The new theater hub: Studio 101 becomes the place to see drama — what adifference a roof makes
Studio 101 sounds like a 1970s disco. It's not, it's the Spring Street home of three of Houston's leading small theater troupes, Classical Theatre Company (CTC), Mildred's Umbrella and Stark Naked Theatre Company.
It's quickly becoming the place to see engaging theater in this city. With Studio 101 on its way to "hub" status, I thought it a good time to put all three artistic directors into one room and yell, "Go."
Also, the Monster Mash Gala for Mildred's takes place Saturday night, complete with a wrap the mummy contest.
Being a homeless theater company basically sucks. The nomadic way comes with a lot of headaches, often unanticipated, and out of your control.
I took it as a good sign when Classical Theatre artistic director John Johnson (known as JJ) strolled in with chocolate truffles, and proceeded to offer them to his Studio 101 mates. Within minutes and a blast of sugar, I could tell that this threesome is off to a fine start. That, and the fact that they all talk at once and seem to know what each other is saying.
Some background: Being a homeless theater company basically sucks. The nomadic way comes with a lot of headaches, often unanticipated, and out of your control. From the trials of rehearsing in bedrooms and living rooms to the difficulty of finding the right space at the right time, each of these companies has its own sagas of producing and rehearsing shows at multiple locations. It's tiring and draining on creative resources, and a logistical nightmare.
"When I tell people that I have a theater company, their next question is, where?" says Jennifer Decker, artistic director of Mildred's. Having a roof, a rather swanky roof I might add, has made a tremendous difference for all of these troupes.
"In this city you can divide theater companies by those with homes and those without them," says Lehl, co-director of Stark Naked. "Creating Studio 101 is a bit of a game changer."
Johnson chimes in, "For an actor or a director, it's great and rare to be able to rehearse in the same space where you are going to perform."
When Stark Naked co-director Kim Tobin, who runs her acting school of out Spring Street, found out that Misha Penton's space was up for grabs, she dove in. "I'm from New York, and my mentality of house hunting is that if you find a good space, you yell 'Shut the door' followed by 'I have cash.' "
"In this city you can divide theater companies by those with homes and those without them."
Stark Naked's Dinner With Friends christened the space. Mildred's was second on board. The 10-year old troupe has already settled in with three productions under its belt, Dead Cell Phone, Large Animal Games and Museum of Dysfunction. CTC opens its inaugural show,Miss Julie, on Sept. 29. Stark Naked follows with Body Awareness, opening on Oct 25.
The companies have a simple but workable method for figuring out who gets what dates. They each take turns getting their first choice. As for all the other things to be worked out?
"We are making it up as we go," Lehl offers.
"We have had our share of heated discussions" Decker says, grinning. "But we always manage to work things out."
Not only do they want to share the space, but audiences as well. Cross promotion is the name of the game, from notices of the next play in the lobby, to mentions in each other's programs and websites.
"We were doing that before Studio 101," Johnson says.
Artistically, there is also some cross over. When Mildred's decided not to do Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang, Stark Naked jumped on the script, and Decker is now acting in the show. Tobin is acting in Mildred's Kimberly Akimbo and Phil Lehl is acting in Classical Theatre's season closer, Shylock, The Jew of Venice.
Are you following all this?
Johnson lets me know in his usual stoic manner that he is not acting in anyone else's shows, although he will be directing Lehl in Shylock. Mildred's and Stark Naked both produce contemporary plays, although they do make a distinction.
"We have become more edgy," Decker says. Stark Naked also produces classical plays from time to time, and will conclude its season with Macbeth.
"I would never do Macbeth without talking to JJ first," insists Lehl.
Having a roof comes with some work. They had to build out the space, add a lighting grid and instruments, risers, chairs (the most comfortable in town) and a makeshift dressing room. They hope to add a lighting board and more lighting instruments as time goes on.
Start-up costs have been shared by the three groups. Aside from these costs, they each say having their own space has been a money saver.
The move allows them to focus on what they do best, producing compelling plays in an intimate setting.
The space comes with some limitations. "We haven't yet figured out how to change sets," Lehl says. Backstage space is minimal, so a high dose of creativity is necessary for scenic design.
To offset costs they are also rent the space out when it's available, which is not often. "How do you vet other theater companies that want to use the space," I ask the group.
"That's an excellent question," Lehl says. So far, the renters have been terrific. "Bit of Stretch Theatre was so professional," Tobin says. "We would love to have them back."
Right now, the space is so booked with their own productions they are mostly doing corporate rentals during the day.
Team Studio 101 comes with big dreams, more shows per year with longer runs and a second space for rehearsals. CTC is considering moving its offices there when its incubator term is up at Houston Arts Alliance. Studio 101 imagines coordinating art shows to run side by side with its productions, and hope to get its Spring Street neighbors to keep their studios open before shows.
Mostly though, they are really happy to be out of a state of flux. The move allows them to focus on what they do best, producing compelling plays in an intimate setting.
It should be mentioned that due to Penton's handywork, the acoustics are outstanding. Even a whisper can be heard, which allows actors to really develop their range without pushing their voice.
I have high hopes for this bunch. They are raising the bar for local theater and seem to be having fun doing it. Expect Studio 101 to dig some serious roots into Houston's ever changing theater landscape.