Gifts of the Magi
A conversation about community and creativity with three wise men of the arts
As Dave Steakley works in theatre, Stephen Mills in dance, and Craig Hella Johnson in music, you might not think that the three would have much in common. But all have been in Austin for at least two decades, in which time they've been witness to great changes in the city, and as the longtime artistic directors of Zach Theatre, Ballet Austin, and Conspirare, respectively, they've been responsible for their share of great changes in the arts scene. Perhaps most interestingly, if you speak with them about the work they do, you'll hear the same ideas echo through the conversations: Compassion. Community. Dialogue. Connection. Transformation. The power of music. The impact of Austin.
Like the magi in the Christmas story, these three men come from different places but are making the same journey. What they seek is an Austin that's compassionate and just, and they follow a vision of community bonded through art, with their creative talents to offer as gifts. The Chronicle brought these artistic leaders together to discuss their shared goals and sense of Austin, culturally and as a community. They sat down one week after Ballet Austin opened its season with Act II of Swan Lake and The Firebird, two days after Conspirare sang Robert Kyr's environmental oratorio A Time for Life, and the day after Zach Theatre took part in the national performance of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, an epilogue to the play about the murder of Matthew Shepard.
Austin Chronicle: Let's start by going back to when you first started working in Austin. What made the city at that time a good place to be involved in the performing arts?
Dave Steakley: I was initially here as a student at the University of Texas, and I came from such a small farming community that Austin not only felt like an oasis, but everything about it was completely different from my life on that farm. It felt like there were endless opportunities. That's when I really began to engage in performance. When I came back to Austin after being in New York, a few months before I had seen Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune off-Broadway, and when I came to interview for Zach, that's what they were producing, and the production values and Mitch Pileggi's performance were completely commensurate with what I experienced off-Broadway. Before I left Austin, that was not the case. Zach was very spotty community theatre. When I was a student, I had to go there to write papers about shows, and sometimes it would be exceptional and sometimes not. It had the new building, and I guess what was there was promise. The thinnest level of foundation and bedrock had been laid, on which I could imagine building a life, launching something. Launching the thing that I had envisioned in my head.
Craig Hella Johnson: I came also with a connection to the university. Just out of grad school, I got a job interview at the school. Like Dave said about this idea of promise, I saw tremendous opportunity. We had the idea of starting a music festival. We did a little market study with students in a marketing class to see if this would be a good place for this thing we were trying to create, the New Texas Festival, and all the studies came back that this would indeed be a fine place to do this. [Laughter] And they got an "A" on their project. [Laughter] Lots of green lights, it seemed like.
One thing that I really loved, too, was that it seemed like a place where there was a great deal of creative energy and enthusiasm for creative capital, but the market wasn't flooded. As a musician, I felt like there was space to begin to do my craft. I found that very exciting and do still. We're growing, which is great, but there's plenty of space for us to do our craft.
Stephen Mills: I came here from New York 23 years ago as a dancer, and I totally expected to be here for one year and move on, because that's generally what dancers do. When I came, [Ballet Austin] was a very small company, but the thing that was most impressive about Austin was that there were a lot of independent artists, a lot of freelance choreographers. It seemed like there were 20 or 30 little companies. Maybe there weren't, but it felt like it. There were choreographers making interesting work every day. Deborah Hay, and Yacov Sharir, used to perform at the space on the corner of Fourth and Lavaca ....
AC: Capitol City Playhouse.
Mills: There was experimental dance going on all over the place. And as I was from the very beginning of my career interested in making work, it was great to be 25 and absorbing all this different work that was being produced. The idea that you could come to a small town – which is what Austin was then, a small town – and be successful. You know, I'd left New York and thought that New York was the only place where valid work was being done, and I've long since left that idea behind, but it felt like for me for the first time that I was in a place where I could put down roots and develop something that was interesting, because so many people had made examples for me.
AC: In conversations with each of you, I've been struck by the way you talk about community and how you pursue work that honors and connects with the community. Where did Austin as a community begin to affect your work? Stephen, Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project was such a highlight in your career in part because it didn't stand on its own. It needed a community to make it work. And I would say the same thing, Dave, about The Laramie Project. You three don't create work in a vacuum. It's important that your work not just find an audience but that it finds the audience that makes up this community.
Mills: In terms of Light, I have to say that the project had to be that way to be respectful of the subject matter. If you're going to take someone else's story and co-opt it, you sure as hell better do something in a respectful way that honors what they went through, not for your own self-aggrandizement but as a teaching tool. The community aspect of it – yeah, clearly, we're in the community with the projects that we're doing, and [Light felt] like a community project, but we didn't fully appreciate it until the thing was done. And you know that thing when people come up to you after performances and say, "Thank you for doing this; I got 'X,' 'Y,' and 'Z' out of it." As artists – I'm sure you guys are the same way – you say: "Thank you. This is embarrassing. Thank you." [Laughter] But when you step away from it and really realize the effect you have – it's a very profound concept to think that someone would be affected by what I do. I make dances. So what? I don't affect politics. That might be something that I do privately, but that's not something I consciously think about when I'm making work. But people are affected by it.
Steakley: That shyness that Stephen describes is like Judy Shepard last night, when everybody stood up for her [because the Matthew Shepard Act] is coming up for a Senate vote. She said, "You act like I did this alone." When people say, "Thank you so much" and "I loved this," why is my inclination to deflect this? I think it's because the nature of the work is collaborative, and we get to be the person who's leading the charge with the vision, but we're not solely executing it or making it possible. This is a lot of people's work that is represented on stage, and you don't get to see all of the folks who make it happen. So I think about the collaboration and want to make sure people understand that.
I keep thinking about voices. If I think about what it was for me coming from that farm, it's that there were all of these alternative points of view, these voices that I didn't know existed, right? There were these ideas I didn't know were in the realm of possibility. I was becoming transformed as a person, because I was beginning to understand [the point of view of] somebody who walks in different shoes, who's very different from me. It becomes more complex to invite more voices in, yet it's that part that becomes enriching.
With regard to The Laramie Project, we did talk-backs after every one of those performances, and you know, we can all pay lip service to that idea of transformation, that somebody can be changed, but in one of those talk-backs we had this woman who said: "I've just got to confess, I came into this performance reluctantly. I would label myself a homophobic person, and I've just got to say I'm wrong." And she burst into tears. That became very powerful. Not that I didn't realize it before, but it became, "Oh, this can also do that." And that's really important to me about the way we build community. I love to entertain and do things for fun, but I also like to open up a conversation that is going to create some connectivity that we didn't have before, right? We're going to have some understanding of each other's lives that then allows our community to be more expansive and the heart of our city gets larger, it's more welcoming to more people who call it home.
Mills: But don't you think that we as artists think about things in very compassionate ways to begin with? Human rights is a very important issue to me, as I'm sure it is to you. Gay rights is a very important issue to me. Reforming health care in this country is a very important issue to me personally.
Steakley: Because we all have artists who have none.
Mills: Yeah. And I think that there's no way to dissociate that aspect of ourselves from what it is we produce and the way we produce it. And that's really an important aspect of it. I mean, sometimes even when you're doing those [lighter] performances, it comes from the point of view that is a vehicle for these ideas.
Johnson: Ours is a communal art by its nature. We have a company of voices at the center of our organization, but even at the highest professional level, there is something about choral music that remains an amateur art in the best sense of that word. We're about fellowship, and we often view that as a living representation of community in a sort of odd and wonderful way, when people with very different energies, personalities, temperaments, training, come together for the discipline of this chamber music that we call choir.
Johnson: I think there's something about the audiences here. I often say – and I promised myself I would stop saying it – I experience our audiences to be deeply listening audiences. There's a deep interest in engagement. Part of it's I think what we do and part of it's coming from the city itself. This is an oasis for a lot of people; many people from many segments of society come here to find something, to experience something for themselves.
Steakley: That for me has a lot to do with the live music that is so much a part of Austin. Concert audiences in this community are different than in Dallas or Houston, in terms of the interaction between that performer onstage and that audience. Whenever my colleagues come from another city, they are always amazed at that audience energy between the crowd and performer. Because I think that people are open to that engagement, but I feel they got trained there [seeing live music]. I feel like that's what built that vibe. I'm surprised at how people will be so spontaneously vocal – and I know we provoke it in our theatre, but at the same time, I feel like people come crying for that sort of visceral, out-loud experience and response.
Johnson: I think that's really true. And one of the things I also love about live music is that any sense of artifice or falseness is just not possible to maintain. If there's ever something that's [false], people just read it right away, and I'm so grateful for that. It keeps it very fresh. We say that we want to take our work very, very seriously but never ourselves seriously.
Mills: I agree with that, but I also think that – when I moved here, I was really caught off guard by the familiarity of the community itself; it's like it was a small town. Clearly everybody didn't know everybody else, but I come from a very, very small town, so I know what that feels like, and that's what it felt like to me. And even though the community has grown by leaps and bounds, and technology has changed everything about the city, it still has that attitude. Audiences say: "That's my ballet. That's my Conspirare or Zach Scott." They have a real pride in the organization.
Johnson: I think we want to keep taking the very, very best from that, the rich level of engagement. We have incredible opportunities here to deepen this city culturally. If we can just keep letting it not be about ourselves and our art and building it about the art.
Mills: And don't you find it more possible here in Austin?
Johnson: Truly. Yes, yes.
Mills: I just feel like I've been able to grow so much here – and been challenged and challenged myself – in ways that I perhaps would not have in a different environment. The audience here does not sit back and say: "I need Swan Lake. I need Giselle right now." They say: "Okay, that was clever. Now I need to see something new. What are you thinking about? What are you doing?" And they're genuinely interested in new work in ways that took me by surprise. And I was grateful for it certainly, because I was only interested in new work. I think the community is a great community, but it also challenges us to think about things in ways that many small cities might not.
Steakley: I do think there's a large component that embraces what's new. And then there are those who are wanting to preserve the Austin that was. I think about that line in Keepin' It Weird when Liz Carpenter said, "How do we hang onto our soul and still grow and mature as a city?" We're each finding that way to push a boundary with a work that's new, and part of what comes with that is failure occasionally. There has to be a willingness of the audience to take that risk and experience a failure. I look at some things I would point to as being really dismal box-office for us that, if we had not had those experiences artistically, [the audience] wouldn't have ever had that Laramie Project two years later that they loved and embraced. Because the artists learned in that artistically rigorous and challenging piece the tools to create that later experience.
Johnson: You're so right. That's a very important part of community, to take those risks that always pay us back eventually. And I think audiences are getting up to it, as we really continue to encourage dialogue with the community. You don't need to love it all, but be engaged with it. Let's be in conversation.
AC: You all seem to have been very conscious of time, sometimes working carefully toward special projects that require certain resources or that you want audiences to experience. I think of Emily in Our Town wanting to be aware of every minute that passes. Does time drive you?
Steakley: When I think about my time initially as an artistic director versus now, there's much more time devoted to fundraising, because our organization is growing; the board is larger, so there are different demands on that time; and just like there are greater expectations of Austin and what our city's going to deliver, there are greater expectations of the professionalism [at Zach] and the experience [it will deliver]. And as a young artistic director who was single versus the person with a family, the change also happens in who we are and how we spend our time. What I find challenging is to make all those moments have meaning: the moments with family, the moments with a patron, the moments in the rehearsal room. The thing you asked when I got here, "Were you able to enjoy The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later?" – that's a really important thing to me. Because if I can't be present and enjoy that work, I don't want to do it. If I can't also be an audience to the moment, then that's not how I want to spend my time.
Johnson: As an artist it's important to access that aliveness that is so much about being present. I was visiting about that with the composer who was here this weekend, Robert Kyr. We talked about how many artists [get trapped] because of, "That was a magical moment, well, let's re-create that the next night and the next night and the next." After that one night, it becomes a concept, and you sort of chase down the concept, and sometimes you reach a dead end. But if there's that sense of aliveness in the performance, you can be constantly bringing freshness to it. I find that very much in demand in the work we do.
Mills: Also, when you're working in staging a well-known piece, you're working with people who may not have touched this piece ever, so you're teaching, and you're mentoring, and you're coaching. The piece becomes alive in that way if you approach it from that direction. If you go into the studio to teach steps, that's teaching steps; that's not interesting.
And because we're all doing big seasons, every piece isn't going to be new. So the dancers have to revisit work, the artists have to revisit work, the audience has to revisit work sometimes as well, because there's so much to learn about them every time you revisit them. It's difficult, but we're artists. This is what we get up and do every day. And this is the contribution we make to our community.
I'm taking this philosophy class, and we're reading about Plato, and in The Republic, he's talking about the way you build a state is that everybody does what they do. A doctor is only a physician. People who make bread only make bread. People who make theatre only make theatre. So we're contributing to the community because we're doing what we do. That's the way you make your contributions, and they are as valid as anybody else's.
AC: I think back to your comment about making dances as opposed to being in politics. People are profoundly affected by your work because art creates a way in that we don't have in any other part of society. Like The Laramie Project. People may hear what's being said in that play in a way that, if they were watching a documentary film or reading a newspaper, wouldn't get through. There's that opening. And it's there in entertainment, too, as well as in the more socially relevant sorts of projects. Sometimes we need an opening into our lives that can only come through the arts.
Mills: Art allows you to hear difficult information about yourself that somebody telling you, you might think offensive of them.
Steakley: Something you can't realize in your own life or that society as a whole can't put forward can be presented onstage in a way that's safe by example, and you get to experience what that's like. What's it like if everybody's truly equal? You don't feel that in your day-to-day, but you have the opportunity to engage in the possibility of what that is.
Mills: Like with Light. Ultimately, it was about human rights and Holocaust survivors. And it was about the mistreatment of African-Americans through slavery, and it was about discrimination against gay people, and it was about unfair practices against women. You know what I mean? You can see those things based upon where you are. I hope, with a question. It begins a conversation. It doesn't end a conversation.
Instead of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh ...
The Nutcracker, choreographed by Stephen Mills, runs Dec. 5-23 in Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 476-2163 or visit www.balletaustin.org.
Christmas at the Carillon, featuring Craig Hella Johnson, Conspirare, and special guest Patrice Pike, will be performed Monday, Dec. 7, 8pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 476-5775 or visit www.conspirare.org.
Rockin' Christmas Party, directed by Dave Steakley, runs through Dec. 27. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8pm; Sundays, 2:30pm, at Zach Theatre's Kleberg Stage, 11421 W. Riverside. For more information, call 476-0541 or visit www.zachtheatre.org.
The Santaland Diaries, directed by Dave Steakley, runs through Jan. 10. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8pm; Sundays, 2:30pm, at Zach Theatre's Whisenhunt Arena Stage, 1510 Toomey. For more information, call 476-0541 or visit www.zachtheatre.org.