Played Out

After 14 Years, Capitol City Playhouse Is Evicted

Get ready to say goodbye to another of Austin's cultural landmarks. It may not have defined an era like the Armadillo World Headquarters or made cultural history like Raul's, but it survived for longer than either of those noteworthy venues and it certainly left its mark on the cultural life of this city. Capitol City Playhouse has been one of the most important theatres in town for 14 years now, having produced an abundance of memorable stage work and been a leader in the development and production of locally-written plays, and now it's being forced to leave its home on West Fourth Street. The owners of the property have an opportunity to make substantially more money from another tenant than from Cap City, so they've given the theatre notice to vacate the premises. Playhouse Founder and Managing Artistic Director Michel Jaroschy reports that December 15 is the day the theatre is to be out of the space.

The situation sadly recalls the autumn of 1994, when two other local theatres were forced out of their longtime spaces. Then, it was VORTEX Repertory Company and Live Oak Theatre getting the boot, both, it turned out, so that Big Government could grow a little bigger. VORTEX was rousted out of its Performance Cafe on Ben White Boulevard to make room for an expansion of the Internal Revenue Service offices, while, just a few blocks west of Cap City, Live Oak was ejected from its home space in order for the State of Texas to build a new parking garage. This time, the hand of the marketplace is at work and the way that it has fingered Cap City is not without a little irony.

Essentially, the area of downtown where Cap City is located -- what's being called the West End entertainment district -- has become so successful commercially that it's now too pricey for the Playhouse. Yet the Playhouse is one of the venues that paved the way for the current success of that district. In 1982, when Cap City was created from the ruins of the Gaslight Theatre, which had occupied the space for three years previous, the region west of Congress and south of Sixth Street was little more than transmission shops and aging warehouses. What activity there was took place during the day, and about the only business in the vicinity to draw folks into the area after sundown was the Old Spaghetti Warehouse.

The theatre -- first as Gaslight, then as Cap City -- provided another identity for the Warehouse District besides Car Repair Central. It confirmed the potential for other kinds of activity in the area. In the early Eighties, more businesses began to move in: a toy store, a used book store, a couple of antique shops, a few gay and lesbian clubs. Many faded after only a few years, but the Playhouse held on, and its persistence lent some sense of stability -- perhaps even gravity -- to the district so that it could continue to attract businesses. Eventually, a handful of outfits managed to set down pretty solid roots near Cap City -- Lavaca Street Bar, Mezzaluna, Oil Can Harry's -- and once they did, they seemed suddenly to pull in more and more -- Ruta Maya Coffee House, Cedar Street, Waterloo Brewing Company, The Bitter End, Gilligan's.... The area around West Fourth seemed almost to bloom overnight with activity, all kinds of activity, and Austinites began to see the area as a bona fide entertainment district.

As the area prospered, it was inevitable that the theatre would face the pressures of commerce. It was, after all, still on a commercial property, and every success story that sprang up around it heightened that property's potential for being turned into a high-revenue enterprise. Cap City first confronted that hard reality a year and a half ago when a small group of investors made the owners an offer on the Playhouse space. The offer was ultimately withdrawn, but it nevertheless led to an increase in the theatre's rent, from $1,750 to $3,250 a month. According to Jaroschy, he was promised a lease at this rate, one that he expected to cover a five- to 10-year period. But, he says, no lease was ever drawn up, and this month, out of the blue, he was told by the property manager that the owners wanted to show the space. Jaroschy says he asked what amount of rent the owners were looking for and was told $6,000 a month. Needless to say, he was shocked.

It's an old, old story among arts groups in cities all across the land: Artists find neglected urban properties where space is cheap; artists develop properties into funky lofts and galleries and theatres and such; interest in the new funky-town picks up; prices go up; artists are forced out; artists start hunting for new neglected urban properties. Now, most businesses would be hard pressed to absorb a 240 percent rent increase over a two-year period, but nonprofit arts groups are especially hard pressed to do so. Their business, such as it is, isn't readily adjustible to shifts in the market, and their income from the "sale" of the product generally isn't sufficient to match modest expenses, much less those inflated by commercial demand. To hang on in a commercial environment, they require extraordinary support: a sweetheart deal with a corporate patron, a long-range rental arrangement with the city. Without help, such groups are almost destined to be priced out of the city's most active areas.

Jaroschy did make an effort to save the Cap City space. He appealed to the city's Arts Commission for an emergency allocation of funds; he asked for a sum that he could apply toward approximately 40 percent of the rent each month. But his request was denied. And though I wasn't present at the meeting to hear their rationale, it isn't hard to imagine why. Besides setting an awkward precedent (what struggling theatre company -- and what theatre company isn't struggling -- couldn't use a little boost from the City to make the rent or meet this month's utility bills?), it isn't as if stabilizing Cap City's rent is the only thing that needs to be done to guarantee its fiscal or artistic success. The theatre is carrying thousands of dollars in debt that it has accumulated over the years; its current financial situation is tight following months of productions that performed below projections; and its human resources are strained owing to the departures of the resident director, associate artistic director, development director, and several other key staff members all within the last four months. In some ways, the rent is the least of it. Cap City has many, many needs that ought to be addressed.

The unfortunate thing is that this is not that unusual in the history of the Capitol City Playhouse. Yes, the theatre has survived these past 14 years, but its survival has been precarious, with the doors staying open sometimes seemingly through the sheer force of Michel Jaroschy's will. To his credit, Jaroschy has managed to lure armies of talented people into his theatre through the years -- and he's enabled them to create some amazing work. But few of them have been willing to stay for more than a few seasons. The existence on the razor's edge that Jaroschy appears able to handle and willing to accept is not the existence they want for themselves. And when the frustrations of bounced checks and compromised creative choices and butting heads with the founder and managing artistic director get to be more than they're willing to put up with, they walk.

The last -- the butting heads with Jaroschy -- may matter the most when everything about Capitol City Playhouse is said and done. Jaroschy has been the one constant through all of the theatre's 14 seasons. Cap City is his theatre, and anyone who walks through its doors has to contend with his vision of it, however idiosyncratic it might appear. It doesn't matter if you're talking about a play to produce or the size of an ad, the shade of a gel or the rug in the dressing room, if it's part of that theatre it fits into that vision somehow and you have to deal with him about it. And be prepared to grapple with him because you can bet he'll fight for what he wants. That's what he's been doing all this time. And that's why it's easy to imagine Capitol City Playhouse surfacing again after December 15. If the last 14 years have proven anything, it's that Jaroschy can keep a theatre's doors open if he wants to. If he wants it to, Cap City will survive.

What won't survive, unfortunately, is the remarkable space which served as Cap City's first and only home for these 14 years. After the Playhouse closes its final productions -- Betty the Yeti running through October 5, and The Glass Menagerie, opening October 23 -- you can expect the space to be thoroughly transformed. And it must be remembered that this is a remarkable space. Talk to Austin's actors and find out how many think of it as their favorite space. Plenty. There's no logic to it; the ceiling's too low and the entrances are awkward, and the equipment is far from state of the art. But the stage has character, and it feels right. The audience is right there at your arm's length, in close enough that you can hear them breathe as you speak. And at your back is that long, solid, brick wall that seems to be supporting you like another actor. There's no room like it in town.

That space has been a host to history, at least the theatrical history of our city: Boyd Vance's stagings of Ain't Misbehavin' and A Streetcar Named Desire; The Great White Hope and Streamers, both directed by Rodney Rincon and both starring the powerful Julius Tennon; the controlled madness that Jessica Kubzansky wove into her production of Noises Off and the heat she summoned for Night of the Iguana; Mark Ramont's piercingly intelligent readings of Talley's Folly and Agnes of God and Amadeus; the chamber operas directed by Jess Walters; Michael Harlan's Cloud 9 ; Jaston Williams' Rodents and Rumors; Big State Productions' original version of The Council of Love; and all the original scripts that were mounted on the stage, from Marty Martin's The Necessary Luxury Company and Ellsworth Schave's Texas Silver Zephyr to Randall Wheatley's Along for the Ride and Billy's Last Broadcast to Steve Warren's The Wisdom of Children and Rebel Yells to Libba Bray's High Hopes and Heavy Sweatshirts and Marla Macdonald's Last Days of Paradise Park. And so many, many more.

That's what disappears on December 16 and once it goes, as with the Armadillo, as with Raul's, as with emmajoe's and Center Stage and Soap Creek and the original Esther's Pool, it won't be back. Some part of it needs to be celebrated and preserved before it goes. Our cultural memory is too short as it is, and daily we pass by places that were once part of the fabric of the city and don't even know they're there. We should keep in mind as many of these places as we can.

Right now, the outlook for the arts in downtown is upbeat. New arts venues are springing up all along the Avenue and off it, and we'll even have a new theatre on Fourth Street, the Third Coast Repertory Theatre at Fourth and Brazos, opening before Capitol City Playhouse is gone. But that can change, and staying mindful of Cap City will remind us that all of these venues are vulnerable. We can't take for granted that they'll be here forever. We must be prepared to fight for their survival or, as we have to do with Cap City now, be prepared to say goodbye. n Betty the Yeti runs through Oct 5 at Capitol City Playhouse. The Glass Menagerie opens there Oct 23. A Benefit for Cap City featuring Ruben Ramos & The Texas Revolution, Joe "King" Carrasco, and Los Pinkys, will be held Oct 23 at the Austin Music Hall.

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