Saturday, November 24, 2012

First Work Day in the New Space!

Today was our first huge work day and we got a lot done! The theatre is really taking shape and everyone is very excited about our new location.
(Especially the people who found the giant candy store just upstairs...)

Our window display announcing our arrival!

We built another wall at the front entrance to enclose the space. We'll install double doors leading into the lobby.
Don testing the masonite layer on our new stage floor.

The stage is 16" high, 37' wide and 19' 6" long. It's a little bigger than our tent stage and a lot bigger than our Penn Field stage.
The risers for the back two rows were installed today.

Molly testing the structural integrity of the risers.

Bernadette led the cleaning backstage.

Joey clearing the ladder from our spacious dressing rooms!
Laura, Brian, and Huck took out tons of shelving so quickly we didn't get a picture.

The hallway behind our theatre is also a tornado shelter!

 Thanks to Laura, Patrick, Holly, Barry, Huck, Bernadette, Don, David, Joey, Molly, Eedann, Mike, Rick, and Brian for making our first workday awesome! We'll be back at it tomorrow!

Friday, November 16, 2012

First Look at Our New Performance Space!

 Last week we signed a lease agreement for a space at Highland Mall. Our new (temporary) home has a large front area that will be used for the stage, seating, and lobby. It also has a large back area for dressing rooms, storage, and scene construction. After a year producing plays in a tent we're very excited to be back indoors!
First look at our new home! We're on the lower level, across from the Express.

Don Toner surveys the new Austin Playhouse space at Highland Mall.
The staircase  and fountain just outside our front door.
The back area is filled with shelves (and very cool rolling ladders). We'll remove half the shelves and use the rest for storage and dressing room dividers.

We look forward to seeing you soon! Our first play opens December 13th, so we have a lot to do to get the space ready. We've started the permitting process and will begin construction on risers for seating next week.

Monday, November 5, 2012

We're Opening the 2012-2013 Season!

We've successfully negotiated a deal to open our season in a temporary theatre we'll build at Highland Mall.

A few weeks ago, as we were faced with further site permitting delays for our new space at Mueller, we asked our subscribers if they would prefer to open the season in a temporary facility in January or if they would prefer to wait until late Spring to open in the new theatre. The response was overwhelming. 97% of the subscribers who responded voted in favor of opening as soon as possible. We listened to you.

We will open our season on December 13th. We'll announce performance dates and show titles for the first two plays of the season in an e-newsletter as soon as the rights are secured and Subscribers can begin making their reservations at that time. Subscription packets are being prepared as quickly as possible.

While Austin Community College has long-term plans to transform the location, right now it is still a functioning mall. All the big department stores are gone, but many of the national stores, the food court, and local stores are still operating. The Highland Mall location also comes with ample parking, plenty of restrooms, and great climate control!

We want to thank Austin Community College and the management at Highland Mall for facilitating an arrangement that will benefit Austin Playhouse and the Austin community.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Artspace Market Survey Launches October 30

Join Us!

The City of Austin, Austin Playhouse, and Artspace will launch the Artspace Market Survey of Artists, Arts Organizations, and Creative Sector Businesses with a public presentation by Artspace staff Stacey Michelson and Teri Deaver on October 30 at 6:30 p.m. at The Off-Center. The survey will be available online from October 30 through December 31, 2012. Artists, arts organizations, and for-profit creative sector businesses are all encouraged to complete the survey.

The purpose of the market survey will be two-fold. The information gathered will help inform the concept and design decisions for the 4-story, 35-40 unit artist live/work project planned in conjunction with the new Austin Playhouse at Mueller Town Center. The results of the survey will also identify Austin's specific creative sector space needs and requirements, which will be made available to local developers, building owners, and foundations interested in developing creative spaces. The City envisions that the survey data will provide valuable information for the planning of corridors, creative hubs, arts districts, and incubators.

Artspace Market Survey Launch
When: Tuesday, October 30, 6:30 p.m.
Where: The Off-Center (2211-A Hidalgo St.)

Take the survey online Oct. 30 - Dec. 31:

Artspace in Austin

In June 2010, Artspace, a national leader in affordable space development for artists and arts organizations, was invited to Austin by Austin Playhouse to discuss their plans for development of a new theater. While in Austin, Artspace staff toured potential sites for an Austin Playhouse & Artspace development, conducted a number of focus groups, and held a public meeting attended by over 100 people.

The Artspace Feasibility Report for Austin, Texas, submitted after Artspace's visit, determined that Austin has the potential to support multiple Artspace artist live/work developments. Artspace will develop their first project above the Austin Playhouse complex at Mueller Town Center, next to the Austin Children's Museum.

Rendering of the Austin PlayhouseMueller Town Center is a planned 1.2 million square foot mixed-use lifestyle district in the heart of the Mueller development envisioned to be an active 24-hour, 365-day mix of commercial, civic, residential, recreational, and cultural offerings. Designed for the ease of the pedestrian, one will be able to stroll through the Artspace residences' art gallery on the rooftop terrace of Austin Playhouse, enjoy dinner or a drink in the full-service restaurant inside, as well as attend a performance at one of Austin Playhouse's two theatres.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday Update: Fun with Permitting!

Before we start any construction, we have to get our permits in place. Anyone who has gone through the indescribable joy of the permitting process knows that this necessary step can sometimes take on a life of its own. But there's good news for us.

-We've passed the Mueller New Construction Council approval process!

-We submitted our Site Permit to the City in November of 2011. The site permit process was estimated to take 3 - 6 months (and yes, that means we're at 10 months getting approval...). We've just received word that we passed all the requirements and are just awaiting the final filing of the paperwork.

-Our Building Permit also passed its final requirements. Paperwork should be complete in November.

The delays in the City's permitting process have been well reported for the past year. In June the Austin Business Journal reported that the City was hiring more officials to deal with the backlog:

So that's it. We are almost permitted!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Going, Going, Gone...

In two weeks we went from this....
to this....
to this....
and finally, to this.
 Huge thanks to Steve Shearer and his crew for managing the bulk of the tent strike!
Steve Shearer supervising the removal of the tent cover.
Lots of work is already being done on the Austin Children's Museum site. We hope to finally close on our adjacent site and start breaking ground soon!

Friday, July 27, 2012

If We Can Build it Here, We Can Build it Anywhere

Our 2011-2012 Season came to a close last Sunday. Our temporary home, the tent we built in a field at Mueller, is also closing. On Monday morning a work crew arrived and started removing first the seats, then the risers, then the stage floor, and finally everything else that would let you know that this particular tent had once been a theatre. I was out of town while all this dismantling was taking place. I didn't see the last performance in the tent that was Austin Playhouse's home for its 2011-2012 Season. And I'm heartsick about this. When you've built something and loved it and worked harder to make it succeed than you ever thought you could, you want to see it through to the end. And while I know that this temporary building was never intended to last forever, like any play it had an Opening and a Closing, I'm still a little devastated that I missed the chance to be there at the end.

But I was there at the beginning. When the tent rolled into town on the back of an 18-wheeler on the morning of my dad's birthday, October 18, 2011. And I was there when the first arch was raised into the air. And I was there when we opened our season with The Lion in Winter one month later. And each time we opened a play in the tent it felt more special because each time we had to overcome new hurdles to make it happen and each time every actor, designer, and crew member rose to the occasion.

So instead of being heartsick about this particular closing, I'm trying to remember everything that I loved about this year and will carry with me forever. And I'm trying to remember every challenge (heating in the winter, cooling in the summer, finicky electricity, rain threatening the sound equipment...) so that I'll be ok with saying goodbye. I'm grateful I had a chance to play on that stage, and I'm grateful I had the chance to work behind the scenes on each play we produced this year. And I'm grateful I was there for each Opening Night. These are my memories from those openings.

1) Opening Night of The Lion in Winter:
The rush to get the tent built and the play rehearsed was unprecedented for us. In one month our acting company and friends of the theatre built the entire facility, installed risers and seats, carpeted the floor, built the stage and set, and rehearsed the play. On November 18, 2011 it all came together and Huck Huckaby as Henry and Babs George as Eleanor led the cast through a wonderful opening night. Then, in the last five minutes of the play as (spoiler alert) Henry threatens his sons at swordpoint in a dimly lit wine cellar, the theatre's generator sputtered and the stage was plunged into darkness. A few l.e.d. powered candles were luckily onstage and provided very minimal light. The actors kept going with the scene. After a few tense seconds, our stage manager, Barry Miller, gathered flashlights and lit Henry and Eleanor for their final moments together in the most beautiful spotlight I've ever seen. When Eleanor uttered her line, "We're jungle creatures, Henry, and the dark is all around us." the crowd roared.

2) Opening Night of Boeing-Boeing: 
The play opened in late January. During rehearsal, we only had a small generator running and none of the large industrial heaters were installed. It was dark and it was cold. Boeing-Boeing is a farce. And there is nothing more disconcerting than trying to do fast-paced comedy in a dimly lit theatre while wearing a winter coat and gloves. But on opening it all came together, as it almost always does,  and I felt very lucky to be onstage for one of the five shows in our tent.

3) Opening Night of A Room with a View
I directed and adapted the play and on Opening Night, received my own ovation. It was more touching to me than I can express and I'm grateful to everyone who was a part of the project and the evening. 

4) Opening Night of Born Yesterday:  
During the preview performance we'd briefly lost power when we over-taxed our electricity during one of the brighter scenes. We thought we'd compensated, but on opening it happened again. This time power was restored in under 30 seconds. Andrea Osborn and Brian Coughlin had paused when the power went down and picked up right where they left off when it came back. The audience applauded and we sailed through another opening. I'm almost sorry we didn't lose power each Opening Night. Almost.

5) Opening Night of Chess:
When the season began we intended to produce two or three shows in the temporary venue and then move into our permanent home. Very quickly we knew we had to readjust (and readjust and readjust) our timeline. But we never intended to produce a musical in the tent. The original fall-back plan was to take a brief hiatus for the summer and wrap-up the season with Man of La Mancha opening the new building in September. That was not to be. The city agreed to let us stay and finish our season with a short run of Chess with SummerStock Austin. Many, many elements made this our most ambitious project of the season. Musicals always have their own special considerations: large casts, musicians, amplified sound, etc. And the difficulties that can come with each of these elements was magnified in the tent with its small dressing rooms, limited backstage space, and questionable acoustics. But each time a problem presented itself a team of incredible professionals was there to work it out. Opening Night was all the sweeter for the hard, hard work that went in to create it.

I will miss the tent more than I miss our Penn Field home or any of the theatres I've had to leave over the years, because more than any of the others I helped build everything in our Mueller tent and felt a part of everything that was put on that stage. More of my blood, sweat, and tears went into this season than any other I can recall. I painted more sets than I have since high school. I shivered during rehearsals in the winter, and sweated during run-thrus in the spring. 

Our plan is to start construction on a brand-new building that will be one of the anchor tenants of Mueller's new town center. For the past few months this blog has been silent, but the artistic leadership and board of Austin Playhouse has been attending countless meetings, securing financing, and negotiating with banks, and developers, and the city to clear the final hurdles to make our new home a reality. I sincerely hope that very, very soon I will be able to start reporting regularly on all the progress as the new Austin Playhouse rises from the ground at Mueller. But I also hope that I carry into this new building the memory of our 2011-2012 season in the tent. Because I believe it taught me more about this company I'm proud to belong to than the most comfortable season in the most modern new theatre possibly could. Thank you to everyone that was a part of this year.

This morning, I arrived back in Austin and went to Mueller to take in what was left of our tent. The exterior sign had already been taken down. I unlocked the door and entered.  The empty shell of the tent felt very small as I stood on the dirt floor looking up at the only thing left that would tell you this had once been a theatre: a few lights hanging from the metal beams, their cords dangling. The lights were scheduled to come down today. While inside, I could pace from the front to the back in twenty-five steps. It seemed impossible that a whole season's worth of memories had occurred in this empty space. And then I thought, no matter what happens in the future, this company will be fine. Because if we can build it here, if we can produce the season we just had in a tent in a field, we can do it anywhere. 
  -Lara Toner, Associate Artistic Director, Austin Playhouse 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Room with a View: From Page to Stage!

The following is a brief account of the journey to make Forster’s novel a stage play for Austin Playhouse. While I’ve done my best to be fairly accurate and comprehensive, if you have any questions or comments about the process, they are always welcome!
-Lara Toner

I was 10 years old when Merchant-Ivory released their beautiful film version of E.M. Forster's A Room with a View. I did not see it in the theatre, but sometime in the next year or two, probably when it made it to HBO, I saw it. For a very, very long time it was my answer to "What is your favorite movie?" The moment when George waded through a poppy-stained Italian barley field to grab Lucy and kiss her... Well, for young Lara, that was about as good as romance could get.

I read Forster’s novel in high school and loved how he managed to combine seemingly mundane events with some of the kindest and most accurate commentary on the human condition: Love one another. Tell the truth. And we’ll get through this muddle together. His novel added a depth to the story I loved in film.

In 2005 Austin Playhouse produced Matthew Barber’s stage adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel, Enchanted April. The play’s first act is set in England and its second act in Italy. The play was well received and shortly after working on that production I began thinking about my favorite Italy/England tale, A Room with a View. I mentioned to my father (Austin Playhouse’s Artistic Director) that I thought it would work as a play, but that I didn’t want to talk about it too much until I had a draft. I’m a little superstitious about these things and I feel that talking too much gets in the way of actually doing. And then a lot of time passed. 

A few things did happen during the next few years: I downloaded a copy of the book, reworked it to remove most of the descriptive narrative and highlighted all of the dialogue. And that was about it. Part of the frustration was that I couldn’t see our current space at Penn Field working for the play. At the other side of the process I see that this was more my limitation than the space’s.

The ensemble. Our Lucy plays the violin instead of the piano!  
In 2010 it began to look very promising that the Playhouse would be in our new home for our 2011-2012 Season. I began working in earnest. The first draft was mainly an edited version of the novel in play format. I kept in large swathes of descriptive language to describe action/characters/scene settings. I formatted the dialogue and basically determined which characters and scenes would be included. Then I went back through and cleaned it up a bit. This was the draft I turned in when the Playhouse company was nominating plays for our 2011-2012 Season. It was very, very rough.

The season selection process at the Playhouse starts with company members nominating plays. The artistic director narrows them down to a list that’s presented to our “early-bird” subscribers and they get to vote on plays when they purchase season tickets for the following year. The final decision is made by the artistic leadership, but the input of the company and audience is taken strongly into consideration.

For this season Man of La Mancha topped the poll (as we knew it would –big musicals are almost always the highest vote getters) and A Room with a View came in second. Which was a big surprise. And which meant that I really needed to get busy writing. When we worked out the season we placed Room third. At this point we knew that we would be in a temporary facility for the first play and possibly the second, but I was still hoping that Room would open in our new theatre. I love our tent and in spite of all the challenges I’m so glad I had the opportunity to perform in our temporary facility, but for several reasons I did not want to try to stage Room there. For one thing, weather is hard to control and Room is a big costume piece with lots of layers of vintage clothing. Also, several scenes would be much, much easier to stage in a more formal theatrical setting (the murder in Florence, bathing in the Sacred Lake…). And finally, I wanted to project Forster’s chapter titles and a few commentary projections throughout the play. 

The process to get us into our new theatre did not move quickly. The ongoing saga is full of permits and bureaucracy and funding issues that I’m sure surprise no one.

We opened The Lion in Winter on November 18, 2011 and at that point it was pretty clear that A Room with a View would be done in the temporary facility. I made the final decision to cut a couple smaller characters and to try to double-cast two other roles. Our backstage space is limited in the tent!
Three members of the Playhouse company were pre-cast, and auditions were held for all the other parts. Out of all the decisions I made during this process, assembling the first cast to bring the play to life is the one I’m unequivocally happiest with. They are an incredible group, not only ridiculously talented and well-suited for their parts, but also smart, collaborative, supportive, and full of good humor. Many of the best ideas (like how to stage the Sacred Lake scene) came from the actors.

Our Lucy and George, Claire Ludwig and Joey Melcher.
Just before our cast was assembled, the play was read again by Don Toner and Cyndi Williams. Cyndi is an acting company member, a friend, and a fantastic playwright. And she had the incredible advantage of never having seen the film or read the book. Her reaction to the play was incredibly helpful because she didn't carry any bias from the other works. Once the cast was assembled we began a series of read-thrus. I’d deliver a new draft a couple days before, we’d read it, then I’d go away and try to make it better for the next time. For me, the writing process was a hybrid writing/editing process. I wanted to preserve as much of Forster’s delicious dialogue as possible. And where the words were mine, I wanted them to blend seamlessly.

Once we started staging the play, several challenges presented themselves. Originally I’d envisioned the play in two halves: Italy and England. After the first read-thru it was clear that the Italy portion only took up about one third of the stage time. In fact, the play naturally fell into a three-act structure. Because it was being performed in the tent there were some concerns about taking two intermissions. I began looking for a different act break and eventually settled on the spot where Lucy finds out the Emersons will be her neighbors in England. We worked with this act break throughout the rehearsal process, but it always felt a bit disjointed and randomly placed. The Tuesday before we opened we ran the play with the two breaks, where the play wanted them to be. It worked.

Abandoned projections!

Our biggest technical challenge was the projections. I envisioned simple projections using Forster’s chapter titles to set the scene as well as commentary projections to occasionally incorporate Forster’s comic narrative voice. The Friday before we opened we tested them out and it quickly became apparent that there was no way to make them work in the tent. During Sunday matinees you can’t see the stage lights until curtain call as it is. And most evenings it’s not completely dark till half an hour into the show. I talked with the cast and proposed having the ensemble speak the projections. We eventually lost all the commentary projections and about a third of the scene settings. As it turns out, having the ensemble lead the audience through the narrative is probably more of a natural fit than projections would have been. Many other small moments transformed throughout this process. The very, very nicest thing about working on a new piece is the flexibility to make changes.

I could not be more grateful to work with this ensemble of actors and designers. This has been an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience. Thank you for joining us on this adventure!

Monday, April 2, 2012

The first groundbreaking (technically true....)

While we haven't yet "broken ground" in the "construction is imminent" sense, we were treated to some groundbreaking activity at our building site! 
The picture above shows the rig that was boring 50-foot holes at our building site to collect soil samples. The samples will determine exactly what kind of foundation we need. It's a small first step, but it was exciting to see any kind of activity starting. Stay tuned for more!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bye, Bye, Generator!

That's our Artistic Director, Don Toner, wielding a jackhammer to create a trench for underground electric cable to power our temporary facility. (How many Artistic Directors do you know that work jackhammers that well?)
Currently all our power comes from a generator, which works great until it runs out of gas in the middle of a show (opening night of The Lion in Winter, thank goodness for flashlights). It was always our plan to have electric installed in the temporary facility, but the initial bid to make it happen was way beyond our means and we stuck with generator power to get us through Lion. After that production we accepted new bids. Huge thanks to Jerry Brinkley (that's him operating the backhoe) for getting our little tent fully powered!
We expect to switch off the generator in about a week.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Signing the Contract

Dear Friends,

Yesterday afternoon Don Toner signed our contract to purchase our building site in the Mueller Town Center. We are the first business to have a signed contract for the Town Center portion of the Mueller development and we are incredibly proud. We have accomplished a tremendous amount already, and  we're confident we're on the right path to making our dream a reality. Thank you to everyone who has helped us reach this milestone and especially to our attorney, Gary Greif and our architect, Scott Ginder.

What we've already done:
-Our site plan was submitted in November. The site plan approval process can take several months, so it was crucial that we started the process as soon as possible.
-We have raised almost $400,000 in pledges and contributions. During the first phase of our fundraising efforts we reached out to our long-time supporters. We've been very gratified by their initial outpouring of support for this project.

What will happen next:
-We anticipate closing within 60 days as soon as the remainder of our financing is in place. 
-We will begin construction as soon as closing occurs and the site plan is approved. We are currently estimating construction will begin in late February. Construction will take six to seven months to complete and we will open our new theatre in Fall 2012.
-We will expand our fundraising efforts to include the greater Austin community, foundations, and corporations.

In the meantime:
-Our 2011-2012 season will continue in our temporary facility. You'll be able to see the progress on the building each time you visit the theatre.
-Upcoming productions include Boeing-Boeing, January 27 - February 26, and A Room With a View, running March 23 - April 22.

How you can help:
We are financing the project by a combination of individual contributions and innovative loan programs through the City of Austin's Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office. If you would like to make a contribution or pledge, please visit our website.

Thank you for your continued support. We couldn't do it without you!

Lara Toner and your friends at Austin Playhouse