theatre in Austin: In the past seven months, he's worked on five productions, beginning with 7 Towers Theatre Company's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and the Hidden Room Theatre's Rose Rage last summer, and culminating with his current performance as Doctor Royer-Collard in Quills for Different Stages. He's also putting his money where his mouth is as a producer once more with Cambiare's entry into the FronteraFest Short Fringe, premiering New York playwright Mariah MacCarthy's "All About a Boy" on Jan. 17. After all this time talking the talk online about what he wants theatre to look like, Bedard is walking the walk here to help make it that way.

So, of course, it's time for him to leave town.

There's a reason why Bedard's name has become closely identified with Austin theatre on the Internet: He has big ideas and is passionate when talking about them. You don't capture the ear of artistic directors at major national theatres like Chicago's Goodman or Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth, as Bedard has, unless you're saying something interesting. A conversation with him quickly becomes a two-and-a-half-hour exploration of his hopes and dreams for the possibilities of theatre.

Bedard can talk about the results of the experiments that he's been able to put into action. ("I was so happy [on Actor Benefit Night for Orestes]. Everyone showed up, and Kim Mead brought beer to sell, like, 'I had this beer in my fridge. Sell it and give it to them.' It felt like fucking Stone Soup or the end of It's a Wonderful Life.") He can connect the dots between companies working in Austin now and groups in other cities doing similar work, expressing sincere admiration for companies like Austin Playhouse: "I love those kids: 'We're in a tent! We're in a mall! I don't care – we're doing a show!' It hasn't been done since St. Louis, 10 years ago. I love it so hard." He can distill what he's observed about our most successful companies into advice for those who aspire to their success: "Here's why all of the Rudes' works work: They never once pretend that they're doing anything other than what they are. They work in their space and work with things they have. If they can't do more, they don't do more. That's it." He can summarize what makes Austin unique among U.S. theatre cities: "It's cheap to make theatre here, so interesting people make theatre here. You don't get Rubber Rep in San Francisco, because their first couple shows would have cost so much for them to put up, they never would have done it. The Mechs wouldn't have lasted five years, never mind become an institution. No one would have given them a warehouse in San Francisco – there'd be a dot-com start-up in that."

In other words, Bedard is smart about theatre and passionate about the way people make it in Austin – and he uses the fact that he's part of an international dialogue about the medium to offer some unique insights into what's happening here.

Bedard as Doctor Royer-Collard in <i>Quills</i>
Bedard as Doctor Royer-Collard in Quills
Photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire

Bedard moved here from San Francisco in 2004 so his wife, lighting designer Megan Reilly, could pursue her master's degree at the University of Texas. In S.F., he learned the basics of nonprofit theatre as assistant production manager of the EXIT Theatre.

Moving to Austin was a rough adjustment for Bedard; paid jobs making theatre are almost nonexistent, and his first attempts at finding work as an actor were less than inspiring. "I just didn't have time to get into it," he says. "I had done one audition, and I got to do four sentences and was cut."

Bedard's fortunes turned in 2005 when, at Reilly's urging, he joined a team in the ArtSpark theatre competition. His team rehearsed next to Snider's, and the two began a friendship that led to the formation of Cambiare. "I met Will, learned that I liked devising theatre, and started reading theatre blogs, all in the same week," he says. "That was a pretty good week."

That week led to a new focus for Bedard. It's a focus he'll need to maintain. After eight years in Austin – the last two of which saw him involved in 10 plays, as either an actor or a producer – he's preparing to pull up stakes again, as Reilly has begun a search for a full-time teaching position that includes colleges outside of Texas. "Everything's going great," he laughs. "I've been in production for two years, so of course we're looking for new places to be."

While there's no firm timetable for their departure, Bedard is confident that his wife will find the sort of job she's looking for. And while there's a certain sad irony to the fact that someone who spent much of the past several years simply talking about theatre is preparing to leave town just as he's gathered momentum to make work himself, there's also an opportunity. Because the fact that Bedard's reputation outside of Austin exceeds the influence he wields within the city isn't for lack of trying.

Bedard has approached directors from young companies like Palindrome Theatre, Hidden Room, Capital T, and Poison Apple Initiative with scripts from young playwrights he's found working nationally and says, "I can't get anyone to open the file." For someone whose passion for theatre includes bridging the limited resources of his own community with the knowledge base of theatremakers around the world, the fact that Bedard has the ear of Rocco Landesman but not the artistic directors of local companies must be frustrating, right?

"It's frustrating as hell," Bedard sighs. "Without resources, you need knowledge. The only way to make whatever resources you have go farther is knowledge. And I can help connect you with people who are doing this everywhere. If you start connecting people, and you start energizing them – if folks start feeling like this when they're at rehearsal, you get better theatre with no more resources. But there isn't interest in that. That's why I'm frustrated. I'm saying, 'Look, I will read the entire Internet. Here are the things that don't suck. Just read these.'"

It's clear that Bedard loves Austin theatre, but he admits that there may be more opportunities for someone with his reputation as a thinker and advocate elsewhere. He stops short of enthusiasm when talking about it, but certainly sounds intrigued. "I think a new place will look at all of that as a part of my résumé in a way that Austin just doesn't care about," he says. "And there are jobs there. I can get a job at a theatre in a lit department or as an assistant AD. Those jobs don't exist here."

In the time Bedard has left in Austin, he's committed himself to acting in plays like Quills and to experiments that put his principles in action, like "All About a Boy" – a play that Bedard found online by a rising young New York playwright who's actively pursuing productions of her work here.

It's good that Bedard is doing that now, but it's also fair to ask if that's the path he should have been on all along. Valid though it is to lament the fact that people in Austin rarely tap into the national theatre community when they're making their work, it's certainly also valid to ask why Bedard hasn't done that himself in making his.

"My problem is that I'm guilty of that," Bedard admits. "I've had access to the best new plays in the country for the past five years, and we don't do them."

As long as he's around – which may be six months, a year, or longer – Bedard is determined to acquit himself of that guilt. "'All About a Boy' is absolutely about [putting my ideas into action]," he says. "If at the end of the year, Megan hasn't found a place, this ends up with me supporting these great new playwrights that this town hasn't seen yet. Full productions or workshops, that's what excites me right now – doing verse theatre for myself as a performer and evangelizing for these great things."

Ultimately, it may have taken the promise of leaving town to turn Bedard into the sort of Austin theatremaker that he's been waiting for someone to become. But at least, finally, he's bringing the conversation out of the Internet and onto the stage.

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