"The city's liveliest and most polished professional theater." - The Statesman
Topfer Theatre Q&As
About the Theatre
What is this initiative in a nutshell?
Now in its 79th year as Austin’s Theatre, ZACH will now have a facility that is of commensurate quality to the dynamic professional productions on its stage. ZACH is designing a comprehensive campus to create productions of the highest artistic quality that will include 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?
- Current limitations: ZACH has been an Austin institution for 78 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.
- Expanded opportunities on stage: The Topfer Theatre will greatly expand 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 will 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 40 actors. Currently, the load in of a new show’s scenery, lights and sound takes a week in ZACH’s existing facility and that will be shortened to just two days in the Topfer.
The new theatre will allow ZACH to share productions with colleagues at regional theatres like Steppenwolf, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Mark Taper Forum and many others. It will also allow 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 Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy.
The increased audience capacity will also allow ZACH to present music offerings and concerts by some of Broadway’s biggest stars and provide performance opportunities for local companies like Conspirare and Austin Chamber Music Center, among others.
- Enhanced patron experience: ZACH’s new Topfer will 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 seated. The patron experience will increase 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.
- 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 provide that the other Central Texas theatres don’t?
One of the catalysts for building this new theatre was the recognition that Austin lacks a mid-sized theatre. Our community has theatres that seat more than 1,000 and theatres that seat less than 250. The UT campus has a few theatres that fit the bill, but they are in such high demand for UT-produced performances that they are unavailable to the community. The 420-seat Topfer Theatre is precisely what ZACH needs and what the performing arts community has said it needs. It doubles our capacity while allowing us to retain the intimacy and soul of a ZACH production. We anticipate that other organizations needing a mid-sized performance space will also use the Topfer Theatre when ZACH productions are not on stage.
ZACH will also be one of the few theatre centers in the nation to have a proscenium stage, a thrust stage and an arena stage on its campus, creating an extraordinary educational opportunity for aspiring directors, choreographers, designers and actors to get training and experience in three diverse settings. This will be an invaluable tool for all Central Texas universities and high school arts magnet programs.
How does this theatre differ from the theatres already on site?
The Kleberg Theatre was built nearly four decades ago without any of the features or capabilities necessary to create modern theatrical experiences for sophisticated audiences. The new Topfer Theatre and Karen Kuykendall Stage will change all that:
- The Topfer Theatre, at more than 26,000 square feet, will double capacity to 420 comfortable seats while retaining an intimate theatre-going experience
- The Karen Kuykendall Stage will be a proscenium theatre with a 44-foot-wide opening and an 80-foot-wide deck and stage house — three and a half times as large as ZACH’s current Mainstage. It will feature a fly tower, 20-foot wings, a fully trapped stage, an orchestra pit when desired, the latest sound, video and lighting technology, and an expansive backstage area complete with larger dressing rooms accommodating up to 40 actors.
- The Topfer Theatre will be connected to the other stages on the campus with an 8,600-square-foot open-air plaza available for opening night parties and other functions, including rental opportunities for community and private events. Combined with a larger, grand lobby, this space will accommodate 450 seated guests and 600 standing.
- Audience members will find themselves “on Austin’s stage” when they enter the Topfer Theatre through two extensive two-story glass panels representing a stage curtain and a large laser-cut ZACH sign that creates a star field of light. Jutting out from the second story is a Juliet balcony, a symbol of the theatre’s greatest love story Romeo & Juliet. Upon entering the spacious lobby, patrons may enjoy a variety of selections from a full-service bar on two stories overlooking Lady Bird Lake, offering magnificent views of downtown Austin. Inside the theatre the audience will assemble in a stadium seating arrangement with excellent sightlines, gently arched around the curved Kuykendall Stage.
How does this theatre increase ZACH’s capacity?
We’re doubling ZACH’s audience capacity while retaining our intimate theatre experience. The Topfer Theatre will seat 420 patrons. The Kleberg theatre seats 230 and the Whisenhunt Theatre seats 130. Currently, our shows must run longer to ensure everyone has an opportunity to see them and to recoup a portion of the costs of production (60 percent of ZACH’s budget comes from ticket sales and 40 percent from contributed income). With a larger audience capacity, more patrons will experience the shows each performance, which allows shorter runs reducing running costs. This frees up ZACH’s schedule to present more music and touring theatre works on our stages, and to rent the facility to Austin music and dance companies looking for performance space.
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, will allow 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 will help 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 recently purchased the metal-framed warehouse where it has been presenting some performances over the past four years.
The ZACH Production and Creativity Center (ZPACC) received the first-phase of a renovation 20 months ago. It houses the Bill & Bettye Nowlin Rehearsal Studio that is the same size as the forthcoming 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.
Following the completion of the Topfer Theatre, we will move into the next phases of renovating the ZPACC to include administrative and production offices, an additional rehearsal studio and the costume shop. When the ZPACC renovation is complete, we will transform the administrative offices currently in the Binning-Dickson Education Center into additional classrooms and support offices for the ZACH Education Department.
When will construction begin?
Site work will begin very soon after the groundbreaking ceremony in February 2011. We anticipate construction of the actual building will commence in late February.
When will the majority of the construction end?
We anticipate construction of the theatre will be completed by the summer of 2012, weather permitting. The Grand Opening Gala will take place on September 27, 2012.
When will ZACH host its first performance in the new theatre? What will it be?
ZACH will produce its first season in the Topfer Theatre during the 2012–13 Season. Assuming the construction schedule holds, the first Mainstage Season performance in the Topfer Theatre will open in October 2012. ZACH will inaugurate its Karen Kuykendall Stage with the spectacular Broadway musical RAGTIME with a book by Texas playwright Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty.
The 2012-13 Season will focus on “a place where dreams are realized” and producing RAGTIME has been a decade-long dream for Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley.
Likewise, the completion of the Topfer Theatre Campaign will represent the realization of a long-held dream by the artistic leadership, artists, staff, Board and community leaders to create an outstanding regional theatre for Austin. The inagural season will also include a world premiere play by Steven Dietz, America’s most produced playwright, a regular on ZACH’s stage, and head of the playwriting program at the University of Texas.
ZACH is also commissioning a series of short works called “The Balcony Plays” designed to be performed on ZACH’s Juliet balcony on the façade of the entrance to the Topfer Theatre and on the plaza below the balcony. Famous balcony scenes from classic works like Evita, West Side Story, Cyrano de Bergerac, A Streetcar Named Desire, Romeo and Juliet and others will be performed alongside brand new short plays and musicals in this site specific locale. These plays will be performed prior to Mainstage performances free of charge, to encourage patrons to gather early on the plaza for a rotating repertory of surprise balcony plays throughout the entire season. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is the first artist signed up to contribute plays to this on-going series.
What will happen to the Kleberg and Whisenhunt theatres?
Both existing theatres will 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 will serve 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.
How will construction impact the other theatres?
Construction of the new Topfer Theatre should have little if any impact on the rest of our theatres. Our performances are at night or on weekends when hardly any construction should be occurring. Additionally, our production team will be working closely with the construction team throughout the process to keep noise as limited as possible for our staff and our neighbors. Furthermore, we will be able to accommodate our patrons with dedicated evening and weekend parking in and around the campus.
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 will this theatre/construction project include?
Our construction team will be seeking LEED-silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, making the Topfer Theatre among the first dedicated performance theatres in Texas to achieve the rating. This certification will address 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
- There are currently 36 healthy, non-invasive trees on the site; when construction is complete we will have a total of 73 trees 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
What is happening to the trees that are located where the theatre is going?
The City of Austin’s and PARD’s arborists, working with ZACH’s landscape architect and an independent arborist, have surveyed all 51 trees on the site. Six of them are in serious decline or dead and nine of them are invasive and considered undesirable. Working closely with these arborists, a plan been has developed to move healthy trees and provide extra effort toward keeping other existing trees in place. When construction is complete we will be adding 37 new trees to the site.
Will you have catering services in the new building?
While our concession area will be larger and able to accommodate more prepared foods such as sandwiches and snacks for our patrons before each show, all events requiring full food service will be prepared from outside the campus from our dedicated caterer Austin Catering.
How much money has ZACH raised and what is ZACH’s fundraising goal?
To date, we’ve raised approximately $20.1 million, including $10 million through a citizen-approved bond initiative in 2006. Since the end of 2008, we’ve raised approximately $3 million in one of the most challenging fundraising environments in generations. Overall, we want to raise approximately $22 million.
What kind of major gifts has ZACH received more recently?
Since October 2009, when we made our last announcement of major gifts, we’ve received generous contributions from:
- The ABE Charitable Foundation / The Serra Family
- Jane B. Armstrong
- The Carolyn Bartlett Foundation
- Suzanne and David Booth
- Tom and Carmel Borders
- Michael and Susan Dell Foundation
- Gloria and Harvey Evans
- Gary Farmer
- Carolyn and Tom Gallagher
- Kathleen and Harvey Guion
- Don Hammill
- Craig Hester
- Jack and Patsy Martin
- Bonnie Mills
- Jim Bob and Lauree Moffett
- Bettye and Bill Nowlin
- Candace and Michael Partridge
- The Sheskey Family Foundation
- Bobbi and Mort Topfer
From where are you planning to get that money?
Up until now, our funds for this campaign have come from the citizen-approved bond program of 2006 and primarily from individuals who have a passion for the great work created and performed at ZACH. With a new development director on board and timed with the groundbreaking, our focus will expand to corporations and foundations while we continue to seek larger contributions from individual donors, all of whom we think will be interested in a number of recently identified naming opportunities.
In the coming months, we will turn our attention to a more grassroots approach that will include our season ticket holders, patrons and the general public, as well as a seat-naming initiative.
Are you confident you can raise the remaining funds, especially in this economic environment?
Absolutely. ZACH has a number of passionate and dedicated supporters who are eager to support this campaign. Many have expressed interest in giving, but we have asked them during our quiet fundraising period to wait while we concentrated on larger donor opportunities, which is the standard practice for major campaigns of this nature.
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 is helping us in our continued fundraising efforts. The Topfers are true champions to the local artistic and cultural scene that builds and nurtures the creative class here in Austin.
What kind of challenges have you faced regarding fundraising in this economic climate?
When the recession abruptly hit at the end of 2008, we made the difficult but deliberate decision to continue our fundraising efforts at a slower and appropriately realistic pace while a number of nonprofit organizations here and across the country suspended their capital campaigns entirely. It was a bold but calculated move at the time that certainly has slowed us down in getting to this point, but we’re here now and it’s been well worth the wait.
Fortunately, we have a strong track record of financial stewardship. We’ve remained in the black for the past 20 years, including the last two years during the recession.
How will ZACH pay for the operations once the new theatre opens?
While our performances are thought provoking, ZACH has always been fiscally conservative. We continue to operate in the black, even during this recession. We have a five-year business plan and annual management plan that accounts for the operations of the new space as well as a strategy to use the Kleberg for long-running populist works, which will support annual operations and overall tourism. Our budget does not rely on any presenting revenue, although we believe there is great potential for that opportunity.
Why would ZACH begin construction on a building when it hasn’t raised all of the money necessary in the fundraising campaign?
Some donors need to immerse themselves in the building before they feel comfortable donating to it. As is typical for these types of major fundraising campaigns, construction begins when a campaign has reached approximately 75 percent of its fundraising goal, which we have surpassed. The new Topfer Theatre is shifting from a dream to tangible reality. Now is the time to engage with those ready for the tangible.
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.
What kind of cost savings is ZACH achieving by constructing the theatre now?
We are certainly competing with fewer construction projects across the city. We estimate we’re saving about $250,000 for the cost of construction and materials like steel.
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 future 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 will own all of the performance equipment inside the Topfer Theatre.
- On Stage
- Topfer Theatre Campaign
- Special Events
- youth theatre
- Summer Camps
- Shows for Families
- Shows for Schools
- Spring Classes
- Spring Break and One Day Camps
- Pre-Professional Class Auditions
- Registration and Policies
- Teacher & Staff Bios
- Improv Classes for Adults
- space rentals
- Press Contacts
- ZACH Theatre Press Releases
- Topfer Theatre Media
- Current Production Photos
- Past Production Photos
- Red, Hot & Soul 2013
- ZACH Theatre Logos & Usage
- Leadership Bios & Headshots