Drive, He Said
In his company's 13th year, Jason Neulander shifts Salvage Vanguard Theater into overdrive
Here's the thing about Jason Neulander of Salvage Vanguard Theater: You don't have to pry the words out of him.
The 36-year-old Austinite, born in New Jersey and higherly educated at Brown University, is glad to talk about the group that's brought so many original, critically acclaimed shows to local stages and beyond. He's excited to tell you about SVT's successes and failures, its history and its future, and (perhaps especially) his own role as artistic director for the roughly dozen years the company's been in existence.
"Salvage Vanguard is at a bona fide turning point," says Neulander. He's a big guy, this intentional Texan: tall, sturdy, a sort of heroic action figure of the Prematurely Bald and Elegantly Bespectacled Fine Arts Entrepreneur variety.
"In a year," he says, "we're going to be a completely different organization." He gulps coffee, wipes his nascent mustache. "We're gonna be a lot bigger, the scale of the work is gonna be a lot bigger, our staff will be bigger, we we're just at this turning point. Especially if the New York deal we're trying to negotiate comes through. I can't tell you about it on the record, but it'll allow us to, well, it'll be transformative." He smiles almost slyly, guarding his secrets. "But, regardless of that, we're building our new facility on Manor Road. So Salvage Vanguard will finally have a home of its own. We'll have a 100-seat theatre, rehearsal space, artist studios, a costume shop, a scene shop, our offices; it's gonna be great! And we're gonna hire someone to run the programming for the facility, too, so the theatre space will be full six nights a week. Like Monday night might be improv night, and Tuesday night might be stand-up comedy night, and Wednesday might be slam poetry night, late nights on Fridays are gonna be a talk show, and ..."
But, hold on, P.T. Barnum, let's not get ahead of the action. Let's extend ourselves toward the future only after we've established a sufficient foundation in the past. Let's note that this whole endeavor began back in '93, after Neulander had learned about producing and directing as a student of Paula Vogel's, as part of Brown's "Production Workshop" theatre program. After, perhaps more importantly, he hooked up with playwright (and fellow student) David Bucci, and they decided, following graduation, to start a company together.
"Bucci and I were talking about how I really wanted to start a theatre company," recalls Neulander. "And the question became: Where should we start it? And my method of transportation at the time was a motorcycle, so one of my conditions was: It had to be somewhere warm. The other two criteria were that it had to be a young population, and it had to be a city without a major theatre company because we wanted to be a big fish in a small pond. And Austin, of the three biggest cities in the country, was the only city that met all three of those criteria."
So Neulander hopped on his hog and rode on down.
"I didn't know a single person in Austin," he recalls. "But Bucci came down a couple months later, and he knew some people. So we formed a sort of collective and none of them were theatre people, except for me and Bucci. And we tried to start the project. And the funny thing is, by the time we were ready to open our first show Bucci's Kid Carnivore five of the six people had left. And the three of us who were left and one of those was Chad Nichols, who still works with us we opened the show. And it was enough of a success. Which is to say: We got people to come out and didn't have to cancel any of the performances.
"And after we did our first show, I was like, 'Okay, now let's learn from what we did.' And we took six months to create a five-year plan, to recruit and develop the personnel of the company. And then we planned our first season, which started in November of '94. I think we did seven shows that year: four one-act plays and three full-length plays."
They ended that first year with a newly cast Kid Carnivore, which they toured along the West Coast, using a pickup truck borrowed from their new recruit and later assistant artistic director Molly Rice. "We convinced her that she should buy a cover for the back of truck so we could put everything in there," says Neulander. "And we ended up renting a Toyota Camry too. And we drove straight to Seattle which is a 48-hour, nonstop drive then went down the West Coast, to Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, and then back to Austin."
The tour wasn't a resounding success. The company had lost two things, one of which was a lot of sleep, and the other of which was a thousand dollars. The situation was pretty dismal, moralewise.
But Salvage Vanguard wasn't about monetary success, was it? SVT was more about being true to some rebel-theatre aesthetic that existed in the world, certainly, but especially in the minds of Neulander and Bucci. Right? "We came down here to try to fuck with theatre conventions as much as we can," Bucci told the Chronicle in 1996. But they were doing their fucking-with from a base that worked like an MBA's wet dream. Not that audiences seated in a grungy bar where they performed their plays needed to know this. Never mind that SVT had taken pains to create a five-year plan, or that Neulander really thought of working with new actors and crew as "personnel development" and that the minutes of their company meetings were textually recorded for posterity; pay no attention to the fundraising, networking businessman behind the artfully torn and safety-pinned curtain: This was punk rock, baybee.
In 1996, the year that Neulander spearheaded the four-day RAT (putatively, Regional Alternative Theatre) conference that brought fierce companies from across the world to Austin for an Erik Ehn-spired powwow and carouse, this two-faced gambit began to pay off.
"It always amazed me that these musicians would even do theatre," interjects Neulander. "You know? It was like the cool, hip rock musicians doing a sort of faggy, wimpy play."
In 1996, SVT began producing works by playwrights from beyond Austin, providing a home for up-and-coming talents and laying the groundwork for a network of national contacts that serves them well today. Still working from the meager space of the old Electric Lounge, they staged the first local production of work by Ruth Margraff: Wallpaper Psalm. They premiered Obie-winner David Hancock's The Invisible Medium, along with David Bucci's Stranger Desire and The Bad Cowboy by Molly Rice. They also inaugurated two very popular, ongoing series: The Intergalactic Nemesis, a live radio drama with tongue planted firmly in the sci-fi cheek, and The Best Salvage Vanguard Holiday Ever, an annual anthology that continues to pack locals into Little City Downtown each winter solstice.
The following year brought Margraff's Centaur Battle of San Jacinto, a surreal envisioning of Texas history, performed in the bar and lounge of Planet Theatre [now the Vortex], and original works by Julia Edwards and Karen Cronacher. This was the year that actor and playwright Dan Dietz joined the company, playing Santa Anna in San Jacinto and winning a B. Iden Payne award for his first time on the local stage.
Then, 1998 revealed Adam Sobsey's When You Know What It Is You're Doing and Thalia Field's Hey, Stop That. A few of these performances were sold out; SVT racked up more points with local critics. Behind the scenes, the sowing of applications had led to the reaping of bigger and bigger grants. There was reason for pride, for rejoicing. Then the company set about mounting David Bucci's newest work, a rock & roll apocalypse called Altamont Now.
And that's when the shit hit the fan.
"Bucci's whole aesthetic was that theatre should be jagged around the edges," says Neulander. "Intentionally jagged. But I felt that the company had gotten stuck in a place where we were jagged around the edges because we couldn't do any better. And I'd reached a point where I wanted my work to be better than that, which meant really polishing it. And when we did Altamont Now together, that was where the friction became it really became frictive. By the end of the process, Bucci and I were barely talking to one another."
Other difficulties arose. Bucci left town about a year later. And Neulander was pretty dismal, moralewise.
"I'd hit a point where I felt the company was suffocating me," he says. "I didn't believe in our mission statement anymore, and I was really unhappy. And I ended up having a nervous breakdown. In fact, the day that I had my breakdown was the day that I met Lee Eddy. She was doing a report on SVT for a class at St. Ed's, and she came in to interview me. But somebody was supposed to start as a development director with us that day, and they'd come in that morning to tell me that they weren't going to take the job. And I was freaking out. And Lee came in to do her interview, and I was like, 'Dude, I'm completely freaking out over here.' And by that afternoon, I was thinking I was gonna shut the doors of the company. Because, for about a year and a half, we'd been existing with me as the only paid staff person and a big volunteer staff. And I was trying it collectively, and I realized it wasn't working. I was doing all the work, I needed to make the decisions. You know? And basically what I said to everybody was: 'It's my show. You're either on the bus, or you're off the bus. No hard feelings, I won't hold it personally against you.'
"And some people left, and some people stayed. And we shut our doors for about three months, for me to completely reinvent the company. And when we came back, we produced Dan Dietz's Dirigible. And that says it all right there.
"We had been here." Neulander holds one hand near the floor. "And, suddenly, BOOM!" His hand shoots to shoulder-height. "With Dirigible, we set the high-water mark for what a small theatre company in Austin could be capable of." Yes, this was after Physical Plant Theater had already produced The Whimsy, and Rude Mechanicals had staged Lust Supper and Salivation, and Frontera had brought us David Hancock's Race of the Ark Tattoo, but Neulander isn't about understatement.
"Since then the company's gone through a lot of changes," he continues, "but they all stemmed from that period of re-examining: Who's the kind of person I want to collaborate with, what's the kind of work I want to be doing, what is the ultimate goal, and what's it gonna take to reach it? And deciding that we were going to pay the artists, the resident company, more money. That we would work toward better development of the work, that the quality was gonna be higher.
"And we did, and it was better."
Not that there weren't a few missteps and overreachings one might call the Columbine-inspired American Demons a debacle and get little argument but, yes, it was better. The revival of Margraff's Wallpaper Psalm was a magnificent achievement in 2001, also the year in which Dan Dietz's Tilt Angel garnered three Austin Critics Table awards. The next year saw Hyde Park Theatre's interior covered knee-deep with 13 tons of railroad gravel for Caridad Svich's Fugitive Pieces and Graham Reynolds and Karen Hartman create the original opera MotherBone for SVT. Dietz's tempOdyssey drew huge audiences and critical raves in 2003. These shows and what followed gave evidence of greater care and artistry, the outer aesthetic body of SVT starting to match its impressive business-savvy guts.
"A lot of this was due to Dan," says Neulander. "We needed somebody with discipline and focus. We were going from rough around the edges to more polished work and Dan brought the polish.
"And then we did Colin Swanson's Death of a Cat. And I was like, 'Alright, it's time to take our work outside of Austin.' Because we'd hit a place where I could safely say that SVT's work is as good as anybody's work anywhere. And I started working toward finding an agent so we could start touring and have a New York production of Intergalactic Nemesis in some form. And that's one goal for the next five years: taking some of our best work to New York. Because we've helped launch some careers, and now it's time to take the artists to the next level, and the way to do that is to get their work out there."
One of the things that might ease the way to this "next level" is the company's change of slogan. Which had been, from the start, the belligerent "I Hate Theatre." But is now the more innocuous "Prepare for Impact," chosen from among submissions to a much-ballyhooed New Slogan Contest and revealed during a fundraiser at the mayor's house.
At the mayor's house. A self-proclaimed rebel theatre at the mayor's house? That must've taken a lot of polish.
"That has to do with our outreach program," says Neulander, laughing. "Which is an outreach to rich people. We've got East Austin and poor people in spades that's not where we need to outreach to. I still think 'I Hate Theatre' was the best marketing idea we could've come up with at the time, and I have no regrets about it. But you know what the nail in the coffin was? It was when Barry Pineo wrote a review of tempOdyssey, and he'd clearly waited five years to tear me a new asshole for saying 'I Hate Theatre.' And I thought, 'I'm tired of being pilloried for this. I'm just not interested in continuing to be this public, you know, stone-throwing object.' So that was it, enough's enough. It felt old-school, anyway. It had become gimmicky; it was time to move on."
Forward, you might say, into the past. The last full-length show SVT did was in November of last year: Dan Dietz's Americamisfit, a brilliant rockabilly exploration of where revolutions, especially American ones, come from. Currently running is the world premiere of Ryan Pavelchik's edgy Static, starring SVT acting savant Brent Werzner. And, coming up later this year, a first for Salvage Vanguard: the staging of an actual theatre classic: Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, featuring Lee Eddy as Mother Courage. And, of course, the new facility on Manor; the national tour by airplane instead of truck & Toyota, this time, and with profits instead of losses of Intergalactic Nemesis; the clandestine, off-the-record, Neulander's-got-his-fingers-crossed New York deal; the original work commissioned from Ruth Margraff for 2007; the continued sponsorship of the Dionysium, Spank Dance Company, Golden Hornet Project, and others; and only the motorcycle-riding artistic director action figure, who just stepped down from a two-year stint on Austin's Arts Commission, knows what else.
Mayor's house. Classic dramas. Arts Commission. This is all quite a ways down the road from the grungy bar and borrowed truck and "I Hate Theater" fucking-with of Salvage Vanguard Theater: The Early Years. But Neulander's cohering mix of business acumen and artistic daring has always been driving the company forward. Now, it's just with fewer safety pins and more cuff links, you might say.
The situation is not at all dismal, moralewise.
"Yeah," says Neulander, "Salvage Vanguard is at a bona fide turning point. What we're gonna do, it's going to be completely different than anything anybody's done in Austin." He smiles, nodding, sunlight glaring off the lenses of his stylish specs as if it were an effect designed by Jason Amato.
"We're going to take those rock-club roots that we started with," he promises, "and apply them to the performing arts."
Static runs through May 6, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, Saturday, 5pm, at the Woodward Inn, 3401 S. I-35. For more information, visit www.salvagevanguard.org
.for the Chronicle's Guide to Rebel Theatre in 1998