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Live Oak Theatre and the Overhaul of the State

photograph by John Anderson

This holiday, Santa won't be leaving any little bundles under Live Oak Theatre's tree. Oh, it isn't because this longtime local stage company hasn't been good this year; on the contrary, Live Oak has turned out some memorable drama in 1997. It's that the theatre has already had its Christmas -- three months ago. And when he came through back in September, the jolly old elf left Live Oak a big bundle: a $1.9 million bundle, to be exact. Actually, the delivery was made by a group of Santa's little helpers -- better known in these parts as the Austin City Council -- but on September 25, they proved themselves every bit as generous as Kris Kringle himself, as least as far as Live Oak is concerned. On that day, council voted to grant the arts group $1.9 million in city bond money to renovate its current home, the State Theatre on Congress Avenue.

Where those funds came from and how this particular theatre company came to receive them is a drama almost worthy of a Live Oak production: City flush with Eighties boom votes millions for three local arts projects, including renovation of old movie house into performing arts center. City falls on hard times; arts groups fall on hard times; projects languish. Years pass. Never-say-die theatre company, evicted from its home space by the state so it can build a new parking garage, moves into dilapidated cinema on city's main street. Company discovers money for moviehouse makeover still out there. Company campaigns for it, wins over city hall, gets the money.

Now, this little synopsis, like a lot of plays, omits some of the particulars of the story for dramatic effect. (For a detailed -- and no less entertaining -- account of the bond money's history, see Kayte VanScoy's "The Impossible Dream," The Austin Chronicle, September 19, 1997.) What it doesn't sweeten up for the audience, though, is the ending: a happy one for a very persistent Austin theatre company.

The ending of one drama, however, usually signals the beginning of another. In the case of Live Oak and the State, winning the bond money means Live Oak is now faced with making use of it, and so begins the drama of this company converting a Thirties-era cinema into a Nineties-era performing arts theatre. This drama will encompass the challenges of architectural plans and construction crews, budgets and deadlines, but perhaps more importantly a capital campaign in which Live Oak must fight to win not only the financial support of Austin's citizens but their hearts and minds as well. For the success of a transformed State will depend heavily on the public's perception of the company which calls it home, a sense that they are among Austin's cultural assets and worthy of preservation.

A walk through the State reveals just how inhospitable the building currently is as a venue for theatre. The auditorium is long and narrow, with seats angled on a fairly gentle slope of a few inches per row. For viewing giant images projected on an elevated screen, this design may pose few problems, but for viewing live actors on a stage raised only a few feet above the floor, it creates difficulties in sight lines and makes audience members in the back third of the house feel frustratingly distant from the action. The backstage area has virtually no wing space, meaning next to no room for set pieces or even actors to go when they are not onstage. There is no space behind or below stage that can be appropriated for dressing rooms or green rooms and no access from the parts of the building that do have such space -- the balcony, the lobby, the basement under the lobby -- to the backstage. And everything about the structure suffers from the years of disuse since the building stopped showing films in the early Eighties and the last attempt to produce live performance in the space in the mid-Eighties.

Of course, this same walk reveals just how much the Live Oak company has done to make the building viable as a venue for theatre in the three and a half years that it's called the State home: cleaned up trashed-out rooms, steam cleaned carpets, hung pipes for stage lights, hooked up light and sound boards in the balcony, extended the stage to meet the audience and raked it down in the front to provide the illusion of being above the actors, enlarged the lobby, created offices upstairs and a rehearsal room in the basement. None of the modifications are extravagant, but they have provided a solid enough foundation for Live Oak to stage some 20 full-scale productions and establish a firm theatrical presence on the Avenue.

Even with the alterations noted above, Live Oak might not have been able to do all it has done in the State without the linkage it has made between the State and the adjacent Reynolds Penland Building. That property, which formerly housed the prominent clothing store, was vacant when Live Oak sought to move into the State, and the arts group recognized its potential as a site for the support services that could not be established in the movie house itself. Live Oak leased the property with an option to buy and, with the admittedly limited resources it had, established in it the crucial adjunct to the theatre proper, a space with a scene shop, a costume shop, dressing rooms, storage space, and a classroom for the Live Oak acting school.

So with the can-do spirit of born show people, blended with that breed's sense of improvisation and willingness to expend a little elbow grease, the Live Oak team has carved a theatre out of what was, for all practical purposes, a block of stone (make that two blocks of stone). Still, only the most generous -- or maybe the least demanding -- of theatre artists and patrons would say that Live Oak's facilities as they are are sufficient. There are still plenty of circuits yet to be rewired, walls yet to be painted, leaks yet to repaired. It's only been recently that the company has managed even to create direct access between the two buildings, and that was accomplished only when some folks took to some cinder block walls with a sledgehammer. (Prior to this, actors going from the dressing rooms in the basement of the Reynolds Penland Building to the stage in the State had to go out the back door of the Reynolds Penland Building, walk a few feet down the alley, then go in through the back door of the State.) And even the considerable ingenuity and effort of Live Oak's staff and volunteers isn't enough to overcome some of the buildings' worst liabilities. Converting the State into an excuse-free, working theatre for live performance necessitates scrapping some things and starting from scratch. And that means serious money.

Fortunately, Live Oak has been given some.

So, just what is Live Oak planning to do with that $1.9 million? The company's producing artistic director is happy to tell you, and in great detail. Don Toner has done his share of cleaning out and fixing up the two buildings under his care, and it's clear that the prospect of being able to transform them completely is one he relishes. Downtown's favorite architect Sinclair Black and a team of his associates have already begun drawing up preliminary plans for the renovations, and on a tour through the spaces, Toner can mark out seemingly to the inch where changes will be made, where this row of seats will start or that classroom door will be situated. Watching and listening to him, you can see the transformed spaces.

The most dramatic change will come in the auditorium. "The stage is going to drop down to the basement level," Toner notes. "You'll be coming into the auditorium at street level. The last row of seats will be on street level, about the current Row T. Forward of that, we have 19 rows, 18 seats wide, aisles against the walls." The seating will be stadium style, with each row dropping nine inches from the row above it. In addition, along the north wall, a row of box seats will be created by cutting seven feet into the wall of the Reynolds Penland Building. The total number of seats will be diminished, from about 440 to 372 -- "342 in the house and 30 in the boxes," according to Toner -- and with the elevation of the audience plus the wrap-around effect from the boxes, he says, "the feeling will be of being much closer. I would say it's an intimate feeling, but it's large enough capacity that the theatre could fly."

photographs by Kenny Braun

Having the stage on the basement floor will allow Live Oak to open it into the basement of the Reynolds Penland Building. Filler walls will be removed, creating the much-needed wing space on at least one side of the stage. The stage will empty directly into the scene shop, allowing the company to roll platforms directly on and off the stage.

The balcony at the back of the auditorium will be shortened somewhat and walled off. A formal light and sound booth will be created at the front of the balcony (to replace the informal table and boards in current use), and the back will be divided into two classrooms for the acting school, each room with a small stage and seating for approximately 30 people. An office for the school may also be squeezed into the balcony space. Catwalks will extend off the balcony at the level where the light booth is and connect to a grid that covers the stage and part of the audience.

The mezzanine level will remain, but the rest of the lobby will be reconfigured. The back wall will be pushed back several feet to where a half-wall at the back of the auditorium stands presently, and the bar will be moved to this area. The part of the lobby now containing the south staircase, the bar, and the box office will all "go away," as Toner says, to be replaced by "an elevator that goes up to the offices and down to the basement," where Toner points out, they will add new "world class restrooms" and a cabaret bar where the theatre can continue its Later at Live Oak cabaret series.

In addition to the nicer amentities, the basement level will include storage (in the area under the auditorium) and a corridor formally connecting the State to the Reynolds Penland Building. The whole basement under the Reynolds Penland Building will provide the same support services that it does now -- a rehearsal hall, costume shop, props storage, dressing rooms, green room, and scene shop -- but in expanded and improved form and much more easily accessible from the stage.

The most significant change in the Reynolds Penland Building is the creation of a theatre in the street-level area behind the space subleased to the Wild About Music gallery and currently occupied by Live Oak's School of Acting. Toner envisions "a small 90-seat theatre, with its own little marquee out on Eighth Street," a place where the company can continue its tradition of new play development, staging new works that "we could put into a run, into a season, instead of just doing the staged readings and concentrating it all inside of a week or two," as the company has been doing with its Harvest Festival of New American Plays.

Listening to Toner and imagining the transformed spaces generates an itch to see the project realized, and the sooner the better. Unfortunately, the overhaul won't begin -- can't begin -- until Live Oak does a little fundraising of its own. To get its hands on the bond money, Live Oak must obtain free and clear title to the State Theatre. "We owe $290,000 [on the State's mortgage]," says Toner, "which must be paid off before we can access this $1.9 million. Then we must raise an additional $380,000 to buy the Reynolds Penland Building. We currently have a lease purchase with option to buy. The first three-year term of that is up in February, and [that lease has] been extended for another three years at a higher price, so it behooves us to close the deal on that, and we probably will. We just have to raise the down payment; we don't have to pay this off to continue. We can pay it off in 30 years if we choose to do that. We have a tenant now [Wild About Music], who can pay enough rent to help finance that. Then we have to raise an additional -- we're estimating now -- $150,000 to do this work. So it's a little over a million dollars that ultimately Live Oak will be raising."

Toner notes that Live Oak has to date raised $85,000 toward the cost of the State and that of the $290,000 remaining on the mortgage, the company has "pledges of about $150,000. So we think that's a very doable first step." If Toner is right and the doable gets done, the timeline for the renovation will proceed as follows: Complete the design phase in April, 1998; begin the bidding process in May; complete the bidding process by the end of May; June 3, "the day after we close the season," Toner notes, begin demolition. "We have June through December for demolition and construction, and we re-open in January of `99. So we close for a seven-month period."

Asked if seven months will be adequate for the job, Toner replies, "The lobby renovation would lead me to believe that we've got an excess of time allowed for construction. We started demolition in July, and we had to rebuild the temporary wall in the front, pour a concrete floor, of course we had to crack out some concrete -- I got to swing the sledgehammer on that project -- and a lot of other things we just did ourselves. We did all that in a month's time. And this was with a lot of people working part time. So, yes, I think it can be done. What happens -- what must happen -- is that demolition must start at this end of the building while it's starting at the other end."

And what happens to the company during the seven months that the theatre will be unable to produce? "We're still studying the question," Toner admits. "When we were homeless before, I felt it imperative that we keep right on producing like nothing happened, and I cut deals with Capitol City Playhouse, the University of Texas, Huston-Tillotson College, and St. Stephen's School, to do plays in their facilities under our banner, our people, our box office, in fact. And I cut a deal to have a temporary space at 200 Colorado. God bless those people for taking us in and letting us use it.

"Then, I felt it very important that we not miss a beat, that we keep right on going. I don't feel that way here. The difference is that then we didn't know what our fate would be. We didn't know if we could survive, if we could find a new home, if we could get into it. We had momentum and we had to keep it going. We know where we're going now. We know what it's going to look like when we get finished, we have plans."

Those plans may look awfully good to those of us on the inside of the local theatre scene, Austinites eager to see a new performance facility developed, especially one in the heart of the heart of downtown, cheek by jowl with that Grand Old Lady of the city's theatres, the Paramount. To the rest of the city, however, those plans may appear less appealing. They may look more like a public hand-out to a private arts group, one of those unfortunate endorsements of the cultural elite by the status quo. Or like an unsound investment by the city in a facility too far gone to sink money into, an arts boondoggle. The entity most responsible for addressing these perceptions in the public mind is Live Oak Theatre. If it wants Austin to embrace the new State in the way that the city has embraced the Paramount, Live Oak has to make sure the city is familiar with its work and its place in Austin's cultural life. That challenge is one of which Don Toner is keenly aware, but he doesn't shy away from it.

"We are still a well-kept secret," he admits. "We don't have a big advertising budget, but we need a major campaign that must take place during the next year, from January to January, to let people know who we are and what we do. We started producing six plays a year, then we added benefit performances, then we added the Harvest Festival of New American Plays, then the New Play Awards, and then we added the School of Acting and the Discovery program, and we keep expanding the programs of the theatre. It's a very well-rounded and rich community asset we've developed here. We need to tell the world, and I'm hoping to enlist one of the major agencies to take us on, to help get our story out because I think we've got a good story. I think we've built good programs. I think we have a good family, and now we're going to have a good facility."

Toner is also aware that getting his dream theatre still won't be the final curtain on the State Theatre drama. For as soon as the facility is finished, another new drama will begin, one in which the art of Live Oak Theatre must live up to the quality of the place in which it is produced. "You go to see a production," he muses, "and your expectations settle -- like water finding a level -- at a place, and you accept it on that level. You go into a loft somewhere, sit on wood benches, and if there's a stunning moment in the evening, you feel like it's been worth the sit. The expectations, though, find the level -- high school, college theatre, amateur theatre, scruffy struggling arts organization, regional theatre -- and the expectations need to be met. When we come into this new facility, there's no longer that kind of blanket excuse: `We don't have any money. We're doing the best we can with what we've got. The roof leaks. We have an overworked staff spread way too thin. We have part-time people with a lot of love and energy and talent putting these shows on.' We can't have those excuses and we can't pretend that we do. We have to deliver the goods at a much higher artistic level. We have to deliver the goods in terms of the administration of the organization, the promotion, publicity, marketing, sales, and fundraising. All of those things are going to have to improve."

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