Esther's veteran Joel McKean passes away, and during a rare Broadway strike Austin playwright John Walch is honored by the American Theatre Critics Association.
In Memoriam: Joel McKean
At Esther's Pool, the laughter never stops, but there are times when it is tinged with sorrow. So it has been lately, since the news arrived that Esther's veteran Joel McKean passed away. The writer and performer, who spent a dozen years with the Follies, died of cancer on March 2. He was 48. The death caught many of those who knew McKean by surprise. It was only in January that the cancer was first discovered in his lungs. But apparently it spread quickly throughout his body -- too quickly to be treated. McKean joined the Follies in 1987, just after the troupe had left the Ritz Theatre and established a new Pool on the southeast corner of Sixth Street and Neches. In the waning days of the Reagan White House and the ascension of George Bush the First, McKean soon distinguished himself as a satirist of the political scene. In fact, Esther's co-founder Shannon Sedwick considers McKean "one of our very best political writers ever." He kept the barbs coming until 1999, when he decided to return to California and pursue the next stage of his career there. At the time of his death, McKean was living in Venice Beach and was active in the theatre scene. His friends in Austin are hosting a remembrance Sunday, March 23. For more information, call 320-0198.
Big Apple Business
It was an auspicious time for theatre critics to be in New York City. At 12:01am last Friday, March 7, just as the members of the American Theatre Critics Association were gathering in the City That Never Sleeps for their annual winter conference, the union musicians who play for Broadway musicals went on strike over a contract dispute with theatre producers regarding the number of musicians required per show. As early as 8am, union members were heading back to the Broadway theatres they had played in the night before and setting up picket lines. The producers had prepared for the walkout and planned to raise the curtains as usual with taped or computerized music in place of the live sound. But when the unions for actors and stagehands announced at 5pm that they would not cross the picket lines, the producers were forced to cancel that night's performances of all Broadway musicals save one: Cabaret, which was operating under a special contract. It was the first such cancellation in 25 years, and as a result, theatre became something it rarely is these days: national news.
The strike continued through the weekend, but the critics, particularly those of us from Austin, had other things on our minds. One was handing out the association's M. Elizabeth Osborn Award to John Walch for his play The Dinosaur Within, which was honored by the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays and staged by the State Theater Company last season. The presentation took place during a luncheon at Sardi's, and Walch was extremely gracious in his acceptance, especially considering that yours truly, who introduced him, got the play's title wrong. With characteristic aplomb, Austin American-Statesman Arts writer Michael Barnes, who is ATCA's chair, corrected the error. In addition to the Osborn prize, The Dinosaur Within is one of six finalists for the ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award, to be presented at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville next month.