Echoing laughter from theater games escapes the doors of an 89-year-old building and spills out into a warm fall night in Jacksonville’s urban core. In the empty spaces of The Carling, you can make out the warm, playful giggles of Daniel Austin.
Austin and Ron Shreve, co-founders of Bold Theatre Group, put a full cast of five actors through their paces in the building’s shared, open space. They start with an exercise some call Group Count, where the actors sit on the floor, eyes closed, simply counting.
Simple, not easy. They slowly count to 20 together, intermittently, improvising the order through the silence, but if any two speak a number at the same time, they must start again.
On the third try, they get to 19 before Jason Collins and David Gile blurt out 20 in the same instant. They break into hysterics again. Austin lets them off the hook, and they move on.
THE ART OF COLLABORATION
Collaboration in theater is king.
In visual art, an iconoclast can defy with a single brush. A musician may travel solo for decades, successfully producing a singular sound that eludes genre.
There are times, of course, when a lone actor or director can rise above the material. But rarely can one carry the entire production single-handedly. And even then, it’s a moment.
You only truly see theater that matters when all the players coalesce — not necessarily acting as one so much as coexisting, with each contributing value to the whole.
In founding Bold Theatre Group, Austin and Shreve believe a community exists that is ready to elevate the form, push boundaries, add value. Their work, more than most directors, focuses on process, on artistic growth, on collaboration. It’s about community and connecting with the audience persuasively.
They’ve cast BTG’s debut show, with Barbara Colaciello, Katherine Herndon, and Katie McCloskey joining Collins and Gile in “Circle Mirror Transformation,” opening Wednesday, Dec. 2, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville.
When Austin and Shreve think “bold,” they’re not harking back to a Hans Tanzler-era Bold New City slogan. Boldness speaks to them in every work they’ve produced from the University of Florida to New York City to Jacksonville.
They plan to go bold in incorporating theater in new and unusual ways and for organizations and events that might not have traditionally utilized theater to tell their stories.
With “Circle Mirror Transformation,” Bold Theatre Group is also adding value to the scene by guaranteeing that each actor will be paid a stipend. Austin declined to say how much the actors would receive and emphasized that paying actors is not the defining characteristic of BTG, but in a city that’s undoubtedly more enthusiastic for the arts than ever, the change is vitally needed.
And all of that boldness will take mighty forces of support.
“I think Ron and Daniel’s energy, intelligence, heart — and very key: their ability to work with people and be articulate — give them a great opportunity to be successful,” says Colaciello, who plays Marty in this production. Colaciello worked with artist Andy Warhol at Interview magazine in New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and has worked in Northeast Florida as a director, producer, actress, and acting teacher for more than 18 years.
Offering a view into their lives is no small feat for Austin and Shreve.
While warm and ebullient in person, they’re also private individuals whose work sometimes puts them on center stage or behind it.
Now, it’s time to let the audience in.
They are uneasy about this story. Unanswered texts and emails are followed by my surprise drop-in at a rehearsal, uninvited.
Then, on All Saints Day, we meet for a brunch that turns into a three-hour-plus sit-down.
Their bungalow on the edge of Murray Hill features dome ceilings, Shreve’s art — mostly acrylic pieces, even some acrylic art made to look like charcoal — and postcards that Austin’s grandfather, Sgt. Morris “Moe” Schulman, brought back from Japan after serving in World War II. The home also features their four-year-old black lab-boxer mix, Athena, who is happy to recruit me as a back scratcher during brunch.
Shreve and Austin graduated from UF’s Theatre Performance program in 2010, then immediately packed a truck for New York City, where they took their chances on the granddaddy of theater scenes. “We had nothing but student loans that were about to be billed to us in the mail,” says the 27-year-old Austin.
While living in Queens, Austin worked at a talent agency and Shreve helped manage a dermatologist’s office, while they both queued up for auditions and produced work accepted in the New York International Fringe Festival.
“We were trying to really ride that line of responsibility and risk-taking,” Austin says.
They were enjoying more than two years in New York: the city life, the first snow of the season, even those long audition lines in the cold.
“That frame of reference came crashing down with the third eviction notice. We had to make a choice,” Austin says. They considered their connections on the West Coast, but something drew them back to Northeast Florida.
“I remember very specifically a conversation with Lee Hamby and they were going to start The 5 & Dime, [A Theatre Company]. He was so excited,” explains Austin, who graduated from Bartram Trail High School. “He was talking about a shift and people were more open to new experiences and trying different things.”
One thing was clear when they moved to Jacksonville in 2013 — it was merely temporary. They had a two-year stop in mind.
“We had no intention of staying,” says Shreve, who is now 28. “We were just here to recharge.”
‘NOT THAT INSTANT CONNECTION’
Whether they want to read this or not — they’ll hate it — this production at MOCA and many creative efforts in town, theater and otherwise, have thrived on Austin and Shreve’s energy. Their desire to motivate fellow artists involves pushing for more dynamic risks and to go, well, BOLD.
They’re not alone in this respect in Jacksonville’s creative scene. But undoubtedly, they’re leaders — and now, it’s their turn to take risks. Austin, by far the more vocal of the pair, departed his full-time gig as communications manager at the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville in August on good terms to focus on Bold Theatre Group.
A San Diego native, Austin met Shreve at the University of Florida in a history of theater course in 2007.
“It was not that instant connection,” Austin admits. “We didn’t really care for each other.” Theater professors strongly discourage students from pairing up at UF. “It was weird when people dated, because if it didn’t work out, you still had to work in the program together.”
Shreve, born in Honolulu, and Austin eventually started dating and kept it secret as long as they could. Friends spotted Shreve’s car with a play script on the front seat near Austin’s apartment and barged in on them while they were watching “American Beauty,” Austin says, smiling.
Succeeding at maintaining a personal and professional relationship for eight years is the exception, not the rule, Austin asserts. “We work together better than anyone else. It always felt right for us,” he adds. “If I could have it my way, I would work together on everything.”
They look to other couples who collaborate professionally as inspiration, citing two powerhouse couples in the visual arts scene — Chip and Rikki Southworth, and Liz Gibson and Jeff Whipple — as well as Groundwork Jacksonville CEO Dawn Emerick and her husband Al Emerick, who is an emcee, voice-over talent, brand spokesman, and entrepreneur.
Austin and Shreve agree the strength of their families has been the ultimate anchor for them.
“We’ve all been to hell and back. We’ve all had the worst kind of [family] health scares,” Austin says. “We’ve seen that the only thing we have is our love. It’s the only thing that gives us our support and strength.
“We’ve known so many people in our lives who are gay who haven’t had that support. That’s been one of our biggest assets. … We’ve always had limited resources. We’ve always had to work.
“But the love of family, that can keep a candle lit, as shitty and stormy as it can be.”
Since moving to Jacksonville in 2013, Shreve and Austin have worked in prominent community and artistic roles.
Shreve is the former stage manager at Players by the Sea, and he directed “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at the theater to a 2013 Best of Jax award from Folio Weekly readers. His direction of “All New People” for The 5 & Dime also proved innovative, and he now teaches acting for Cathedral Arts Project through the Any Given Child program.
“My strengths that developed at UF were in putting on productions, not being in them,” Shreve says. “I get more joy getting people on stage and getting them to shine.”
Austin has drawn raves — mine among them — for his over-the-top King Herod in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” his direction of “Venus in Fur” at Players by the Sea, and his roles in “Lombardi” and “Forbidden Broadway” at Theatre Jacksonville. Off stage, he’s worked in communications roles at the Cultural Council and JCCI. He also emceed the One Spark Speakers Summit earlier this year, and has served as a volunteer for TEDxJacksonville. (Full disclosure: I’m also a volunteer with the group.)
Austin is currently filming his fifth episode as host of “Hometown” — WJCT’s locally produced TV series, now in its fourth season — which features stories of significant people, places and events in the community.
Past episodes are available on WJCT.org and a mobile app that debuted in October.
His new role as TV host underscores his talent and the strong connections to Jacksonville that he’s formed in a short time — as well as a hard-to-pin-down trait that WJCT Vice President Karen Feagins observed quickly. It’s a rare warmth and openness, but something more.
“In public broadcasting, we have something called ‘hostiness,’ ” she says, laughing. “It’s hard to describe what that it is. A person could deliver the same lines, and you wouldn’t have that feeling. You know who has it, and you know who doesn’t, and Daniel has it.”
ART ISN’T FREE
Austin and Shreve accept grudgingly that the fact that they pay actors will grab bolder headlines than their other goals. That effort isn’t intended as an either/or proposition to be weighed against the rest of the scene, especially at a time when Northeast Florida theater is more diverse than it’s been in decades, while attracting more enthusiastic audiences than ever.
Players by the Sea, Theatre Jacksonville, Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre, Limelight Theatre, and Stage Aurora Theatrical Company continue to take risks and produce significant work, while generally employing a successful model of passionate, volunteer actors.
The Alhambra Theatre has enjoyed a resurgence under managing partner Craig Smith as an equity theater that’s paid actors for decades, while the FSCJ Artist Series continues to bring quality touring productions here.
And Bold Theatre’s goal of paying its actors has precedent in Jacksonville.
Jacksonville Actors Theatre, founded in 1982, paid actors for years before closing in 1993. Actors have made honorarium during other productions, and more recently, The 5 & Dime has given actors a stipend for certain productions, Hamby says.
But the question remains why paying actors is not a given when few art patrons would expect a visual artist or musician to consistently work for free.
Katherine Herndon, a junior at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts who plays Lauren in “Circle Mirror Transformation,” says she didn’t even know they would be paid until after she won the part. At 16 years old and performing in her first major Northeast Florida production, Herndon says that “the fact we’re getting paid to do something we love is amazing.”
Jason Collins, who plays Schultz, sees the effort as a crucial step. “Performers would like to know that their work is being rewarded even if it’s just a stipend,” Collins says. Collins worked on touring productions in upstate New York and as an equity actor in Minneapolis.
“Just that Ron and Daniel are saying actors should be compensated is important for the city. You’re in it for the art, but to be compensated it is a nice thank you.”
ANSWERS ON 54TH STREET
Four days after that brunch in Murray Hill, I sit across from one of Austin and Shreve’s former collaborators in Manhattan. Luke Weidner is nibbling on a breakfast sandwich at the Cascade Café. We sit less than 140 feet away from the site of the original Studio 54 in Midtown. A little further down 54th Street on the 12th floor is Shetler Studios & Theatres, where Austin and Shreve rehearsed some of their projects.
Weidner has fond memories of working with Shreve and Austin on projects in Jacksonville and in New York City. (Their time in both cities overlapped.)
“Everything they’ve done is brilliant, no matter how large their resource pool is,” says Weidner. “There are very few people who can take nothing and turn it into something amazing like they can. I’ve absolutely loved working with them.”
He recalls meeting them at Bartram Trail when he, still a high school student, would benefit from Austin returning as a graduate with Shreve, showing them techniques they had learned at UF.
Though Shreve often defers to the more vocal Austin in interviews, those who’ve been in rehearsals have seen his direction in action.
“We were working on something in New York, one of the actors was getting a little frustrated. They said, ‘Just tell me what you want!’ Ron said, ‘I just want you to try it.’ There’s no wrong answer with them,” says Weidner, who moved back to New York City in 2014.
He’s now the stage theater operations assistant for Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns and manages major theater houses putting on Broadway shows — among them “The Book of Mormon,” “The Crucible,” and “Jersey Boys.”
No one mistakes Jacksonville as a city seeking to match New York’s scene, but many in the theater community here would love to see it push to become more of a regional player while working to support local talent and attract more.
Weidner keeps it real.
“Actors in Jacksonville would probably be thrilled to have a gas card,” as payment for a show, he says.
Ian Mairs, who founded Swamp Radio in 2013 after cofounding Jacksonville Actors Theatre in the 1980s, says the onus remains on both the performer and the audience.
“The guest soloist at the symphony has not been temping all day,” Mairs says. “But the challenge is that the artist must start bringing a more compelling product to the market. You have to turn to the artist’s side and say, ‘What have you been doing to improve artistically?’ ”
Austin and Shreve’s collaborators — past and present — say the two are always ready to put in the hard work.
“Failure is essential, and theater teaches you that,” Shreve says. “Apathy has no place.”
McCloskey, a Theatre Arts graduate from Florida State University who plays Theresa in this production, says it’s difficult to pin down any division of labor between Shreve and Austin, as they both excel at side-coaching and artistic direction. They both bring the same sensibility to pursuing a sense of physicality on stage that emanates at least partially from being dance minors at UF.
“They may set themselves apart in their methods and the type of show. I can see a lot of actors in this town being attracted to that,” sys Gile, who plays James.
“It’s like watching dueling piano players,” McCloskey says of Austin and Shreve. “It’s the same song, but they’re playing different parts.”
That emphasis on the discovery process has impressed. “By the time you get into the theater games, it connects to your character, what you’re doing in the play, and real life,” Herndon says.
Not coincidentally, theater games prove central to the action of Bold Theatre Group’s debut show.
In this Annie Baker play from 2009, winner of the Obie for Best New
American Play, strangers sign up for creative drama classes with Marty, the instructor, and her husband in the small town of Shirley, Vermont.
While playing theater games awkwardly over the course of six weeks, they betray their feelings toward one another. The play is produced by Bold Theatre in conjunction with MOCA’s “Smoke and Mirrors” exhibit.
Weidner and other former collaborators who’ve gone on to bigger stages believe
that with Shreve’s artistic direction and Austin’s energy, the pair’s bold ideas on process and taking productions into the everyday will resonate.
“Daniel’s ability to connect with people is incredible, and he can articulate things in a very beautiful way,” Weidner says.
“They are both very thoughtful as directors as well and extremely incisive,” says Amanda Morales, who starred in Austin’s “Venus in Fur” here. She now lives and acts in New York City, and has been filming recently on location in Kentucky for a web series called “Dagger Kiss.”
Enthusiasm for local theater appears to be peaking at the right time for Austin and Shreve.
“This is another pinnacle for theater in Jacksonville,” says Hamby, of The 5 & Dime. “If we’re growing new audiences, that just means those audiences are going to love theater and seek out new theater.”
Shreve and Austin are prepared for unconventional projects — everything from material for board retreats to using theater to teach leadership and improvisational skills for adults and children.
“I’m working behind the scenes with a group of people who are currently planning and getting ready to release an exciting digital resource for local actors, the theaters, and especially patrons,” Austin says. “Soon, there’ll be no hiding the gems of our theater community on the First Coast.”
Austin, the master of the tease whether on WJCT or in real life, adds, “Stay tuned for the launch of that project in early 2016.”
And after once believing that Jacksonville was just a two-year stopgap to recharge, Shreve and Austin are more connected to the community than ever.
But Bold Theatre Group isn’t merely about wide-eyed opportunity; it’s about finding a purpose that they sensed when they left UF.
“Our dream was really, if we could be working in all this stuff we loved to do, if that could make other people happy, if that could produce productions, we would be happy,” Austin says.
“The work we’re doing makes sense for not only us — but also Jacksonville. We both need to have some type of purpose. I think we found purpose here.”