Listen to Austin 360 Radio

The next stage for Scottish Rite Theater

With a new artistic director, an old Austin venue gets new life with expanded entertainment for all ages

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

A few comedians and sketch comedy groups played the Scottish Rite Theater during the Moontower Comedy festival last month, and to attend any of those shows by comics such as Marc Maron or Larriane Newman was to be treated to a second, lesser performance: the looks on the faces of those who had never before been in the theater.

Those folks all had the same "What the ...?" expressions as they headed into the theater's underlit foyer area, with its deep leather chairs, photos of Scottish Rite Masons and the "Hall of Texas Heroes."

It's not exactly the outside courtyard at Red 7, nor is it the carpeted Bass Concert Hall or the functional concrete of ACL Live.

It is, quite understandably, exactly like the sitting room of a traditional men's social club, an institution so far off the radar of 21st century Austin that to picture it is to conjure something from a period-piece movie.

Then there's the theater itself, with the vaulted, painted ceiling and the walls covered in cloth. If you go to the stage and look up, you can see, hanging from the rafters, the 19th-century style, hand-painted backdrops.

New visitors' expressions all say the same thing: This is a really, really cool room.

Of Montreal, Austin chamber rockers Mother Falcon and the Marmalakes have already played shows in the space. And in the next few months everyone from the Three Little Pigs to Reggie Watts will perform there. This summer will feature camps and plays for children, as well as adult gigs.

Welcome to the new Scottish Rite Theater. Yes, you may call it SRT if you like.

Respecting the space

"I did not think I was right for the job," Emily Marks says.

We are walking around Scottish Rite in the middle of the day. It is dead quiet and, like many former theater geeks who spent nights and weekends in high school theaters, I suddenly have this distinct feeling I Am Not In Class Right Now, Yet In The Building.

You might recognize Marks' name from Girls Rock Camp Austin, which she founded in 2007. She decided it was time for a new challenge last year and found out the SRT was looking for a new artistic director and new artistic direction.

"I just didn't think the things I was into were what they were looking for," Marks says.

Then again, she's been involved with arts education and kids for years, and the worst they could say was "no."

"During the interview, I just started asking questions about this history of the organization and suddenly it hit me, ‘Wow, this building is paid for,'" Marks says.

That might seem like a small thing, but a nonprofit with a paid-for building has far less pressure to break even on programs. They can afford to experiment, which is where both Marks and the board wanted to be.

"She impressed us with her ideals and her vision," says Austin Scottish Rite Theater director Don Eames. "She inspires. I think that's a good way to look at it. You get caught up in her ideas."

Two hours after they interviewed her, the board offered the gig as executive and artistic director to her. She started Jan. 2.

John Riedie, a longtime Austin music manager, soon joined her as executive producer to handle theater rentals and outside bookings.

"We're not going to book shows that are going to draw crowds that don't respect the space," Riedie says. "But we are going for something different."

Marks sees pure potential. "I wanted a space that was holistic and a little more interdisciplinary," Marks says and points to Mother Falcon's February gig as an example.

The 18-or-so piece chamber folk group (yes, managed by Riedie) played the SRT relaunch concert Feb. 25 by presenting two shows, a 12:30 p.m. family matinee with animations from artist Divya Srinivasan and a set from Les Rav. At 8 p.m., Mother Falcon played an "adult" concert with Hello Wheels and Altered Five.

"It was great," Marks says. "It was exactly what I wanted it to be, family programming for people I know that have kids, that want to get out of the house and hear music they can all enjoy."

Mother Falcon is also throwing the Mother Falcon Music Laboratory for middle school and high school students, what Marks, a classically trained musician herself, describes as "anti-orchestra-camp orchestra camp."

"String instrument camp is both important to young classical musicians and can sometimes feel like the nerdiest thing in the world," Marks says. "We wanted to address that a bit by introducing improvisation, composition and songwriting." (See a full list of camps at scottishritetheater.org.)

There is also room for more elaborate productions and adult rock shows. The folks at Transmission Entertainment, who are putting the upcoming comedians in the room, love the place. "It's awesome," said Transmission producer Graham Williams. "It's like a mini-Paramount, with lots of history and a beautiful layout. Some bands want seated shows, which is why we have put stuff at places like churches, but it's a great new option and I'm really glad they're doing live music again."

And minds were blown when Of Montreal played an unofficial showcase during South By Southwest, complete with elaborate lights and effects. Marks says it was almost an installation.

Reidie says it was great to see, but cautions that SRT's equipment isn't quite there yet. "Those guys must have spent tens of thousands of dollars on that show," he says.

A commitment to children

Originally built by a German American social organization called Turn Verein in 1871, the building served as theater, biergarten, gymnasium and all-purpose center for the German community. It was purchased by the Scottish Rite branch of the Freemasons in 1910 as a private hall for Masonic use (and occasional public performances in the 1990s).

In 2004, the organization launched the Scottish Rite Children's Theatre. It has served as such since and hosted the occasional adult performance. In 2005, the enigmatic Texas artist Jandek played his debut American performance there. Last year, 78 separate performances were seen by about 11,500 people; about 9,500 of those were kids.

Marks enters the theater's storied history with several goals: to mount original productions featuring more relevant content and a stronger focus on artistic quality, to increase service to low-income families and to make SRT a true arts incubator.

"Instead of having one benefit performance for 250 kids," Marks says, "you set aside 50 to 75 tickets for kids who can't afford them for every one of 10 performances. Since the shows draw about 150 paying kids a piece anyway, and the room seats 400, you're not eating into ticket sales and you are greatly increasing the number of kids you want to get into the theater via outreach."

This is the portion Marks is most passionate about, and she can talk your ear off about it.

"I came to Austin from Memphis, a much poorer city, and there was more opportunity for low-income kids to get a music education there than here," Marks says. "There's a really high need for that. If 20 percent of the economy is depending on the creative class and we're not making a commitment to exposing kids to the arts, that creative class is going to disappear."

In some ways, from fundraising to rebooting the idea of the theater, Marks has her work cut out for her. While the sound system is new, the building is pretty old. Part of the reason the capacity seems so small compared with the size of the room is the lack of a sprinkler system, something Marks is hoping to add as soon as she can raise the money.

But the truth is there is no place else quite like the Scottish Rite Theater.

Riedie looks around the Hall of Texas Heroes and settles into one of the chairs. "Honestly, this part here?" he says. "I wouldn't change a thing."

Contact Joe Gross at 912-5926.

The Scottish Rite Theater