The South Bank

illustration by Robert Faires

Crossing the river... If you live in Austin and happen to love theatre, dance, classical music, or opera, that action means a lot. Heading north, it means you're moving toward the city's performing arts treasure trove -- some two dozen spaces of all sizes and ages and uses, from the tiny, 80-seat Hyde Park Theatre to the massive, 3,000-seat Bass Concert Hall, from the turn-of-the-century jewel that is the Paramount Theatre to the recently reclaimed barn that is Planet Theatre. Heading south, however, means you're moving into a performing arts wilderness. You might as well be a pioneer crossing the Missisippi, for beyond those waters lies frontier land -- a great expanse of territory with only a few outposts of culture scattered across its face. It isn't that the folks in South Austin have no love for the performing arts, but their half of the city has simply never enjoyed the sustained development of stages that the northern half has.

Oh, efforts have been made, significant ones. Forty years ago, the city fathers selected the South Shore as the site of the new Municipal Auditorium, a major cultural facility that they believed could spur dynamic new development -- both of the creative and commercial varieties -- south of Town Lake. Alas, that edifice may have inspired oohs and ahs from Eisenhower-era Austinites (who seem to have been genuinely taken with its patchwork roof), but it looks to have inspired little else. No significant new arts facilities sprouted in South Austin in its wake, and few arts companies or businesses chose to cross the river to bask in the reflected glory of the great round hall. For more than a decade, the new auditorium was like the cheese in the old children's song: It stood alone.

The early Seventies changed that, as a few new facilities joined Palmer as South Austin cultural landmarks. Just down Riverside Drive to the west of Palmer (the facility was eventually named for city councilmember Lester E. Palmer), the Austin Civic Theatre constructed a new, modern theatre with a 200-seat auditorium, thrust stage, scene and costume shops, and staff offices, literally making a name for itself in the bargain; when the facility was complete, the longtime community company became the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. Meanwhile, a few miles to the east and south, St. Edward's University was creating its own up-to-date performance space: the 185-seat Mary Moody Northen Theatre, Austin's first arena stage, i.e., theatre in the round. As if these two venues weren't enough to give South Austin some cultural cachet, a third space popped up to prove that the arts had a place even among the cosmic cowboys and Nuevo Wavers; while not primarily a fine arts venue, the Armadillo World Headquarters did play host to Austin dancers and classical musicians on occasion -- and did it right in the shadow of Palmer Auditorium. Finally, Austin's artists seemed to be migrating across the Great Divide of the city and founding a new cultural center on the South Shore.

But this southward arts movement was over almost before it began. No new arts facilities rose up on the heels of the Mary Moody Northen and Zachary Scott buildings; in fact, South Austin would not see another truly new cultural facility built for nearly 20 years, when Zach -- again -- erected the venue that houses its second stage, new costume shop, rehearsal room, administrative offices, and box office. In the meantime, a few new artspaces were carved out of facilities that had outlived their original purposes, but even these were few and far between: The Dougherty Arts Center (DAC) on Barton Springs Road, created from the old Naval and Marine Reserve Center, came along in 1978; Designer's Space on South Congress, a tiny black-box theatre formed out of a retail space, opened in 1982; Chameleons Coffeehouse, a precursor to Chicago House which offered theatre and live music in a retail space in the Brodie Oaks Shopping Center, appeared about four years later; and the VORTEX Performance Cafe on East Ben White Boulevard, a spacious three-theatre complex that Bonnie Cullum, Steve Bacher, and a dedicated crew of artists worked up out of the bones of an old moviehouse, followed in 1988. Four venues over two decades, and of those, only the DAC is still in operation. Compare that with North Austin, which during the same period saw the rejuvenation of the Paramount Theatre and the openings of UT's Performing Arts Center (PAC), the first Esther's Pool (and the second, and the third), Hyde Park Theatre, and the Acting Studio, all of which are still in operation, as well as other significant, if now defunct, spaces, such as the Gaslight Theatre/Capitol City Playhouse, Live Oak Theatre, and Chicago House.

Ultimately, the South Shore arts migration of the Seventies reversed itself by that decade's end. The 'Dillo closed, which may have been more traumatizing to the city's hippies and punks than its chamber music groupies and balletomanes but which constituted a loss for the local performing arts scene all the same and meant fewer artists would be doing their thing south of the Colorado. And, more damaging, Palmer was deserted. With the venue turning 20 and showing its age, the civic arts organizations that had made it their home were having their heads turned by that dishy new state-of-the-art concert hall over on the UT campus. By 1981, they had backtracked across the river, where they have stayed to this day.

But where they won't be staying forever -- which is, of course, the point of the story. The arts groups are now outgrowing the PAC, and the PAC is outgrowing the arts groups, and their butting of heads over scheduling has forced the three cultural entities most in need of more programming dates --Austin Lyric Opera (ALO), Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO), and Ballet Austin (BA) -- to find a new home. In 1997, they formed the Greater Austin Performing Arts Center (GAPAC) to study the matter, as well as to create a broad-based coalition of arts companies and civic leaders that would be integral to creating that home if it involved -- as it almost surely would -- big dollars. After scouring the city and cities across the United States for the kind of facility that would best serve their own needs and the needs of other arts groups in town, GAPAC decided that the optimal solution was right in their backyard: good old Palmer Auditorium, which they'd abandoned 16 years before. Of course, the old hall would need some serious renovation to be as desirable and functional as a multi-venue performing arts center in 21st-century Austin, but ultimately, Palmer was what they wanted. After settling on the South Austin landmark as their ideal venue, GAPAC changed it name to ARTS* Center Stage -- the first word being an acronym for Austin Revitalizes the Shores -- and began lobbying the city for the opportunity to make it happen. With the enthusiastic blessing of His Visionaryness Kirk Watson and some hardcore politicking, ARTS* Center Stage snagged a spot on the recent bond election ballot and a chance to put their case to the city's voters.

As you know if you were paying attention in November, the plan called for the city to negotiate a 50-year lease with ARTS* Center Stage to renovate Palmer Auditorium into "a multi-venue, high quality performing arts center" that it would pay for with $50 million in private funds. To create a space for the shows and other public functions displaced by the renovation of Palmer, the city would build a new $26.1 million community events center. In addition to the new center, the city would build a $13.4 million, 1,000-space parking garage (paid for with a 5% increase on the local tax levied on car rental), allowing it to convert some of the asphalt currently surrounding Palmer into greenspace. The majority of voters seemed to like the concept, approving the Palmer lease/renovation nearly two to one. Barring any unforeseen snags that might crop up in the arrangement between ARTS* and the city, that leaves the organization free to start collecting that $50 million to create the performing facility of its dreams.

illustration by Robert Faires

And what is that facility of its dreams? Well, at this point, it's a little like a scaled-down PAC under a single domed roof. Dominating the space would be a large concert hall, somewhere between 2,200 and 2,700 seats -- a scale comparable to UT's Bass Concert Hall -- but configured to feel like a much smaller auditorium. In the years since the PAC was built, the architectural approach to concert hall design has shifted -- taken a step backward, if you will -- toward the concert halls of the 18th and 19th century, with their seats arranged around the stage in such a way as to create intimacy even in large spaces. The Palmer concert hall would likely incorporate tiered balconies wrapped around the sides of the auditorium, to bring more people closer to the stage. The hall would be complemented by two, or possibly three, theatres with fewer than 1,000 seats each. One would be roughly 400-700 seats -- think the McCullough Theatre at the PAC -- and the remaining space(s) would be of the flexible, black-box variety, 120-200 seats (each), somewhere between the size of Zach Scott's Whisenhunt Arena Stage and its Kleberg Stage. In addition, the facility would include rehearsal and practice rooms and administrative offices.

As dreams go, it's a pretty sweet one, allowing the opera, symphony, and ballet plenty of room to stretch beyond their current levels in the main hall, while giving the city's other 117 performing arts companies whose audiences might not be quite the size of ALO's, ASO's, or BA's, their own exciting new spaces in which to play.

(That quality of new-ness is worth emphasis. Some kinds of structures age well. Performing arts facilities are not necessarily among them. The wear-and-tear on theatres, from stage floors to wiring to seats, is enormous, and just a few seasons of high activity can take a lot of the play out of a new playhouse. Austin's last designed theatre -- the Whisenhunt -- is already seven years old; almost all of the rest of our stages are out of their teens. Austin deserves arts facilities on par with the art created in them; with our companies producing theatre and opera and dance and music as compelling and polished as any in the region, we need stages in which they can be appropriately showcased and appreciated.)

By itself, the Palmer project represents a substantial step forward for Austin in regard to the arts (not to mention a huge stride for South Austin in that regard). But taken in terms of all the performing arts facilities also on the South Shore -- some already in existence, some in development -- Palmer becomes the cornerstone for something even more dramatic: a performing arts district along the Colorado's southern bank.

Consider this: Midway between Palmer and the DAC on Barton Springs Road, ALO is going to build its new headquarters. The company has already purchased the site of the old Barton Springs Bar & Grill and engaged the prestigious Lake/Flato architectural firm to draw up plans. To be known as the Mary Ann Heller Opera Center, the proposed 18,000-square foot facility will feature a large rehearsal hall which may be rented for rehearsals or performances by other arts organizations; office space; a box office; a community music school for collaborative educational and performance projects, as well as private instruction; a roof garden; and a plaza for informal outdoor performances. That makes two brand-new cultural facilities going up within spitting distance of each other. And within spitting distance of them are two well-established cultural facilities, the DAC and Zach. The former includes an 1,800-square foot visual arts gallery, a 150-seat proscenium theatre, a pottery studio, and assorted classroom/lab spaces (although all these segments of the center -- in fact, the center as a whole -- could use a major overhaul of the kind proposed for Palmer; the DAC looks every month of its 51 years and, despite renovations of the past, still feels like a military bunker). The latter currently includes a 200-seat thrust stage theatre, a 120-seat arena stage theatre, scene and costume shops, a rehearsal room, and administrative offices, with long-range plans for expansion that could result in a new performing arts school facility with a 500-seat theatre. (Zach's Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley reports that the staff and board are only in the very early stages of discussion on this facility.)

Granted, these projects are all still closer to being dreams than buildings, and when they are complete -- if indeed they are ever complete -- they may be very different than what has been outlined today. Still, the fact that they are being developed simultaneously and might all be realized within the next decade or so makes them awfully tantalizing for arts lovers to think about.

Imagine crossing the river -- to the south -- in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of Palmer's construction. For the sake of fun, let's say that all the projects have been realized to their fullest: two small black boxes in Palmer, the 500-seat performing arts school space at Zach, all of it. That would mean you could cruise along the 3/4 mile stretch of South Shore that runs from the auditorium to Zach, then circle back to Palmer on Barton Springs Road and pass one concert hall, seven theatres, and at least half a dozen rehearsal facilities, not to mention enough classrooms to serve upward of 100 aspiring artists simultaneously. So many resources for the performing arts in such a concentrated geographic area, with so much of it new, would be unlike anything Austin has seen outside the 40 Acres. It would be the city's -- and certainly South Austin's -- first bona fide performing arts center; the heart of its dance, theatre, classical music, and opera communities; the kind of cultural district that you'd find in more metropolitan, cosmopolitan cities, like the South Bank (hey, there's a name!) in London. While each project is valuable in its own way, collectively these projects become even more valuable, creating a focus for the performing arts in this city that could provide undreamt-of opportunities for creative collaborations, for education, for people in this city and beyond to be touched by its artists and their art.

That day is a long way off, with many a planning session, many a fundraising event, many a concession to this structural need and that budget constraint, between now and then. But if we don't start dreaming about it now and if we don't have a clear idea of all that is at stake, we may never develop the passion or the will to see projects of such scope to fruition. What does your South Bank of 2009 look like?

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More by Robert Faires
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Palmer Auditorium, Arts* Center Stage, Ballet Austin, Alo, Aso, Ba, Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Dougherty Arts Center, Dac

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