Land of 1,000 Dramas

Venues

Planet Theatre: Tomorrowland

Funky, renovated barn where VORTEX Repertory Company artistic director Bonnie Cullum recently crowed that this year's VORTEX season was composed entirely of new works. It's indicative of Cullum's fervor for material on the far side of tomorrow and the pride she takes in her theatre's status as an incubator of new drama. Since its debut in 1994, the Planet has been a space where intrepid spectators can see drama in its nascence, from VORTEX's cyber-operas and edgy experimental work to non-traditional solo plays to intriguing hybrids such as Rembert Block's Beauty Vultures and the Plague of Sleep. Austin playwrights and producers choose the Planet to mount original work of all sorts, and out-of-town artists such as Annie Sprinkle and Tim Miller regularly visit it to try out new goods. Among the best of the inter-Planetary travelers is Rob Nash, who has premiered two parts of his "Holy Cross Quadrilogy" here and is bringing the third, Junior Blues, later this year. Past Premieres: Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (Kirk Smith), Goin' to Georgia (Joy Cunningham), Norm L. (Aaron Brown), Triskelion (ethos), Sophomore Slump (Rob Nash), Beauty Vultures and the Plague of Sleep (Rembert Block), Panoptikon (ethos), Freshman Year Sucks! (Rob Nash), The Ravaging (Julia Edwards), The Battle of San Jacinto (Ruth Margraff). In the wings: Junior Blues (Rob Nash).


Hyde Park Theatre: Up Close and Personal

Renovated storefront north of UT that, with its awkward L-shaped space, low ceiling, and cramped stage, just shouldn't work as a theatre. Yet it does, largely because of its intimacy -- you're never more than 20 feet from the action -- and the energy that companies invest in the space. The space has a long history as a venue for original work, with founder Linalice Carey frequently renting the theatre to companies staging new plays in the early Eighties and her successor, Ken Johnson, premiering his own plays there late in the decade. Current home company Frontera continues the tradition with its adventurous new dramas challenging theatrical conventions, and the annual performance jamboree it sponsors, FronteraFest, where more original work is performed in a month than most theatre cities see in a year. And when Frontera isn't producing, other companies -- e.g., Salvage Vanguard Theater, root wy'mn theatre, Rude Mechanicals -- frequently book the space to premiere new drama of their own. Past Premieres: FronteraFest, Salivation (Kirk Lynn), blood pudding (Sharon Bridgforth), Afterlives (Deborah Hamilton-Lynne), Lust Supper (Kirk Lynn), Managed Care (Steven Tomlinson), Clayangels (Daniel Alexander Jones), curst & Shrewd (Rude Mechanicals), Aria Inertia (Jason Phelps), Water (Ron Berry), Hot Flash (C.K. McFarland & Heloise Gold). Now Showing: Alaskan Heat Blue Dot (Laurie Carlos, et al). In the wings: Millennium Bug (Steven Tomlinson).


The Public Domain: Presto-Changeo!

Shoebox loft space that periodically serves up new drama in the shadow of the Capitol dome. It was rescued from disuse in 1995 by The Public Domain theatre company, which shaped it into a dandy little gallery venue of impressive flexibility. There is no formal stage, and seating may be shifted with relative ease, so the performing area changes configuration and feel with virtually every production, an ideal quality for companies testing theatre's environmental qualities. The home company alternates reconceived classical works with contemporary dramas and new plays. Not surprisingly, the mutability of the playing space attracts other theatre and dance companies to play here, especially those giving birth to original material. Past Premieres: The Speaker Speaks (Clay Nichols), The Whimsy (Steve Moore), Crucks (Kirk Lynn), Flame Failure (Dan Bonfitto), American Arcana (Cyndi Williams), Blood:Shock:Boogie (Daniel Alexander Jones). Current Premiere: The Woman in the Window (Cyndi Williams).


COMPANIES

Austin Script Works: The Nurturers

Advocacy and umbrella organization with the playwright in mind. Austin may be the Live Music Capital of the World, but it boasts as many playwrights as songwriters. Well, maybe not quite as many, but enough for some longtime Austin theatre artists -- Emily Ball Cicchini, Christina J. Moore, Cyndi Williams, and the late David Mark Cohen -- to found a company to support local dramatists. ASW provides services that go right to the heart of new drama: helping playwrights write, market, produce, and learn from their stage work. Under the joint artistic leadership of Clay Nichols and John Walch, ASW continues to ensure playwrights get the help they need. Besides producing new work, such as Cyndi Williams' American Arcana and Clay Nichols' powerful investigation of racial ambivalence, O.T., ASW helps underwrite projects by its members and, most important in getting from page to stage, helps them find homes for their plays. Walch likens it to discovering "the existing wiring in the community and plugging [our writers into it]," ensuring solid, professional collaborations between theatres and the wellspring of new drama, the playwrights. Look for a generous helping of new playlets by the group's writers in ASW's mini-festival of 10-minute pieces, Biblical Proportions, this month. Past Premieres: O.T. (Clay Nichols), American Arcana (Cyndi Williams). In the wings: Biblical Proportions (various).


Frontera: The Transformers

Photo of Judy Matetzschk
Judy Matetzschk

photograph by Kenny Braun

Textually oriented company which has proven that daring, edgy new performance work isn't synonymous with bleak, alienating, or sloppy. Led by artistic director Vicky Boone, Frontera is committed to new plays -- it won't stage a work over five years old and routinely commissions new scripts -- and while its productions often examine human nature at its darkest, they typically end on a note of hope and expectation. In production, the Frontera folk are perfectionists, considering every detail in a playwright's script, questioning the ideal presentation, and committing to the decisions with a happy heart. And it pays off in shows exhilarating in their freshness. In six years, Frontera has transformed the face of new drama locally, bringing to town national artists such as Laurie Carlos, David Hancock, Erik Ehn, and Daniel Alexander Jones, whose experiments with form have sparked theatre pieces based in poetry and movement of a kind all but unknown before they were created, and founding a new Austin theatre institution, the weeks-long performance event FronteraFest. Past Premieres: Race of the Ark Tattoo (David Hancock), blood pudding (Sharon Bridgforth), Afterlives (Deborah Hamilton-Lynne), Managed Care (Steven Tomlinson), Clayangels (Daniel Alexander Jones), Aria Inertia (Jason Phelps), Deviant Craft (David Hancock), Enfants Perdus (Erik Ehn & Company). Current Premiere: Alaskan Heat Blue Dot (Laurie Carlos & Company). (See sidebar for review.) In the wings: Millennium Bug (Steven Tomlinson.)


Project InterAct: Head of the Class

A children's theatre company that isn't afraid to treat its young audiences with intelligence and respect. For 20 years, this project of the Zachary Scott Theatre Center has been introducing kids across the state to the enchantment of live theatre, and from the beginning it has done so through original works and adaptations of literary material generated by InterAct itself. The company's first artistic director, Alice Wilson, was also its resident playwright for many years, spinning out an eclectic assortment of works from dramatic retellings of folk tales (From the Land of the Feathered Serpent) to celebrations of vaudeville (Razzmatazz) to an oral history of the Depression (Workin' Texas). Though not a playwright herself, current project director Judy Matetzschk perpetuates this tradition by commissioning new works from playwrights such as Austinite Clay Nichols (The Outlaw Puss in Cowboy Boots, Ovid's Myths: The Roman Nose in Exile) and UT grad Wes Middleton (the forthcoming Degas' Little Dancer) and developing ensemble pieces based on writing by local children (Grand Gifts). Past Premieres: Grand Gifts (ensemble); Ovid's Myths: The Roman Nose in Exile (Clay Nichols); Outlaw Puss in Cowboy Boots (Clay Nichols). In the wings: Degas' Little Dancer (Wes Middleton).


Remembrance Through the Performing Arts: The Mechanics

Company specializing in new drama that seeks "to focus on making new work and making it work," according to artistic director Rosalyn Rosen. Rosen, author of the plays Red Sea and Repetitions, and fellow playwright Marla Macdonald (Street Noise, The Last Days of Paradise Park) take on a handful of scripts each year and, through months of revisions and readings, tune the playwrights' dramatic visions until their pieces are running like Indy racers. The company works chiefly with "well-made plays" -- i.e., works with relatively traditional dramatic structures and characterization -- and the kind of drama practiced by its founders. The Remembrance process is aided immeasurably by the experience of its two leaders, as well as Macdonald's 20 years in script development, seven of which were spent at Capitol City Playhouse, where she helped found that theatre's New Play Development program. Remembrance provides each playwright with not only a work-in-progress production of his script at the end of the process, but assistance in shopping the script around to theatres across the country. Past Premieres: Red Sea (Rosalyn Rosen), The Ribbon Box (George Ayres), A Question of Faith (Steve Warren), One Shoe Untied (Marla Dean), Code Eight (Rosalyn Rosen), The Confessions of David Crockett (Steve Warren); Ten Feet Down and Looking Up (Egan Dean), Rebel Yells (Steve Warren), Repetitions (Rosalyn Rosen).


Rude Mechanicals: Play Hard

Photo of Emily Cicchini

Emily Cicchini

photograph by Kenny Braun

Ambitious young theatre collective with energy to spare whose approach to theatre may be best characterized as wild, frantic, and hilarious. They burst on the scene in 1996 with a production of resident playwright Kirk Lynn's absurdist hit Pale Idiot, and since have gone to stage Lynn's "Faminly Trilogy" -- three works which shared themes of family and ritual, as well as certain theatrical elements such as a bottle of wine, but were varied in their tone and sensibility -- and a couple of savvy adaptations of challenging works, such as curst & Shrewd, a retelling of Taming of the Shrew that grew from the cast's contributions to the text and movement. Their next effort is in this latter vein: a not-for-the-kiddos adaptation of Snow White as re-imagined in the novel by Donald Barthelme. The Rude Mechanicals work hard together and play hard together, and the cohesion is paying off with productions that are distinctively stimulating and always entertaining. Past Premieres: Salivation (Kirk Lynn), Crucks (Kirk Lynn), Lust Supper (Kirk Lynn), curst & Shrewd (the company), Pale Idiot (Kirk Lynn). In the wings: don b's Snow White (Lana Lesley).


Salvage Vanguard Theater: Crank It Up!

Hey, kids, do you like to rock? The folks at Salvage Vanguard do. The coffee and cigs set at SVT have transformed that love into a manifesto -- "right now we are bored with theatre and would rather go hear a band" -- that crystalizes the kind of live dramatic experience they strive to make: loud, messy, and in-your-freakin'-face. The company's original works have ranged from riffs off Tennessee Williams (Stranger Desire) to Texas-history-as-barroom-brawl (The Battle of San Jacinto) to resuscitated radio serials (The Interplanetary Nemesis), but all have been experimental, quipping, kinetic creations designed for a younger, hipper crowd -- an MTV to your VH-1 -- with the volume, voltage, and jagged enthusiasm that only the young have. Helmed by ambitious artistic director Jason Neulander, Salvage has also played in venues all over town -- the Planet, Hyde Park, Electric Lounge, The Public Domain, and even a warehouse in East Austin. Past Premieres: The 2nd Best Salvage Vanguard Holiday Ever (various), Altamont Now! (David Bucci), The Best Salvage Vanguard Holiday Ever (various), The Ravaging (Julia Edwards), The Battle of San Jacinto (Ruth Margraff), The Invisible Medium (David Hancock), Stranger Desire (David Bucci), The Bad Cowboy (Julia Edwards), In the wings: Dirigible (Dan Dietz).


State Theater Company: Roots Tenders

Mainstream regional theatre company which has carved a unique local niche as the champion of new drama about old Texas. Founded as Live Oak Theatre, this company gave local playwrights a serious boost in the early Eighties by mounting their work on the most prestigious stage in town: that of the Paramount Theatre. With the coming of artistic director Don Toner in 1987, the company's theatrical premieres took on even more of a Lone Star flavor. From Larry
L. King's The Night Hank Williams Died through Ellsworth Schave's Down Along the Brazos, the company's new plays have emphasized settings, characters, and themes of Texas, especially small-town or rural life, the stuff that's dear to the heart of many residents deep in the heart. The company, now bearing the name of its home on Congress Avenue, also sponsors an annual celebration of new drama, the Harvest Festival of New American Plays, which solicits scripts from across the country and honors the finest work, with a special award to a playwright from Texas. Past Premieres: Harvest Festival of New American Plays (various), Down Along the Brazos (Ellsworth Schave), The Dead Presidents' Club (Larry L. King), Blinded by the Lights (Doris Hargave), An Asian Jockey in Their Midst (Carter Lewis), Calvin's Garden (Ellsworth Schave), The Golden Shadows Old West Museum (Larry
L. King), Bosque County, Texas (Steve Fromholz, Don Toner).


UT Department of Theatre & Dance: The Crucible

School for the performing arts which provides immense -- and intense -- learning opportunities for aspiring playwrights. Throughout its 60-year history, the department has offered instruction in playwriting from accomplished teachers, but in recent years it has augmented that educational component with production opportunities, allowing young writers the sometimes painful joy of learning their craft through practical application -- collaborating with actors and directors, and listening to audiences. The playwriting program was refined substantially in the early Nineties through the addition of playwrights David Mark Cohen (Baby Grand, Nantasket) and Susan Zeder (Step on a Crack, Doors, Mother Hicks) to the faculty. Both writers proved to be not only perceptive critics of new plays but ardent advocates of the need for playwrights to shape their work through the production process. Consequently, student scripts have received an unprecedented number of mainstage productions from the department. Cohen's untimely death in 1997 may have temporarily diffused the playwriting program's energy, but the student talent remains and the school is a valuable source of new drama for this community. Past Premieres: Road's End (Jason Groce), Craving Gravy (John Walch), Stealing Fire (Jason Groce), Manhattan Transaction (Robert Alan Ford), Belongings (Tim Staley), Live With Homer (C. Francis Blackchild), Step in Chicken, Here's Your Coop (William Kevin McCauley), The Shape of Air (Lisa D'Amour), Water Into Light (Wes Middleton).


VORTEX Repertory Company: Shock Jocks

The company you can count on to push the envelope where onstage nudity, profanity, social commentary, violence, and monkeying around with Shakespeare are concerned. Over the past 10 years, artistic director Bonnie Cullum has built her company's reputation through iconclastic and frequently controversial productions of new work plus the occasional odd tragedy by the Bard that gives new meaning to the term "edgy." While the community (and Cullum herself) may joke about the propensity for nudity in VORTEX shows, the company is far from sensationalism for sensationalism's sake. It's committed to theatre that challenges its audience, and if it has to engage them viscerally to engage them emotionally, intellectually, and politically, it does. Past Premieres: The X & Y Trilogy (Triskelion, Panoptikon, The Black Blood) (ethos), Goin' to Georgia (Joy Cunningham), Norm L. (Aaron Brown), Sophomore Slump (Rob Nash), Beauty Vultures and the Plague of Sleep (Rembert Block), Freshman Year Sucks! (Rob Nash), Lucifa (Kirk Smith). Onstage: Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (Kirk Smith).


INDIVIDUALS

Vicky Boone: The Cockeyed Optimist

Artistic director of the daredevil Frontera company who puts the lie to the alternative theatre truism that all directors of bold new plays must be nihilistic aesthetes whose primary goal is to convince the audience that life is a joyless void hardly worth enduring. Boone is soft-spoken, friendly, and -- dare we say it? -- an optimist. She brings these qualities to bear on the gutsy, intense dramas her company mounts, fostering a creative environment in which artists can explore dark places without fear and offering a light beyond the darkness. It may seem a paradox that such a positive-minded artist consistently tackles such grim material, but it works. Unfailingly generous and open, she's been key to Frontera's success locally and positive reputation nationally. Past Premieres: Race of the Ark Tattoo, Enfants Perdus.


Sharon Bridgforth: The Herstorian

Poet and playwright whose works are important for their stylistic voice -- poetry dripping with flavor and color -- but also because they express the emotions and experience of being an African-American gay woman. African-American playwrights are scarce locally -- all the more reason to value her work -- yet despite the specificity of culture and experience in Bridgforth's art, it is uncommonly open and inclusive; even those far removed from her culturally can feel the passions of which she writes. Most of her dramas have been produced by Bridgforth's own company, root wy'mn, and through it she has become an important voice not only in the theatre and literary communities locally, but nationally also. Bridgforth is currently touring to promote her book The Bull Jean Stories. Past Premieres: blood pudding, dyke/warrior-prayers, no mo' blues, lovve/rituals & rage, sonnata blue.


David Bucci: The Angrier Young Man

Co-founder of Salvage Vanguard with fellow Brown alum Neulander and its resident dramaturg and house playwright. Bucci has authored the garage band saga Kid Carnivore; the one-act MedVegas; Stranger Desire, a slick modernization of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire; and the apocalyptic satire Altamont Now! Bucci's scripts helped fuel the company's rise to underground prominence. His characters are like smarter, sexier, and angrier versions of ourselves, who speak in witty barbs, spew social commentary (both insane and inane), and always think of a comeback in time. But Bucci's scripts are more than clever; they're rife with insight, fueled by a jittery restlessness. Bucci wears the mark of his generation on his sleeve, and he is not afraid to embrace popular culture -- then bite its ear off. Past Premieres: Altamont Now!, Stranger Desire, MedVegas, Kid Carnivore.


Emily Cicchini: Double Duty

A playwright whose personal creative contributions compete with the contributions she makes helping other artists realize their dreams. Cicchini garnered the attention of Austin theatregoers with Becoming Brontë, her richly imagined drama about the famous literary family, but she may be as well known in theatrical circles for her efforts with the Young Playwrights Festival; the Capitol City Playhouse New Play Development Program, which she directed in that theatre's final months; and Austin Script Works, which she helped found and for which she serves as executive director. Her persistence and enthusiasm in developing new plays make her a key resource in the ongoing drive to give support to local dramatists. This month, her creative side gets another shot at recognition with her appearance in the ensemble work Alaskan Heat Blue Dot. Past premieres: Becoming Brontë. Onstage: Alaskan Heat Blue Dot.


Bonnie Cullum: The Priestess

The senior rebel on the Austin scene, with a full decade of producing new plays that break rules, challenge norms, play with forms. Cullum believes in Theatre with a capital T -- as a force to address social issues, to liberate the chained, to change lives. And through VORTEX Repertory Company, which she co-founded in 1988, and the spaces she's run -- the VORTEX Performance Cafe on Ben White Boulevard and Planet Theatre -- Cullum has maintained a force for putting her belief in action. She has produced and/or directed probably more original drama than anyone working in Austin today. She routinely takes big chances -- how else do you characterize a trilogy of trance music operas about incestuous cyborgs? -- and they don't always pay off. But her belief always restores her and keeps the Church of VORTEX open for another wild, weird service. Past Premieres: The X & Y Trilogy (Triskelion, Panoptikon, and The Black Blood), Norm L., The M.O of M.I., Faustus. Onstage: Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.


Kirk Lynn: Rebel in Brecht's Clothing

Picture an unholy but entertaining threesome with Brecht, Ionesco, and (gasp!) Neil Simon. Playwright Kirk Lynn would be their progeny. His plays Pale Idiot, Lust Supper, Crucks, and Salivation are torrents of language and symbols that make the storms of El Niño look like gentle summer sprinkles. Lynn's plays thus far have used absurdism to explode ideas of community, but they are never excessively cerebral and they're always full of laughs. Definitely not fun for the whole family but a riot for those who love to have their brain tickled and teased by scripts that take themselves to the extremes while always remaining inherently Aristotelian, full of spectacle and catharsis. Past Premieres: Salivation, Crucks, curst & Shrewd, Lust Supper, Pale Idiot.


Marla Macdonald: The Gardener

Playwright whose commitment to new drama has led her to a career in helping other writers hone their craft. In founding the New Play Development Program at Capitol City Playhouse in 1983, Macdonald gave Austin something it had never had outside academia: a garden for drama, a place in which a seed of a play could be planted, carefully tended, and brought to harvest. And it was instrumental in perpetuating local interest in new drama. Macdonald still toils in the garden, directing script development -- and the work-in-progress productions generated by the process -- for Remembrance Through the Performing Arts. We may not be seeing her own plays -- the kind of social dramas which she penned and premiered during her days at CCP -- but we can see her hands in the soil, still helping shoots of theatre spring forth. Past Premieres: Street Noise, The Last Days of Paradise Park.


Clay Nichols: The Generous Bear

Photo of Clay Nichols
Clay Nichols

photograph by Kenny Braun

A playwright of gentle wit, sharp dialogue, and easy-to-swallow storytelling, which distinguish his work whether he's writing about a fairy tale cat, modern race relations, or the golden days of the U.S. Senate. Nichols provides artistic direction for Austin Script Works with fellow playwright and pal John Walch, who describes him as a "funny, bear of a guy, with a quick wit and a generous personality." Nichols' two vehicles for Project InterAct -- The Roman Nose in Exile and Outlaw Puss in Cowboy Boots -- were the best examples of what children's theatre can be, with a head for learning and a heart for laughter and exploration. And his adult dramas O.T. and The Speaker Speaks reveal the graceful malleability of this dramatist's writing, and the genuine sincerity which which he treats just about any audience. Past Premieres: The Speaker Speaks, O.T., Ovid's Myths: The Roman Nose in Exile, Outlaw Puss in Cowboy Boots.


Jason Neulander: The Leaper

Uprooted Brown alum and co-founder of Salvage Vanguard Theater, Neulander is bold, incisive, and risky. After five years prowling the Austin scene, he's planted a finger on some exposed nerve in America's twentysomething generation. Neulander is a man unafraid to leap from great heights, and much of SVT's greatness comes from that pants-around-the-ankles feel he deliberately generates. His partners in crime when it comes to new drama -- playwrights Julia Edwards, Ruth Margraff, and David Bucci -- are all equally dedicated to pumping out theatre that's edgy and unsettling. In an age ruled by technology, film, and television, Neulander knows the answer to the question: Why still go to the theatre? You should ask. Past Premieres: Altamont Now!, The Ravaging, The Battle of San Jacinto, Stranger Desire. In the wings: Dirigible.


Allen Robertson: The Music Man

One of the busiest artists on the Austin theatre scene -- serving as musical director on a half-dozen shows a year, leading the orchestra for about half of those, directing a show or two, and putting in weekends performing with Esther's Follies -- and one of the few local creators of musical theatre. The same skills Robertson displays working on others' projects -- his impressive musical knowledge, his unique concept for a show's sound, his unfailing professionalism, and his abundant good humor and generosity of spirit -- shine through in his own works. He hasn't gifted us with a new musical in a few seasons, but we're getting a revival of one we've seen before and that's just as good. As honored and admired a figure as is working in the local musical scene. Past Premieres: Beauty and the Beast, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Bremen Town Musicians. In the wings: The Steadfast Tin Soldier.


Ellsworth Schave: True Texan

Photo of Ellsworth Schave

Ellsworth Schave

photograph by Kenny Braun

Playwright of the Lone Star State whose dramas evoke a Texas of uncommon humor and expansive courage and great heart but without the bronco-bustin', breast-beatin', yee-haw cowboy theatrics of so many Lone Star plays. Schave centers in on the Texans of small towns, and he renders their concerns and passions and environment with a detail that captures the texture of Lone Star life, its singular attitudes and cultural touchstones. Moreover, Schave's writing displays a gentility and compassion for human frailty that touches us very deep inside. Fortunately for him -- and us -- Schave has an artistic champion in Don Toner's State Theater Company (formerly Live Oak Theatre), which means we can look forward to visiting his Texas for years to come. Past Premieres: Down Along the Brazos, Calvin's Garden, Kiss Me on the Mouth, Texas History, A Texas Romance.


Kirk Smith: The Man Who Sees Double

Rock musical composer and playwright whose unique voice is part of the boundary-pushing chorus of the VORTEX Repertory Company. Smith found his way to the old Vortex Performance Cafe back in 1989, renting space for a self-penned rock opera. VORTEX artistic director Bonnie Cullum liked Smith's music, asked him to compose some for the company's Romeo and Juliet, and Smith has been a member ever since. His works Lucifa and Faustus continued Smith's exploration of the rock musical, but his crisp and detailed adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities proves his strength as a prose playwright, too. A mystic dualism inherent in humanity propels Smith's work: feminine/masculine; Mephistopheles/Faustus; Sidney Carton/Charles Darnay. Next up for the ever upbeat writer: the intriguingly titled Despair's Book of Dreams and the Sometimes Radio. Past Premieres: Lucifa, Faustus. Onstage: Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.


Steven Tomlinson: The Yarn-Spinner

If not the most eloquent and engaging writer-performer on the current theatre scene, certainly a prime contender for the title. This softspoken UT Austin economics professor used to develop little solo pieces from his life and perform them for tiny crowds around town. But when he presented one at the first FronteraFest in 1993, the community at large discovered that he was a born storyteller who took his experiences and transformed them into lyrical, illuminating odysseys of the spirit. His Free Trade was a hypnotic journey into a foreign land, and his Managed Care was a theatrical tonic, exposing the absurdities of modern life and gently reminding us of the frailty of human bodies and enduring strength of its spirit. Past Premieres: Managed Care, Free Trade, Names and Numbers, Pretend You're Not at Home. In the wings: Millennium Bug.


John Walch: The Fast Tracker

Playwright who has in a few short seasons gone from student dramatist to leader in Austin's playwriting community. As recently as 1996, John Walch's name didn't register very far outside the Forty Acres. But in the spring of 1997, his comedy Craving Gravy, or Love in the Time of Cannibalism -- an ingenious, funny, sort of optimistic antidote to Beckett's Waiting for Godot -- was produced by the UT Department of Theatre & Dance and acclaimed by critics and audiences, and later that year he helped found the playwrights' support organization Austin Script Works. Now, he's serving that organization as co-artistic director (with Clay Nichols), receiving more attention locally and from theatres elsewhere for his new work The Dinosaur Play, and contributing arts criticism to this paper and the local daily. Such a rapid rise might be suspicious if the material and the writer weren't so keen. But they are. Past Premieres: Craving Gravy. In the Wings: Biblical Proportions, The Dinosaur Play.


Cyndi Williams: The Tester

Playwright and actor who provides one of the most enduring presences on the playwriting scene and the picture of an artist perpetually pushing herself to develop her voice, find new forms of expression, become more personal on the page. Williams' contributions to the local dramatic scene as a writer dates back years, to a soap opera parody on a radio station where Williams worked as an on-air personality. But throughout the Eighties she devoted most of her energies to acting. That shifted with the production of Cars & Bars, a show of short works that won her a B. Iden Payne Award for Outstanding Original Script. In the six years since, Williams has developed more and more script work, in each piece playing with form and content -- a bit of overt symbolism here, a touch of authorial confession there -- and building an enviable body of work. Her growing identification with the role of playwright can also be seen in the leading role she has taken in the establishment of Austin Script Works. Past Premieres: Hey Cow!, American Arcana, Unravelling, Cars & Bars. Onstage: Woman at the Window.


NEW DRAMA: CROP OF SPRING 1999

More than a dozen new works by local playwrights are making their way to Austin stages this season. Space precludes our listing every show, but here are a sampling of upcoming productions to be on the lookout for. --R.F.


Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, by Kirk Smith

Through Mar 21, Planet Theatre

Adaptations of classics can get bogged down with a reverent stodginess that smacks of oatmeal gone cold, but Kirk Smith's crackingly adept take on Dickens' monumental tale of a world turned upside down in the Revolutionary France of the Bastille and Madame Guillotine is as fresh as it is honest. This adaptation molds the immense and claustrophobic detail of a story in which two men's lives intertwine in an almost star-crossed duality into a satisfying, accessible vehicle, complete with Paris mobs, storm-swept highways, crowded streets, prisons, inns, courtrooms, and aristocratic chambers -- all without burdensome trappings and sumptuous indulgences that curdle other adaptations. Ensemble-driven, this Tale, staged by VORTEX artistic director Bonnie Cullum, supplies most of its detail via the expressive work of the large cast, and Smith's deft use of Dickens' text. The performances vary in stature, but one stands out as exceptional: Longtime VORTEX company member Matthew Patterson's turn as Sydney Carton; Patterson creates a memorable and compelling figure, a mix of vehement misanthrope and honor-bound romantic.


Biblical Proportions, by various Austin Script Works members

March 24-27, The Public Domain Theatre

Samuel Beckett's controversial 35-second play Breath recently made its London premiere, stunning theatregoers just as it had in 1969 with its profound brevity. For a profoundly entertaining local theatre experience with a little more meat to it, (about 9.5 minutes more per piece), Austin Script Works offers Biblical Proportions, a showcase of nine 10-minute plays. Each work was written in 48 hours according to three arbitrary rules: Use the Bible in an interesting way; include a revelation involving a smell; and do not use any adjectives. If these three restrictions leave you panting with anticipation, you have five opportunities to see the results.


don b.'s Snow White, by Lana Lesley

April 1-24, The Off-Center

Unless you are a very liberated parent, you might want to think twice about bringing the kids to this play. Director Lana Lesley has adapted postmodern guru Donald Barthelme's late-Sixties novel for the stage, and the results will only vaguely resemble the classic children's tale. As seen through Barthelme's darkly comic vision, the Snow White story becomes an absurd parody about characters who keep bumping into their respective destinies and trying to figure out how to fulfill them. "They either figure it out or they die," said Lesley. The group is now in rehearsals with a cast Lesley describes as "fucking dynamite!" Edi Patterson brings a sweet innocence to the quirky Snow White, Marc Balester plays the prince who tries to avoid his fate by running off to a monastery, and Rude Mechs founding member Shawn Sides brings a wickedly funny edge to the character of the witch. Should be good not-so-clean fun.


Dirigible, by Dan Dietz

April 9-24, Hyde Park Theatre

In Salvage Vanguard's latest production, playwright Dan Dietz plops science, history, and pop culture into a blender and presses frappé. Dr. Aaron P. Treadwell is convinced that the Hindenberg explosion was an act of sabotage, but when he gives a lecture on the event, it becomes apparent that his theory is merely a thinly veiled account of his own fouled-up marriage. As the real story unfolds, Dirigible switches in tone and look from this academic lecture to The Brady Bunch, to a moody noirish thriller, and to a pointillist painting to tell the story of the good professor and his love gone sour. Dirigible (a synonym for airship) is Dietz's first produced play, although he has been an integral player in the company's growth, as a director for Scavengers and as an actor in When You Know What It Is You're Doing, Altamont Now!, and The Battle of San Jacinto, for which he won a 1997 Critics Table award for Best Actor. Brainy, thought-provoking, and funny -- it's another tasty Salvage Vanguard creation. Yum.

Photo of Steven Tomlinson
Steven Tomlinson

photograph by Kenny Braun


Millennium Bug, by Steven Tomlinson

June 2-26, Hyde Park Theatre

Is HTML just not your MO? Are you SOL on the WWW? Steven Tomlinson wants you to know that "the coming global chaos is a lucrative adventure for you." An economics professor by day, Tomlinson's wry, wickedly knowing one-man shows have become some of the most treasured pieces of theatre in the city, offering the poetry and insight of Spalding Gray with the political and financial savvy that his day job demands. What results is riffs, tiffs, and the kind of work that touches the soul. With this piece, Tomlinson brings to a close his "Cost of Living Trilogy," which began with Free Trade and Managed Care, which won both the B. Iden Payne and Critics Table Award for Best Play. In this final installment, Tomlinson becomes entangled in the World Wide Web, bytes into the world of computerized personal finance, and catches a fatal virus.

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