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Taking local theater to the next level: Carnegie Mellon Foundation partners with New Work Austin

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They Gotta Be Secret Agents perform Poste Restante at Salvage Vanguard Theater. Courtesy of New Work Austin

Make friends with a theater person here in Austin and your Facebook inbox will overflow with invitations. Almost every night of the week plays, fundraisers for plays, solo performance pieces, production parties, script readings and development workshops are happening all over the city in theater venues, clubs, bars and private homes. The same could be said for most major cities in the U.S. with one notable exception: in Austin, a huge number of these events will be new works. Instead of the eightieth revival of Hamlet or another well-worn classic, theater companies here are producing large numbers of plays that they created and wrote themselves. 

Caroline Reck, Community Liaison for New Work Austin, explains: “We sometimes have three shows that are all new works opening on the same night instead of three a year... and that's not true most places. It might feel normal here but it's really special.”

Richard Florida echoes this sentiment in his book The Rise of the Creative Class by naming Austin the second most creative city in the U.S. This attracted the attention of the Carnegie Mellon Foundation, which approached Kirk Lynn of the acclaimed local theater ensemble the Rude Mechs, wondering how it could help support the new work community. According to Etta Sanders, Grant Manager for New Work Austin: “Austin has a national reputation for being a new works hub so [the Carnagie Mellon Foundation] was interested in partnering with us and finding out why we're a hub and what we need to do to maintain that.” 

The result of this partnership is a research grant that could change the way new work is made and marketed here in Austin. The Mellon Foundation granted New Work Austin $90,000 to learn what issues are the most important for the new work community, and how to develop sustainable structures to address them. The results of the eighteen month grant have been surprising. Etta Sanders says, “One of the things I learned is that [prior to the grant] — it was about money money money and suddenly we have money and it's not a motivating force... it's not a priority. Work is the priority. Creating is the priority. We are not a community driven by finances.”

“We want more time, not more money," Reck adds. "[Creating new work] has a much longer working time — we might as well be doing it in a way where we are cross marketing it and explaining to Austin how special it is.” In order to give artists that extra time, New Work is considering how to set up a resource-sharing network so companies can exchange set pieces, administrative tasks and find cheap rehearsal spaces. They want to keep everyone from reinventing the wheel with each new project by creating ways to exchange knowledge and by building bridges between companies.

That could prove challenging, especially as college graduates across the country pick Austin as their destination city to move to and start a new theater company, bringing even more people into an already large and diverse community. With publications like New York Magazine and American Theater spotlighting Austin companies, this trend will continue. New Work is careful to explain, however, that this isn't one or two people leading a movement but a consensus based, community driven effort to push Austin's scene to the next level.  

The grant ends in March and New Work will have a strategic plan finished by the end of May. Reck already have some ideas about what she would like to see in the future. “We won't lose the diversity of performance style. Ideally we'll have enough resource sharing in place that we spend a lot less time figuring out how we're going to get the little mechanical things done like where we're going to rehearse, how we're gonna find all the people. That we'll be able to access that info more quickly.”

Sanders adds: “I hope that whether there's an actual physical location or not, we have an administrative support network instead of reinventing the wheel; all of those administrative and production things can be taken off of the directors because that frees them up to do more with the little they have. You know they're not going to pay themselves more. They'll just do more stuff.”

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