Touching All Those Hands

Remembering Boyd Vance, his life and legacy

As Snoopy in <i>You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown</i>
As Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Some people knew the Boyd Vance of the working week, the man who ran Pro Arts Collective, or the Boyd Vance of Sunday, worshiping at St. James Episcopal Church. I knew the Boyd of Saturday night.

Alone in the spotlight, strutting his stuff down an aisle as narrow as a breath, selling Fats Waller so sweetly you could smell honeysuckle in the air, making people smile bigger smiles than they'd smiled all week – that was where I first encountered Boyd. We were both in Esther's Follies – this was back in the Mesozoic Era of Austin theatre history, when I was young enough to have hair and we were both too young to know what we were doing – and Boyd was charged with warming up the crowd before every show. I never tired of watching him from the darkened back of the cramped original Pool. Every night was like a semester in the College of Showmanship. Boyd was all of 23 years, and yet he knew more about playing to an audience than I ever will. The wink. The growl. The flirt. The drop in the lap. The sweet note that carries the song. He had already mastered them all and more. It came naturally to him; he had Bert Williams in his blood, Cab Calloway in his bones.

But Boyd onstage wasn't just about the showmanship. He was about connecting with his audience, making that contact that had you feeling a personal bond with him. He touched everyone that way. At that time, I had never seen that, felt that, from a live performer, and I've experienced it only rarely since. More extraordinary was the way he extended that way of connecting with people into his life off the stage.

I don't know what it says about me that when I asked the woman who later became my wife on our first date, it was to see Boyd leading a cast of kids through a performance of The Me Nobody Knows at Liberty Lunch. Maybe that's why when I asked Boyd to usher at Barbara and my wedding and sing at our reception, he said yes. But I don't think so. Boyd just didn't say no when you asked him for something. Now, he wasn't shy about asking you for whatever he needed, which may have something to do with it. But he just didn't turn people down if they were in need. That was one more thing he taught me and many other people, too. To me, it's one of his greatest legacies.

Boyd was kind enough to include me in some of his theatrical projects. He invited me along on his first foray into directing, a production of To Be Young, Gifted and Black at Huston-Tillotson, and when he decided to show Austin what playwright August Wilson was all about, staging Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at Capitol City Playhouse. I treasure those experiences, not because they were the most polished productions but because of the people involved and the risks being taken and the steps forward being made: for Boyd as an artist, for African-American artists in this community, for Austin as a city.

We didn't work together or even see each other as much in recent years, but it wasn't for lack of interest. More than anything, I think it had to do with Boyd's being ever on the move, racing here and there, getting this show up, helping that person out. Who could keep pace with him? Most of us given 34-hour days and eight-day weeks still couldn't accomplish half of what Boyd did. Look at all he accomplished, all the lives he touched, in just the 25 years since he was warming up those crowds at Esther's. Boyd may have been perpetually running about 10 minutes behind, but he was always 100 miles ahead of us all.

As evidenced by the overflow crowd at his memorial service at St. James Episcopal last week, Boyd Vance had many, many friends. To give them all a chance to speak to Boyd's lasting impact on their lives would require a book of biblical proportions. So here are just a few memories, with more available in the sidebar below.

<i>Splendora</i>, 1987
Splendora, 1987

Lizzie Martinez

Casting director, actress, artist

Austin has suffered a great loss.

Boyd Vance passed away.

If you didn't know him, I wish you had.

Those who did know him will agree: There was no one, and I mean no one, like Boyd. Boyd was a tireless arts and community organizer. There is no mayor or councilperson or leader in Austin who could bring people together like Boyd could. He worked with everyone: black people, brown people, white people, gay people, straight people, churchfolks, artists, activists, crusties, punks, singers, actors, and children.

Boyd made things happen.

I only worked with him for a short time on the community production of La Pastorela. But I got to watch him juggle all of his ideas, events, and ongoing projects. He could, in one day, direct a play, rehearse a choir, work at the office of his arts organization, come to Pastorela rehearsal, and still remember to bring peanut butter and jelly for the kids in the show.

No one was safe from his sharp tongue. Some of the funniest comments and observations I've ever heard, things I can just think about years after the fact and still laugh out loud, were said by Boyd.

With Marco Perella in <i>Shear Madness</i>, 1991
With Marco Perella in Shear Madness, 1991

I feel like I can't mourn his passing alone or quietly. (Boyd was never quiet about anything.) I feel like we need to go into the streets together, all of us, singing. Singing loud. I think he would have liked that.

Fly on, spirit.

Rest in peace, Boyd Vance.

Cyndi Williams

Actress, playwright

I was a disc jockey in the Eighties, back before Reagan totally deregulated radio, when commercial stations actually offered arts programming. I had a radio show about the arts in Austin, which we presented live at various venues. We were doing the show that night in the lobby of the State Theater – not beautifully renovated and restored as it is now, but musty and dusty with a smell that made you want to wash your hands with compulsive frequency. I was interviewing Boyd, and I can't recall what show it was for. He came with an entourage. This laughing, funny, cranky, skinny young guy, surrounded by tall, laughing, lovely women from his show. I felt like a kid locked outside the candy store, looking in at this community of happy performers. That's the first time I met Boyd.

Flash forward to September, 2004, when Boyd was honored at the Austin Circle of Theaters' annual award ceremony. That funny, cranky, skinny young guy stood up to gracefully accept his honors – but no, Boyd was a fine man now, a leader and a visionary. And still surrounded by laughing friends. After the awards ceremony I talked to Boyd about our community of theatre. Boyd said we were very lucky, in this nation of transients, to have community, to have built community. That was the last time I saw Boyd.

When I heard Boyd was in the hospital, not for a moment could I believe that he would leave us so soon. How could that laugh, that passion, that pure orneriness end? His passing has left a hole in communities and in hearts.

Someone told a story about Boyd. Boyd was asked how he felt about his relationship with the media in Austin, if he felt badly when his shows didn't get reviewed or he received harsh criticism for a production he directed. Boyd said he didn't care, that he was getting as much work out there as fast as he could, that he was getting as many people out there as he could. These people and plays had been underrepresented onstage, and his mission was to get them out there, not to make them perfect.

With Carla Nickerson in <i>Merry Christmas, Baby</i>, 1995
With Carla Nickerson in Merry Christmas, Baby, 1995

What a brave, pure mission. Vaya con dios, Boyd.

Margaret Hoard


When we did Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, we would go to the Heritage House for rehearsals. Dinner would be waiting for us, usually Boyd's home cooking – gumbo, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, or, in emergencies, fried chicken or pizza. We usually had guests at rehearsals. Audrey Morgan, our stage manager, would bring her guys from the group home where she worked after her day job at AISD. These guys were our biggest fans. They ate with us and listened attentively at rehearsals. They came to our opening night and to the party afterward. One of the actors was living at Heritage House temporarily. A dog was visiting as well.

All night long we'd hear the swish of the screen door as painters, grant writers, singers, people from the church, would be in and out using the computer, using the copier. Boyd would holler, "Get a plate," fuss at you a little bit, inspire and beguile you. He didn't always like us, but he always loved us.

We sat in a circle at rehearsals. I told Boyd that we were so spoiled we would probably want to do the play with a fork or a chicken leg in one hand. Boyd would baptize you into the family in those circles. And what a family it was. It encompassed the dreams and intensity of the Younger family in Raisin in the Sun, the inspired lunacy of the Vanderhof family in You Can't Take It With You, the sweet and gentle love of the Morgan family in Sounder. You could hear Boyd laughing as you went out the screen door and down the sidewalk, looking up at the stars, realizing he had given you the missing piece of the puzzle that was your character and aren't you lucky to know the real deal.

Boyd was in the hospital with pneumonia on our opening night. Lisa Byrd filled the green room with a buffet and flowers. Boyd spoke to each of us individually by cell phone during the warm-up and prayer. When Boyd was around, warm-up was magic hour.

Boyd didn't much like to be hugged. The way to honor Boyd was to connect and never judge. Or go eat, say, oysters on the half shell with ice-cold beer.

Boyd was the best kind of magic. The kind you cannot dream up. It is bigger than you and startlingly unique.

<i>Once on This island</i>, 1994
Once on This island, 1994

Boyd and I were like les enfants terrible when we did A Christmas Carol at the Paramount. Worse than any of the other what seemed like millions of Cratchits and London street kids. Disruptive and having our own private party in the opening street scene, fighting over a rubber chicken. I don't know how (director) Alice (Wilson) put up with us. We called each other cousin after that.

Carol Horn

Actor, educator

I met Boyd touring with Zach's Project InterAct in the 1980s. Children's theatre is fun, but extremely challenging, as many Austinites who have worked with InterAct know. You load out, drive to an elementary school, set up, get into costume and make-up, and walk out of a pint-size restroom into a cafetorium full of hundreds of pint-size audience members who may have never experienced live theatre before. They are excited and restless and loud. You wonder how you are ever going to get this crowd under control and start the show.

Then Boyd Vance steps up to the plate as your emcee of the day, points to a kid in the audience, and begins his warm-up riff; it's like seeing Babe Ruth point to the outfield. There will be no bases untouched before Boyd is through. His head cocked, hand on his hip, a big grin followed by a maudlin frown, Boyd chatters away, questions, teases, mimics, and, yes, laughs that crazy, infectious laugh. A hundred eager faces are fixed upon his and laugh a shrill echo of his. They settle easier for the one small man with a silly-putty face than for dozens of teachers persistently "shhshing" them. His monologue includes a demonstration of appropriate theatre etiquette, slyly conducting a rehearsal of good listening skills while the kids just think that a one-man circus has come to school. The "warm-up" is more of a contagious boil, transforming the boisterous crowd into an intense but focused and manageable audience. And so Boyd would deliver novice theatre watchers to his fellow actors, primed and ready for action.

Years later, on stage at the chapel of Huston-Tillotson, I witness Boyd's charm and high energy at work again, on a group of Upward Bound high school students who have been a bit unruly and impolite with guest teachers. Boyd's intensity is no less, but his commitment to his mission of bringing arts to these kids reflects a maturity and strength that is a "role model" in action. He talks straight and looks kids in the eyes and levels with them about their behavior. He calls upon them to shred the stereotypes of the MTV world in order to break through the barriers they will face as young people of color, to open their minds to the opportunities being presented to them, to see that education and art and theatre are vehicles for them to express themselves, to be seen and heard and valued. He isn't angry or critical, intimidating or sarcastic, as so many adults can be with teenagers; he says, "I've been there, and I know. There is a way out and I am a walking example." They listen, they settle, they begin to approach the work of the camp with serious engagement.

Boyd no longer walks with us, but the commitment, the smile, the insistence, the laughter, the love of art and music and theatre and good stories, those memories will always be with us, and the spirit of Boyd Vance will always be an example, urging us to do more and to reach more people and, always, to laugh.

Lyn Koenning

Musical director, educator

In the production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone (at Zach), which Boyd directed and appeared in, there was a scene where people in a boarding house were eating breakfast family-style, with lots of conversation and food getting passed around the table. We had biscuits and gravy in the scene, and one night Boyd stuffed an entire biscuit in his mouth, chewing and swallowing it before his next line. Well, it got a sizable laugh from the audience, so every night afterward he would do the same thing. One of my nightly jobs was to prepare the food that was eaten onstage. We kept cans of cheap biscuits in the refrigerator at Zach to use, but one night we'd all eaten fried chicken from KFC and had some biscuits left, so I used those instead. When the time came, Boyd popped a whole biscuit in his mouth, but instead of the usual small, light-as-air one, he got a huge, dense, doughy one. You should have seen him, chewing and chewing, working on that biscuit, trying to get it down in time to deliver his next line! The audience was cracking up, and Boyd's eyes seemed about to pop as he tried to swallow that biscuit. When he could finally speak, he was laughing so hard he could hardly control himself.

Another memory of Boyd I treasure happened just a few months ago and comes out of our work performing at area elementary schools during African-American History Month. Boyd would sing, dance, and serve as host and emcee while I accompanied him at the piano and assisted him with our versions of Wheel of Fortune, Win, Lose or Draw, and the High-Low Game to help students learn facts and figures about notable African-Americans in the arts, sports, and science. The shows were very interactive, with many schoolchildren coming onstage to be contestants or participate in our dance contests. Our audiences were often 500-800 kids, and it was a challenge to maintain order and focus. Boyd was very good at controlling the large crowds, but sometimes I could sense some frustration and waning patience in him. One morning I found myself thinking, "I wonder why Boyd keeps doing these shows. He's got more than enough other stuff to keep him busy and fulfilled. And I know it's not easy to get up so early and muster up the incredible amount of energy it takes to do them."

Just about then, we came to the end of the show, my cue to start the song "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." We did it the same way every time. Boyd sang the first verse, then he'd have the entire assembly of children do some arm motions as they sang the chorus with him. As he moved into the bridge ("No wind, no rain, no winter snow, can stop me baby, if you are my goal"), Boyd would walk down the middle aisle, and as he sang, children would hold their hands out to him, wanting him to touch them. Looking at those little outstretched hands and seeing the love and admiration on their faces, it hit me: "That's why he keeps doing this. To touch all those hands and see all those faces and make a difference in all those lives!" The mental picture I took at that moment will stay with me forever as an inspiration to keep on going when my patience flags and my energy is low.

I feel very blessed to have had this one last February with Boyd. He made an enormous impact on my life. I miss him tremendously and will think of him often. end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle