Dan Dietz: The exit interview

As local playwright Dan Dietz prepares to leave Austin for a teaching gig at Florida State, he talks about his experience here and what he sees happening down the road

Photo courtesy of the Dirigo Group
Photo courtesy of the Dirigo Group

One of Austin's most celebrated playwrights, Dan Dietz is leaving soon to go teach playwriting at Florida State University. Dietz originally came to the capital city 12 years ago to pursue an advanced degree in theatre history/criticism at UT, but he soon discovered that he'd rather make art than write about its making. So he switched majors, got himself a prestigious Michener Fellowship, and never looked back. Known in Austin for his close relationship with Salvage Vanguard Theater and as the former director of Austin Script Works, Dietz has had work commissioned by the Guthrie Theater and Actors Theatre of Louisville and was the recipient of ATL's Heidemann Award for "Trash Anthem," which can be seen currently at Hyde Park Theatre in an evening of short works by Dietz titled Trash Anthems. We asked him about his experience in Austin, as well as what he sees happening down the road.

Austin Chronicle: Tell me about your perception of the growth and changes in Austin theatre from the time you arrived until now.

Dan Dietz: Wow. Well, it's been huge. When I first got involved with the community, besides the established theatres like Zach and the State, there were these tiny little pockets of people trying to make things work. Physical Plant with Katie Pearl and Steve [Moore] and Carlos [Treviño], who were coming up with these amazing little shows that would just pop up and vanish. And Salvage Vanguard and the Rudes, who were just starting out, with the Rudes at the time saying, "What if we could meld classical theatre training with an experimental bent?" And Salvage saying, "What if we could take an indie rock, punk rock aesthetic and mix that up with theatre? What would that be?" In this weird way, I don't think anybody really expected the companies to survive. Either we would all get tired of what we were doing or get tired of each other. And somehow, even though some people have moved on and the companies' identities have definitely changed, the whole warehouse theatre scene, the small, experimental theatre community, has totally flowered here. It doesn't seem like the warehouse theatre scene is in any danger of going anywhere.

AC: You've been with Salvage Vanguard practically since it started.

DD: Mostly, yeah. It's been a really crazy ride. We've gone from punk rock theatre to sort of coldly experimental work sometimes to this desire to reach out and connect with an audience through new work, whether that work is deeply experimental or mildly experimental. And I can certainly see us doing work that is in no way experimental. That's what's so interesting. I think we're developing and growing and changing as artists.

AC: I know where you're going. But where do you think Austin theatre's going?

DD: My real hope for Austin theatre at this point is to have more Equity houses, whether that's a matter of more companies being able to afford Equity actors or whether somebody gets together a bunch of money and opens another regional theatre. I think we could use ways to provide artists with enough money to live. I look at a town like Minneapolis – you can make a living as an actor in Minneapolis. They have a huge number of theatres that manage to be Equity houses without watering down the material. That's what I would love to have happen here. Because our artists deserve it. We've got some phenomenally talented actors here, people who just really deserve that level of support.

AC: Do you think you helped put Austin theatre on the map?

DD: Oh, I wouldn't say that. No. No.

AC: Come on now.

DD: I think I've been fortunate.

AC: Austin theatre was not nationally recognized 12 years ago the way it is now. I'm telling you that for sure, because I've been here for 21 years.

DD: I think that I've been lucky enough to be part of a surge, along with writers like John Walch and Lisa D'Amour and Kirk [Lynn] and the Rudes and everybody else, and Jason [Neulander] and people who have managed to get out there and build professional careers that have drawn national attention. To me, it's less about individuals and more about this surge of energy that we all had in the mid- to late Nineties and pushing through into the Aughts where we were able, through a combination of good luck and relentless and energetic pursuit, to make work that has captured the imaginations of people who don't live here. And that's brought attention back in. To me, it's definitely a group thing. It feels more like a big wave than any one person.

AC: Do you think it's going to keep going?

DD: I do. I don't see any lack of it. And as Austin theatre gets more and more national recognition, [I hope] there will be more and more funding available to support the artists in return. It would be great to have a community of professional artists who do this full-time and who can give that to the community. That's my dream for this place. I hope it becomes a reality.

Trash Anthems, an evening of short works by Dan Dietz, runs through May 26, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd. For more information, call 479-PLAY.

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Dan Dietz, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Rude Mechanicals, Trash Anthem, Physical Plant, Jason Neulander

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