Not Just Another Pretty Face
With Naughty Austin, there's more than meets the eye
OK, judges, here comes your first contestant in the Miss Glamouresse competition. As she sashays down the runway, take careful note of the wiggle in her walk, the wobble in her wave. You can see, she has all the makings of a traditional beauty queen: the meticulously coiffed hair, spray-starched into immobility; the industrial-strength mascara, generously applied, the igloo-white teeth gleaming between twin layers of glistening lipstick, the five o'clock shadow ...
That's right, judges, if you didn't realize it before, a closer inspection of this miss reveals a mister under all that pancake and padding. In fact, all the gals in this title hunt are really guys. That's how it works in Pageant, the widely produced musical comedy by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, receiving its local premiere from the Naughty Austin theatre company. The show sends up old-school beauty ... er, scholarship pageants with six maids (Miss West Coast, Miss Great Plains, Miss Industrial Northeast, Miss Bible Belt, Miss Deep South, and Miss Texas) facing off, as it were, in the categories of Evening Gown, Swimsuit, Congeniality, Physical Fitness, and Spokesmodel. In its tussle for the tiara, the show generates guffaws with lampoon versions of pageant staples -- over-the-top regional costumes, a smarmy, lounge-singer host, canned self-serving answers to lame questions, "talents" that range from a ventriloquism act to an accordion solo played while on roller skates -- with the Cool Whip topping on the parodic parfait being that surefire laugh-getter since Aristophanes was a pup: men in skirts.
The spoofery of show-biz glamour, vanity, and the lust for the spotlight makes Pageant a natural fit for Naughty Austin. After all, this is the company that got its start mocking the hometown theatre scene. That was in 1997, when Blake Yelavich and a few pals put together a cabaret show poking fun at everyone on local stages from Austin Musical Theatre to the Zilker Summer Musical. They teased Vortex Repertory Company actors for their eagerness to show skin, caricatured that year's cabaret trend as "one step removed from karaoke," and imagined Zachary Scott Theatre Center's extravagantly lighted Rockin' Christmas Party at the Paramount as sucking all the power from Congress Avenue. But, as I wrote at the time, they "did it with such finesse -- the word carefully chosen, the impersonation sharply observed, the tone bemused, not bitter -- as to be artful." Their targets appeared to take the joshing in good humor; the show was a hit and led to three sequels over the next year. Naughty Austin quickly made a name for itself as a company keen on having fun.
Still, as there is frequently more to a pageant contestant than a glossy smile and well-filled swimsuit, there's more to Naughty Austin than jokey escapades. While other groups have been reaping more attention and awards, Naughty Austin has been quietly growing into one of the most successful theatre companies in the city.
At first glance, Blake Yelavich himself might appear to be simply the brawn of the outfit. He has a stevedore's arms and the broad shoulders that show he knows how to use them. But while it's true the Naughty Austin founder can swing a mean hammer -- he builds most of the elaborate sets for the company's shows -- Yelavich also penned all the clever barbs in the four Naughty Austin cabarets, plus five full plays staged by the company. Behind the imposing physique and leading-man features is a sharp intelligence (and a wicked one), capable of skewering an inflated ego in a few lyrics layered onto a familiar tune, constructing the twists in a theatrical thriller, and firing off answers in the high-stakes pressure-cooker of TV game shows. (Yelavich's turns on Win Ben Stein's Money and The Weakest Link earned him almost $50,000.)
The most telling indicator of Yelavich's smarts, however, may be the success of his theatre company. In seven seasons, he's shepherded it from ragtag cabaret troupe performing in other companies' spaces to established group presenting a four-show season in its own theatre. And he's done it all while keeping the company in the black. That's right: Naughty Austin has been financially sound from the start -- and remains so even after the grim turn in the economy and launching a venue.
Part of the secret to the company's success is a commitment to thriftiness. Yelavich has a strict formula for budgeting his productions: Calculate the maximum amount that could be made over the course of the run. Multiply that by a third, and that's the budget. The shows may be trim, but the company is well-served by the approach. Not only has Naughty Austin not lost money, but when it has had a hit, it's been able to make use of the profits instead of having to use them to pay off debts. Making Porn, the 2002 production featuring adult film stars Ryan Idol and Chris Steele, was seen by more than 2,000 people, breaking box-office records at Hyde Park Theatre and earning Naughty Austin $17,000. Yelavich was able to channel that cash, along with his game-show winnings, into the company's new Eastside home on Real.
That Naughty Austin has had hit shows -- and continues to have them, as the thousands of Web site hits and hundreds of reservations for Pageant testify -- speaks to Yelavich's ability to connect with an audience that appreciates his work. Much of Naughty Austin's full-length work has focused on dating and relationships (Personals, Mr. 80 Percent, Beyond Therapy), frequently with strong gay characters (Tricks, Aidan's Bed, Bianka's Wake, Angel's Balcony). Yelavich has successfully tapped a market of young singles, gay and straight, who will turn out in droves to see that onstage.
Of course, Yelavich hasn't created all this by himself. No one artist could, and he is quick to credit the friends and supporters working beside him, notably partner Kirk Addison and pals/fellow performers Jody Lanclos and Paul Parkinson. Still, when you consider his hands swinging that hammer on all those sets, writing all those plays and parody numbers, directing all those shows (all but two to date), generating all that marketing and PR, and doing who knows what else, Yelavich is clearly the brawn, brains, heart, and soul of Naughty Austin.
This year, Naughty Austin joined the ranks of the East Austin warehouse theatres. After attempts to establish home bases at Hyde Park Theatre and Austin Playhouse fell through, Yelavich and company began searching for a place of their own, and something in this 5,900-square-foot former icehouse and meat processing factory struck Yelavich as ideal for a theatre. When Addison agreed, they persuaded the rest of the Naughty Austin crew to sign on, formed a new nonprofit called Arts Entertainment Group Inc., and sealed a 20-year lease-to-own deal with landlord Larry Rother.
When it came to renovating the big cinder-block shell, Yelavich, as you can imagine, did most of the work. Putting up walls, putting in seats, wiring, plumbing -- you name it, he did it. And he put that abiding thriftiness to good use. The truss work for the lighting? Acquired from the music store Mars when it closed. Cost: $15,000. The 100 theatre seats? Bought from a theatre in Houston that was damaged in last year's floods. Cost: $1 apiece (even though these seats weren't touched by the water). The mirrors in the dressing rooms, restrooms, and behind the bar? Pulled off the walls of the downtown World Gym when it closed. The 26-foot-long bar with stainless steel front? In what he describes as "truly an HGTV moment," Yelavich built a frame of 2-by-4s, on top of which he poured concrete mixed with black dye. "Two-by-fours are two bucks, right?" he asks. "Concrete is a dollar a bag. The stainless steel on the front is flashing for a roof, underneath your shingles: seven bucks. The entire bar, minus the lighting, was 300 bucks."
Ultimately, he built the whole shebang -- convertible thrust/proscenium theatre with 22-foot-by-24-foot stage, rehearsal room the same size as the stage, seating for the audience, two dressing rooms, three offices, scene shop, lobby, and exterior -- for roughly $48,000. An amazing accomplishment on so little, especially considering that it looks as if it cost 10 times that.
With that much investment of cash and sweat equity in the place, you might expect Yelavich to put a pretty high premium on anyone else using his theatre. But he's not only eager to have other companies use Arts on Real, he's also making it available at a bargain rate: a flat $1,000 a week -- as many rehearsals and performances as the renter likes, just one grand for seven days. All Yelavich wants is enough cash to cover his rent and utilities on the space. With some arts spaces costing as much as $400 per performance to rent, that's an offer local arts groups couldn't refuse, and they lost no time in taking Yelavich up on it; he booked 42 weeks of rentals in three hours, and a month away from the new year, he has only eight weeks left open for booking in all of 2004.
Clearly, the community isn't holding Yelavich's old mockeries against him. And will the satirist-turned-venue-renter return to his eye-poking ways any time soon?
"I'm not sure we would want to do Naughty Austin right now," he says. "When we did Naughty Austin the first time, it was fun to tease Austin theatre because Austin theatre was flourishing in a way. Austin Musical Theatre was new and big and strong, so it was fun to tease the new kids. Zach Scott was big and strong. When theatres are narrowing down this much ... I'm glad we're not hurting, but it's hard to be proud and successful when you know that other people are hurting."
So Naughty Austin is sensitive to its fellow arts groups. Who knew the beauty queen that started out with the bitchiest mouth in town would wind up as Miss Congeniality?
Pageant runs through Jan. 3, Thursday-Saturday, at Arts on Real, 2826 Real. For information, call 472-2787 or visit www.artsonreal.com or www.naughtyaustin.com.