Making Room to Play
Create Space Austin kicks off the drive to secure more performing venues in the city
Two things happen when a roomful of Austin theatre artists gather with no audience present: They start on time, and they talk about numbers. A lot of numbers. Interest rates, real estate prices, permit regulations, and more.
On the afternoon of April 2, a few dozen theatre professionals gathered at Hyde Park Theatre to focus on the worsening crisis their community faces in finding available performance spaces and to seek out short-term solutions. Christina J. Moore, executive artistic director of the playwright service organization ScriptWorks, helmed the mini-conference, along with performer/producer Jason Phelps and director Derek Kolluri, as the newly formed organization Create Space Austin.
"I've been here for almost 26 years now," said Moore, "and I've seen a lot of performance spaces go and come during that time, but none at the rate at which we're losing them at this point, to the point where we are left with very few, if any, to rent."
A census of sorts was taken: What is happening with established spaces, and what is the status of theatres without a clear future? Salvage Vanguard Theater will lose its space on Manor Road this summer and is seeking an interim home before investing in a larger, permanent facility, likely years from now. The Off Center will close in May 2017; resident company Rude Mechanicals are working on securing another facility but haven't yet announced concrete plans.
Ground Floor Theatre was shuttered immediately before the FronteraFest Long Fringe was set to begin in January of this year due to building code violations, and it's experiencing delays in coordinating efforts between the city and the property landlord which will push its reopening date past the original June 2016 goal. Comparatively, Austin Playhouse has fared better, having secured a relationship with Austin Community College to continue operating in the former Highland Mall, although it lacks an official long-term agreement. This follows the collapse of earlier plans to build a new theatre at the Mueller development when not all partners proved ready to move forward. Penfold Theatre Company is positioned to take advantage of a temporary black box theatre being set up in Round Rock's Allen R. Baca Center for Senior and Community Activities, which may happen as soon as October of this year.
The city of Austin Cultural Arts Division is currently working on a cultural mapping project, and while the mapping doesn't translate to a physical stage, it is designed to make data on resources publicly available. The mayor's office has released a document called the Austin Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution, with clear intentions to support the theatre community as part of the larger music and entertainment industry.
Representatives from a range of other groups, including the thinkEAST development and the Austin Jewish Repertory Theater, shared plans in various early stages to create or support new performance spaces, but ultimately, the conversation returned to the lack of a solution for companies in need of a stage in the next two to three years.
Moore spoke of outreach to audiences: "We're just beginning with [finding someone to say], 'I have a barn in my backyard, and I'd be willing to have a play there!' Everybody laughs, but where else are we going?"
Other ideas mentioned included program inserts to educate audience members on the venue crisis; attending and speaking at City Council meetings; and helping theatre artists better understand building codes and other legal hurdles well in advance of moving into a new space.
"This is the kind of stuff that we need to deal with because we want to make art," said actor and architect Rommel Sulit. "If we're going to succeed, we have to get smart. We have to do math. We have to figure this stuff out."
While no one-size-fits-all solution appeared, attendees suggested possibilities that might work for some companies. Religious organizations may host some productions, though those groups often have concerns regarding content. Some venues may become available farther from central Austin, like the Baca Center, but producing work outside of Austin is a no-no for many companies that rely on city of Austin funding, which stipulates that the work take place in Austin.
To that end, Kathryn Rogers of Trouble Puppet Theater Company said, "I don't think my patrons want to drive to the very edges of Austin to see our shows. I know I don't want to drive back and forth. I also don't want to move. My son goes to school. I don't want to have to go live way out to make theatre."
Ultimately, the meeting was for some a sobering acknowledgment that greater and more targeted civic participation will be vital in the years ahead if any non-resident company is to stay open.
"Obviously one of the components of this process is us as a creative community learning how to take more responsibility for our citizenship here," said Moore. "If Austin is going to continue to be the kind of place that we want to live and create art in, then we need to all take more responsibility."
"We need to have a much larger group than we have here," said Don Toner, producing artistic director of Austin Playhouse. "We need to involve our audiences as well as our fellow theatre members. We need to face the fact that we may have to resort at some point to torches and pitchforks to get any results."
As the meeting started to wind down (on time, no less) and volunteers adopted action items, attendee Erin Hallagan spoke up, a voice from the back row: "I also have a barn in my backyard which you're all welcome to use."
There was cheering. But the first question was, "Is it up to code?"
"I don't know that."
"We can help."
The next meeting of Create Space Austin will be Saturday, May 7, 2pm, at Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd. Interested parties can contact Christina Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org.