Austin High history
The 400 Club: Red Dragon Players of Austin High present landmark production
When Billy Dragoo was hired to replace his retiring mentor Larry Preas as head of the theater department at Austin High School in 1993, he noticed one difference there than at other Texas high schools he had worked at or visited. “At Austin High, it’s cool to be a theater kid,” he said. "It's a welcoming environment, not a closed shop."
You won’t hear taunts of “drama queens” or “theater sissies” at Austin High, where the rich stage tradition is a source of Maroon pride.
The AHS Red Dragon Players, whose alumni includes actor Zachary Scott (Mildred Pierce), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle) and Emmy-winning actress Valerie Mahaffey (Northern Exposure), is one of the nation’s oldest continuously active drama troupes west of the Mississippi.
While the school’s football team has not won a playoff game since 1957, the theater department has won three state championships (two in the past three years), in the UIL one-act play competition. The reputation goes beyond the state, as theater companies in New York City often look to Austin High to test-stage musicals that have been adapted for high school theater.
Research shows the first play produced by Austin High was Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” in 1908. The 400th will be Tony-winning musical “Spring Awakening,” Dec. 9- 11 and Dec. 30 & 31 at the school’s Preas Theater. The rock opera, set in Germany at the dawn of the 20th Century, is directed by Annie Dragoo, who has directed 12 musicals at Austin High since instigating the music theater program in 2004. (The Dragoos are such an intregal part of AHS theater, it's sometimes assumed the Red Dragon name is a takeoff on Dragoo, but the name dates back to the 1920s.)
The Dragoos have three children of their own, but have also had a hand in raising and nurturing hundreds more in the past two decades, including Jack Kyser, currently a film student at NYU.
“More than anything, the Red Dragon Players provided me with a sense of identity at Austin High,” says Kyser, who made his acting debut with a bit part in “Bye Bye Birdie” in 2006 and ended up performing in 24 productions during his four years at AHS. “I felt gratified to be a part of a group where the theatrical history is as important as the current productions, and where one day, we can all be the legendary old-timers.”
To help preserve this history, the Advanced Theatre class spent much of 2008 rebuilding more than 30 crumbling Red Dragon Players scrapbooks, dating back to the early 1950s. The rather impressive AHS theater archives also include 20 years of mostly-glowing reviews by a clandestine critic known only as “Nighthawk.” (Austin High teacher Brian Schenk admitted in the ‘90s that he was the one who slid the reviews under the theater door.)
The history of the theater department also tells the story of Austin High, which was the first public high school in Texas when it opened in 1881 at what is now Pease School. The school moved a couple times before settling at an enormous red brick building at 9th and Trinity Streets in 1900. (The building burned down in the 1950s.) In 1925, the school moved to the 12th and Rio Grande location that’s now home to Austin Community College. The Red Dragon Players debuted at 1212 Rio Grande Street in 1929.
The drama department’s early lightening rod was James R. Burton, whose first move as theater director was to consolidate the school’s two troupes—the Junior Curtain Club and the Red Mask Players—into the Red Dragon Players. It's not known how he came up with the name, but it was before the school's teams became the Maroons.
The star actor that first year was Girard Kinney (whose father is the namesake for Kinney Avenue in South Austin), who was awarded the first-ever Samuel French Award for Acting in 1930. The next year, the Red Dragons won their first UIL play competition. "Theater was always important to my father," says Girard Kinney Jr., who owns an architectural firm. "He met my mother when she directed him in a play at the University of Texas." Unlike his contemporary Zach Scott, who was discovered in Texas by Alfred Lunt and convinced to move to New York City, Kinney Sr. stayed in Austin and raised a family. His children were popular local performers in the 1940s, doing skits and musicals as "The Kinney Kids."
Burton, who directed 47 plays at Austin High between 1929 and 1940, is the father of the Red Dragon Players, but the troupe has been led by several other noted directors through the years. During the ‘60s and well into the ‘70s, Terri Flynn Bown (’61-’68) and Warner T. Dahlberg (‘68-’77) maintained the Red Dragon reputation for professionalism. "Pretty good for a high school production" wasn't good enough for the AHS thespians.
Austin High moved to its current location between Cesar Chavez Avenue and Lady Bird Lake in 1975.
Candy Buckley followed Dahlberg in 1977 and shook things up when, tapping into the “Star Wars” frenzy of the time, she cast “Romeo and Juliet” as an outer space love story. The free-spirited Buckley was affectionately tagged “The Dragon Lady” during her lone year directing the Red Dragon Players.
The department has not shied from controversial pieces, such as “The Laramie Project” in 2003. Some protested that the subject matter—a homophobic hate crime—was a little too heavy for a high school play. But the Dragoos felt “Laramie Project” was exactly what kids should know about. After one performance, a car with a woman inside lingered in the parking lot for half an hour after everyone except the Dragoos had left. A protestor in wait? But the woman told the Dragoos she was so emotionally moved by the play's message, she just wanted to sit there and think about it some more.
“Part of what theater does is allow students to experience life from angles they may not have thought about,” says Billy Dragoo, a University of Texas graduate, who received his masters in theater from the University of London.
Since being chosen in 2006 as one of seven high schools in the U.S. to debut a pilot for “Disney’s High School Musical,” Austin High has often worked closely with Music Theater International, a New York company that is a leader in repackaging musicals for high schools. In 2007, MTI chose AHS to produce the world premiere of "Willy Wonka." MTI has the license for "Spring Awakening" and tapped AHS as one of two test markets in the country.
“The Austin High theater department has proven its ability to adapt and change on the fly, which is integral to the process of a pilot production script, ” says John Prignano, operations manager of MTI. “Score and lyric changes are very common and could even happen on opening night. (The Dragoos) are masters at adapting on short notice.“
That's been the case with “Spring Awakening,” based on an experimental 1892 German play of the same name and recast as a rock opera by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics), the play was a smash Broadway hit, winning 8 Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Musical. But with a theme of sexual awakening among teens, there was a lot of fine-tuning to package this version into one that could be produced by high schools, most in towns more conservative than Austin. "Spring Awakening: School Version," for instance, has a song called "Totally Effed." (My son Jack, who—full disclosure—has a small role in the musical, has been singing it around the house.) Reps from MTI will be in the audience this opening weekend.
With dress rehearsal coming Thursday and opening night Friday, the play is still being tweaked. “There have been 66 script changes so far,” Billy Dragoo says with an exhaustive laugh. He should be freaking out, but after directing more than 70 plays at Austin High, more than anyone else in the school's rich history, Mr. Dragoo knows the kids can handle it. After all, they've come through 399 times before.
"Spring Awakening" December 9, 10, 30, 31, at 7 p.m. and December 10, 11 at 2 p.m. Larry Preas Theatre. Buy tickets online or reserve by calling the theatre office: (512) 414-7311