These Are the Days

Extolling an Exciting New Era of Austin Theatre

It's the end of an era. The phrase is uttered so casually and frequently these days that I find it almost without meaning. Yet, when I heard it at the memorial service for Michel Jaroschy, founder of Capitol City Playhouse and its managing director for 14 years, in reference to his passing, I thought it apt and true. It may be that I was caught up in the spirit of the service or was feeling the influence of the numerous tributes to Jaroschy that I'd spent the week compiling for the Chronicle, or maybe I've just been sunk in the minutiae of the local theatre scene for so long that I've come to see any ripple in it as a major shift in the landscape, but I felt that with Jaroschy's passing, time had indeed closed a door on a period of our city's theatrical history.

At that moment I was unable to say precisely what period that was. But the idea has persisted, leading me to reflect upon it more.

Looking back at Michel Jaroschy's life and career, I see a man of another time who loved the drama of another time. His devotion to theatre was rooted in post-war social drama and the idealism of the Sixties. Jaroschy felt social issues were important for theatre to address and that theatre was important because it addressed social issues. Capitol City Playhouse produced its share of musicals and comedies, but Jaroschy's heart was elsewhere. I don't think I ever saw the man as animated or enthused about a Cap City show as when he was staging an Arthur Miller play or a David Rabe piece or some other hard-hitting kitchen-sink drama.

That particular kind of play has fallen out of favor with most local producers now. We still see the occasional Arthur Miller work -- Live Oak Theatre staging The Crucible, Austin Community College doing All My Sons -- but it's almost always one of his "classics," rarely a more recent play. We see even less of the realistic social dramas by modern writers of lesser standing. Many groups have done a show or two in that vein during the last five years -- The Company has done perhaps the most -- but by and large, our theatre companies today have shifted toward dramas that are more experimental or intensely theatrical, that bend time or break the fourth wall or soar on heightened language.

Michel Jaroschy was a throwback in that regard, an abiding fan of a kind of well-made play whose heyday passed decades before he opened Capitol City Playhouse. He gave time to less naturalistic fare, but Jaroschy never gave up on the kind of drama he loved, and the list of his productions testifies to that -- The Fifth of July, Agnes of God, Street Noise, Streamers, Zooman and the Sign, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and Broken Glass just this year. While I know that Austin will see future productions of topical dramas, I'm not sure that the city will ever see another producer as devoted to them as Michel Jaroschy was.

More than his taste in plays, though, what marked Jaroschy as a man of an earlier time was the way he ran his theatre. In part, I mean the way he treated it as part of a larger community, a neighborhood, in which the businesses around his were neighbors to be visited and supported. And in his business, he was the neighborly host, out front, greeting his patrons -- neighbors all -- and making them feel that his place was theirs. He could as easily have been the owner of the corner bar as a theatre manager; hospitality was that important to him. This sprang from his upbringing, I think, in a place and time when neighborhood meant something, a source of mutual support and protection for people sharing a small section of a city.

But the most significant thing about the way Jaroschy ran Cap City was his off-the-cuff style. He was notorious for his perpetual juggling of funds, robbing Peter to pay Paul (and often using a hot check to do so), staving off economic ruin almost daily with 11th-hour monetary miracles. And no matter how far in advance of production he announced a show, Jaroschy's productions almost invariably looked as if they had been slapped together hours before opening. And to a certain extent, they were. Jaroschy's was a free-form, improvisational management style that seemed straight out of the Sixties counterculture: live in the moment; go with the flow; whatever works.

Looking back at Michel Jaroschy's life and career, I see a man who favored passion over professionalism and today over tomorrow. I feel that at one time the Austin theatre community favored those same things. In that time, amateurs gave the best of themselves to the theatre despite the lack of compensation, artists focused more on the show they were doing than future projects, and there was no ladder to speak of, just a community of small theatres and companies. That, I believe, is the era to which Michel Jaroschy belonged. Most of the artists who powered the theatre scene of that era have moved on or retired, and Michel Jaroschy was the last of them to run his own theatre. He ran it in the loose, impassioned style of that time right up to the day he died. And when he died, that era ended.

So what era are we in now? I had begun to formulate an idea about this even before I learned of Michel's death. It was prompted by a couple of thrilling experiences I had in the theatre this month and my sense that they're linked in some way to a new approach to theatre.

On October 10, I saw The Gospel at Colonus, Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's imaginative re-telling of the ancient Greek drama Oedipus at Colonus through a gospel service, as produced by the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. It was a highly-anticipated production and could easily have suffered from inflated expectations. But I found it to be the most exhilarating experience I've had in the theatre all year. The show began on a note of deep, core-of-the-soul emotion and sustained that richness of feeling through the final chord. Its music was rousing, as you might expect of gospel, but the vigor of its performance exceeded what I've heard on any local stage. And the dramatic work gave me more empathy for and insight into the character of Oedipus than any standard presentation of Greek tragedy ever has.

The production worked in what we think of as all the right ways: The actors performed the material with honesty and technical finesse; the design and movement illuminated the material; all the elements of the production worked in harmony. But it went further. It took the resources at hand and pushed them beyond what had been done with them before. Actors achieved new levels of expression. The space opened up in innovative ways. This was a production which was not only exciting for the material and for the way it was presented but for the way it took the theatre to a new level.

As has already been noted in these pages, this was a production which Zach Scott took years to develop. That time, and the thought, planning, and deliberate development of resources that went with it, were instrumental in making this the extraordinary production that it is.

The night after I saw Gospel, I went to Enfants Perdus at Hyde Park Theatre. This show could hardly have been more different. Instead of a unified narrative drawn from classical and traditional sources, presented in a largely mainstream way, here was a fractured story line that was frequently obscured by highly metaphorical text and wildly unpredictable, non-traditional staging. Scenes were presented on a scaffold covering the face of the theatre and in the alley beside its east wall. Actors swarmed over 43rd Street and ranged over every inch of the gutted interior of the theatre. Flashlights, fires, and film were incorporated into the production as texture and sources of illumination. Performers shared characters, spoke actions, danced thoughts, sang narration.

And yet, despite the differences, I found the piece similarly invigorating to Gospel. Enfants also immersed me in the theatrical world which it created and used virtually every resource available to its artists to create that world. Here was a land ruined by flood and characters who had to venture into alien territory to reclaim life for themselves. Their journey was full of the unexpected, the disorienting, and it required them to find new ways of seeing. The artists in the Frontera@Hyde Park company managed to translate the characters' journey into an experience the audience can feel. The dislocation, the strangeness, is ours, too, and we learn new ways to live. As we experience this, we see these artists pushing the boundaries of what they think and feel and know how to do as artists. They challenge themselves and meet the challenges.

As Zach did with Gospel, Frontera@Hyde Park did with Enfants. The project, the company's first commissioned work, was undertaken only when the company had established itself through several seasons and had achieved certain goals it had set for itself. The development process of the script took the better part of this year. The expanded period for production allowed the artists the room to experiment, to explore the non-traditional methods they employ here. The pay-off, in terms of what they intended to achieve, is there in every offbeat, fascinating moment.

Two thrilling shows, two shows which challenged their companies but which, when produced, boosted those companies to new levels of artistry and technique. Both are proof that careful planning and extensive preparation and development of resources can make all the difference in a show, the difference between an ambitious failure and being the transformative experience its producers intend it to be.

A quick look around the Austin arts scene shows that this approach spreads well beyond these two companies. The Austin Lyric Opera, which opens its 10th season this month with The Magic Flute, has been a model of this kind of careful planning and marshaling of resources. Its steady development of artists, audience, and repertoire, has led to impressive organizational and artistic growth. Their Tannhauser this year exemplified their process: years of nurturing the chorus; bringing in experienced Wagnerian singers; and developing their audience's appetite for Wagner. This year finds the company taking another step in a carefully-plotted plan: staging its first American opera. Joe McClain and ALO are being no less careful about approaching their first American work. Then there's the Performing Arts Center, which just celebrated a major coup in the successful commission and production of a new work by European choreographer Pina Bausch, a cooperative venture years in the making. Live Oak Theatre is in the midst of re-making the State Theatre into a space that can serve as a major civic performing arts center. And still more companies are undertaking similar development.

What era are we in? One in which those whose plan and take the time to marshal the resources that their dream projects require are creating the most exciting stage work. It's a development in our arts scene that is welcome, and it's making this a genuinely amazing time. We're always tempted to look back at some previous period and say, "Ah, those were the days. That was when the scene was really cooking. That was when the dazzling work was done." For once, let's look at the present. The planning has been underway for years, so we're able to reap the benefits of it now. These are the days. The amazing work is out there. This year. This month. This week. n Enfants Perdus runs through Nov 2 at Hyde Park Theatre. The Gospel at Colonus runs through Nov 10 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. The Magic Flute runs Nov 22-25 at Bass Concert Hall, UT campus.

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