A Stage of Their Own
TexARTS has yet to find its audience in Austin, but outside it is another story
If things had gone according to plan, this holiday season would have seen a spectacular staging of A Christmas Carol – a local version of the same extravagant musical that was a yuletide tradition at Madison Square Garden – spreading seasonal cheer from the Paramount Theatre stage. Things didn't, so it won't.
Mostly, what didn't go as planned was a late-winter production of Damn Yankees, which was supposed to make hundreds of new fans for producing company TexARTS and help solidify its audience base for mounting old-school musical theatre at the Paramount, a dream that it had been pursuing for two years. (Full disclosure: I had a featured role in that production.) Turnout for the show was disappointing, though, and the subsequent financial losses – it was not a break-even situation, reports TexARTS co-founder and Executive Director Todd Dellinger – left the company without the resources to mount another expensive show at the venerable vaudeville house. So no singing Scrooge there this December. In fact, in July, the TexARTS board voted to hold off on any future musical productions at the Paramount for a year.
You might be tempted to write off the 3-year-old organization as another ambitious artistic failure in our town, but before you do, consider what's going on with TexARTS beyond the Austin city limits. In January, the company secured its own 6,000-square-foot space in Lakeway, in which it has constructed two studios for dance, one studio for voice, and one 50-foot-by-50-foot room that serves as a dance studio, rehearsal hall, and 99-seat black-box theatre. This summer, a performing-arts academy production of Cats in the space had to add extra performances due to popular demand, and enrollment for the academy has quintupled over the past four months. TexARTS has formed both a ballet company for youth and a Shakespeare troupe for teens and this fall is embarking on an eight-month development process for On Common Ground, a new musical by Broadway-bound composer David Austin (Writing Arthur), with the aim of presenting the work's world premiere next spring. And this week, TexARTS opens its first professional production in its own space, the start of an ongoing off-Broadway series, as the company is calling it, that will include at least three productions this season. There may be a word to describe what's going on with this ambitious young company, but "failure" ain't it. TexARTS is finding its audience, just not quite where it expected at this point.
Don't misunderstand; the idea was always to establish a strong presence in what Dellinger has dubbed the Capital Lakes region. Lakeway is the community in which Dellinger and his partner, choreographer Robin Lewis, established their company, and from the get-go, they have been working toward the creation of a full-blown center for the performing and visual arts in the area. (See "But You Can Win Her Yet," June 23, 2006.) But producing those classic musicals in Austin was integral to the TexARTS vision as a way to keep alive the tradition of the American musical theatre and give their academy students an outlet for their newly developed skills, yes, but also to increase TexARTS' visibility in the region and develop that audience base that would provide crucial financial support for all its projects.
Given the tremendous resources required to mount musicals in the grand style, this constituted the biggest challenge – and greatest risk – to TexARTS' survival. That's why Lewis and Dellinger plotted these shows with care, applying all the professional savvy they'd acquired during their years in the New York performing-arts scene. And after each production, they looked at what worked and what didn't and adjusted their plans accordingly. (See "Brass Ring Lessons," June 22, 2007.) Despite their diligence, however, TexARTS was not able to attract the legions that Austin Musical Theatre had with a similar slate of productions at the Paramount in the late Nineties.
Just why that was is an open question. Was insufficient marketing to blame? Or the abbreviated runs (never more than three nights per show) that left no time for word of mouth to spread? Poor media coverage? Residual resentment from the way AMT flamed out in 2003? Or had Austin simply moved on from its love affair with lavishly staged classic musicals? One thing that Dellinger and Lewis were certain about: After four underperforming productions that drained the company's coffers and their own bank accounts, TexARTS could not afford to go forward as it had. Producing at the Paramount wasn't getting any less expensive, and as he was crunching the numbers for A Christmas Carol, Dellinger realized he would need to raise $100,000 by Oct. 31 to be able to go into production on Carol. And even if he could raise it, TexARTS still faced the risk of the show not doing enough business to cover its costs. And, Dellinger says, "There were no more fallbacks in the event of another significant loss."
Meanwhile, the new facility was consuming more of the company's attention. Once the original transformation of the bare strip-center space into the Keller Williams Studios was complete – a chore that involved buckets of sweat equity from Dellinger and Lewis – TexARTS began to see a surge in academy enrollments like nothing the company had seen before or was anticipating. "We went from a base of 70 consistent students representing 100 enrollments to 370 students representing 480 enrollments over a four-month period," says Dellinger. "It just exploded. It broadsided us." He had projected the facility to operate at 20% of capacity during the first year. By the time September hit, it was running at 70%. "It's wonderful and rewarding," Dellinger says, "but it threw us for a loop." The additional students necessitated more staff, from instructors to receptionists to aides that could escort the littlest students from the studio to the restroom when nature calls. The studio's lone office, which comfortably held three people in the spring, now has to house seven staffers plus a few volunteers. "We're pushed to our limits already," says Dellinger.
With so much happening with TexARTS' activities in Lakeway and so little to show for the company's efforts in Austin, stepping away from the productions at the Paramount was the most rational move. "We have been through so many cycles of just barely making it through," says Dellinger, "and while everyone regretted that we had to come to that decision, from a financial perspective it made sense. And it made sense moving into a new facility and seeing how that all operates and dealing with a whole new slate of programming. We became a brand-new business overnight."
It was also a decision that finally afforded TexARTS' founders their first real measure of relief since launching this enterprise three years ago. "There was no relief in letting go of something that was very dear to us," says Dellinger, "but there was a great sense of relief financially and [from] the emotional pressure of making it through another monster production. Personally, we needed to breathe, and that afforded us the opportunity to step back and take a breath."
Of course, "take a breath" is a relative term for the TexARTS guys. Lewis is one of the busiest choreographers in the city, having created dances for TexARTS' Damn Yankees, Mary Moody Northen Theatre's On the Town, and Summer Stock Austin's Oklahoma! this year alone, while also directing the TexARTS academy production of Cats and teaching dance as an adjunct faculty member at St. Edward's University and in the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance. Dellinger is directing the production of Always ... Patsy Cline that kicks off the off-Broadway series in the Kam & James Morris Theater this weekend and is leading the new Great Shakes troupe focusing on Shakespeare with teen performers. That troupe's upcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing, also directed by Dellinger, along with Always ... Patsy Cline and the world premiere of On Common Ground are evidence that these gentlemen would have had plenty to juggle without having the all-singing, all-dancing A Christmas Carol in the mix.
But guess what? Scrooge will be belting out his season's greetings to an Alan Menken tune this season after all, only in the cozy confines of the Morris Theater instead of the comparatively spacious Paramount. The same version of A Christmas Carol will fill the second slot in the off-Broadway series, with Lewis directing and scaling back the spectacle in favor of a more theatrical approach better suited to the intimate venue. Working small is something that Dellinger and Lewis always knew they would have to do in Lakeway. They just figured they would be balancing it with more large-scale work at the Paramount.
And actually, the two haven't abandoned the dream of working big. "Our hope is that we'll be able to get this institution functioning and get the academy very solid and begin the work of building up the support needed to be able to produce at that level again," says Dellinger. Now, it may not be in Austin, he adds. Dellinger likes the idea of a summer series of musicals produced outdoors under a tent, in the style of the circus big top. He and Lewis met working for such a series in Sacramento some years ago, and they found the old-fashioned approach not only well-suited to the classic musicals they were interested in producing but a hit with audiences, as well. And even though summer in Texas is not summer in Sacramento, advances in tent technology have made it possible for up to 1,000 people to be seated inside a tent in air-conditioned comfort. Dellinger says they're just toying with the idea now, but "the city of Lakeway is very interested in the concept."
And Lakeway's interest – make that the interest of the entire Capital Lakes region – will have a distinct bearing on TexARTS' future. Lewis and Dellinger saw definite support for their performing-arts academy from the beginning, but it was coming from a relatively small portion of the community. It was only with this summer's sold-out production of Cats that Dellinger felt the broader community taking notice. "The fact that we had to add performances – and this wasn't just families, it was lake region folks that came out – Cats gave us the feeling, truly for the first time, that, yes, they do want this out there. They want us to be doing what we're doing. There is an audience."
But it's one that will require cultivation. "The infrastructure of support isn't the same as in Austin: financial support, institutional support, government support," says Dellinger. He will need to raise $300,000 for TexARTS this year – not a large sum in comparison with what other organizations have to raise, he admits, but, he wonders, is raising $300,000 in Lakeway comparable to raising $3 million in town? "We're not sure yet," he says, "and that will prove out over the course of this year. But I see the growth around me, and I see the people around me, and I see the response from the parents, and I think, 'There's enough to form a base from which to expand and realize these broader goals.' How long that will take, I'm not sure. It's a process."
Always ... Patsy Cline runs Sept. 26-Oct. 12, Thursday-Friday, 7:30pm; Saturday, 2 & 7:30pm; Sunday, 2 & 7pm; at the Kam & James Morris Theater, 2300 Lohmans Spur. For more information, call 852-9079 or visit www.tex-arts.org.