Topfer Theatre Q&As

About the Theatre

What is this initiative in a nutshell?

Now in its 81st year as Austin’s Theatre, ZACH now has a facility that is of commensurate quality to the dynamic professional productions on its stage. ZACH sits on a comprehensive campus that creates productions of the highest artistic quality, consisting of three intimate performance venues. Additionally, the campus includes educational classrooms, rehearsal studios, production facilities and administrative offices to provide Central Texans and visitors to our region with nationally recognized theatre experiences that ignite the imagination, lift the spirit and engage our community. There’s nothing like it in Central Texas.

Why does ZACH need this theatre?

  1. Current limitations: ZACH has been an Austin institution for 81 years. ZACH’s Kleberg Theatre, built in 1972, was designed to be a black box community theatre. In this facility there is virtually no wing space, no traps under the stage, no fly tower, cramped outmoded actor dressing rooms, minimal patron amenities and seating limited to 230 audience members. The Kleberg has served the organization well for almost 40 years, but it does not meet the needs of a professional theatre creating work in the 21st century. ZACH’s audience has grown to current capacity with subscriptions and single ticket sales shattering previous records. Larger audience capacity is essential for the ongoing vitality and support required for the organization. The Kleberg will remain a valuable asset for our pre-professional students in ZACH’s Education shows and for the incubation of new plays and musicals.
  2. Expanded opportunities on stage: The Topfer Theatre has greatly expanded what ZACH is able to create onstage for Central Texas residents and visitors. The dimensions of ZACH’s Karen Kuykendall Stage is commensurate with other regional and Broadway theatres with a fly house for flying in sets from above, the ability to track large scenic elements in from the 20-foot wings on each side of the stage, a fully trapped stage floor (which allows on-stage actors and scenic pieces to either disappear below the stage or rise up from under the stage), and the latest technology in lighting, video and sound.

    Variable acoustics create a space that is dynamic and crisp for spoken-word plays, amplified musicals, acoustic musical concerts and speakers and symposiums. Actor Dressing Rooms are greatly expanded to allow for a cast size of up to 50 actors. And whereas the load in of a new show’s scenery, lights and sound took a week in the Whisenhunt and Kleberg Stages, load-in has been shortened to just two days in the Topfer.

    The new theatre allows ZACH to share productions with colleagues at regional theatres like Steppenwolf, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Mark Taper Forum and many others. It also allows ZACH-created shows featuring the work of Austin designers, craftspeople and actors to transfer with the production to regional theatres in other cities. ZACH will now be a launching pad for Broadway-bound musicals and plays, as ZACH did recently with One Night with Janis Joplin. 

  3. Enhanced patron experience: ZACH’s new Topfer has become the gathering spot on Lady Bird Lake with its spacious lobby and full bars, stellar two-story views of the downtown skyline, steeply raked seating risers creating excellent uninterrupted sightlines, comfortable modern seating, and a glorious outdoor plaza that can accommodate 450 people for a seated dinner. The patron experience increases ten-fold while maintaining the intimacy and creativity that Austinites have identified as ZACH’s hallmark. Austin Architects Andersson Wise, who are being celebrated for the exceptional public spaces they have created in the W Hotel and Austin City Limits downtown, are bringing that same sensibility in to play for ZACH.
  4. More space for education: The popularity of ZACH’s educational programs continues to grow and newly dedicated space in the Binning-Dickson Education Center will serve the overwhelming popularity of our youth classes, camps and performances.

Why does Austin need this theatre?

Great cities deserve a great theatre. Just as Dallas has Dallas Theatre Center, and Houston has the Alley Theatre, Austin has ZACH Theatre. The Long Center addressed the need of our other major cultural organizations -- Austin Lyric Opera, Ballet Austin and the Austin Symphony -- to have a first-rate performance venue. Now, the Topfer Theatre completes that work by providing a first-class home for Austin’s Theatre that will serve as a hub for Central Texas’ vital cultural community.

All other large theatres in Austin are presenting organizations hosting touring shows created elsewhere. At ZACH we produce all of our shows in Austin employing over 300 Austin actors, musicians, designers and artists annually. Under the artistic direction of Dave Steakley for two decades, ZACH purposefully makes art that creates the opportunity for meaningful conversations on topics that have resonance in our community. And, as the region continues to grow in both population and stature, so do the expectations of ZACH and its facilities. The Topfer Theatre is the place where our diverse, energized community will gather for a collective imaginative journey.

What does this theatre mean for ZACH staff and actors?

Our family of artists — more than 300 actors, designers, musicians, playwrights, directors, choreographers, craftspeople and technicians employed by ZACH annually — tell us time and again that ZACH is their artistic home. They deserve a professional work environment that supports their creativity and does not limit their individual and collective creative exploration due to an inadequate facility.

The new Topfer Theatre, with all of its modern on-stage and backstage amenities and tools, allows us to take new works originated at ZACH and share them with other regional theatres across the country. It also gives us far more freedom to select plays and musicals that have simply not been possible to perform in the Kleberg or Whisenhunt theatres. Past works like Porgy and Bess, which required renting an outside facility, will now be produced at ZACH. The larger seating capacity helps us increase artist salaries and designer fees, and reinvest our resources in the human creative capital that makes ZACH such a special place, and Austin an extraordinary place to live.

The theatre becomes a symbol of our community’s investment in ZACH’s mission. It says that the conversation that ZACH initiates in our city and the significant art that is being created here are meaningful to our citizens. It also says we value Austin artists who create unique work that inspires us and we want to keep them gainfully employed in our city.

For 20 years ZACH staff members past and present have worked on making this theatre a reality. It’s completion represents the attainment of a long-held dream to create the place where our city gathers for a collective imaginative journey.

Is ZACH making any other changes/improvements on the campus?

Yes. While the majority of the new campus is focused on the new Topfer Theatre, ZACH purchased the metal-framed warehouse which serves at the ZACH Production and Creativity Center (ZPACC).

The ZPACC houses the Bill and Bettye Nowlin Rehearsal Studio that is the same size as the Karen Kuykendall Stage in the Topfer Theatre. The Nowlin accommodates rehearsals, camps, classes, auditions, and ZACH events, and is rented by the public for meetings and parties. Additionally, the ZPACC houses ZACH’s Scene and Properties Shops, and offices for the production staff.

What is happening to the Kleberg and Whisenhunt theatres?

Both existing theatres remain essential parts of the ZACH performance campus. The Kleberg Stage will serve three functions moving forward: (1) it becomes ZACH’s incubator for original musicals and plays getting their first production, (2) serves as the performance venue for ZACH’s Pre-Professional students in the Education department, and (3) will have long-running productions of popular musicals and plays, which sustain the theatre’s Mainstage artistic initiatives and draws tourism to the city.

The Whisenhunt Stage serves as the primary stage for our popular educational programs and performances, including Playspace for preschool age children, camps, classes and Pre-Professional performances for youth. A limited number of ZACH play offerings or holiday traditions for adult audiences will continue here as well.

Why is the stage named after Karen Kuykendall?

Karen Kuykendall was Austin’s most beloved actress and a community treasure, and ZACH is honored to name the new stage after such an extraordinary Austin talent who shined brightly on ZACH’s stage for more than five decades. By the late Fifties, Karen was performing with Austin Civic Theatre (now ZACH Theatre) and appeared in ACT's first-ever musical, The Boyfriend, in 1958. ZACH became Karen's performance home, the site of her triumphant work as Diana Vreeland in the solo show Full Gallop, Fräulein Schneider in Cabaret, Andy Warhol in The Rocky Horror Show, Ann Richards in House Arrest and part of the award-winning ensemble of Angels in America.

Not only a distinguished actress and singer, Karen was a successful real estate agent regularly in Austin’s elite Top Ten Realtors, and an arts leader serving on the boards of Ballet Austin, Conspirare, and Austin Musical Theatre. Karen was named Best Diva in the Chronicle's "Best of Austin," inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame, named the Girl Scouts' Volunteer of the Year, given Austin Cabaret Theatre's first Arts in ACTion Award, and received the 2007 Austin Circle of Theaters' Special Recognition Award for outstanding contributions to Austin theatre.

Karen grew up in the family home that is now Green Pastures Restaurant, the daughter of Mary Faulk Koock, who hosted the ranch parties given by President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson. She was the niece of blacklisted humorist and First Amendment advocate John Henry Faulk for whom Austin’s library is named. Fortunately for us, Karen lived by the adage “all the world’s a stage,” and she made an unforgettable impact in every arena of Austin life.

Karen embraced theater as a full-contact sport. She was bigger than life because she saw that as her job, and with extravagant physical and vocal flourishes she would tickle our funny bone, drain the last drop of irony from Cole Porter and move us to the furthest reaches of our heart. Upon receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Austin Circle of Theaters, Kuykendall said, “There is no place I feel more at home or more alive than on stage.”

What green/sustainable features does this theatre include?

The Topfer Theatre is the fist dedicated performance space in Texas to achive a LEED-silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. This certification addresses a number of green construction and sustainable design features including:

  • Two low-maintenance rain gardens that will clean surface rainwater and irrigate native plant species; the garden will feature educational signage for passers by
  • Doubling the number of trees on site, providing shade, color and habitat
  • The use of LED lighting in patron and stage areas of the building
  • Water-efficient plumbing fixtures
  • The use of recycled-content and regionally manufactured building and finish materials
  • Potable water for irrigation that will reduce water use by a projected 50 percent
  • Reflective roofing and high-performance glazing will support higher energy efficiency
  • The contractor is committed to more than 75 percent waste diversion from the landfill


How much money has ZACH raised and what is ZACH’s fundraising goal?

To date, we’ve raised approximately $22 million, including $10 million through a citizen-approved bond initiative in 2006. Since the end of 2008, we’ve raised approximately $7 million in one of the most challenging fundraising environments in generations. The Topfer Theatre Campaign's overall goal is $23 million.

I thought the Long Center was going to build a Topfer Theatre. What happened?

The Long Center originally envisioned an 800-seat theatre as part of its collection of performance spaces that would have been named for the Topfers; however, that theatre did not materialize under a new plan before construction on the Long Center began. The Topfers continue to support the Long Center but they are also strong believers in ZACH’s vision. We’re so honored that Mort Topfer has joined our Board and Bobbi co-chaired our opening galas and is again leading the efforts for Red, Hot & Soul. The Topfers are true champions to the local artistic and cultural scene that builds and nurtures the creative class here in Austin.

Why did ZACH seek public dollars for this effort?

In the mid-1980s, ZACH, the Austin Museum of Art, the Paramount Theatre and Mexic-Arte received public funds through a bond initiative for capital campaign projects. Although the other projects did not materialize, ZACH secured funding and public support in the economic downtown of the late 1980s/early 1990s. In 1991, ZACH opened the Whisenhunt Stage, costume shop, Junior League Education Studio and administrative offices.

The board and staff then began envisioning a larger performance venue and campus plan that was not financially possible at that time. Recognizing the success of the 1985 bond initiative and ZACH’s ability to deliver on the promise to the citizens of Austin, ZACH pursued funds in the 2006 city bond election under Proposition 4 for the Cultural Funding projects, which included Mexic-Arte, the Austin Film Society, the Asian American Culture Center, The Carver Museum and the Mexican American Cultural Center. The bond package was approved by Austin voters to allocate $10 million to ZACH’s project. Now we’re once again ready to make this building another success story for Austin and a testament to perseverance during challenging financial times.

How is the deal with the City structured? Who owns the land?

The City of Austin owns the ZACH facility, including the Kleberg, Whisenhunt and Topfer theatres, which sits on dedicated city public land. Like the Long Center, ZACH maintains a 99-year lease with the City of Austin and ZACH is fully responsible for the cost of maintenance and operations. ZACH owns the ZPACC and all of the performance equipment inside the Topfer Theatre.

Season Sponsors:
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ZACH Theatre is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organization located in Austin,Texas.    
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Texas Commission for the Arts City of AustinThese projects are funded and supported in part by a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts and by the City of Austin through the Economic Development Department/Cultural Arts Division believing an investment in the Arts is an investment in Austin’s future. Visit Austin at