Austin theater veteran Ken Johnson dies at age 82

Austin theater veteran Kenneth O. “Ken” Johnson died at home Friday of a heart attack. He was 82.

“Ken died here on Gault Street sitting in a red swivel chair in front of his computer and TV,” said longtime friend and housemate Maggie Cox. “Two of his dogs were in his office with him.”

According to his friends, Johnson came to Austin from Port Arthur in 1965. He transformed the community theater troupe known as Austin Civic Theatre into Zachary Scott Theatre, which is now Zach Theatre. Johnson named it after an Austin-reared stage and movie star who died in 1965 and whose family had been prominent in the city through several generations.

Kenneth O. “Ken” Johnson, 1935-2018

Johnson had long runs as the director of at least two other groups, Center Stage and Hyde Park Theatre, and he participated in the revival of the Paramount Theatre. Johnson wrote many plays and screenplays, most notably “Jesse’s Closet,” his stage drama that he adapted and directed for the screen.

Tempestuous and sometimes controversial, Johnson kept close a coterie of theater friends. Cox worked with him in various capacities for decades and invited him to share her home during his later years. She said that Johnson raised the general level of quality in Austin theater, including at what would become Zach.

“His abrasive nature was like a grain of sand in an oyster shell before he left,” she said. “Strong  management practices after that helped propel Zach Theatre toward the grand theater it is today.”  
Dock Jackson, a Bastrop public servant who worked with Johnson mainly in the 1970s, praised his skills as director, producer, writer, theater owner, actor, singer, set designer, costume coordinator and master carpenter.
Jackson: “There wasn’t anything he didn’t or couldn’t do in the theater.”
Johnson worked energetically until the end. He eagerly took to YouTube and created many short films for that format.

Memorial services are pending.

UT production of ‘Enron’ takes on toxic masculinity of American corporate culture

In the early years of the 21st century, no company was more synonymous with corporate corruption than Enron. The shady accounting and outright fraud of many of the Houston-based energy company’s dealings led to a massive bankruptcy, congressional investigation and decades of jail time for some of the business’ top executives.

Annemarie Alaniz as Jeff Skilling in “Enron.” Contributed by Lawrence Peart, courtesy of the University of Texas

Though certainly a dramatic story, the tale of Enron’s downfall would at first blush seem to be an unusual topic for British playwright Lucy Prebble, whose other major works focus on weighty personal issues like pedophilia (“The Sugar Syndrome”) and the nature of love in the age of psychopharmacology (“The Effect”). However, in the story of Enron’s downfall, Prebble sees not just a tale of corporate greed but also one of toxic masculinity run rampant. Her play, “Enron,” focuses on two of the men at the heart of the scandal in order to explore how “boys being boys” plays out in contemporary capitalism.

The University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance’s new production of “Enron,” running through March 4, takes Prebble’s critique of business culture even further through the clever conceit of casting only female and nonbinary actors in the roles of men who tie their own sense of masculinity with their corporate success. In so doing, director Hannah Wolf has crafted a nuanced, satirical, enraging piece of theater that is more timely in the era of “Me, Too” than ever before.

“Enron” is an ensemble piece, with 20 performers taking on 50 different roles. Their words and movements glide across the stage kinetically, mixing the Shakespearean drama of private offices with the dance-like choreography of the trading floor. All of the production’s various design elements — from Cait Graham’s costumes, to Roxy Mojica’s set and Robert Mallin’s projections — work in perfect sync with the performers to create a theatrical “gesamtkunstwerk,” the German term for a piece of art that makes use of multiple other media and forms to create a more potent whole.

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Throughout the show, it is a pleasure to watch these young women and nonbinary performers work through their portrayals of different types of men with different sorts of masculinities. Annemarie Alaniz’s Jeff Skilling, Enron’s CEO and the protagonist of the story, is a fully realized portrait of the toxic masculinity of fragile men. She channels Skilling’s underlying geeky insecurity as it manifests in alpha-male posturing about his intelligence. This is counterbalanced by Caroline Beagles’ performance as Andy Fastow, the company’s CFO, who continually prostrates himself before Skilling in an intimate, yet off-putting, surrogate father/son relationship; as well as by Kayla Johnson’s portrayal of company founder and chairman Ken Lay with some Texas “good ol’ boy” macho swagger.

Bella Medina, meanwhile, provides the story with its feminine perspective through the lens of Claudia Roe, a fictional amalgamation of various women at Enron. Medina walks a razor-thin line in her performance, simultaneously making Roe the most sympathetic character as well as the most physically imposing, providing a glimpse at the ways in which corporate culture castigates women for being too soft as well as too hard-edged.

Though the topic it ostensibly covers relates to American corporate culture in the 1990s, “Enron” is ultimately about much more than this. In its excoriating critique of both toxic masculinity and corporate greed, this production by UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance is a complex, thrilling and extremely contemporary look at the ways in which today’s American men are destroying their country because of their own fragile egos.

When: 7:30 p.m. March 2-3,  2 p.m. March 4
Where: Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, 300 E. 23rd St.
Cost: $5-$26

Former Austinite Harvey Schmidt of ‘Fantasticks’ fame has died

We just read that Harvey Schmidt, co-creator of “The Fantasticks,” the longest running musical in history, has died at age 88.

The 2010 cast of ‘The Fantasticks” at the University of Texas. Contributed by Lauren Tarbel

The last time we chatted with Schmidt, a former Austinite who attended the University of Texas, he was in town in 2010 with his lyricist, Tom Jones, to toast the 50th anniversary of his hit, which ran for nearly 42 years at the 153-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village — 17,162 performances! — before closing in 2002. It returned in 2006 at the Theater Center and ran until its New York total since 1960 reached 21,552.

Word Baker, who directed the show, also attended UT.

In Austin during the 1950s, Schmidt and Jones were part of the Curtain Club, the extracurricular drama group started by critic and scholar Stark Young in 1907. Both “The Fantasticks” and their much less successful “Celebration” relied heavily on their theater historical training at UT.

Harvey Schmidt. Contributed by Photofest

Two more of their best remembered Broadway shows were “I Do! I Do!,” a two-actor musical about love and marriage that was mostly a showcase for Mary Martin and Robert Preston, and “110 in the Shade,” based on “The Rainmaker.” Their major musicals have been revived here periodically. More evidence hometown loyalty: The Paramount Theatre was one of the few in the country that ever exhibited the ill-fated 1995 movie adaptation of “The Fantasticks.”

Here’s a snip from something I wrote back in 2010 before the UT event: So just how did “The Fantasticks” get its start in Austin? The composing pair closely studied the source material, Edmund Rostand‘s “Les Romanesques,” with (UT professor and director) B. Iden Payne and witnessed multiple student versions of the story about parents who bring their children together by pretending to keep them apart. They collaborated on deliriously popular student revues at UT and creative projects in New York before “The Fantasticks” took off, boosting the careers of Jerry Orbach, Robert Goulet, Glenn Close, Rita Gardner, Richard Chamberlain, George Chakiris, John Davidson and others. (The book to read is “The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks: America’s Longest Running Play” by Donald C. Farber and Robert Viagas.)

This is what I wrote afterwards: We witnessed history. Oct. 15, on the first night of the University Texas’ celebration of the 50th Anniversary of “The Fantasticks,” a perky set of undergraduates performed a sharply contoured revue of songs by Texas exes Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. The portfolio included fewer than two dozen from the composing team’s 1,000+ songs, written over the course of 60 years. Yet it polished up rare gems, like alternative versions of the “I Do! I Do!” title song and the duo’s work as UT students and cabaret composers during the 1950s.

At the end of the show, Schmidt and Jones, now in their eighties, met at the piano. They sang four short songs, but — oh! — it was well worth witnessing the composers of America’s longest running play jazzing it up for the crowd. Two instant hits were “Mr. Off-Broadway,” their self-descriptive salute to the movement they helped popularize, and “Freshman Song,” the first they ever wrote together, 60 years ago for a wildly popular UT student review. How many can say they have witnessed the crowning of such a career at one’s alma mater?

The song’s shy, hopeful lyrics set loose the waterworks for the assembled guests, mostly alumni who packed the weekend of performances, panels and parties. The subsequent reception outside the Brockett Theatre was like old home week for seven decades of theater and dance students.

The eldest member of the Curtain Club d — which predated the drama department — spoke of joining in the early 1940s. She was the picture of grace and eloquence.

The next morning, UT playwright Steven Dietz delivered a philosophical keynote speech about theater preparing us “to be.” Texas Performing Arts director Kathy Panoff, with help from music director Lyn Koenning, interviewed Schmidt and Jones for a delightful hour of anecdotes and reminiscences. Both Texans retain a ready wit and literate array of references.

Playwright Kirk Lynn and arts editor Robert Faires then led a discussion of how new work changes theater, dance and training. The panel linked choreographer Kitty McNamee, playwrights Robert Schenkkan, Kim Peter Kovac and Carson Kreitzer. They made a convincing case for the act of making something from nothing.

Costume designer Susan Mickey helped me corral a raucous crew of talents: Bruce McGill (“Animal House,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance”); Todd Lowe (“Gilmore Girls,” “True Blood”); and Brian Danner (Los Angeles fight director). We discussed whether a university arts education was worth nothing – or everything. Other talks and demonstrations honeycombed the Winship Building before a performance of “The Fantasticks.”