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Tent will house Austin Playhouse shows for now

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

It's just a dusty expanse of open field now, an empty parcel at the Mueller development, the urban community rising up on the site of the old municipal airport.

To leaders and supporters of Austin Playhouse , it's a field of dreams, the site of a $4 million new two-theater venue they plan to open in fall 2012. But until that happens, the shows will go on - in a temporary tent theater, that is.

On Friday, Austin Playhouse artistic director Don Toner was busy installing the 55-by-60-foot tension-fabric tent. The arched, steel-framed tent echoes the nearby Browning Hangar, a 1940s-vintage wood structure preserved on the former airport site.

When installation is complete, it'll be a 150-seat performance space. The first production, "The Lion in Winter," will open Nov. 18, one of three shows Toner said he plans to present between now and next spring.

"We're kind of frontiersmen out here now," Toner said.

Austin Playhouse announced last year that it had signed a letter of intent with Catellus Development Group , the firm leading the Mueller development, to purchase property to build a two-theater facility in what will be the Mueller community's town center. Designs by Dick Clark Architecture for the theater complex were also unveiled last year.

The community theater group plans to build a 17,000-square-foot complex with classrooms and offices as well as a ground-floor space that will be sold to a bar or restaurant.

When completed, Austin Playhouse will be one of several cultural facilities in the Mueller neighborhood.

The Austin Children's Museum has plans to construct a 28,000-square-foot building adajcent to where Austin Playhouse will be, but museum officials are mum on the timetable for their project.

On the north side of the Mueller community, Austin Film Society maintains Austin Studios, a 20-acre film production facility.

Toner said the theater's $4 million project is being paid for through a combination of a $1.5 million capital campaign, a $1.6 million low-interest loan and $800,000 of New Market tax credits, a federal program intended to encourage private capital development in underserved communities.

The remaining $100,000 would come from the lease of the restaurant space. Toner said about $400,000 of the $1.5 million capital campaign has been raised.

In 2002, as a new theater group, Austin Playhouse took up residence in the Penn Field complex on South Congress Avenue, a 16-acre mixed-use property on the site of a former military airfield.

But in the course of eight years at Penn Field, the monthly rent on the playhouse's 160-seat venue rose from $5,000 to $12,000, and Toner began to look for a permanent home.

The temporary tent theater cost about $24,000, Toner said. "For the price of two months' rent at (the former location), we could still put on our shows and be right where our new home will be."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699