Multitudes flock to Red, Hot and Soul plus Austin Book Awards

The flowers. Good heavens, the flowers.

This represents only a fraction of David Kurio’s cascading floral arrangements at Red, Hot and Soul for Zach Theatre. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

David Kurio‘s cascading floral arrangements filled the eye at every angle during the Red, Hot and Soul gala, staged in the Bobbi Tent at Zach Theatre‘s South Austin complex. The splashy arrays matched the evening’s theme, “Saturday in the Park,” an idea hitched to the theater’s first full-blown take on Stephen Sondheim, “Sunday in the Park with George,” which opens later this month.

Naturally, Artistic Director Dave Steakley opened the dinner/auction with the show’s extraordinarily difficult but ultimately gratifying first-act choral finale. The performance — indeed the whole run of the show — was dedicated to Managing Director Elisbeth Challener to salute her 10th anniversary in the job.

MORE ZACH: New season blazes ahead with new and rekindled shows.

Zach Theatre’s youth company performs “I Am Me” from “The Greatest Showman” during Red, Hot and Soul. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

The performers never rested during the 12 auction-item “scenes.” This sizzling entertainment took the place of the musical numbers customarily presented later on the stage of the Topfer Theatre, which was instead dedicated to late-night dancing. The highlight during this tent show was a triumphant version of “I Am Me” from the movie, “The Greatest Showman,” from Zach’s youth troupe.

While this plan concentrated the joy around the superb Four Seasons Hotel Austin dinner — keep serving that buttery cod! — a dozen is still a lot of auction items and guests began to melt away by No. 9.

This is a crowd you want to keep close by. I’d wager that more of Austin’s “top socials” were gathered here than at any other Austin gala this season. I’d name a few, but the list would go on and on.

Jacqué Ayoub and Haley Drobena with a “living Degas” at Red, Hot and Soul for Zach Theatre. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

AUSTIN BOOK AWARDS

The evening began with a magnificent meal.

Led by Linda Ball and Forrest Preece, a merry band assembled in a private dining room at Fixe, where we feasted on Southern fare and riveting repartee. Discussing arts, books and civics were Annette DiMeo CarlozziDan BullockBarbara Chisholm FairesRobert FairesPei-San BrownDaniel Brown and my husband, Kip Keller.

You absolutely want to be stuck with this lively group on a rainy Austin evening. Luckily, though, the skies cleared and we walked a few short blocks to the stunning new Austin Central Library for the Austin Book Awards ceremony, which benefits the Austin Public Library Foundation. This was my first social outing inside this building’s special events space. Tall and wide, it worked well enough for the foundation’s understated fundraiser.

MORE LIBRARY: Downtown Austin gains a completely new gathering spot.

Not unlike the First Edition Literary Gala for the Texas Book Festival — but on a much smaller scale — these awards bring to the dais some of the best storytellers around. Speaking at breakneck speed, author Owen Egerton served as an especially witty and energizing emcee. The winners: Elizabeth Crook (Fiction); Varian Johnson (Young Adult Literature); and Nate Blakeslee (Nonfiction). What a group! And they were introduced by literary leaders such as Stephen Harrigan and Tim Staley.

One of the foundation’s most effective programs, Badgerdog, encourages young people to write, not just read. We heard two lovely poems from the 2018 Forrest Preece Young Authors Award Honorees, Brandee Benson and Angie Hu.

 

At age 10, the Long Center opens its doors wider

If you lived in Austin during the 1960s and ’70s, you called the oddly shaped domed structure on the shores of Town Lake the Municipal Auditorium.

Austin’s Municipal Auditorium under construction in 1958 and photographed by Rockdale Works. Contributed by Austin History Center PICA 26945

If you arrived in the 1980s, it was then known as Palmer Auditorium, renamed after late Austin Mayor Lester Palmer. Maybe you referred to it jokingly as the “Green Turtle,” or variations on that theme.

If you were around during the 1990s and early 21st century, you’ll recall the seemingly Sisyphean efforts to turn that outdated 1959 building into the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Many things were tried; some failed, some succeeded.

And if you were in town March 28-30, 2008, you might have attended one many glorious events staged for the Long Center’s grand opening. One could praise right away  the handsome and lively Dell Hall, the largest performance space, but also the terrace lined with columns — the result of an engineering challenge — that offered one of the finest views of the city skyline.

The center, home to the city’s top symphony, opera, ballet and choral companies, as well as to mid-sized arts groups and touring acts, is back in the spotlight this year. A larger 10th anniversary party is planned for fall 2018, but before that on March 3, the center will blaze with the talents of the Avett Brothers and Asleep at the Wheel for a celebratory concert and after party.

Never one to rest on its laurels, the Long Center staff and trustees have spent the past year reexamining the center’s role in the community. It was known in some circles a decade ago primarily as a place of refuge for the larger arts groups who were nudged out of Bass Concert Hall by the University of Texas. Yet even from days when charismatic leaders such as Cliff Redd explained the unbuilt center’s future role, it was always intended to be a place of convergence for all of the arts.

It became more than that — and, then again, sometimes less. Despite the absence of a hoped-for café or shop, the center swarmed with unexpected activity year-round, much of that outside. The place itself became the main event, not what was booked on its two indoor stages. And even those performance offerings became increasingly varied, less traditional.

Well, after spending a year with consulting creatives from the ad agency Archer Malmo, the Long Center leaders have in hand a plan to fill the spaces, including the much-loved H-E-B Terrace, with an even wider variety of entertainment.

“The landscape of Austin is changing and so are we,” says Cory Baker, president and CEO of the Long Center. “The most immediate changes you’ll see are in our programming, wherein we’re diversifying in order to set the stage for the next generation of artists.”

How that will play itself out remains to be seen. Everyone is aware of the city’s need for affordable artistic venues. What it means, however, for the current resident companies of Dell Hall and Rollins Studio Theatre, who often rehearse as well as perform there, remains unclear.

For now, branding upgrades will suffice while the staff tries to free up more dates to mix in fresh forms of shared activity.

UPDATE 1:30 Feb. 28.: We asked Baker to amplify her comments on the changes at the Long Center.

American-Statesman: What exactly do you mean by more diverse entertainment bookings in the future? The examples you use — movies, talks, etc. — are already a part of your line-up and have been for a while.

 When we say diversifying programming, we are thinking beyond just adding new genres to the mix. We are focused on diversifying the experience options within the performing arts spectrum and being more intentional about our choices in order to expand our reach and engage new audiences.

We strive to be progressive, relevant and genuinely more reflective of our ever-evolving population. This means working with artists to create unique experiences for Austin – the Avett Brothers playing with Asleep at the Wheel, Bill Murray’s critically acclaimed new project – and blurring the lines to surprise our audiences by partnering with b to showcase boundary-breaking opera singer, Joseph Keckler.

We are also expanding the offerings within each genre, for instance, we are proud to present José González and the Boston Pops (coming 2019). Our speaker series goes from world-renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Family programming is another area where our offerings are as different as the many families that we serve, from seeing the Paw Patrol juggernaut in Dell Hall to enjoying free bubble fun on the lawn for Bubblepalooza and our All Summer Long series of community events. This is part of our current programming, and it shows the intentional choices we will be making for the next 10 years and beyond.

What exactly does this mean for the seven resident companies? Less performance time? Less rehearsal time?

The Long Center is proud to continue to be the home of our resident companies. Our strategy has been to look at the calendar and performance spaces as creatively as possible in close coordination with our partners. An example of this is that the Austin Opera graciously works with us so that we can present on their dark nights. This year, we have already presented many incredible artists … through our willingness to share the space in creative ways.

When it comes to Rollins, the venue was always intended to be a shared community asset — an accessible, affordable and practical performance space for a wide array of local artists to create and present work. With the space crisis in Austin growing and demand on the room increasing, we have challenged ourselves to think proactively about how we can serve an extended range of arts groups in the city and work creatively with our existing partners to find practical solutions that will best serve the arts ecosystem here in Austin

 

Two tip-top Austin parties side-by-side

Not often that two tip-top Austin parties take place atop two downtown buildings. Even less often when those buildings rise side-by-side across a narrow alley.

Luci Johnson, Amiko Kauderer and Capt. Scott Kelly at the Johnson penthouse for Paramount Theatre party. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

First off was a salute to Capt. Scott Kelly, the retired astronaut who spent a 520 days, 10 hours and 33 minutes in space, including almost a year during one stay on the Space Station. He appeared to be acclimatized to Earth again and introduced me to his fiancé,  Amiko Kauderer, a former NASA public affairs officer who helped shape his Twitter presence.

This reception took place at Luci Johnson and Ian Turpin‘s penthouse in the Norwood Building, which overlooks the Paramount Theatrewhere Kelly is to speak tonight about his  memoir “The Sky Is Not the Limit: Lessons from a Year in Space.”

Johnson was her usual gracious self. Yet introducing Jim Ritts, president and CEO of the Austin Theatre Alliance, she reminded us that she can be among the best public speakers in town, her cadences recalling the finest traditions of American oratory.

Now a little joke on me. Upon meeting Amiko, I was confused. I thought Kelly was married to former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, and that I had met the couple during an Austin party at the Highball. Oh no! That was Scott Kelly’s identical twin brother Mark Kelly, another retired astronaut. The pair were part of NASA’s twins research. Luckily, I learned this before going to press.

Booth Art Prize Party

There’s probably never been a month when Austin produced more major art news stories. Recently, Landmarks unveiled José Parlá‘s mammoth mural, “Amistad América,” at UT’s Rowling Hall. On Feb. 10, Pease Park Conservancy officially opens Stickwork sculptor Patrick Dougherty‘s utterly charming “Yippy Ki Yay” in said park. Feb. 18, in the biggest reveal of all, the Blanton Museum of Art invites the public into late artist Ellsworth Kelly‘s only designed structure, “Austin,” which will inevitably change the way the world sees the city and its art.

Rodney McMillian and Suzanne Booth at the Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize last dinner at the Contemporary. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Meanwhile, the Suzanne Deal Booth Art Prize produced its first visible fruits. Right away, it figured to be one of the biggest such awards in the country with a $100,000 unrestricted purse. The inaugural honor, announced in 2016, went to Rodney McMillian and includes a full exhibition, catalogue and other  supporting activity at the Contemporary Austin. So, all told, a $400,000 project.

Last night, the museum previewed the immersive installation, “Against a Civic Death,” with a party at its downtown Jones Center. Since I had dropped by the Johnson reception first, I missed seeing McMillian’s hard-hitting video on the first floor, but I’ll spend an afternoon soon downstairs and upstairs, where the mood is more celebratory and includes the voice of 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm.

On the rooftop over a three-course dinner, a few hundred guests gathered to lionize McMillian, as well as Booth, who made the transformative gift to endow this prize. Among those front and center were the Contemporary’s Louis Grachos, Landmarks’ Andrée Bober, Blanton Museum’s Simone Wicha, art super-collectors Michael and Jeanne Klein, and civic trailblazers Melba and Ted Whatley.

 

Best Austin parties for this weekend in September

The social and arts seasons are revving up quite nicely this weekend.

Sept. 14: Words of Hope for Caritas. JW Marriott.

Sept. 14: Filigree Theatre Gala. Springdale Station.

Ballet Austin’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Contributed

Sept. 15-17: Ballet Austin’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Long Center.

Sept. 15: YWCA Fabulous People Party. Spiderhouse.

Sept. 15: El Grito Gala for Buen Samaritano. 7000 Woodhue Dr.

Sept. 15: Hill Country Nights for Hill Country Conservancy. ACL Live.

Kaki King. Contributed

Sept. 16: “Kaki King: The Neck is the Bridge to the Body.” Long Center.

Sept. 16: “Diego y Frida: A Smile in the Middle of the Way” opens. Mexic-Arte Museum.

Sept. 16: Trash Makeover Challenge for Texas Campaign for the Environment. Rio Austin.

Sept. 16: Mike Quinn Awards Luncheon for Headliners Foundation. Headliners Club.

Sept. 17: Austin Symphonic Band Fall Concert in the Park. Zilker Park.

Sept. 18Dover Quartet. UT McCullough Theatre.