Hustle and Show
City Theatre Company's first year is a lesson in building a new stage and mounting a season at breakneck speed
Some theatre companies plan for years to take over their own theatre spaces. They plan; they raise funds; they research. They take months and months to build.
The City Theatre Company did it in about five weeks.
Austin's newest resident theatre company opened the doors of its performance space last October as it simultaneously launched its first production, the local premiere of Frozen, by Bryony Lavery. Since then, City Theatre has mounted a full season of eight productions and initiated a summer theatre camp for fifth- through ninth-graders while also offering a new and much-needed rental space to other local companies that don't have their own venues or are in need of another stage.
Andy Berkovsky, the City Theatre Company's artistic director, says his group's success in getting the company on its feet so quickly boils down to "luck, perseverance, hard work."
Berkovsky arrived in Austin from Bay City in June 2006 after leaving his position as a high school drama teacher. He brought with him to Austin his former student Travis Tinnin, who left his undergraduate work in drama at New York University to serve as the City Theatre's production manager.
Together, the pair planned, researched, and scouted several locations.
"You do your best to look at what's going on, what's succeeded so far, and you hope for the best," says Tinnin.
"Then it was, 'Let's try it,'" says Berkovsky. "'Let's do it. We're ready for the Austin scene; let's see if they're ready for us.' My experience running a high school theatre department was a big help going in."
Stacey Glazer joined the pair after Berkovsky saw her at a combined audition and decided to both cast and hire her. Glazer, who came to Austin from West Palm Beach, Fla., for a summer-stock performance, now assists with publicity and administration. She plans to direct in the fall as well.
"I'm glad I stayed," she says. "I like New York, but there are so many actors that it's already saturated. Here, I feel like I'm on a little more level playing field. Here I stand out."
The City Theatre has taken up residence in a small strip mall on Airport at 38 Street. The outer lobby showcases work by local visual artists. Farther inside is a second lobby, which is open to the 85-seat proscenium space.
Says Berkovsky, "I basically did the design of the space with our crew working around the clock to get everything in place, including our first show, Frozen, which was just weeks away. We had five weeks, and it was nonstop during that time."
"This is one driven man," Glazer adds.
The proscenium-style space was an important factor. "Having researched the other theatre venues in town, we knew that we wanted to do a more traditional proscenium stage," explains Berkovsky. "So our work was cut out for us in building over 40 risers, hanging curtains and lights, building a light and sound booth, and painting for days."
"Then it was just a lot of trips to Home Depot," says Tinnin.
"There is still some work to be done, but we are very happy with how it turned out," Berkovsky says.
To any other artists considering taking the quick leap into owning a space, he says, "Research, research, research. Get to know your community, consider all your options like location and size, and dream big but not too big. Know what your strengths and limitations are, and build upon that."
The three City Theatre leaders now share the bulk of the duties of directing, performing, administrating, and taking care of everything else that arises with the company. They name as a high point of the company's debut season their first sold-out production with the closing night of Parallel Lives earlier this month.
Berkovsky says the show's popularity with audiences exceeded their expectations. "A young woman who was expecting went into labor during intermission of Parallel Lives on Sunday," he says. "She was enjoying the show so much that she stayed to see act two because she didn't want to miss the second half." (The woman later delivered at a hospital, not the outer lobby.)
Glazer says the production also showed that the company can attract audiences that aren't limited to the friends and family of the performers. "In the past," she says, "it's always been, 'Oh, I'm friends with so-and-so.' But with this show, it was the first time I heard, 'Oh, I heard about it in the Chronicle. I read about it on Craigslist.'"
"We're very happy with what we've done with each show," Berkovsky says. "It's been building."
The season has had its challenges and low points as well. Not all shows enjoyed the same high attendance as Parallel Lives. Technical problems have come up, as when a breaker failed during a recent performance of the company's current production, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, leaving half the stage in the dark. The actors continued, mostly unfazed. And the 2006-'07 season roster changed in midstream more than once. Potential legal problems with the notoriously vigilant Samuel Beckett estate led the group to cancel its planned production of Waiting for Godot using female actors. The company backed off a scheduled summer production of Alice in Wonderland for young audiences and also postponed the premiere of Assisted Living, a play written by Tinnin.
"It's not the first draft, but it wasn't the last draft, either," Tinnin notes.
Plans for next season include modern and contemporary classic plays. Glazer directs her first City production this fall with The Laramie Project, a widely produced play about Matthew Shepard's 1998 murder by fellow college students because he was openly gay. She also hopes to stage a play during Holocaust Week that focuses on the issues that surround that observance. Her artistic interests, she says, also include real community involvement. "I hope Laramie Project can be something bigger than just getting up and doing a play," she says.
Berkovsky says the three leaders are looking to fill what he sees as a void in Austin theatre: the plays that fall between the innovative, experimental premieres and the classics from high school lit class. "Your 95-year-old grandma is probably not going to want to go see some bizarre experimental show. There's that whole audience that's just missing out."
Tinnin says there's room for a variety of work on the City Theatre stage. "We want to do shows that, number one, the audience wants to see; number two, that actors want to do; and number three, that we're passionate about."
Overall, the goal for the three company leaders is to stay as busy as possible. "We're about running a business as well as a company," says Berkovsky. "We don't want hardly ever a dark night here."
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs through Aug. 5, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 2:30pm, at City Theatre, 3823 Airport Ste. D. For more information, call 524-2870 or visit www.citytheatreaustin.org.