A Man of the Theatre
Memories of Capitol City Playhouse's Michel Jaroschy
Michel Jaroschy touched the lives of just about everyone in the Austin theatre community. If you lived here during the past 20 years and cared anything for the art of the stage, somewhere along the way your path crossed Michel's. Maybe you got your break in local theatre at Capitol City Playhouse; maybe you saw some show there; maybe you hated the shows there, but you put fliers for your shows in the Cap City lobby because Michel said you could. Everybody with a passion for theatre eventually shared some of it with Michel, and in turn took some of Michel's away with them. So, when he died suddenly of a heart attack on October 11, three weeks shy of his 50th birthday, the shock waves were felt in many, many hearts across this city. Every one of them has a story about the man, the dreamer, the fighter, the sweet talker, the risk taker, the survivor, the relentless champion of theatre in general and his theatre in particular. In tribute to Michel Jaroschy, his 14 years of running Capitol City Playhouse, and his countless gifts to the artists and people of Austin, the Chronicle invited a few of his friends to tell some of their stories. -- Robert Faires
Former Resident Director, Capitol City Playhouse; current Staff, Actors Theatre of Louisville
Most of us in the theatre community had something to say about Michel when he was alive. Now that he is gone, suddenly I am at a loss of words. I was thinking about this last night as I re-read sections of John Steinbeck's East of Eden (which Actors Theatre of Louisville opens in a few weeks), and I stumbled onto this passage:
"And in our time, when a man dies -- if he has had wealth and influence and power and all the vestments that arouse envy, and after the living take stock of the dead man's property and his eminence and works and monuments -- the question is still there: Was his life good or was it evil? Envies are gone, and the measuring stick is: Was he loved or was he hated? Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come to it?
"In uncertainty I am certain that underneath the topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and men want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influences and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world."
That, I guess, best articulates my feelings.
Former Resident Playwright, Resident Director, Director of New Play Development, Capitol City Playhouse; current Director of New Play Development, Remembrance Through the Performing Arts
I began working with Michel in 1982. We shared a common dream. He inspired dreams, and there are very few theatre artists in town who weren't given an opportunity to pursue their craft in his space. For seven years, he allowed me the opportunity to give Central Texas playwrights a voice in this community. Michel was a risk taker and a believer in the power of art. He walked the edge, giving the audiences something to think about while allowing the artist freedom to succeed or fail. He believed in black theatre, opera, and new plays, giving all a space in his theatre. As dreams and times changed, we parted ways, but I will always thank him for giving me and other writers and directors in this city a chance to produce our art.
Playwright; Artistic Director, Remembrance Through the Performing Arts
It was the early 1980s. I had just moved to Austin and decided to trek down to Capitol City Playhouse to explore a new play: Street Noise, by Marla Macdonald. Being a new playwright, I was ravenous for the experience of witnessing a new work in production. Michel introduced the show at the top and expressed his commitment to working with emerging writers. So, during the intermission, I tracked him down. Soon we found ourselves in the middle of a conversation about our dreams.
Michel's dream was my dream. He wanted to present new, bold, provocative theatre, and I wanted to write it. He had me bring him one of my plays, then the next thing I knew, I received a phone call from Marla inviting me to participate in her next playwrights' workshop.
Since that time, Capitol City Playhouse has produced one of my plays in full production, three of them in work-in-progress productions, and more than that in staged readings. It was through that womb, provided by Michel and conducted by Marla, that I emerged a playwright.
Director; Playwright; Executive Director, Austin Circle of Theatres
Michel had what it takes to keep a theatre going: drive. He never lost the belief that Capitol City Playhouse would survive. Debts could not close his doors; neither could an eviction notice. He saw his theatre as a hip urban center, and he created that world around him on Fourth Street. I directed his first Equity show, Other People's Money. We had a great time in rehearsal and performance, and Michel made all that possible for us, as he did for so many other Austin theatre artists. Not that we didn't have our differences; we sure did, aesthetic and financial, but... no matter what he did, he was the kinda guy you had to like. Theatre was his religion.
Performer; Critic, The Westlake Picayune
Michel connected marvelously and personally with those around him, helping to make his theatre's area into a neighborhood. The last time we strolled over to Mezzaluna for lunch, as always, he visited with the manager and the cashier. They told Michel how sorry they were he and the theatre were leaving the neighborhood. The manager stepped back and got an envelope containing some "help" -- which surprised and touched Michel and he gave the guy a big hug. As we went to our table, there were expressions of condolence for the theatre from the bartenders and the person who seated us. Soon, a waitress stopped by and told Michel how sorry she was to hear that the theatre was closing, that they would miss having him in the neighborhood. As she walked away, I heard what sounded like a stifled cry -- Michel was crying into his napkin.
Producer, The Company
I will always remember Michel as a supporter of smaller companies. When I was a co-producer with Deus Ex Machina, he let us put fliers in his programs with no hint of negative attitude. With my present company, The Company, he always let us put up posters in his lobby.
I worked in his theatre twice, as assistant director to Andra Mitchell on The Heidi Chronicles and assistant director to Diana Kuninger on The Lion in Winter. Both times, the Michel I knew came across as definitely knowing what he wanted. He rarely gave an inch, but it was because he had an intense desire to have a perfect show.
Michel Jaroschy and I walked a bumpy road together. For 13 event-filled years, we locked horns and fought over the intangible reality that is theatre. How silly. But how beneficial for both of us. How do we grow if we are not challenged? And Michel was a constant challenge to me. Pushing me to re-think and keep trying. He never gave up and led you to believe, through his persevering actions, that you should keep at it, too. He possessed a blind faith that is so rare these days. This faith is what he leaves me with. And the drive to keep going. I'll have to find someone new to tangle with.
Former Associate Artistic Director, Capitol City Playhouse; current Assistant Events Administrator, UT Performing Arts Center
I will most miss Michel's fiery dramatic passion and broad humanistic empathy. He was a real trip to work for, with a wild sarcastic sense of humor and that high, lilting laugh. He was that type of optimistic Existentialist who thought the struggle of life was the exciting part, and didn't find the constant lack of resolution upsetting. We had an ongoing banter about the semantics of "positive" vs. "meaningful" in relation to the kind of work the theater should be doing. His silence was the last word. I somehow believed he would keep pushing that rock of a theater up the proverbial hill indefinitely. His loss, to me, is profound.
Former Staff, Capitol City Playhouse
One thing about Michel Jaroschy you cannot sugar-coat: He was very hard to work for! I was his entire administrative staff in the early days of Capitol City Playhouse. It took about a week on the job for me to realize that Michel was special and that working for him would be a major challenge -- and a victory if I could stick with it. I realized the challenge ahead when I showed up for work one day to find Michel in the prenatal position on the floor under his son Gui's baby blanket, telephone in hand. He was sheltering himself from the odor of a roof-tarring job across the street. And he was making phone calls -- to keep the theatre open, to pay my salary, to plan the first season of Capitol City Playhouse.
I spent 12 years of ups (mostly) and downs there. No matter how rough the times -- and there were harrowing moments -- Michel always turned things around. He was tenacious and relentless, gutsy, and nervy. And spurred by a dedicated love of theatre and the need for theatre in the community, a need that I shared with equal passion. He may have driven a few of us crazy, but he was always there for us when trouble came.
Actor; Director; Artistic Director, Pro Arts Collective
Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Michel Jaroschy provoked both in me and my and our community. Reviewing the 20 years I knew, worked with, laughed with, and fought with Michel, I became overwhelmed by the amount of work and people he supported, nurtured, and breathed life into. I think of Winnie the Pooh, West Side Story, Easy Does the Stars, Final Touches, The Blacks, For Colored Girls..., Women Behind Bars, Playboys. And for myself alone: Cabaret, Ain't Misbehavin', Eubie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Aladdin, Merry Christmas, Baby, The Great White Hope, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom -- all theatre vehicles which gave me opportunity, encouragement, and challenge. My first lead role. My first directing job. My first tour. My first experiences with Starla Benford, Julius Tennon, Billy Harden, Judy Edwards-Shabibi, Robert Whyburn. My second B. Iden Payne Award. Michel Jaroschy was and is there.
I could depend on Michel for a good argument, good ragging about the critics, or how we could never get ahead. But I always knew he would keep on trudging and would always lend me an ear. And if we could make some money, he was ready to make a deal. But it was never really the money. It was art, Capitol City Playhouse-style. I think the Wizard said to the Tin Man, "A heart is not measured by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others."
In this fast-moving world, sometimes as human beings we forget, we have forgotten, who has been there all the time. I can remember few individuals who have been as significant and instrumental in the history of the African American in Austin theatre as Michel. He took chances, took risks, and won and lost. Michel taught me how to rule with conviction, commitment, and honor, which had everything to do with having the guts, knowledge, and imagination to create art and never stop believing in people.
If you did Michel Jaroschy a favor, he never forgot it. You knew he didn't because he had absolutely no qualms about asking you to do him another favor. It was taken for granted that you were as ferociously involved in his dream as he was, and that was the most exasperating thing and the most endearing thing about him. I myself could never refuse him because of the way our friendship started over 20 years ago -- when he shared in my dream.
It began on a hot summer day in 1975. Center Stage had just finished a successful production of West Side Story, and I and friends were trying to renovate the old Ritz Theatre.
"Hey, you need help?" a voice called.
I looked down from the ladder and saw this paint-splattered individual with a head full of shoulder-length ringlets, looking like a character from a Moliere play.
"I don't know if I can pay you," I answered, a little leery about the characters on Sixth Street.
"Hey, man, I love the theatre."
Michel painted the theatre for the sheer joy of it. Later, he ran the follow-spot for Camelot and did tech work on several plays. This was, in fact, his introduction to Austin theatre.
Years later, I would jokingly remind him that I was the reason he was in theatre. "Yeah, I know," he would smile (and he had a great, warm smile). "I don't know if I should kiss your ass or kick it."
Michel kicked ass and kissed ass. Those of us who dream will do whatever it takes to keep that dream alive -- and yes, it is sometimes exasperating and endearing.
I remember seeing Michel first working backstage at Ken Johnson's Center Stage. Then I remember seeing him at the Gaslight Theatre. He pretty well did everything there, from building sets to taking tickets. Even then, he was the theatre.
Untested writers, actors, producers, directors, and designers could work with Michel. He gave new people a place to work and a place to learn and practice their craft. He gave lots of us a place to earn our stripes. We owe him for that. The theatre has been home to countless workshops and labs, giving the theatre community the opportunity to work, make mistakes, and develop their talents. Cap City has always been a place of endless activity and almost never dark. The energy force was Michel. He kept the theatre alive in good times and bad. We all took it for granted that Michel and the theatre would survive, no matter the circumstances. It seems almost incomprehensible that he is gone. Most of us will probably never see such a survivor or such an incredible commitment to theatre ever again. n