Center Stage and Loving It


Ken Stein has kept theatergoers coming back for more at the Paramount

On a recent gloomy day that saw a cold front blowing through central Texas, Ken Stein  commented that the weather matched his feelings about the recent elections. Remarking on the statewide victories that republicans saw, Stein worried aloud that some of the LGBT victories he and others have fought for might be swept aside.

Stein isn’t anti-republican per se, but he has a good reason for that wariness. Seven years ago, when he and his partner were going through the adoption process for their now-9-year-old daughter, the Texas legislature was considering a bill that would have banned gay and lesbian parents from fostering or adopting children. Stein  and his partner suddenly found themselves, and their quest for adoption, in the public spotlight as Stein testified in front of committees about his experience fostering the couple’s daughter, in an effort to advance the rights of the LGBT community. During that time, Stein  said that the rhetoric coming from the capitol, where several bills to ban gay adoption and gay marriage were being considered, hurt him on a personal level and made him feel excluded.

“I had a pretty charmed childhood,” Stein  said. “I never got bullied about my sexuality. It wasn’t until I was an adult, and going through the adoption process, that I faced discrimination.” Despite that experience, Stein exudes optimism and a joie de vivre that’s hard not to avoid getting caught up in when around him.

“I don’t know if this will sound too corny, but I got everything that I wanted out of life,” Stein  said. “I had no idea how I was going to get here, or even if I was going to be here. I wanted a committed relationship, a child, to be in a job I love, to live in a city I love, and to live close to my family. It’s astounding to me. I don’t know if I want to use word blessed, but I do feel blessed, and I’m trying not to take it for granted.”

Stein  serves as executive director of the Austin Theatre Alliance, better known as the historic state and Paramount Theatres on Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. Together, the two theaters make up the alliance family.

Part of being a family, though–whether or not your union is legally recognized–is making compromises when life throws choices your way, and Stein  recently made such a decision. His partner, currently the CEO of the Austin Planned Parenthood, was offered the position of president and CEO for planned parenthood of north Texas.

“It was an opportunity too great for him to ignore,” Stein  said. “I decided to let him pursue his career interests even if it meant that I needed to temporarily walk away from mine. As with any ‘married’ couple sometimes we have make sacrifices. Funny how not being able to marry legally doesn’t change that.”

Stein  will step down from his position in June, and the couple plans to move to Dallas over the summer. Although he doesn’t yet know what he will be doing in Dallas, Stein  said he’s looking for opportunities and is taking a leap of faith. It hasn’t been an easy decision; Stein  describes his job with the Austin Theatre alliance as his dream job. But he said his daughter is excited about some of the schools they’ve visited, and he is looking forward to being back in a larger city.

And Stein  and his family won’t sever their ties with Austin.

They’ve bought a small condominium on congress avenue, he said, and plan to come back often to visit.

While it’s with a somewhat heavy heart that Stein  prepares to take his leave from the alliance, he can do so with the knowledge that his time there has meant great things for both theaters.
The alliance’s mission is to bring in and foster an audience for high quality and diverse arts and entertainment performances, to widen the audience it reaches, and to protect and preserve the two downtown landmarks. To that end, the paramount recently celebrated its win in a national competition, “This place Matters,” in which it came in first out of 119 national historic entries, winning a $25,000 grant from the national Trust for historic preservation. after years of renovation work, the state Theatre recently reopened for performances.

In his six years as executive director, Stein  has helped steer the paramount from shouldering a debt that totaled $1 million to enjoying a fully funded reserve and operating in the black.

Money is important, especially to historic theaters like the state and the Paramount, but to Stein , personal relationships are perhaps the most important aspect of his work. he said he prides himself on trying to keep his staff, board, theater patrons and volunteers happy–“and that’s not an easy maze to wander through.” But it’s paid off, with very little staff turnover, a happy board and a growing base of supporters.

“I like that I’ve assembled a fantastic staff and broadened the audience of the paramount,” Stein  said. “Even more than money, that will extend the life of the theater.”

One of the things Stein  said he most enjoys is sharing some of the joys in his life with others. The alliance has allowed him to occasionally do that in direct ways, as when he introduced his mother to carol Burnett.

“I grew up watching the Carol Burnett Show with my mom,” Stein  said. “all my brothers and my dad were upstairs watching football, and we’d be watching that show… that’s why we had to get a second Tv, because we wanted to watch her show, and they wanted to watch football. I told that story, sort of introducing carol [during her 2009 show at the paramount], and she grabbed me and said ‘bring your mother back stage.’”

Stein also volunteers with other nonprofit organizations, including Planned Parenthood and the Breast cancer resource center. he’s proud to help his neighbors feel comfortable living next door to a gay couple with a child by sharing the joys of life with them.

He and his partner have the kind of serendipitous love story that would make it hard not to love them, though. Stein said that while he was living in Atlanta a female roommate of his happened to meet a man on an airplane, also named Ken, and felt certain that he would be a perfect match for Stein . Stein recalls telling her that he’d just moved to Atlanta, and wasn’t going to chase some- one who lived in Texas. Then he threw the business card away. Years later, he moved back to Austin to be closer to his family and happened to meet a man named Ken–the same Ken who had been on the airplane. They struck up a conversation and have never been apart since.