Affordability issues part of subject and staging of ‘Hotel Vanya’

Affordability — or Austin’s increasing lack thereof — is conversation topic No. 1 these days in the arts community.

Like many Austin artists, playwright Timothy Braun claims entry points to the topic.

A longtime board member of Salvage Vanguard Theater, he’s had a front row seat to the unfolding drama as the company has been priced out of its Manor Road home of 10 years, a theater also rented to more than a dozen other indie artistic companies. Unable to find an affordable new location, for the foreseeable future Salvage Vanguard will be rootless, producing wherever they can, no longer keepers of a mainstay venue for many theater, dance and music productions.

“In the past year, I’ve looked at more real estate, learned more about commercial property, than I ever thought I would,” says Braun over coffee recently. “There’s really just no affordable space out there.”

Braun has also spent the last year putting the final touches on his latest play, “The Hotel Vanya, or a Metaphysical-Paradigm at the End of Everythingness.”

Loosely based on Anton Chekhov’s classic drama “Uncle Vanya,” Braun’s “Hotel Vanya” finds a small group of characters who occupy a once-elegant hotel now slated for demolition. As destruction of their home looms, the characters all make dramatic last tries for love, connections and meaning.

If Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” centers on melodramatic characters consumed with regrets about lives spent unfulfilled, Braun’s “Hotel Vanya” features more nuanced, contemporary characters struggling not so much with self-centered woes but wrestling with contemporary challenges, political and economic — and, yes, faced with economic forces driving them from their home.

Says Braun: “You could peel all the topical and timely references away, take out the contemporary issues, and you’d still have a character-driven play that’s grounded by a story.”

This isn’t the first time Braun has reimagined Chekhov. In 2013, “Three,” his very loose, critically lauded adaptation of “Three Sisters,” infused the Russian classic tragedy with very modern dark humor.

Braun, who holds down two part-time teaching gigs at St. Edward’s University and the University of Texas at San Antonio to make ends meet, developed “Hotel Vanya” over the last three years, along the way enlisting director Dallas Tate and producer and technical designer Natalie George in the creative process, trying out drafts in casually staged readings.

With the Salvage Vanguard stage booked until it shutters its doors for good at the end of June, Braun and his collaborators went in search of a venue.

They found a warehouse just east of Interstate 35 not far from the MetroRail tracks. The property’s owners plan to develop the site into a trendy hostel-style hotel. In the meantime, though, Braun, George and Tate have been able to carve out a stage in one part of the warehouse.

George effectively built a theater out of nothing to be used just once, not the first time she’s done so. Nor does she think it’ll be the last.

“I think a lot of (Austin theater groups) are going to have to use found spaces and temporary places,” she says.

At the request of the property owners, the exact address is provided only when tickets are purchased.

It’s a strange way of life imitating art: a play about people losing their home to gentrification staged by longtime Austin theater-creators faced with a venue crisis of their own and performed in the very type of historic warehouse that once housed arts groups but now is hot-ticket real estate.

Austin’s rapid growth and dramatic demographic changes may be described by some civic leaders as bringing increased prosperity for the entire city.

But Braun begs to differ.

“These are the kind of changes that demolish a community’s history and its memory.”

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