The "first lady of Austin theatre" -- actress and educator Nan Cameron Elkins, whose credits included more than 300 Austin theatre productions and teaching speech and stage skills to thousands of Central Texas students -- has taken her final bow.
In Memoriam: Nan Elkins
The "first lady of Austin theatre" has taken her final bow. Actress and educator Nan Cameron Elkins, whose credits included more than 300 Austin theatre productions and teaching speech and stage skills to thousands of Central Texas students, died peacefully at her home in West Lake Hills on Tuesday, March 27. Elkins, 82, had been a major presence on the local arts scene since the late Forties, when she moved here with her late husband Tommy Elkins to obtain a master's degree from UT. Her field was theatre and speech communication, and it led her into the Austin public schools, where she spent more than three decades teaching students at Baker, Allan, Martin, and Murchison Junior High, and Johnston High School. Elkins' professional career was a distinguished one, marked by a Texas Teacher of the Year award in 1949 and Teacher of the Year award at Johnston in 1968, as well as chairing the first AISD committee to establish a School for Performing and Visual Arts. But her work outside the classroom was no less noteworthy. In the 1960s, Elkins founded Theatre Unlimited, Austin's first dinner theatre; she earned six nominations for the Austin Circle of Theatres' B. Iden Payne Awards, the last one being for her 1996 performance as The Mother in Ken Johnson's drama Jessie's Closet. She was frequently as busy directing as acting, and the Eighties were a particularly fruitful period in that regard. Among her most memorable productions were Two Lone Stars, starring Richard "Cactus" Pryor and John Henry Faulk; J. Frank Dobie, written by Pryor; and three plays by award-winning Broadway playwright Marty Martin: Shaviana, about the young George Bernard Shaw; Bernhardt: A Farewell Performance, starring Karen Kuykendall; and Whitechapel, about Jack the Ripper. Elkins became fast friends with Martin and his partner, composer Albert Acosta, and helped them found the International Museum Institute of Texas.
Elkins was part of my introduction to Austin theatre. As a callow youth, I was cast in a production of Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, and while I probably had no business on a stage at that point, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by experienced and accomplished actors, one of whom was Nan Elkins, for whom the term "grande dame" could have been invented. She was as welcoming and gracious to a novice actor as one could have hoped, and I'll always be grateful that she was there to share her craft and professionalism and community. Elkins is survived by daughters Nan Elkins Cameron and Mary Jane Wessels, sister Carey Jane Taylor, numerous grandchildren, and other family members across Texas and the world.
A follow-up to last week's feature on the theatre comedy Anton in Show Business, by Jane Martin: Last Saturday, March 31, the American Theatre Critics Association named the play the winner of its 2001 American Theatre Critics/ Steinberg New Play Award. In a ceremony at the Actors Theatre of Louisville during the 25th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, ATCA presented a check for $15,000 and a commemorative plaque to Alexander Speer, executive director of Actors Theatre and trustee for the mysterious Martin. Also recognized by the association were Charles Mee's Big Love (which will be produced in September by Austin's Rude Mechanicals), and August Wilson's King Hedley II. The State Theater Company production of Anton in Show Business continues through April 8.