Guest article by Dana Sayre
Austin’s Ground Floor Theatre celebrates under-represented populations in Austin, broadening the diversity of the local theatre community.
You might be familiar with Austin local Lisa Scheps from “Off the Stage and On the Air,” a radio show she hosts each Wednesday on KOOP 91.7. Her latest brainchild is Ground Floor Theatre, a new theatrical venue in East Austin, at the corner of Airport and Springdale.
The goal of Ground Floor Theatre is to foster “an environment for creative thinkers and artists to produce new works by and for underrepresented communities, lifting voices that need to be heard to people who need to hear them.”
Scheps got the idea for the project when chatting with Ken Webster and Christina J. Moore, co-producers of Austin’s FronteraFest, back in January 2014. “I love opening theatre venues,” Scheps explained. “Austin needs them desperately. I decided to take every penny I have and go with this thing, knowing it was a stupid idea,” she said, half-jokingly.
Scheps has been involved in the Austin theatre scene for over a decade, previously founding Play! Theatre Group in 2003. Though that venue ultimately closed for financial reasons, Scheps has high hopes for the future of Ground Floor Theatre. “My motto is ‘jump off the cliff and sprout wings on the way down,’” Scheps said. “It worked really well for me the first forty years of my life.” Scheps found a location and signed a lease in March 2014, officially opening the doors of the space in January 2015.
In a conscious attempt to make Ground Floor Theatre stronger than its predecessor, Scheps brought in Co-Director Patti Neff-Tiven for the project. “I’m a good closer,” Scheps explained. “I’m not good at groundwork, so I had to bring on someone to take that on. It’s really important to not go through this alone.” Scheps hopes that with an extra set of eyes on the prize, it will be more difficult for details to fall through the cracks.
Space Designed for Creativity
Ground Floor Theatre is a 4,500 square foot blackbox space with 120 seats, two dressing rooms and a green room complete with a private bathroom. The theatre operates as both a venue and a production house, offering non-curated rental space for local projects. This includes taking care of ticketing, house management and concessions.
The theatre is open to coordinating with all local companies and venues that want to do so. “I see Austin as one big theatre community,” Scheps continued. “A rising tide lifts all boats. There is no competition. We are all doing the same thing. There’s plenty of room for everyone.”
Eventually Scheps hopes Ground Floor Theatre can be a hybrid venue, offering low cost or free space to companies that fit closely with their mission statement. “We’re not there yet,” she admitted.
One of Ground Floor Theatre’s largest hurdles to overcome is fundraising. Currently, both Scheps and Neff-Tiven work full-time for the space without drawing a salary. “It’s not sustainable,” Scheps admitted. “But if we take side jobs, there is no bandwidth to do the things we want to do. A lot of things suffer because there is no bandwidth to do everything.” She continued, “Any small theatre in our market, they’re all non-profits. Even running successfully, revenue covers 65% of costs.” The rest of the funding must be made up through a combination of grants and personal and corporate donations. A Kickstarter campaign helped defray half the cost of Ground Floor’s current location, for example.
Ground Floor Theatre hosts a quarterly meet-and-greet, which allows attendees to get a taste of the work they’re doing and help spread the word in Austin. “The venue and the word on the street are great,” Scheps said. “I think we’re doing most things right. In fact, I would love more constructive negative feedback. We’re still trying to grow.”
The venue itself is also a work in progress, and the surrounding spaces will be a construction zone for the next 18 months. After that, the location around Ground Floor Theatre will be filled with high-end restaurants and offices, and neighboring industrial tenants like Brothers Produce will be moving out. Sheps said Ground Floor hopes to eventually build a for-profit second floor lobby for the venue, complete with a piano bar and lounge. Their current lobby doubles as a gallery space, hosting local artwork patrons can enjoy before each show.
Dedication to the Underrepresented
Speaking of Ground Floor’s focus on diversity, Sheps said, “I felt it was important as a trans person. It was necessary to give voice to communities with no voice or a soft voice.” Ground Floor Theatre is consciously dedicated to productions by and for underrepresented communities in Austin (and the communities within them), including African-American and disabled/deaf populations. Thus far, Ground Floor has collaborated with Girl Improved, a local production company where girls aged 11-14 write and produce their own shows, and Tilt Performance Group, which works with a variety of differently-abled actors.
Ground Floor Theatre was not planning to produce a show in 2015, but is ahead of schedule in that regard. This coming December, they will host a concert version of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade with both deaf and hearing actors. Parade tells the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager falsely accused of rape in 1913 Georgia and ultimately lynched by the anti-semetic local population. Frank’s death lead both to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League and a revival of the KKK in Georgia. “We’re casting deaf actors in lead roles,” Scheps explained. “It’s going to be an amazing experience.”
You can find more information about Ground Floor Theatre, including their current production schedule, on their website.
@theAustinot wants to know:
Have you been to Ground Floor Theatre? If so, what did you think?
Dana Sayre is a freelance writer and Austinite. More of her writing, focused on issues of gender, sexuality, mental health and social justice, can be found on her website.