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Biscuit Brother Allen Robertson talks community in new musical

Nicole Villalpando, nvillalpando@statesman.com
Allen Robertson has written and directed a new musical for families called “Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch” at Zach Theatre. [Contributed by Kirk Tuck]

On the Whisenhunt stage at Zach Theatre, there’s a simple black box on a painted black floor in the center of a round theater.

But there’s magic in that theater, too, thanks to Allen Robertson, the man behind the new musical “Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch.”

Robertson’s newest work is a celebration of community, a message he brings to his works onstage and his life behind the scenes. You see it in the way casts and crews talk about him and interact with him.

Robertson, 52, has made a name for himself by creating musicals for families such as “Tortoise and Hare” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” at Summer Stock Austin, by being the musical director at many Zach Theatre productions and as one half of “The Biscuit Brothers.”

Yet there’s no pretense in his almost three-decades-long resume.

Robertson describes his job this way: “I’m just with friends doing something I believe in.”

He starts each new show he works on by circling up with the cast and crew. And every morning he greets them with breakfast. Sometimes tacos, sometimes doughnuts.

Stella Frye-Ginsberg, 15, who plays Melanie Todd in “Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch,” remembers their first cast meeting. He gave a speech that went something like: “’If I have a roof over my head, you have a roof over your head. If I have food on my plate, you have food on your plate. ...’ You know he has your back,” Stella says.

“He wants to get to know you outside of the theater,” says Samantha Beam, 14, who also plays Melanie Todd.

“He’s just so supportive in everything you do,” Stella says. “He never makes you feel as if your choices are incorrect. He makes it such a safe environment.”

As much as he teaches them, he “wants to learn from us just as much,” Sam says. “He feels like a big warm hug all the time.”

This idea of creating community is at the heart of “Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch.”

About a year ago, associate director at Zach Nat Miller left the book by Eileen Spinelli on a desk for Robertson. It had a sticky note on it with a simple message: “Interested?” Robertson responded back, “Absolutely, as soon as possible.”

It was a little picture book with a big message, one that Robertson has embodied.

The story is about a man, Mr. Hatch, and a girl, Melanie Todd, who watches his every move and records them in her notebook. He does the same things every day and talks to no one.

One day, Valentine’s Day, a package arrives for Mr. Hatch with a heart-shaped box of candies and a note inside: “Somebody Loves You.”

That message changes Mr. Hatch. He begins to talk to people on his way to work. He eats lunch with co-workers. He offers to help the newspaper stand owner. He assists the grocery clerk.

When Melanie sees the change, she confronts him and coaxes Mr. Hatch into being more social until he becomes the center of the neighborhood.

Robertson says the book and now the musical is about social isolation. “I see it through my kids,” (Foster, 19, and Olivia, 16), he says. “We have wonderful tech, but they are locked in their own worlds.”

In the musical, the audience plays the role of the neighborhood. Audience members are chosen to play the mail carrier and the dog, as well as sign holders. They also participate in singalongs and make suggestions of what to write to Mr. Hatch. “We get to make (the play) together,” Robertson says. “It reflects community.”

Robertson continues to find his place in the Austin theater community, often behind the scenes as a musical director or sound designer, sometimes as the writer, composer or director, and sometimes onstage when a play needs a musician, like it did in Zach’s production of “Winnie the Pooh” and like it did in the earliest origins of the PBS show “The Biscuit Brothers,” in which Robertson played brother Buford.

He thinks of himself as a “hesitant performer,” but he will be onstage if the need calls for him to do so.

If you need someone to play piano, he says, he’ll do it. If you need some music for a play, he’ll write it. And if there’s something he doesn’t know how to do, “I will teach myself how to do it,” he says.

“You find something you love and put yourself to service to it,” he says. It’s a notion he got from his dad.

Putting himself to service is how he ended up as Buford Biscuit. About 20 years ago, Zach Theatre had the idea for a show, which Robertson remembers being called something like “E.I.E.I.O., a Cabaret of Farm Songs.” Schools were scheduled to see the show in about two weeks, Robertson says, but there was no actual show.

Robertson and Jerome Schoolar became the Biscuit Brothers with the help of Damon Brown, whom Robertson has continued to work with on projects like “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” in 2016 and “Tortoise and Hare” in 2015, both of which they created for Summer Stock Austin. (“Tortoise and Hare” then came to Zach Theatre.)

KLRU asked “The Biscuit Brothers” to develop “E.I.E.I.O.” into a TV show and shoot a pilot, which they did at Pioneer Farms. The show went on the air at PBS stations around the country from 2005 to 2011. While they have no plans for new “Biscuit Brothers” shows, Robertson doesn’t rule it out entirely.

Robertson wants the musicals he writes to be for the whole family. He thinks of growing up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street.” He liked them, and his dad also liked them. With his own family, he says, a movie is better if everyone is looking forward to it. “That’s most appealing to me,” he says.

Robertson was actually born in Austin at St. David’s hospital. He also lived as a child in Waco and in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but Austin’s home, he says.

His mom was a teacher, mainly for fourth grade, and his dad worked in computers. His sister sings, but when it comes to musical talent, he calls himself the black sheep in the family.

Early on he knew what he wanted to do, he says. His first theater experience was in the first grade when he was in a production of “Peter Pan” and played a pirate. He remembers it mostly through pictures he’s seen.

He was going to get an education degree, he says, because he’s always valued that, but theater was the stronger pull. His parents have always supported his choice of theater.

After his undergraduate theater degree at Abilene Christian University and then a master’s degree at the University of Texas in theater, Robertson was lucky to have a professor who remembered his work and tapped him to start working on a production at Zach Theatre.

He started getting gigs doing music for productions like “Forever Plaid,” “Christmas Carol,” and “Once on This Island.”

One job led to another job. “You start doing it and find other friends who do it,” he says.

Zach has always been home, he says, and they let him know in advance what he’ll be doing each season. Then he fills in the time in between. “People keep hiring me,” he says. “When I’m not working, there’s always someone who needs a piano player.”

He met his wife, Cynthia, in a library where he was performing for kids. She was shooting photos to promote the events but now is a special education teacher for kids with hearing differences. She does amazing work, he says.

His family is supportive. Daughter Olivia will sing demos of songs he’s working on. Son Foster will think about things and give him encouragement. They come to his shows still.

In his almost 30-year career, he’s seen the evolution of Zach Theatre from the days when he would go buy some overalls and show up onstage as Buford Biscuit for a show that needed to be developed in a few weeks to now having professional staff and actors and encouraging new work for families.

“He’s so committed and passionate about every show we do,” says Austin Brown, who is the lighting designer for “Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch.”

Nicole Riedel, stage manager, knew of Robertson through Summer Stock Austin, but this is the first time she’s worked with him. She says it’s by far one of the less stressful projects she’s managed. “He’s the perfect type” of director, she says. “He’s put so much thought into it. He doesn’t have to second-guess it.”

Actor Paul Sanchez, who plays Mr. Smith, the newspaper stand owner in the show, has learned the importance of the story from Robertson. As an actor, he might want to go for the laughs, he says, but Robertson will tell him, “It’s not about that.”

“The mind of this guy,” Sanchez says. “He’s amazing, so super-talented.”

For Robertson, the key to theater is story, “and more so the older I get,” he says. “The music is the tool I have, but it’s being at service to telling the story.”

The music does stay with you.

“His music is incredibly catchy and fun,” Brown says.

Robertson is constantly working on the next thing. He’s writing a new musical for this year’s Summer Stock Austin lineup. It doesn’t have a title yet, but it’s about a benevolent shadow who falls in love with a human. He’s interviewing a potential cast of young performers to write the music to fit the performer.

Recently he worked with TILT Performance Group and created the musical “Pandora” for the performers, who are all differently abled. He sat down with them and learned about them before creating the music for them.

“The last two years have been the best,” Robertson says, because he’s been able to bring “soulful stuff to kids and be purposeful. ... Stories change lives.”

To learn empathy, he says, it has to be demonstrated. That’s what he’s doing in his musicals. It’s stories of friendships and community.

“Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch” has been special from the beginning, he says.

It’s about “being bold enough to express love; he had to express courage.”

“It’s all here,” he says. “It’s such big heart.”

Much like its creator.

For ages 3 and up.

When: 11 a.m. Saturdays through April 11

Cost: $15-$27

Where: Whisenhunt Theatre, 1510 Toomey Road

Information: zachtheatre.org