An Austin resident plans to start a community theater that will offer classes on a variety of performing skills and also serve as a math, science and technology center.
Arraon Hixson, an actor who performs around Chicago, says the theater and workshop – called the House of Hixson – will be located at Mayfield and Madison, an intersection that straddles the Austin and Oak Park communities.
Hixson says the storefront theater, once renovated, will have a 50- to 60-person seating capacity and offer classes in improvisation, sketch comedy, poetry and acting.
Additionally, Hixson is working on a second project, called ATMASC (Advanced Technology, Math and Science Center). The project will be set up like an Internet cafe, offering math and science workshops.
Hixson has yet to secure financing for these projects, but he says the plans have the support of Ald. Deborah Graham (29th Ward). Graham did not respond to requests for comment.
Hixson says the goal for both the theater and the technology center is to give Austin residents an outlet for their creative skills because none exists now in the city’s most-populous neighborhood. By doing so, he says, the theater can start a dialogue about how to solve problems plaguing Austin.
“Art is made for people to create, to communicate, and a lack of communication can destroy a nation,” Hixson said. “A lot of people are talented in this neighborhood, but they don’t have an outlet to be creative.”
His goal is to create a West Side “Second City,” modeled after the popular Chicago theater company that has served as a career jumping-off point for multiple generations of comedians and comedic actors. Hixson, himself a Second City veteran, has used his connections to that group to help build a board for the House of Hixson.
Greg Hollimon, a Second City veteran, known for his role as Principal Blackman on the television show Strangers With Candy, and a friend of Hixson, will be in charge of improvisation classes.
For his part, Hollimon says he’s looking forward to teaching new students the art of improvisation and encouraging students to expand their world views.
“When it’s really new and people are raw to the experience, you have to be a little bit more forgiving,” Hollimon said. “What I would tell beginning students is to read more, and look more at the news, just to have more of a platform to talk from. There’s going to be a difference, because if it’s kids [coming to classes], it’s going to be a new experience for them.”
The plan is to promote the theater in Austin, Oak Park and River Forest to expose the residents of each community to the rewards and challenges of being a performer.
“My goal is to bring us together as a community, not segregate us. There are different degrees of entertainers, but we all have the same ups and downs,” Hixson said.
To bring communities together, however, the House of Hixson has to contend with decreasing patronage among theater-going adults and the increasing numbers of nonprofit theaters.
A 2008 study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found the percentage of U.S. adults attending spoken theater – non-musical productions, like plays or talk shows – dropped by 4 percent since 1992.
Despite the declining patronage, the same NEA study also found the number of nonprofit theaters actually doubling from 1990 to 2005.
In 2005, the NEA reported, there were 1,982 nonprofit theaters in the U.S., each of which averaged annual budgets of $75,000.
Despite these challenges, Hixson says profitability is not the ultimate goal.
The opportunity to showcase the creativity of Austin residents – and to show how acting can enhance other skill sets, such as memorization and problem-solving, which he says can help people make money – is enough of a goal.
“There’s a bigger world out there. If they don’t become actors, that’s fine. My goal is to create accomplished people,” Hixson said.
“Anything can come out of acting in the arts. There are so many avenues and career options. I want to show them there are other ways to make money.”