Great Scott

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It’s not that Dave Steakley wants people to see the world the way he does.

He doesn’t care if audiences agree with his politics or share his views on social issues. Really.

Here’s Steakley’s only request – and it’s an important one, so listen up – be willing to let a show take you on an adventure, and engage in the conversation it inspires.

Steakley has been helping create conversations at Zachary Scott Theatre for the last 18 years. The shows he’s staged as the organization’s creative director have garnered Zach national accolades, propelled actors’ careers, helped shape community dialogue in Austin and thrust the theatre to the fore of the Texas arts scene.

And if anyone thinks he’s done-that his creative spirit is flagging or he’s had enough of the process- think again.

A Master of Reinvention

On a crisp Friday in January, Steakley’s workday is a nonstop flurry of meetings and preparations. As creative director, he’s not only responsible for coming up with the shows that Zach will stage and putting his personal stamp on them, he’s also the details guy, making sure loose ends get tied and that things are running smoothly around the theatre.

3-3There’s last minute staging for the following day’s show with recent space traveler Richard Garriott. Phone interviews with candidates for an open production manager job. Particulars to be ironed out on acclaimed actress Anna Deavere Smith’s extended stay in Austin while doing a show at Zach later this season. A meeting with the theatre’s fundraising committee about bringing donors in to see a behind-the-scenes rehearsal of an upcoming production. Details.

Steakley takes it all in stride. He’s the consummate professional, cool and collected, yet constantly thinking and observing.

That’s because everything around the director informs the work he creates. Take for instance the recent hit film Milk about slain San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. “When I saw that, I realized how similar his stump speech is to Obama’s – the sheer force of energy that a person has, that determination to provide hope to people who are disaffected and outside the system,” says Steakley. “That’s really percolating in my mind right now. And that’s certain to show itself in some way in something that’s selected for next season.”

Zach Scott Managing Director Elisbeth Challener says Steakley has a “desire for perfection, he’s not willing to settle for good enough or what’s been done before. Even if it’s a revival of a production we’ve done before, he’s looking for ways to bring something new to the story. …I think Dave’s at his best when he has a work, one of these iconic masterpieces like Porgy & Bess, and he’s able to take the soul of the piece but give it new relevance in a way that helps connect it to today’s audience.”

Relevance is key. In determining the shows for the current season last year, Steakley says he could tell the country was heading for tougher economic times, and that played in to his decision to stage The Grapes of Wrath, which opens March 12. Of course he didn’t know quite how bad things were going to be.

Still, instead of allowing headlines and the general economic mood inform his actors’ performances, Steakley is having the entire cast participate in serving meals to the homeless and work with the city’s disaffected through nonprofit organizations.

“People do not make eye contact with the homeless,” says Steakley. “This company of actors has got to know what that is, what 
that feels like, so that they bring that truth to the stage.”

Not everyone is a fan of Steakley’s work and certainly the theatre has lost a few patrons for shows he’s put on stage. Some have even criticized him for what they view as an agenda.

“There’s always the potential for a
group to feel that Zach is too progressive 
for them,” says Steakley. “I don’t think I
 have an agenda so much as a deep commitment to social and human rights. Whenever I see
an inequality I want us to address that in a way where there can be a dialogue on it. We don’t have to agree. But there should be conversation.”

Take for instance last season’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that melds the story of Jesus with rock opera has always met with some bitterness from those who see it as blasphemous.

Never one to just copy someone else’s work, Steakley set out to make Zach’s Superstar production pertinent to Austin by turning it in to a bilingual show with a strong Mexican culture influence.

“A large and growing percentage of our population is Hispanic and I saw this as an opportunity to play with power dynamics, with things like border issues,” he says. Like he often does in his creations, Steakley sought to bring some social justice awareness to his audience. “We feel completely comfortable with people cleaning our houses, taking care of our kids, serving us in restaurants, but yet we’re reluctant to provide them basic human rights.”

Zach received a good bit of feedback on Superstar. Catholic priests of all-Hispanic congregations encouraged their parishioners to see the show, while other purists of Llyod Webber’s work complained that Steakley should have been more true to the original.

Steakley has also sought through the years to bring perspective and understanding about gay issues through some of the show’s he’s staged, like Terrence McNally’s moving portrait of gay male relationships Love! Valour! Compassion! or Richard Greenburg’s portrayal of homosexuality in professional sports Take Me Out. (The latter raised some eye- brows because of the nudity in some of the scenes.) He cites Zach’s production of Tony Kushner’s AIDS epic Angels in America as a landmark in the theatre’s progression toward serious,thought-provoking shows.

“There are important things for a community to address,” Steakley says of the plethora of social justice topics Zach’s shows have touched on. “Some people don’t want to talk about stuff, it’s more comfortable to not confront it and not have the conversation. I’m just not that kind of artistic director.”

Challener agrees. “Ultimately theatre should cause people to talk about what they’ve seen, get them thinking,” she says. “Whether in the end you like the piece or you have questions, creating a dialogue is the important thing.”

Giving Voice to a City

Steakley arrived at a critical time in the progressive history of Zach, joining the organization as managing director. Founded in 1933 as a community theatre, Zachary Scott was transitioning in 1990-with the help of then-artistic director Alice Wilson-into a professional theatre.

The theatre’s current 12,000-square-foot building had just been completed. Zach had a new facility, a jewel for its time, but no game plan for how to make it all work revenue wise.

Enter Steakley. Despite a less-than-robust economy at the time, he managed to shepherd the theatre through a fiscal rocky period as one show, and then others were staged under actor’s equity agreements. In time, all of the theatre’s performances were cast with professional actors and Zach became a full-fledged professional theatre.

5-1But that wasn’t the only transition at play. Wilson was already testing the waters of edgy theatre when Steakley arrived. She had come from a children’s theatre group that encouraged diversity by including kids of all races and backgrounds, and she wanted to see not just more diversity on stage, but a broader range of works mounted at Zach. Steakley says, looking back, each of those shows probably cost Zach a dozen or so subscribers but gained the theatre three times as many new ones who were excited about the change.

“Alice was deeply committed to diversity,” says Steakley. “When she departed after we had worked together five years, I became artistic director and really tried to pick up the torch of what Alice had begun, her commitment to diversity, while at the same time finding my own artistic way.” That has been a journey years in the making.

As he was developing his comedic homage to Austin, Keepin’ it Weird, back in 2005, Steakley learned through the many interviews he did with locals that Austin had always been a place where those that didn’t fit in elsewhere – the misfits if you will – would journey to.

“With those misfits came a lot of individuality and a lot of creativity,” says Steakley. “Some people call that Austin’s weirdness. But I think it’s a larger sense of expression in terms of appreciation for the uniqueness of the individual.”

In developing his vision for Zach, Steakley took his cue from the city, striving to build seasons as diverse and eclectic as Austin itself.

“For me, community is not just about some of the folks who live in that community, but about everyone. And so everyone has to be represented – their hopes, what they look like, what their culture represents. And that can be difficult when you only have so many shows you can put on stage.”

It’s also important to have a community of actors and musicians you can depend on. Steakley says finding the right talent has rarely been an issue in a city that thrives on performance. For the actors themselves, what they get in return from the master craftsman is invaluable.

“I don’t think I’d be the actor I am today if I hadn’t met and worked with Dave,” says Martin Burke, a regular on Zach’s stage for more than a decade. “He’s pushed me much farther than I ever thought I could go physically, mentally, emotionally, personally and professionally. He demands the best of himself and expects no less from those who work with him. Dave does not suffer the lazy and unprepared gladly… and I feel honored to have gained his trust and respect as an actor.”

Helming an arts organization can be an all-consuming life, Steakley says. “On some days it feels more like being a city council member than an artist because of the number of constituents to whom you answer and need to communicate with,” he says. Without his partner Tony Johnson’s love and support, “my role would be extremely challenging and not as much fun.” Their home, which includes Tony’s sons Ryan and Garrett, is a steady reminder for Steakley of the other important things in life outside of Zach.

From Farm to Forestage

Steakley grew up in the tiny farming community of Grandview about 35 miles south of Fort Worth. His mother died when he was just a boy, leaving him and his older brother and sister. Behind Steakley was raised on a farm by his elderly grandparents and says, despite the loss, his childhood was a happy one.

“I had a teacher who told my grandparents when I was in second grade that I was an artist. They were honest, hardworking farm people and they didn’t really understand that. But they made sure I had private art lessons for painting.”

That was the beginning of his life in the arts, but his realm of possibility would expand exponentially years later when he visited his brother and sister at the University of Texas.

Experiencing Austin through his hippie siblings’ eyes in the 1970s awakened Steakley to a whole world outside of Grandview. That he himself would go to school at UT was a foregone conclusion – what the world held for him beyond that seemed less certain.

At UT, he says, “I was able to explore theatre and it didn’t take me long to learn how much I liked being a director rather than a performer. That was such a huge discovery for me, to know that that’s what I wanted to be doing.”

But it was the education he got at an off-campus venue that would truly set the stage for his career.

The Villa Capri was a 1950s-era motel at I-35 and 26th Street that remained a prominent place for UT parents and other visitors to stay into the 1980s. Toward the rear of the property was a nightclub that had fallen into disrepair. When new owners took over the Villa Capri in 1983, they asked Steakley and a friend to revive the nightclub.

Steakley was a junior at the time and had won accolades for staging musical reviews at UT. Running a nightclub, however, was foreign territory to say the least. They dubbed the place The Ellington and opened the 500-seat venue with a BYOB label since they hadn’t obtained a liquor license. “We knew nothing and we were just making it up as we went along,” Steakley says with a laugh.

Through a brief period of trial and error, the Ellington soon became a success. But like it does for so many in the creative realm, New York began beckoning to Steakley. After college he left for the Big Apple where he worked as a tour organizer for the National Shakespeare Co. He later served three years an executive director for another arts nonprofit organization. New York gave Steakley new confidence and solidified for him that theatre was where he wanted to be.

Steakley made the decision to return to Texas in 1990. With Ann Richards recently elected governor, there seemed to be so much promise in the Lone Star State at that point, he says. But the economy was lackluster and he didn’t hold out much hope that he’d land a job in Austin, deciding he had better odds in the bigger cities of Dallas or Houston. When he came across the opening for managing director at Zach, he sent his resume. The rest is history.

Moving the Spotlight

Next year, work will begin on a new $20 million Zach Scott Theatre that will rise on a plot of land fronting Lamar Boulevard near the existing facility. With the help of the voter-approved 2006 bond election and private donations, Zach already has $16 million of its $20 million fundraising goal. The new complex should be open in time for the 2011- 2012 season.

“It’s going to be exciting for the group of artists currently working with us in these facilities that are behind the times to have this amazing new playground that will allow for artistic expression to grow to a much higher level,” says Steakley. “This is so important to us, to see Zach grow to match the growth of Austin.”

Challener says the new theatre will better match where Zach is in terms of artistic ability and what audiences expect from the theatre. It will also allow Zach to produce larger scale shows with bigger casts and elaborate sets without having to stage them at another venue.

To meet the fundraising goal in time, Zach continues to push for more donations. On April 4, theatre volunteers will host Zach’s annual Red, Hot and Soul fundraiser at the Hilton. This year’s Hollywood – meets – Broadway-themed event is expected to draw nearly 1,000 attendees for dinner, dancing, and Madonna-like fashion.

Meanwhile, Zach is in the midst of creating a five-year strategic plan that will carry it into its new home. The theatre is going after younger and more diverse audiences, offering performances on specific days at lower ticket prices to appeal to the cash-strapped and trying to create ongoing dialogue with patrons via digital media.

“There are so many opportunities to reach a broader audience than we have in the past,” says Challener. “Dave’s talent and vision, along with the talent of our performers, are what keep our audiences coming back for more.”

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