The Arthropologist

The great art outdoors: Everything's free but the Slurpee

The great art outdoors: Everything's free but the Slurpee

It's Miller time. Nah, not the beer, the city's beloved Miller Outdoor Theatre. Grab a Miller (or something a little more upscale if I were you), your grandmother's tablecloth, some munchies and head to the hill to take in the big scale art on the big stage.

It's a short window here with Houston's two seasons of not-so-hot and scorching colliding soon. If you want to enjoy outdoor art, the time is now.

Truthfully, I am usually the one sitting on an old copy of the Houston Press, waiting to be invited to your elaborate picnic. I also blame Miller for my Slurpee addiction. Did you know that a stage full of tappers — as in last season's thundering Theatre Under the Stars(TUTS)  production of 42nd Street — actually goes down better with a cone of that bright blue ice?

Cissy Segall Davis, Miller's managing director, has an eye for the kind of shows that work outdoors. "It's a large stage, you are not just playing to the seated area but the hill," Davis says. "The show has to be big and broad. A magic show just wouldn't work. It can't be too precious, or demand too much focus."

About the hill, it's six feet higher now. Miller's other recent makeovers include spiffy new seats (more of them too) a new sound system and better wheelchair accessibility.

With Arlo Guthrie opening the season last week, you might say Miller is stepping it up a bit. Plenty of this year's big-name offerings are touring shows that travel to paying theater goers after they leave us. Miller also partners with several local arts organizations such as Houston Ballet, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater(DWDT), The Metropolitan Dance Company, Dance of Asian America (DAA), Dance Source Houston (DSH), TUTS, Core Performance Company and Houston Shakespeare Festival.

Don't forget the Green

With more than 200 events scheduled in the next few months, Discovery Green is on its way to being a go-to destination for cool arts events. When Susanne Theis took the program director helm she figured that people living in downtown would be her main audience.

"I was wrong about that," Theis says. "People come from everywhere, it's a destination."

Theis has also developed an eye for art that works not only outdoors but amidst the dramatic backdrop of downtown Houston and the park's stunning features. "The show needs to have a conversation with the other elements in the park. Walter Hopps used to say that about hanging art. So I think about how a dance or music show might work with the fountain behind the stage.

It worked beautifully for Houston Ballet II. Scale matters."

If you want to get these two outdoor art mavens in a tizzy just mention the weather. "My stomach ties up in knots every time I see clouds," confesses Davis. "Still, I am amazed at the numbers we get when it's raining. There are some die hard fans out there."

Theis has learned a thing or two about weather management. "It's best to hold out as long as we can," she says. "We did that with Tilda Swinton at the closing of the Cinema Arts Festival and 400 people showed up to see Houston Ballet II and a screening of The Red Shoes."

Hanging Out

Both Davis and Theis are avid dance fans, so it's no surprise that the community loves them back. For any  Houston choreographer or dancer, the Miller stage is a rite of passage. Just ask aerialist Amy Ell of Vault who dangled 21 feet high in the air from  a special truss (fancy aerial rigging) designed for the Miller stage during  A Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance.

"I was scared but it was the first time ever that people applauded during a piece of mine," Ell says. "The next night they applauded before we even started. Exciting."

When the electricity went out during a Met dance show, the Miller staff scrambled to keep the lights on. "The audience never knew what happened," Mets director Michele Smith remembers. "The staff was amazing and we will never fully understand what kind of magic they performed that night to keep the show going."

Dance people feel at home at the eco-friendly Discovery Green too. Didn't I feel smug showing off the fabulous evening put on by DSH for all the visiting dance dignitaries during the national Dance/USA conference last June. Dance Houston director Andrea Cody just loves the Green and has a star-studded dance show planned for Friday featuring DWDT, DAA and Revolve Dance Company.

"Dance really works outside, and we have really enjoyed partnering with Dance Houston," Theis says.

Film also has the grand scale necessary to keep people focused. On April 16th you can catch Two Star Symphony,  Houston's much-adored indie string quartet, performing an original score live to the classic Harold Lloyd 1924 film Girl Shy. "It's kid friendly and something cool to do for date night.," Margaret Lejeune, a Two Star member, says. "It really is the perfect thing to do outside."

And if you want to really do it up, dine at The Grove beforehand.

Miller turns movie house on April 23th for a showing of Winged Migration as part of a big Earth Day celebration. Da Camera's Jazz in the Park with Bill Evans takes place the day before the movie. See what I mean. Big stage, big names.

So stop all that whining about the steep price of tickets. There's quality free stuff going on right now. If you act soon, you can catch Cats, which is on the Miller stage for the next two weekends. The Slurpee is under five bucks I promise.

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David Beebe & The Conrads open for Joe King Carrasco for a Tex-Mex Party on June 24 to end the Discovery Green Thursday Concert Series presented by Capital One Bank. Photo by Jay Lee
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Del Castillo rocked the hill one Sunday in the Fall of 2009 for Discovery Green’s Sundays in the Park weekly free concerts. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
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Solid Gold Hit machine SKYROCKET! performs on May 13 as part of Discovery Green’s Thursday Concert Series.
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Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park Photo by Leroy Gibbins
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Ray Wylie Hubbard, 7:30 p.m. April 24, Miller Outdoor Theatre
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Kelly Willis to play Miller Outdoor Theatre