Art shuffle

Divergence Diva moves on: Three theater companies find a new home at Spring Street Studios

Divergence Diva moves on: Three theater companies find a new home at Spring Street Studios

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Divergence Music and Arts will morph into Studio 101, a collaboration by three local theater companies. Photo by Dave Nickerson
JJ Johnston
John Johnston, founder of Classical Theatre Company (left) with Philip Lehl of Stark Naked Theatre Company.
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Kim Tobin-Lehl, co-founder, Stark Naked Theatre Company Photo by Kerry Beyer
News_Big Dark Sky_Jennifer Decker_Ashley Allison
Jennifer Decker of Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company Photo by Anthony Rathbun
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JJ Johnston
News_Nancy_Kim Tobin
News_Big Dark Sky_Jennifer Decker_Ashley Allison

Theater is both an art form and a physical place where thespian devotees retreat to bask in the fantastical world of show business. As such, it's difficult for smaller theater groups to be taken seriously when they lack a stage they can call home. And procuring a home is something that almost every company hopes for at some point in their growth. 

In Houston, where land is inexpensive and space is abundant, it's incongruous that there's a dearth of suitable venues. That deficit inhibits small nonprofits from being nimble enough to make changes in programming as their seasons evolve and financials become evident. Scheduling is problematic, revenues can't be forecasted and fundraising becomes even more challenging.

That's why when a space became available at the artistically burgeoning Spring Street Studios, located in the First Ward in the heart of the Lower Washington Cultural Art District, three companies hurried and joined forces to secure what was previously Divergence Music and Arts Studio. 

 "Having a home is beneficial for branding consistency and building a loyal audience," says John Johnston, the founder of Classical Theatre Company.

Mildred's Umbrella Theater, Stark Naked Theatre and Classical Theatre Company rebranded the hall as Studio 101 when they took over the remainder of the lease last week from Divergence Vocal Theater's artistic director Misha Penton, who originally carved out the venue as the structure was in development. 

"Over the 10 years we've been in existence, there have been opportunities to settle on a space, but something always fell through," says Jennifer Decker, Mildred's artistic director."Whether it was money or timing, we lost each opportunity or let it go when it didn't seem like a good fit."

It was the intimate, boutique-style ambiance, in addition to superior acoustics and insulation that charmed Kim Tobin-Lehl, co-founder of Stark Naked. 

"The feel of the space is aligned with part of Stark Naked Theatre's aesthetic," Tobin-Lehl explains. "It's important for audiences to connect with what the character is feeling. That truth, where nothing is hidden, is best conveyed in small, up-close-and-personal spaces."

In the past, Classical Theater Company has presented productions in five different locations.

 ​To render Studio 101 suitable for theatrical performances, $30,000 worth of improvements are needed.

"There's no theatergoer that doesn't associate your company with a physical theater, " says John Johnston, Classical Theatre founder. "It's the first question they ask. Having a home is beneficial for branding consistency and building a loyal audience. As you come to know the particulars of the theater, being familiar with the space also helps in planning and reducing production costs."

To render Studio 101 suitable for theatrical performances, $30,000 worth of improvements are needed, including installing a light grid, movable risers and chairs to accommodate 99 patrons, adding dressing rooms with a tech booth above them, running more electrical wiring and building a masonite stage. Each company has pledged to amass a third of the capital.

"We run Mildred's on a shoestring budget," Decker says. "Using IndieGoGo, a crowdfunding online platform, we've already raised $3,000 in just a few days with the majority of contributions coming in at the $50 and $100 level."

Stark Naked has a matching funds commitment from Tony James, president and CEO of the Blackstone Group in New York, where Tobin-Lehl worked prior to moving to Houston.

 "It's our hope that this collaboration creates more visibility and awareness of culture in Houston," Tobin-Lehl says. "Because the city is so spread out, creating compact art environments like Studio 101 will help all of us gather support."

When the renovations are completed, a budget will be set up to operate and maintain Studio 101, while in the meantime, Tobin-Lehl, who leases her own space at Spring Street, will take on management responsibilities. When not in use, the theater will be available for rental at competitive rates.

The companies have distinct voices. Classical Theatre focuses on re-envisioning timeless pieces, Stark Naked nurtures an aesthetic of truth and vulnerability in acting, and Mildred's spotlights bold, innovative and new theater works. Each will put on three, 10-performance productions in a season.

"It's our hope that this collaboration creates more visibility and awareness of culture in Houston," Tobin-Lehl says. "Because the city is so spread out, creating compact art environments like Studio 101 will help all of us gather support."

During opening nights, the organizers are working with Spring Street Studios' developer and landlord Jon Deal to encourage other tenants — in the mix are Bill Arning, Anne Jensen, CuraYoga Studios, Amy Ell's aerial dance company Vault and Black Swan Screenprinting — to welcome theater goers into their workspace.  

When Penton opened Divergence Music, her expansive efforts showed. Working tirelessly with friends and family to lay wide-plank hardwoods, paint, set up lighting to create a bohemian lounge-like atmosphere, the decision to move forward wasn't easy.

"My artistic life is excitingly shifting as I move into several recording and video projects," Penton tells CultureMap. "These projects, and others in development, have encouraged me to reaffirm the cultivation of expansiveness, freedom and flexibility in my creative life, and to embrace the journey of my artistic process, wherever it may lead."