The First Time

Austin artists reveal the intimate details of how they got their muse on

Everyone remembers their first time, right? How old you were, where you were, who you were with, and, most importantly, how after that encounter, everything changed. You were different. The world was different. Your place in the world was different.

With me, it happened at the age of 21, during my senior year at the University of Texas. I was taking a class in American studies, and my teacher, David Gaines, introduced me to her: Pauline Kael. It was through her book Reeling, a collection of film reviews she wrote for The New Yorker from 1972 to 1975, that I grasped a new idea of what criticism could be. Her reviews were brainy but fun, sometimes brutal and sometimes rhapsodic (and which pictures she loathed and which she loved was often surprising), with descriptions so vivid that it was as though her words flicked on a projector in your head. But most significantly, these reviews were personal and passionate. Films got under Kael's skin, and she repaid the favor by getting under theirs, scratching away at their shiny celluloid surface until she struck meaning. She could mine insights from even the frothiest, most formulaic Tinseltown product and connect what was happening inside the darkened cinema to the bright and bustling world outside, to the week's events and the moods of her fellow citizens. I wasn't yet a working critic, hadn't considered that as a possible calling, but when I was offered the opportunity a few years later, I took it, with Kael having shown me the way. Now, 25 years later, criticism has become my life's work.

The Chronicle invited a dozen local artists to tell us about their first time, that initial encounter with the muse, mentor, or project that set them on the path of their life's work. Their stories may be found here. – Robert Faires

Susan Branch Towne

The author, circa 1973, with visions of Mackie gowns dancing in her head
The author, circa 1973, with visions of Mackie gowns dancing in her head

Costume designer

Starting at age 3, my parents took me to lots of plays, concerts, and musicals, which hooked me on theatre for life, and I discovered a love of fashion while making dress after dress for my army of Barbie dolls. But I would say my "eureka" moment about costume design came while watching The Carol Burnett Show in the early 1970s, when I was about 8. Of course, I adored the glamorous dresses that Carol wore as she greeted the audience, and I was even more in awe of the fabulous characters that the comically brilliant costumes helped her and the cast create week after week. Still, like many people, I never thought that much about how they got there. Then one night, as Carol was talking to the audience, someone asked about all those amazing costumes, and Carol graciously introduced Bob Mackie. That was the moment when I realized: "One person is making up designs for all those beautiful dresses and all those crazy, funny characters – not to mention all the color-coordinated musical production numbers! How cool is that?" Immediately, I wrote a fan letter to Mr. Mackie, and he responded with a note of thanks and encouragement. Since pursuing my own design education and career, I've come to appreciate and aspire to a wider range that includes more subdued, classic, and poetic work, but I must say ... to this day, the curtain-rod dress from the 1976 "Went With the Wind" sketch (recently added to the Smithsonian's collection) is probably my favorite costume design of all time.

Branch Towne designed costumes for The Music Man, running through Aug. 15, Thursday-Sunday, 8:30pm, at the Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater.

Acia Gray

The First Time

Rhythm tap master, Tapestry Dance Company executive/artistic director

I truly never decided to be a tap dancer. It just seemed to be the most obvious decision when given the options at the time. I was actually set, in my mind, to become a "star" on Broadway – after graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts-New York. Rhythm had been a part of my life for a very, very long time, but it seemed to be part of my past – not my future.

My earliest memory of rhythm and what was to set the stage for my future was getting a set of drums. I had been onstage for a couple of years with my stepfather's rhythm and blues band in Houston, playing tambourine and singing at the ripe old age of 8. One of those weekend gigs that kept me out of school on Mondays, however, changed my life. At 2am on a Sunday evening, I was presented with the 1956 red sparkle Ludwig combo set that I had just seen onstage. I couldn't see them fully but knew that my life was about to change when I rode home leaning against my soon-to-be best friend packed in the back of our 1960 Ford Econoline van.

Looking back, I seemed to have an innate sense of how to play even before I sat down. Wedged between two box spring mattresses in the corner of my bedroom – the "drum cage" – with headphones bleeding the soul of Ike and Tina Turner's "Proud Mary," I was driven by a strange calling – an itch.

It was only 40 years later that I discovered someone I never had the privilege to know had a lot to do with that.

Harmon Knight – the biological father I never knew.

A drummer.

In the genes, I suppose.

Tapestry Dance Company opens its 20th anniversary season on Thursday, Aug. 20, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.

A. John Boulanger

Playwright, winner of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival 2009 National Student Playwriting Award for House of Several Stories

I was in my high school music hall, banging my way through sheet music way above my skill level on a marimba keyboard, when an eccentric lady appeared out of nowhere. She had wiry, salt-and-pepper hair that had a life of its own. She placed a small green book on my music stand, said, "See what you can make of this," and sashayed away. I flipped through the book, discovering it was a Chinese melodrama, the final pages of which consisted of a musical score for percussive instruments. After a few days, I found myself giving a minirecital for an audience of one: the eccentric lady with wiry, salt-and-pepper hair that had a life of its own. The recital proved a success, because a few weeks later I found myself in the darkened wings of our cafetorium, underscoring six performances with live sound. During the next three years, my relationship with Janie Hunt (the wild-haired eccentric) grew as I found myself involved in various capacities on subsequent plays.

From watching her work, collaborating with her, and being heard as a viable creative mind at such a young age, theatre became the intoxication that most adolescents crave in order to survive those volatile years in a tiny town of 5,000. Janie Hunt exposed me to the importance of the aural experience of live theatre and also the limitless ways of telling a story through mood, movement, and pictures – not simply the spoken word. It wasn't enough to think outside the proverbial box; I learned to dispense with the idea of parameters altogether, allowing a play to breathe and grow organically without limitations. That seemed less dangerous than never allowing a play to branch out, reach its full potential, and enjoy a life of its own.

Since then, it's never been enough for me to simply tell a story; it is more important to create an experience, both before and after a production sees the light of stage. Two decades later, as my own hair becomes more and more salt-and-pepper, I still imagine myself as that adolescent boy in a music hall when starting the first few pages of a new script. And every opening night, I am that 14-year-old kid, hiding in the darkened wings of what I hope to be a much larger cafetorium, as my new play takes on a life of its own.

Boulanger's House of Several Stories will run Aug. 6-23, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 5pm, at Austin Playhouse, 3601 S. Congress.

Jade Walker

The First Time

Sculptor, Creative Research Laboratory director

I was 14, making it 1991. In my safe, golf-course Florida neighborhood, I lived in the house that many of my friends gravitated toward, thanks to a pool and a cool single mom (with her equally matched single female friends). One evening on an impulse, my mother and her best friend decided it was time to turn us all on to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. My male and female teenage comrades and I were soon dolled-up, and I was immediately stuffed and shimmied into a tight, short dress and ushered into the bathroom for large quantities of eye make-up and hair spray to be applied. This experience of going to a midnight show in a mismatched costume, singing about "Brad," and throwing bread crumbs next to my mother was one that gave me insight to a number of things – the first being a subculture that straddled the line of gender. This is something that still inspires my works today. The second was the chance to see that my mother endorsed this and many other free-spirited endeavors, opening the doors to my imagination and allowing me to run free. For me, making art, looking at art, and talking about art all come from this moment of freedom – in the midst of an adolescence where I would continue to be allowed – and encouraged, really – to be a free-thinker.

"Spectator Sport," an exhibition of Walker's work, will be on display in late November in the new works space at the Austin Museum of Art – Downtown, 823 Congress.

Arthur Simone

Genevra Gallo in <b><i>43 Plays for 43 Presidents</i></b>
Genevra Gallo in 43 Plays for 43 Presidents

Actor, improviser, ColdTowne Theater co-founder

The first "yowza!" moment came after moving to Chicago. My little college degree in theatre felt heavy as hell, knowing its history and scale and what it "should be." A deep appreciation of the craft often made me second-guess my instincts and think that I would never have the talent, resources, or commitment that it takes to ever contribute anything worthwhile to what I felt was my calling. I wanted to write, direct, and act my guts out but felt incredibly intimidated by what other people were doing.

At any rate, I became enamored of a theatre group called the Neo-Futurists, which is famous for its 30 Plays in 60 Minutes format. Its shows were always quick and smart and funny and very much accessible.

Once, the group put on a series of small plays inspired by each U.S. president, and Genevra Gallo performed the solo piece for William Henry Harrison, focusing on his reputation as a war hero against the American Indians. The stage was filled with red balloons, and she ran around lunging at them with a gigantic knife, channeling irrational xenophobia, ignorance, and hatred for the Other in an extremely concise way. She had the grace of a dancer, the articulation of a talented actor, the timing of a comedian, and the passion of a poet.

What struck me was how she could draw so much from so many disciplines for an immediate, visceral, and visual experience for a very small piece that is, for me, theatrical in every sense of the word. It helped me to overcome inhibitions about my own writing and reminded me that theatre is fundamentally live and ephemeral, and that is what gives it its power.

Simone's solo show, Dear Frailty, runs through Aug. 28, Friday, 9pm, at ColdTowne Theater, 4803 Airport.

Bryan Gutmann

Comic, 2007 Funniest Person in Austin

There are many reasons that a person decides to become a stand-up comedian. A love of making people laugh, the thrill of creating something from nothing, better access to cheap alcoholic beverages. There's also the appeal of not having a real job. This all builds up until you decide to go to a local open mic and make 10 to 11 people not laugh. But you go back, because that list of pros is still longer than the one con.

A lot of these reasons to become a comic seem to be planted in a person's brain long before they even start jotting down their first joke. I often think about these inspirations, as do most comics. (The question usually sounds like, "What was I thinking?")

One of the very first times I became fascinated with stand-up comedy was when I was about 14 years old. I was new to Texas and had a broken foot (another story, and much more embarrassing). With my options for activities quite limited, I found myself reading a paperback copy of Jerry Seinfeld's book SeinLanguage. I still remember lying on a hammock in my parents' backyard, the sun out, my right foot weighed down by my fashionable hospital boot, and laughing until my face hurt as much as my foot. Seinfeld's gift for making such a big deal over such small things is something that still sticks with me. There are many comics who enjoy simply pointing out something from our everyday lives, but Seinfeld's gift was and is his ability to paint a vivid picture, to truly dissect something until that tiny thing is in a million tinier pieces.

Gutmann performs through July 18, Thursday, 8pm; Friday-Saturday, 8 & 10:30pm, at Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research.

Jared Theis


The influence of my late mentor and friend Steve Reynolds played a powerful role in my decision to become an artist. In 1999, I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at San Antonio and was pursuing a major in the visual arts. I had been in the program more than a year and hadn't found a medium that particularly inspired me. Extremely frustrated, I actually flirted with the possibility of studying music instead until I took a ceramics course with Steve. I did so reluctantly because I had always associated ceramics with vessel making and pottery, but it was a requirement to proceed in the program. The next two years proved to be the most pivotal in my creative and intellectual development. Steve opened up a universe of ideas to me and taught me to focus and channel my energy into making thoughtful art. I never met a man with such a prodigious intellect accompanied with a desire to share his knowledge with others. Perhaps most compelling was his generosity. I had taken his sculptural ceramics course during the 1999 spring semester and was planning on taking the summer off. Steve asked my plans and insisted that I study ceramics through the summer, and in perhaps the most generous gesture I've ever received, he paid my summer tuition. This meant the world to me, especially coming from him, and changed the course of my life. I made my first serious body of work that summer and discovered a true passion for exploring my ideas in clay. He put me on a path that is rich and stimulating, and I will always be grateful.

Works by Theis will be on display July 23-Sept. 5 at D Berman Gallery, 1701 Guadalupe.

Anuradha Naimpally

Bharata Natyam master, Austin Dance India creative director

Between our moves from Canada to India and back, I had studied ballet, tap, jazz, and Kathak, a form of dance from Northern India. It was at 13, when I began Bharata Natyam, a Southern Indian style, with Menaka Thakkar in Thunder Bay, Canada, that I was inspired to choose a career in dance over one in medicine – the doctor/dancer dilemma! About 10 of us in this small northwestern Ontario community studied for a year in weekend intensives for which our teacher would fly in from Toronto to our remote town. When I began to stamp my feet and move my limbs within this technique, I remember feeling so comfortable. I picked up the movements easily. I had a feeling of déjà vu. Had I done these movements before?

At the end of our sessions, our teacher did a public performance. Seeing her move onstage in costume and listening to the accompanying music awakened an intense feeling within me. I felt like I had come home. The dance seemed so comforting and familiar that I wanted to keep dancing the steps and listening to the music. I felt a passion for Bharata Natyam that I had never felt for any other dance style. It just felt right. This is what I was meant to do. I was fortunate enough to travel back to India and study with dance masters that continue to inspire me. When I perform and teach, I try to tune in to that feeling and let it express itself through the art to the audience as well as to my students. There is no other feeling like it!

Naimpally will teach new classes in Indian dance beginning Sept. 8.

Tami Nelson

Improviser, The New Movement co-founder

In 2004, I was a beginner improv student full of dumb courage and eagerness to test myself trial-by-fire style, onstage in front of actual people. For whatever nutso reason, my teacher shared this vibe and put me in a student cast. Fellow classmate and performer Chris Trew and I had clicked immediately. Among a thousand other dares and limit-pushing challenges we invented together was something we called "I've got a song in my heart" – simply, a dare to do a musical duet onstage during a show. At the time, there was nothing more nightmarish to me. But I totally faked it because I am coolie cool. Before one of our first shows at the fancy cabaret theatre in downtown New Orleans (a total upgrade from the "barprov" we'd been doing in the suburbs), we were warming up backstage, and Chris said, "Do you have a song in your heart tonight, Tami?" After swallowing a surge of nausea, I of course said yes, because that's what we were trained to do. During the show that night, I'm sure apropos of nothing, I found myself alone onstage with Chris, and I belted a sorrowful ballad about chicken salad or forklifts or whatever, and something magical happened. Rather than screw up his face and play my outburst off as some dumb, unfunny idea, he made very serious eye contact with me and responded with a louder, sillier, more off-key song that we somehow wove into some sort of "scene." We had jumped off a cliff and knew how to fly! I'm sure it evoked more sympathy than laughter from the crowd, but for me it meant that I had crossed over. That's the moment I fell in love with improv. Chris and I have been creating and performing together now for more than five years.

Nelson teaches improv and performs regularly at The New Movement, 1819 Rosewood.

Rupert Reyes

The First Time

Actor, writer, director, Teatro Vivo artistic director

In 1971 I began my theatre studies at the University of Texas in Austin. I was in heaven as a theatre major. UT was like my own personal Disneyland. The Texas Union soon became my hangout, and while it was on the opposite side of campus, I enjoyed the stroll.

One day during the walk, I happened upon a theatre group performing at the Free Speech Area in the Union courtyard. A group of actors, all Latinos/Chicanos (Luis Valdez with El Teatro Campesino, I learned later), was doing this really funny play called Los Vendidos.

They spoke Spanish and English interchangeably, used familiar expressions, made fun of themselves in a way that we Latinos do privately, and made social commentary about racism, prejudice, and some of our own shortcomings. This style of theatre, while not new at all, was new to me. I felt I had just made a great discovery, like I was an astronomer who had discovered a comet or something.

A few months later Dr. Jorge Huerta, now retired from University of California-San Diego, came to UT to interview for a position with the theatre department. At the Union, the Chicano Cultural Committee had set up a reception for the first Chicano in the United States to earn a doctorate in theatre history.

He spoke of this whole theatre movement that included Luis Valdez and other groups across the U.S. and Mexico. He had scripts and notes and showed a short film of the play Brujerías by Rodrigo Duarte Clark, who has become my best friend. We spoke late into the evening, and by the time he left, we had formed our own group, Teatro Carnales en Espiritu (the Theatre of Brothers in Blood and Spirit). It was as if my soul became complete that night.

I became the main writer for the group. I was inspired to take theatre to the people and to provide our side of the story to everyone. Theatre became something to me that I realized it hadn't been. Now it was "relevant." It could encompass who I was and the reality that I had experienced. I was already very much in love with theatre, but now I learned a new way of making love to it.

¡No Se Paga! We Won't Pay!, directed by Reyes, will run Aug. 13-30, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.

Anna Krachey

Photographer, Austin Video Bee member

When I first moved to Austin in 2005 for graduate school, I had two friends come visit who rode their bicycles into Austin wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes. Strapped to their bike trailer, they had a Hello Kitty piñata that they had bought in a Wal-Mart with their last couple of bucks. Because they were out of money, they ended up staying at my house for way too long while they waited for a check from a Nana or something, constantly piling cigarette butts in one of the costume shells like an ashtray. One night we decided to have a piñata party ourselves, and I took pictures of the kitty head being beaten and lit them with a flash. The refuse hanging there ended up being way more interesting than any of the action. None of the pictures came out well, but that event made me more interested in the discarded and cast-off and ultimately taught me a new way to look at objects that I was drawn to. Six months later, I was stringing a dented disco ball up in a tree with a dog leash ....

Work by Krachey will be on display in "Reality Show," Sept. 14-Oct. 14, at the East | West Galleries at Texas Woman's University in Denton.

Eric Zimmerman

Visual artist

It was 2006, and I was in Miami, Fla. I walked in front of the video monitor at a moment when a drably colored teakettle sat surrounded in the glow of blue and orange flames. On the right of the frame, an engorged black balloon hung suspended over a shallow tray filled with a viscous gray liquid. The flames grew higher and hotter. Looking closer, I noticed that the spout was fitted not with a whistle but a blade, and that blade was pointed ominously at the dark balloon. The tension was palpable. I immediately sat down on the nearest bench.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss' 1987 film "The Way Things Go" (more charming in its original German: "Der Lauf der Dinge") created one of those exceptionally rare moments when art mesmerizes me and instills a sense of complete wonder. I couldn't shake it off, and it both confirmed and changed the way I saw all the other objects in the world. The apparent simplicity of this 30-minute series of chain reactions, wherein everyday objects slide, crash, and propel themselves around a dark warehouse with the help of fire, air, water, and some mysterious chemicals, masks an amazing level of complexity. "The Way Things Go" is layered, humorous, poetic, intellectual, and even emotional in its profoundly insightful examination of simple cause and effect. It is a bit of everything I look for in good art.

I don't make many films in my own practice, but "The Way Things Go" reminds me why I make art and the importance of being open to things that you think might not be of any consequence. As the kettle grew hotter and the tension between the blade and the balloon increased, I realized the momentousness of slowing down, looking, and waiting for whatever was going to happen next. It shows me that art, when it's really good, does have some kind of influence and value in the world and that the challenge of making something with that kind of captivating power is a good one.

Work by Eric Zimmerman is on display in "Texas Draws 1," running through Sept. 6 at the Russell Hill Rogers Galleries of the Southwest School of Art & Craft's Navarro campus in San Antonio.

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artistic inspiration, Susan Branch Towne, Acia Gray, Anuradha Naimpally, Rupert Reyes, John Boulanger, Anna Krachey, Eric Zimmerman, Jade Walker, Jared Theis, Bryan Gutmann, Tami Nelson, Arthur Simone

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