Age of Aquarius

For 10 years, Dave Steakley has made Zach Rock - and so much more

Dave Steakley watches Q Smith lead the Tribe in Aquarius for the Zach production of <i>Hair</i>.
Dave Steakley watches Q Smith lead the Tribe in "Aquarius" for the Zach production of Hair. (By Bret Brookshire)

The members of "the Tribe" wander into the playing space, moving slowly, dreamily, as if through water, their languid motion punctuated with flashes of the two-finger peace sign and whispered injunctions of "love." Eventually, they make their way into a group and, as if moved by a whirlpool, form themselves into a circle. They lift their arms to the heavens, and one among them describes a forthcoming configuration of celestial bodies above them: "When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars ..."

Yes, this is Hair, the infamous "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" from 1968. You know that, even if you've never seen a production of it, never owned a copy of the cast album. It's bled into the culture through the radio, through the songs that crossed over to Top 40 and live on in the never-ending loop of oldies that permeate the ether. "Let the Sunshine In." "Easy to Be Hard." "Good Morning Starshine." And, of course, the one about wanting it "long, straight, curly, fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty, oily, greasy, fleecy, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen." It's Hair.

And just as you'd know what the show is, even without having seen it, you'd probably know where in Austin this Hair is being staged even without being a regular theatregoer. It's a rock musical, so the most likely place for it is the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. Zach has mounted so many pop-based musicals -- and staged them so well -- that it has come to be identified with them. The Who's Tommy and Love, Janis. Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story and Tapestry: The Music of Carole King. Rocky Horror and Rockin' Christmas. Hedwig. Jouét. Dreamgirls. And on and on they rock and roll.

It wasn't always this way. Turn the clock back a dozen years, and there's nothing like those shows on the theatre's schedule. The musicals that Zach produced then were few and far between and those that it did stage tended toward traditional fare: The Sound of Music, The King and I, Brigadoon, A Little Night Music. Maybe the occasional Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Not to be disparaging -- this is wonderful, classic stuff -- but it was your dad's musical theatre, maybe even your granddad's.

The change took place when Dave Steakley joined the staff. The young director, who came on board in 1991 as Zach's managing director, brought with him a lifelong affection for late-20th-century pop music and the conviction that putting its songs onstage could draw to the theatre a whole new audience. He'd had some success in that vein in the Eighties, staging pop and soul revues for Ellington's, a club in the old Villa Capri motel. But what he did at Zach really drove his point home. With a little revue called Beehive, Steakley took a smattering of 1960s chart-toppers by girl groups and female singers and fired them at the audience with irresistible style and make-you-wanna-shout verve. Attendance records at the theatre were trampled by the crowds rushing to see it, and Beehive became one of the highest grossing productions in Zach's 60 seasons. The response led Steakley to launch a series of Beehive revivals and create an original sequel, Beehive Christmas Party (later rechristened Rockin' Christmas Party), that filled the Paramount Theatre and eclipsed A Christmas Carol as Zach's premier seasonal tradition. With an uncanny command of the pop music vocabulary and dazzling showmanship, he parlayed those successes into a 10-year string of theatrical hits (see "Dave's Decade").

It may seem a small step from Beehive to Hair -- just one follicle-fixated Sixties rock musical to another -- but in truth it's been more of a giant leap for the theatre producing those shows. In the decade between them, Zach has seen its audience grow from 25,000 patrons a season to more than 150,000, and its annual budget increase from $700,000 to $2.6 million. According to Ann Ciccolella, who succeeded Steakley as managing director after he was named producing artistic director, "The dollar growth and the audience growth is enormous, and it's because of him."

Along with that physical expansion has come a progression of creative risks, in the form of such challenging work as The Gospel at Colonus, Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America, and Suzan-Lori Parks' densely poetic The America Play. And Steakley has had just as much to do with the artistic achievements of those projects -- and with Zach's increasing presence on the national theatre scene -- as he has with the success of the rock musicals. There's more to Hair than a few psychedelic ditties that crossed over to the pop charts, and there's more to Steakley than a repository of Pips steps and Temptations turns.

I Got Life, Sister

It's 1971, and Dave is in Austin visiting his sister Ginger. They're on a shopping expedition on the Drag, with Dave checking out some Day-Glo homemade candles, when something causes their eyes to start burning. Turns out that earlier the Austin police had used tear gas to disrupt a protest rally on the UT campus, and some of the gas is still in the air. A young hippie stops passersby and ask them to sign a makeshift petition denouncing this police brutality. The grade-schooler on leave from his grandparents' farm in Grandview, Texas, signs: "Dave Steakley, age 9, victim."

That may not have been the precise moment when Steakley's interest in social justice was born, but the experience certainly made an impression on him -- he included it in the program notes for Tapestry: The Music of Carole King 29 years later -- and while he was still a bit young to grasp the full implications of the protest, he does recall, "I was conscious of that being a hippie act that we had been in the midst of, and I had gotten to sign this petition, which felt really cool."

<i>Hair cast members Sarah Jones and Theresa Medina joke with Steakley while working on the White Boys number.</i>
Hair cast members Sarah Jones and Theresa Medina joke with Steakley while working on the "White Boys" number. (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Taking pride in political activism might well have been something Steakley picked up from his big sister. Without question, she was a major figure in Steakley's growing up, a sibling who was old enough to be an adult but who treated him as something more than a kid. Visiting her in Austin in the Seventies gave him an alternative view of life from the one he shared with his grandparents, one that wasn't circumscribed by the attitudes of a small Texas town or a fundamentalist religion, one that included change and freedoms and a sense of the wide world.

"My sister and brother were full-fledged hippies, and they seemed to have the best, most exotic life -- one that was so different from my life on that farm. I didn't know they were hippies" at that time, Steakley says, "but I knew they were different." And it wasn't just their clothing or the long hair that kept them from stopping for gas in Grandview whenever they drove up from Austin; it had to do with their attitudes toward people whose skin was a different color, with their passion for the struggles being fought by Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. "I knew that civil rights were really important to them, were a really big deal," he remembers, and that passion rubbed off on him, as is clear from his tenure at Zach.

Throughout the past decade, Steakley has made a point of creating opportunities for African-American theatre artists, doing more in that regard than perhaps any other cultural leader in town over that time. He has worked to get their stories onstage, even going to the mat for the cause. When Dreamgirls was first being considered for production back in 1994, there was, Steakley says, still some question about the ability of black projects to succeed financially in Austin. "Having had the success with Beehive, I just laid down my gauntlet and said, 'Please. Let's just put this on the season, let me do it, and I promise that I will invest all my energy and everything about myself to make sure that it succeeds.'" The show did succeed at Zach, leading to a revival at the Paramount two years later. It was, says Steakley, "a turning point for us as an organization." Since then, the theatre has developed an impressive array of projects for black artists: Avenue X, The Gospel at Colonus, Blues in the Night, Ain't Misbehavin', The Piano Lesson, The America Play, Jelly's Last Jam, bee luther-hatchee.

If anything, Steakley's willingness to explore social concerns through the theatre has expanded through the years, permeating projects from straight plays such as Angels in America and The Laramie Project to musicals such as Tapestry: The Music of Carole King and Hair.

Now, Steakley will tell you that Hair had no real significance for him as a young man (well, beside the fact that sister Ginger, who, for her honeymoon, spent the summer of '70 putt-putting about Europe in a Volkswagen van, saw a production then and sent Dave a postcard raving about it). For him, it was not the touchstone album that it was for so many people his age, that font of forbidden knowledge and illicit behavior listened to on the sly. Moreover, he'll tell you that he resisted doing the show for years, despite the interest of his patrons. ("Ever since Beehive, when the boomers thought, 'We've got our guy,' patrons have continually asked me when I was going to do it. One gentleman and his wife e-mail me regularly about when is it gonna happen?") The criticism of Hair as a museum piece made Steakley fearful that it wouldn't connect with a contemporary audience. Obviously, he's changed his tune, and what did that was his discovery of relevance in the material. When he talks about Hair now, Steakley talks about the piece's sense of social reform -- the anti-war sentiment, the disenfranchisement of the young, the sexual liberation, the civil rights statements -- and its place in the hearts and minds of contemporary youth. And that reflects back on Ginger.

"My sister has been so influential on my whole life," Steakley says, "and I think about her son who's a student at UT, and on his first cross-country trip, the thing that that kid most wanted to do was go to the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot that they've now turned into a museum. That was the one thing that was on his agenda to do, and I was telling Ginger, 'You've done that. That's what you gave him.' And that's what she gave me, too. So those things that connect to those values that she instilled, which seem so trite to say: love and peace and acceptance -- Hair allows me to connect to the work and the lineage of that in the family, the good gift that they passed on."

I Believe That Now Is the Time

It's 2001, and Dave Steakley is looking through the newspaper in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. He is moved by what he sees, but he is particularly struck by certain images that mirror those of a generation past, ones he has seen recently in the books about the 1960s that he has been using to research Hair. After 9/11, a statue in New York's Washington Square Park is covered with graffiti straight from the era of the Vietnam protests: "No War," "World Peace," "Give Peace a Chance," "One Love, One Life, One Meaning," even a peace sign on the ass of the horse. A wall of photographs of loved ones missing in the World Trade Center collapse are hauntingly similar to one in the Haight-Ashbury police station around the time of the Summer of Love, the photos of kids who have left home and gone to join communes.

Once he'd seen these things, the context of Hair abruptly shifted for Steakley, and he began seeing and hearing things in the musical that he had not heard before -- like the line in the song "Frank Mills" where the singer talks about having "met him on September 12." Taken with the fact she's in a park in Lower Manhattan and she's searching for this guy she can't find, Steakley notes, "those words began to resonate in a different way." As did the lines about one's heart beating "true to the red, white, and blue" in "Don't Put It Down," the number about patriotism, and the lines "How can people be so heartless, how can people be so cruel," in "Easy to Be Hard."

"Those three songs begin to tell me a very different story this year," says the director, and now he says he feels "fortunate to be doing Hair in this particular season because I think the themes and ideas are extraordinarily relevant, and I think it'll be surprising to people how much of it pops out as fresh." He and his production team have been seeking ways to build on the work's new resonance, elements of design and musical direction that will immediately connect the work to their audience "in a great contemporary way and allow us to take a different journey dramatically." He likens the piece visually to a Robert Rauschenberg collage, "as if the Tribe took all the Warhols and Basquiats and Rauschenbergs and created new art out of it." The show, he says, is "taking street cultures of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and now, and all of those elements live in this Tribe and in our space."

Working White Boys: Steakley, center; Sarah Jones, right
Working "White Boys": Steakley, center; Sarah Jones, right (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Readers who have experienced some of Steakley's recent projects may recognize this approach. It's similar to the one he used in staging The Rocky Horror Show in 1999. Rather than go for a, ahem, straight revival of the mid-Seventies cult musical, Steakley sought to bring the script in line with the end of the millennium and our anxieties about the change of calendar. He treated the looming Y2K as if it were the menace from some old Universal creature feature waiting to devour us, with snatches of Prince's "1999" layered onto Richard O'Brien's score and design elements that built on the idea of a "Time Warp." Frank N. Furter's castle was reinvented as Andy Warhol's Factory, and the white-haired King of Pop Art himself was imported to serve as the show's Polaroid-popping narrator. Jarring as it must have been for some Rocky Horror purists (an odd species to contemplate), Zach's conceptual approach restored an edge to the piece dulled by a quarter century of midnight movie showings and bargain-counter impersonations of Tim Curry's sweet transvestite.

It's Steakley's way of keeping older works fresh, but more than that, of reminding the audience that what they're experiencing in the theatre applies to their lives now. For all his affection for music of the past -- and the significant part it's played in his career -- Steakley is much more interested in the present and in the future. Relevance isn't just another word to him; it's the word.

"When Dave makes changes, it isn't just for the sake of change," says Allen Robertson, the much-honored composer, musical director, and sound designer, who has worked with Steakley on some 40 productions. "He'll tell you, 'I want it to have the storytelling impact, to serve the emotional end, the storytelling end.'"

Follow My Heartbeat

It's 2002, and Steakley is rehearsing the number "White Boys" -- and you can see why the Cowsills shied away from bringing this song from Hair to Top 40 radio. It's a paean to the pleasures of sex with pale-skinned men, sung by black women -- with backup in Steakley's production from a couple of men, too -- with lyrics that rhapsodize over "skin as smooth as milk" and "hair like Chinese silk." There's nothing subtle about the song's sexuality, and Steakley takes the cue for his choreography from its brassy -- shall we say ballsy -- expression of desire: grinding hips, hands sliding down the body and across the crotch, spanking.

Steakley stands facing a mirror on the north wall of Zach's rehearsal hall. In front of him is a music stand with his book of movement notes on it. When the cast runs through the number, he performs the steps with them, glancing down at his notes for reference but mostly keeping his gaze trained on the mirror, watching the reflection of the dancers moving behind him. He has an eye for detail; you can see it in the concentration with which he watches the dancers, mentally calculating geometric angles in space carved by arms, legs, heads, in relationship to carefully designated beats in time and rhythm, judiciously evaluating the precision of alignment and tempo. When he sees it all fall into place, he smiles and nods his head.

Because a show's director and choreographer aren't typically seen in performance, it's easy for us audience members to think of them as apart from it, like comic figures in berets sitting in canvas-back chairs, barking orders at cast and crew through a megaphone. But in this rehearsal, it's readily apparent that Steakley is one of the Tribe. When he is on his feet in front of the cast and Allen Robertson starts playing the piano, Steakley loosens into the music, his head bobbing, his shoulders weaving, his feet sliding. He doesn't hold back, and every move he asks of his dancers is there, every wiggle of the fingers, every pelvic thrust.

Steakley is a leader, no question. The staff at Zach talks about "Dave's bus, " as in "We're on Dave's bus, and he's driving." As with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, you're either on Dave's bus or you're off it. But being on the bus doesn't mean just sitting back while Dave commandeers the wheel. Everybody plans the journey. "He has strong ideas," says Robertson, "but he's also open enough that people can express opposing ideas. He's confident enough to be a collaborator, and that tends to pull the best out of you." Adds Ann Ciccolella, "Even though you might have different approaches, he always makes you feel like you're on the same team, you're on the same side."

That spirit of cooperation, of community and dialogue, has been a hallmark of Steakley's time at Zach. He has cultivated relationships with a number of theatre artists -- among them Robertson and Ciccolella, designers Michael Raiford, Jason Amato, and Leslie Bonnell, and an all-star assortment of performers including Meredith McCall, Janis Stinson, Martin Burke, and Barbara Chisholm (who is, in the interest of full disclosure, my wife and the Chronicle's Community Listings editor) -- and they have not only delivered consistently exciting work but proven that they are in sync creatively. They understand each other's aesthetic and communicate, cooperate, inspire each other.

The sense of shared experience and unity doesn't stop with the artists, however; it extends to the audience, and that point can't be made too strongly where Steakley is concerned. "When I think about Dave and my attraction to Zach," says Robertson, "I think about dialogue -- not answering questions but having a place to talk about them. His feeling is, 'I don't want to do it for me. I want to have people in those seats. I'm in a community, and I want a place in the community where this is important, and we can talk about things.'"

The audience is ever-present in Steakley's work at Zach. One of his most fulfilling experiences at the theatre was his production of The Gospel at Colonus "because it felt like such a big dream to realize in this space and in terms of where Zach was at that point." When the show was first proposed in 1992, he knew that Zach wasn't ready, and that he'd need to develop both the resources on the creative end and the mindset in the audience that would support a full production. He charted a four-year course, four seasons in which show after show served as stepping stones on the way to Colonus. Beehive to Buddy to Forever Plaid to Five Guys Named Moe to Dreamgirls to Avenue X, slowly and deliberately creating more ambitious shows and exposing the audience to more involved kinds of music and stories until they could not just accept this reinvention of the Oedipus story but embrace it. And they did.

More recently, they embraced Steakley's production of The Laramie Project, and because of that it proved to be another of his most satisfying projects. "It's the best conversations that we've ever had with the audience," he says. "It's rare the number of plays or opportunities that have social change as a part of the agenda or as a benefit of working on it, and it just sets up a whole different vibe for a company of artists that gets to do something that they believe in and have a political investment in.

"I'm all for theatre as entertainment, clearly; I've had plenty of choices that are about that. But it's also great to have those opportunities that are about more, that open up a conversation. To have a patron say to me that she came to the show pretty homophobic and that she really reconsidered her point of view -- the last thing that she said to me was, 'I was wrong. I've been wrong.' -- it's hard not to participate in that without it changing your own life." end story

Hair runs July 13-September 1 at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside. Call 476-0541 for reservations.
  • More of the Story

  • Dave's Decade

    You'd be hard pressed to find a local director who has worked as hard for as long as Dave Steakley, and this list shows why.

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