Ken Webster and his house of letters

A story about theater, freedom, language … and the beauty of smallness


Ken Webster spends most of his days in a Hyde Park playhouse — theater space, daydream space, a creative hideaway, where he immerses himself in the beauty of language, the genius of playwright Harold Pinter, an ocean of baseball trivia, the art of a well-placed comma. It is a serious place. It is a silly place. And for Webster: It is a place of independence.

“This is my second home,” says Webster, the 55-year-old executive director of Austin’s literary-minded Hyde Park Theatre and one of the most well-known actors and directors in the city. “It’s not just a place I work; it’s a place where I hang out, where I see friends. I met my wife (the actress and author Katherine Catmull) here. It’s been a big part of my life for 30 years.”

Webster, a wry, jeans and T-shirt kind of guy who has lived in Austin since 1979, has a deep, enduring connection to the place. It suits him. The Hyde Park Theatre is a scruffy, splendid dive — a neighborhood post office, circa 1947, converted into a theater — with the smallest seating capacity (70-85) of any established playhouse in the city.

Hyde Park Theatre is intimate space. From the audience, you can feel the heat of an actor’s breath. The last seat, in the last row, is a mere 25 feet from center stage. The actors’ makeup room doubles as a house restroom. Smallness is integral to the character of the place. “A modest thing, and thine own.”

Ken Webster loves baseball. And like most baseball fans, he loves the vintage Major League ballparks — the older ones, the neighborhood parks, the parks with odd angles and asymmetrical dimensions. Wrigley Field in Chicago. Fenway Park in Boston. And so it is that Webster thinks of Hyde Park as the theatrical equivalent of Ebbets Field. The long-lost home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The smallest of the legendary New York ballparks.

“When I talk about seating for people who want tickets, I describe it in terms of a baseball stadium,” says Webster, who has run Hyde Park Theatre since 2001 but has worked here steadily since 1983. “I’ll say: Do you know baseball? If the stage is home plate, the seats we have left are along the left field foul line on the back row … or over on the right field foul line, on the back row.”

Ken Webster revels in Hyde Park’s smallness, for it affords him the creative freedom to stage works of the highest literary merit. As a theater director — and as an actor and director, too — Webster leads with language. He’s more into substance than spectacle. For Webster, it’s all about the script: the lilt of words, the play of language, the power of storytelling. How appropriate that his theater started out as a post office: the ultimate house of letters.

Over the past several years, Webster has been way ahead of the curve in showcasing works in Texas by some of the most exciting young writers working in theater today: Will Eno, Annie Baker, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson. Webster’s “old school” respect for the quality of the written word is his signature. It trumps everything.

“Ken has a poet’s ear,” says New York-based playwright Greg Pierce, who visited Austin this spring to attend the regional debut of his acclaimed play “Slowgirl” at Hyde Park less than a year after it was selected as the inaugural production for the Claire Tow Theater in Lincoln Center. “That’s clear from the plays he’s chosen, and from his work as both a director and actor. In this storytelling era of pyrotechnics and breakneck plotting, Ken savors precise words and quiet moments. And he knows what to do with them.”

Fingerprints

Ken Webster’s favorite spot at Hyde Park Theatre is the outdoors Green Room — a funky patio covered by a tin roof, a place of dilapidated splendor. The floor is covered with green AstroTurf. An industrial-sized fan is mounted on the west fence; an armless mannequin sits atop the east fence. Inside, we hear the chirp of birds, the roar of the fan, the clank of free weights from a gym next door.

Webster lights a cigarette. The room smells like five years of cigarettes. He tilts backward in a sand-colored office chair — a prop from an old play — ready to receive any actors, set designers, hobos or journalists who may visit this day. (All do.) The area is strewn with electrical cable, power tools, ash trays, trash bags, half-empty soda bottles, two kitchen sink fixtures.

“I’m very lucky,” says Webster, thinking freedom, feeling freedom, the freedom that comes from smallness. “I’m lucky to have a space where I can do four plays every 12 months and do the plays I really want to do, plays that I really think people should see.

“I love doing the work. I’m more concerned with putting out good work — more than, say, awards or reviews — than I was when I was younger. I like working in Austin. It’s the city that I love. And I’ve been really lucky, since 1982, that I’ve directed maybe … three? … plays that I didn’t totally love. In over 30 years, I think that’s pretty good.”

Ken Webster is a welcoming guy — cordial, droll, quick to laugh. It’s a booming, theatrical laugh: “HaHaHaHa!” Yet Webster is not the type to talk long about dreams and ambitions, or depth of feeling. He saves that energy for the stage. “Honestly, I’d rather talk about 1960s baseball than anything else,” he says. “It’s my favorite subject.”

It’s true. The man loves baseball, loves the Houston Astros, knows everything about the Astros, having grown up in Houston. Yet behind that veneer: The man loves his job, cares deeply about craft. Just listen to him talk about “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” — his upcoming play, a one-man play, by Will Eno, a revival, which he staged the first time in 2007:

“When I first read the review (of “Thom Pain”) in The New York Times, it was the best, most glowing review I’ve read. Ever. I realized I just had to get ahold of the play, and read it.” Sure enough: “The language was so perfect. And the day I got the script, I was chasing Kathy around the house, reading bits to her.”

Katherine Catmull remembers it well.

“He had me cornered in the bathroom. I was doing housecleaning. And I just sat on the floor and started crying — because the portion he was reading was so sad,” says Catmull, recalling her first exposure to Eno’s play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. “I know that’s not the best advertisement for ‘Thom Pain’, which is also a very funny play. But that story is a testimony to the difference between me and Ken in some ways: He’s so thrilled by the saddest thing ever written!

“Words are really important to him. The text is very important to him. He almost conducts his rehearsals. He closes his eyes and listens (to the voices of the actors). It’s like a symphony. The feeling and the sound in the text is very important to him.”

Despite the casual appearance, Ken Webster is into discipline, accountability. His friends, colleagues and softball teammates call him “Coach.” He is every bit the leader, the teacher, the responsible party. He sets a very high bar for himself and others. As an actor, he abhors extraneous body movement, so that audience attention in a small house remains on face and word. As a director, he demands lines be memorized exactly. No paraphrasing. He scolds himself for smallest misstep — saying, for example, “type of day” instead of “kind of day.”

“I try not to leave my greasy fingerprints on somebody’s script,” he says, time and again. “I try to do the play they have in mind.” This is Webster’s mantra: as a writer, director, creative director. Be faithful to the good words.

“I thought Hyde Park’s production of ‘Slowgirl’ was gorgeous … respectful of the audience’s intellect and imagination,” says playwright Greg Pierce. “Ken is one of those directors who painstakingly studies the landscape of a new play and then makes decisions to support what’s already there, rather than taking the ‘How can I brand this?’ approach. … Within the first few minutes of a play, I can always tell whether I’m in good hands. At Hyde Park, I knew I was.”

Independence

“Say,” says Ken Webster. “Do you know what day this is?”

It’s Friday. June 7, 2013. Still feels like spring in Austin, even in the afternoon heat. Webster is sitting in the Green Room, holding court, deep in a daydream.

In Ken Webster’s mind, it’s June 7, 1968. On top of everything else: Webster writes a baseball diary on Twitter, from the imagined point of view of former Houston Astros catcher John Bateman. Each day, he tweets about the 1968 baseball season, “live,” as it unfolds. It is a nice baseball story. And a stirring social story.

Let’s see. June 7, 1968. That’s Robert F. Kennedy day, right? The day of Kennedy’s assassination.

“Um. No,” says Webster. He explains that Kennedy died a day earlier, on June 6. The country was grieving on June 7. President Lyndon Johnson had proclaimed a National Day of Mourning for Sunday, June 9.

The baseball world was also grieving on June 7. The Houston Astros — as well as several other clubs — voted 25-0 to honor LBJ’s Day of Mourning, as Major League Baseball wondered aloud whether they should postpone the entire slate of Sunday games.

Eventually, however, Major League Baseball decided to play those Sunday games as planned. Following suit, the Astros management announced it would assess a fine of $3,000 to any player who refused to take the field. “Minimum salary in 1968 had just been raised to $10,000,” says Webster, before taking a moment to explain who Kennedy was to a theater intern who’d never heard of the man. “So in essence, all rookies who didn’t play that day would lose almost a third of their annual salary.

“So. Another vote was taken. And in the end, only five Major League players elected not to play: Rusty Staub, Bob Aspromonte and Dave Giusti — all with the Astros. As well Milt Pappas, of the Cincinnati Reds, (who like Giusti was) the team’s representative in the player’s union. Maury Wills, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, also declined to play.”

Webster notes Giusti’s gesture, in particular, was one of great principle. As a starting pitcher, Giusti was not slated to play at all on June 7. Yet he took the fine anyway.

“Do you know what happened next?” says Webster. “Pappas was traded less than a week later. Aspromonte and Staub, huge crowd favorites in Houston, were both let go, traded at the end of the 1968. So was Giusti. And Maury Wills? He was left unprotected in the expansion draft and spent the next season with the Montreal Expos.”

Ken Webster tells the story because, well, he believes that stories matter. Even a story like this one, about independence. To him: It’s what life is all about. It’s what theater is all about.

Intermission

Wanna hear a telling Austin story? When Ken Webster began acting and directing at Hyde Park Theatre in the early 1980s — when the stagelights were standard light bulbs placed in Folger’s coffee cans — the rent on the building was $250 a month. In 2001, when Webster became executive director, the rent was $750. Today? $3,500 a month.

Thom Pain

“What if you only had one day to live?” asks the man on stage, Ken Webster. He’s wearing a dark suit, dark tie, glasses. He looks harrowed, world-weary. He addresses the house directly. “What would you do? That’s easy. You’d be brave and true and reckless. You would love life and people with wild and new abandon. If you had only one day. …

“What if you had only 40 years? What would you do? If you’re like me, and — no offense, but — you probably are, you wouldn’t do anything. It’s sad, isn’t it? This dead horse of a life we beat, all the wilder, all the harder, the deader it gets. …”

Webster is in character, in rehearsal, for the one-man show “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” which opens Thursday. “Thom Pain” is about pain — what pain brings to us. It’s also about mortality, fear, moving in and out of the dark. As a piece of theater, “Thom Pain” works with the concept of imbalance. The audience is never entirely “comfortable” in this play — though it wants to be — and that’s the point.

Webster has been memorizing lines, rehearsing this play, day after day, for more than a month. He has long claimed that the best way to memorize lines is while driving, on a long road trip. If you can stay true to a script while watching the highway — “your life in constant danger” — then you’re home free when it comes to delivering on stage.

Throughout the month, Webster has stepped deeper and deeper into character — shedding the low-key, easy-going hippie character he portrayed in “Slowgirl” and becoming the taut, two-sided coin of a man he plays in “Thom Pain.” Offstage, he’s begun walking like Thom Pain. He speaks with Thom Pain’s cadences — and quotes him, frequently, in the course of conversation.

“I’ve done some really fantastic roles over the years,” says Webster, who has been nominated for 46 B. Iden Payne awards during his career. “But I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed doing a play more than this one. If I could do a yearlong run of this one, I’d be very happy.”

Webster has long excelled in one-man shows. Likewise, he’s always held an affinity for characters with dark edges. It’s always been that way, ever since he wrote his own episodes of the TV serial “Dark Shadows” as a child and staged them in his garage. The first play he ever saw, as a teenager, was “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Alley Theatre in Houston. Yet Webster insists independent film of the 1970s and 1980s had a greater influence: “The Godfather.” “Paris, Texas.”

“I love plays that have characters that are somewhat unsympathetic — or extremely unsympathetic — yet still manage to elicit sympathy from the audience,” he says. “Those are probably my favorite kind of plays. And ‘Thom Pain’ is a great example of that. He’s sometimes cruel, sometimes vulnerable. And it’s tough, (as an actor), to get the right balance of cruelty and vulnerability. But it’s all there, right there, on the page.

“Eno is such a lover of language. I don’t think there’s a playwright who uses commas better. He writes the most beautiful lines: ‘I disappeared into her. And she, wondering where I went, left. …’”

Webster is spending 60, 70 hours a week in the playhouse these days — rehearsing, dreaming, blogging, being. A video man is coming. A homeless guy is at the door, looking for work. The Astros lost today — or was that 45 years ago today? — to the New York Mets. Webster takes great care pronouncing the word “bees.” Where does the comma fall? It’s all on the page. It’s all in playhouse. It’s all in the heart of Ken Webster.



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