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Coming soon: A ‘forever home’ (finally) for Austin Playhouse

by Michael Barnes,
A rendering of the exterior planned for Austin Playhouse's new home. [Contributed by Forge Craft Architecture]

Austin Playhouse has performed on at least 17 different stages during its more than 30 years in Austin.

Before taking its current name about 20 years ago, the company started out as Live Oak Theatre in a warehouse space that was later demolished. Most of its followers, however, associate the company with its long stays at the State Theater, Penn Field and, currently, Austin Community College’s Highland Campus.

Austin Playhouse artistic director Lara Toner Haddock says the long trek is almost over. The company has purchased land at 1717 E. Anderson Lane and plans to break ground on a forever home in 2020.

“We need to raise just over $1 million during the construction process and then another $2 million to retire construction loans,” Haddock says.

We talked to Haddock about the path to a new theater. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

American-Statesman: You are closer than ever. What’s the mood for the company?

Lara Toner Haddock: Well, I'm probably the most cautious person in the company, so I have to constantly remind myself that everything's going well.

We've gained so much knowledge over the past few years, and it's much easier to navigate the process this time around.

When we left Penn Field, we were working with the city's economic development department, but they weren't really set up to assist a project like ours. We had a contract at Mueller, but we couldn't secure the bank loan to complete construction. This time around, we own the land.

I feel like we've sprung all the traps, and it's starting to feel more like an inevitability than a dream.

Tell us more about the site and the design.

When we were looking for a site, we cast a pretty wide net through the city. Our budget and Austin's real estate market meant we weren't likely to land in the middle of downtown, but we wanted to make sure the site was accessible and visible. Right now, because of construction at ACC Highland, we can't even give folks an address, just the nearest intersection.

What I've learned is that there is no perfect site. We'll have some concessions to make wherever we go. But at the end of the day, what's most important is that it fits our company's needs and allows sustainable growth. And it will be ours.

The site we purchased is 2.8 acres on the U.S. 183 frontage road, at 1717 E. Anderson Lane, (near) the big corridor renovation project. We're going to move from one of the least accessible venues in the city to one with 65,000 cars driving by each day.

Our architecture firm is Forge Craft Architecture. There will be two venues, a 207-seat main stage and a 99-seat second stage. We currently have 143 seats at ACC Highland.

When do you expect to break ground?

February is our current target. Construction should take about a year to complete. Our lease with ACC is through June 2021, so next year will be our last season in this space.

How will this theater be different from your previous venues?

Most of the spaces we've performed in have been remodeled or adapted. Our ACC Highland space used to be a Foot Locker. Penn Field was a World War I flight-training facility.

The State had to have extensive remodeling to function as a live performance venue, and Live Oak was one of many warehouse theaters that used to be scattered around Austin.

It's such a luxury to consider the audience and artist experience from the ground up. We've had conversations about the audience experience from driving into the parking lot, entering the building, to navigating the box office and bar.

Our architect, Scott Ginder, even wrote a short play about two patrons visiting the theater for the first time and discovering all its features.

The whole architecture team has been fantastic about learning exactly how the venue needs to function. Most architects aren't working on lots of performance venues, and our needs can be very specific. We moved the booth in the second space after we explained the perspective the stage manager needed to call the show.

This venue also has dedicated support facilities. The scene shop doesn't need to double as a rehearsal hall. The classroom won't store furniture. The costume loft will have lighting and ladders.

We're increasingly limited in our current space. ACC Highland is primarily a college campus, and we don't fit neatly into that plan. The student collaborations have been wonderful, and we plan to continue internships and mentorships wherever we produce.

Our business manager started with us as an intern when she was a freshmen at Southwestern University. But our performance and educational activities have had to be curbed substantially to work with ACC.

With the new venue, I want to see activity seven days a week. We want it to be a welcoming and accessible community space.

The first floor has the box office, bar with indoor and patio seating, main stage, second stage and classroom spaces. The mezzanine level has the offices, costume and prop storage, and tech booths. We've also designed a rooftop space that will be available for private events.

And we really want the venue to be as flexible as possible. We'll be able to screen movies, hold events and host community gatherings. We also have 1,700 square feet of office rental space for use by other nonprofits.

Renting a venue is becoming more and more difficult and many groups have lost their homes in the past few years. We really want to provide some stability to artists in Austin.