Nowhere to Play

The Cost of Art, Part I: Austin's growth and rising rent take out theatre venues, one by one

Jason Newman (l) and Ryan Crowder ponder where they'll go when the stages go away.
Jason Newman (l) and Ryan Crowder ponder where they'll go when the stages go away. (Photo by John Anderson)

Christi Moore is frustrated. It took the ScriptWorks executive director six months of searching to find a venue to rent for Out of Ink, an annual show which will receive its 16th year of production in 2014. Venues where she has produced Out of Ink before had closed or were already booked. Spaces that might have been a possibility turned out to have an uncertain future as leases have come up for renewal.

As of press time, the show is slated to run at Trinity Street Theatre in summer 2014. "I'm hoping that's going to work out," says Moore. "If it doesn't, I don't know what I'm going to do. It's been very difficult."

That an established company with a regular production schedule has encountered this much trouble locating a venue is notable not because it's an isolated case, but because it's becoming a common one. Recent years have seen the number of available venues shrinking instead of growing, as the population of Austin and, with it, the population of creative individuals in the area continue to rise.

Penfold Theatre Company is another nonresident group that has discovered the space shortage worsening in recent years. "It really became a big deal last year," says Producing Artistic Director Ryan Crowder. "We began last year with all of our venues lined up, and then two of them fell through. We had a last-minute scramble."

Hyde Park Theatre Artistic Director Ken Webster reports that the company's space, which it rents to other companies when not producing shows itself, is booked well into the future. "Basically, we're pretty much booked for every Thursday, Friday, Satur­day through 2015," says Webster. "We've always had little trouble filling the slots, but we've never been booked two years in advance."

Only a few years ago, Austin Playhouse and the Blue Theatre had space available for other companies to rent. The Blue became unavailable in 2011, when the building's maintenance became too costly. Says Jenny Gravenstein, who managed the Blue, "Between the loss of equipment and damage to the building due to a fire we suffered, along with ever-increasing overhead costs to maintain a deteriorating space, we found it necessary to close our doors."

Also in 2011, Austin Playhouse moved out of its location in the Penn Field development, where it was based for nine seasons, when the monthly rent increased from $12,000 to $18,000. For financial reasons, the company has been forced to delay opening a space in the Mueller development as planned. Instead, for the time being, the company has found a partnership with Austin Community College, setting up shop in a former retail space in Highland Mall.

"It's my understanding that the Penn Field space did not have a permanent occupant for two years after we vacated," says Associate Artistic Director Lara Toner. (Requests for confirmation to Southwest Strategies Group, current real estate broker for Penn Field, did not receive a response.)

Now the theatre community is bracing for the possibility that the Off Center, home of the Rude Mechanicals since 1999, will no longer be available for rent. The company declined to state whether it is or is not leaving the Off Center, but did say in a group statement, "Very soon, our rent will increase to rates well beyond our current resources."

The number of performance venues that regularly rent to theatre companies that don't own a space may have already slipped into the single digits. (The number varies, depending on whom you ask and how you define "regularly," but even counting venues that only rent for plays every few years, the total doesn't top 15.) Collectively, the most popular eight venues were rented for more than 65 productions in 2013. With 60 nonresident theatre companies in Austin seeking spaces to mount work, the competition for the few venues is steep. Each time one goes away, those groups lose space for 4-8 productions a year. The situation has forced them into a scramble for resources.

Ken Webster
Ken Webster (Photo by John Anderson)

Meanwhile, the organizations that do maintain a theatre space experience ever-increasing rent, threatening their stability. Webster has managed Hyde Park Theatre on 43rd Street since 2001. When he took over the space, rent was $750 per month. It has since risen to more than $3,000. HPT has recently renewed its lease for five years, allowing it some short-term stability.

The solutions for nonresident companies, and for resident companies that risk finding themselves unable to afford their current homes, fall into two categories: Find nontraditional spaces for performances, and work to create more spaces.

Penfold has mounted plays in both conventional theatres and nontraditional venues, including the Round Rock Public Lib­rary (Going With Jenny) and Rice's Crossing Store (It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play). The difference in venue can mean a serious difference in a small company's bottom line. Crowder reports that rent at the library was $600 less than rent at Hyde Park. When venue fees make up 20% of your production budget, as it does with Penfold, that's a few hundred dollars that can be used to shore up other lines in the production budget, from lights to costumes to pay for performers. Addition­ally, it's not automatic that a play can move to an alternative venue and remain successful. Producing a show in a nontraditional space "really informs the work that you're able to do," Crowder says. "You can try to shoehorn a traditional play into a nontraditional space, but often the mismatch really shows. It shapes the work in a backwards way."

Ryan Crowder
Ryan Crowder (Photo by John Anderson)

Poison Apple Initiative is a nonresident company that has made occupying nontraditional venues part of its artistic identity. Artistic Director Bastion Carboni says that the company has typically lost money on shows that it's mounted in more traditional spaces, whereas finding unusual places to produce plays has given them an advantage: "Using nontraditional spaces has been instrumental to our growth. It's not that we can't find traditional theatre space. It's do we want to use traditional theatre spaces?" This advantage comes in spite of challenges like relying on untested technical resources and providing for basic audience comfort.

Asking nonresident companies if they have considered leasing or even buying a space of their own to manage and rent out in turn often brings a common response: Yes, but how? With rising real estate values in Austin, rents – let alone down payments for ownership – are beyond the reach of most groups, especially those who produce experimental work that may not bring in the kind of audience that can support monthly payments to a landlord or a bank.

Managing a space also brings with it additional responsibilities that are less about artistic choices and more about remembering to clean the fridge and fix the plumbing. As Carboni says, "We don't have to worry about a lease. We don't have to make sure there's enough toilet paper."

"Artists with venues are constantly diverting money, time, and attention away from their artistic and community programming and toward becoming real estate aficionados, running capital campaigns, fundraising, and just being worried," according to the Rude Mechanicals, who provided a laundry list of improvements and challenges they have encountered in the time they have occupied the Off Center.

Still, cautions Salvage Vanguard Theater Artistic Director Jenny Larson, without more ownership by artists, spaces will just keep going away. "It's been amazing to watch the Manor neighborhood blossom in the past five years. The property values are skyrocketing, and condos are flying up all over the place," she says. "This is great in some ways: We see our economy flourish; we love the fantastic new locally owned shops and small businesses; the condos [near] us will bring new foot traffic to SVT. In other ways, this growth is in danger of pricing out artists. As long as artists don't own, they're standing on shaky ground."

Derek Kolluri, who leads both Theatre en Bloc and the Sustainable Theatre Project, has begun the process of seeking a more permanent space to occupy, both for his companies and for the many other nonresident arts groups in Austin. The timeline for a new venue to open is a long one, however. "If funding came through tomorrow, it would still take two to three years," he says.

A chief consideration is that of ownership. Kolluri emphasizes that the "sustainable" in Sustainable Theatre Project is economic and social as well as environmental, and that means being an owner rather than a lessor who is subject to the impact of rising rents and gentrification. At the same time, however, Kolluri says, "Who would own it is a really interesting question, one that we come up on many times."

Another option is to turn to local government in hopes of securing community support for performing arts spaces. While area leadership appears sympathetic to the space needs of arts groups, the situation might be compared to the status of public transportation in the Greater Austin area: improvements and growth will be slower than the demand for them.

The city recently received an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for $30,000 to support a "two-year sophisticated community-wide cultural mapping project exploring Austin's cultural assets and economic and community development strategies." This past summer, the city also released the results of a Survey of Artists' Space Needs and Preferences, which concluded (among much else), "Given the depth of need, Austin could easily support a single mixed-use arts facility in addition to multiple, affordable smaller creative space developments."

The discussion and research is arguably a necessary step before a city-sponsored building project can begin. However, to companies unable to locate a workable, affordable performance space in Austin this season or next, it does not offer immediate solutions. In the meantime, one of the few existing city facilities that theatre companies can rent may be lost. The Dougherty Arts Center, with its 150-seat proscenium stage, has provided an affordable performance venue for 35 years and been a particular boon to companies just getting their start – Last Act Theatre Company, Austin Theatre Project, and 7 Towers Theatre Com­pany are among the most recent to use it as a theatrical launching pad. But news reports in 2012 stressed the deteriorating condition of the 67-year-old center and the rising costs of maintaining it. While a 2012 bond package for Parks & Recreation Depart­ment facilities that included the DAC won approval, the future of this space at this time is uncertain.

For a time, Penfold Theatre Company had planned to open its own space, but the company now intends to work with other groups in support of a shared performing arts center in Round Rock. Yet the actual construction of such a facility will not take place any time soon. City of Round Rock Executive Director for Arts and Culture Scot Wilkinson says that the city is looking into spaces that might serve as a temporary home for a performing arts center until a brick-and-mortar facility can be built, but "there's nothing concrete at this time."

Until enough groups are successful in opening and maintaining affordable spaces, performing arts companies will continue to see demand for spaces outstrip supply. Says ScriptWorks' Moore, "It's a real community issue. Not just for the theatre community, but for the Austin community."

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The Cost of Art, Austin theatre, affordability, Christina Moore, Scriptworks, Ryan Crowder, Penfold Theatre Company, Bastion Carboni, Poison Apple Initiative, Ken Webster, Hyde Park Theatre, Rude Mechanicals, Off Center

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