By Sarah Downs
I had the great pleasure of sitting down (virtually) with Chad Austin, Artistic Director of the Abingdon Theatre Company. We talked about how the Abingdon is faring during this pandemic year, Austin’s #IWill campaign, and inevitably, our love of the performing arts.
FRC: It’s such pleasure to meet you. What a time we’re living in! What has this year been like, running a theatre company during a shutdown?
It has been interesting because everyone has had such a challenge. Abingdon shut all our programming down about a week before Broadway shut down. We had a few things in the works – some musical workshops and some play readings. It was incredibly disappointing to have these works that I really wanted to shed light on and further develop, and then to have to close the doors. Luckily, we continued to work throughout this year. People have said I have even been busier than I was the year before! It’s actually been very satisfying to know we have done our part in helping continue to do theater.
FRC: Tell me about what first came to mind when you were adapting your schedule?
One of the first things I did was the #IWill Campaign. It came out of a pure necessity for me, of waking up one day and realizing I was a bit depressed. I was supposed to open our 28th season by directing a new play, and all of these things we had planned no longer felt tangible. I couldn’t see the future. That’s never happened to me before. So that morning I said to myself “I Will” — “I will direct that play.” It just got in my brain and I called my team, who were scattered around the country at that point, and I said, ‘I have this idea, and I just want it to be really simple, but I want to change the narrative in the theater community.’ I was seeing a lot of “I miss this” and “Will I ever be on stage again” etc., and I thought ‘what if we can just change that narrative a little bit, because I need this right now, so there must be a few other people who need it, too.’
I am really happy and proud of that campaign because it brought together all of the people I reached out to, these incredible artists across the country. All the way from London, Ruthie Henshaw and Frances Ruffelle sent these amazing videos, and we put them together with people like Eve Ensler [now known as V] and Andrew Lippa and we created this little movement of inspiration for ourselves.
FRC: I love those videos. What a great idea to flip the script, as it were, from “Will I” to “I Will.”
I really needed it for myself, and I was just taking that moment. I was happy to pivot, to make something positive – and that was the beginning of the year where I could then start to think about all of these virtual concerts and table readings, and the new radio play series that we were able to create. #IWill really started it off for me.
FRC: Has the campaign been embraced by the greater theatrical community?
For the launch we reached out to I believe it was about 2,500 people, who signed onto #IWill. We shared it on social media as well. We had everyone from our young artists who are part of the company — who are looking for more of that hopeful place — all the way to producers on Broadway sign on. For me it was also really important to make sure our audience was a part of it. People could show their support of the arts just by signing up for the #IWill campaign, and they could also show their support for the Abingdon Theatre itself by making a donation within that campaign.
FRC: In that way #IWill is really an action as much as an affirmation.
It’s true. We’re here for the long haul. I’ve said the biggest contribution I can make during Covid is to make sure that this theater lasts to its 30th season and beyond. My Board of Directors also hugely took on that responsibility and shared #IWill with their friends. Sometimes, I’m not sure people understand what a difficult journey it is to keep a small non-profit theater company open. The fact that these 13 board members were able to make that commitment at the very beginning of the season, and the beginning of Covid, and say ‘we’re not going to let art die, not on our watch’ was really powerful for me. I was floored by their generosity.
FRC: You started your career as a dancer, and spent a few years dancing with the Metropolitan Opera. I adore the Met and I have to ask – what was that like?
Well, it’s kind of an interesting story. I was very close to my grandparents. My grandfather was a huge opera fan. I always say I learned MGM, old movies and Judy Garland from my grandmother and all about Wagner from my grandfather. So I was in New York, doing various projects and I see a call for dancers at the Met. I thought, they have dancers? I had no idea. I also didn’t know that the Met offers its dance contracts the same day, which is not our experience in the theater and dance world. So, in one day I auditioned and was offered a contract — before I had any idea even what the pay or the rehearsal schedule were. It was so interesting, as an outsider to this world, to watch and learn from my fellow performers.
I’ll never forget the first night of my first performance. I was on the huge stage with this epic cast, the curtain and the bravas, it was so overwhelming – and I started weeping a little. Because it was my grandfather. Without my grandfather I wouldn’t have gone to this audition and wouldn’t have gotten this job and be having this moment.
FRC: That’s so powerful. You took a risk, and landed on the biggest stage in America! Did you think that you would to move on to direct and choreograph, and one day run a theater company, or did your career develop more out of auspicious moments like your decision to audition for the Met?
I’ve been lucky that my whole professional life has been working the theater in some way. I danced for years, and eventually got injured, as dancers do. And I started teaching and choreographing out of necessity, for work. I thought, ‘oh, ok I understand this language and I am able to create; I am creating interesting motifs and storytelling moments.’ I wanted to pursue this new path because I realized I had lost the excitement to perform. I was ok to close that chapter in my life. I don’t think I would be a good director if I were to still hang onto performing. For me, that wouldn’t work.
Someone recently asked me if I miss directing more. As Artistic Director I don’t always have the opportunity to direct the readings and such, because I feel like I really need to make sure the company is in good hands all the time. And sometimes I feel that I don’t have the time in the day to both run the company and direct. So I explained to them that for me personally, I get really excited about creative ways to keep the company going, like the #IWill campaign, or any of our new programming. In a way I’m still directing. I’m still telling stories.
FRC: Indeed. How have the innovative programs you have created during Covid affected or shaped your artistic vision for the theater and its mission?
Yes. One of the things was I took some time and created this year was our fall festival of short plays, all with BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] writers and directors. At the beginning of Covid and Black Lives Matter I spent a couple of days thinking ‘what can we do, at this point; does it matter what we do; do I have the facility to do something.’ I decided that with the readings we had had to cancel during Covid, I could take some of the funds and produce this virtual short play festival. I was so thrilled with how it turned out, that next year I have already said we are going to do that festival again. As long as I am in charge it will be a yearly event. And I am super proud of that. I think for next year we’ll keep it virtual because it was such an amazing thing to see these small plays get 700 views on youtube. That is more access than they would have had if we were doing them in a 99-seat house and only for one night.
FRC: Were these plays mostly by young or up-and-coming artists?
There were no criteria that their work couldn’t have been produced before, but they were all very much emerging in a sense. For next year I already know I want the festival to consist of pieces that have never been seen or heard. This year we were pivoting so quickly that we were open to lots of ideas. We got over 80 submissions and produced six of the pieces in these virtual readings. It was an incredibly satisfying moment for me. I got to meet six brand new playwrights and six directors and over I think it was 16 actors within the six pieces. Again, the company was able to pay all of these people for their time, which I of course was very proud of.
FRC: So once again, with your life experience pivoting to new challenges and ideas, and talent for slightly swimming against the tide, you took a risk and created an opportunity. What are your thoughts on youtube and other platforms, especially with respect to reaching a younger audience?
I never think that youtube and streaming things are going to replace the live experience, and I don’t want it to at all, but I was floored by how many people watch these pieces. I can never let go of this opportunity. And of course everyone asks me, including my Board, ‘When will live theater be back?’ and I say ‘I watch the same news as you do – I can only pivot and create art within this moment. I can only try to do what I can and think outside the box in this moment. Next year might look a lot like this year, but I am optimistic about the future.
FRC: Has #IWill been a rallying cry for other disciplines as well, such as opera or ballet?
Dancers have done their own versions, with youtube videos of dancing at home, and all these amazing ballet dancers doing free online classes. It’s a real testament to artists just loving to do what they want to do while giving back to the world and their own community as well. Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS just released a beautiful little video of a few clips from the things they’ve done this year, with simple text “Thank you for keeping theater alive.” It’s a touching gesture, a little thank you for the support.
FRC: I love that Abingdon contributed to the Broadway Cares campaign with Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens. All of the performances in that program are so moving.
I was really proud of that. We got to be a part of that as the one theater company and as producer. First of all, that cast! I have always been lucky that the community has been so generous to me. Since I have started at Abingdon I have brought in these talents that even as a kid kind of awed me. It’s what makes me so thrilled to make art with them. These are the storytellers of my life, my grandkids’ life. These are amazing artists and I still geek out when one of them volunteers to help bring this art together.
FRC: I’m with you. One hopes always to have a few stars in the eyes.
I am excited to work with these stars and at the same time I want to make opportunities for young artists as well. I want to pay tribute and bring everyone together. Last year when we did ‘Get On Your Knees,’ which was a huge success and critically acclaimed, one of my Board Members said to me ‘you know what I like about this the most, Chad? I love that when you look around the theater it is full of young people.’ It was a real testament. What I wanted to do was to bring in a new audience to the theater and have them not only see that piece, but also hook them to see the pieces which may not initially resonate with them as much as “Get on Your Knees” did, but they will become theater fans, and ideally Abingdon fans.
Art will transform them or not. They will receive it and be moved by this or not. It’s the storytelling that matters.
FRC: One thing I love about New York is that, while you can see a fabulous show on Broadway, sometimes the most amazing theater you find will be in some small space around the corner, down a small street, in a small room or something. You never know where great theatre might lurk.
Oh yes. Some of the most thrilling pieces I’ve seen were in these basement, alleyway theaters, or even burlesque clubs. I actually directed a burlesque murder mystery (I kid you not) at one of the greatest burlesque clubs in the city, Duane Park on the Lower East Side. It is still today one of my most cherished moments because, again, I came in as an outsider to this world. I was given the actors, who are my good friends to this day, and the script, and I had to make something of it. It was a magical experience. It really opened my eyes, as I directed these women, that all of them — all of us — are storytellers.
FRC: That is profound. And again, with the burlesque show, you did not let being an outsider stop you. You dove in. Today, here we are all outsiders to this insane virus, and there you are with your current programming, going in and shaping once again. You are well positioned, indeed predisposed by talent and temperament, and also by experience to have the courage to say, ok, this is what we’re going to do now.
Thank you. You know I’ve never thought of that way. Obviously, one doesn’t think of oneself as courageous in these moments. Now that I think about it, my whole life has been, ok, I’m going to jump in this world, and try something, and see where that leads me.
Indeed, the trick is to keep moving forward. As he guides The Abingdon Theatre through Covid, Chad Austin is doing what he always does –- staying open to something new, pivoting as needed and saying yes to the unexpected. The #IWillingness is all.