There’s a new creative sheriff in town at Theatre Under the Stars, but his name might be familiar to Houston musical theater lovers. Last month, award-winning director Bruce Lumpkin was named artistic director of TUTS. CultureMap recently checked in with Lumpkin to see how he’s settling into his new role and to catch a glimpse of his vision for the future of TUTS.
Lumpkin, who previously served as a director at Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia for 16 years and also has directed productions around the nation and the world, is no stranger to Houston or TUTS. He was born and raised here and first began directing at Humphreys School of Musical Theatre in its early days. Most recently he directed Miss Saigon and White Christmas for TUTS.
He’s excited to return to Houston and hometown audience, believing theater offered all over Houston is of “such high quality” that audiences “have become educated and intelligent in their taste of what they want to see.”
While Lumpkin did not have a hand in choosing the 2012-2013 season, his fingerprints will be all over the TUTS-produced shows.
While Lumpkin did not have a hand in choosing the 2012-2013 season, his fingerprints will be all over the TUTS-produced shows as he has already begun picking the shows’ artistic staffs, with input from TUTS president John Breckenridge.
TUTS seasons are usually a mixture of self-produced musicals and national touring shows. For the 2012-2013 season, TUTS will be producing Camelot, Spamalot and Man of La Mancha especially for its Houston audience, while opening and closing the season with the touring productions of Jekyll & Hyde and Flashdance, respectively.
Though Lumpkin did not pick this lineup, he says “I think the idea, the smart idea, of putting Camelot and Spamalot in the same season is really quite brilliant. They are two shows that are so totally different in their content and yet the same. And then [we’re] putting Man of La Mancha in the middle of that, which is beautiful classic love story.”
Lumpkin is already thinking about the “long process” of selecting shows for 2013-2014 season. “Trying to find what is the right mix of home-produced shows for our audience is always a struggle to try to keep in touch with what they want to see. That’s why we do the audience survey and spend so much time going over that with our staff,” he says.
While the 45-year-old theater company has a long and illustrious history, Lumpkin realizes that no artistic director can afford to relax in these challenging economic times. One issue theater organizations of all sizes around the country must contend with is how to keep loyal season subscribers while reaching out to that next generation and new demographic.
"Your loyal subscribers of the future are the 17, 18, 19 years olds, and what they want to see — they’re certainly not season ticket holders yet —but what they want to see is not necessarily what their parents want to see," Lumpkin says. "I have an 18-year-old and I know that from my kid’s point of view that the type of theater that my child wants to see, although I love it, is not necessarily the type of theater my audience would want to see.”
Lumpkin believes to expand the audience base sometimes TUTS needs to go smaller. “One of the things we’re talking about, that we’re very excited about, is alternate space," he says.
He has come up with a bit of a paradoxical solution to this problem. He believes to expand the audience base sometimes TUTS needs to go smaller. “One of the things we’re talking about, that we’re very excited about, is alternate space. We’re actually talking about doing, in addition to our regular season, eventually doing some shows next door in Zilkha,” he explains.
Hobby Center has two theater spaces — the 2,650-seat Sarofim Hall and the 500-seat Zilkha Hall. TUTS uses Zilkha for student productions from Humphreys School, but not for their main season. Lumpkin’s idea is to keep the same number of big musicals in the main season, but to add some smaller shows with a “different flavor” to run in Zilkha.
He believes utilizing the smaller hall would allow TUTS to do the kind of plays the organization “could never do on our big stage because of the size of the shows themselves.” Using Zilkha might actually open up their range of choices for the season since there are many new, innovative musicals that would just never work in a big venue because they were written and created for smaller spaces.
Lumpkin gives the example of the edgy musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which Generations Theatre Company recently gave its Houston premiere, as the kind of show that would not work in a big hall like Sarofim, but would work in Zilkha. And this type of smaller show might be what some younger audiences are looking for.
“People who don’t want to see Camelot might want to see something we’re doing in the small theater. We’re certainly going to entertain that idea and introduce it slowly at first, but it’s something we’re definitely talking about doing,” he says.
“Shared productions or co-productions, as we call them, are something that we’re really working on for the future," he says.
Lumpkin’s other long-term goal for TUTS is to prove that creativity loves company.
“Shared productions or co-productions, as we call them, are something that we’re really working on for the future," he says. "Theater in itself around America has taken a real hit over the last decade. A lot of theaters have closed. There’s less money to spend around the country.
"We have hope of getting theaters that do the same sort of thing that we do to share in productions (where) we can share the sets, the costumes, the lights, the actors, the directors. Share the cost of that show, which will make for a better show, and then be able to play in both of our venues. It’s hard to organize all of that but we’re working on it."
TUTS entered into this type of co-production in the past, including just last year with Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey for the musical Curtains. "There are so many ways of going about this, but it is the future I think. I feel really strongly about that. Sharing theatre instead of being in competition with everybody is really the answer, not only just in Houston but in the country as well,” he says.
For Lumpkin, ideas like shared productions and adding new, smaller productions to coming seasons is the future state of the arts for Theatre Under the Stars.
His final vision? “I just want to help bring this organization further into the 21st (century) with new ideas and fresh ideas, and new energy to keep up what we’ve done for the last 45 years for the next 45.”