In a town still small enough for personal relationships to influence business decisions, it helps to know who your friends are.
With that in mind, two Austin friends are celebrating their brand new positions as the respective Education Directors at The Paramount Theatre and ZACH Theatre, two of the city’s most influential cultural arts institutions.
Nat Miller, hired at ZACH, and Jennifer Luck, now of the Paramount, are both graduates of The University of Texas’ Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities MFA program. They’re two of the founding members of the four person children’s band The Snow Days. And, if you can believe it, they live on the same street in East Austin, which they moved into just two months apart.
We met with the two friends before they escaped to a mutual Home Owners Association meeting for their neighborhood. (The two do-gooders are, of course, both on the board.)
“We’ve known each other for almost four years now, ever since I started the program at UT,” recalls Luck. “One of my first projects as a grad student, I had to work with a local theater practitioner who turned out to be Nat, who had just graduated from the program. It was the first chance I had to really see him in his element.”
In the summer of 2008, Luck moved to Austin to earn her Master's degree after a successful stint with Education Services at the renowned Center Theater Group (CTG) in Los Angeles. Miller, who had just graduated from the UT MFA program in May '08, accepted the Education Director position that Luck would later inhabit at the Paramount.
“At the time, there were hardly any UT graduates working full time in the Austin theater community, I was definitely very fortunate to get that position,” says Miller. “I like to think we’ve been building a stronger bridge between the theater scene and the University since then.”
During his three and a half years at the Paramount, Miller coordinated the touring children’s theater performances that came through the Paramount and transformed the education department with a new children’s outreach program called Literacy to Life, which went on to win one of Impact Austin's five prestigious grants for service to the community in 2010.
Literacy to Life encourages students to see creative performance possibilities in the stories they write, with adult performers enacting the creative writing of the students in the program. Literacy to Life is based on the creative devising work of the Chicago theater company, Barrel of Monkeys, as shared by company member Halena Kays, who also just graduated from UT with an MFA in Directing.
With the success of the program at the Paramount, Miller grew his department from one person (himself) to three, including a full-time teacher for the classroom enrichment end of the touring shows and a program manager for the Literacy to Life program.
Even with these monumental accomplishments, Miller was hungry for more hands-on directing opportunities. “I still want to create my own professional children’s theater productions,” he says. “I had a wonderful spot at the Paramount and I enjoyed working with other touring productions, but I’m also ready to make my own art as well.”
For that reason, Miller threw his hat into the ring when ZACH announced their search for their next Education Director. “With the new Topfer Theatre opening, there will be more opportunity to do new children’s theater productions at ZACH, and that’s what I told them I wanted to do.”
Miller will be working closely with Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley to guarantee that young and old audiences alike at ZACH will get the fresh offerings of vibrant theater they expect from Austin’s largest regional theater company. He will also be overseeing the after school and weekend acting classes for youth. “We want ZACH to be where parents think of take their kids for acting lessons,” he says.
With their similar training in pedagogical approaches from their instructors at UT, both Luck and Miller are serious about changing the lives of area students through theater techniques. “The best teaching experiences for me have all come from seeing the impact performance makes on kids over a period of time,” says Miller. “Seeing how the arts help kids enjoy school is all the encouragement I need to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Meanwhile, Luck is enjoying the thrill of learning the ins and outs of the Paramount Theatre and the newly renovated State Theatre next door. With her musical background and touring show experience while at CTG, she is “in heaven” with the mixed bag of theater, music, dance and other performance events happening year-round at the Paramount.
“I love all the parts that make up the Paramount—The GoGo’s, Bette Midler AND children’s theater! I think it’s so cool that children’s theater makes up such a large part of the theater component here,” she explains. “I think it’s so important to share the importance of education in everything we offer here, and I look forward to expanding our impact on the community.”
After participating in several Literacy for Life shows over the years, Luck is thrilled for the opportunity she has been provided by her good friend’s move across town. “Nat really set us up amazingly with his hard work over the past three years, and I feel so fortunate to be able to continue and build on that framework.”
Luck will be continuing her booking and oversight of touring companies as well as expanding the Literacy for Life program. “We’ll be performing monthly shows on the stage at the State Theatre starting in November, and I can’t wait for audiences to see them. They really are some of the most uninhibited, hysterical performances you’ll ever see.”
While both are learning the ropes in their respective new roles, both Education Directors are positive about their futures with their respective workplaces. “Jenn’s and my personalities and skills are similar enough and different enough that I know we ended up in the right places,” attests Miller.
Luck agrees wholeheartedly. “Our work experience has been so similar, we both learned from the same great people, and we both love children’s theater with all our hearts. I always kind of knew in the back of my mind that we’d end up working together somehow. And now, we kind of are.”
A stronger tie between the UT Theatre Department, The Paramount and ZACH will only strengthen the quality and educational benefits of each of these institutions. All three organizations are happy with the new appointments, but it’s definitely Austin’s kids who will be the ones to benefit.