Imagine an Austin without live theater, the kind that feels experimental, new, less polished but full of talent and heart. Even if you haven’t attended a live theater performance in a while, you probably wouldn’t want it to disappear completely.
And yet, Austin is quickly becoming inhospitable for theater spaces and theater groups, most of which are nonprofits.
Just ask Lisa Scheps, founder and co-director of nonprofit Ground Floor Theatre. She’s putting her time, sweat, tears and some of her own money into creating and operating the new space, a former warehouse on Springdale Road, now transformed into a black-box performance and event space. Not only that, she’s taking her experience and love for the community and creating something that supports not just the theater community, but also the community as a whole.
Having spent her life in and around theater arts, when Scheps moved to Austin in 2002, she knew she wanted to be involved in theater in her new city. She started and operated a space called Play Theatre Group, since closed. Now she’s best known as host of a weekly radio show on KOOP called “Off Stage And On The Air” for the past few years.
While prepping for a show with guests Christina Moore of ScriptWorks and Ken Webster of Hyde Park Theatre, the conversation turned to the great number of theater companies in Austin, but the surprising lack of theater venues. At that point, a fire was kindled in Scheps, “I wanted to start a theater arts venue and company that would focus on the underrepresented communities in Austin.”
Together with co-founder Patti Neff-Tiven, Ground Floor Theatre was established in March 2014 with the above goal. “If it’s a group that needs a voice, that’s where we will focus, especially on those that have fewer outlets such as the differently abled,” Scheps explains.
Scheps and Neff-Tiven are not alone, but are part of the community of Austin theater companies, venues and artists working to gain buy-in for theater arts. “A rising tide raises all boats,” says Scheps. “We’re all working together because we really want Austin to become a theater town.”
Despite that committed and active community, it’s incredibly difficult to “make a go of it” in the theater arts in Austin. “We have more companies than venues and we are losing space every day,” says Scheps. She goes on to explain the vicious continuum that defines this struggle.
“The artist class moves into an ‘undesirable’ area because it’s affordable for them, they improve it and the area becomes gentrified. Then, since landlords typically do not see the value of theater, rents are raised and theater companies can’t afford to stay.”
Apart from the real estate issues, Scheps shares that operating a venue is just plain expensive. “The revenue we make covers 65-70 percent of operating expenses — everything else has to come from the community.”
And, enticing the community to donate requires education about and exposure to a quality product.
Scheps shares, “Right now, a performing artist cannot make a living in the city of Austin, which means they have to take other jobs, which means they don’t have time to go to classes—that’s necessary for honing their craft.
“I want to see a situation where this city supports performing artists, so we can pay salaries that keep them as a class of people making a living doing what they’re good at. Then, they can hone their craft and we can promote a product that keeps getting better.”
Accomplishing all of that requires changing rules, hearts and minds, and mandates that the theater community speak with one voice and continuously turn out a good product, says Scheps. Moreover, it requires buy-in and support on multiple levels, from the individual to citywide.
“The greater citizenry of Austin doesn’t quite understand the value that theater brings to a city, but we’re going to change that,” Scheps concludes.