Sudden, Silent Exit

Director Mark Ramont Leaves Austin

by Robert Faires On Wednesday, July 5, near noon, stage director Mark Ramont finished packing his belongings into a truck and left Austin, Texas, for good. He had told no one in advance that he was leaving town: not the participants in the acting laboratory he leads every Saturday; not the designers with whom he was working on upcoming theatrical productions; not the board members of the Austin Circle of Theatres, of which he was one; not his colleagues at Capitol City Playhouse (CCP), where he served as Artistic Director from July 1993 through June 1995; not his friends. He called one intimate 15 minutes before taking off to let her know of his permanent departure, but that was the extent of his direct personal contact. He was able to steal away with next to no one knowing.

Ramont's sudden, silent departure was in no way a reflection on his status in Austin's theatre community. He was no flim-flam man needing to slink out of town to avoid a lynching by the locals. Nor was he someone whose artistic stock had been bankrupted by either failed productions or a scandal. Quite the opposite. Ramont's personal credibility as a thoughtful, meticulous artist and crusader for professionalism was as high on July 5, 1995, as the day he arrived in 1993 to take the position of Artistic Director at CCP. And his stock as a director was at an all-time high following a trio of acclaimed comedies staged this year: Jeffrey and Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) at CCP and And Baby Makes Seven for Frontera Productions at Hyde Park Theatre. Ramont was honored with a Critics Table Award for his work on the two CCP productions. The dramatic nature of Ramont's exit owed more to private considerations than public, to feelings within the director himself.

Nevertheless, the way Ramont chose to leave Austin stands in marked contrast to the way he arrived two years ago. He came in with considerable fanfare, Cap City's first artistic director, the man who would help CCP finally realize its dream of becoming a thoroughly professional resident theatre. Prior to Ramont's arrival, CCP's founder and producing director, Michel Jaroschy, had provided its primary artistic direction, with input of varying levels from the resident directors he employed. The arrangement had yielded many outstanding productions (as well as many mediocre ones) and a strong identification of CCP with new plays, but no truly focused artistic identity or consistency of production. In 1993, Jaroschy announced that he was giving up his say in CCP's creative development to focus on its management. Ramont would define the theatre's artistic direction and work to "raise the level of production to a consistent level," as Ramont himself put it in an interview with the Chronicle in December 1993.

Ramont seemed the ideal candidate. He had years of experience as a director in the mecca of American theatre, New York City, and had worked in a prominent resident theatre, Circle Repertory, there. But he also had a deep connection with Austin, having studied directing at UT and been the director of four of CCP's most successful shows, including its very first production, Talley's Folly. He was thoughtful, meticulous, committed to a high standard of production, and he had demonstrated that his work connected with local audiences.

But in the end, Ramont was not the man to boost Capitol City Playhouse to the next level of theatrical success. That is not to say he failed at what he set out to do there. He did succeed in improving artistic quality at CCP and instilled a kind of consistency in the work previously unseen there. Ramont's shows may not have always suited all tastes, but every one - Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Mass Appeal; Perfect Crime; Jeffrey; and Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) - had the same solid, polished look and feel of professional theatre. Offstage, however, competing visions and a volatile mix of personalities derailed the CCP dream.

Much of the drama of Ramont's tenure is the drama of most American theatres: conflict between management and creativity, money and art. Can we afford to pay this much for a set, for actors? Can we afford to do a play by a writer audiences don't know? Do we have to do a crowd-pleasing musical so we can do a drama that may not draw? Ramont pushed for scripts that were considered financially risky and for increases in production budgets to get that sought-for consistency and polish. In some cases, he got what he wanted, but the theatre took a financial hit for it. Ramont's initial productions did not do well at the box office, and as a result Jaroschy began to re-assert his control over the theatre's artistic decisions.

Such struggles for creative control occur even at theatres in which the managing and artistic directors are the best of chums. What is needed to surmount them are a unified vision of the theatre and a spirit of compromise. Ramont and Jaroschy both made compromises during the past two years, but the evidence suggests the theatre's two leaders never truly agreed on what Cap City was and where it should go. Their clash of sensibilities and temperaments intensified to the point where finally one had to leave. CCP was Jaroschy's theatre, one he had founded and kept afloat, however shakily, for 13 years, so it was Ramont who left. In June, he didn't renew his contract as artistic director. Jaroschy offered Ramont the post of Resident Director and four shows to stage in the coming 18 months, but Ramont declined. He notified Jaroschy in a letter that arrived at CCP on Monday, July 10, five days after Ramont left town.

It's always a blow when differences arise between people pursuing an artistic dream. There's something about a creative endeavor which, because it is intended to address our spirit, the purest part of us, seems that it should be above the squabbling that afflicts more mundane projects. Yes, artists are notoriously temperamental and we know that, but we still want them to set aside their individual desires in favor of the larger dream and when they cannot, when one or another leaves a project, we feel a loss: There's one more dream that will never be realized. Another may rise in its place - Capitol City Playhouse will continue and may yet become the theatre it aspires to be without Mark Ramont's presence - but we still feel the emptiness of the thing that was conceived but now will never be.

The ending of this effort delivers a double blow, however, because a valuable artist hasn't just left a project, he's left our community. As longtime theatre supporter and friend of Ramont's Connie McMillan says, "The loss to the theatre community goes much beyond his place at Cap City." Bill McMillin, president of the Austin Circle of Theatres board, echoed that sentiment: "It's definitely a setback for Austin theatre. You know, we have a lot of good actors and several really good designers. But we only have a handful of really good directors, and if we lose one or two, it makes a tremendous impact. The director is the one who can bring the most out of an actor. The actors in this town have lost a big asset."

Indeed, one of the finest projects Ramont started here was his laboratory for actors. This was not a class for which actors paid Ramont but a free weekly seminar/workout for actors intent on honing their craft. It was one of the only places in town in which actors could take a text and really study it, dig into the characters, and explore not just one way to play them, but many ways, without being rushed into getting a part down for an audience. Most often, actors are caught in the production race, hurrying to find the "one true" interpretation of a role before the rehearsal clock runs out and the show opens. It's a way of working which often results in skin-deep characterizations. Ramont's lab enabled actors to do more of what they do best: get inside a character's skin and evoke that character's inner life. He was raising the level of the art in Austin.

My intent here is not to paint a portrait of Ramont as St. Mark. He was an artist with all the idiosyncrasies and biases of any human. He could be witheringly critical, especially of work he deemed less than professional. Yet his own work sometimes suffered from the same weaknesses as the work he dismissed. He could be outspoken and took part in more than one heated debate on the theatre and its practice. He ired some local actors with his employment of out-of-town artists and his audition policies. He sparred with arts writers over the need for professional criticism and what he saw as the theatre's reliance on reviews for its survival. He was not the first person here to fight for a higher standard of production quality in theatre or to hire out-of-town actors for Austin productions or to help local artists develop their craft. And he won't be the last.

My point is to offer a reminder that everyone brings something to the table. Ramont brought at least a couple of things that were particularly valuable to our arts community at this time: an unwavering commitment to professionalism and a cogent, investigative approach to direction. His was a strong voice which prodded us to think about the art of theatre in Austin and what we want to make it, which urged us to push ourselves harder, to better our work, not for our own glory but for the work's glory and for the audience. For that we should be grateful. But now Ramont's place is empty and his voice is gone, and unless we take up his causes with the strength and persistence he showed, we risk losing the gains we have made in the past two years. Mark Ramont has left Austin. Now, we have to decide whether some part of our creative commitment and growth goes with him. n

In Austin's t

I think he decided long ago that if he didnt have more work this spring, he would leave austin

He doesn't feel like compromise is appropriate when it comes to quality.

- connie

Mark: i feel really bad about that aspect of it. The more we talked about it, the more he took away. The money kept getting smaller, until I basically couldn't afford it. And the asignements he was offering me weren't that interesting for me.

I'm going to take a break from the theatre for a while

It's been very hard. Theatre takes such focus and such energy and commitment, it doesn't leave you time for much anything else. I'm looking to cleanse the palate, as they say. I'll take sometime off and do different things and think about it, and then if I come back to theatre, I'll understand better why I'm doing it.

lab people the designers i had been working with resignation to ACOT, startting to take care of the friends

I didn't do this in animosity and wipe cap city out. Its just that the relationship between Michel and I was headed for a dead end. it had a lot to do with my career

50-100 resumes out there, ddint even get an interview

It was really nothing more than I didn't want the scene

as far as austin and austin theatre the experience i had with frontera, was easy it was the easiest time i have ever had i think it showed in the quality of work i think that company is doing it right. it should be a major place theyre smart people and theyre doing it right. the material the actors they pursue the designers, the writers, that allows for growth its the most focused of the artistic vision

the highest poinbt for me was jeffrey jeffrey was for me the first play in a long time that really spoke to the community. the community that it spooke to it spoke to in a really powerful way. most of the time, we settle for less. thats what i want theatre to be and thats what i want my life to me.

i want to find a way to donate time to social causes to be a part of

Michel: i think we had a great 2 years his contract ended in June I guess he decided to go back to New York and we wish him the best of luck. We hoped he would be a resident director . I guess he chose not to do that.

"Dear M

The terms you offer me as resieddnt director i have asked the designers to continue i wish you shows ever sign of becoming a healthy and vibrant

that i have a asay in picking our season. to see that 2) that it hink sinc ehe didnt have any first choices in austin that he should go

the point of bringing him here was ato soidify the artistic consistency at the theatre.. i wanted him to work within the budgets here that were already set.

i just had problems with that. we basically

as an artistic director i think you have a responisibility to the community.

i was encouraged by my board to take it.

im not bemoaning the choices that

i have no problem with the quality, but with the artistic direction.

I dont think were going to go backwards.

I was really upset after the critics

emily - more artistic direction, new play development

Shannon mayers, directing

mark wanted me to stop everything but the season

i dont think im a micromanager. i brought in an artistic director and let him go his own way

it did exactly what i wanted. it stabilized.

and ive got to figure out who going to direct emmerson's

i dont think the art i think an artistic director hes brilliant the guy knows his stuff and ive got to figure out hwhat to do how to replace that part of it.i was surprised that he left. the apartment were losing but he didnt even giv eme a chance to find a substitute

theatre has become a transient profession.

i had a rough day on monday when i got that letter

we made a lot of money and maintained some artistic integrity.

set to direct three shows and another in the fall

no, i dont know what i would have done differently. theres no way it could have been done quicker. wouldnt have let him double the budget on lips together. lost 80 grand

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