Ground seeded for new 420-seat playhouse
By Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 11, 2011
Last week's winter blast did its best to put a chill on the Groundhog Day groundbreaking ceremony for Zach Theatre's new 420-seat stage. The show folk at this playhouse, however, would not be deterred from marking the momentous occasion. When it became clear that subfreezing temperatures would persist all day, they moved the event indoors, and when rolling blackouts left the Kleberg Stage in the dark just an hour before the ceremony, they shifted it to the Nowlin Rehearsal Hall, kept bright and toasty thanks to a generator obtained early that morning by resourceful Director of Production Paul Flint.
"Welcome to Zach's icebreaking," quipped Artistic Director Dave Steakley to the 300-plus supporters and friends of Zach packed into the hall. The size of the crowd – about a hundred more people than Zach staff expected – spoke to the importance of this facility in the community and how eager people are to see it built at long last. Indeed, Zach has been talking about building a third theatre from the day it opened its second, the 130-seat Whisenhunt Arena Stage, 20 years ago. That's about the time Steakley joined the staff, and his beaming face conveyed how long he'd been waiting for this day. "Zach is a place where dreams are realized," he told the crowd, and he'd made dreams a theme for the day. The ceremony opened with Roderick Sanford (Rent, Porgy and Bess) singing "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime, a musical that Steakley has long dreamed of producing and which he announced would open the new theatre, named for philanthropists Mort and Bobbi Topfer, in fall 2012. And after remarks by Mort Topfer, Austin Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, Managing Director Elisbeth Challener, Steakley, and Lady Bird Johnson (as portrayed by Zach mainstay Barbara Chisholm), a Zach "dream team" chorus – more than 30 performers from past productions, led by Musical Director Allen Robertson – treated the assembled to rousing renditions of "Shall We Gather at the River," "Down by the Riverside," and "Take Me to the River."
The revival spirit heated up the crowd enough that they could endure the frigid air for a few minutes and visit the theatre site, marked out in paint on the parkland east of the 230-seat Kleberg Stage. Visitors imagined walking up to the 26,000-square-foot glass-curtained building and looking up to the balcony – Austin architects Arthur Andersson and Chris Wise took inspiration from Romeo and Juliet – to see a scene performed there: something from West Side Story, A Streetcar Named Desire, Private Lives, Evita, or one of the original "balcony plays" that Steakley is commissioning for the spot. (He's already lined up Suzan-Lori Parks and Allen Robertson to contribute to the site-specific works, five to 30 minutes long.) Also marked out on the grass was the Karen Kuykendall Stage, an 80-foot-wide proscenium more than three times the size of the Kleberg that will boast an orchestra pit, traps, and a fly tower. Then, under the direction of Steakley from his spot on a temporary stage flanked by red curtains, the crowd blessed the site with a shower of wildflower seeds – another nod to Lady Bird and a gesture to encourage the blossoming of art on that site.
Construction of the $22 million Topfer Theatre is expected to take 14 months. To date, $17.26 million has been raised, with $10 million coming from city bonds approved by voters in 2006; a pair of million-dollar gifts from the James Armstrong family and Bill Dickson, respectively; and 16 gifts of $100,000 or more from assorted patrons, corporations, and foundations. For more information, visit www.zachtheatre.org.