"My Uncle Has a Barn...."
Theatre Is Thriving in Some Surprising Places Outside Austin
You need only foot it as far as Johnson City to see what I mean. In that amiable Hill Country town, a new theatre has sprung up inside what was once a feed mill. The mill, which stopped grinding grain years ago, was a still, silent landmark on the highway through town until Charles Trois, an enterprising and whimsical artist, bought it and gave the site a startling makeover, creating a complex of shops, restaurants, and art displays out of the storerooms, sheds, and assorted other buildings on the property. Now, a conspicuous white gorilla -- one of those Kong-sized inflatable types so beloved of car dealerships -- perches atop one building, working his simian wiles on motorists hurtling past on Hwy 290, while his outsized crustacean cousin on another building entices those who have already stopped to sample the complex's Cajun/Caribbean restaurant (with a second eatery in the complex dishing up homestyle cooking, deciding where to dine can be a challenge). Murals of fantastic figures and wildly decorated mannequins adorn outdoor walls, and dozens of disconnected electric meters hang in a voltaic limbo under the eaves of one structure. A colorful carousel stands expectantly at one edge of the complex, and near the back, in the Red Generator Room that powered this mill in days gone by, is the Wild Flower Theater.
You'd be hard put to imagine the room in which this theatre is situated ever screaming, "Perform in me!" It has a fine high ceiling, but otherwise it's just one more big boxy room. Still, when Elizabeth Hodges, DeeDee Wallace, and Kandee Bishea -- the trio whose vision and drive created Wild Flower Theater -- were scouting their town for a play-space and Trois offered the room to them, they cheerfully accepted. The generator was removed and bleacher-style seating erected. No formal stage was created, just some open playing space on the floor at the front of the room. But it serves, as is amply demonstrated in the company's current production of Quilters.
This musical by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek celebrates the lives and art of pioneer women, using story and song to recount the hardships of crossing the prairie, of forging a home and society out of a harsh frontier, of rearing a family in the wilderness, and also the joy and triumph these women felt in doing so. It's intended to be performed simply, with basic props and movement and light evoking our sense of the pioneer world, which makes it a sensible choice for this space. But that isn't what really makes this show at home in this feed mill; it's the match of subject and company. The tales in Quilters, the histories of these pioneers, belong to the women onstage and to their relatives and this community, and you can feel it when you share the space with them. It comes through in the warmth of the performances, in the sparkle of pride in the actresses' eyes, in the strength and music of their voices, in the response of the audience, and to some degree, within the walls themselves. The story of this community lives in the walls of this space, and creating theatre within them makes that story breathe again. It's an endearing show, made all the more so for its presentation within a home to their heritage.
That sense of history enhancing a stage production is one I know well, having encountered it again and again in another Central Texas performing space, the Theatre Barn at the Winedale Historical Center. For more than a quarter of a century, plays have been presented in the 140-year-old cedar structure, most of them by students in Dr. James Ayres' Shakespeare at Winedale program. Ayres began staging work in the barn at the behest of legendary philanthropist Ima Hogg, who felt the space might make a natural home for theatre. So, in 1971, Ayres brought a handful of students to this pastoral UT property around the corner and down the road from Round Top. Within the old barn's wooden walls, he had them connect with the wonders of Shakespeare's work by performing the plays themselves. It worked, and he has brought hundreds there in the summers since.
I first came to know the barn as a student of Dr. Ayres, taking pleasure in playing among its massive beams and worn planks and cool clay floor. As an audience member at more than a few class productions since, I've also come to appreciate the way the building's age and assimilation into the landscape over time feeds the theatrical work being done by the students. They provide a touchstone to the past, one which helps these creatures of the present leap backward through the ages to the time of the Bard of Avon -- or perhaps into a realm where past and present are one, reflecting the timelessness of Shakespeare's drama.
Unlike what is blossoming in Johnson City, the theatre in Winedale doesn't come out of the community of year-round residents. But that doesn't mean it doesn't come out of any community. Every June, when Ayres and his class journey to Winedale for the summer session, a new community is born at Winedale, a community of students and teachers, friends and lovers and sometimes foes, who will spend nine weeks together in that place -- under its trees and piercing blue sky, over its dusty roads, inside its buildings and that imposing, unforgettable barn -- digging through texts and working mightily to unearth drama. The Shakespearean productions that result -- which the public is invited to come see -- may vary in their ability to convey the tragedy and comedy embedded in the plays, but they never fail to project a sense of the community that has evolved over two months' time. As you read this, the latest bunch of Winedalers has assembled and begun to wrestle with the texts of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Winter's Tale, and -- being staged for the first time at Winedale -- Richard II. In another month, you can go see what they've found in them -- and in themselves.
Before that, however, you have an opportunity to see another community in another place take its first steps toward establishing a new theatre for itself. Over in Fredericksburg, an intrepid group of thespians is preparing a production of the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific. When it opens on June 29, the Fredericksburg Music Theater Company (FMTC) will be officially on its way. The company was founded on March 1 of this year to provide the town's residents with "another outlet for creativity and entertainment." The company's founders aspire to be "a theatre that is community-based... that involves as much of the community as possible in every aspect of the production," that produces shows "with messages that our community would find worthwhile... to which you can bring your children, your mother, your out-of-town company, or your minister." For its maiden voyage, the company is enlisting the help of Fredericksburg's Admiral Nimitz Museum of the Pacific War, which will loan the company props and costumes for use in its staging of this WWII-era story. The venue in which FMTC is producing the show isn't quite as novel as a feed mill or antique barn, but it's no less historic: It's St. Joseph's Halle, a landmark town meetingplace, where no doubt the history of Fredericksburg will supplement this theatrical journey into the history of the Second World War.
Meanwhile, a little to the south, another new theatre company is taking a dramatic journey into America's past as it continues its mission of creating a theatre for one of the largest communities in the United States, San Antonio. For the first production of its second season -- and only its third production ever -- San Antonio Public Theatre (SAPT) is mounting The Grapes of Wrath, Frank Galati's Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel. It's a show that would tax the resources of the most veteran companies -- a cast of two dozen, period costumes, a key set piece is a big old rusty truck -- much less a fledgling stage group dedicated to producing at Actors' Equity professional levels. But it was important to the folks in SAPT to do this show at this point, so they managed to pull together a $50,000 budget, a cast of actors from all over San Antonio, and that truck, and the show is set to open June 28, with SAPT company member Steve Price, a familiar figure on Austin stages in the middle Eighties, playing Tom Joad.
Unlike the rest of the groups described above, SAPT is mounting its summer production in a traditional theatre (and, according to company member Amy Price, one of the newest and nicest theatres in San Antonio). But the company's choice of this particular space has to do with a little more than considerations of stage size and booking schedules. St. Mary's Hall is in a part of the city that SAPT has not produced in before, and they make it a point to move around San Antonio with each new production. It's their way of taking their theatre into different communities within the community, of introducing themselves to the various neighborhoods in the city and becoming, however briefly, a part of them.
I've written it before: All theatre, like all politics, is local. Its meaning and its power arise from the concerns and needs of a community, the community which is home to both the artists who create the work and the audiences who engage with it. Theatre's impact on their lives is bound up in its ability to reflect what they know: the personalities, the emotions, the images, the textures, the dreams, the sounds, the epiphanies, the mysteries, the names, the places.... When it is a part of our neighborhoods and our histories, theatre no longer distinguishes between artist and audience, stage and not-stage. It's all one. You can see for yourself in just a short drive.