Great theater can entertain, but it can also provoke us into pondering the profound questions of life and reality. Only in always dynamic and transforming Houston does our thoughtful, reflective theater spawn this existential query: Hey, where the hell did the stage go? I’m sure it was in this spot last year.
Like the Bayou City that brings it to life, Houston theater is always evolving, but in the past two years we’ve seen an unprecedented wave of new buildings, renovations and changes in venues and names. I see a lot of theater every year, but, as the 2016-2017 theatrical season begins, even I’m confused.
So perhaps it might be a good time to recount all the changes, if only so we don’t end up at the wrong building the next time we head out to see a new drama, comedy or musical.
Reveling in Renovations and New Spaces
2015-2016 was the season the local theater community showed what new stages and multimillion dollar renovations can do for a production as Queensbury settled into its new facilities, the MATCH opened its doors and the Alley Theatre and Main Street Theater moved back into their renovated spaces.
Since the tear down and build up, the Alley has expanded its programming while creating a more intimate experience for the audience at the Hubbard Theatre. Main Street’s new stage gives the actors more room to roam along with state-of-the-art technical abilities.
Meanwhile, the MATCH has enticed some beloved theater companies to either settle down for good or to move out of their old space to a spiffy new one. Theater LaB and Catastrophic Theatre now call the MATCH home, with all the upgrades that entails. While Main Street is enjoying its improved digs in the Rice Village, the company moved its immensely popular Theater for Youth performances to the MATCH.
The MATCH also became a space boon for smaller and new companies like Dirt Dog Theatre and Next Iteration, which might only have one or two plays or projects (like play readings or an evening of shorts) scheduled for a season. Actors and playwrights with a dream but no company affiliation can also stage a one-and-done production.
Obsidian Theater, while not that new, has also given smaller companies a place to play while also producing its own shows. The Landing Theatre Company used to perform out of Obsidian and Standing Room Only Productions, which has presented some of edgy-fun musicals each season continues to make its home there.
The new (two-month-old) kid on the block is the Rec Room, a performance venue that just opened right across from Minute Maid Park. Rec already has produced original and rather wondrously strange programming like the Dead Rock Star Sing-a-Long Club. The space will also become permanent or temporary home for other companies and performing organizations. BETA Theater runs its improv classes out of Rec Room and Horse Head Theatre — so untethered from traditional theater spaces it’s part of their mission statement — will produce its next project The Judgment of Fools at Rec in October.
And still the theater construction isn’t complete. Just in time for its 50th anniversary, the A.D. Players is building a new $18 million venue at 5420 Westheimer Road. The company will stage its last two productions, Smoke on the Mountain and the holiday O Little Town of Bagels, Teacakes and Hamburger Buns in the Grace Theater, its home for 37 years, before moving into the 450-seat, Jeannette and L.M. George Theater in 2017.
Playing a Game of Theatrical Musical Chairs
If these new buildings and renovations have brought change to specific companies, they’ve also sent ripples throughout the rest of the Houston theater community pool. The MATCH in particular seems to have caused a big splash of venue exchanges.
One of the first space hoppers was Classical Theatre Company which two years ago slipped into the Chelsea Market theater space, originally home to Main Street’s Youth productions.
Last year, the Landing Theatre took over Catastrophic’s old space at the Docks, and settling into a home of its own seems to be giving it a new lease to expand its season and embrace new projects like their recently announced 12 new short plays Redemption Series this month.
Not even MATCH is safe from these venue trade-ins. The year-old Lott Entertainment Presents bought to Houston some of the most innovative performing artists for special, limited engagements. They're also the first presenters in the U.S to attempt to create the Joe’s Pub experience outside of New York. Lott debuted its first season at the MATCH, giving the Box 3 the feel of a night club, but now it too is going a roaming. Lott moves to the Neuhaus Stage at the Alley Theatre (while remaining a separate entity from the Alley) and is bringing Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, of Kiki and Herb fame, with them to open their season in October.
And Who Are You, Again?
To more thoroughly bewilder matters, some companies decided 2016 was a very good year to change their moniker even if they stayed in the same space.
While Stark Naked Theatre’s name was always metaphorical when it came to its acting, after too many NSFW Google search results, founders Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl rechristened Stark as 4th Wall Theatre Company.
At the Hobby Center, one of the big changes Sheldon Epps brought to Theatre Under the Stars was the decision that TUTS Underground wasn’t a very good name for its Zilkha Hall series. Underground first debuted in 2013 with the tagline: No Revivals. No Dead Authors, and while the series itself isn’t dead, the name is. TUTS announced The Rocky Horror Picture Show as its first production in Zilkha, but with no new name for the series, I’m going with The Series Formally Known as TUTS Underground, until they come up with one.
Another big renaming of 2016 was the mostly off-Broadway musical focused Bayou City Theatrics which took on the name of its space, Kaleidoscope Theatre, around the same time that they announced that Bruce Lumpkin, former TUTS artistic director, would be joining the creative team. Unfortunately, that stage they made their own on Main Street seems to recently put up for rent. No word yet on whether Kaleidoscope will also soon be space hopping.
A Little Needed Continuity
With all the renovations, relocations and rebranding, a few theater companies are thankfully staying put for the immediate future, or at least the 2016-2017 season. So special kudos to Stages, Ensemble, Mildred’s Umbrella, Broadway at Hobby and Theatre Southwest for remaining (always musically, dramatically or comically as the play maybe) in their fine theaters with their well known names.
We love you guys, so please no major transformations for at least a year.