Zach Theatre’s esteemed artistic director shares his optimism on the state of the arts in Austin

Zach Theatre’s artistic director shares optimism on state of the arts

Zach Theatre
If all goes according to plan, Zach Theatre's stage will soon be buzzing with activity. Courtesy of Zach Theatre

In the 43 years since the founding of SXSW, Austin’s most iconic and well-attended festival had never been canceled, but on March 6, 2020, the unbelievable happened. Eventually, the entire state and nation went on pandemic lockdown, throwing businesses, restaurants, theaters, musicians, actors, and arts organizations into complete chaos. One local musician described it as one day sailing along under blue skies and the next being sunk by a tsunami.

But one of the beautiful things about arts organizations, especially those in Austin, is that they are populated by dreamers and creatives. They are also often populated by stubborn naysayers who refuse to give up and believe there is always a way to get through any crisis if you are dedicated.

Fast-forward to August 2021 and — albeit with a healthy dose of caution — Austin’s arts organizations are gearing up for their comeback 2021-2022 seasons. The way back hasn’t been easy, and there have been layoffs and cutbacks. Fortunately for Austinites, the creative forces behind the arts have found imaginative ways to survive, aiming to come back stronger than ever. 

One such creative dreamer and arts leader is Dave Steakley, producing artistic director of Zach Theatre for the past 28 years. As the pandemic struck, Steakley was in rehearsal for the theater’s Roe-v.-Wade-inspired production. The lockdown ended Zach’s 2020 season and also canceled the educational outreach and classes for schoolchildren, but the team remained optimistic, revising their plans month by month. 

The stress mounted as shows were canceled one by one and the realization hit that it was going to be a long-term shutdown. Steakley dubs it “the season that was not meant to be.”

Determined to find a way to stay afloat, Steakley meditated in the theater’s plaza in hopes of coming up with some creative solutions. That’s when it came to him that it might be a space where he could produce outdoor concerts and keep the connection with loyal Zach patrons and the music they love. 

“I had just seen a virtual Sondheim production and thought of the conclusion where Bernadette Peters sang ‘No One is Alone’ from her apartment balcony in New York,” Steakley remembers. “I looked around at the space we have and I thought, ‘We have the balcony for Rapunzel, the stairs for Cinderella, we have the woods and the cow statue for Into the Woods,’ and I began to visualize ways that we could do that show, hoping for 2020. However, the actors union was not going to allow any shows to happen, so I began to think of what we could do with the outdoor space we have. We have always filled in our schedule with concerts and cabarets. So we began to produce concerts with people very spaced apart in pods — and they sold out quickly.”

In the spring of 2021, concerts resumed, but 70 people had been furloughed or laid off, leaving Steakley with a production crew of only three, including himself. The concerts have been consistently sold out and have become a “new Zach tradition” that Steakley plans to continue.

The 2021-2022 season officially kicks off September 29 with Into the Woods, which will be produced on the plaza, just as Steakley envisioned in 2020. Patron favorite A Christmas Carol will return to the Topfer theatre in November, assuming all goes to plan and productions can return to the indoors.

In addition to a creative pivot, Steakley says he is extremely grateful to the very loyal sponsors and patrons who have kept Zach afloat during these tough times.

“The Austin artists I know are resilient and creative to the nth degree,” he says. “While the challenge has been formidable and continues to be, I have been so impressed with our staff and artists and the way they have adapted to keep the arts going and to keep the connectivity that builds community. So many patrons have told us how it has helped their mental health to be able to get out of the house and hear some music that made them happy. We felt that we were providing a service that was desperately needed for everyone’s well-being. I am very optimistic moving forward. All of the arts organizations in Austin feed our souls, lift our spirits, and touch our hearts. I am grateful that our community did not let us falter during this time.”

Upcoming shows from Austin’s favorite arts orgs

(Note: In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, check each organization’s website and social media pages for updates prior to scheduled shows.)

  • Zach Theatre: The 2021-2022 season gets started with Into the Woods, composer Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale masterpiece. September 29-November 7.
  • The Long Center: In partnership with ACL Radio and Black Fret, the Long Center is hosting its free, socially distanced Drop-In series on the H-E-B Terrace, bringing local musicians to the stage every Thursday through September 9. Sign up here for admittance. The 2021 season kicks off October 27 with A Conversation with John Leguizamo in Dell Hall.
  • Ballet Austin: The season kicks off on September 24 with Joy / 3 Happy Dances By Stephen Mills. The Nutcracker returns to the stage December 3, and the season wraps up with a classic production of Swan Lake May 6-8, 2022.
  • Austin Symphony Orchestra: Austin’s famed symphony, led by the renowned Peter Bay, returns with live concert hall performances for the 2021-2022 season, beginning with ¡Espíritu Latino! September 17-18.
  • Austin Opera: Love, lust, seduction, infidelity, and forgiveness unfurl on the stage with a classic, The Marriage of Figaro, which opens the season on November 6.
  • Broadway in Austin: Hamilton kicks off the season December 7 at Bass Concert Hall. The 2021-2022 season is a good one, especially for those who have sorely missed Broadway.
  • University of Texas Performing Arts: From the McCullough Theater to the Bates Recital Hall and Bass Concert Hall, this promises to be a season packed with music, dance, and theater. The Wooster Group performs in their Texas debut at McCullough Theatre September 9-12.