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Van Ryzin: Whether in a tent or in a mall, for Austin Playhouse, the show goes on

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Dan Day checks the lights he is installing in the new temporary home of the Austin Playhouse. After performing in a tent theater for a year at Mueller, where they plan to build a new theater, the troupe is now putting up a second temporary theater in Highland Mall while still waiting for groundbreaking.

What’s the old show business saying? Something about how no matter what happens, the show must go on?

More than any other theater group in town, Austin Playhouse might embody the spirit of that saying.

A year ago, the midsize nonprofit troupe announced that it was pitching a tent — literally — on a site at the Mueller development, where it planned to build a two-theater facility as part of the Mueller community’s town center.

The tent was a temporary venue while the community theater group worked through the permitting process for its planned 17,000-square-foot complex that would also have classrooms, offices and ground-floor space that will be sold to a bar or restaurant.

However, with permitting for the Mueller project still not finalized but construction under way on the building next to it, the troupe is setting up a second temporary home. And this time, the show’s at Highland Mall.

On Thursday, Austin Playhouse will raise the curtain on “The Game’s Afoot (Or Holmes for the Holidays),” a murder mystery drawing-room comedy set in Broadway theater world of the 1930s.

The theater’s real estate shuffle around town mirrors the shifting landscape of Austin development as once-thriving destinations like Highland Mall lose their luster.

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.

At the time, Penn Field was heralded for its re-use of an overlooked site and its mix of shops, restaurants and offices. Austin Playhouse was an early tenant.

But in the course of its eight years at Penn Field, the troupe saw the rent on its 160-seat venue jump from $5,000 to $12,000, a clear signal of the site’s exploding desirability.

In 2010, Austin Playhouse gave up its South Austin address and announced that it had signed a letter of intent with Catellus Development Group, the firm leading the Mueller development, to purchase property to build a theater all its own.

Like Penn Field, Mueller — once the home to Austin’s airport — is also a real estate repurposing, only on a much larger scale. Already the 700-acre East Austin site features Dell Children’s Medical Center, several hundred single-family homes, a retail area, Austin Film Studios and a number of apartment buildings. An elementary school, more retail and more homes are planned. Austin Children’s Museum has a new building under construction right next to where Austin Playhouse will build a $4.75 million two-theater facility.

In fact, the new Austin Playhouse is being designed not only as a part of the Mueller Town Center mixed-use development, but the theater’s structure itself will be readied for four additional stories to be added on it at a later date. Austin Playhouse is working with Artspace, a national nonprofit real estate developer of live/work arts projects. Artspace is considering developing live/work studio apartments to be built above Austin Playhouse.

In August, Austin Community College finalized its plans to purchase all of Highland Mall with the intent to transform the 80.8-acre site into — that’s right — a mixed-used development with commercial and multi-family residential features complementing college facilities like classroom buildings and perhaps a convocation center.

Recently, Lara Toner, Austin Playhouse associate artistic director, watched as a couple of workers built theater seats and a stage in a 6,900-square-foot space that used to be a sports store.

“The place has everything we need,” said Toner, pointing out the high ceilings and the large storage area that was being converted to backstage dressing rooms.The group already owns its own lighting and sound equipment, a stock of costumes, curtains and theater seating. About $15,000 is being spent on lumber and supplies to build a tiered riser for about 140 seats.

Mall security will stay on guard when shows let out after closing. And mall management has promised to turn down the canned music in the part of the mall where the theater is so it doesn’t interfere with show acoustics.

Toner said the group hopes to begin construction at Mueller early next year with a new venue opening in late 2013. The season at Highland Mall extends through April.

“We could have just gone on hiatus all season and waited until we had the new place, especially after we’ve being doing theater in a tent for a year,” Toner said. “But we polled our (1,500) subscribers, and 97 percent of them said they wanted us to go ahead with the shows. They wanted theater and they wanted it right now.”

“The Game’s Afoot”