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