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How Lisa Scheps has made Ground Floor Theatre indispensable to Austin

In 2003, when Lisa Scheps first arrived in Austin from her previous home bases in Chicago and, before that, New York, she immediately founded a theater company called Play Theatre Group.

“I brought with me all this big-city energy and attitude,” Scheps now says with a laugh. “I thought I would be queen of Austin theater.”

She did make waves. Her first show, “Marvin’s Room,” performed in a tiny former church in East Austin, was praised.

Yet Scheps soon stepped back from the arts. Among her next gigs were with social justice groups such as the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Equality Texas, where, among other things, she advocated for people who, like herself, had experienced gender transition.

She also hosts a radio show about theater, “Off Stage and On the Air,” on KOOP Radio.

By 2014, however, Scheps was ready for a new start in theater. This time, she carefully consulted with other Austin theatrical leaders to see what was missing from the local arts scene.

She found gaps, especially for groups who had been generally ignored. She couldn’t be all things to all people, but she brought to a new outfit, Ground Floor Theatre, a mission that focused like a laser on, among others, the trans community, women, people with disabilities and people of color.

Ground Floor Theatre, which opens the edgy but accessible musical, “Unexpected Joy,” on Dec. 2, has stood out among the city’s 85 or so theater groups — some of them full troupes, others transitory projects — to become absolutely indispensable to the scene.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine the Austin performance scene these days without Scheps — and her co-artistic director Patti Neff Tiven — and their Ground Floor Theatre.

‘I became an advocate and activist’

Scheps was in a hurry to go places during the 1970s.

She grew up in the leafy Memorial area of West Houston. Yet after a short time at college, she headed straight to New York City on June 21, 1977, to study theater where it counted.

“I lived there for almost 20 years,” Scheps, 63, says. “I consider New York home. I grew up there. I would move back in a heartbeat.”

Her first job, one she treasured, was selling snacks at the observatory deck atop the World Trade Center.

Theatrical jobs followed and she thrived in the Broadway and commercial sectors, especially producing and directing “industrials,” the sometimes lavish performances staged for — and about — business groups. (The documentary to see about musical industrials is the engrossing “Bathtubs over Broadway.”) By 2000, Scheps owned a Chicagobased company that specialized in industrials. Yet when she revealed her gender transition — 1999-2000 — those partners forced her out.

“It was my entire life,” she says. “That stuff is still pretty raw.”

Scheps was ready for some aspects of transition, not for others.

“There was never a time when I didn’t feel trans,” she says. “I went from being part of the most protected class to being totally marginalized. I became an advocate and activist. I had a voice and I decided to use it.”

After a few years mostly away from theater, Scheps took into account what was already in place in Austin: three touring houses, two large university training programs, along with some smaller ones, one large residential company, a handful of longtime midsized companies — some highly experimental, others resolutely traditional — and a wide range of small, perennial theatrical projects.

Among other strategies, Scheps wisely allied with some blazing talent at the University of Texas.

Ground Floor Theatre produced Lisa B. Thompson’s “Single Black Female,” Raul Garza’s “There and Back” and Florinda Bryant’s “Black Do Crack.” The team was not afraid of big or sometimes alarming musicals such as “Parade,” “Fun Home” and “Next to Normal.”

Along the way, Scheps put together “TRANSom” about a found family made up of transgender and nonbinary people.

“I didn’t want a depressing, woe-isme piece,” Scheps says. “I wanted a narrative. A slice of life. A story about trans people where the trans part is secondary. So many people came up to me to say, ‘I’ve never seen myself portrayed in a “normal” situation.’” During the pandemic, she also produced “Trans Lives, Trans Voices,” a

Michael Barnes

Austin American-Statesman USA TODAY NETWORK

Co-artistic director Lisa Scheps has helped make Ground Floor Theatre into a welcoming and essential part of Austin’s arts ecology.

CONTRIBUTED BY GROUND FLOOR THEATRE

See SCHEPS, Page 9T

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