The Long Center for the Performing Arts (512/457-5500) is Austin’s premier venue for the city’s symphony, orchestra, opera, and ballet ensembles (80 percent of performances are local), and for visiting artists as well. The facility, set on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake, was designed to take advantage of its location, with a raised terrace framed by a circular colonnade looking 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’s a modern version of the classic concert hall, using vertical space to accommodate seating. The acoustics are excellent here, as they are at the 229-seat Debra and Kevin Rollins studio theater, which hosts smaller performances. The HEB Terrace can accommodate some 2,000 people in its outdoor arena.
The University of Texas has five theaters—Bass Concert Hall, McCullough Theatre, Payne Theatre, Brockett Theatre, and the Bates Recital Hall—all of which are managed by Texas Performing Arts (www.texasperformingarts.org; [tel] 512/471-2787). They attract major visiting shows, including Broadway musicals, pop singers, and classical music ensembles. Of the five theaters, the largest is Bass Concert Hall, which accommodates 2,900 people. Fun fact: Bass Hall boasts not only state-of-the-art acoustics but also the largest tracker organ in the United States. Linking contemporary computer technology with an 18th-century Dutch design, the Visser-Rowland organ has 5,315 pipes—some of them 16 feet tall—and weighs 24 tons. The university’s Harry Ransom Center features poetry readings and lectures by big literary names.
Also run by UT and often dedicated to sports (it’s the home court for the Longhorns men’s and women’s basketball teams), the off-campus Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River (512/471-7744) has hosted arena-worthy names from Prince to Radiohead and Paul McCartney. (In late 2018, plans were announced to replace the Erwin Center with an even bigger arena, to debut in 2021; UT alum actor Matthew McConaughey is among the investors behind it.) Also at UT but a bit of a drive from town, the open-air Austin 360 Amphitheater, at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack in Del Valle, draws big crowds for its national acts.
Other venues are spread out across the city, including many small local theaters.
Founded in 1932, Zach Theatre (512/476-0541) is the longest continuously running theater company in Texas, and one of the oldest in the country. It produces plays—everything from Hedwig and the Angry Inch to a family series for children—in three theaters in South Austin. Just off of Lamar Boulevard is the 130-seat (in the round) John E. Whisenhunt Arena at 1510 Toomey Rd.; directly behind it is the 225-seat Kleburg at 1421 W. Riverside Dr. The newest venue (built in 2012) is the 427-seat Topfer Theater, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
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. (512/479-PLAY [479-7529; box office] or 479-7530), which focuses on Austin writers, actors, and designers. It’s the venue for Short Fringe performances at the annual 5-week-long FronteraFest (late January through February), the largest fringe theater/performance art festival in the Southwest. At the thriving theater department at St. Edward’s University, the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, 3001 S. Congress Ave. (855/468-3768 or 512/448-8400), produces performances at its theater-in-the-round, augmenting student talent with a variety of professional directors and guest actors.
East Austin is a hub of experimental performance and film venues. The most established is the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. (512/478-LAVA ), 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. The North Door, 501 Brushy St. (512/710-9765), hosts some of the city’s edgiest theater performances, from Sh! t-faced Shakespeare to burlesque shows. Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd (512/474-7886), has its own company, which performs mostly contemporary works. Others in the area to look out for are Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo St. (512/567-7833), and the Blue Theater, 916 Springdale Rd. (512/927-1118). The Blue Theater does full-length FronteraFest performances and holds 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. (512/472-5470), 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.
From ballet and Shakespeare to South Asian New Year celebrations, all performances at the city-run Beverly F. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, 2206 William Barton Dr. across from Barton Springs Pool (512/974-4000), are free; check the website for the current schedule of events and for tips about viewing, parking, etc. More than 5,000 people can perch on the theater’s grassy knoll to watch performances. If you can, take a blanket or a lawn chair to sit on.
From mid-July through late August, the venue hosts a summer musical mounted by Zilker Theater Productions (512/479-9491); started in 1959, this is the longest-running series of its type in the United States.
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.