Home for Heroes (and Others)
Comedy Comes Up Congress in the Storefront Theatre The Hideout
The two-story building on Congress Avenue now known as The Hideout has been dormant for most of the Nineties, but as Sean Hill and Shana Merlin tell it, the building is not without history. The building, owned by a Houston family since before Texas was a state, has been a saloon, a dry cleaning shop, a men's clothing store, and a pawn shop, among other things. A thorough cleaning of the interior, as they readied the theatre for opening earlier this year, turned up such artifacts as tin cans of beer, newspapers from the 1950s, and liver tonic bottles. An awareness of the building's rich history, in part due to city ordinances, has become part of The Hideout's history from the get-go. "Anything that goes up on Congress has to go before a historical board for approval," Hill explains. "We're putting up the first new neon sign on Congress in 15 years. When we dug around, we discovered that in the 1920s there was a neon sign out front, so we told the board that. And finally, during a meeting with them, one of the women on the board says, 'I'm just going to say it: I don't have anything against neon.' And from there, it was a domino effect -- everyone else admitted they liked neon."
Hill, 35, and Merlin, 22, the self-titled supreme ruler and high priestess of The Hideout, are also principals in the Austin-based improv comedy troupe We Could Be Heroes. Their transformation of 617 Congress into a multilevel performance venue has been, they will gladly volunteer, a learning process. But after $250,000 of investment from Hill and his family, the developer's dance of securing permits, and many hours of hard labor from a number of Heroes members, The Hideout has finally emerged as one of Austin's newest and most user-friendly theatre spaces.
The front door leads to a lobby that will, upon completion this month, serve as a 50-seat coffeehouse and cabaret space. At the end of the lobby, past the box office, sits a 74-seat mainstage black box theatre with a full lighting grid, chairs from the now-defunct Capitol City Playhouse (currently the home of Fadó), and a green room that is actually painted green. Upstairs is a 50-seat cabaret space and a workshop room, and above that, when funding permits and renovations are made, will be a rooftop patio accessible by the upstairs fire escape, allowing theatregoers to espy guests in the adjacent Driskill Hotel.
The idea for the troupe and the space came 18 months ago, after Hill decided to bring the Theatresports model of improv to Austin. Founded in the 1970s by improv guru Keith Johnstone, Theatresports incorporates competition into the improvisational comedy format. In one of the troupe's trademark forms, Micetro (pronounced maestro), 15 performers enter at the start of the evening and compete by telling stories until only one performer remains at show's end. In another form, Gorilla Theatre, the audience is allowed to punish the director if a scene doesn't meet their standards. The director may have to run to Starbucks across the street to get an audience member coffee or apologize to his or her mother for his or her existence. "We provide the director a cell phone," Hill says. "The director is actually calling Mom."
Theatresports now has member companies all over North America and across the globe. Alumni from the Los Angeles troupe make up most of the cast of ABC's Whose Line Is It Anyway? Theatresports troupe members, like artists in the slam poetry arena, have created a tight, diasporic community aligned around a fervent enthusiasm for their particular brand of performance. It is possible, in the Theatresports cosmos, for members to turn up in San Francisco, London, or Sydney, and find fellow Theatresports troupes who will take them into their homes and onto their stages.
"Nobody else in town does quite what we do," Hill says. "It's more theatrical than trivial. It's very narrative. It allows audiences to remember what happened the next day. A lot of what we do has to do with us not being in a bar setting. There's actual training that goes into it. A lot of our recruits come from an acting background rather than a stand-up background."
Hill has recruited Austin troupe members ranging from skilled veterans to promising beginners. For him, assembling the team for Heroes wasn't about finding the most experienced performers; what was key was finding people who could get along with one another, because of the close-knit, trusting nature of improv. Those new to the art form are finding through their work with Heroes that its unpredictability can be simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating.
As Ragan Fox, a troupe member currently on hiatus (due to his involvement on this year's Austin Poetry Slam team), says, "The funny thing about improv is even when you fail performatively, it can be great, and the audience loves it. It's tough to be that unprepared when you go onstage, but when it works, it's a rush." Fox, who sought improv to broaden a performance background rooted in collegiate speech tournaments and slam, says, "The auditions [this past May] were terrifying. I thought there'd be maybe five people there, and the room was packed. It was very intensive, and when you do improv without refined improv skills, that's magnified. But the philosophy they bring in is a bonus, in that you're actually doing character work and telling stories."
"As a beginner, I felt a lot of pressure in performance at first," says Lauren Zinn, a current troupe member. "But improv has improved the scripted work I do." The troupe's emphasis on regular workshops "helps stretch the creative muscles and breaks us out of the normal rehearsal routine."
A project of great importance to the Heroes is a monthly all-women's show that is just getting off the ground. Although Heroes boasts a more co-ed lineup than a typical Austin improv troupe, the all-woman format is essential to developing the entire troupe. As Merlin explains, "Women have different stories and different senses of humor than men. Not all women are the same, of course, but by doing all-woman shows and all-woman training sessions, we're making a better co-ed show. A lot of women will edit themselves onstage, and in that secondlong pause in which they're doing that, men will jump in. In our all-woman shows, women get to play all the roles, whether it's wives or husbands."
"It's a different feel than having a bunch of young, obnoxious men onstage," Hill grins.
The Heroes' theatrical approach is not limited to show format and aesthetic; it also factors into scheduling. Heroes typically run shows for five weeks and then take three weeks off. This not only allows them time to regroup and bring new ideas to the stage, but allows other theatre groups to take advantage of the theatre. The State Theater Company will utilize The Hideout's mainstage for the State/Subterranean Theatre Company co-production of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, opening next Thursday.
"The licensing agent for the play was becoming impatient," says Don Toner, the State's producing artistic director, who initially planned to stage Vogel's play in the still-under-construction Horton Foote Theatre on the north side of the State's building. "We like the idea of cross-pollinating our audiences with The Hideout's. We used The Hideout when we did A Macbeth for FronteraFest" -- The Hideout's first production, this past January -- "and we enjoyed it." Toner points out, as do other theatre observers in town, that The Hideout, in tandem with the State and the Paramount, may help Congress become the theatre row it seemed to be moving toward before the Public Domain Theatre closed last year.
"There is still a lack of theatre space in town," Hill says. "Shana gets calls from about three or four theatre companies each week." Groups such as the Austin Film Festival, South by Southwest, and the grab-bag performance festival known as MOMFest have approached The Hideout about rentals. Salvage Vanguard Theater, one of the more accomplished avant-garde companies in town, used The Hideout to stage Mac Wellman's wonderfully confounding Terminal Hip and co-produced, with the fledgling Austin Theater Co., the debut of Michener Center for Writers playwright Adam Sobsey's The Essence of Comedy.
Sobsey, who founded Austin Theater Co. and bankrolled the production of his play, says his discovery of The Hideout's upstairs cabaret space was serendipitous. "For this play, we needed a space with a comedy club-type feel, with tables and chairs," Sobsey says. "It's a very flexible space. The stage is a movable platform that you don't necessarily have to use. You could do rock shows in there, and you could do dance. It seems obvious that the flexibility is an intentional part of its design. It just so happens that the easiest configuration to design is exactly what we wanted."
Sobsey noticed another subtle advantage to the space during production. As he puts it, "It's an old building, and you can feel that age not only physically, but psychically. It's very easy to feed off that in live performance, and they've done a good job of preserving it."
Having two stages available for simultaneous productions certainly works to The Hideout's advantage, and through their establishment of both prime-time and late-night schedules, booking a space in the heart of downtown can cost as little as $75 a night (for a late-night performance) or $45 a day. Merlin, who is in charge of booking The Hideout, asserts, "Anyone can scratch up $75." The venue's highest per-night charge -- $225 for the mainstage room during prime time -- is competitive when scaled against those of other local theatre groups with space to rent.
The cafe also affords The Hideout a way to generate income during daytime hours, which ought to aid the theatre's longevity. "Starbucks is across the street selling a thousand cups of coffee a day, which works out to about a million dollars a year," Hill says. "I don't drink coffee myself, but I'm going to become a coffee specialist. We'll be open at 6:30 in the morning, and we've brought in a lot of equipment." This includes the usual array of espresso machines and pastry cases, as well as computer terminals and a T1 line, allowing The Hideout to serve as both an Internet cafe and a webcast-capable theatre. By this fall, Hill plans to utilize the upstairs classroom space for workshops. As more of a public service than an income generator, Hill will host an arts organization's Web site for $5 a month.
The ghosts of defunct businesses still haunt the storefront on Congress, as evidenced by what they left behind for the Heroes to pick up. In a town full of theatre groups, improv troupes, and downtown performance spaces buckling to the pressures of a gleaming new Austin, running a theatre is a risk, no matter how prime the real estate or how thirsty performers might be to rent stages. Still, for Hill and Merlin, running The Hideout is exactly what they want to be doing.
Hill, who left the computer-gaming business to start The Hideout, admits that his parents "are so happy to see me out of computer games. This is sort of like trying to be a rock band -- either you're starving or incredibly rich. But people in Theatresports are incredibly happy."
"And they look younger," Merlin adds. "There are 50-year-olds in Theatresports that you'd swear are 35, which is why I look 10. It's a great job. There's a sense of ownership in doing something like this. I started here by carrying out trash, and I get to wear a dress now."