Straw, Stick or Brick? Eco-friendly home improvement tips for The Three Little Pigs from the good folks of TreeHouse

March 25th, 2015 No comments

Straw, stick, or brick? Take your pick.

ZACH Theater is sharing a very fun version of The Three Little Pigs this month, and since the story has a lot to do with building homes (in addition to some good music and thoughtful char

acters), TreeHouse has partnered with the Theatre to offer some advice on what Siu and Cha, two of the three pig siblings, could have done a little differently to make their homes a better match for the Big Bad Wolf, as well as make some suggestions for those of you with a “brick house” to make your home a little more healthful and efficient.

You see, none of the pigs picked a material that is bad for building homes. Depending on where they were in the world, people have built homes out of just about anything they can get their hands on. Since shelter is one of the most essential human needs, human creativity has been pushed to extremes in order to survive. For Siu, Cha, and Bao, it all came down to how their material was used. Poor Siu and Cha should have asked Bao (their brainier brother) what the best way was to use straw or sticks to build a home. He had probably read a book or two about it, and I’m confident if they had insisted on using those materials, he could have helped them build something strong enough to withstand the Big Bad Wolf’s mighty blast, or for that matter, a Gulf Coast wind or Big Bend summer day.


Siu’s Straw House

Oh, the straw house. No one is surprised when the Wolf is able to blow it down with a single blow. A sneeze could have brought that house down. But straw doesn’t make a bad house. Despite her best attempt “to build an environmentally friendly house,” Siu failed to use straw in a way that also makes a sturdy house.

Straw homes have been built across the country for centuries. My grandmother was born in a straw bale home in northern South Dakota, a place known for howling winds and blizzards and sub-zero temperatures in the winter, as well as hot, blistering summers with days over 100 degrees. When the plains states were first being settled, straw bale homes and dug-ins (houses actually dug into the ground), were common due to the abundance of the resources necessary to build them: straw for the main structure and clay and mud to coat the walls.

Due to the thickness of the walls and the way the bales of straw trap so much air, straw bales are incredible insulators, with R-values above R-40 in most cases. By comparison, to meet code in Austin, a new construction only needs to have walls with an R-value of R-15.

The thicker walls provide a different look than standard framing, with deeper set windows and doors, and provide you the opportunity to use some natural materials for the finishing as well. Stucco and plaster are popular choices, or you can blend standard framing with the straw bale to allow drywall to be installed inside, giving you the ability to paint the inside of a straw bale home if you prefer.


Cha’s Stick House

When the second pig set out to build a house out of sticks, I had something like this in mind, which doesn’t exactly elicit confidence as far as its ability to hold up to anything. While it is possible to build something sturdy from those sticks, most people (or pigs) probably don’t have the time or luxury to do something quite as laborious.

The problem may be that the word “stick” makes you think almost exclusively of twigs and thin, bendy, wispy branches. The beauty of wood, though, is that it comes in so many sizes. Long before we had the technology to carve a tree down into 2×4’s, people knew how to cut down a tree and use the trunk and larger limbs for building beautiful and durable log homes in any climate. Assuming all the seams are properly sealed, these homes can be very energy efficient and sturdy, something Cha probably wasn’t thinking about when he built his home from the first sticks he could find.

And that’s one of the main points of the story, isn’t it: take the time to think about all your options before making such an important decision. If he and Siu had brain-stormed a little more or anticipated how their finished project would perform, they could have moved past their first idea and used it to make an even better choice.


Bao’s Brick House

Of the three choices from the story, brick is the strongest material the pig siblings used. It is also the most energy-intensive to make, considering you’re taking combinations of clay, sand, and lime and adding energy in the form of heat to harden the blocks. They can be air- or kiln-dried, but in either case, a lot of heat has to get into the material to make it suitable for building.

The traditional way to make bricks or earth blocks is by forming the blocks and leaving them in the sun. If the site where you’re building has access to some good clay and sand, these earth blocks could be a good choice for building your home. They won’t give you that traditional brick look, but they will make a strong and comfortable home. And as the story shows, bricks make for the strongest house.

I’m sure when you think about your own home you like to imagine it more like the brick house: strong; built with care; the kind of house that could never be a victim of huffing and puffing. Big strong gusts, however, aren’t the real problem with houses these days. Most of the time, our homes really need protection from the little gusts and breezes that sneak in through cracks and around windows. And over the course of time, it’s those little huffs and puffs that ruin the electric bill and blow your bank account to the ground or make you feel uncomfortable in your own home.


The story of The Three Little Pigs has a lot to teach about making wise decisions and the value of hard work. After all, the first two built their homes just about as fast as they could. It must have taken much longer to build that brick house, but the hard work paid off. With a little bit of thoughtfulness and some hard work, any house can be the type of home that is comfortable and efficient, capable of standing up to the Big Bad Wolf, regardless of what form it takes.

-By Michael Kaiser of TreeHouse

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From the Dramaturg’s Desk

March 24th, 2015 No comments

By ALL THE WAY Production Dramaturg Russell M. Dembin

March 20, 2015

KRT_8044 KRT_8038LBJmiddleton 2interview-8220We’re ALL THE WAY into rehearsals for Robert Schenkkan’s first play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the process has been rewarding. As production dramaturg I work with the creative team, cast, and ZACH Theatre staff to help the other artists and the audience immerse themselves in the world of the play. So I assist the actors and director in figuring out questions about the script (such as exploring what the text tells us about character relationships), provide background research on the time period, create supplemental material for the lobby and the program, and lead pre- and post-performance talks. All of these tasks are geared toward cultivating the richest possible experience for the people mounting the play and those seeing it.

Preparing this piece for the theatre-makers and theatregoers of Austin is such a gift, and one reason is the wealth of resources about Johnson’s life in this city. Because of ZACH’s location we had the opportunity to go through what we call “LBJ boot camp”: Steve Vinovich, who is playing the President, and ZACH Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley, who is staging the production, received a private tour of the LBJ Library’s museum from Library director Mark K. Updegrove; the three of us were shown Johnson’s birthplace in Johnson City and the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall by Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park superintendent Russ Whitlock; and we also had a two-hour conversation with Larry Temple, special counsel to LBJ during his presidency, and Harry Middleton, a former Johnson speechwriter who later served as director of the LBJ Library.

The Library has been greatly valuable to my research because of its extensive archives—in fact the collection’s holdings comprise more floors than the museum. I’m grateful to archivist Allen Fisher, who has been generous with his time in talking about the President’s life and career, and who pointed me toward the handwriting files: several boxes of photocopied documents containing everything Johnson wrote by hand. I’ve visited the Library’s reading room a number of times, and last Thursday Steve Vinovich and I perused these artifacts. We found that, in addition to the invaluable recordings of the President’s phone conversations, they provide significant insight into LBJ’s personality and his interactions with other figures depicted in ALL THE WAY. One item we both particularly enjoyed was Johnson’s January 1964 response to a Texas artist who had sent him a painting of his birthplace: he jotted down a note to his staff, “Her painting was lovely. Urge her to paint J.C. [Johnson City] home as well as LBJ ranch house — without charge.” The comment displays LBJ’s deep ties to the Lone Star State, and reveals echoes of his impoverished childhood. The more we consult the more we appreciate how human and complex he was. I look forward to sharing more with you as we go along, and I hope to see you at one of the production’s pre- or post-show events.

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Our first Sensory-Friendly Performance- The Three Little Pigs

March 22nd, 2015 No comments

threepigsActors are an overly expressive group…even without a stage or camera. So when Chad Dike (ZACH Theatre Performing Arts School Manager) and Nat Miller (ZACH Theatre Education Director) approached us about a sensory-friendly performance of The Three Little Pigs for individuals on the autism spectrum, I wondered what that might entail. What would it be like to perform this highly energetic show in a modified way? Would I accidentally scare the daylights out of a small child? Our entire cast and crew learned about the subtle modifications that would make our show more comfortable for our new audience. We created an environment where folks could come and go, they could move around if they chose, and could be comfortable knowing they were with accepting friends. Glow sticks would indicate the source of sound, movement or other sensory stimuli, and vocal participation would be welcome. Even with our newly learned modifications, the prospect of a sensory-friendly performance was intimidating.

We started off without a hitch, backing track and microphone volumes lowered. I could tell the actors felt a little unsure of how expressive we should be. As we felt out the crowd, it became more and more like any other school performance – which, in all reality, it was. These children were wonderfully engaged and responsive.

Most everything ran exactly as usual, with one exception, which I found very intriguing. In most school and public shows, when the wolf asks the little kiddos, “Did you see those three little pigs?” …they respond with a resounding “YESS YESS I saw them!!! They went that way!” Alone, this moment doesn’t seem too dire. Yes they did see the little pigs, but do they understand the consequences of their actions as Russel Taylor sometimes jokes with the audience? Do they understand that if they give the pigs away, the Big Bad Wolf will find them? Our audiences joyfully gave the three pigs away in every show without fail. That is, except for the kids at the sensory-friendly performance. Not only did they not give the pigs away, they said “NO WAY JOSE!” That, to me, was a wonderful response.

I was honored to be a part of this very first sensory-friendly performance at ZACH. I was given the opportunity to have any preconceived notions (or lack there of) about these kids completely kicked to the curb. I cannot express my gratitude enough to the people at ZACH who allowed me to be involved in this very special and monumental step toward making theatre in Austin truly accessible for ALL.

-Amanda Serra

Actress in The Three Little Pigs at ZACH Theatre

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All The Way- Costume Shop Insight

March 20th, 2015 No comments

Conjuring some of history’s most significant political figures on stage is no small feat, but Costume Designer Michael McDonald is up for the challenge. Here, he shares thoughts on his design approach for ZACH Theatre’s Texas Premiere of the Tony Award-winning play All The Way.


My design approach to All The Way was, at first, a paralyzing fear and an obsession to get it all perfect. Since we are in Austin, this is the one place in the world where our audience will know if we missed the mark.  So its good to be on your best game for this show, but it’s also important to remember that this is not a museum piece or a historical documentary. The story is told through LBJ’s perspective, and that is who we, the designers, must take our directive from.


Our actors have been cast for their best ability to play these roles, and if they have a resemblance to the folks they are portraying, it’s just a bonus.  This is where costumes, hair and make-up come into play. Our task is to make the black and white photos and film footage of the past come to life on stage in living color.   However, this is a play and many actors have multiple roles, so it’s the tiny details and gestures of styling that can transform an actor from one character to the next.   When I feel the play is calling for a character to have a full costume change, we do it. When it can happen with just a change of eyeglasses, it is no less impactful.   It’s good story telling.


It has been a thrill to do all of the historical research, using many resources and talented costume makers to bring this show to life.

-Costume Designer Michael McDonald



Director’s Notes: Michael Baron, Director of Peter and the Starcatcher

January 13th, 2015 No comments

Do you remember the first time you met a boy named Peter Pan? Was it by reading the classic book, seeing the Disney cartoon, the Broadway musical, or one of the countless film versions that have been made throughout the years?  Growing up in Orlando, I think the first time I remember being introduced to Peter was when my parents took me to Disney World and I rode a pirate ship that flew right through the story in the Magic Kingdom.  There is clearly something in this story of “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” that people identify with and want to revisit in many ways.  Peter and the Starcatcher is based on the wonderful young adult novel by Florida’s Pulitzer prize winning author and humor columnist Dave Barry and adventure novelist Ridley Pearson.  They wanted to imagine, through a new classic adventure book, how Peter, Captain Hook, and the rest of the characters we know and love came to be.  How did Peter and Hook become enemies? Where did the dust that makes people fly come from?  How did Peter get his name? Who are the lost boys? I am fortunate to have a fantastic group of ZACH favorites and new company members create this magical world for this new stage adaptation.  Just as we have in rehearsals, I invite you to use your imagination to go on an adventure, whether you are a kid or a kid at heart.   Most importantly, this new story is about how we still wish, sometimes, to return to the innocence and playfulness of our youth and how adolescence always has to complicate things. Like most of life, this story answers many questions about Peter Pan, but also brings up new ones.  As a director, I especially enjoyed working on this adaptation, because it encouraged those of us who worked on it to try and do what theatre does best – create magic, epic voyages, and fantastical worlds to play in with just the simplest of tools.  I invite you not to sit back and enjoy the show, but to use your imagination with us as we take you on a sea voyage to an island of mermaids, crocodiles, and treasure more valuable than gold and discover what happens when you learn you can fly.  After the show, I encourage you to do what I did for the first time when I found out I was directing this show, read J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  The ride I first took at Disney years ago is nothing compared to the adventure created on the page.

Michael Baron,

Director of Peter and the Starcatcher

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The ZACH & IKEA Creative Spaces Challenge- Meet The Education Department!

January 7th, 2015 No comments

By Chad Dike, ZACH Theatre Performing Arts School Manager

When I moved to Austin three years ago, I knew only a few things about this city.

1) It is “weird.” (Coming from DC, anything other than a suit and tie is weird.)

2) UT is HUGE.  (Hook ‘em… Did I get that right?)

3) And of course THE MUSIC.  (Live music capital of the world and all.)

What I didn’t expect was the huge arts scene beyond the music.  This is a city of awesome museums, amazing dance, and over 100 theatre companies.  I knew ZACH was here, but I had no idea of the rich history behind this organization.  Allow me to toot our horn for a second…

ZACH Theatre is the oldest in Texas and one of the ten oldest in the country. It employs more than 300 actors, musicians, and designers annually to create its own diverse array of nationally recognized plays and musicals. Each year, ZACH serves nearly 115,000 Central Texans – 50,000 of which are children who participate in our education programs, camps and classes. And that’s my job here a ZACH – I am the Performing Arts School Manager.  I help make spaces for kids to be creative, innovative, and have fun, all while learning something about the art I care so much about.  I have witnessed ZACH’s immense growth over the past three years and since July have been in the thick of it.  Our spaces are fit to burst with students, staff, actors, directors, designers, and more.

In the past five years the education staff has grown from two full time employees to four full time and two part time.  Let me introduce you to some the team in our Education Department:

“I’m Nat, Education Director and my challenge is finding space to have meetings with the many teachers, designers, directors, playwrights and other collaborators I work with.”

“I’m Kate, Education Associate and because our office is the first one you see as you enter the offices, my challenge is that our office becomes a dumping ground for teachers, parents, and other co-workers.  It gets really messy.”

“I’m Shannon, Office Assistant, and my challenge is desk space, I have the tiniest sliver of a desk and it’s SO TALL!”

This is just one of the departments participating in The ZACH & IKEA Creative Spaces Challenge. We can’t wait to work with the creative planners, organizers and designers of Austin to transform our space!

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From The Desk Of Bob Cratchit: A Q&A With Actor Paul Sanchez 

December 16th, 2014 1 comment

Earlier this month we had an opportunity to chat with A Christmas Carol actor Paul Sanchez regarding his character, Bob Cratchit. Paul and the rest of the cast had a hand in shaping their characters, inspiring the script with traditions and touches from their own personal lives and holiday customs.


The result of their contributions is the heartwarming family scenes audiences applaud each evening on our stage. Here is an excerpt from our conversation. Knowing the background for a character or scene makes it all the more impactful.


Q: How did these character’s come about? What inspiration did you bring to your part?


PS: I had worked with Dave before, and he approached me after The Who’s Tommy. He let me know he had been working on this show for years and there were some songs that, after working with me, he envisioned me singing. Once we had the process rolling in rehearsal, there were lots of questions asked of me regarding my own experience with Christmas at home growing up. I had a lot of input into my character. I’m very proud of the direction my Bruno Mars song took, “You Can Count on Me.” The way Dave was writing it, he suggested putting in some Spanish lyrics. I suggested that we change the style and rather than include Spanish words we use Spanish-inspired guitar. So I brought a lot of that style to the table.


Q: A Christmas Carol uses some archetypal characters to tell the story. There’s a poor family who are rich in love, a rich man who’s poor in soul, etc. Tell us about the Cratchits and what that family represents.


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PS: In A Christmas Carol, the Cratchits are a poor family. I know Dave wanted the heart and soul of the show to come from the Cratchits. I understand, being a Hispanic man and an actor, there are some type-castings I’ve experienced—the mafia, drug dealers, thugs etc. But I’ve never seen the loving family aspect as a stereotype, and being asked to represent a family like this, I was honored. I was honored to be asked to represent a loving family. I think it’s wonderful to see a Hispanic family depicted in this loving way and as the center of a show. I felt it was an honor. I didn’t want it over the top. I didn’t want a Virgin Mary in our tiny house or other stereotypes.


Alejandra (Mrs. Cratchit) and the rest of us, we all sat down outside of rehearsal and discussed what of our own life we wanted to bring to these scenes. There are two big scenes we put a lot of heart into. Losing a loved one, celebrating the loss the way we do in our culture, and good times, celebrating those the way we do in our culture.


Q: Are there any other moments inspired by your own life?


PS: Dave also asked what it was like to be together at the holidays. For me it was about food. It was about tamales, tortillas. We definitely wanted to add the tamales to the scene. We also wanted to add in Spanish words that weren’t in the script. For example, prayers were a big part for me. Saying “manos” before holding hands at the prayer. “Con permiso, Mr. Scrooge” is something I added. Those little touches. We wanted it to be subtle and heartfelt. I had a lot of input into the character. We all did.


Each evening, the cast is in the lobby after each show, ready for some holiday cheer and conversation. Come meet Paul. Come meet the entire Cratchit family and witness the love and care that we all share this magical time of year!



ZACH Theatre’s Promise to Austin’s Students

December 13th, 2014 No comments

By Nat Miller, ZACH Theatre Education Director

As I approach the holidays and the end of our three month run of A Year With Frog and Toad, I have a lot to be thankful for.  I am thankful to work for an organization that while opening a new theatre found time to allow our Education program to grow a Theatre for Families series that is of the same quality as our Mainstage productions.  I am thankful that we are able to make a promise to all schools that all students will have access to the arts regardless of their economic status, and we are able to keep that promise.  Over 13,000 students saw A Year With Frog and Toad, over 60% were from low income schools who came for little to no cost.  We have gotten so many quotes from teachers about the production and the value of the arts in their classroom, but here are a few that stand out:

·       “The show made strong connections with the books and allowed the students to use their imaginations as well as be completely entertained by the performance!”

·       My students really connected to the performers and came away with a strong understanding of the friendship between Frog and Toad. Thanks so much!”

·       “Many of my students have never crossed the river, let alone see the play.  Thank you for giving them a cultural experience they will never forget!” recently published by a study done by researchers at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform that states that “field trips to live theater enhance literary knowledge, tolerance, and empathy among students.”  (

This comes to no surprise to us in the field of Theatre for Young Audiences.  At ZACH Theatre we see every day how theatre inspires and transforms young people in central Texas.  What makes theater such a strong learning tool is that it asks students to enter imaginatively into the lives of others so we may understand their motivations.  In a world given increasingly to tensions by people of diverse backgrounds, the value of being able to understand and feel for others as human beings cannot be overestimated.  To emotionally, imaginatively, and intellectually experience what it means to be human is an invaluable experience.  Fewer subjects have more potential to reach this goal than theater, because humanity is the core of its content.

In our vision statement, led by our Artistic Director, Dave Steakley, ZACH aims to be a meeting tent where theatre connects and transforms a diverse, energized community.  I couldn’t be more thankful to be a part of this vision that brings young people of all backgrounds to our theatre, that holds onto its promise of making theatre affordable for all students, and that inspires the next generation to keep this ancient form of storytelling alive.

I leave you with one last example of how theatre can inspire a young person to be more empathetic.  In A Year With Frog and Toad, the character of Toad is very sad because he never gets letters in the mail.  After seeing the play one 1st grade student wrote him a letter from his seat in the audience.  He went up to the actor playing toad and said, “I know you never get any mail.  I wrote you a letter.  I hope that makes you feel better.”

Q&A With A Christmas Carol Director, Dave Steakley

December 5th, 2014 1 comment

Q: What was your inspiration for your adaptation of A Christmas Carol?


A: I wrote and directed Rockin’ Christmas Party, a musical review with just enough script to hold the songs together, and it became a big Austin holiday tradition for so many people — I did it for 10 years at the Paramount for a four week run each year and then we moved it to ZACH’s Kleberg stage where it ran for another 7 years.  It was fun for the audience and I would change up sections of the show each year to keep it fresh, but around the 15th year it stopped being fun for me creatively.  I hated to end a show that so many people came to each year, but I needed to let it go so I could embrace other projects artistically.  I began to think about what else I could create for ZACH for the holidays and that’s when my attention turned more seriously toward A Christmas Carol and how I might approach it.


Initially, I had sketched out a plot where Scrooge was a contemporary African American woman who was a media mogul a la Oprah Winfrey as a vehicle for actress Janis Stinson with whom I’ve worked a lot.  About a year after I started work on that a TV movie version starring Vanessa Williams came out and while it was not the same plot, it was similar enough that I felt like it would look like I was copying the movie, so I abandoned that writing, although three of the songs I had in that version are in the current show.


I like the form of Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge where he used music from multiple eras and genres, re-orchestrated to tell the story of bohemian Parisians in the early 1900’s.  I like the aesthetic of anachronistic elements colliding in a story, so the juxtaposition of contemporary music and a period setting and costumes appeals to me very much.  For me it allows an accessible way into a story for a contemporary audience.  The holiday party that Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, throws at his home is usually depicted with the partygoers being male/female couples playing a word association parlor game where Scrooge gets described as a bear and other animals to suggest his disagreeable nature.  Fred is a newlywed in his 20’s, and if I think about a party involving some twenty-somethings and their best friends today it is going to be a more fun, raucous party with music, drinking, dancing and maybe some karaoke.  Also their friends are going to include people of multiple ethnicities and sexual orientations, including people who are single.   So I wanted to take this fancy party in gowns and tuxedo tails and make it feel a little closer to what it feels like to be mid-twenties now.  This same idea is applied throughout the show. It is no secret that I am a big fan of gospel and soul music and great vocalists.  So the Christmas carols we sing have arrangements that are soulful, sometimes doo wop or honky tonk-inspired, and sometimes with a full gospel church approach.


For the Fezziwig Party, Allen Robertson (Musical Director & Arranger) and I wanted the arrangements to have an older, acoustic piano feeling since it is in the “past” in the story.  Consequently, some contemporary songs by the Black Eyed Peas, Justin Bieber and Ace of Base have been given arrangements with instrumentation to help suggest another time that’s nostalgic.  I also made the decision to make the Fezziwigs a Jewish family celebrating Hanukkah — we have families in our community who celebrate this holiday season in many ways, and I didn’t want the only representation onstage to be only of the Christian tradition.


The holidays make some people depressed, and sometimes this has to do with family relationships, and sometimes it is about being reminded of a romantic relationship that ended in the past, like Scrooge, or one that isn’t going well in the present.  I wanted to represent this voice of loneliness and feeling blue in my play as well, so the end of Act One is when Scrooge’s fiancé Belle ends their engagement.  The Ghost of Christmas Past encourages Scrooge to not give up on love even though he’s been “bucked off of the horse,” and that love is worth the risk for the many ways it enhances your life.


Q: How long have you been working on this script?


A: I have been jotting down notes for the past ten years that I kept in a file on my laptop.  In earnest I began work on it about two years ago, and the past seven months have been the most intense part of the writing process and song selection.  Throughout rehearsals and the preview period I have been doing some rewrites and changing staging and musical moments.  I knew this would be a large undertaking, but I’ve got to say during technical rehearsals it seemed even larger than I had imagined it because it has all the requirements of a large musical, with a very large sound effects soundscape, and the requirement to create stage magic for our ghosts.  What is on stage matches what was in my head all these years I’ve been thinking about this, and you can’t always say that when you get to the finished production.  I feel very fortunate to have worked with such terrific designers and collaborators on this project.


Q: Why did you choose a nontraditional casting?


A: I approach all casting at ZACH as multi-cultural, unless a particular musical like Hairspray or a play like All The Way calls for specific casting because the play is about race relationships, or race figures into the historical plot.  I think the experience for all of us is enhanced by seeing a world which is diverse and varied on stage.  I think contemporary audiences, especially those coming to ZACH, expect us to have actors on stage who are representative of many facets of our community.  At regional theaters across the country, A Christmas Carol often becomes the time in which you will see diversity in casting choices, and at ZACH we take this to heart as a regular casting practice.


Q: How did you determine which characters and scenes should represent each of the different cultures included in the story?  Were the cast members involved in any direct changes to the script/story/etc? 


A: Throughout the play the music came first, I wasn’t thinking about race or culture, I was looking for music where the lyrics matched the emotional content of the character’s journey or told the story of the scene we were in.  Once I had the music roughly in place some trends began to emerge for me and there were some actors I wanted to pre-cast in roles.  Working with Michael Valentine this summer as Tommy I decided to cast him as Fred, Scrooge’s nephew because Michael has a wonderful contemporary R&B white soul pop quality that is crystal clear and I knew would lend itself nicely to the party I wanted to create around Fred.


I had selected the songs “For The Love of Money” and a sparse dark arrangement of “If You Could Read My Mind” for Marley, Scrooge’s business partner, and to me there was only one voice I knew that would be really outstanding on this material and that was Roderick Sanford.  I didn’t start out at the beginning of this process thinking I want Marley to be African American — it just so happened that the best candidate for the role as it began to form, was a black actor.  The same for the Charitable Gentleman, the successful businessman who collects contributions for the needy at the beginning of the play — I knew I wanted this role to double with the Ghost of Christmas Past and Kenny Williams, who I’ve worked with a lot, came to mind for me because he has such a strong nostalgic, crooner quality I wanted for the ghost representing the “past”.  That he is African American was inconsequential to me; Kenny has been one of my closest friends for over 20 years and I wrote the Ghost as an exaggerated extension of his own personality and things I have heard him say over the years.  Kenny is also good friends with Billy Porter who won the Tony Award for Kinky Boots, and I told Kenny six months ago, “If you and Billy had a baby it would be the Ghost of Christmas Past in this production.”  From day one of this rehearsal process Kenny has known exactly who this character was and delivered “him” in the room.


I knew I wanted the Fezziwig family to be Jewish, because I wanted to include other family traditions.  In the novel Mr. Fezziwig is a fantastic businessman, who is generous and kind and has a warm sense of family that is very inclusive of everyone who works for him.


For me the story of the Cratchits is the most important part of the play because it becomes the demonstration to Scrooge of what a loving family is and how a life is well lived.  That there is no focus on material things because the family is focused on the riches they enjoy from each other in their close relationships.  Robert, a good friend of mine, is always relating to me stories about his family at the holidays and the closeness of the relationships he has with his parents, grandparents and siblings.  There is a strong sense of tradition in the way they celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, that isn’t really a part of my family anymore.  The bond of love in Robert’s family is very strong and the sense of connection they experience is so attractive.  Robert is Mexican American and this sparked the idea for me that the Cratchit family could be a Hispanic family that would be reflective of Austin in that a large percentage of our city is comprised of Latino/Latina families.  Based on my friendship with Robert, and subsequent interviews I did with some ZACH staff members and other friends who have a Mexican American heritage, I began incorporating the traditions and terms of endearment they related to me as the framework for these scenes.


Having worked with Paul Sanchez and knowing that he is a great father in real life, I wanted to have him play Bob Cratchit and then I built the family off of casting him.  I knew Paul played guitar at home with his kids and I liked this as the idea of how we would incorporate music into the Cratchit household, so that it was acoustic and simple, and subsequently more honest and direct than perhaps other parts of the play.


I did not originally have a song in the show for Marta, the oldest daughter of the Cratchits but upon meeting Marianel Marquez I knew I had to create a moment for her because she sings with an honesty and power that is something very special.  Alejandra McGuire who plays Mrs. Cratchit grew up in Mexico City and when I did the bilingual Jesucristo Superstar at ZACH, Alejandra and her niece did the Spanish translation of the lyrics for our production that was approved by Andrew Lloyd Webber.


On the first day of rehearsal, I told the actors who were cast in the Cratchit family that what I had written was only a blueprint for their scenes and that I needed their full participation in shaping these scenes so they would feel authentic to their experience.  What was said in Spanish and how it was said I left entirely up to the actors and we incorporated all of their changes.  Every single Hispanic friend and actor I interviewed for this section of the show expressed the same common traditions they felt should be incorporated into the scene — a manger scene, tamales, poncho Navideño, prayer, oranges and nuts in the stockings for the kids.  We incorporated all of these elements into the Cratchit scene as part of the fabric of the family without calling any special attention to it, just as we don’t call any special attention to the menorah in the Fezziwig scene, it’s just part of the family.


In the Cratchit scenes we are doing a Bruno Mars song and a Beyonce song because the emotional content of those songs matched what I needed to convey in those moments, and Paul suggested he play “Count On Me” in a Spanish guitar style and that he float the melody in his tenor in a way that might be more evocative of music he would sing with his family in Mexico.  Allen and I were completely open to this and let him run with it because having ownership of it was the most important thing to me.  In the Fred Party scene are two songs associated with Latino artists, Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull, simply because these songs worked best lyrically in the story I was developing, not because they were Latino artists.  There are other Hispanic actors in the cast playing affluent party guests at Fred’s party who are friends with he and his wife Gwen.


Scrooge’s housekeeper/cook Mrs. Dilbert is a very small part of Charles Dicken’s novel — I was interested in expanding her role and having this actress also play the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is responsible for showing Scrooge the things as they truly are.  I saw women of various races for this role and there were Caucasian women who made the character work in auditions by playing it in a style that was kind of like a character from Designing Women, it worked and was funny.  Musically I selected songs that are for a soprano and have a soulful, soaring gospel quality with songs by Earth Wind and Fire, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, and gospel versions of Christmas carols.  The two actresses who delivered these songs with the most conviction and authenticity and had the best reading of the scenes were Jacqui Cross and Amma Osei, both of whom are African American and are sharing the role of Mrs. Dilbert.  So I was willing to cast this role with any race, but I was not willing to compromise the integrity of the music with any interpretations that felt false.  We incorporated ad libs that each actress had, and the gospel moments in the show are “a call and response” between singer and choir, so this needs to be open to the vocal instincts and inspiration of the singer.  Jacqui and Amma interpret these moments differently, as they should, because it is about inspiration in the moment.  It’s up to the discretion of the actress and her instincts, and these are intended to be different from night to night based on what is happening in the room with the audience in that particular show.


Q: If there’s one message you hope the audience takes home with them, what would that be?


A: I love the line in Dickens’ story, and I am paraphrasing, where he says that some people laughed to see the changes in Scrooge, but he let them laugh, because now his own heart laughed and that was enough of him.  We can’t be completely responsible for the ways that we are perceived or who people think we are, but we must be accountable to ourselves and to our own hearts.  Scrooge doesn’t care if people are questioning his motivations for the change he has made in his life, he cares about realizing that change for himself to become the person he always intended to be.  I put Aloe Blacc’s song “Love Is The Answer” in this show because as corny or simplistic as that seems, I truly believe that sentiment.  It is how I was raised and I subscribe to the notion of love thy neighbor as thyself.  A Christmas Carol celebrates family, romantic relationships, friendship and the ways we can be good stewards and builders of community regardless of race, gender, religion or lack thereof, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, or anything else we use to draw divisions between people in a community.  With all the work I am involved in I want to foster community and learn from other people who are different from me — it builds understanding and helps open our minds and hearts to new perspectives that make living better.


Q: You know these characters well, if Scrooge could give us all once piece of advice, what would it be?


A: To live each day with Christmas in your heart and make each moment count.


The ZACH & IKEA Creative Spaces Challenge

November 14th, 2014 No comments

The ZACH & IKEA Creative Spaces Challenge

The ZACH & IKEA Creative Spaces Challenge kicks off on Monday, shining a spotlight on the rapid growth of the oldest theatre company in Texas. Interior designers, stagers, and organizers are challenged to use their creative imagination and an IKEA budget to help our big, dynamic team do even more in our small office space.

This Challenge is an opportunity for ZACH’s team to work with innovative problem solvers in the community to optimize our space. Five staffers at ZACH banned together to create the challenge; Chad Dike, Performing Arts School Manager; Merrill Jones, Director of Human Resources; Rona Ebert, Art Director; Renelle Bedell, Executive Assistant; and Lauren Lovell (me), Public Relations Manager.

Throughout the Challenge we’ll be posting blogs and videos with our friends at CITYGRAM Austin digital magazine to showcase the creative ideas in action. The close of this challenge coincides with our staging of the Broadway hit, Peter and the Starcatcher, the Peter Pan prequel about the limitless possibilities of imagination – the perfect theme for our design challenge!

Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and as new Austinites become new audience members, our artistic community is growing as well. ZACH Theatre is one non-profit arts organization benefitting from this surge in growth, and I’m fortunate enough to be its manager of Public Relations.

What do we do here? I would say we engage our community through the production of really fresh and thought provoking live theatre, and through our inspiring educational opportunities for children. ZACH produces beautiful theatre and takes special care to give us shows with current relevance and diverse appeal. The challenge posed by our immense growth is a physical one – our staff has gotten larger but our office space has not. We need a smarter, more strategic way to use our limited administrative space.

We’ll keep you posted as things develop and can’t wait to meet the Creative Spaces Challenge contestants!

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