`Tis the Season...

When Zachary Scott Theatre Center Flies With Angels



cover photograph by Bruce Dye

The road to Colonus was neither short nor easy, not for Oedipus or for the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. The tragic king of ancient Greek drama took years to reach the site of his redemption, and the same is true of Zach. From the time its artistic leaders first discussed staging The Gospel at Colonus, the musical about Oedipus' journey, to its opening last October was four years, an unusual length for a theatre project. But this show was special and required the theatre to chart each step along the road. So Zach went, slowly, deliberately, from Beehive to Buddy! to Once on This Island to Forever Plaid to Dreamgirls to Avenue X, heading to the site of redemption.

By any measure, The Gospel at Colonus was redemptive for the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. The critics lavished the production with praise and awards, and the public crowded in to see it. The results testify to the value of taking the long road to reach a dream. But once the dream has been reached, what? Zach couldn't stop producing plays. So how do you follow redemption?

With Angels.

A few weeks ago, Zach announced its 1997-98 season, and topping the schedule was Part One of Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America, winner of the Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Since the work's debut in 1993, local arts buffs had wondered how the show would be done in Austin. Its scope -- three hours per part, ranging over landscape and history in visionary style -- seemed beyond the grasp of local groups and many assumed a touring production would be the only way we'd see Angels. But regional stagings, such as the intimate version at Houston's Alley Theatre, proved Kushner's magnum opus could be staged in a minor key. And Zach's ability to mount a version improved with each season.

Now, Dave Steakley says that Zach is ready for Angels. It is a gutsy move, but with the success of Gospel fresh in the public's mind, this might be just the time for it. It also makes a bold statement for Steakley's first season at the artistic helm -- Zach's longtime producing artistic director Alice Wilson is leaving the theatre in August -- and it isn't the only one Steakley made for this season. The schedule includes another ambitious drama, August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, and three ambitious musicals, The Who's Tommy, by Pete Townshend & Des McAnuff; Blues in the Night, by Sheldon Epps; and Chicago, by John Kander, Fred Ebb, & Bob Fosse (the rights for this last have since been withheld), as well as four full servings of lighter musical fare: Schoolhouse Rock Live!; The Taffetas, by Rick Lewis, in repertory with a revival of Stuart Ross' Forever Plaid; and another holiday reprise of Rockin' Christmas Party.

How did Steakley come to compose this bold season? He told the Chronicle on a recent Sunday.

Austin Chronicle: Last year, you talked about The Gospel at Colonus as a project that you had built toward, not just you personally as an artist but Zach professionally as a theatre. I certainly felt in it a culmination of the growth here in the last few seasons. But it had me wondering: Where do you go when you've reached your dream? Was that something you faced in thinking about this season?

Dave Steakley: It absolutely was. I'd worked so hard to get to that place, and I think what made that really apparent was once it opened, Michael Barnes said casually to me, "So, what's next?" And I didn't have an answer. It freaked me out for about two months. I had invested so much into getting to that place with Gospel, and I thought, "So what the fuck is next?" The African-American artists involved with Gospel had a hunger to participate in a straight play and that's a natural evolution I felt we would make. For that, I knew that we would select the most accessible piece for audiences across the board -- black, white, whatever -- which initially made me think that we would do an August Wilson piece because of his success, though I did read a lot of plays by Texas playwrights, including East Texas Hot Links, which still intrigues me. The Piano Lesson, with its success at various regional theatres, made great sense to me. It's plot-driven and felt very magical when I saw it. It also seemed the right piece for utilizing some of the artists who have been working here and pulling in guest artists.

Another part of that development is that I've been the person here pushing those projects. When we were going to do Dreamgirls the first time, I guess because of it being such a huge musical, I think there was still some inherent racism about the ability of black projects to succeed financially in this town. And part of that was manifested at this theatre. So, having had the success with Beehive, I just laid down my gauntlet and said, "Please. Let's just put this on the season, let me do it, and I promise that I will invest all my energy and everything about myself to make sure that it succeeds." It's coming back, so obviously it succeeded. That was a turning point for us as an organization. Since that point, I've never had a question from anybody about a project. I've been the person behind these black projects and that's been well and good to an extent, but while the stagecraft has been there, you get to a project like Gospel and I have to rely on the artists to make sure that the authenticity is there and that we're not getting a white version of the experience. But I don't think it can help but be that if I'm at the helm. So it's time for our projects like that to be under a black director, and we will be doing that for The Piano Lesson and I'm very excited about that. It enhances our mix, and with the change, with Alice leaving, since Alice was doing the straight plays, it allows us some of that freedom to bring in directors.



photograph by Bruce Dye

AC: You've talked about going beyond Gospel in terms of the African-American artists here, but what about you as a director? Is there a project for Dave Steakley that reflects where you go after Gospel?

DS: I think for me individually it will manifest itself in Angels in America. It's a benchmark for us. I see that project as the cornerstone of our year -- really the cornerstone of two years, as Part Two will start the 1998-99 season. Some of that is a little vague for me now because we're still in the process of imagining what that is going to look like here. It's like with this High End lighting system that we're using for Janis; it's helped us re-imagine the space and transform it in a way that we hadn't been able to see before. I think that Angels requires no walls. It asks us to think without barriers. The means of expression is as wide open as I can think. The multitude of ideas which Kushner presents us with... it's the richest theatre experience I've ever sat through. And it's so incredibly layered that even though it's a long piece, it grows more exciting each time you see it.

I don't know specifically what my role will be in that production. I don't know if I'll be directing or if I'm just going to be involved as a producer, but I know that it will have a tremendous impact either way because of my desire to see it happen. And having had the chance to see it large and small, I think that there's a level of intimacy that I haven't seen with that project onstage that I'm eager for us to accomplish here. I keep going back to that image from the German production, where the angel was being drug on Priour's shoulders, and that to me feels very much what this is about, that level. At the Alley, I loved how the angel and Priour just wrestled on the floor, and nobody was flying in or breaking the ceiling in -- which at the Kleberg wouldn't be too hard to do! (laughs)

The other thing that's exciting for me personally is Tommy. Because we've been doing all this music, I've wanted something which married the "Live Music Capital of the World" and the theatre community. Not in the way of the original Broadway production, even though I loved that and those visuals were exciting to me and fresh. But there's this documentary about Tommy, just sort of the evolution of it from the beginning to the Broadway show, and the footage of Roger Daltrey, in that fringe vest alone on that stage, is still far more exciting than any stage version. So my hope is that we'll get to the root of what that original concert intention was. I think it will be flashy and concert-like and that we're going to incorporate a lot of people who have never been in a theatrical presentation, which I always love. I know that there will be a lot of hurdles to make it happen in the way I see it in my head -- coordinating the schedules of the musicians, who I want to be of name recognition in the city, and the different disciplines from that world to ours -- but I'm very energized about that prospect as well.

Hopefully, we'll play it in Austin Music Hall or a venue like that, even though that's not the most clever idea. I think it'll be the first of maybe a string of site-specific works for us. Obviously, there are groups in town who have been doing that with great success; Frontera has a really good history of that. It can make the work come alive and meaningful in ways that being at Zach Scott couldn't. That's what I'm counting on for Tommy, beginning that kind of experimentation.

AC: In the last two or three seasons, I've seen a really strong place for a certain kind of well-crafted American comedy -- The Sisters Rosensweig, Born Yesterday, Sylvia -- and that's missing from the upcoming season. Since Alice directed all three of those shows, does that have to do with her leaving, or are you just trying different things this year?

DS: Well, those comedies have been good to us. Sylvia, Born Yesterday, and Sisters Rosensweig had really favorable audience response, and I think it was borne out of that that Angels has been sitting on the burner, simmering, for three years. "When are we going to embark on this?" That and trying to make sure that the Gospel-type things that take a huge amount of financial resources, as well as energy on the part of the staff, that those are well-placed and that they don't cancel each other out.

This year, there wasn't a new comedy that had come to the forefront that we were interested in. We did look at some classics, and I don't think those are eliminated from the mix. I loved seeing Present Laughter in New York, the way that was re-envisioned this time. I know that direction has been criticized, but to me it made that piece so alive, and I know that that style of production would fit Austin. It may not be how Noel Coward conceived it, but the freshness and daring was very at home. So, I'm interested in projects and returning to those plays with this city in mind.

And the August Wilson piece, even though it's a drama, there are several sequences which are really funny. And there's spontaneous blues singing, and that felt very much a part of Zach Scott. That sort of exuberance and feeling, that's very much what happens to us here, when we're in rehearsals or breaks between rehearsals; that magnetic thing just goes on. At Threadgill's last night, a Janis recording came on, and Andra just burst into it. It's so much within those people that there's a constant need just to express that.

Anyway, I wasn't worried about the absence of an American comedy this year. We have plenty of light stuff on the season, you know?

AC: You're continuing to play to some of your strengths. You're bringing back Forever Plaid and adding The Taffetas, and you have the Schoolhouse Rock musical, and there's clearly an audience for that.

DS: There is! All the performers here are of an age that that's how they learned the Preamble to the Constitution and stuff like that. I don't know, it's just one of those crazy pop culture things that fits into the mix. The neat thing is that we haven't really had a mainstage show that was great for kids. We've been doing that stuff through InterAct and PlaySpace and the Performing Arts School, so it's a chance for us to bring that mainstage caliber to a production for families, as well as for people my age who saw that stuff the first time around.

We knew that we wanted Plaid to return this year, and Taffetas was a good alternative for subscribers who may not like Tommy. People love Plaid so much and we thought if they love Plaid, they'll love Taffetas. I guess it really applies to our first rule about any of this: It better be entertaining. You can't teach a lesson or be informative or whatever without being entertaining. And these shows are pure entertainment for entertainment's sake. I don't feel apologetic for them because we always produce them first-rate. We invest as much heart and energy into those projects as the things which keep us here working late at night.

AC: And then there's Chicago....

DS: Well, there is no Chicago. [laughs] I got my letter yesterday saying that the national tour will interfere. So we won't have Chicago. Maybe next year. I love that piece, and when we do get to do it, it will be a step forward in our musical growth. I put it at the end of the season so I would have enough time to land the right choreographer and leads because people are going to come with the expectation of the dancing being really hot....

AC: ...and seeing Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking.

DS: That's right. And they should be able to get it. I know that when that was put on our season, the question marks came up. "There's not an actress in town who's a triple threat. Who's gonna do that?" I want the audience's confidence that if we've got it on the season, we're going to do it right. When Dreamgirls came up, "There's not an Effie in this town," is what I kept hearing. "How are they going to pull that off? It's such a big cast." I know we'll do a bang-up job with Chicago because we're going to get the right personnel.

AC: That leads me to two questions. The first concerns artist-driven projects. It seems that part of what's grown out of Beehive and other projects here is that certain artists prove so strong, you spin off satellite projects starring them: Soul Sisters with Judy Arnold and Andra Mitrovich, Love, Janis with Andra, Ruthless! with Joe York. Do any projects on the upcoming season reflect the sense of "These are the artists that we've worked with successfully and want to keep working with?"

DS: Blues in the Night. Janis Stinson has a long history of participating in Austin theatre, period, but she's begun to win her recognition here at Zach. She's turned in three big kick-ass cameos in Avenue X, A Christmas Carol, and Ruthless!, where you have all these phenomenal pros onstage and then Janis comes out and yanks the rug out in this very unassuming kind of way, as only she can. Blues in the Night is her moment. It's her "Effie time," her star time. I've been determined to find that for her. She's a schooled actress and one of the most insightful performers I know. So I'm excited that she's going to have this opportunity. It's well deserved, and she's going to tear it down. [laughs]

And when I think about The Taffetas, about the quintessential Taffeta, Meredith Robertson comes up. Oftentimes around here, Meredith comes up as our quintessential whatever. She's done such amazing work in a variety of roles over here. I'm really proud of her growth as an artist.

There are certain artists -- Meredith, Janis, Jacqui Cross, Allen Robertson, Joe York, Barbara Chisholm, Janelle Buchanan -- I want to know what they're interested in, what excites them and why. My experience here has been that if somebody really learns something and has the talent, you better stand back because you are in for an incredible performance. So I'm interested in that artist input. I shouldn't have made a list like that and risked leaving out the people that I'm not thinking of at this moment.



photograph by Bruce Dye

AC: The other question prompted by the Chicago situation goes to a general hazard in announcing a season. Sometimes you announce shows that end up not being produced. Maybe rights are pending or resources that you thought you had together at one point don't materialize. You announced Gospel, then postponed it. This year, The Heiress was announced and wasn't produced. You announced Chicago for next season, now it won't happen. Does that affect your credibility with subscribers?

DS: Obviously we worry about that. There are two answers there. One of the issues with us the past couple of years has been Alice and I putting together the season in conjunction. The give-and-take of a relationship like that, of two minds thinking artistically, has given way at times to one person's passion or the other's taking over in the course of the year. Which is not to suggest that there has been conflict; our relationship has been excellent. But I think that has left us in the past in a little more flux than it will be moving ahead.

The other part is, we've had this one slot the last few seasons where we've announced a show that we didn't have the rights to -- Sisters Rosensweig was one of those; we didn't have the rights until about a week-and-a-half before we started rehearsal. In our effort to get something really new and hot, we're generally willing to play that waiting game. And our audiences seem to be cool with that. Not that there haven't been problems, but the problems have been minor. Now, if we didn't produce Angels, I think we'd have a problem. It's a cornerstone of our season and a large motivator for people to join us this year.

AC: So it's not one that you feel you could do as you did with Gospel, postpone it a season if the resources didn't quite come together in the way you wanted.

DS: I'm not comfortable with us ever doing that again. I hated it that we had to do it then, but it just wasn't up to the caliber I expect out of us. I was also very selfish [with Gospel]; I wasn't gonna do that thing half-ass, having waited so long. From this point forward, my hope is that our ducks will be better in a row, so we're not setting up anybody for that kind of disappointment. I feel confident of Angels coming together really well.

AC: Would you prefer not announcing a season in advance? Some people argue that the age of the subscription season is dead, that theatres are finding it more profitable to go after single ticket buyers, to keep hits going as long as they can. Would you just as soon do away with seasons and subscriptions?

DS: Well, I don't want to do away with subscriptions because it provides our base of support, and it's very important for theatres such as ours, in terms of cash flow. That money that comes in the late spring or early summer is a very important component to keeping a theatre going. I think that's why theatres cling to it. But by far the vast majority of our tickets are sold by single ticket, and most people here are ExecPass holders -- the flexible ticket -- because they don't know what they're doing the second Friday of each run. That kind of subscriber has grown tremendously as people seek more flexibility in their lives.

I guess the only thing that would sometimes make it easier would be to announce later when there was something that was really hot out there that you want. But that doesn't fit where the marketing director needs it to in order to get it marketed properly and sold. Though the weird thing for me now is that I've already drafted the '98-99 season. Angels is part of our formula, and Allen and I have talked about the project that's our next big challenge. It's Porgy and Bess, and we want to work on it in the way that Ray Charles and Cleo Laine, and Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald reconceived that music. As far as I know, it hasn't been presented onstage other than as an opera. There are moments in that show that are meant to be gospel or jazz, but they haven't been allowed the freedom of those recordings where, if it's gospel, then you treat it like gospel.

The thing that excites us is that it feels like a thing that would go beyond Zach Scott, because it's a re-imagining of the work that hasn't been done. It fits the city, but it also would engage audiences elsewhere. Love, Janis is a dabbling in that. There's limited control there, but it's certainly going to have a life. But I'd like to have something that's our product.

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