Capital T celebrates 10 years of edgy theater in Austin

Dark comedies have become a trademark for the company

When Mark Pickell began Austin’s Capital T Theatre in 2006, he never expected it to last this long.

“Originally it was just going to be this project I was going to do to build my résumé a bit to hopefully apply to some of the top-tier directing schools,” he says over coffee recently. “After a couple of shows, though, it was really well-received by the audiences and the critics, and I was able to do the work that I enjoyed doing.”

That work was a visceral mix of edgy, contemporary, intellectual plays, most of them dark comedies — which has become something of a trademark for Capital T over the past decade.

Cap T’s first official show was Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II,” which Pickell produced for FronteraFest at Austin High School, giving him a chance to learn more about the producing side of creating a show. Pickell went on to produce and direct what he thinks of as the company’s real first show, Mark Schultz’s “A Brief History of Helen of Troy,” produced at Hyde Park Theatre.

That was the beginning of a long and healthy relationship between Cap T and Hyde Park Theatre, in part because of the relationship between Pickell and Hyde Park’s artistic director, Ken Webster.

“Ken and I get along really well,” Pickell says. “We like a lot of the same material. There’s just a nice artistic camaraderie between us.”

That camaraderie extends both onstage and off: “I’ve been in one of his productions, he’s been in several of my productions. I credit a lot of my success to Ken. He really fostered a mentorship of producing here in Austin, and he still does.”

Their similar taste in theater has led to a solid body of work produced both by Hyde Park and by Cap T. The two companies are frequently drawn to the same kinds of material.

For Pickell, an experience studying in London at the same time that playwright Martin McDonagh’s “Leenane Trilogy” was produced changed his theatrical worldview.

“What I enjoyed were plays that could be deeply moving and at the same time really funny,” he says. “Sometimes you laugh when you shouldn’t laugh, or felt like you shouldn’t.”

With “A Brief History of Helen of Troy,” Cap T found its niche in this world of edgier plays very early on, even if Pickell might have wished to explore a wider range of drama: “Personally, I have a broad taste. I love Eugene O’Neill, I love classics, but what I found pretty quickly in Austin was that the audience I started creating really expected that kind of dark comedy.”

He’s quick to add, however, that he both loves those dark comedies and “loves that other people love them.”

With this kind of a specific focus, Capital T went from producing two shows a year to three, and then added their New Directions series, which once a year provides an opportunity for a young director to have a first professional production. Their most recent New Directions show, David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette,” directed by Rosalind Faires, garnered several local theater award nominations.

“I was reading a book about theater production, and it was talking about how to define the identity of a company,” Pickell says. “And part of that was going back to the roots. Why did you start telling whatever stories you started telling in the first place? And I think (Capital T) was an opportunity to get experience, so that’s become a mission with the New Directions shows.”

In addition to championing new talent, Pickell is interested in pushing the envelope for his own shows. To celebrate Capital T’s 10th anniversary, he is directing Texas-born playwright Robert Askin’s ambitious “Hand to God,” a play about small-town Texas, religious fervor and a satanically possessed Christian-ministry puppet (Pickell’s costume designer loves making puppets).

This strange mix is in line with some of Capital T’s biggest successes.

“Some of our big hits have been these Southern dark comedies — ‘Killer Joe,’ ‘Exit Pursued by a Bear,’ ‘Year of the Rooster.’ I think people from the South really identify with it. I’m actually from Michigan, originally, though I grew up mostly in Texas, so I’ve always felt like slightly an outsider.”

That perspective gives Pickell a unique ability to tackle this kind of material in a way that is sensitive yet willing to explore both the humor and the darkness of Southern lives.

After a successful, Tony-nominated Broadway run for “Hand to God,” Pickell doggedly pursued the rights to the play and has succeeded in picking them up for what will be one of the first productions outside New York. “We even scooped the Alley Theatre in Houston, so it’s a regional premiere. That’s kind of cool and unlikely.”

In describing the cast of the show, Pickell says, “The play calls for a really talented young man to play Jason, who’s the young boy who has the possessed puppet. Reading it, I didn’t realize how difficult of a performance it would be. It’s a really intense role, which became clear even in auditions, because literally it’s a whole scene by yourself, but you’re two characters, and both characters need to react, too.”

That actor, Chase Brewer, will be joined on stage by Theresa Baldwin, whom Pickell last worked with in “A Brief History of Helen of Troy,” bringing the past 10 years full circle.

Looking back on that decade, Pickell says he’s most proud that, simply, “We’ve been around for 10 years. I think that five years is a pretty burnout moment for so many companies. There are a lot of companies that existed in 2006 that aren’t around at all. I feel pretty proud that we’ve been able to put together ten years of programming.”

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