Austin Playhouse Plants Permanent Roots on Anderson Lane
The future 2.8-acre property will include two stages, a rooftop terrace and high-quality performing arts
By Liz Harroun
We have all overheard (likely many times) someone talking about Austin’s “good ol’ days.” When there was no traffic or chains or Californians. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that inevitable change has been accelerated by unprecedented growth here in Austin. In the decade ending in 2020, Austin was the nation’s fastest-growing metro, growing by almost a third, or over half a million new residents, during that time.
This growth has put outward pressure on the city limits, as central housing has become too expensive or simply unavailable. Local establishments have started opening locations on the outskirts of Austin proper and in the surrounding suburbs to meet the growing demand as people are living farther from downtown. However, performing arts establishments have yet to catch up to the growing, more dispersed populations of Austin — partially due to the fact that people haven’t been returning to theatres in full force since the COVID Pandemic. However, with theatres now opened back up and more people in Austin than ever, Austin Playhouse is ready to change that.
Austin Playhouse is entering their 23rd season as a professional theatre in Austin, so they are no stranger to this city and its recent growth. They produce a variety of plays, with a focus on new play development, so they have done a lot of world and regional premieres. There is also a theatre for youth program, free for Title I students, who come to the theatre so they can experience it, often for the first time.
AP’s acting company is one of the things that distinguishes it from other groups in Austin. They are one of three professional theatre companies in Austin (along with ZACH Theatre and Austin Shakespeare) affiliated with Actors’ Equity Association. This helps ensure better wages, working conditions and benefits for actors. There are about 30 members in AP’s active acting company, which is the core of their artistic team, along with seven full-time people on staff.
Dan Toner founded AP in 2000, after working in the performing arts industry for many years. He recently retired, and his daughter, Lara Haddock Toner, who has worked at AP for a decade now, serves as the producing artistic director. As her father was entering retirement and she was stepping up into this huge leadership position, the pandemic hit. They had to quickly pivot in order to stay open at all.
“During the pandemic we did a whole virtual season,” says Lara. “I learned video editing, which was not something I planned to do that year. But it was really fun! I wish the skills we had to develop weren’t because of a pandemic, but now we are a lot more agile with online offerings.”
Thanks to the pandemic, they now have online streaming versions of plays and live screenings — so offerings are more diverse than ever. However, AP is eager to do much more than just survive the pandemic.
For the past couple of decades, they have rented various locations for their productions, including a World War I flight training facility at Penn Field, a giant tent in the Mueller redevelopment and Austin Community College Highland. When the pandemic hit, they left a rental space completely and are now in the middle of a capital campaign, where they are raising funding to finally build their very own permanent space.
Lucky for many of us, that space is located in northeast Austin, on Anderson Lane along the 183 frontage road, where AP has already purchased a 2.8-acre property. The towns on the northern outskirts of Austin — including Cedar Park, Leander and Round Rock — have outpaced even the city’s growth in the past decade. The location of this theatre, farther north than any others in Austin, will provide convenient access to high-quality performing arts for those booming populations. AP already owns the piece of land, and the additional funding raised by the capital campaign will be used to complete the construction of the facility itself. The rise in real estate and construction over the past few years has caused a venue crisis in Austin, with a lot of the spaces that have historically been homes to theatres going away.
“The goal of the capital campaign is to have a permanent, sustainable home for Austin Playhouse,” says Lara. “It’s a secure space not just for our theatre but also for other arts organizations. It’s now or never for making this investment in these cultural buildings because it’s not going to get any easier to build in Austin, and we don’t want to lose any more local companies because they can’t afford their building anymore. So primarily, this new space will really benefit families and everyone moving to Austin that want it to be — not just the live music capital of the world — but an artistic capital, with a really vibrant performing arts scene and visual arts scene. And that’s what we’re envisioning for our new space: that it will be this hub of artistic activity.”
The capital campaign committee is working diligently to secure enough funding, especially as construction costs have unexpectedly risen since the land was acquired in April 2019. Designed by Forge Craft Architecture, the new arts center will serve as a creative hub for Austin artists and provide huge growth opportunities for both Austin Playhouse and its partners. The facility will include two stages — a 207-seat main stage and a 99-seat black box stage. There will also be flexible spaces for performances and events including a large classroom, rooftop terrace and outdoor patio. The new space will also have support facilities like offices, a scene shop, a costume loft and backstage dressing rooms, as well as ample flexible office space that will be available for rent. They are also hoping to add a small outdoor amphitheater on the property, which would be especially useful with the concern since the pandemic.
In the interim, they moved into the second and third floors of the University Baptist Church in August, where they will be opening their first post-pandemic season in November. This space was originally built as a theatre in 1950, and Playhouse is excited to renovate it so that they can restore its original purpose but with modern functionality.
“For this space, we really want it to be available to as many people in the community as possible,” says Lara. “My hope is that when we leave it stays a community asset and that another group can step in and use it.”
And while an opening date for the new northeast location has not yet been determined, in the meantime you can expect lots of exciting productions from Austin Playhouse in their final temporary space. Their upcoming four-play season will start with a comedy called “The Play That Goes Wrong” followed by a world premier from a fantastic new playwright, Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” and finally a musical called “Big Fish.”
“Over the past couple of years, we didn’t have that same connection with our audience, which is what everyone wants from live theatre,” says Lara. “So we built a season that really leans into celebrating that joy of connection and magic of theatre.”
As far as the post-pandemic theatre industry goes, it’s still not the same as before. “In-person attendance isn’t fully back yet, so we’re budgeting a smaller subscription base and attendance,” says Lara. “A lot of people are doing shorter runs. I’m hopeful that we grow back. But what I’m finding is that some folks don’t understand how much theatre is still impacted by the pandemic.”
AP still has to regularly test company members, adding expenses and complexity. Masking is still common during rehearsals. And if a member of the cast gets COVID, they can’t perform. In the past few months, there have been several productions that have had to cancel weeks of their run or close early due to positive COVID tests. Some patrons still want fully-masked performances, so Austin Playhouse is offering a couple of productions in their upcoming seasons where all audience members are required to wear masks. Looking forward, the investment in the new space is one that will contribute more variety to the artistic ecosystem in Austin, encouraging people to return to the theatre in new ways.
“Austin is a town we all know and love,” says Lara. “It’s grown so much, and a lot of the cultural infrastructure hasn’t grown along with it. It’s wild to me that Austin doesn’t have several large regional theatres operating in a town this size. And I think we’re set up in a great position to show folks the benefit of having multiple posts right now. I think that once Austin realizes that we can have a much more vibrant artistic scene and that we’re able to support that, it’s going to make a fantastic impact on people’s lives.”