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Interview: Ken Webster and Hyde Park Theatre

Broadway World Austin continues our series of interviews with Austin theatres with Ken Webster of Hyde Park Theatre, the Austin Chronicle Reader's Pick for Best Theatre Director in 2010, 2012, and 2013.

Hyde Park Theatre has had a long and storied history. The space began as a theatre in 1983. Linalice Carey, a pioneer of local theatre from the 1960's through the 1980's was the first person to run the theatre, known back then as Hyde Park Showplace. In those days it was principally a rental venue, although Linalice did produce Saturday afternoon shows for youth. Ken's company at that time, Performing Players of Austin, was one of the earliest renters of the space. Among the shows produced by Ken were BLEACHER BUMS by The Organic Theatre Company in Chicago (1983), EDMOND by David Mamet (1984), the first Austin production of TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard (1984), and SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO by David Mamet (1984).

Linalice left in 1985, and the space was taken over by another pioneer of the local theatre scene, Kenneth O. Johnson. Johnson changed the name of the space to Hyde Park Theatre. Later he changed it to Musical Stage at Hyde Park, and then to Musical Stage. Johnson produced many plays and also rented the venue to other groups. During the Johnson era, Ken's re-named company, Subterranean Theatre Company, produced STEAMBATH by Bruce Jay Friedman.

Johnson left in 1990 and the space was taken over by Eva Palaheimo. Palaheimo ran the space as a rental venue, and returned the space to the Hyde Park Theatre name. Subterranean Theatre Company produced several shows during the Palaheimo era. In 1992 Palaheimo teamed up with Vicky Boone of Frontera Productions. The space was renamed Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre. They became a non-profit organization in 1992-the same non-profit organization that exists today. The first FronteraFest was held during the Frontera@Hyde Park partnership in 1993. Frontera@Hyde Park became one of the most respected and lauded theatre companies in the country under Boone's artistic leadership.

Palaheimo moved to New Mexico in 1995, and Boone, Jason Phelps, and Annie Suite ran the space. Phelps and Suite moved to other cities in the 90's. Boone remained at the helm until April of 2001. The board of directors hired Ken to replace Boone as Artistic Director upon her departure. The board and Ken decided to change the name of their non-profit organization back to Hyde Park Theatre in 2001. HPT joined forces with ScriptWorks (then called Austin Script Works) in 2002 to co-produce FronteraFest, which is now in its 23rd year.

Since taking over at HPT in 2001 Ken has produced works by Annie Baker, Will Eno, Conor McPherson, Lucas Hnath, Samuel D. Hunter, Harold Pinter, Rebecca Gilman, Monika Bustamante, Leah Ryan, Melanie Marnisch, Greg Pierce, Eric Bogosian, Hans Frank, Daniel MacIvor, Wayne Alan Brenner, Morris Panych, Zell Miller III, Martin McDonagh, Corey Patrick, Ann Marie Healy, David Harrower, George F. Walker, Eliza Anderson, Michael Healey, Ronan Noone, Chris Earle, Kim Rosenstock, Bert V. Royal, Aimee Gonzalez, Garry Owen, and by Ken himself.

Hyde Park Theatre has served as the performance home of many Austin groups including Capital T Theatre, Street Corner Arts, Penfold, Salvage Vanguard, Austin Playhouse, Shrewd Productions, A Chick and a Dude Productions, ScriptWorks, Da! Theatre Collective, to name just a few. In its 24 year history Hyde Park Theatre has received numerous B. Iden Payne Awards and Critics' Table Awards.

We sat down with Ken to ask him a few questions about his and HPT's past, present and future.

BWWA: What is the mission of Hyde Park Theatre?

KW: Hyde Park Theatre develops writers, designers, directors, and actors from within the Austin community, while at the same time producing works by exciting new and established voices of the alternative theatre scene. We will work with a broad and diverse base of local artists to produce theater that confronts, challenges, and entertains. We have a strong commitment to paying local writers, actors, and designers a decent wage for their work, and to expanding the base of working artists in Austin. We hope to diversify and expand the audience for theater in Austin, making theater accessible and essential across lines of income, class, race, gender, and sexual preference.

BWWA: What are your goals?

KW: To keep acting, directing, and producing for as long as I can. To continue turning Austin on to great new playwrights and plays. To spend more time in NYC and Paris with my lovely wife, Katherine. I met Katherine at auditions at HPT in 1984.

BWWA: What is your background in theatre?

KW: I began acting in Austin in 1979 in THE RULING CLASS by Peter Nichols at Symphony Square. The cast included John Hawkes, Ed Neal, and Dick Gieseke. I began producing in 1981 with STEAMBATH by Bruce Jay Friedman at Fifth Street Playhouse. I began directing in 1982 with LITTLE MURDERS by Jules Feiffer at Fifth Street Playhouse. That cast included Mary-Louise Parker. I was the artistic director for The John Bateman Players 1981-1983, Performing Players of Austin 1983-1988, The Subterranean Theatre Company 1988-2001, and Hyde Park Theatre 2001-present. I've been nominated for 47 B. Iden Payne Awards, 24 Critics' Table Awards, and I am the only director in Austin to have received Best Director awards in each of the last four decades. I was inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame in 2006. In Austin I have directed over 100 productions, and acted in over 100 productions. CONFESSIONS OF A MEXPATRIATE, which I directed, has been performed in Austin, Chicago, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. In 2015 I did something I had never done before-I acted in five plays in less than one year. I was a theatre major at University of Houston in the 70's, but panicked and switched to RTF. I had a job offer to be a disc jockey in Baton Rouge in 1978, but came to Austin instead, because of a woman that I never wound up dating. In 1979 I saw the audition listing for THE RULING CLASS, and I've been doing theatre in Austin for the past 37 years. I've been acting in Austin since 1979, producing and designing since 1981, and directing since 1982.

BWWA: Is this the first venue you have run?

KW: I ran Fifth Street Playhouse 1981-1982 for a smooth $50 a week.

BWWA: What is your goal with Hyde Park Theatre?

KW: We are planning more seasons of critically-acclaimed, award-winning theatre. And continuing to pay our talented company of actors and designers, while keeping our ticket prices affordable. We are also looking to produce even more plays by women, and increase actor and designer salaries. To eventually become less dependent on city funding.

BWWA: Are you a producing entity as well as a venue?

KW: We are. There are some really great actors in this city.

BWWA: How many companies are producing/have produced their shows here?

KW: Between 1983 and today, at least 100 companies, many no longer around, have produced here. Currently this is the performance home of HPT, Capital T, Street Corner Arts, Actors Theatre Austin, and ScriptWorks.

BWWA: What challenges have you encountered bringing a theatre to life?

KW: Wearing lots of different hats with a small staff-producer, director, actor, fundraiser, grant writer, janitor, box office. Rent doubling from $1,500 a month in 2007 to $3,000 a month. It is currently $3,700 a month.

BWWA: Where do you see Hyde Park Theatre in 10 years?

KW: I would hope it will be run by a vibrant 68 year-old man. I'll probably be acting and directing less in ten years. In 12 years, I would imagine there might be new artistic leadership at HPT, but who knows?

I have to say that I personally hope to see more from that vibrant 68 year-old man ten years from now. Thanks, Ken, for your time and for being such a superior place for theatre in Austin.

From This Author - Frank Benge

A Kansas native, Frank Benge has been involved in the Austin area theatre scene as a Director, Designer, Writer and Performer for the past 20 years. He holds a double BA in Theatre and English from... (read more about this author)