The Austin Chronicle

Entrances & Exits

Comings and Goings on the Theatre Scene

September 5, 1997, Arts

by Adrienne Martini and Robert Faires

Alice Wilson
photograph by Todd J. Wolfson

They come and go. On the stage, that's what characters do. A figure will step in from the wings, make some contribution to whatever Grand Drama is unfolding under the lights, then depart. The time they spend in the light may vary, the contributions they make may be of greater and lesser degree, but all are bound at some point to make their entrances and exits, to come and go.

So it is with the characters in the ongoing drama we call Austin theatre. Each season sees the arrival of actors, directors, designers, playwrights, dancers, technicians, choreographers, patrons, musicians, managers, teachers, critics, and others in our performing arts community, and each season sees the departure of same. The past season has been no different. We have seen the coming of artists who startle us with their talents and make us consider anew the possibilities of theatre in our town, and we have seen the leavetaking of figures whose devotion to the stage have helped it to flourish here. These pages have recounted some of the changes -- the striking arrivals of Austin Musical Theatre and Rude Mechanicals, the sudden, sad deaths of Capitol City Playhouse founder Michel Jaroschy and actor-director Bill Jay -- and in future issues they will cover others. Now, as we ease from one season into another, we take note of a few of the more auspicious entrances and exits of late.

Alice Wilson

Things change. That's one truism with which Alice Wilson would surely agree. For during her extended tenure at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center -- a period of 18 years -- Wilson saw a world of change. When she joined the Zach Scott staff in 1979, the theatre was still very much the community theatre it had been founded as, with actors and much of the technical staff volunteering their services for the shows produced there. It staged six to eight shows a season, all of them in the single performance space on Riverside Drive at South Lamar that had been erected in 1972. That was then, this is now. When Wilson left Zach for good last Friday, she left a fully professional performing arts institution, one operating under an Actors' Equity contract and employing 300 artists and artisans annually. She left a theatre producing eight to 10 productions a season, not only in its own two modest-sized theatres but in the spacious Paramount Theatre as well. She left a theatre with a burgeoning performing arts school for aspiring young artists and a professional children's theatre program -- Project InterAct, for which Wilson was artistic director for nine years -- reaching 36,000 children each year. The change in the Zachary Scott Theatre Center is one of the most profound transformations this city's arts scene has seen in the last quarter century, and Wilson was present for it all.

Actually, Wilson was more than present; she was a force for much of the change at Zach. As Project InterAct's artistic director, Wilson pushed the issue of pay for artists when next to no one in town compensated them for their efforts. She believed in diversity, both in the stories that InterAct told onstage and in the company itself. In the early Eighties, InterAct was one place where you could consistently count on seeing tales from a variety of cultures and actors of color presenting them. When Wilson became producing artistic director of the theatre itself in 1988, she worked toward improving the professional quality of Zach's productions, increasing the pay for local artists and instituting the use of Equity guest performers. And it was during her first few years in this position that the theatre planned and built its second space, the John R. Whisenhunt Arena Stage, with its accompanying office and rehearsal space and costume shop.

Throughout this span of seasons, Wilson underwent her own changes as an artist. During her InterAct years, she was deeply involved in the creation of theatre for young audiences. Her work as playwright and director, through such shows as Flashback!, Poe, and the rich and moving Depression history Workin' Texas, helped earn the company a national reputation for high quality. The switch to producing artistic director for Zach shifted Wilson's attention to adult drama, and she used the opportunity to explore work with a classical setting, providing memorable stagings of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Mirandolina, and -- a personal favorite of this writer -- The Illusion. More recently, Wilson came into her own as a director of American comedies, serving up crisp and classy productions of The Sisters Rosensweig, Sylvia, Born Yesterday, and that record-breaking farce Shear Madness. When you factor in works as diverse as the gentle Texas drama The Trip to Bountiful, the outrageous Southern Gothic satire Tent Meeting, and the Nineties urban romance Jack and Jill -- Wilson's farewell piece -- this director has dropped anchor in more harbors than Odysseus.

Asked to reflect on her creative career at Zach, Wilson responded in her typically thoughtful and eloquent way. "There's a quote from Emily Dickinson that says, `Art is a house that wants to be haunted.' I've been thinking about that a lot lately," she said. "I like it because it means it's a construct, a house, something that's built by many hands, with many systems and a complexity about it. But I also like that it wants to be haunted, that it desires a spirit to come forth. And I guess the work that I've most enjoyed has been that which I have had to cajole or coax or even simply witness that spirit emerging to inhabit its own house, the proper house. It's no surprise that Poe and Workin' Texas are among the works I've most loved, because there's nothing like pulling something from the inside out. Bringing words forth and having them spoken by the actors for whom they were designed is just about the sweetest experience, the most potent. And of those shows that I did not write but I've loved so much, I guess I favored the ones that were somewhat difficult, like The Illusion, A Shayna Maidel, Breaking the Code, Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, and Jack and Jill, where the spirit that needs to inhabit the house is reticent and needs the utmost safety and sense of belonging to come into fullness. That's the kind of work that I have most loved, that used everything that I had, that the actors had, that the design team had, to create."

That particular struggle to create, to which Wilson has devoted so many years, is one she will leave behind for now. She leaves Zachary Scott to pursue new career interests as a corporate trainer and meeting facilitator. It is a bittersweet change to make, given how much Wilson has invested in this particular theatre and how much she believes in the theatre as an art form. But Wilson is willing to make it precisely because she believes in change; the move allows her to test herself and grow as an individual -- and to find new time to be creative in ways that she admits she has not been able to while having to fulfill the duties of an artistic director. (Maybe this means we can hope for another Workin' Texas sometime in the future.) She moves on, leaving Austin theatre with a legacy of change: the change that can be accomplished by a single theatre and the change that theatre can make in the life of a community. -- R.F.

Dan Dietz

When I first saw Dan Dietz in Salvage Vanguard Theater's Battle of San Jacinto last winter, I was amazed. He is the kind of actor that you can't take your eyes off of, for fear that either you'll miss him doing something intriguing or he'll jump in your face the moment you blink. Judging from other responses to his inaugural effort with Salvage Vanguard -- a Theatre Critics' Table Award for best performance by a lead actor in a drama and a B. Iden Payne Award nomination for best performance by a lead actor in a play -- I'm not the only one who was amazed. The strange thing is, Dietz seemed to surface suddenly on Austin's theatrical radar. But even with time to prepare for his appearance, I'm not sure that this theatre community could have been ready for Dietz and his multi-faceted talents.

Dietz moved to Austin two years ago after working for Playground Theatre in Atlanta. His work in Georgia, plus his BA from Kennesaw University, enabled him to do everything from Shakespeare to late-night, experimental projects. But he felt himself "propelled out to the edges of where theatre is going," and so came to the University of Texas to begin an MA in Theatre History and Criticism. UT playwriting student and Salvage Vanguard staple David Bucci saw Dietz perform in a class scene and was immediately hooked by Dietz's readily apparent abilities. "I instantly knew he was perfect for Salvage Vanguard because his choices were sharp and edgy," Bucci says.

What followed was a meeting over coffee with Salvage Vanguard Artistic Director Jason Neulander, who was busily trying to cast Battle of San Jacinto. According to Neulander, "Dietz had a strong command of the language and you could tell he was somewhat classically trained. I just had to cast him."

While Dietz was originally scared of the project because of playwright Ruth Margraff's style of mixing sheer poetry and extrapolated symbolism while playing with conventional presentational forms, he found his experience with the show opened up a new avenue for him as a theatre artist and helped him form an alliance with Salvage Vanguard. "I can explore the fringes of theatre as well as be on the cutting edge and know that there is a company that will produce that," Dietz says.

Neulander and company have given Dietz the chance to spread his directorial wings with the Salvage Vanguard production of Scavengers, which opened August 29 at Planet Theatre (see this issue's "Exhibitionism" arts page for a review of the show). While Dietz has not had much directing experience, Neulander trusts him, based on his detail-oriented work as Salvage Vanguard literary manager and the choices and intellectual abilities that he displayed throughout Battle of San Jacinto's rehearsal process. "He has the right balance of trusting his instincts and ability to see the bigger picture that a director needs," says Neulander. "I think he's done a whiz-bang job of directing Scavengers."

With the show open, Dietz is heading back to campus to work toward his MFA in playwriting. A recipient of one of the university's coveted Michener writing grants, Dietz plans to "propel his work out to the edges of where theatre is going and push conventions to the limit." Hopefully, he will come out from behind his word processor long enough to delight and amaze us with his magnetic acting once again. -- A.M.

Eva Paloheimo

Eva Paloheimo's impact on Austin theatre is too rich to describe adequately. Her Hyde Park Theatre, as well as her quiet willingness to give any idea a go, has nurtured and developed a who's who of theatre companies -- The Company, Root Wy'mn Theatre Company, Subterranean Theatre Company, Hopeful Monsters, Physical Plant, First Stage Productions, and Rude Mechanicals, to name a handful -- plus a host of dance companies, such as margery segal/NERVE and Ariel Dance Theatre, and individual performers such as Deborah Hay and Heloise Gold, by giving these diverse groups and artists both the space to perform and the freedom to explore their impulses. Without this theatre and the person who ran it, the breadth of theatre companies that this town currently enjoys would have been seriously diminished.

Paloheimo's involvement, however, went deeper than simply providing a building for productions. Paloheimo also offered information and advice for developing companies. "Eva was chock full of wisdom and support," says Lana Lesley about Rude Mechanicals' experience with Paloheimo booking the fledgling company's production of curst & Shrewd: The Taming of the Shrew Unhinged, which closes September 6. "We're big Eva fans," Lesley adds.

While this sentiment is echoed by many who have worked with Paloheimo, her involvement with Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre may have made the most lasting impression on Austin's theatrical landscape. In giving artistic director Vicky Boone and company a permanent home for their work, Paloheimo gave them the opportunity to concentrate more on their work itself than on the neverending search for a place to perform. And with it she granted them the freedom to make the physical configuration of the theatre itself a transformable character, as seen in Frontera's production last fall of Enfants Perdus.

"To have a home was a significant thing for us," says Boone, "and Eva created a working environment with enormous integrity, straightforwardness, with no duplicity or paranoia -- the best possible working situation one could hope for."

The relationship started with Frontera's production of Mi Vida Loca in Hyde Park Theatre in the summer of 1992. Following that show, Boone was prepared to produce Frontera's next work in the space, but she and Paloheimo sat down with their planners and blocked out dates for Frontera's whole season. With The Swan in the summer of 1993, Hyde Park Theatre became the company's full-time home. Then in 1994, Frontera and Hyde Park formally merged, with Frontera assuming control of the Hyde Park Theatre space in which to produce its own work, while maintaining Paloheimo's drive to provide space for other experimental theatre companies. For almost three years, Paloheimo has served the company as its managing director -- and served Austin theatre by extension -- with unfailing energy and support.

But sometimes the opportunity to pursue other dreams outweighs the need to continue a job well done. Paloheimo's family has a long history in Santa Fe, a connection to the land that goes back to the time before it had a name, and they were instrumental in the development of its arts scene as well. Her move to Santa Fe is a homecoming for Paloheimo and the community that she has helped to develop in Austin is now strong enough to live on without her quiet assitance.

"She was always a strong advocate of adventurous work," says Boone. "From her own vision of what was needed in this community, she created a space for it." -- A.M.

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