Theatre in the Round (Rock)
Penfold Theatre makes its entrance up north – where it's always wanted to be
The past decade has seen more than 50 theatre companies spring from the fertile soil of our creative capital, most of them launching with the same dream: to produce plays in their own stage space somewhere in Central Austin. Most, certainly, but not all. Take, for instance, TexARTS, that specialist in musicals of the American stage, which started with the vision of bringing professional theatre to the region of lakes west of the city. Or Penfold Theatre Company, which was founded with the idea of doing the same for the metropolitan area north of Austin.
That latter example may surprise fans of the company's debut production, Art, at City Theatre or its revival of the drama Three Days of Rain at the Hideout or its stagings of the chamber musicals The Last Five Years and John & Jen at Austin Playhouse and the Hideout, respectively. In other words, everything that Penfold has staged to date has been where most of the area's theatre companies work, deep in the heart of town. True enough, but that all changes this week when Penfold opens The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) in the Round Rock Amphitheater. This production sets Penfold squarely where its three founders have always wanted it to be.
"In the demographic research we did" – "we" being the Penfold triumvirate of Sean Martin, Ryan Crowder, and Nathan Jerkins – "we saw a disconnect: huge population boom in the north with zero professional theatre going on," says Crowder, who hastens to add that this is "not to discount the honorable work of our community theatre friends." Among those 350,000 residents in North Austin, Round Rock, Pflugerville, Cedar Park, Georgetown, and Leander was, the three felt, a large audience for the theatre they wanted to do, the theatre they had trained for together at Abilene Christian University.
"Abilene was good to us," says Jerkins. "Not only did it introduce us to each other, but it also gives us a common artistic background. We have always respected each other's talents, but coming from the same program, we have a common vocabulary and artistic shorthand created by our ability to reference the same things."
School, however, wasn't where the three hatched the idea of forming a theatre company together. In fact, the summer they all roomed together while working on a production of Broadway Bound, recalls Crowder, they had "no idea that our paths would ever cross that closely again." Martin (class of '03) left his home state to train at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, then settled in Chicago. Crowder ('04) went on to Ohio University to obtain his Master of Fine Arts in acting. And Jerkins ('05) followed his wife to Austin, where she was getting a doctorate in physics. They had lost touch until Martin, tiring of Chicago, called Nashville native Jerkins to get his take on Music City as a theatre town. What happened, though, was Jerkins began to sell Martin on Austin's "very large and vibrant arts scene," and not only was Martin quickly sold on the idea of moving here, he began pitching it – and the idea of starting a theatre company – to other friends, among them Crowder.
"Sean called me out of the blue asking if I wanted to start a theatre in Austin," says Crowder. "I started reading about the city and got really excited. Not only was it like going home, but I felt there was still room for us. As a place where the arts were still developing, there was a place for us to contribute and leave a real mark. All of us are performers at heart, but we're also all married and had life goals above what the traditional actor path could support. We wanted to be able to support ourselves financially with our art. We also share a belief, like other artists, that art has real purpose, and we felt we could best fulfill that purpose if we had control over the work we were doing."
Martin echoes the sentiment: "We were all at a place in our lives where we were ready for the next big thing. We all came to the realization that having a day job and auditioning when you can wasn't the long-term life goal. We all wanted to take theatre into our own hands. Why not start our own company?"
By chance or cosmic design, Crowder had recently spent months working on a project to develop a theatre as part of a retreat center for community leaders in Denver. "I did tons of research on nonprofits and theatre management," he says. "But the project fell through when the retreat center moved to D.C. and onto a smaller plot of land that didn't have enough room for a theatre." But he was able to channel all that newfound knowledge into the company with his old college pals.
And the more they learned about Central Texas, the more opportunities they saw for their company in the North Austin metro area. "Nathan came across an article about Round Rock's downtown redevelopment plan," recalls Crowder. "A professional theatre seemed like the perfect addition to a plan intended to revitalize an urban core. Not only that, but there was a growing synergy under way. In 2008, the Round Rock Area Arts Council formed, as well as the Round Rock Symphony. The Community Foundation established an arts endowment. It was clear to us that this was something on peoples' minds. Which makes sense. The city just hit 100,000 and will be 200,000 in a few decades. The population has grown so quickly; the culture sector is now trying to catch up."
The only hitch was, when the Penfold trio was ready to produce its first show, they couldn't find a venue in their region of choice. "We needed theatres to perform in," says Martin, "and there really aren't any that suited our needs in North Austin. And there just aren't many theatres north of Hyde Park. We needed to start doing shows and make a name for ourselves, and the only place to do that was in Austin proper." What Penfold lost in location, though, it gained in quick recognition. "These first four shows have given us so much," says Crowder, "primarily relationships with artists and credibility in the form of box office history, reviews, and awards. We wouldn't have the same opportunities if we immediately went north and started performing in alternative venues."
And even in central Austin, the Penfold team was able to connect to its North Austin audience, Crowder says. "When we produced The Last Five Years, we invited Cathy Kincaid, who is president of the RRAAC. She loved our work, as well as our ideas, and introduced us to a large number of community leaders in business, government, art, and education circles."
"We ended up having half of the Round Rock City Council and numerous bigwigs from different city organizations all show up," adds Martin. "After the show closed, we were invited to lunch, and they basically said, 'What can we do to make sure you are here?' Right now, Round Rock is really interested in making us a part of their town."
So the trio has made Round Rock a big part of Penfold. City Council Member Kris Whitfield, community activist Judy McCloud, and Round Rock Independent School District arts curriculum specialist Lisa Roebuck, as well as arts council President Kincaid have all been asked onto the board. The company gave a concert performance of John & Jen to introduce Penfold to local restaurant owners. And the founders have made a point of reaching out to the city's established arts groups: the Sam Bass Community Theatre, Round Rock Symphony, Round Rock Community Choir, and, says Crowder, "anyone else we thought we could link arms with in building up support for the arts in the north." They've even invited these companies to perform before performances of Complete Works. "The relationships we've been able to make with our community is one of the best things we have going for us," says Crowder.
For Penfold's official introduction to the city they want to call home, the trio found inspiration in Round Rock. "It had this new, perfect little amphitheatre," says Martin. "It was outside and really nice. We thought of how successful things like [the] Zilker [Summer Musical] and Shakespeare [in the Park] were and wanted to do it with our own twist." And, adds Crowder: "We thought a great way to introduce ourselves to as many people as possible would be to create a true community event. Free, outdoors, and fun – take away any barriers people might have to coming." "We wanted something that could connect with everyone," says Jerkins, and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), with its knockabout comic race through the Bard's plays, seemed ideal. "It has a very wide appeal," he says. "It's witty. It's polished but still has a natural improvisational roughness. It's contemporary but is born from and honors the classic. It treats the audience as part of the experience. It felt right."
While its first show in the North Austin metro area has yet to open, Penfold is already looking ahead to its second and third. The company's 2010-2011 season includes the new comedy Going With Jenny, by Baylor University playwrights Thomas and Sherry Jo Ward, at the Round Rock Public Library complex, and a revue of Noël Coward songs and scenes, A Marvelous Party!, presented one night only at Kindred Oaks in Georgetown. Until it can develop its own space, "we're trying to get more and more creative" in the spaces we use, notes Crowder.
And will Penfold be getting its own space? "We've been talking with city staff about the downtown revitalization since we heard about it," Crowder says. "We were at the design charrette where they laid out the plan visually – in fact, a 15,000-square-foot theatre is drawn into the plan for us. Most recently, we've been talking with Round Rock City Manager Jim Nuse about a new development the city is considering and how a theatre might be part of it. Those plans are still in the early phases, but the discussions have been happening for a few months."
But the first season up north and whatever developments take place in the next year will happen without one-third of the Penfold triumvirate. Later this month, Martin returns to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art to study directing. "Of course, Sean's departure for a year will be a challenge," says Crowder. "But hopefully when he comes back, we'll be all the farther along, and he'll have something crazy exciting to jump into. I've stopped predicting. It seems like the world is brand new year to year."
"Despite all the planning we have done and continue to do, it sometimes still feels like we're making it up as we go," adds Jerkins. "It's all a surprise, and that is equal parts invigorating and nerve-racking."
And it isn't likely to get any less surprising, since, as Crowder says, "the support systems Austin has in place don't exist up there. Public funding is a huge issue. Space is a huge issue. Even educating folks about how arts organizations operate is something we're constantly pushing. We really are pioneers – leaders of a movement – helping get it started from scratch."
But if there's one lesson all three Penfold leaders have taken from their company's first two years, it's that the community is behind them. "When we arrived, we didn't know much about the scene, and anyone we talked to was willing to sit down with us," says Martin. "This town's theatre has exactly the same vibe as what I loved about Chicago. It's like family. It didn't matter if you were the Equity star at the largest theatre or a bit part in a show in someone's garage; you were all in this together. I love that."
"Sean's right," says Crowder. "I never would have dreamed how warmly we have been received by everyone. What's happened so far has been, in many respects, thanks entirely to the kindness of others – from City Theatre and Austin Playhouse, who co-produced our first two shows, to patrons, critics, volunteers, board members, you name it. I'm overwhelmed by it all – and very grateful."
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) runs Aug. 5-22, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, Aug. 22, 6pm, at the Round Rock Amphitheater, 301 W. Bagdad Ave., Round Rock. For more information, visit www.penfoldtheatre.org.