Theater archives

Lyn Austin (1922–2000)


Like countless New York theater artists, I spent much of the last three decades being alternately infuriated and enchanted by Lyn Austin. There was no in-between with Lyn; once she took a position, she stood firm, like the rocks of the Berkshire foothills where she made her theatrical home. With her massive presence, florid complexion, and sharp-worn features, she rather resembled a big, craggy New England rock herself. But mountains are spiritual places, and Lyn’s implacability was a rock base on which the most astonishing, playful, visionary musical theater could be built.

Lyn, who was struck by a cab on Eighth Avenue the night of October 30, was a daughter of privilege, a Vassar graduate with a house in Pound Ridge. But privilege explained neither her determination nor her instinctive grasp of the wildest artistic opportunities. She had partnered Roger L. Stevens and then Oliver Smith in producing a series of Broadway shows, and had briefly run a traditional summer theater. Neither prepared the way for the work she was to nurture, roaming from one Berkshire estate and one New York performance space to another, with Music-Theatre Group and its avatar, Lenox Arts Center.

The operas of Richard Foreman and Stanley Silverman, the Van Itallie-Peaslee-Chaikin Fable, Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal’s Juan Darien: Nothing was too outré for Lyn to consider. Who else would give Eve Merriam and Tommy Tune a whirl with a gender-reversed musical set in a 1910 men’s club? Richard Howard’s verse dialogues, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s folk-song realizations, two productions of Virgil Thomson’s Mother of Us All—her material never lacked either quality or variety. In my head, I can still hear her refined, eyedropper voice on the phone saying, “Martha Clarke has left Pilobolus and is trying something with words.” A Metamorphosis in Miniature led to Garden of Earthly Delights and all that followed, a string of visions that must, for once, have astonished even Lyn. Because much delighted Lyn, but little astonished her; or if it did, she rarely let on.

It didn’t astonish her to walk into her office the morning after an opening and find a critic (me, as it happens) asleep on the couch. It didn’t astonish her that the tour budget for Garden of Earthly Delights needed extra rehearsal time because the flying effects had to be staged differently in every theater. It didn’t astonish her when deaf, aging Virgil Thomson began loudly critiquing the cast of Mother of Us All during a performance. “I just took his arm,” she said, “and marched him right out of there.” Along with that strong arm, Lyn offered her colleagues laughs, anecdotes, surprises, frankness, generosity, obstinacy, warmth, and occasionally a maddening caprice or a brief but towering cold fury. Until her death made me compile that list, I had never realized how much she herself resembled the theater.