Lisa Scheps' Christmas gift to the local stage scene is a new performance venue, Ground Floor Theatre
For most people who have run a theatre of their own, once is enough. The unrelenting pressures of upkeep, facility management, bills, fundraising, and renters who are show people – who aren't exactly known for either their equanimity or economic stability – take a heavy toll, and when folks exit the business, they leave that door closed.
Not Lisa Scheps. Best known locally for her work in human rights advocacy and as producer-host of KOOP radio's Off the Stage and on the Air, this lifelong lover of the stage ran her own 100-seat venue, play! Theatre, from 2004 to 2007, but the challenges involved didn't sour her on the job. She's currently transforming an Eastside warehouse into a new 140-seat black box performance venue, Ground Floor Theatre.
Scheps' re-entry into the theatre biz was launched a few months ago during a conversation with ScriptWorks Executive Director Christina Moore and Hyde Park Theatre Artistic Director Ken Webster about theatre space in Austin – how tight it is now and how more theatres might be lost in the near future. Scheps had been hankering to produce again, this time focusing on what she calls "do-gooder theatre" – new works by and for underrepresented populations like communities of color, the LGBT community, and the differently abled. "I missed doing theatre," she says. "Doing the radio show is great – I love it, it's a real passion of mine – but it put me on the sidelines, and I wanted to get back into it." Her interest in rejoining the game with a fresh mission, the urgent need for venues, and Scheps' longstanding desire to help Austin's theatre community become more "cohesive" created what she calls "a perfect storm" of impulses to open another theatre: "I said, 'You know what? I'm ready to take a chance. I had some money from when my mother passed away, and I said, 'I'm just gonna go for it.'"
From that moment to Scheps signing the lease on the loading-dock warehouse on Springdale Road – part of a massive redevelopment of the old U.S. Food Service warehouse complex – was just two months. Scheps initially envisioned the 4,500-square-foot space as a jewel box theatre with proscenium, but when lighting designer/producer Natalie George was shown the space, she asked Scheps, "Why would you not make it a black-box theatre?" Hearing that, Scheps knew that's what Ground Floor needed to be. Flanking the flexible playing space will be the entrance/lobby with box office, and the backstage with dressing rooms, green room, and crossover hallway. The 24-foot ceiling offers ample room for lighting equipment – which Scheps snagged from eBay and a UT Department of Theatre & Dance auction – and, if Scheps has her way, eventually a balcony and bar.
For now, though, Scheps just wants to get the space finished out sufficiently for its debut event, the Fusebox Festival 60 in Sixty fundraiser on Tuesday, Dec. 9. Scheps allows that the space will still be "very warehouse-y" then, but promises that by mid-January, when it has its first real run as a venue for the FronteraFest Long Fringe, Ground Floor Theatre will be complete.
Scheps' efforts have earned enormous support from her peers and colleagues, with unsolicited pleas on her behalf from theatre artist/blogger Travis Bedard and the youth of ImprovEd Shakespeare, plus enough donations to fund a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign. "I didn't know what kind of response I was going to get," Scheps says. "When I started doing this, I reached out to as many people as I had time to. I really wanted buy-in from the community, because I see what I'm doing as not only servicing the rest of the theatre community, but the rest of the theatres. By having this, I'm going to help Salvage Vanguard and Hyde Park and all those others."
Scheps is grateful for the theatre community's backing and the interest from companies eager to produce in the space, but asks for patience: "I was listening to an interview with Jon Stewart, and he was talking about the film he just did, and he said, 'You know, I don't know what I don't know.' And I don't know what I don't know. There's so much stuff that I just did, and there are going to be some growing pains." Fitting for someone whose motto has always been "Jump off the cliff, and sprout wings on your way down."
But at least this time Scheps isn't sprouting them alone; Patti Neff-Tiven will help run Ground Floor. "The biggest thing I learned from play! Theatre was that I suck at development," says Scheps. "I need help with that. I'm also not a detail person. I'm a big-picture person. That's why I have Patti." It takes a village to run a theatre, and with all the assistance she's receiving, maybe Scheps' second time around will last a long, long time.