Putting Himself 'Out Here'
At Johnston High, Theatre Teacher Rick Garcia Is Engaged in an Ongoing Process of Giving Back
"Out here," is how Rick Garcia repeatedly describes the off-the-map, lost-worldness of Johnston High School where he teaches Theatre Arts and English to some of the poorest kids in one of Austin's most neglected neighborhoods. The school is also home to some of the brightest, and whitest, high schoolers, who attend Johnston's Liberal Arts Magnet program. Garcia's unique theatre program attracts students from both worlds and has won him plaudits from around the state, including the 1996 Texas Educational Theatre Association's award for Educator of the Year. And year after year, under Garcia's direction, Johnston proves its theatre mettle in the statewide University Inter-Scholastic League (UIL) One-Act Play competition, where it has shared local representation with the larger, and richer, Bowie High School. Garcia has put himself "out here," on Austin's fringes, to make a difference through that rare and vital cocktail: art and education.
"The neighborhood over here," says the cheerfully rueful teacher, "Well, that's one of the hard things about teaching out here. It's an eyesore." Indeed, the theatre building -- with its three-story-high proscenium house in beige metal siding -- towers over a squat, decrepit campus and a weed-infested field. Gardner Road and Arthur Stiles Road serve as a narrow asphalt moat separating tightly packed, untidy single-family houses from the high school campus and its parking lots. Finding the school is something of a challenge, too, as if the powers that locate schools wanted to ensure that the good commuters of Austin never caught a glimpse of this downtrodden corner of town. "We don't get pizza delivered here," continues Garcia, crossing neighborhood amenities off an imaginary list. "There's only two places. When I've done summer camps out here, when the Bowie kids and the McCallum [High School] kids come here and they want to order a pizza, well, you've got two choices, because they're the only ones that will deliver. Chinese?" Garcia laughs, "There's not one. Banks? It's been in the last 10 years that two banks have [established locations] out here. I mean, if I wanted to use an ATM card, I'd have to cross I-35. Sidewalks? Try walking from here to Dan's -- there's no sidewalks. Streetlights?" Garcia pauses for a moment's wry passing, then concludes: "When I first came here, there were still those chemical storage [facilities]. God knows what's in the ground below us. Anyhow. It is out here. But that's not the bad part. It's how we treat 'out here.'"
While much of the city appears to treat "out here" with a blithe, perhaps willful ignorance, Garcia has chosen this industrial hinterland where theatre is hardly in the community's vernacular to stage his grand experiment in education and the arts. "There is art," says Garcia of the neighborhood, "but it's not the biased impression of what a European Anglo educated mind perceives as art. I mean, of course there's art, every culture -- community -- has their artistic expressions, but it's not Shakespeare, it's not Shaw, it's not Shepard."
Garcia's students -- the indigenous neighborhood kids, anyway -- start out with a rudimentary understanding of the theatre. But the teacher is quick to embrace his kids' abilities to learn. "I think, once a student becomes educated, their definition of theatre is broadened," he says. "And I think that's real important. We have a beginning class that's reading [Luis Valdez's play] Zoot Suit. They're just amazed that that even exists. Kids that I can't even get to discuss anything, no kind of participation in class, walk in and they [see] the word pachuco written on the chalkboard: 'What's that?' 'Zoot suit? What's that?' Pachuco: low-rider, thug, the ghetto boy. The protagonist in Zoot Suit is the pachuco character, the low-rider protagonist. And they recognize the name and it's a vocabulary that they recognize that they don't see anywhere else in literature, or very little. But if we can get them to read Zoot Suit and maybe mount that production, then what they consider theatre is broadened and it comes home. And that is where the real education begins. Okay, you recognized this, and you enjoyed it, now there's more; and let's go beyond. [Zoot Suit] is Brecht. It's very Brechtian [in] style, episodic -- very fast songs," says Garcia snapping his fingers for emphasis. "Here's where we are in location. Once they can recognize Luis Valdez, then we go, 'Who's this Brecht?'
"But you've got to start somewhere. And that's where it's difficult -- there's little literature, first of all. And secondly, it's an unrealistic chore for an individual teacher. I think that until education realizes that it takes more money to educate certain students, it's never going to be improved. And we can talk tests ..." Garcia breaks off with a "blah, blah, blah" -- he's heard all the rhetoric. "Until we have lower student-teacher ratios, there's not going to be any change. In fact, I got a flier yesterday: 'Texas Fine Arts Month. Celebrate the fine arts in your classroom. George W. Bush, former governor.' I just chucked it. Bullshit," Garcia laughs. "Put your money where your mouth is, don't send me a flier."
Some of the money that gets to schools like Johnston arrives with the magnet programs that live variously in area high schools. McCallum has the Arts Magnet, LBJ the Science Magnet, and Johnston the Liberal Arts Magnet, although interaction between the largely white magnet students and the minority local students is restricted. Programs like the one in Garcia's theatre department are places where interaction is possible. "There is [integration] in the theatre program, there is in the journalism program," says Garcia. "There is starting to be more in multimedia, in some of the athletics -- volleyball and soccer are beginning to be more integrated." But not football or basketball, or the straight academic classes. "I am not a liberal arts staff member. There are two different staffs, two different budgets, two different class ratios ...
"I'll shoot myself with this one: I think the magnet program is an excellent idea," Garcia starts in an earnest assessment of what it is like to work with both groups of kids, locals from the least appealing parts of the city and those bussed in to attend the Liberal Arts Magnet. "People don't like to say it, but there is sort of this understanding that if you take a more academically sound student into a school where there is no educational tradition, all their scores are getting averaged in together, so you're going to keep a school out of red lines by averaging in Liberal Arts Magnet kids' scores.
"Those are survival tactics for poor schools. Now that's dollars and cents. Because if you do not produce, you'll lose federal funding for education. It always comes down to the money, okay? So there's that reality. But when I first came here -- and that was 10 years ago -- the theatre department was 100% liberal arts academy. And I worked my butt off for about four years to integrate and create programs where they were forced to interact. And I had conversations with my liberal arts students and parents saying, 'Your child, while he or she is more responsible and more talented, is not getting the role this year, because I am going to play social service. This individual is going to get that opportunity, and maybe we can get him or her into college. But if [this person] doesn't, don't worry, your daughter or son is still going to get into college and will get those lead [roles] in college. This one may not.'
"I was doing that kind of conversation, which was ugly, and hard, and it exhausted me, and I stopped. There's just not enough help. It was working, but I was going to kill myself. It's exhausting. And kids who need that kind of love and attention and nurturing, they'll just milk it from you. I was leaving wasted, exhausted, burnt out. So I just sort of said, 'Okay, if you come, I'll work with you, but I can't go fishing any more.'
"Fortunately, I have an assistant this year, and she's very good. [Carol Horn] left her professional career to do what she always wanted to do, and that's teach. She's mature, she's seasoned, she's a healthy human being. But I worry about her. If she keeps giving the way she's doing, it will kill her. But if AISD [Austin Independent School District] would look at what is happening here -- there was and still is something special. There was something more special four or five years ago. But when I was asking for money and help and stipends, not even equipment ..."
Garcia pauses a moment, confronted by that big fiscal issue, then gives an example: "I was producing a television show that was phenomenal with the kids. It was just an extension of the acting class. It was on the AISD network, and we were sending it off to competitions, and the kids were writing. It was incredible. But when I asked [AISD], could the kids get their hands on the cameras, it was, 'No way, that's $1,000 worth of equipment.'"
When support does come, it mostly parallels Garcia's run of success in the UIL One-Act-Play competition, which attracts the attention of administrators, educators, and students. "UIL," Garcia muses. "It helps ... There are certain gauges that establish you as reputable theatre-producing companies. And we consistently are what represents this region at theatre. I think Bowie is the only other school -- and they're a larger school: We're 4A, and they're 5A. We just had a couple of kids transfer from Bowie, and we were real flattered. And here's the difference: Bowie's a very ... I mean, they produce nice work, and there's more money and financial support because the parents have more money. But it's traditional [there and at other high school programs] that you're pretty much grunt [labor] your freshman and sophomore year, then you break in. And what I've developed here are three producing companies. There's a freshman producing company, a junior varsity, and a varsity. You're teching and acting all four years, so you're getting more experience. It's more difficult, but I try to bring in consultants to direct, and that's the difference. It gives the kids more hands-on experience.
"There's some fine high school theatre in the state, and it's only because of UIL. Because if you're going to be ranked, if it's a contest environment, you put your best foot forward. Bowie does not come to see Johnston's theatre, we do not go see Bowie's -- distance, time, money. But the UIL organization has created an environment where we are forced to festival each other's shows. With a trophy. But it's a festival, so you want to impress. And I do believe that competition breeds excellence. And it's consistently us and Bowie that battle it out at the Regional level."
Garcia's work doesn't end with Johnston's various theatre endeavors. He's been drawn into the fray helping at-risk youth, AIDS Services of Austin, Out Youth Austin, and the city's arts funding process. Over time, his artistic and educational efforts began to incorporate his heightened awareness that money invested in traditionally neglected or overlooked people and sections of the city could raise the standard of living, of cultural life, in those neighborhoods, for those people. "When I first came, I started Maestro Theatre, which is my producing company," Garcia notes. "It began as teachers practicing theatre. So I invited mostly theatre teachers, but not all -- we had some science teachers, biology and mathematics teachers who came in -- and we mounted a show while our students became technicians. We sort of flip roles. It reminds us what we're putting them through. But the philanthropic end of that was, whatever proceeds we raised went for education scholarships. We targeted a kid and helped them on their way to college. That was just supporting future educators. And we were having fun and doing our project.
"And because of that, I started to discover what other financial support systems there were to produce art. And that's what got me into the [city of Austin Cultural Contracts Program] peer panel and active in that governing body. And it was then that I realized what were ugly kind of politics or," here he lets out a long sigh, "I guess it's [the] politics there [are] in acquiring whatever money -- federal, state, or local -- to produce art, and that there indeed are neglected communities. And that's not just in artistic circles. I mean teaching out here, there's just obvious neglect. And because of my role as a peer panelist, I could have direct input and have direct leverage in bringing some of the existing or some of the established companies here for either workshops or performances or presentations, because this neighborhood will not attend the theatre unless they're bussed, carried, or it becomes a requirement of whatever class they're studying.
"It was kind of nice because of that role [as a peer panelist] to be able to bring folks here and to expose them to more art. I have a fine partnership with Ballet East, [which] doesn't have a real positive reputation as an outstanding dance company. But they've endured, they have a history and a great partnership here. My theatre programs now include a physical movement class because of them. And they provide all the funding. Toni Bravo or Rudy [Ballet East Artistic Director Rodolfo Mendez] are here once a week with my advanced kids, and we do smaller workshops with my two other companies. It's incredible. And not only for the kids. I find myself using their terminology as an educator."
Garcia was raised on a farm in West Texas, but was fortunate to be the fourth son in a family of eight. The elder boys remained on the family's farm to work, freeing young Garcia to chase an education. He attributes his happiness to his having received his education, although he has done some deep soul searching to try to make sense of his good fortune. "If it hadn't been for the luck of where I fell in my family, plus an education, I'd still be farming. Why me? Why didn't my brothers, my older brothers [go to school]? They freed me up of labor." Then he laughs, admitting: "I also hated it. And being successful at school kept me out of the farm pretty much."
In one of those synergistic moments so common to the arts, Garcia is preparing for a project in 2002 that sees a meeting of his various worlds: education, his family's farming heritage, his Latino roots, his championing of the neglected and overlooked. The project is a world premiere musical based on the life of Cesar Chavez, which Garcia will direct. "[Chavez] planted so many seeds," says Garcia with a quiet reverence. "My mother was a migrant worker. [The musical] is beautiful -- we've been working on it for about four years. The writers are out of Chicago. John Rieger, who wrote the book, is a rep company member for the Goodman, and Julie Shannon is the lyricist and composer -- beautiful music. We're looking at the Paramount [Theatre] ... so we'll open in February  to coincide with Cesar Chavez's holiday." For Garcia, the project allows him to give something back to his community of communities, including the gay community.
"There's that moral obligation to give back what you got. And that goes back to the Out Youth or the AIDS Services of Austin. Being raised in a rural community or a neighborhood where I had no role models in that particular lifestyle, I feel obligated to speak to teens that I know are going through what I was going through. It's just a moral obligation. I don't think [that arts organizations] should be social organizations, but I do believe that some people have unfair advantages, and that we as a democracy must understand that money must be invested to continue a healthy society.
"There will always be a poor community, always. And if your moral and ethical principle as a human is to educate and help, then that means putting your money where your mouth is. And the real remedy is education. It's not food stamps, it's not health care; those things will help, but if you educate the individuals, then they will provide their own health care and their own insurance and their own food. So I don't have any problem with a society supporting educational programs. And a good educated person means that that includes the arts. I don't have a problem with social funds supporting underserved communities. I think we've neglected them.
"That doesn't mean it's going to create a big change or anything, especially in the arts where you're dealing with a smaller population of interest. But there's that one kid that gets turned on, or a couple ..."
Garcia is a man who engaged in an ongoing process of giving back. Out here, it's clear to see that it's many more than a couple of kids that have benefited from his personal outreach.
For more on Johnston High School, see the Politics feature The Future's So Bright...