Weekend Update: What is the State of the Arts in Houston?
A few weeks ago, I attended a play at Frenetic Theater on Houston's East side. Not knowing what it was about or bothering to ask friends who had arranged the outing, I wore dressy Saturday-night-out-on-the-town clothes.
When we got to the theater, we passed a cushy auditorium and were escorted into an adjoining warehouse with no air-conditioning, where we were locked in for the duration of the performance. The play, MK Ultra, featured stark white walls, disorienting strobe lights, interpretive modern dance and documentary clips of a controversial CIA human research program testing mind control. Although at times everyone in the audience appeared to be suffering from sensory overload, it made for a truely out-of-the-ordinary evening that I won't soon forget.
Just another night on Houston's eclectic arts scene.
Some outsiders who think of the city as a buttoned-up oil town are surprised at the abundance and variety of performing and visual arts productions, ranging from the traditional (The Alley's Summer Chills production of The Mousetrap) to the avant-garde ("Women in Experimental Music Series" at labotanica). In advance of the fall season, we thought it would be a good time to examine the State of the Arts in Houston.
What we are finding is that even in these less-than-stellar economic times, the Houston arts scene is surprisingly robust. Sure, it's a tough market out there with less disposable income and more outlets trying to break through the clutter. But tough times often breed creativity as artists try new things because they figure they have little to lose. And new social media makes getting the word out easier.
Throughout this month we'll ask leaders for their assessment of where Houston stands in the arts and what fall offerings they have coming up that are new or special. We'll look at the city's arts inferiority complex — one newcomer vows that we're a lot better in such areas as dance and art than we think we are — and our sometimes mindless boosterish enthusiasm. (Sure, the city's comparatively low cost of living and entrepreneurial spirit have been a boon for the arts, but does anyone really believe the often touted statistic that Houston has more theater seats than any city outside of New York? I'm sure Chicago and San Francisco would disagree.)
We also plan to showcase some small arts groups that may not get a lot of recognition but make the city so much more interesting. And we'll gather picks of top fall arts events you just can't miss.
We're also keeping our fingers crossed that a new movie, Mao's Last Dancer, is a hit because it may change some outsiders' views about the local arts scene. It tells the story of Li Cunxin, the Chinese dancer who spent a summer with the Houston Ballet in the first official exchange of artists between the United States and China in more than 30 years before deciding to defect in 1981, launching an international incident. Li went on to a stellar 16-year career with the company.
The movie, which opens at the River Oaks Theatre Aug. 20, was shown to a preview audience of Li's friends and supporters Saturday night at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He had flown in from his home in Australia, arriving just before the movie started.
Afterwards, Li said his story might not have unfolded in the same way — or ended so happily — had he first come to another U.S. city.
"And I thank you for that," he said to loud applause from the audience.
Rick Ferguson, director of the Houston Film Commission, believes the movie is a "wonderful commercial for Houston" because it dispels some prevailing stereotypes. "Ballet and intrigue are not something that people on the national stage associate with Houston," he said.
Maybe now they will.