Hitting Ground Zero

By Sherri L. Cole
September 1991; page 14; Volume 3, No. 1

Jesse Helms has just been appointed the head of the National Endowment for the Arts. Proclaiming himself the "Art Czar," Helms changes the name of the NEA to the National Arts Review Councilor NARC. Dan Quayle is President, and all of the art community goes underground to escape persecution and death.

Sound like a nightmare? Well it's not, yet, or so say the developers of Austin's Ground Zero Theatre. The previous scene is the setting of Ground Zero's 7th episode, "The Revolution Will Be Televised," that describes a future America and the spark that ignites the second American Revolution.

"We easily, in predicting the future, could predict that there would be a second American revolution based on the freedom of choice," said Ground Zero's producer Lainie Whiddon. "People have a right to criticize the government. People have a right to produce art about whatever they want, because that's what the art is and there's not a formula for it."

Ground Zero, a nonprofit theatre group, has been producing political satire and alternative performances since 1988. Many have compared the troupe to Esther's Follies or vintage Saturday Night Live. However, GZ director J. W. Whiddon and producer Lainie Whiddon vow their group delves into many political and social issues that even Esther's and SNL ignore: choice, gay liberation, racism.

"We're as patriotic as Mark Weaver is," said J.W. "As much as I hate Mark Weaver, he's at least doing something; he's not sitting at home keeping house. He may be screwed up, stupid and wrong (which he is), but he's still out there doing something,"

Ground Zero produces multimedia performances with the use of video, original music, audio, and live skits. In addition, the group draws its inspiration from the collective work of its twenty or so volunteers who produce, write, and act in the performances. The troupe has been able to combine experience with new ideas and an open environment for each volunteer to develop.

"That's how we compete - it's not like anything else you're going to see. People do Ground Zero theatre because they are moved to do so," said Whiddon. There's no money in it." Even though they're in the middle of Episode 7, which is playing at the Vortex Performance Cafe (1921 E. Ben White) through September 7, the troupe has already held writer's meetings for GZ's November production. Episode 8 will explore "A Question of Faith."

"Faith in and of itself is what spirituality and religion are all about - faith in what you believe or what you don't; faith in yourself; faith in your government; faith in institutions. Those [last] two entities have slackened off today. Who has faith in social security," noted the director.

Both the producer and the director have made a five-year commitment to Ground Zero. The upcoming shows, slated to run through the spring of 1994, will focus on issues surrounding the 1992 election year, drug legalization, feminism, and the environment.

While the group has built a reputation in the arts community, general audience participation has been growing at a slower rate, and members wonder if the City's budget priorities reflect the real interests and activities of the art community.

"We live in town that per capita has more independent theatre producing organizations than New York City," J. said. "But theatre is the most underfunded art in Austin. Austin's city council, city government, city founders, and the corporate businesses mainly support the music industry."