By Ted Waddell
LIBERTY April 27, 2004 Paul Austin can't get the boards out of his blood.
As a kid growing up in the rough-and-tumble world of Boston in the 1950s, he was washing dishes at the local hospital for the princely sum of $28 a week and got talked into trying out for the lead role in "Finian's Rainbow," an experience that forever cast his love of the theatre.
Austin got a laugh the first time he hit the boards, and his fate was sealed.
A Rough Start
After studying acting at Emerson College ("I went to college in order to act and apprentice myself") while living off his older sister's waitressing tips, he started the Image Theatre in Boston, but in its fifth year "I found myself repeating my work and realized I had to leave and learn more."
When he told his mother he wanted to be an actor, she turned thumbs-down on the idea.
"Just get a job and get married," she said, but his big sister came to the rescue with some more tips money so her kid brother could pursue his dream.
Austin pulled up stakes and moved to the Big Apple to try to earn a living as "a person of the theatre."
Unlike a lot of aspiring actors, he quickly landed a job running sound and playing a cop in a revival of "Winterfest" for 15 bucks a week.
While not exactly rolling in dough, Austin made a lot of friends in the community of mostly unemployed actors during the beginning of the Off-Off Broadway movement in the city.
Although Austin dreamed of a career as an actor, his prowess as a stage manager had producers knocking at the door.
Along the way, his play "Quietus" was accepted at The New Theatre Workshop, and he later learned the real meaning of the word interesting.
"I auditioned for Jack Gelber [one of New York's leaders of the new generation of playwrights], and he said, 'Thank you, that was very interesting'," recalled Austin. "As soon as you heard 'interesting,' you knew you didn't move them."
But when the time came, Gelber remembered that interesting guy and called Austin to stage manage a production of "The Kitchen," which went from a workshop to The Great White Way.
Then came three stage manager jobs in a row, including working with "a difficult cast" in "Dames at Sea" and Norman Mailer's production of "Deer Park."
Austin decided to put the word out "don't call me with any more stage managers jobs, I want to act."
But when the phone didn't exactly ring off the wall, he signed up to stage manage Kurt Vonnegut's "Happy Birthday, Wanda Jones."
Austin joined the Ensemble Theatre and found himself playing a "really mean, terrible drunk" in "Prairie Avenue," a role that earned him a rave review by Brendan Gill, a longtime writer and critic for the New Yorker a review that Austin can still quote from the heart.
"Mr. Austin was so ferocious that if he had cast one glance in my direction, I would have run from the theatre," said Gill.
As he worked the boards, Austin landed a few jobs on television, including an acting role on "Miami Vice" in an episode titled "The Golden Triangle," in which the stars were perhaps a little too much in character in a story about the drug trade "they were all stoned."
As Austin "got work on and off," he wasn't really commercially oriented and turned down a couple of shots at going to California, preferring to stay in New York City to land the occasional job and teach at his Image Theatre & Studio (1980-98) on theatre row along 42nd Street. Featuring a space with 45 seats, it was a small theatre he supported by teaching the craft of acting.
"It was an open house forum for other artists," he said.
Turning to Writing
A few years ago, Austin closed the doors of his second theatre to devote time to the writing life at his home in Kauneonga Lake, a home he shares with his wife, the acclaimed novelist Rilla Askew.
"I gave it up because I had a lot of work I wanted to do," he said, "a book on acting ["Spontaneous Behavior," subtitled "The Art of Character Acting"], a couple of plays and some poetry and fiction."
As the nation geared up for war in Iraq, Austin found himself compelled to create the third incarnation of his theatre as a way to give the local community a venue to express its voice on matters of political and artistic importance.
From the Ground Up
So Austin moved into a rented 150-year-old building on Liberty's main drag and transformed it into The Liberty Free Theatre, where "everyone [is] welcome, always."
"The intention of the Image Theatre was to be a service to the theatre community and other artists, as this is an intention to be of service to the local theatre-going community," he said.
"Nothing makes me so unhappy as to have unused theatre space," said Austin wistfully. "It's such a terrible waste."
The Liberty Free Theatre is an interesting little space with lots of doors, 40-some folding chairs and a floor of black-and-white checkered linoleum.
"It's a little small, but it's got five doors," said Austin. "I said to myself, 'Man, if you can't do something with five doors, you've got no imagination at all!'"
As he labors to develop a local theatre of the imagination, Austin said, "I've always had this ambition to have a theatre that was of high quality, but no big deal you just opened the door, did good work and let people gather and experience it. . . . It's the experience that stimulates them.
"I'll take a one-act play, maybe 40 minutes long, and after the play everyone will just hang out and have a glass of wine, but not as a big deal with actors hanging around so people can tell them how wonderful they are," he added.
Austin said he's got hundreds of plays waiting in the wings to be staged at The Liberty Free Theatre, depending on who shows up at a series of auditions.
As an actor with such credits as "The Iceman Cometh" and "Curse of the Working Class," Austin is considering several plays for the theatre's inaugural season: "Rosemary and Ginger" by Edward Allan Baker, "The Death of Besse Smith" by Edward Albee, "Dutchman" by Leroi Jones and Jose Rivera's "The Winged Man."
Among Austin's most recent stage appearances was "Late Night Conspiracies," a collection of his own writings at the Ensemble Studio Theatre.
In addition to "Quietus," his produced plays include "Artificial Light," "Promises to Keep" and "Funny Men Are in Trouble".
Austin has directed first productions on many new plays, such as Percy Granger's "Eminent Domain" at Circle-in-the-Square on Broadway.
To keep it all afloat, Austin teaches the art of acting and directing at Sarah Lawrence College as a part-time tenured professor.
Why create a free theatre in Liberty?
"You cannot have a viable community without a strong artistic culture, because it speaks to the soul and is a way of experiencing the life of the imagination and endless boundaries of the human experience without leaving your hometown," replied Austin.
He said the mission of The Liberty Free Theatre is to offer professional, socially active theatre to the people of the county before "an audience which reflects the vibrant and diverse nature of our community."
Performances at the new theatre are free, although Austin said he's not loathe to pass the hat for donations.
He will also offer professional classes in acting and playwriting. For information, call 292-2788 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"You absorb live theatre through the pores of your being," said Austin. "It's a fully involved experience of the human condition."