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Jack Austin, right, and Mary Berry, theater specialist, work on the set of a high school production that was painted by school volunteers Monday at Bamberg's Stable Theater.
Jack Austin, right, and Mary Berry, theater specialist, work on the set of a high school production that was painted by school volunteers Monday at Bamberg's Stable Theater. (Rick Emert / S&S)
Jack Austin, right, and Mary Berry, theater specialist, work on the set of a high school production that was painted by school volunteers Monday at Bamberg's Stable Theater.
Jack Austin, right, and Mary Berry, theater specialist, work on the set of a high school production that was painted by school volunteers Monday at Bamberg's Stable Theater. (Rick Emert / S&S)
Jack Austin has revived community theater in Bamberg, Germany, and turned it into an award-winning program.
Jack Austin has revived community theater in Bamberg, Germany, and turned it into an award-winning program. (Rick Emert / S&S)

BAMBERG, Germany — Three years ago, Jack Austin, an architect with 20 years experience, chucked it all to follow his wife to Bamberg, where she had accepted a job as an occupational therapist.

And, boy, has that decision changed things at Bamberg’s Stable Theater.

Austin became the theater’s programming and entertainment director two years ago. Since then, the theater has won 18 “Topper” awards. The awards, sponsored by U.S. Army Europe’s entertainment division and named after its Tournament of Plays, recognize the best in theater among U.S. military communities in Europe.

“The awards really go to the community,” Austin said. “It is amazing how many people here come forward and volunteer to work with the theater. They are so incredibly talented.”

Additionally, the theater, which wasn’t even on the radar a few years ago, won the Irving Berlin Award for Programming Excellence during the recent 2004 One-act Play Festival in Heidelberg.

“I was utterly stunned,” Austin said of the award. “To be put in a class with some of the stage veterans who have accepted it in the past is incredible. I think we have just been picking the right shows.

“My predecessor [David Doherty] walked into a quagmire and really started to turn this theater around. I built on his work and tried to create an atmosphere that invites people to participate.”

While Austin is quick to give the credit to others, the theater had won only a handful of awards in the preceding years.

In 2003, under Austin, the theater’s production of the musical “Into the Woods” earned 34 Topper Award nominations and won 10. This year, “Honk” received 26 nominations and won eight awards. Both shows won awards as best musical, and Austin shared awards with other crewmembers for sound design and lighting design.

In his first year, Austin doubled the number of full-scale productions, and organized a variety of one-night events — such as “Bamberg Idol,” modeled after “American Idol” — as well as coordinating Department of Defense shows held at the theater.

“I realized that with all of the deployments, we couldn’t do only the productions, with casts of up to 40 people and eight to 12 weeks of preparation,” Austin said.

“We worked on some one-shot deals. Single night events like the ‘Bamberg Idol,’ which we are doing again this year.”

The theater also hosts high school productions put on by the drama club, which Austin had a hand in forming.

Last year, Austin approached the 1st Infantry Division Band, based in Bamberg, to contribute to the theater for musicals and music lessons. “I stood before their formation and talked about how they could help us,” Austin said. “Ten of them showed up right away and many of them won awards for ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Honk.’ ”

The theater’s only other permanent staff member, theater specialist Mary Berry, said she enjoys being part of Austin’s team.

“Working with Jack and with the volunteers from the community, the teamwork involved is exciting,” she said.

Austin didn’t walk into the top position at the theater without experience. He had 10 years of musical training on keyboard, guitar and base guitar. He played in stage bands and wedding bands, and played piano in cocktail bars.

As an architect, he designed theaters and performing arts centers in Philadelphia. In Bamberg, Austin is designing a theater program that appeals to all ages in the community.

“I really like the variety of programming that Jack has brought to the community,” said Cheryl Boujnida, a spokeswoman for the 279th Base Support Battalion in Bamberg. “He gets a lot of different age groups involved in the productions, and picks productions that will get kids and adults involved.

“When I first arrived in Bamberg several years ago, nobody knew where the Stable Theater was. He has really put the theater on the map in this community.”

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