Just like polka favorite Alex Meixner is the one-man band of Hormel pepperoni, New Braunfels native Robin Williams plays many instruments at once at Circle Arts Theatre.
As the artistic/technical director of Circle Arts Theatre, Williams directs major productions. She’s also the resident choreographer, music director when necessary, resident set designer, resident sound designer, lead instructor for Klasses In Drama, assistant director for The Inner Circle, box office receptionist and social media person.
But that’s not all.
“I also am half of the manpower to build the sets, paint the sets, make the props, help with costumes, focus lights, buy all the supplies and concession items, take out the trash, clean the building, organize, etc.,” Williams said. “Our technical assistant, Jordan Fowler, is my other half for that stuff and thank goodness!”
Williams and Fowler, along with Executive Director Roberta Elliott round out the theater’s three-person staff.
Williams’ love of theater arts began when she took an elective class in the eighth grade.
“I realized that I had a gift for comedy and that this was a great outlet,” she said. “Looking back, I was always great at presenting things to the whole class — be it show-and-tell in kindergarten to a book report in middle school to speeches in high school. I was more myself in front of a crowd. It was one of the reasons I knew I would be a great teacher.”
During 10th, 11th and 12th grades, Williams was in The Inner Circle, Circle Arts Theatre’s touring youth company.
“Being a part of this company absolutely paved the way for me to become the actor, director, teacher, designer and technician that I am today,” she said. “Since it was children’s theatre, you couldn’t be big enough when it came to facial expression, physical expression, comedy and characters. Think SNL, but for kids. It was fantastic.”
Realizing she could combine her passion for teaching and her passion for theatre to become a theatre teacher, she went to The University of Texas at Austin and double majored in theatre and mathematics, earning certification to teach both.
“UT has a fantastic department for theatre teachers,” Williams said. “I could go on and on for hours about how great their program is. I sincerely use things that they taught me every single rehearsal or class that I have.”
After graduating in December 2001 she taught math and theatre in local schools for a few years. Then a position at Circle Arts Theatre opened up.
“And I’ve been back ‘home’ for more than 15 years now,” she said. “I started as the technical assistant, then technical director, and now I am the artistic/technical director.”
Because Williams wears so many hats, her love for theatre is multi-faceted.
“As an actor, I love it as an outlet for creativity and expression,” she said. “I love being able to become other people, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a bit, to find out what makes other people tick, to be able to feel what others feel if only for a moment.”
Directing brings a different type of joy.
“As a director, I love that theatre can bring people together — I mean this in so many ways,” she said.
For starters, a show can enlighten audience members and speak to them in a way that can honestly change the world, Williams explained. It can cause discussion and bring about change.
A show can also bring an audience together for just a couple of hours to escape from the world.
“Sometimes people seek that escape,” Williams said. “They go to the theatre so they can feel good, escape, tap their toes or laugh. It’s only for a couple hours, but for that short amount of time, the whole room has escaped to the same place together, and it’s magical.”
Theatre participants find a supportive, unifying atmosphere.
“A show can bring all different types of people together,” Williams said. “We are a community theatre. Our actors are from our community. For the couple of months that they spend during rehearsals and performances, they become a family. It’s almost always an unlikely family.”
That’s Williams’ favorite part.
“Everyone is here working on the same goal, so it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, liberal or conservative, experienced or new, have a PhD or dropped out of high school,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re new to town or lived here your whole life, if you’re in high school, have kids in high school or have grandkids in high school. Your age, race, gender or sexual orientation are not a problem. Everyone becomes a part of the theatre family.”
Throughout the years, Williams has had many occasions to be proud of herself and her theatre family.
“I’m so proud of myself for some of the roles I’ve played — be it because they were challenging or because I won the audience over or something else,” she said. “I’m proud of myself for choreographing my first musical when I was 16, for the first full-length show I directed when I was 23, for being able to get beautiful moments out of actors, for designing some beautiful sets, for being able to design sets in our super limited space, for learning how to paint even though that was never a skill that I had, for being able to climb ladders to adjust lights and curtains even though I’m deathly afraid of heights. And the list goes on.
“But realistically, the thing I am most proud of is going to be my students. I cry almost every time I watch my students perform. To know where they started, so see their growth — whether it be over the semester or over years of being in the classes — just fills my heart with such joy that the only way to get it out is through tears. I love my students. They are my kids and they make me so proud.”
Whenever her actors have stage jitters, Williams always gives them one piece of tried-and-true advice.
“Breathe! Everyone is nervous about something,” she said. “Some people are scared they will forget their lines, others that they will fall down, some are afraid they might do something wrong, others are just afraid of the audience. But the big thing to remember for all of these circumstances is to breathe. Know that the audience is on your side. They want you to succeed. The director has done everything to make you successful. So go out there and know that you can do this!”
The biggest problem Williams deals with is always picking a season, she said. “Every year we have to figure out that perfect balance of shows we want to do, shows our actors want to be in and shows our audiences want to see,” Williams said. “It’s hard! You can’t just do the ‘old standards’ that everybody knows and loves; you can’t just push the envelope and do controversial shows that spark debate; you can’t just do shows that the actors are dying to be in that nobody’s ever heard of or no one wants to see. It has to be this perfect combination.”
Additionally, the group has to be excited about the shows for an extended period of time.
“We have to live with each show for months at a time, so we have to be excited about each show so that we can have passion to make them the best they can possibly be,” Williams said. “Are they always hits? Of course not! We genuinely do our best every time, but that doesn’t mean that every show will be fantastic. And it doesn’t mean that everyone will like it — even if it is fantastic. But that’s the beauty of theatre. It’s objectively subjective.”
The coronavirus pandemic presented an entirely new set of challenges for Williams and the Circle Arts Theatre.
“We had to cancel our spring classes and our summer musical, ‘Mary Poppins,’” she said. “We ended up re-arranging so that our April show, ‘Love, Loss and What I Wore,’ went to June and our March show, ‘Firebringer,’ moved to July. Our hope is to be able to perform our scheduled fall shows as planned. However, we are having to play everything by ear.”
Part of the concern is how to safely seat guests. As of mid-June, the theatre was only approved for 25% capacity seating, with guidelines requiring every other row of seats to be blocked of and two empty seats between each party.
“When you realize that means we only have 30-50 people per show when we are ‘sold out,’ it’s not only heartbreaking but it’s eye opening, too,” Williams said. “It means that we can’t spend money on sets or costumes or props. We can’t have the production value that we normally would, because we can’t justify that cost when we will be losing money to perform shows.”
Circle Arts Theatre is a nonprofit organization that depends on ticket sales and donations in order to get to the next show.
“We have to pay for royalties, musicians, set, lights, props, costumes, and so on for each individual show but that doesn’t include our regular operating cost for the building, maintenance, staff, etc.,” Williams said. “So, yes, we will need help from the community. We will need donations so that we continue to bring live theatre, classes for kids, benefit nights to other nonprofits, touring shows to local elementary schools, plus culture and an artistic voice to New Braunfels.”
Through all its ups and downs, Williams said she loves what she does.
“It’s always changing — and yet, it’s all so familiar,” she said. “The same basic things have to be done for each show. But the fact that it’s a different show every couple of months means it’s always something new, something different. I love my co-workers and with a super supportive board of directors, I couldn’t ask for a better job.”