The House That Don Built
South Austin may be a part of town where you can find certain things in profusion Tex-Mex restaurants, vintage clothing shops, hair salons but theatres ain't one of 'em. The Zachary Scott Theatre Center and the Dougherty Arts Center qualify, but they cling to the southern shores of Town Lake, almost as if they'd jump the water into downtown if they had the chance. A little deeper in, there's the Mary Moody Northen Theatre on the campus of St. Edward's University, but that's about it and about all there has been for many a season. South Austin just hasn't been fertile soil for local theatres the way downtown and the Eastside have.
All of which is to say that Don Toner was taking a chance when he moved his Austin Playhouse into the newly developed Penn Field business park at 3601 S. Congress. It was off the beaten track, all the more so given the way it was tucked into a back corner of the development. It was not the kind of place that potential audience members were just going to stumble upon.
But taking a page out of the Field of Dreams book, Toner picked up his hammer when he isn't directing, he's usually building something created a 170-seat theatre with a thrust stage, and trusted that his audience would come. And they did, just as they'd come before the company had its own theatre and was producing at Concordia College and at McCallum High School. "I had every right to be doubtful that we could do this," Toner says, "and I underestimated on the one hand the depth of feeling that a lot of people have for me and the work I've done in this town and on the other hand the strength of the team of artists who are still associated with me. I won't ever underestimate that again. I keep being reminded of that on a daily basis, in terms of people stepping up and doing wonderful work, people choosing to work at Austin Playhouse when they have other opportunities, and people helping fund what we do."
Now in his fourth season with Austin Playhouse at Penn Field, Toner is wishing he had designed the space with a little more seating. "We're full too often," he says. "You want to budget for a half a house and be able to survive on that. We're up to three-quarters to four-fifths on average."
Which is not to suggest that he's discontented. "I couldn't be happier with the outcome. I've never worked as hard as I have in the last five years. I've never seen so much accomplished in such a short time." Then, true to form, the artistic director-cum-carpenter adds, "And did I mention I'm building a house?"