Austin Theatre for Youth Builds on First Season
Scene from ATY's production of The Reluctant Dragon
Once upon a time, in the enchanted land of Austin, theatre companies believed that all they needed to do to ensure their success and long life was produce plays about which they were passionate. It didn't matter if the plays were revisionist Shakespeare or unabridged O'Neill or dense socio-political dramas they'd written themselves, it didn't matter where they did it, or when or with how little money -- if they did it with enough spirit, then Austinites would flock to see their productions and they would prosper. This belief inspired many a ragtag group of theatre disciples to band together and, in the footsteps of St. Mickey and St. Judy, "put on a show."
Unfortunately, this belief was, like the belief in a fairy godmother who will descend in your hour of greatest heartbreak and grant you what you most desire, groundless. One poor shoestring company after another summoned the capital to mount a show and staged it with all the ardor of a drive-in on a springtime Saturday night, and, for whatever reasons -- no publicity, a short run at a busy time of year, the show just wasn't as good as its producers believed -- audiences didn't come. And the company might mount another show, or two or three, or however many they could afford before they exhausted their pocketbooks and themselves, but for whatever other reasons the audiences still wouldn't come, and the company would collapse. If there's a broken heart for every light on Broadway, there must be a busted theatre company for every granite brick on Congress.
In that earlier time, Austin Theatre for Youth (ATY) might have been one of those busted companies. This organization was founded on one of those idealistic show people kind of dreams, that of a professional children's theatre company for Austin. And among the three friends who shared this dream and believed in it enough to try to realize it was a belief that if it were presented to the people of this city with style and conviction, Austinites would support it with their presence and their contributions. When ATY debuted this spring, Austinites did, but not in the numbers that ATY's founders had hoped, not enough to allow them to realize their ambitious plan to stage four plays in five months. It was the sort of blow that put an end to many an organization 10 or 15 years ago.
But Austin Theatre for Youth is an Austin theatre company of the Nineties. It recognizes that faith in one's audience is all well and good, but that it takes more than faith for an arts organization to survive. ATY was able to weather the storms of its first year and hang on to begin a second. This week, it opens the first production of its new season, The Christmas Schooner. The story of this company has some things to tell us about the ways in which Austin theatre has evolved in the past decade and how an increasing number of shoestring stage companies are going about the business of survival.
For Rick Schiller, ATY's Executive/Artistic Director, starting a theatre company in Austin was almost a necessity. Schiller had been trained as s director and had spent a year at the Children's Theatre of Louisville, but following his time there, he found the market for directors to be tighter than expected. "I came to Austin because I couldn't find an artistic director's job elsewhere," he admits. "I found out that there's a small group of professional theatres for children, and most of them are managed and directed by people who started them because they couldn't find jobs either." If working in his chosen field meant founding a company, Schiller was willing, but where?
Austin was the answer, though it came more out of personal considerations than professional: A woman with whom Schiller was involved lived here. Still, on arriving in Austin, Schiller found it an ideal place to start a children's theatre. "It's the right size, it's an educated community, it's also a family community, with people who care about their young people." He began to meet people around town and through a friend was introduced to Rod Caspers, a director of long standing in the community who also had a deep interest in theatre for youth, one that had been nurtured at the University of Texas Department of Theatre by legendary educator Ruth Denney. According to Schiller, he and Caspers discovered that they share "a really important concern for the imaginations of young people and see the value in what a live theatre experience can do for them."
At the time, Caspers was involved with Second Youth, a local company that produces plays for young audiences. The group was in the midst of discussions regarding its direction, and Caspers invited Schiller to meet with the company as a consultant. He did and through the experience began to develop a sense of Austin's theatrical landscape. He and Caspers continued to share their visions for a children's theatre company. Along the way, they found another kindred spirit in costume designer Pamela Wolf Fletcher.
"Pam got involved and we began to talk about what we wanted to create and how we were going to do it," Schiller recalls. "And one thing that we knew was that we wanted to plan very carefully. Our intention was always to set down roots, and we were always envisioning where we were going. It just wasn't a bunch of people wanting to get together to put on a play. Our intention from the beginning was to be -- modestly -- a major player among the arts organizations in town."
The three knew that to realize such a dream, they needed support -- and not just support from other theatre artists in mounting productions, but support from the community. Foremost, they needed the support of an audience, Austin families who were interested in their kind of stage work. And they needed serious support in funding. An essential part of the dream shared by Schiller, Caspers, and Fletcher was a theatre of professional quality. That's a slippery term, with almost as many meanings as there are artists, but for this trio it meant paid artists on every level of production; design work by the premier designers in town; and a level of execution rivaling that in the top children's theatres in the country. Realizing this meant production budgets of $25,000-$30,000 per show, and that meant they needed support from a broad range of contributors and a board of directors that would be willing -- make that eager -- to raise that kind of money.
ATY founders Pamela Wolf Fletcher, Rick Schiller, and Rod Caspers
Working from a list of 200 corporate leaders, politicians, and university personnel, the founders started shaping their core support group. "Once we brought on one person who seemed committed, we would say, `Okay, who do you know?'" says Schiller. "We identified certain characteristics of our board members, certain abilities that they could bring to the board. Not that we said, `We need accounting services, so let's bring an accountant on the board,' but we wanted entrepreneurs, educators. We knew our board's primary responsibility was to help us give a tangible shape to our dream." By August 1, the team had secured enough committed individuals to hold its first meeting. The dream was on its way.
As the ATY board was taking shape, so were other aspects of the organization. The company secured an office with rehearsal space, hired an administrative manager, Claudia Bell Olson, and found a performing space. Schiller, Caspers, and Fletcher wanted a location that was accessible to different geographic sections of the community, that was near a bus line, that was affiliated with an educational institution, that was large enough for them to grow into. After a city-wide search by Caspers and Schiller, the company settled on the 300-seat theatre in McCallum High School, near Koenig and North Lamar. Not only did the venue offer a central location and a solid connection to part of their audience, McCallum's designation as a fine arts academy meant ATY could involve student artists in the organization's projects.
The company was also setting its first season, and again the process reflected the thoughtful approach of the founders. "We very carefully chose the kind of plays that we were doing," says Schiller. "From the beginning, we had a specific mission as to who were going to serve and how we were going to serve them and what value we placed on the theatre experience that they were going to have." Central to the mission was the idea of serving young people of different ages with different kinds of plays. The three founders divided their audience into three segments: three- to seven-year-olds; eight- to 12-year-olds; and 13- to 18-year-olds. For ATY's debut, they wanted to offer at least one production for each segment. They painstakingly pored over material being staged in children's theatres around the country: old favorites, new works, fairy tales, musicals, adaptations of classic books and popular series. By late summer, they had selected four titles -- The Reluctant Dragon, Mary Hall Surface's adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's story; Nightingale, by Rita Grauer and John Urquhart, from the Hans Christian Andersen tale; Jon Klein's The Hardy Boys in The Mystery of the Haunted House, adapted from the Franklin Dixon series; and Lynda Barry's The Good Times Are Killin' Me -- however, the timing prevented ATY from starting production at the top of the theatre season. Still eager to capitalize on the momentum behind ATY, the company members made a fateful decision: to produce all four first season shows between January and May.
"We thought, `We don't want to wait a whole year, so we'll start mid-season,'" recalls Schiller. It was very ambitious to try to do four shows in five months. None of the shows we did was simple. We built costumes for every show, designed every show. I don't think we were trying to prove anything in doing that many shows in such a small amount of time. We were trying to show our commitment to our audience, so everyone would have a chance to see at least one show."
But that desire to be all things to their audience right out of the gate almost scuttled the company before it had a chance to complete its first season. The founders and their new board had made projections about contributions and attendance that would provide the income for the full four shows, but as the season progressed it became clear that their projections were too high. "Our attendance was okay for a beginning operation," notes Schiller. "It wasn't 100%, which is where I wanted it to be. It was about 35%. A hundred people would be full in a lot of other venues, but the board doesn't always understand that. `You sure got a lot of empty seats,' they'd say. And I'd say, `Well, you gotta start someplace.' I said to Connie Macmillan, a friend of ours, `Oh, god, we're only playing to an average of one-third houses.' And she said, `You should feel pretty good about that, especially opening your first show right after the holidays.'"
Attendance for ATY's first three shows was respectable on several levels, just not on the level they needed to support four full productions. The company successfully mounted three shows, but then, although they had cast The Hardy Boys in the Mystery of the Haunted House and had the final designs ready, ATY opted to postpone the last one. This cast a dark cloud over the shining realization of the founders' dream, so carefully conceived and worked out in so many ways. Still, there was a silver lining. Unlike the companies of old who might have expended all their resources to get one last show on stage, this company was retreating so it could live to produce another day.
On reflection, Schiller sees ATY's first year as a mix of the good and the not-so-good. "We're pleased with what our first season brought us. Some credibility, for one thing. I think we followed through, more or less, on the artistic part of what we promised our audiences. We're pleased artistically with what we did. It was important to us to provide a full visual experience for the child, and it was important for us to spend the money to do the kind of physical production we felt was required.
"We learned a lot. We learned that no one wants to bring their kids to a play at 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning. That's when we had houses of 40 people. So we're not having 10am performances anymore. We found out that we did well when we did a 7:30pm performance. That's why Christmas Schooner is going to play for a couple of evenings. The kids feel it's more important to be going out on mom and dad's time than on their time, which is in the afternoon.
"There was a little bit of confusion as to age appropriateness. It's very important to me that a four-year-old see a play that's appropriate and not see something that's totally over his head. Conversely, we had some people come to see Nightingale who were 11, 10, nine years old, and it was too juvenile, and they were bored. You can't tell parents that they can't bring their kids of a certain age -- it's really their decision -- but the worst thing is for a kid to come to the theatre and have a dull experience. They'll think, `Oh, this is a place to be bored.'
"I don't think our funding was where I expected it to be, and maybe that was my naïveté, that all we had to do was send out a nice brochure with wonderful words about the value of art, and corporations would just take out their checkbooks. `Oh, how much do you want?' What you realize is that there's a process that you have to go through, with applications and procedures and committees. And even if you have friends in high places, that helps, but there's still a time span you can expect. We ran into some corporations that said, `Our by-laws don't allow us to give to an organization that's been in existence less than 12 months. So let us know if you survive.' They didn't say that, but [that was the idea.]"
Now, Austin Theatre for Youth can tell them that it has survived. And it's producing again, which, in this arts-unfriendly era, is significant in and of itself. Adjustments are being made for the company's sophomore year that build on the lessons of the first season and will help ensure ATY's continued survival. "Our production budgets have increased, but everything else has decreased by 15%," reports Schiller. "We moved out of our office space and into my dining room. The office was costing us $1,100 a month, and the board felt, `Let's look for donated space.' It's a bit more difficult, but that's a temporary measure." The company has scaled back the size of its season, from six plays to two: the current production of The Christmas Schooner and a spring production of the postponed Hardy Boys show. "We picked these two shows," says Schiller, "because we thought they would be the two that we could build the strongest audience for." ATY is also revising its attendance projections. Notes Schiller, "We're only budgeting for half-houses this year. And maybe I'm naïve again to think that we can do better than half-houses, but you have to be as conservative and as realistic with your income as you can."
Perhaps most important, the company is developing a structure that will ensure its viability on the long term. Schiller says that the board is instituting "a formal business plan structure. We have an adviser from a corporation in town who sees business plans all the time and is assisting us in working up a business plan for Austin Theatre for Youth, a three-year business plan with a bit of background about where we are and about the field in general and about the Austin community. We're talking about three major areas: finance, operations, and programs. We want a document that the board and staff can look at and measure themselves against every six months, every year."
In addition, the organization is working with five MBA students at St. Edward's University to develop a profile of ATY's target audience. "We wanted them to give us a profile of the family in Austin, Texas in the 1990s. What do they like? What do they do? What's our competition? And I'm getting a sense from the comments that it's indirect competition: computer games and soccer practices and music and ballet lessons and videos. We also wanted demographic info, so we have a specific idea of how we can fit into the lives of our target audience. Then we can re-position ourselves or newly position ourselves to take advantage of that knowledge.
"I'll tell you," says Schiller with a bit of a laugh and a sigh, "Starting an organization is tough, but keeping it going is even tougher."
Austin Theatre for Youth is not living happily ever after. There is no "happily ever after" in the American theatre. Every season, every day, is a struggle and so it will ever be. But the struggle can be managed, in such a way that a theatre company -- even one in Austin, Texas -- can survive for years and years, providing creative work that adds something valuable to the community. What it requires is planning, a sense of the long-term, realistic expectations, and management of resources. In its first season, Austin Theatre for Youth has demonstrated that it understands this -- and around town, so have a number of other fairly new companies: Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre, The Public Domain, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Austin Musical Theatre. They are ambitious, but it's a fair bet they will be around for many seasons. You don't have to take it on faith.
The Christmas Schooner runs December 6-22 at McCallum Fine Arts Academy Theatre.