Theater review: Delightful improv for kids and dogs alike in ‘What’s The Story, Steve?’


(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)


Thanks to multiple podcasts, television shows, and hard-working local theaters, improv comedy has become more popular than ever in recent years.

But what place is there, in the world of off-the-cuff comedy, for children? Or, more importantly, for dogs?

The answer to that can be found in “What’s the Story, Steve?,” a family-friendly improv show that is a collaboration between Move Your Tale (a group that offers classes, camps, and shows for “families and youth with an interest in storytelling, improvisation, and performance”) and ColdTowne Theater, where it plays every Saturday morning.

The star of the show, Steve Scott, is an adorable poodle whose inner monologue is shared via backstage microphone in a free-flowing hour of improv emceed by Steve’s human, Kristin Henn.

Kristin Hemm and her dog, Steve Scott. Photo by Jon Bolden
Kristin Henn and her dog, Steve Scott. Photo by Jon Bolden

The scene-stealers here are the kids in the audience who play an active and vital role in helping the improvisers (a talented and hilarious troupe, including seasoned performers Adam Oestrich, Drew Wesely, Becca Wilson, Conor Sullivan, and Bonnie Oh) create freewheeling comedic skits based on their suggestions and involvement.

This proves to be delightful for both the adults and the children in the audience. The former can appreciate the sly jokes and meta-commentary inserted by the performers (nothing inappropriate, but still over the heads of the young ones), while the kids enjoy the pure surrealist delight of adults acting according to their instructions. If there’s anything kids love more than grown-ups acting silly, it’s grown-ups acting silly in a way that they’re told to by children. Add in a talking dog, and what’s there for a kid not to love?

Every performance of “What’s the Story, Steve?” is obviously different from the last, but Henn starts each show by explaining to the audience what improv is, and letting them in on the joke that we’ll get to hear what Steve is thinking. She also tells the kids that they’ll have a chance to participate in the show, and to be kind and gentle to Steve when they do.

Some of the kids who volunteer end up being quite shy, while others love to ham it up, and Henn and the cast are experts at dealing with both personality types. They are also phenomenally talented at picking up on the kids’ cues without question, and especially without talking down to them, so that every contribution is valued and honored.

The show ends with a giant dance party featuring the cast and the kids, so that even the shyest of children can take part in the fun if they want to.

By engaging in the time-honored tradition of taking kids seriously, while still recognizing their own senses of humor, the cast of “What’s the Story, Steve?” creates an endearing show that is sure to amuse parents/guardians and kids alike.

“What’s the Story, Steve?” plays Saturdays at 10 a.m. Tickets are pay-what-you-want with a $3-$5 suggested donation.


Steve, the dog, and Kristin Henn in “What’s the Story, Steve?”


Long Center names new CEO

The Long Center for the Performing Arts has named Cory Baker as its new president and chief executive officer.

Baker has been serving in the role on an interim basis since May, after former Long Center board member and retired high tech entrepreneur Marc Seriff abruptly left the CEO post just four months after assuming the leadership role of one of Austin’s largest arts organization.

Baker had been serving as interim CEO since Seriff’s departure.

Baker joined the Long Center staff in September of 2015 as the organization’s vice president of programming and production. Previously, she had served in a similar post at Arizona’s Scottsdale Center for the Performing Art.

Vice president of the Western Arts Alliance, Baker has 15 years experience in performing arts administration and holds degrees in sociology and religious studies from Arizona State University.

Long Center board chair Patsy Woods Martin said that Baker was chosen after a national search.

“We knew when we first met Cory last year that we had found some one very special,” said Woods Martin. “She has continued to demonstrate the kind of leadership, vision, passion and strategic thinking that we believe are critical to guiding the Long Center.”

Baker’s appointment ends a tumultuous course of events in the Long Center’s top leadership.

In January, after five years on the job, Jamie Grant announced he was leaving the center’s top post to take a position at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minn.

Immediately, Seriff, a philanthropist and retired AOL co-founder, took up the CEO post on an interim basis.

Seriff had been on the Long Center board since it opened in 2008 until he resigned last year to join the organization’s staff as vice president of special projects, a job created specifically for him and for which he took a $1 salary.

In March, Seriff was named to the CEO post permanently though the Long Center board had conducted no national search for an experienced arts administrator.

On May 26, it was announced that Seriff was resigning effective immediately, citing family reasons.


Baker Backstage


Blue Genie Art Industries alights to SE Austin

After a suitably friendly and rangy party last weekend, Blue Genie Art Industries has moved from its longtime East Austin headquarters.

After nearly two decades on Springdale Road, the art fabrication company is relocating to a new address in on Burleson Road Southeast Austin.

Photo by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin/American-Statesman

Fabricators of big and creative things, Blue Genie makes everything from giant mosaic sea monsters in front of children’s museums to an armadillo for the top of Lone Star Beer bus.

Blue Genie was one the original arts tenants of the cluster of warehouse now known as Canopy, the increasingly sleek complex of galleries, pricey artist studios and ever more ‘creative office’ spaces.

Blue Genie not only established the popular holiday Blue Genie Art Bazaar, but their vibrantly painted space — complete with a blue genie on top — served as a de facto clubhouse for all kinds of informal creative happenings, especially during the East Austin Studio Tour.

Blue Genie founders were inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame in 2014.

In an interview, Collins suggested that an increase in rent was only one factor in the company’s move.

The Art Bazaar — which features more than 200 artists — will continue at Marchesa Hall & Theatre.



Photo courtesy Blue Genie.
Photo courtesy Blue Genie.

Magic Lights Up Austin at Esther’s Follies

Ray Anderson worked his magic on Ellana Kelter during an audition for Esther’s Follies years ago when she performed an illusion without even knowing it. Something clicked and they formed a partnership rooted in passion and trust, performing dangerous illusions three nights a week in downtown Austin.

“People can tell we love one another,” Anderson said.

Ray and Ellana 2

During the show, Ray and Ellana descend onto the stage in a huge metal cage. As they dance passionately and seductively, Ellana disappears before the audience’s eyes, reappearing as she bursts through the cage, and lands in Anderson’s arms.

“I can’t wait to look deep into his eyes. That’s part of what makes it easy, nothing is fake,” said Kelter. “The magic is really us. It’s our own personality. Each piece, its own story.”

In another illusion, Ellana springs up out of a fiery box. Anderson hypnotizes her to the driving beat of KONGOS song, Come With Me Now, and suddenly she levitates.

“Entertaining an audience is true magic,” Anderson said. “We get the same gratification when it’s successful. To share that moment with someone else is spectacular.”

Mark Mothersbaugh exhibit opens with free admission day

One of the most anticipated arts happenings this season, the sweeping exhibit “Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia” opens Feb. 13 at the Contemporary Austin. And the museum is offering free admission that day.

Mark Mothersbaugh, 1964 – Monument to the conquerors of space, 2012. Ink jet on paper. Courtesy the artist.
Mark Mothersbaugh, 1964 – Monument to the conquerors of space, 2012. Ink jet on paper. Courtesy the artist.

Though he’s most widely known as the co-founder and frontman of the seminal new wave punk band Devo, Mothersbaugh is a creative polymath who started the band as a performance project when he was an art student in the early 1970s.

In the first museum retrospective of his visual art, about 700 objects reveal Mothersbaugh’s surreal vision and personal expression through drawings, films, paintings, sculpture and music.

The first floor of the Jones Center will highlight Mothersbaugh’s Devo years with photographs, posters, video, music and other ephemera. Upstairs, the double-height gallery will be an immersive experience with several of Mothersbaugh’s “Orchestrations” (whimsical sculptural sound-making machines made of organ pipes) along with an array of other impish creations.

Mark Mothersbaugh, The General, 2014. Vintage organ pipes, electronics, and steel. Courtesy the artist. Photograph by David Lekach.
Mark Mothersbaugh, The General, 2014. Vintage organ pipes, electronics, and steel. Courtesy the artist. Photograph by David Lekach.

There’s also a slate of family-friendly festivities to complement Mothersbaugh’s artistic and musical creations that day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. While free, the activities require a reservation:

Also opening Feb. 13 is Lise Haller Baggesen’s immersive installation “Mothernism”at the museum’s Laguna Gloria location. Admission is also free that day and Baggesen will give a talk about her work at 2 p.m.

 Lise Haller Baggesen, Mothernism, 2013
Lise Haller Baggesen immersive installation “Mothernism” with an audio component

Theater review: Twist gives us honey pot full of fun at Zach Theatre’s “Winnie the Pooh”

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh, Sara Burke as Piglet. Photo by Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh, Sara Burke as Piglet. Photo by Kirk Tuck

“Winnie the Pooh,” Zach Theatre’s opening musical in this year’s family series, lets children into the secret of theater. It starts with musician Allen Robertson warming up the audience by teaching the “Winnie the Pooh” dance.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Russel Taylor, Will Cleveland, J. Quinton Johnson, Allen Robertson, and Sara Burke. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Russel Taylor, Will Cleveland, J. Quinton Johnson, Allen Robertson, and Sara Burke.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

Later he appears on stage with the crew of the play: a set designer, a prop master, a stage hand and a costumer. They are going about their business, but suddenly they notice that there is an audience. Robertson declares, that no, it’s not an audience, it’s the backup dancers. This, of course, brings some giggles.

Indeed, there is an audience, and we’re told that we’ve come two weeks too early. But wait, we’ve paid money for this show! The behind-the-scenes crew will just have to put on the musical for us. They find the book on stage and begin sorting out who will play what.

It’s a delightful twist to this classic tale and the musical, which was written in 1964 by le Clanche du Rand with music from Allan J. Friedman and lyrics by author A.A. Milne and Kristin Sergel. The musical originally just starts with Pooh doing his morning exercises, not this behind-the-scenes crew turned actors vignette.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Will Cleveland as Pooh.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

The twist allows a young audience to not have to suspend disbelief. We know it’s not really a bear, an owl, a kangaroo, a piglet, a rabbit and a donkey. Instead, it’s an adult stage crew trying to play legendary animal characters. We see them try to transform into these animals by finding hats, scarves, shirts, jackets and aprons to fit their characters. We see them give one another stage directions, such as rabbits hop, so hop more.

"Winnie the Pooh" at Zach Theatre stars Sara Burke as Piglet and Russel Taylor as Eeyore. Credit: Kirk Tuck
“Winnie the Pooh” at Zach Theatre stars Sara Burke as Piglet and Russel Taylor as Eeyore.
Credit: Kirk Tuck

The fun is that the crew is very similar to their animal characters. The set designer who is chosen to play Pooh (Will Cleveland) is also a slow-motion kind of guy. The costumer (Sara Burke) has a ton of energy and positivity, perfect for Piglet and Roo. She also has the smarts of Owl. Another stage hand (J. Quinton Johnson) becomes the leader and narrator, qualities like Christopher Robin and Rabbit. The highlight is Russel, (Russel Taylor), who has as much enthusiasm as Eeyore, as he gets dragged into this production to play Eeyore and later awkwardly Kanga. He brought the biggest laughs, especially during the song-and-dance numbers.

Throughout, Allen Robertson plays the on-stage musician and coaches the crew-turned-actors on how to sing.

The kids in the audience of Friday night’s opener loved being part of the action. They loved being asked to dance and do the movements with the actors on stage; after all, they are the backup dancers, right? They loved with the actors talked to them.

If you come into this musical thinking you’re going to see a straight version of “Winnie the Pooh,” you might be disappointed, but probably you’ll be delighted with the change.

Zach Theatre’s education director Nat Miller, who directs this show, doesn’t do things in traditional ways. Last year, “The Three Little Pigs” were rock stars. Cinderella was alive in the imagination of a bilingual girl who created her out of a funnel with a doiley on it in “Cenicienta.”

This year, Zach is presenting a storybook season with “Winnie the Pooh,” running now through Dec. 12, the bilingual “Tomás and the Library Lady,” Jan. 15-Feb. 14; “James and the Giant Peach,” Feb. 19-April 10; and “Alice in Wonderland,” March 4-May 14. We can’t wait to see the twists that Miller finds for “James” and “Alice.”

“Winnie the Pooh.” 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 12. An autism and sensory-friendly performance is scheduled for 11 a.m. Oct. 31. $15-$20. Kleberg Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.

Gustavo Romero to replace Andre Watts on ASO season opener

Pianist Andre Watts — who was to have been the guest soloist at the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s season opening concert next weekend — has cancelled due to injury, symphony officials announced today.

ASO representatives said that Watts who suffers from tendenitis in both wrists, was cancelling.

Gustavo Romero will replace Watts and play the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 that had been originally planned.  Romero is on the faculty of the Univ. of North Texas.

Also on the program is “This Noble Company” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts.

8 p.m. Sept. 18-19. Dell Hall, Long Center for the Performing Arts, 711 W. Riverside Dr. $12-$75.


Austin Symphony sets new a sales record

The Austin Symphony Orchestra has crunched the sales numbers for its recently finished 2014-2015 season.

The results? ASO saw 36% increase in sales for its main Masterworks series. And when its pops series and other concerts are factored in, the organization saw a 20% in sales for all its programing. AndreWattsBig500px

“We didn’t have a season filled with guest artists like Bell, Ma, Perlman or a bunch of “war horse” repertory that can boost your season,” said marketing director Jason Nicholson in statement.  “We utilized the newest online technology out there that can get the message to our patrons. We listened to our patron’s wants and needs, studied the analytics, and continued doing advertising that was focused on the experience and not about the organization. ”

ASO’s next season begins Sept. 14-15 with pianist Andre Watts.

Single tickets for next season go on sale Aug. 10.

Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza coming to Austin on Sept. 2

Cirque du Soleil is returning to Austin this fall with a new big-top show that revisits the group’s circus roots.

  Scene from Kooza. (Photos by Matt Beard, Costumes by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt ©2012 Cirque du Soleil)

Scene from Kooza.
(Photos by Matt Beard, Costumes by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt ©2012 Cirque du Soleil)

The group will premiere Kooza in Austin on Sept. 2 at Circuit of the Americas, and the show will run until Sept. 27, according to the group’s website.

Kooza tells the story of a loner’s journey to find his place in the world and marks a return to the company’s origins, combining high-flying acrobatics with clowning, according to a news release.

Interested in the show? You can purchase tickets here.

This isn’t the first time Cirque du Soleil’s been to Austin, either. Check out these stories from the last few times the group was in town:

Paramount announces its winter/fall schedule

The Paramount and Stateside theaters announced their fall-winter season. Season subscriptions are on sale at

Here are some highlights:

Christopher Cross with hits “Sailing” and “Ride like the Wind” performs Sept. 18.

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt present an acoustical evening on Oct. 26.

Terri Hendrix teams up with Lloyd Maines on Dec. 4.

Dr. Deepak Chopra gestures during a session.
Dr. Deepak Chopra gestures during a session.

Deepak Chopra gives his insights in “The Future of Wellbeing” Jan. 24.

Olivia Dukakis stars in the one-woman show “Rose,” Jan. 7.

The Moth live radio show returns with new stories and storytellers Dec. 9.

For fun, watch “Potted Potter,” all seven Harry Potter books condensed into a parody Nov. 10-15. Improvised Shakespeare turns Shakespeare on its head in a live improvised show Jan. 28-30.

Ira Glass of “This American Life” teams with Monica Barnes and Anna Bass for “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” Dec. 5.

You can also expect Ray Wylie Hubbard to bring back his birthday bash Nov. 14. and Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison to bring their Holiday Shindig Dec. 19.

The Beekman Boys from the Cooking Channel come to Eat Drink Local Week on Nov. 29.

Laverne Cox from “Orange is the New Black” talks Jan. 22.

Here’s the complete schedule:

Lyle Lovett brings his Large Band to Paramount Theatre Oct. 26. Deborah Cannon American-Statesman
Lyle Lovett brings his Large Band to Paramount Theatre Oct. 26. Deborah Cannon American-Statesman

Sept. 17: Steve Earle and The Dukes at the Paramount Theatre

Sept.18: Christopher Cross at the Paramount Theatre

Oct. 16: Jesse Cook at the Paramount Theatre

Oct. 18: Dr. Ralph Stanley with Family and Friends at the Paramount Theatre

Oct. 22: John Fullbright at the Paramount Theatre

Oct. 26: An Acoustic Evening with Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at the Paramount Theatre

Nov. 8: Discovery Series: “Room on the Broom” at the Paramount Theatre

Nov. 10-­15: “Potted Potter” at Stateside at the Paramount

Nov. 14: Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Birthday Bash” at the Paramount Theatre

Nov. 19: Tommy Emmanuel at the Paramount Theatre

Nov. 20: Don Williams at the Paramount Theatre

Nov. 29: Eat Drink Local Week: The Beekman Boys at the Paramount Theatre

Dec. 4: Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines at Stateside at the Paramount

Dec. 5: “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host”: Ira Glass, Monica Barnes and Anna Bass at the Paramount Theatre

Dec. 9: The Moth at the Paramount Theatre

Dec. 11-­13: Discovery Series: “Peter and the Wolf” (featuring Mother Falcon) at Stateside at the Paramount

Actress Laverne Cox attends Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black" screening.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Actress Laverne Cox attends Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black” screening. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Dec. 12: Steve Lippia’s “Centennial Sinatra” at the Paramount Theatre

Dec. 19: “Kelly and Bruce’s Holiday Shindig” at the Paramount Theatre

Jan. 7: “Rose” starring Olympia Dukakis at the Paramount Theatre

Jan. 22: Laverne Cox at the Paramount Theatre

Jan. 22-­23: Colin Hay at Stateside at the Paramount

Jan. 24: Deepak Chopra: “The Future of Wellbeing” at the Paramount Theatre

Jan. 28-­30: Improvised Shakespeare Company at Stateside at the Paramount

Jan. 31: Discovery Series: “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play!” at the Paramount Theatre

April 3: Discovery Series: “Peter Rabbit Tales” at the Paramount Theatre