As the rest of the city's theater scene descends into a summer slumber, there's been a buzz of activity on the campuses of both the University of Houston and the University of Houston-Downtown. We never quite hear enough about what goes on right under our noses in the city's higher education arts world.
These programs play a vital role in populating local theater groups with the next generation of actors, directors and designers. They stand at the forefront of the city's cultural future. Let's give them some deserved attention.
If you ask Alley Theatre veteran David Rainey what he did this summer, he can respond, "Oh, I started a theater company." And that he did. The Landing Theatre Company, based at University of Houston-Downtown, is the city's newest troupe. Rainey named it The Landing Theatre Company for a variety of reasons.
"Allen's Landing is the city's birthplace, a launching place, where goods came into the city. It seems a perfect place to take the audience on an adventure," says Rainey, an adjunct professor at UHD. "The idea is to mix students with professionals along the lines of the Williamstown Theatre Festival."
Rainey selected Tennessee Williams' classic family drama, The Glass Menagerie, as his inaugural play because it sets the tone of what he hopes to accomplish.
"I wanted to do something in the American canon of substance. I have loved this play for a long time and know it really well," Rainey says. "Plus, it fits into our theater. That was important to choose a play that is suited for our venue."
Rainey enlisted the talents of scenic designer Frank Vela for this first show.
"The O'Kane Theatre is such a great little space. I realized how much more space I really had outside just the playing area," Vela says. "The space is set up so that you can utilize every ounce of floor space as possible. It's such a great space to design."
UH-Downtown's theater program is in growth mode, building momentum, faculty, and now a resident company. For the past three decades, Dr. Thomas Lyttle has been running a one-man show.
"He started the theater program at UHD over 30 years ago and built it from the ground up almost by himself," Rainey says. "He has had the foresight to start building the faculty with a balance of both academic and working professionals. He's done an amazing job.
"What was once just a minor in is now a BAFA with courses in business, marketing along with theater classes. This is a very well-rounded degree program we will be produce a self sufficient student who could go on and start a theater company."
Down the road, Rainey imagines producing a four to six play season, keeping students and off-duty local actors busy.
"It's really important for universities to have professional entities attached to them like Yale. We are trying to build that idea from the ground up."
A simple, "Hey Steven, what's up?" email to Steven Wallace, UH's director of Theatre & Dance, yielded an enthusiastic response. Wallace was bursting with pride to tell me about his first graduating class of students from the Master of Arts program, especially designed for working theater teachers. UH's degree program, one of only three of its kind in the country, allows theater teachers to study during over the course of three summers, sharpening their skills and rekindling their love of theater. The program is affordable, and more importantly, doable.
Wallace is well aware that high school theater teachers can feel isolated and separated from their profession. The demands of teaching, producing plays and participating in Texas's UIL one-act play competition can be all-consuming. It's frankly hard to stay in touch with today's theater world while doing all that.
"We want to rejuvenate them by giving them new tools, exposing them to the latest information in the theater industry in a non-intimidating setting," Wallace says.
This is Wallace's baby and he deserves to be proud.
"Teachers get a chance to go back to college, work with top professionals, direct and design," he says, about his hands-on curriculum. "It's not just lectures."
Faculty is culled from UH's finest teachers, including two time Tony Award nominated designer Kevin Ridgon and Alley veteran Todd Waite. Travel is an important component because there's nothing quite like a field trip to get the theater juices pumping. The first summer students head to New York, the second, Chicago, and they wrap up their final summer with a whirlwind theater blast marathon in London.
With only space for 16 students per year, the program is small enough to create meaningful relationships between the faculty and other students. Theater teachers are often in competition with each other and rarely have the time to network and talk shop.
"There's a real hunger for learning and connection among these teachers," Wallace says. "They are making life-long friends. Who knows some of their students may end up coming here."
Three years ago, 16 entered the program. Later this month, all 16 will graduate and go back to their eager students with their heads full and hearts open — ready to set their students on fire again with the magic of live theater.