Summer Stock Austin: I’m Your Puppet

By Barry Pineo

As Austin moves inexorably closer to becoming one of the premier entertainment centers in the country, it becomes easier and easier to lose sight of the massive arts community this city has always had. So for those of us who value our sense of community even more than the national recognition, loving a program like Summer Stock Austin at St. Edward’s University comes naturally. “This is our fourth season,” says SSA’s artistic director, Michael McKelvey. “The university used to do summer theatre, and then finances being what they were, they took a year off from it. Then when I came to work here, I promised the dean I would help bring summer theatre back to the Mary Moody Northen Theatre. Instead of just using college students and some professionals, which was done before, we took the educational tack. Now we have professionals guiding college students and college students mentoring high school students.”

They also have a lot of community affiliations, and they need them, because students participate in the program without having to pay tuition. According to McKelvey: “That’s unique. We haven’t found another program in the country like it. We run it all on a $50,000 to $55,000 budget, with half of that coming from ticket sales and the other half from private donations. St. Ed’s donates in kind. They give facilities, which are most important, and support staff. We also have an association with Zilker Theatre Productions. They give us access to all their sets and prop inventory and advertising in their programs. They treat us like a little brother.”

While mounting full productions of Oklahoma! and Bat Boy: The Musical in true rotating repertory, as SSA is doing this year, might seem like enough for one summer, the program also will enhance its strong community ties by affiliating with Trouble Puppet Theatre Company to stage an original production ofJack and the Beanstalk. McKelvey very much wanted to reach out to the entire Austin community, and the Trouble Puppet folks, who commonly do very adult puppet shows, very much wanted to appeal to a younger audience, so it’s a serendipitous marriage. “We just launched our youth program this year,” says Connor Hopkins, the artistic director and driving force behind Trouble Puppet, “so it was just a piece of fortunate timing that Michael got in touch with us and said, ‘Hey, we’d be interested in having a kids’ show as part of Summer Stock.’ And we said, ‘Hey, we’d be interested in developing one.’ It’s great to be able to come here and have a group of performers who have ability and real interest in learning something new and especially to have these kinds of resources behind us.”

If you get to see Jack, expect considerably more than your usual hand puppets and marionettes. “A lot of times I like to play with the scale of things,” says Hopkins, and that’s exactly what he’ll do in Jack, with a live actor playing the daring boy but a puppet climbing the cloud-scraping beanstalk. And there will be a giant, of course, but not one that can necessarily be contained in even the spacious confines of the Mary Moody Northen Theatre. Now that sounds like something big enough to get the kids out of the house for.