Memorializing The Public Domain Theatre Company, 1993-2001
This news has been in hand for several weeks now, but I've held off on running it because, well, the passing of a theatre company isn't quite as timely as some other news, and I wanted to wait until I had the space to memorialize this particular company adequately. The Public Domain Theatre Company has taken its final bow. Official notice came in a postcard mailed to friends of the company in which Artistic Director Robi Polgar stated simply that "after eight seasons of producing plays, The Public Domain is going to cease operations." He offered no formal explanation, instead he used the space "to thank the greater Austin arts community and its patrons for helping support our work" and to express gratitude to the artists and audiences that enabled them to create, as Polgar modestly put it, "some quite good theatre over the years."
For most recipients of the card, no real explanation was needed. Eight years at the helm of a painfully under-funded theatre company in an increasingly expensive city had taken its toll. Polgar was burned out. He had been ready to give up the ghost for some time, at least since the company lost its loft space at 807 Congress in 1999, but friends of the company and artistic associates had persuaded him to keep producing in other spaces. He did, staging Harold Pinter's Ashes to Ashes at the Vortex and The Possibilities in an abandoned airplane hangar at Robert Mueller Airport and King Lear at the Blue Theatre, and producing Bingo at the Hideout, co-producing The Metamorphosis with Refraction Arts Project at the Blue. But however much his heart was in the individual shows, it wasn't in keeping the company on life support. I know, because it's one of the subjects we'd discuss regularly when Robi would drop by the Chronicle offices to pick up press releases for the Dance and Classical listings and talk arts features and reviews. The other founders of the company -- Ken Westerman, director and lighting designer; Michael Camenisch, playwright; Michelle Metcalfe (now Polgar), dramaturg; Rob Wagner, technical director; and Christian Dauer, architect -- had long since moved on, and he was ready to follow them and lay the PD to rest. And at last, this fall, he got the chance.
Knowing so intimately how trying the experience of running the PD was to him and Michelle, I can hardly fault their decision to bring down the curtain. Still, I mourn its passing -- and not because Polgar is a friend and colleague or because I worked with the company a few times. The Public Domain was part of the wave of theatre companies launched in 1992-93 that energized the arts scene. Frontera, Salvage Vanguard, Troupe Texas, Physical Plant, and the PD ushered in a new era for local theatre, one of low-budget, high-energy, smart, inventive stage works that delivered a lot with a little. It's sad to see one of those pioneering groups go away. Moreover, the PD was one of the five Austin companies that traveled to Iowa for the conference that led to the birth of the RAT network of small broke companies doing big cheap theatre. Later, it helped host the Austin RAT Conference. It's sad to see one of those groups go. The PD championed contemporary British playwrights at a time when almost everyone but Pinter and Caryl Churchill were forgotten on local stages. From the PD, we were reminded of Howard Barker and Edward Bond, too, and it's sad to see that sensibility go. But mostly, the PD was one of the few theatre groups that really worked at being a classics company in a city desperately lacking a good classics company. In addition to the usual menu of Shakespearean drama, the PD gave us The Beaux's Stratagem and The Duchess of Malfi and Cyrano de Bergerac and The Beggar's Opera and Antigone, and for those I am most grateful. And like most of the companies that were formed in the early Nineties, the PD put a high premium on hospitality. You were welcome in its space and at its shows, and for that I'll always be grateful. Rest in peace, PD. Thanks, Robi and Michelle.
If you've been wondering how directors do what they do -- or perhaps what some of them ought to be doing instead of what they do do, one of our own has some insight to offer. Michael Bloom, who heads the directing program at the UT Department of Theatre & Dance and has directed productions of Wit, The Brothers Karamazov, and Spring Storm on Austin stages, and whose list of credits also includes productions at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Seattle Repertory, Berkeley Repertory, South Coast Repertory, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Long Wharf Theatre, the Sundance Institute, and Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo, has now packaged all that experience into a new book, Thinking Like a Director: A Practical Handbook. It's been published by Faber and Faber Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, and Bloom will have a book signing on Nov. 8, 5-7pm, at Barnes & Noble, 2244 Guadalupe.