An 'Our Town' for Our Town
With 100 Austin stories, Zach builds a city on a stage
By Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 30, 2005
The thing about that play by Thornton Wilder you know the one, the one done so often all across this land that we've all but adopted it as our National Drama is that, as the title says, it's about a town. Not to slight young Emily and George or that wondrously wise Stage Manager or the genius of the play's simple theatricality or any of the other fine qualities that have drawn us back to it time and again, season upon season, generation upon generation, for two-thirds of a century. But there is something remarkable in its portrait of a municipality, in the way it depicts not only individual lives and struggles but how people living together share those struggles with one another, how they celebrate and grieve and give comfort in a larger context: as neighbors and citizens, how they bond into a greater whole, how they commune.
Being part of a community is a huge part of the way we live, each and every one of us, and yet we don't see it portrayed much in our national theatre. Plays in this country tend to focus on smaller units couples, circles of friends, and that staple of American drama, the family examining life on a personal scale. We have relatively few that have pulled back for that bigger picture, allowing us to make out more than single homes, to see neighborhoods and commercial districts and the thoroughfares that wind between them, the local landmarks and the lay of the land and the customs and history and civic pride that suffuse them all. No doubt it's a helluva challenge fitting all that on a stage, finding that scope, gathering all those perspectives and backstories and idiosyncratic details that feed a tale of one city. But as the example provided by Mr. Wilder has shown us, it can be so valuable, holding that mirror up to us as a group, telling us something about who we are as a people, together, bound in geography, time, and tradition.
This week, the American theatre is enriched by one more play that attempts a portrait of a community and in this case lucky us! it is of our town. Keepin' It Weird is the end result of two years that Dave Steakley, artistic director of the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, has spent collecting the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of a range of Austinites in regard to this city they call home. He's distilled some 200 interviews into a theatrical mosaic of Austin composed of the recollections, observations, and opinions of 60 present-day individuals (with a few historical figures tossed in for good measure). What they have to say and to show us goes beyond the rampant eccentricities and do-your-own-thing ethic that the show's title suggests (although the show abounds in that, to be sure). It finds some of the common ground we often-off-center individualists stand on: our willingness to let everyone be himself or herself, however that is expressed; our passionate connection to nature and music; our contradictory desires for things to change and stay the same; our ability to nudge society forward on political and social issues, although, sadly, not on matters of race; and, not least, our abiding affection for and faith in the city itself. That's not necessarily the Austin that Dave Steakley expected when he embarked on this project many months ago, but hey, this city is nothing if not home to surprises, strange tangents, unexpected detours, and the occasional cosmic joke.
No offense to the city's lifers, who are a special breed, but Austin is a place that most folks discover, as in hit the city limits for the first time and find something that makes them go, "Wow, so this is Austin!" There's a long tradition of people arriving here and having their minds blown. Steakley himself got a blast of it when he arrived as an 8-year-old in 1971. Here for the first time to visit his older sister Ginger, he got not only an eyeful from the hippie Drag vendors, but a faceful of tear gas that floated over to Guadalupe from an on-campus demonstration which jump-started the young Steakley's political consciousness and led to his signing his first protest petition. He came back many times during the next decade, and as he would shop with Ginger by campus (Inner Sanctum Records, the Cadeau, the Magic Mushroom) and see live music (Zappa at the Armadillo!), it became clear to him that this place did not operate like the little Grandview, where he lived with his grandparents. "The thing about Austin is the rules for how you lived were different," he says. "And it didn't solely have to do with my sister being more lax about certain things than my grandparents. It was more the culture they were in here and responding to that. I was really aware of the freedom. But you didn't necessarily have to lose your moral center to engage in that freedom. I think it's what Brewster McCracken says at the beginning [of Keepin' It Weird], about caring about something other than yourself, that Austin was always about that."
As Steakley began to investigate Austinites' stories, this experience of discovering the city developed into a refrain sung over and over again, especially by Texans who, like Steakley, grew up in another part of the state where strict social codes and narrow minds made them feel like they didn't belong. "A lot of people in these interviews talked about it," says the director, how "all the misfits or all the queers or anybody who just didn't fit in gravitated here." Some call the feeling they found here freedom, some call it tolerance; whatever the word, the city allowed them to be who they were ... and still belong.
Of course, with all those misfits gathering here, it was only a matter of time before the city developed a reputation for high weirdness. A few years ago, that became something of a selling point for the city, and the powers that be in the public and private sectors began to tap what had been an underground phrase coined to stave off the homogenization/commodification/Houstonization of Austin's free spirit and unconventional creativity. "Weird" became marketable, and that gave Steakley, who had been wanting to create an original theatre piece about the city, something to hang it on.
"'Keep Austin Weird' went from just being bumper stickers to a small-business initiative to City Council creating a white paper," Steakley recalls. "So now this subversive thing was going to get a stamp of economic development on it, and that seemed odd to me odd and great, that that was seen as a vital part of Austin to maintain. Then I was on a plane to New York, and I had taken my newspapers with me, and I opened up the Statesman and on the front page was that Bob Cole was going to save the Tavern and reopen it because that's keeping Austin weird. And I don't know why that was the thing that broke the camel's back for me, but it was. Because I thought, the Tavern is a great and revered tradition, but it's not weird. And the quotes in the article bugged me because it felt like the ultimate coopting of an opportunity. ['Weird'] was such the 2000 buzzword. Then it was like, okay, this is it, this is the thing we need to pursue, because now this thing has become something else, this thing that was meant to be so genuine has become disingenuous in some way. And there are too many people here committed to the genuine notion of what that is."
So Steakley set out in search of weird Austin. He e-mailed people he knew and asked them for the names of people they considered to be weird in some way, say, someone with eccentric yard art or an odd hobby. As he began to meet and talk to some of these people, they would mention other people who seemed to fit the "weird" profile and he would add their names to the list of interviewees. And so the circle of interviewees began to spread outward, like a pool of water across a floor, in every direction at once. Some of those directions included people who weren't themselves weird per se but who had some experience with weirdness or a perspective on Austin that seemed valuable to include.
Eventually, the project encompassed a broader, more comprehensive look at the subject not merely who's weird, but how people feel about the word "weird," what it means to them, and how they think it applies (or doesn't) to the city. Despite Steakley's strong feelings about the coopting of that word, he pursued the project without an agenda. He wanted to explore attitudes on all sides of the situation, to make room for enough responses to reflect the feelings of the entire city.
In reaching out to all corners of the city for this project, Steakley almost got more than he bargained for. Everyone he contacted had a suggestion for him, someone they knew he should talk to, and that person knew another person and that person another and on and on. It was as if he was on the end of a chain to which links were constantly being added. It's part of the way Austin works, one of those truths of our civic identity that Steakley saw reinforced in interview after interview: We're all about connections, making them and sharing them. Steakley is reminded of Beth Thom, an artist who lives by MoPac and who painted dots all over her lawn as a way of making her home a work of art. "She and her husband could have opted to do a privacy fence just like all the other Bryker Woods neighbors," he notes, "but instead they remodeled their home to embrace the traffic, because she saw all those people there, and if she was going to make the house her art, she wanted to connect to them." On the flip side of that is Vince Hanneman, who created the Cathedral of Junk in South Austin to separate himself from other people. "Instead, because it's Austin, it invited people in," says Steakley. "Those displays don't repulse, they invite." Folks see something cool, and they want to connect to it. And they connect to the people connecting to it, and before long, you have an Austin tradition. You'll find that impulse at the heart of many a local institution referred to in Keepin' It Weird, from the 37th Street Christmas lights to Spamarama to ice cream at Amy's to Joel Muñoz's goats. Steakley adds, "It's like twirling under the Christmas tree at Zilker: The experience of being an Austinite is participatory. It's not one that necessarily asks for permission. You just engage it."
But even in free-spirited Austin, not everyone is always engaged. As Steakley talked to more and more people in different parts of the city, he began to learn that not everyone had the same concept of "weird" as the folks in the central city. On the Eastside, for instance, there was a distinct lack of awareness as to what "Keep Austin Weird" was. "Universally, once conversations moved to that side of I-35, people didn't know what that meant. They don't consider Austin weird. They just want it to be a nice place where they raise their family. And it would always involve them asking questions back: 'Is that about the Armadillo? Is that what they mean by that?'"
It was yet another indicator of the racial divide that Austin can't seem to come to grips with, and once it came into the process, Steakley felt an obligation to pursue it as part of the play. In fact, it became a big part of the play. "A week before we started rehearsals," he says, "the script was about 500 pages long. And about 200 pages of that had to do with the race situation here in Austin. And it became clear that that's another play. At the same time, what wasn't another play was the way the word 'weird' was manifesting in different communities and different neighborhoods and the [different] ways that people perceived what 'Keep Austin Weird' means. As Beatrice says in the beginning [of the play], finding I-35 as the dividing point, coming from Dallas, felt very weird for her.
"One of my collaborators on the production team was adamant that I leave all that out, that that's not what this piece was about, that this was a celebration of all those things that people see as being part of weird Austin. But I feel like a true celebration of the notion of Austin weirdness is really incomplete and false without the acknowledgment of the [different] ways that weird manifests in our community. That boosterism is really shallow without an acknowledgment of the total community experience that has to do with this identity of 'weird.'
"I just felt like if that aspect of this journey that I've been on for two years, if I left that out, that I wasn't being honest to what I heard and what I experienced so strongly. For me, without the full experience of the good and bad, we can't truly appreciate why Austin is special. We have to understand the defects in the gem to appreciate its beauty."
So after all those words and all this time, here our city is on the stage, the Violet Crown studded with all its gems and all their respective flaws, independence and irreverence and ignorance, tolerance and intolerance. Is the portrait too weird? Not weird enough? That's in the eye of the beholder. The point is, it's been painted. We have something to look at, some way of seeing ourselves, of understanding what it means to be a part of this community on the Colorado at the dawn of the 21st century. I suspect Mr. Wilder would approve.
Keepin' It Weird runs through Nov. 13, Thursday-Saturday, 7:30pm, Sunday, 2:30pm, at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, 1421 E. Riverside. For more information, call 471-0541 or visit www.zachscott.com.