Call a Thing by Its Proper Name

When opening up a line of conversation about a field as fractured and pasted together as the American theatre the first challenge is finding a vocabulary, a framework, a context to hold the conversation together. Artists resist labels at all costs. Terms of art like “devised work” or “immersive theatre” get derided as cliché and meaningless before the general population has even become aware of them. Cross-contamination of grant application and business jargon leads to word salad. Trying to define anything is like cleaning up a mercury spill on the tilt-a-whirl.

Add the feral competitiveness of a population believing that they are in a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum industry and trying to get a spin-free picture of any location as an “arts city” would seem to be a lost cause. Producing such a snapshot would seem to be a fool’s errand.

I’ll be playing the fool.

There are basic pitfalls for any fool attempting to assay a city’s arts climate or character. The easiest to fall into is finding and using the first common denominator between yourself and the audience… In theatre that first denominator is always the industrial theatre of New York. The trap of course is that there is no gestalt level commonality between any city and New York—not in terms of scale, industry or intent. So let’s dispense with the New York mad libs, the idea that somehow East Austin is like Williamsburg with fewer strollers and better boots. Hyde Park isn’t [Name of neighborhood] with [hokey Texas metaphor]. The exercise attempts to borrow big brother’s clothes and just sort of demeans everyone involved.

The second trap is one I am particularly prone to. Austin is every inch a college town with every college town’s native transience. When you try to describe such a place you grab a moment in time out of that river of people and ideas, hold it up to the light, and then try to make the truth of that moment and those people the truth for a place rather than a moment.

When you hold yourself out as an advocate for a place, folks come to you when they’re thinking of moving to that town. I get asked a lot about the pros and cons of moving to Austin. As someone who was supposed to leave five years ago but got caught up making things, I am decidedly pro-Austin, but when trying to put together a viewbook of why artists should join your community, the impulse is to showcase finished-product, big-name artists, and world-class resources, and I have a hard time doing that. I have a list of folks I want you to work with several miles long and shows I’ve loved with my whole being. Shows that have changed my whole being. But you don’t know them, they’re not going to bring you here and moving to Austin isn’t going to get you any more paid than where you are.

Because, well, here's the thing—Austin isn’t a theatre town. So why in the world would I recommend you move to Austin, or extended-visit Austin, or not leave Austin?

For years I‘ve held Austin up as a hothouse for new plays and as a node of the #newplay network. I took what I saw in my first four years in town and extrapolated what was produced as being the environment that produced it. As my tenure lengthened, I began to be a little confused when the new plays started slowing down and classics began to proliferate. Devised work companies went on hiatus or focused on other things and the product no longer fit the narrative. I was, as it turned out, a little shortsighted and frankly selling the town short.

Because, well, here's the thing—Austin isn’t a theatre town.

So why in the world would I recommend you move to Austin,
or extended-visit Austin,
or not leave Austin?

Because Austin is a maker town.

If you are interested in making inroads into the existing theatre industry this isn’t a straight-line stop on your journey. If you would like to figure out what you want to make, learn how to make it yourself, or if you want to work outside the industry, pull up a chair—there’s plenty of table.

Honestly? Austin lacks the same sorts of things most non-theatre towns lack:

  • There is little community/institutional memory.
  • It doesn’t have a culture of theatre-going or broad community awareness of stage performance.
  • It doesn’t have infrastructure in place to support the itinerant majority of companies.
  • There aren’t enough venues or the money to modernize the venues it has.
  • There is no regional theatre here to work toward or grow into (although the Zach Scott Theatre and Austin Playhouse both hope to become that aspirational top to Austin’s food chain).
  • Austin’s wealth is so new that local philanthropy is still lagging behind our incomes.

Not surprising really. Not different from most midsized American cities.

College towns find themselves in shallow repeated growth cycles. Clusters and groups may reach institutional maturity, but there’s mostly a never ending supply of adolescent (two- to five-year-old) companies producing promising work with rough edges and then moving on to other places or other things before settling down and paying off on that early promise. I've often cast that as a negative, which for the town it might be. There's something lovely about growing all your own art and being proud of the arts ecosystem in your community and there's sadness in losing it, but there are enough artists who put down roots and leave traces behind—like the vestiges of old paint underneath years of new, stripes and speckles of what has come before are never completely gone. What I missed in bemoaning the defections was that those artists who leave don't evaporate as their contributions felt in one time or place are as valuable as the new energies that emerge.

The generation of folks active when I arrived (in 2004) was making new plays. Devised or scripted, this town was boiling over with them. Then lots of them moved on to other places or to other kinds of art and the foundation became a little clearer. Rather than some sort of #newplay hothouse, what Austin exemplifies is an environment with a deep well of makers to work with. Here you learn how to make your art and what sort of art you want to make—not just theatremakers but entrepreneurs, bartenders, musicians, visual artists, dancers, chefs, writers, coders, and designers of every stripe. This sort of wide and deep collection of varied talent and a resilient (diversified) economy and relatively sane cost of living are the perfect environment for trying almost anything you can think of.

A skyline
The skyline of  downtown Austin, Texas. Photo by Jonathan H Jackson. 

Here you learn how to make your art and what sort of art you want to make—not just theatremakers but entrepreneurs, bartenders, musicians, visual artists, dancers, chefs, writers, coders, and designers of every stripe.

The hidden piece though is the audiences. They are surprisingly resilient. They'll show for anything. Not necessarily thousands of them. Not enough to quit your day job. But they're game. This is a community that supports The Rude Mechanicals' stabs at LARPing or musicals, the (on hiatus) Rubber Repertory's casting of the audience as the protagonist in Biography of Physical Sensations, and Physical Plant's hybrid puppet/human love letter to an arts community in life or death with Adam Sultan. It turns out for the Fusebox Festival. It supports Allison Orr's blending of the literal workaday of trash collection with choreography in Trash Dance and they turn out in force for Chekov or Odets paired with hot local bands on trendy Rainey Street on the Exchange Artists' Hot Nights. Lord, the best companies in town right now are probably Trouble Puppet and sister company Glass Half Full, unafraid of bringing anything to life to help tell a story, and unafraid of telling any story, The Jungle, Macbeth, or the originals Orchid Flotilla and Fup Duck.

People show up—in warehouses and gardens and houses and parks and museums and on the roof of Whole Foods and in bars and farmers markets. A lot of that audience is artists supporting other artists to be sure, but some “civilians” as well, and they come back. 

To an artist looking at a city to put down roots, Austin might seem like it has little to offer—an open door, people to work with, and people to share your art with, but say that out loud a few times and see if it doesn't sound pretty good to you. We've roped ourselves into that first great trap, comparing two unlike things in the name of ease. At first blush when quantifying a city according to capitalist metrics, a place not producing great product has little or no value. Austin isn't a Broadway or an Off-Broadway tryout town, it never will be. It may support a five million a year commercial theatre, maybe even two. I don't know if it can make the leap to supporting a full-fledged regional, but it can absolutely support adventurous artists of all stripes.

It can be a proving ground for generative artists in all manner of collaborations and configurations. It can make it possible to learn how to be an entrepreneurial artist in the real world. It can be the sandbox in which you try out some new toys. It can be the laboratory in which you discover the product you want to make or the maker you want to be. As an ecosystem we need centers of research and development, maker cities, to be taking the risks that industrial theatre cities can't afford to. Austin and cities like it can be those centers.

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Thoughts from the curator

An overview of the theatre scene in Austin.

Austin, Texas

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This is great and you are so spot-on about the audiences in Austin -- not TONS of them, but they are so cheerful and trusting and willing to roll. When I see theater in NY, the audience always has this feral-cat vibe, like they are prepared to bolt if this show gives off any signal they can't instantly slot. I KNOW THAT'S PROBABLY UNFAIR. I just always thing Ergh: it would be tricky to work here.

Also though wrt to sandboxes -- I wrote a piece for the Chronicle a few years ago about Austin theater and what makes it different (it was when a lot of groups were touring shows) (see how modestly I do not link to it), and Ron Berry said that the extremely low stakes in Austin--it's cheap to make and produce, and if you have a disaster it's not like it goes on your permanent record--gives you the freedom to do deep play, and that's incredibly valuable.

When I talk about Austin with people interested in theater communities, I talk about two things, Travis. The first of them you've focused on here: its a city where people make things. I'm forever yammering on about the difference between waiting and doing and how crucial it was for me to discover the difference at a young (enough) age. And, at that very moment, to stop waiting and start making. And the time I've spent in Austin, or with artists who make their work in Austin, has always made me wish I discovered that about Austin earlier in my tenure in San Francisco-- we could have really made some shit together, all of us! I love that about your town. Hell, yeah, it's a maker's town.

The second thing I always tell people about it is that it is a place of real collaboration, real community. You don't talk much about that here, and one thing I hate more than slippery language is old stories. For a number of years, it seemed to me, Austin was inventing and upholding really promising ways to work together as a community- moreso than any other city I'd visited in the country. Or probably better put: it seemed a greater percentage of the community was engaged in the ideas and practices of community-wide collaboration, like it was one big endlessly morphing ensemble-- it was a city that first got me seriously thinking about the possibility of an actual Commons existing in the American Theater. Is that still a feature of the place? I note your talk of the transient nature of the individual artists who comprise the community, but in the morphing, it feels from afar as though you guys are able to Keep Austin Collaborative. That a true statement?

Thanks for your help in getting this Austin series going. In spite of the weird, sad, and disorienting moment we're wandering through here in Boston, I'm looking forward to reading all of it!

Give all my friends some queso when you see them.

Love you, Austin.

I think there is a TON of collaboration going on in town. I think we lack a better system for finding one another to KNOW that we want to collaborate but it's very much a feature both inside the community and between the theatre community and the other artists in town. [mostly I was leaving the collab talk to others ;) )

Thanks for taking care of my city up there.

This article comes at an ideal time for me. I am graduating with my Bachelor's degree in Theatre Performance from Seton Hill University in May, and I have chosen to move to Pittsburgh. Why? Well, I couldn't find the words to describe my reasoning until I read this article. As an up and coming theatre artist I have only just begun making contacts and finding my niche in the 'real world'. I feel in my gut (and my wallet) that catching a bus to NYC is not the answer, and I long to take a more roundabout path. Your sandbox imagery is spot on to how I feel about Pittsburgh's many outlets for performance art. Though Pittsburgh and Austin definitely have their differences, I imagine that much of your article fits any cultural district that artists consider residing in. Thank you for putting into words this undergraduate's motivations.

Andy,

That's actually the thrust of what I'm aiming for in the broader sense here. We're hesitant to trumpet the sandbox in lieu of talking about where in the industry chain we fit or what we produced that's gone on to bigger venues. I think it's true of MOST of the country and I think that if we talk about a communities' actual strengths in terms other than a launchpad to upmarket industrial success we can get a higher resolution image of the strength of our art not just our industry.

Congratulations on your choice of Pittsburgh, dive deep and join in.