Dreaming ART

Autumn Brings a Spring Storm (and a Professional Theatre Company) to Austin

<i>Spring Storm</i>
Spring Storm

What's wrong with this picture? A play titled Spring Storm is receiving its world premiere production in Austin. Inside the B. Iden Payne Theatre, an opening-night crowd watches student actors from the UT Department of Theatre & Dance, and Equity actors from both Austin and New York City bring life to this drama by Tennessee Williams, while producer Charles S. Duggan takes in the performance from the back of the house -- his customary spot on opening-night when the show is one he's producing. Excuse me? How is it that Tennessee Williams is having a world premiere production of one of his plays 16 years after he died? And why is that premiere taking place in Austin? Why is Charles Duggan, the theatrical entrepreneur who's kept Tuna touring for more than a decade and a half and who's made a regular habit of taking shows to Broadway, producing a play in a UT theatre? For that matter, why are a gaggle of professional thespians -- among them, local theatre stalwarts Janelle Buchanan, Thomas C. Parker, Lana Dieterich, Babs George, and Sharon Elmore -- strutting their stuff on a UT stage?

The situation is so full of incongruities that it has the feeling of a dream, one of those dreams where you're in a very familiar place but with all these people from different parts of your life, people that you've never seen in the same place before, much less this particular place. That kind of dream seems to come out of nowhere, a random jumble of associations cooked up by your unconscious brain. This dream, on the other hand -- and it is a dream, though of a different kind -- has come from somewhere very specific: the desire of several Austinites to create a quality professional theatre company in this city.

The name of this dream is Actors Repertory of Texas, and it does indeed unite the strange bedfellows named above. Commercial producer Duggan and educational entity UT (specifically its College of Fine Arts) are the partners in this nonprofit corporation, the mission of which is to "produce plays of the highest quality, both on campus and off campus," utilizing professional theatre artists while also providing opportunities for university students to take part in professional productions. In fulfilling that mission, the company's partners aim to establish in Texas' capital city the kind of resident theatre that heretofore has existed only in cities elsewhere in the state, say, in Houston at the Alley Theatre or Big D at the Dallas Theatre Center. "I believe that the Department of Theatre & Dance, the College of Fine Arts, the University of Texas, and the city needs a top-end League of Resident Theatres (LORT) theatre," says theatre department chair Richard Isackes. "Austin is perhaps the last city of its size in America that exists without one. My hope is that the existence of such a theatre will energize audiences for the region."

This is hardly a new dream in Austin. Attempts to develop a local version of the Alley can be traced back three decades, and no doubt there were efforts pre-dating those. This town has long been home to artists with a passion for the stage, and among them have always been at least a few who wanted to create theatre of the scale of Broadway, who wanted to work with the resources of the country's top regional theatres, who wanted to be paid a professional wage for making theatre. Having UT Austin in their midst actively training artists for careers in the theatre only fed the fires of those dreams. Time after time, however, the efforts to realize these dreams collapsed. Every once in a while, someone would announce the birth of the Long-Awaited Professional Theatre Company of Austin, Texas (typically with great fanfare), a production and sometimes even two productions would be mounted, but then that would be the end of it. Most often, money was the deciding factor; there was too little of it to support major production values and union wages over the long haul. But even when the failure owed more to other factors -- management difficulties, artistic conflicts, personality clashes -- the same message came through: Establishing a major professional theatre company in Austin can't be done. Oh, it's possible to improve the level of professionalism in Austin theatre -- and many a company did, by paying artists, raising production values, hiring Equity actors, and such -- but creating an honest-to-Thespis pro company? After watching the collapse of project after project, from the TransAct Theatre to Actors Repertory Theatre to John Bernadoni's Paramount productions, among others, you could hardly be blamed for believing that the city just wouldn't support a professional theatre company.

Well, you could hardly be blamed for believing that through the Eighties. Once Austin crossed into the Nineties, though, that old ingrained defeatist position regarding professional theatre became considerably harder to sustain. The recovery of the local economy may have had something to do with it. No doubt the growth of the city and corresponding expansion of the arts community played a part. But the most significant factor in this sea change over professional theatre was the arrival of some new players on the cultural scene. The first half of this decade saw a number of arts professionals with extensive backgrounds in professional theatre setting up residence in Austin. In 1992, producer Charles Duggan opted to make his home in the birthplace of his Tuna empire. The same year, arts administrator Pebbles Wadsworth left the UCLA Center for the Arts to come oversee UT's blocky brown performing arts complex. A few years after that, a couple of accomplished hoofers named Scott Thompson and Richard Byron showed up in town with a dream of their own professional musical theatre company and the moxie to make it happen. Meanwhile, over in the Winship Drama Building, several veterans of the professional theatre scene were joining the theatre and dance department faculty, among them designer Richard Isackes, playwright David Mark Cohen, and director Michael Bloom. These individuals shared the long-held local dream of a major resident theatre in Austin, but what was different about them was that they possessed an intimate understanding of such a venture and of what it would take to make one succeed.

These new Austinites wasted no time in trying to realize their dreams in their adopted city. Richard Isackes recalls that "when I moved here ten years ago, the late David Cohen and I pitched the idea" of a professional LORT company affiliated with the university to then-Dean Jon Whitmore. This spring, at the press conference announcing the formation of Actors Repertory of Texas, Duggan said, "I moved to Austin seven years ago, and six years and 11 months ago, I met with Coleman Jennings, the chairman of the theatre department" about a similar venture. Byron and Thompson were working on Austin Musical Theatre (AMT) from the instant they hit the city limits, if not well before, and their resolve and persistence paid off in them getting AMT's debut production, Peter Pan, on the Paramount stage a mere year and a half after they arrived.

<i>Spring Storm</i>
Spring Storm

AMT proved a breakthrough for the dream of a professional theatre company in Austin. While many of the city's stage companies had made strides toward professionalism through the years -- the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Zach's Project InterAct, Live Oak Theatre/State Theater Company, Capitol City Playhouse, and Esther's Follies all took significant steps in that direction -- none quite matched Austin Musical Theatre for scope or the polish of their onstage product. AMT's work was created according to the big-league rulebook and it had that big-league look and feel. Byron and Thompson proved that they could deliver it once, then they up and proved they could deliver it again. And again. And again. Now in its third season, AMT has laid to rest the notion that large-scale professional theatre work can't happen here.

Although the preliminary development of Actors Repertory of Texas pre-dates the birth of Austin Musical Theatre, it still supports the idea that the atmosphere in Austin in the Nineties had changed, and that at the right time the right individuals were capable of taking the local arts scene to new levels. History reveals that timing was crucial in the creation of a university-affiliated professional theatre company. While Richard Isackes and Charles Duggan are key figures in the successful establishment of such a company this year, both were stymied in their initial attempts to sell UT on the idea. That 1990 pitch to Dean Whitmore by Isackes and Cohen didn't fly. "The stumbling block then was how the project could be financed," Isackes remembers. Duggan's 1992 meeting with then-Department of Theatre & Dance chair Jennings was more positive but ultimately just as unproductive; shortly thereafter, Jennings resigned as chair and the project moved forward only minimally under the chairmanship of Sharon Vasquez. But in another few years, with a shift in position for a few of the key players, the realization of the dream began to gather much more momentum.

In 1997, Pebbles Wadsworth realized that Michael Bloom and Charles Duggan shared a similar vision for a professional theatre company in Austin. She helped bring them together, and the two became the primary architects for Artists Repertory of Texas. As Isackes says, "Pebbles put together a dinner and a plan was hatched that was eventually brought to the Dean and the university, and the rest is history." By this point in time, the College of Fine Arts had a new dean, David Deming having succeeded Jon Whitmore in the post. Deming proved instrumental in seeing the project through the minefields of academia and state bureaucracy. "David Deming was largely responsible for shepherding the idea through the College of Fine Arts and the university," says Bloom. "As you can imagine, there was some minority opposition within the Department of Theatre & Dance, but David gave it the go-ahead." Adding to the administrative support for the project was the appointment last year of longtime professional theatre company advocate Richard Isackes to chair the Department of Theatre & Dance. Though it probably didn't feel like it to the project's proponents at the time, the elements necessary for a professional company affiliated with UT to be created all dropped into place in a very short period: Roughly two years from project conception to press conference anouncing its creation. If that sounds like a long time to you, keep in mind, as Michael Bloom says, that the contract between Duggan and the College of Fine Arts had to be negotiated with UT's attorneys and that "the final draft was then written by the university lawyers." He concludes that "given the difficulty of instituting an 'affiliate company' within the university, we're thankful it happened as quickly as it did."

So, at long last the winds shifted, the stars came into alignment, the wheels were set in motion, etc., etc., a couple dozen months were spent hashing out the details, and, lo, in the spring of 1999, with the fanfare that has become standard for such occasions, the Long-Awaited Professional Theatre Company of Austin, Texas -- that is, Actors Repertory of Texas -- was introduced to the world. The birth announcement came in the posh quarters of the University Club in the newly renovated east side of Royal-Memorial Stadium, with proud papas Duggan and Isackes cheerily describing the company for the assembled: a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is fully professional, operating under the auspices of Actors Equity; that will employ national, local, and student artists, that will produce both classic and contemporary dramas; that will stage its shows both on campus and off. Duggan allowed that the company's formal leadership -- artistic director, producing director, and Board of Trustees -- had yet to be assembled, but he and his partners had decided to get the company's first project underway without waiting for that step. Bloom, the third proud papa, got to describe that project: Spring Storm, a previously unproduced play by a young Tennessee Williams. Bloom, who would be directing the production, was alerted to the script's existence by a mention in Lyle Leverich's biography, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. He sought it out in the Williams archives of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRHRC) and after reading it felt it was a suitable script with which to launch the Actors Repertory. "The script resides here," he says, "and it was one of Tennessee's first efforts, just as this is our first production."

Now, six and a half months after that press conference, that first production is on the verge of opening. In talking to the company's creators about this debut project, it seems there may be something more fitting about this choice of play than the relationship of a youthful playwright and youthful characters to a new company, and one with ties to an educational institution which trains young artists. What is unusual about Spring Storm is that we come to it not from the playwright's youth, the moment it sprang from his pen and before we knew what greatness he would achieve, but from the far end of the playwright's career, where we possess the knowledge of what lies ahead and can see the seeds of his genius beginning to ripen. That knowledge enlarges our sense of the work, enriches our perspective; as Bloom notes of Williams: "He's going to be seen as the American playwright of the 20th century, I believe. And in Spring Storm you see the beginnings of that poetic voice and those beautifully complex, tormented characters. It hopefully is an inspiration to all emerging theatre artists." Something of the same sentiment applies to Actors Repertory. While it is a young company and will play a significant role in the development of young artists, we come to it from the far end (well, let's say the middle) of its creator's careers. Bloom, Duggan, Isackes, as well as their many allies -- the Performing Arts Center's Wadsworth and Neil Barclay, College of Fine Arts Acting Dean Charles Roeckle, the Paramount's Paul Beutel -- are all arts professionals with much experience behind them, and our knowledge of all they have done, their successes in their field, enlarges our sense of the potential of the venture, enriches our perspective of what it can offer.

On one level, Actors Repertory of Texas may seem to be about wages and spectacle, big production values and union contracts, and name recognition. But on another level, it's about the future, for the city and for a generation of theatre artists. That's the level you find in Richard Isackes' comments about hoping "to build a bridge to the profession that is essential if we hope to effectively train folks for the profession." That's the level you find when Michael Bloom laments the number of theatre department graduates who are "choosing to pursue only film when they come to graduate. We hope/believe ART will inspire them to continue to do theatre work." That's the level at work when Charles Duggan says he started this company because "It's time to give something back."

From the thick of Spring Storm rehearsals, director Bloom noted, "It's very important that we start with a production that has visiting artists, local ones, and students together -- even if it's an ambitious and very costly production as this one is. I've kept rehearsals open, and it's wonderful to see how actors and students have been observing each other work. That's really what ART will hopefully be all about."

It might not look like anything we've seen in this town before, but if that's the case, there's a lot right with this picture. end story

Spring Storm runs Nov 6-28, Tue-Sun, at the B. Iden Payne Theatre, 23rd & San Jacinto. Call 477-6060.

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