'Austin Is a Place (You Are Here)'
Theatre En Bloc sparks a conversation about the city's growth on the gateway to the Eastside
"Our whole thing is that art doesn't change a damn thing," Derek Kolluri, co-director of Theatre en Bloc, says when talking about his company's new play, Austin Is a Place (You Are Here). It's an unexpected point from a theatremaker who has spent the last several years putting active, politically minded work on Austin stages, but Kolluri isn't a pessimist.
"Art doesn't change anything, but people do. And art can affect people," he says. So he and co-director Jenny Lavery have placed Austin Is A Place – a devised piece of theatre about the changes to the city as it's grown over the past decade – in a spot where it might affect the widest swath of people: right at Austin's gentrification ground zero, the gateway to the Eastside on I-35 between 11th and 12th streets, next to the bingo hall and Mexitas Mexican Restaurant.
That location isn't exactly a stranger to theatre – last year, during Fusebox, 600 Highwaymen staged an interpretation of Death of a Salesman in the bingo hall – but it's safe to say they're not well-acquainted. "One reason we wanted to be in this space, specifically, is that it gives us access to a crowd that doesn't normally go to the theatre," Lavery says of the company's decision to reach out to the owners of a warehouse between the bingo hall and the restaurant.
Those same owners operate all three spaces, in fact, and Kolluri says that the play's subject matter made it easy for them to agree to house the production. "The people we've been in contact with are really trying to preserve that spot. It's a community space for people who don't have much money," he explains. "They were really excited about this because they're pretty influential community leaders, and this is a play that touched close for them."
The play may resonate with a number of Austinites – both the longstanding and the new. (Kolluri and Lavery both moved here in 2009.) As part of the process, they conducted "between 70 and 100 interviews" with residents, ranging from longtime Eastsiders to City Council members, undocumented workers and homeless men and women to city planners. The result, according to Lavery, is a piece that deals with the questions about Austin's growth that are on so many lips these days – without offering easy answers. "We didn't want to necessarily provide answers, because if there were answers, this would be solved," she laughs. "There are a lot of people who are acting in what they think are Austin's best interests, from their own perspective. We wanted to just shine a light on some of those various perspectives and start a conversation around it with diverse communities and look at where we go from here."
To that end, Theatre en Bloc is working with the venues' owners to enhance the opportunities for the play's audiences and the communities that congregate at the bingo hall and Mexitas to intermingle. "There'll be ticket deals – if you have a played bingo card or a receipt from Mexitas, you get in for very little. We're working with the owners to really reach that community." That desire to mix the Austin theatre audience with the patrons of the establishments on 11th and 12th Streets is a two-way street as well.
"They want to make sure that people with programs from our show have a way to become a part of their community," Kolluri says of the owners of the venue. "Art can affect people. If what you create asks something of people that they think is achievable – 'I can play bingo,' 'I can go see this play' – then hopefully you're creating a synthesis." And, at the very least, Kolluri and Lavery are trying to create that synthesis in the right place.
Austin Is a Place (You Are Here) runs April 18-May 12, Thursday-Sunday, 8pm, at the Mexitas Event Center, 1107 N. I-35. For more information, call 522-4083 or visit www.theatreenbloc.org.