For 13 years, Don Toner has been a defining presence in the life of the State Theater Company and Live Oak Theatre, its earlier incarnation. On Monday, April 24, the theatre's longtime producing artistic director became a defining presence in the State Theater facility itself, through the dedication of the Don Toner Rehearsal Hall. This newly renovated space underneath the lobby of the Congress Avenue theatre -- the State company's first real on-site rehearsal facility -- features soundproofed walls, a stage area the same size as the State's main stage, a mirrored wall with dance barre, and something that shouldn't be underestimated in discussing rehearsal space: ample lighting. On three sides of the stage is carpeted space for actors not rehearsing, with one table for the production team and one for the perpetually brewing pot of coffee without which most theatre artists couldn't work. It's a comfortable space, one that acknowledges both the needs and the niceties involved in developing stage work. Framed photos from past company shows defuse the generic feel so common to rehearsal spaces and add a sense of history, including any artists using the hall in the continuum of the company's work and in the company family. Perhaps most importantly (at least to those artists working there), the hall feels like a safe space, one where creative exploration can be made with confidence.
The creation of the space was made possible by a capital contribution from the Charles and Betti Saunders Family Foundation. Speaking to the crowd of 80 or so gathered for the hall's dedication, Steve Saunders noted his family's respect and affection for Toner, in the theatre and on the ballfield. They first met Toner when the director coached Saunders' son Ian on a West Austin Youth Association team. In just a few months, he said, Toner "took this group of scruffy boys and turned them into a team." Saunders and his wife Pat discussed "something we might do to honor Don," he said, but it was Ian who got the ball rolling after seeing a performance of The Young Man From Atlanta at the State in 1999. "Dad," he said, "we have to do something to help Don's theatre." From that developed the idea of the rehearsal hall and the family foundation gift. Saunders called the space a tribute to Toner in part "for his work as a community volunteer and a warm, wonderful, caring friend to countless kids."
In acknowledging the honor, Toner wryly reeled off a list of the diverse -- and frequently inglorious -- spaces in which he and his casts have rehearsed: a nonprofit community center, a warehouse, a gymnasium, a grade-school cafeteria, a loading dock, the living room of his home, and the State's concrete catacombs, with their roaring pumps and bare bulbs. He teasingly suggested that if his actors didn't feel quite right in this new and wonderful space, he would tear through a wall so they might be comforted by the old, noisy pump rumblings.
Some artists might feel their names would better adorn a theatre auditorium or classroom, but Toner made it clear he is not among them. "For someone who values work as much as I do," he said, "there is no greater honor than to have the space in a theatre where the work gets done be named for you."
The hall was dedicated Monday. Rehearsals for the State's premiere of Women Who Steal, by Carter Lewis, were held in it on Tuesday. The show opens May 19. For info, call 472-5143.
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