Austin Theater’s Taking Off–From the Ground Floor

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Starting theater ventures is Lisa Scheps’ calling card. Now she’s set her sights on pushing boundaries with a new East Austin stage.

Lisa Scheps is not afraid of risk. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Her personal motto is, “Jump off the cliff, sprout wings on the way down.”

Her boldness has worked for her in the past. As an outsider from Texas, she launched a successful career in New York City as a stage manager and director. Then she moved to Chicago and started a spinoff corporate theater business with enough cash flow to support a pair of private planes.

Photo by Lisa Hause

Photo by Lisa Hause

Her latest venture presents an equally if not more daunting prospect: she and business partner Patti Neff-Tiven are launching a new 120-seat theater venue and company, Ground Floor Theatre, in the creative hotbed of East Austin.

I met up with Scheps during the November cold snap at the still-under-construction 4,500-square-foot space inside a former U.S. Foods plant near the intersection of Springdale and Airport. The massive hangar-like building was in the midst of being sectioned off and converted by a variety of creative businesses, including the Austin Bouldering Project, a juicing business, an event space, and others. On a tour of the theater, Scheps guided me past electricians and painters to look around soon-to-be dressing rooms before we headed down the street for coffee and conversation somewhere warmer.

I love the space. It’s so airy.

Yes, it’s what’s called a black box theater. That means you can change the setup and orientation of the seating to fit the needs of each show. And by the way, it has heat and A/C, it’s just that the workers had the loading dock doors wide open while they were working this morning!

Ha. Good news! So tell me more about the theater. What’s it about?

Ground Floor Theatre will focus on new works by, and for, underrepresented communities. The idea to create it was born out of the desire to serve the Austin community I love, to produce groundbreaking works, and to shine a light on communities that seldom bask in the spotlight.

We want our space to be an incubator where theater people are able to hone their craft. Finally, we want to surprise and delight the city of Austin with this work and help the city be an even better place for the theater community. Our vision is that theater in Austin can be a place where people can actually make a living working in theater.

Photo by Lisa Hause

Photo by Lisa Hause

That sounds like a challenging prospect. What about the theater landscape here makes you think there is an opportunity for your theater to thrive?

I’ve been involved in the theater world my whole life. I moved from Texas to go to New York City to be in theater, then I was a stage manager and director in New York City and Chicago. When I moved to Austin I saw the opportunity to create another theater venue. There are just six theaters in our market now; there are about 100 production companies in town and many don’t have a brick and mortar location.  A year ago I looked at the landscape of theaters here and decided to open one.

When I first moved to Austin in 2001 and opened a theater it wasn’t successful and eventually closed. It was a learning experience. I learned not to start something else without someone else. I’m the kind of person who does first and plans later: my personal motto has always been jump off the cliff and sprout wings on the way down. So I realized I needed a partner, and asked around to see who was willing to take the chance on this. Patti [Neff-Tiven] is perfect. She’s a list maker, and I’m a 50,000-foot person. She turned down two other ventures to get involved in this one, so she is along for the ride.

I also have been involved in the theater world in Austin since I’ve been here. My radio show on KOOP, “Off Stage and On the Air”, has been running for six years.

Photo by Lisa Hause

Photo by Lisa Hause

What’s the theater community like here now?

It’s nice because we are not in competition with each other. If another theater succeeds, we succeed. We all want the same thing: more Austinites enjoying theater. It’s just a question of education. People who live here but don’t do theater themselves don’t know they like theater. They don’t know we’re out here. Nobody’s unhappy about the creation of a new space. It has great amenities: bathrooms, green room, a decent light board and soundboard, house management, concessions, and opening. It’s also staffed, and we offer limited PR for peoples’ shows as well.

What brought you to Austin?

When I transitioned (from male to female) in 2000, my business partners in Chicago had a majority stake in our company and kicked me out. So I decided to come here. Transitioning gave me new perspective. I had always been one of those people who said anyone in this country can do anything they want to. I don’t think I would have done as well in business before if I hadn’t been a white man.

How has that experience informed your theater’s mission?

I’ve always been an advocate for social justice causes. The theater is a way to bring my advocacy to the theater world. We’ll also serve an unmet need in our community: for example, in our first year we’ll be working on a show on transgender homeless youth.

How are you deciding what you will be producing in the next year?

We are working with different artists to devise new pieces through the workshop process now. And we are also taking submissions. We plan to work with VSA Texas and other groups to produce a show involving developmentally disabled people.

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Photo by Lisa Hause

How is Ground Floor funded?

Right now it’s self-funded. We are just finishing up with a Kickstarter campaign to help defray startup costs, which are at $60,000. Running a Kickstarter is a full-time job. But I’m excited: Jason Alexander did a video for us!  We [Scheps and Neff-Tiven] aren’t taking salaries at the moment. We’ll see if we can next year.

What kind of organizations can rent out your space when your production company shows aren’t using it? How can they apply?

Anyone can use the space. One of our hopes is that we can have companies that fit within our mission to get free or reduced rental of the space if the financials permit it.

Ground Floor Theater, 979 Springdale Rd. hosts its first performance on Tuesday, Dec. 9 with a project of the Fusebox Festival called Fusebox 60-in-Sixty. The space will host the FronteraFest’s Long Fringe productions from Jan. 19 to Feb. 1. Look for a grand opening in January.

Interview by Katie Matlack

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