THE ZEST OF ZACH

Celebrating its 85th anniversary, the Zachary Scott Theatre is on a roll with a stellar provenance and exemplary season ahead, as our theatre enthusiast Lance Avery Morgan shares. He should know, he was a child performer there and has reprised his talent for a brief time at this special landmark.

 Photography courtesy of Kirk Tuck

If you were born in 1932, you’re bound to have seen a few changes in your time. At least, in the case of Zachary Scott Theatre (known as ZACH), the changes during its 85-year tenure have been numerous. Founded as the Austin Civic Theatre, it is the longest continuously running theatre company in the state of Texas, and one of the ten oldest in the country. It was renamed Zachary Scott Theatre Center in 1968 in honor of Austin-raised, Academy Award-nominated film leading man Zachary Scott, who was best known for his popular 1940s films Mildred Pierce and Cass Timberlane while under contract to Warner Brothers in Hollywood’s Golden Era.

Scott always remembered his Texas roots and small world; in fact my father knew the actor from his jaunts to the West Coast in the 1950s. Other famous names, from Jayne Mansfield to Mary Louise Parker have shared their thespian talents on the ZACH stage over the years, adding star luster to an already luminous organization.

Zachary Scott was quite a character, on and off the silver screen. He was tall, handsome, erudite, came from family money and usually played the wealthy cad beloved by mid-century moviegoers. His acting was respected by his peers, his former wife went on to marry John Steinbeck, and his genial demeanor made him popular with the chic Beverly Hills and Manhattan sets where he had homes and split his time.

His legacy intact after his premature death in 1965, Scott’s legacy would live on in Austin. In 1972, the 230-seat Kleberg Theatre opened at ZACH, and in the late 1980s the Whisenhunt Theatre, a new 130-seat theatre-in-the-round was added, as well as a classroom, administrative offices and costume shop space. In the early 1990s ZACH moved to professional status with Actors’ Equity Association and was selected for a National Endowment for the Arts Advancement Grant. In 2012, the 420-seat Topfer Theatre opened with the largesse of philanthropists Bobbi and Mort Topfer.

THE SMELL OF GREASEPAINT

And, I was a child performer there. It was long before there were any children’s theatre training programs or summer camps. My debut, in The Man Who Came To Dinner, a riotous three act play about sophisticated New Yorkers who get sidelined in the Midwest was about as theatrical as it could get. I was surrounded by talented grown-ups like actress Demp Toney and a repertory company that entertained Austinites in another bygone era of the 70s and 80s. It was sheer heaven, so when ZACH asked me to play a walk-on role in  A Christmas Carol this fall, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. So it was a full circle moment for me. “The only things you live to regret are the risks you didn’t take,” Zachary Scott once said, so it was all systems go.

As an adult who is most definitely not a theatrical talent these days, I’ll admit I was nervous when I showed up for my first rehearsal. I realize even the most seasoned performers get the jitters, but the butterflies inside me seemed the vast size of a great migration from down Mexico way. Knowing the show must go on, I looked, listened and learned. Then looked, listened and learned some more. Taking to the stage as a non-professional performer is similar to being plopped into Shanghai and having to learn Mandarin right away. But the ZACH team couldn’t have been more welcoming and fun, as the people and theatre usually are and I shall never forget “taking to the boards” and helping drive ticket sales.

So, it was off to several fittings and then rehearsal. Luckily, I performed the role at the same time as some other folks I knew who were also asked to join in the fun. And fun it was. The nervousness subsided once I donned my costume of a 19th century gentleman dandy who would have been as at ease on the sidewalks of Dickenson’s London as I was on the stage of ZACH. The show, a retelling of the classic holiday yarn, has been a huge hit for years and theatre goers return year after year. Once the excitement of the appearance subsided, I found the largesse of Zach’s staff and the audience, to linger in my mind for some time about the community vibe the organization has created in the market.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

Producing artistic director Dave Steakely says the secret to ZACH’s success is simple. “We’ve had a role, pun intended, in this community in this community for a long time. In fact, it’s been the epicenter culturally and socially since when the city was younger. So many people who were movers and shakers civically were involved in ZACH’s early days and even now, the incredible group of supporters helps deepen those ties,” shares Steakley.

With ZACH, like any successful performing arts organization, its success and position in the community is a numbers game. For instance: the 19,645 reduced price tickets that were provided to students from Title I and underserved schools. And the 25,000 pounds of scenery that were lifted by ZACH’s backstage crew over a season. Then there’s the 1,550 hours that were spent creating, altering, and repairing 1,500 individual costume pieces for season opener Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and 60 gallons of laundry detergent used to clean those costumes. In fact, 250 schools in 30 different school districts were reached through ZACH’s Theatre for Families performances. That also means $55,000 in scholarships were awarded to students entering its education camps and classes and 3,200 students registered for camps and classes between its main campus and ZACH North. You could call it a theatrical machine in this era of arts funding cuts.

Dave Steakley, a team leader and driver of ZACH’s ongoing success encapsulates the new season of theatrical endeavors as such: “The title of A Christmas Carol may be familiar but the production will be fresh. The national tour from New York is different with the ZACH artists. We strive to be better every time,” proclaims Steakley. Some of our hit selections like The Great Society or All the Way or One Night With Janis Joplin resonate with Central Texans. For the rest of 2017 and into 2018 we have A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Sunday in the Park with George, Heisenberg and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Steakley says it best about the appeal of this theatre, “Austin is a magnet for such creative individuals, and ZACH is the outlet for that creativity.”