Eric Groten, a partner in Environmental & Natural Resources at V&E, and his wife Maria will be honored later this year for their work with Austin’s ZACH Theatre at the theater’s annual Red, Hot & Soul gala. “Eric and Maria have been involved in every aspect of ZACH Theatre,” said ZACH Artistic Director Dave Steakley. “If you look into the very heart of ZACH, you will find Eric and Maria always present.” After we learned that they were being honored, V&E+ asked Eric to tell us about his and his wife’s journey with ZACH. Below, in his own words, Eric shares the story of how he and Maria became involved with ZACH and how it’s immeasurably enriched their lives.
“The younger children never met Andrew and Grace, but they feel like they know them thanks in part to how the ZACH Theatre helps us honor their memory.”
Today, “tragedy” and “comedy” connote sad and funny stories, respectively. But those connotations are relatively recent. For most of the history of drama and poetry, from ancient Greece at least through Shakespeare, the difference was all in the ending: A tragedy meant a story ending sadly; a comedy, a story ending happily.
The story of my involvement at ZACH Theatre in Austin began with tragedy but now is in a very long run as comedy.
Before we get to the drama, a few words about the stage on which it’s set. Founded in 1932 as Austin Civic Theatre, ZACH Theatre is the longest continuously running theater company in the state of Texas, and one of the ten oldest in the country. The company was renamed Zachary Scott Theatre Center in 1968 in honor of Austin-raised, Academy Award-nominated film star, Zachary Scott. In 1972, the 230-seat Kleberg Theatre opened, and in the late 1980’s, ZACH built the Whisenhunt Theatre, a new 130-seat theatre-in-the-round.
In 2012, the 420-seat Topfer Theatre opened. This new LEED-certified facility houses a proscenium stage with orchestra pit, fly tower, trapped floor, stage automation, and adjustable acoustics, a donor lounge with the best view of Austin in Austin, and several art pieces commissioned for the venue. The shows on its stage are produced by the company, not imported road shows, and it incubates a lot of new work. And all of this happens on a leafy campus at the crossroads of Austin, where Lamar Boulevard crosses Lady Bird Lake.
So how did my wife Maria and I come to play a role in the ZACH story?
Let’s start with the tragedy: My children from my first marriage, Andrew and Grace, died in a fiery small plane crash with their mother on Mother’s Day in May 2001, at a tumbledown air strip in Leakey, Texas. Andrew was 10, Grace 5. The night before the crash, with my kids at their mother’s house and Maria’s kids from her first marriage (Ruel and Emma) at their dad’s, Maria and I took the night off to attend a production of a new musical, Jouet, written by one of Austin’s quiet gems, Allen Robertson, and directed by Dave Steakley, who remains ZACH’s Producing Artistic Director to this day.
In the musical, the title character Jouet — played by Meredith McCall — spends her whole life jet-setting around the world, from birth as the daughter of a glamorous celebrity performer to becoming one herself. It ends, inevitably, with her death in a plane crash. The show and its music resonated that night with both Maria and me. We went home with the cast recording.
In the maelstrom days that immediately followed the phone call that no one ever wants or expects, Maria happened to have the soundtrack playing in her car, and walked into the house weeping from Jouet’s words in the musical’s triumphant Finale:
Hope in the dark, find a new road.
Hold to a faith and all the rootlessness
Embracing the flame that says you might finally find home.
Those words, and others in Jouet, expressed perfectly our feelings in the wake of finally succeeding in our struggles to build a new family from the pieces of two others, of losing all of that in a phone call, and of leaning on our faith in the eternal to make sense of it.
Artists — or at least good ones — record their own revelations, never sure and usually without any expectation about what those revelations will mean for others. Maria and I felt compelled to let Allen and Meredith and Dave know that their work played a big role in releasing our grief in those early days. Their heartfelt and faith-felt replies made us realize that, in ZACH, we’d found at least one Earthly place we could call home.
In fact, over the last 20-something years, ZACH hasn’t just been home, but it’s served, effectively, as a church for Maria and me and our family. Church is a place that you go to worship, to serve, to be served, to reinforce faith in God and man, to make community with those outside your own. And to tithe. ZACH is all of that for us.
It was only natural for us to give back — and we did, each taking on active roles at the theater as board trustees, committee chairs and more. I served as Board president during years of very positive changes for ZACH. As I used to say in my public remarks, “ZACH has all this talent and relatively few resources. I have all of these resources and relatively little talent. The universe needs these imbalances to equalize.”
During my time as board president, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to purchase some adjacent property for use as production and rehearsal space. ZACH also launched the initiative that lead to the 2012 commissioning of the 420-seat Topfer Theatre. But the best decision made during my tenure as Board President was the hiring of Managing Director Elisbeth Challener, who remains in that role today. In her many years in that role, the size of the ZACH enterprise has more than tripled. Like most successful institutions, ZACH has a very long history of having the right people in the right place at the right time, and it is so fortunate to have its current leadership team to navigate through the COVID-19 tempest.
Speaking of the right people in the right place . . . I may have gotten the title of board president, but it’s been a team effort from the beginning. Maria has been by far my most important contribution to ZACH. She’s managed some of the theater company’s biggest fundraisers and later joined the board herself, shortly after I finished my second term.
As we’ve watched the theater grow, we have also formed treasured friendships with the leadership, the staff, the artists, and other patrons. It’s a diverse community in every respect: socioeconomically, racially, politically, spiritually. We’ve gotten to connect with people whom we otherwise wouldn’t have. The ZACH is a meeting tent, and that’s hard to find these days.
I’m happy to note that at V&E, meanwhile, my love for the ZACH Theatre proved contagious. The firm became a regular sponsor of ZACH’s annual gala, which raises money for scholarships to ZACH’s training academy. And in 2014, another V&E attorney became part of the theater’s leadership, when V&E appellate partner Mike Heidler was selected to join ZACH’s board. Mike has also produced several shows at the theater company, including “A Christmas Carol.”
I was touched when Mike said he was inspired by my work with the theater. “As a younger lawyer looking ahead to see what my career would look like in 10 years and in 20 years, I really wanted to do what you were doing, which is be active in the community, but especially in the arts, because I have a real passion for the arts,” he told me. “So you paved the way for me and for other younger attorneys and set an example of how an attorney can have a vibrant law practice while being active in the community and in the arts.”
While Maria and I have been busy with the theater, we have also made time for family. We had two children together, joining Ruel and Emma. In 2002, exactly a year to the day after we lost Andrew and Grace, along came Grayson. (He’s now about to enroll as an engineering student at Virginia Tech.) And about a year and half later, Lily completed the family. The younger children never met Andrew and Grace, but they feel like they know them thanks in part to how the ZACH Theatre helps us honor their memory. The street in front of the theater is named “Groten Family Circle.”
And there’s your happy ending.