With completion of the Long Center for the Performing Arts (tel. 512/457-5500; www.thelongcenter.org), Austin now has a respectable venue for its symphony orchestra, opera, and ballet performances, and for visiting performances as well. The new hall, set on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake, was designed to take advantage of its location. A raised terrace framed by a circular colonnade looks out over the lake, to the downtown skyline. The grand concert hall, named after Michael and Susan Dell, seats 2,400 people and is grand indeed. It is a modern version of the classic concert hall, using vertical space to accommodate seating. Seats are positioned relatively close to the stage, and multitiered balconies wrap around the walls. A studio theater hosts smaller performances and seats around 200 people. Free tours of the Long Center are held every Wednesday at noon. You can buy tickets for performances directly through the Long Center website or through www.nowplayingaustin.com.
The University of Texas has six theaters, which are managed by its own organization: Texas Performing Arts (tel. 512/471-2787; www.texasperformingarts.org). It attracts major roadshows, including Broadway musicals, pop singers, and classical music ensembles. Of the six theaters, the largest is Bass Hall, which accommodates 2,900 people. You can buy tickets directly through the website or through www.nowplayingaustin.com.
Founded in 1932, Zach Theatre (tel. 512/476-0541 [box office] or 476-0594; www.zachtheatre.org) is one of the oldest arts organizations in Austin. It produces plays for its two theaters in South Austin; just off of Lamar Boulevard is the John E. Whisenhunt Arena at 1510 Toomey Rd., and directly behind it is the theater-in-the-round Kleburg at 1421 W. Riverside Dr.
Other theaters in town tend toward the smaller and, in some cases, more offbeat. These include the intimate Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St. (tel. 512/479-PLAY [479-7529; box office] or 479-7530; www.hydeparktheatre.org), focused on Austin writers, actors, and designers. It's the venue for the Short Fringe performances at the annual 5-week-long FronteraFest, the largest fringe theater/performance art festival in the Southwest. At the thriving theater department at St. Edward's University, the Mary Moody Northern Theatre, 3001 S. Congress Ave. (tel. 512/448-8484 [box office] or 448-8483; www.stedwards.edu/hum/thtr/mmnt.html), gets support for its performances from a variety of professional directors and guest actors.
East Austin is the home of many experimental performance and film venues. The most established is the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. (tel. 512/478-LAVA ; www.vortexrep.org), home to the Vortex Repertory Company. You can tell by the titles alone -- The Dark Poet's Binge, say, or St. Enid and the Black Hand -- that you're well into the fringe. Another, venue in East Austin is Salvage Vanguard Theater (tel. 512/474-7886; www.salvagevanguard.org), at 2803 Manor Rd. It, too, has its own company, which performs mostly contemporary works. Others to look out for are the Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo St. (tel. 512/567-7833; www.rudemechs.com), and the Blue Theater, 916 Springdale Rd. (tel. 512/927-1118; www.bluetheater.org). The latter hosts such annual events as the full-length FronteraFest performances and Flicker Fest film screenings.
A Venerable Venue -- The Marx Brothers, Sarah Bernhardt, Helen Hayes, and Katharine Hepburn all entertained at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave. (tel. 512/472-5470 [box office] or 474-1221; www.austintheatre.org), a former vaudeville house, which opened as the Majestic Theatre in 1915 and functioned as a movie palace for 50 years. Now restored to its original glory, the Paramount hosts a diverse roster of nationally touring plays, visiting celebrity performers and lecturers, film festivals and series, and local dance and theatrical productions. You can tour the old theater from Wednesday to Sunday at 10:30am. First, you should call tel. 512/692-1515 to make sure the tours are still taking place.
The two dozen professional dancers of Ballet Austin (tel. 512/476-2163 [box office] or 476-9051; www.balletaustin.org) perform such classics as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, as well as more avant-garde pieces of the trendsetting Director's Choice series, which pairs the work of various contemporary choreographers with the music of popular local Latin musicians and singer-songwriters. When in town, the troupe performs at the Long Center.
The amount of free live music offered here is almost absurd. There are several free concert series. One is Live from the Plaza, which is sponsored by the city to showcase local musicians. Performances are most Fridays at noon, in front of City Hall, at 301 W. Second St. Other concert series include the Ensemble Concerts, which are held every Sunday from June through August at 7:30pm on the grounds of the Long Center. The ensembles are formed of members of the symphony orchestra and play classical and jazz pieces. In May and June, there are free Wednesday night concerts at Waterloo Park, at 15th and Trinity streets. These begin at 7:30pm. Bands range from rock and reggae to Latin and country-and-western. Every other Wednesday night from June through August, Blues on the Green is held at Zilker Park Rock Island, 2100 Barton Springs Rd., sponsored by radio station KGSR (www.kgsr.com). This series can attract some major bands. Check the website or the local paper for who's playing. Shady Grove, one of the restaurants on Barton Springs Road, offers a series of free outdoor concerts called Shady Grove Unplugged. They take place in the restaurant's large shaded patio every Thursday in the spring and summer at 7pm. Acts include popular local and touring bands, such as James McMurtry, the Derailers, Jimmy LaFave, the South Austin Jug Band, Ruthie Foster, and Ray Wilie Hubbard. Check the restaurant's website: www.theshadygrove.com.
Other places to hear free music include Central Market (www.centralmarket.com/Stores/Austin-Central.aspx), which has live music three times a week at both its central and south locations. Whole Foods Market (www.wholefoodsmarket.com), at Fifth Street and Lamar, has the Music at the Market series taking place on Thursdays from 6 to 7:30pm. Also, bands are always playing at First Thursdays on South Congress.
From mid-July through late August, the Beverly F. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, across from Barton Springs Pool, hosts a summer musical (Zilker Theater Productions; tel. 512/479-9491; www.zilker.org). Started in the late 1950s, this is the longest-running series of its type in the United States. The summer Austin Shakespeare Festival is often held at the theater, too; for up-to-date information, call tel. 512/454-BARD (454-2273) or log on to www.austinshakespeare.org. More than 5,000 people can perch on the theater's grassy knoll to watch performances. If you can, take something to sit on, such as a blanket or a lawn chair.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.