Hitting the big 4-0 might signal a year to go on a crazy adventure, or perhaps experiment with new experiences, but as Stages Repertory Theatre enters its fourth decade, the company sets out to do more of what they’ve been doing all along — bringing shows a little crazy, adventurous and new to Houston audiences.
From its beginnings in a downtown basement to its place as the third largest theater company in Houston, Stages has always defied easy theatrical categorizations. Every season, we expect the odd jukebox musical and light comedy, but we also know we’ll likely see edgy Off-Broadway plays before they’re produced anywhere else in the region.
When I recently spoke with Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin about the company’s milestone, he described their seasons as eclectic and diverse. McLaughlin has been at Stages for 17 years, first as managing and then as artistic director. Yet, looking back at the company’s history, he gives much credit to this variety-in-storytelling aesthetic to founding artistic director Ted Swindley and Rob Bundy who became AD in the mid-'90s.
“Ted Swindley is blindingly passionate about storytelling. He cares about story and engagement,” McLaughlin explained. “Rob’s real interest was the edgy. His work was incredibly provocative. He focused on the alternative. I think I’ve taken that base, kept that kind of caliber of edge and then expanded back into the popular stuff because that’s just who I am.”
McLaughlin makes no excuses for the varying of crowd-pleasing shows and the much more unconventional plays that alternate on a season lineup and are sometimes presented simultaneously in Stages’ two theater spaces near Allen Parkway.
“Why should I assume that everyone who comes to theater has the same bandwidth?” he pondered. “People keep asking how can we fill our theaters. Well, maybe we can reflect the attitudes and tastes of the whole of the city. I’m not suggesting that we should affirm every single taste, but I’m suggesting that’s who we are as a community. If we’re going to come together as a community, then the stories have to reflect the memories, attitudes, concerns, and joys of the community.”
A Tale of Two Plays
Illustrating this wide-bandwidth philosophy, McLaughlin gave me two examples of plays he directed in the last few years, the always popular Always…Patsy Cline, which was created by Swindley in 1988 and McLaughlin brought back for this 40th season, and Aaron Posner’s award-winning Stupid Fucking Bird, a Houston critics’ (including this one) favorite in 2015.
“I love Patsy as much as I love Stupid Fucking Bird,” explained McLaughlin. “I was very fulfilled directing both of those production. In trying to figure out what’s the depth of the humanity in there, Patsy actually has more challenges as a jukebox musical. It compels me to think more about the humanity of the story and to figure out what did it mean to be a woman circa 1961 in a difficult marriage.”
“I think all stories are important because all of us are filled with a thousand stories. If we start to say: ‘I’m only going to tell this kind because this is the most important kind,’ then we’re diminishing the whole storytelling idea.”
A Year-Long 40th Birthday Party
Staying true to Stages’ variety roots, McLaughlin feels this 2017-2018 season honors both traditions and innovations in storytelling. Along with Patsy, he’s bringing back another hugely requested show, The Great American Trailer Park Musical for spring 2018. Meanwhile, Patsy has been joined this summer with Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, which debuts a second cast of actor/musicians as the original cast is still in New York, the run extended for a third time.
“Patsy and Woody sum up the season in some ways. Patsy is this feel-good celebration of female friendship and great music. Woody is the incredibly complex elevation of a great artist and music with bite and weight to it,” describes McLaughlin. “They demonstrate the capacity of the same form to be bent in different ways.”
For the innovative side of the season, Stages offers three world premieres as well as inaugurating an annual Latina/o Festival, Sin Muros.
In October, Stages serves up Balls, which McLaughlin calls the “the biggest artistic risk” he’s ever taken. The play’s creators the New York-based, avant-garde One Year Lease Theater Company contacted Stages wanting a Houston co-producer to world premiere this experimental retelling of the 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in the city were the match took place.
For the 10th anniversary of Stages’ holiday Panto series, they’ll present again their first, Panto Cinderella and will pair it with the brand new holiday musical A Midnight Clear. The Stages board commissioned McLaughlin to write the show with David Nehls after the success of their I’ll Be Home for Christmas in Denver last year.
“It’s a little bit of a love letter from the Stage audience from me,” explained McLaughlin of the musical influenced by his mother’s own experience as orphan and her perspective that “We should not assume that everyone feels great this time of year.”
Ringing in the New Year
Stages rings in the new year with a new Latina/Latino play festival which includes workshop readings of three works in development from Texas playwrights and the world premiere of Josh Inocéncio’s solo show Purple Eyes. The full production of Philip Boehm’s Alma en venta (Soul on Sale) runs in conjunction with the festival.
McLaughlin has been working to create a Latina/o play festival for many years.
“It rose out of this question about are we really diverse enough. Are we making intentional commitment to changing the core of what we are doing?” he said about the festival’s origins. The 40th anniversary season became the perfect launch year.
In 2018, look for Ann, with Sally Edmundson as the late, great governor. Also in the innovative mix are two regional debuts: the powerful We are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia and Jesse Eisenberg’s play (yes that one) The Revisionist.
The season ends with another world premiere, the science fiction drama, Replica, by Mickey Fisher, a playwright probably best known for creating television shows like Extant and Mars.
As for what lies beyond 40, McLaughlin jokes there are always hopes and plans in the works, if nothing else then for new carpeting in the lobby.
“I’m curious to see what’s ahead. Theater is transformative and it must always transform. I’m intrigued by how things always transform. Bring it, that’s my response to change.”