Launched in 1992, Arte Público’s Recovery Program is considered the first nationally coordinated attempt—and the largest endeavor of its kind—to recover, index, and publish lost Latino writings that date from the American colonial period through 1960, as described on its website. Its ongoing efforts include the collection and digitization of books, manuscripts, newspapers, photographs, correspondence, and other archival items, including diaries, oral lore, and popular culture.
As a challenge grant, the $500,000 from the NEH aims to leverage federal funding to spur nonfederal support—requiring it to be matched 1-to-1, with Arte Público to fundraise another $500,000 over the next three years. Together, the $1 million will be used toward two main goals, according to a press release: “1) organize, index and preserve digital content and 2) provide multilevel access to the documents and metadata for a wide range of audiences in the United States and abroad.”
Arte Público says that the Recovery Program’s documents are currently stored in several different servers and are not easily searchable. That will change with the implementation of the NEH grant.
“This support from the NEH will be critical in generating additional funding to create a customized cloud-based digital repository of texts and content management system, all with the long-term goal of making the hundreds of thousands of Latino texts already preserved by the Recovery Program accessible to scholars and community members,” said Dr. Gabriela Baeza Ventura, Executive Editor of Arte Público, in a statement.
Baeza Ventura is also Co-Director of the U.S. Latino Digital Humanities Center, which serves as a venue for the Recovery Program’s archives and whose digital infrastructure will be improved through the NEH grant.
At a time when PEN America reports that book bans are on the rise, increasing by 28% during July to December 2022 when compared to the previous six months—with 30% of banned titles being books about race or racism, or that feature characters of color—there is vocal concern for barriers to access to works by Latino authors, particularly in Texas which leads the nation in book bans.
“This grant is extremely significant not only because it will aid the program to consolidate its archive amassed through more than 30 years of research, but also because it will provide a venue to access materials pertinent to U.S. Latino history and literature that is not accessible and increasingly in peril of being lost or banned,” said Baeza Ventura in an email to Houston Arts Journal.
Founded in 1979 by Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, Arte Público is recognized as the nation’s oldest and largest publisher of contemporary and recovered literature by U.S. Latinx authors. It has published bestselling authors, such as Nicholas Mohr, Victor Villaseñor, and Helena María Viramontes, as well as seminal works, including Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.
Andrew Roblyer, an interdisciplinary, non-binary, queer, and neurodivergent storyteller, has launched The Octarine Accord – a new theater company based in Houston, which will offer its first major production this summer.
The company will focus on presenting works of speculative fiction, a genre that includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, ghost stories, post-apocalyptic tales, and other related narratives.
“I’ve been in and around the Houston theater community for over a decade, and have been looking for ways to augment, not compete with, the incredible work already being done here,” Roblyer said in a statement.
“I fell in love with theater at the same time I was falling in love with science fiction, fantasy, and other forms of speculative fiction. Those kinds of stories get told on stage, but not enough,” they said.
The company’s name “octarine” means the color of magic, a term coined by writer Terry Pratchett in his fantasy novel series Discworld.
The Octarine Accord will produce The Honeycomb Trilogy by Mac Rogers, July 29 – August 13, 2023 at the MATCH. The sci-fi epic in three parts (Advance Man, Blast Radius, and Sovereign) tells the story of an alien invasion of Earth from the perspective of the same living room over the course of 20 years. The cast and creative team currently includes nearly 50 artists. Casting was recently announced on the company’s Facebook page.
Roblyer received a $15,000 grant from the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance to help back the production, and he has set up an independent Kickstarter campaign to raise the project’s remaining budget.
The company also used Kickstarter to successfully fundraise for its inaugural production of Uncle Eb, an alternate-universe sequel to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which debuted last winter.
Roblyer, who founded and ran This Is Water Theatre in Bryan/College Station, Texas from 2013-2018, says they came up with the idea for The Octarine Accord in fall 2021, after rediscovering their love of Dungeons & Dragons during the COVID-19 pandemic. Forming the new company became a way to combine their love of theater and the “nerd-tastic world of speculative fiction and collaborative storytelling,” according to their website.
The company is also founded on the core value of reckless kindness, said Roblyer in a press release.
“Reckless kindness is the willingness to put kindness first, even when the wisdom of our world (or our industry) suggests that we shouldn’t; including kindness to ourselves,” Roblyer said in a statement. “This will affect everything we do: Auditions. Rehearsals. Payment. Marketing.”
The Octarine Accord was formally organized as an LLC in spring 2023. Roblyer says he aims to bring other Houston artists on board as co-operators as the company expands.
Twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit and arts world, Kathryn Lott has been named President of the Discovery Green Conservancy, the nonprofit that runs the 12-acre downtown park through a public-private partnership with the City of Houston.
Lott will begin her leadership role on July 1, 2023, succeeding longtime President Barry Mandel who is retiring after serving as President since 2010.
Since its opening 2008, Discovery Green Park has welcomed more than 20 million visitors, according to its website. Located across from the George R. Brown Convention Center, the urban green space includes a one-acre lake, fountain, playground, public art installations, gardens, and on-site restaurants. The Discovery Green Conservancy works with hundreds of community partners to program family-friendly, arts and culture, and wellness events annually, most of which are free to the public.
As President, Lott will spearhead efforts behind the care, maintenance, and programming of the park, as well as raising more than $6 million toward its annual budget.
“The role of president at Discovery Green encapsulates everything I ever dreamed of in my career,” Lott said in a statement.
“I look forward to caring for a beautiful and respected green space while fundraising for programming and performing and visual arts,” she continued. “I am eager to incorporate Houston’s technology into the landscape of the park and continue to make an impact in the community.”
Lott joins the Discovery Green Conservancy from her role as Executive Director of Southern Smoke Foundation, the Houston-based nonprofit that provides emergency relief funding and mental health services for food and beverage industry workers.
In addition, Lott has previously worked for Houston Grand Opera, Performing Arts Houston (formerly Society for the Performing Arts), and the Children’s Museum of Houston. She has also managed her own production company, Lott Entertainment, which she co-created in 2014.
Retiring President Barry Mandel, whose own pre-Discovery Green experience included leadership roles with the Houston Downtown Alliance and the Theater District Association, served as Lott’s mentor when both of them worked together in the downtown arts community, according to a press release.
“You do not know how much joy it gives me to turn over something I love to someone I love,” said Mandel in a statement. “I know she understands the essence of this place and how much it means to me, the team, and the community.”
Through funding provided by the Houston Symphony, the UH’s Texas Music Festival will be able to increase its cash prizes for winners by about threefold: 1st Place ($1,500), 2nd Place ($1,000), and 3rd Place ($750), as well as an Audience Favorite Prize ($500). In previous years, the prizes of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Competition were continent on budget and ranged from $200-$500, according to Alan Austin, General and Artistic Director of the Texas Music Festival.
The first-place winner of the 2023 Mitchell-Hogg Competition will also be awarded opportunities to perform as soloist with the Texas Music Festival Orchestra on June 24 and with the Houston Symphony at an upcoming concert.
Austin calls the Ima Hogg Competition a “much-loved institution in the cultural life of Houston” and says the idea for the merge began when the Houston Symphony opened the conversation.
“The Houston Symphony was seeking a partner for the competition in order to ensure its sustainability in perpetuity,” he said. “TMF’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition was an obvious choice for the partnership, with a long history of high-quality musicianship and a list of distinguished winners who have gone on to solo careers and positions in major orchestras.”
The Ima Hogg Competition has been on hiatus since 2020, interrupted only by the pandemic in its nearly 50-year history.
“As we considered its future, it made complete sense to join forces with the prestigious Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition at the University of Houston’s Texas Music Festival,” said John Mangum, Houston Symphony Executive Director and CEO, in a statement.
“Both organizations are deeply committed to creating opportunities for young people to connect with music, so it seemed like a natural partnership,” he said.
Austin describes the collaboration as a “win-win” in support of the next generation of classical musicians—and the merging of the competitions’ namesakes, he adds, is way to continue to honor two cultural and philanthropic icons in the history of Houston, Cynthia Woods Mitchell and Ima Hogg.
According to a press release, the Mitchell-Hogg Competition is open to all Texas Music Festival Orchestra members. Up to eight finalists may be selected for the competition’s open-to-the-public final round.
According to a press release, “Cartier will work closely with the board and staff to begin a new strategic planning process that will emphasize expanding the local and national presence of the organization.” She will aim to enhance educational offerings, advance HCCC’s artist residency program, and strengthen community partnerships.
“With HCCC’s existing networks and excellent programming, I look forward to broadening our reach as a welcoming, imaginative, civic-minded destination and setting a standard for exceptionalism in contemporary craft,” Cartier said in a statement.
Noted by HCCC for her “wealth of strategic and administrative leadership experience” and “deep understanding of and connections in the world of contemporary craft,” Cartier comes to Houston from CraftNOW Philadelphia, where she served as Executive Director. She holds an MFA in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as degrees in art and art history. In addition, she maintains a personal studio practice.
Cartier succeeds Perry Price, who led HCCC as Executive Director from 2016 – 2022. Perry left the position in December 2022 to become the new Executive Director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine.
Cartier’s appointment comes after a months-long national search, contracted through Sorrell, an executive search firm. The search committee was co-chaired by HCCC’s Board President Judy Nyquist and Founding Board President and Sara Morgan.
“We are thrilled to have Leila as our new executive director. She brings an entrepreneurial spirit, a deep connection to the field of contemporary craft, and an eagerness to expand our reach,” said Nyquist in a statement. “We are confident that she has the experience, expertise, and vision to lead HCCC in realizing its full potential in the years to come.”
Cartier joins the HCCC team at a time when the organization also welcomed a new Curator and Exhibitions Director in recent months. Sarah Darro was appointed to that role last fall.
Poet Aris Kian Brown says that her loves are language, communication, and community organizing. In her new role as Houston Poet Laureate, she will aim to combine those passions to serve Houstonians through teaching, special projects, and written and spoken verse.
“Poetry is a powerful tool to imagine new worlds for ourselves, and I’m excited for the opportunity to continue building narrative power in this city,” she said.
Brown, 25, was officially named Houston’s sixth and youngest Poet Laureate, in a reception last Thursday hosted by Mayor Sylvester Turner, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and Houston Public Library. She was selected through an application process by a committee of poets, scholars, literary experts, and community representatives, with final determination and appointment by the Mayor.
“It is an honor to have selected Aris as the next Poet Laureate,” said Mayor Turner in a statement. “She represents Houston’s literary future with her prophetic poetry. She will continue the Poet Laureates’ hard work before her, inspire the City of Houston with her words, and bring out the poetry in everyone.”
Brown’s two-year term begins this month, in celebration of National Poetry Month, and runs through April 2025. She succeeds poet Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean and continues the Houston Poet Laureate tradition, which was launched by Mayor Annise Parker in 2013 with Gwendolyn Zepeda as the city’s inaugural Poet Laureate.
Houston has one of the longest-running poet laureate programs among the five largest cities in the U.S. Los Angeles started its program in 2012, and Phoenix began appointing a Poet Laureate in 2016. Chicago will inaugurate a Poet Laureate this year, while New York does not have a Poet Laureate for the city as a whole – though four of its five boroughs have individual poet laureates, with the oldest program established in Brooklyn in 1979. Houston’s Youth Poet Laureate program also continues to thrive, with poet Ariana Lee appointed as Brown’s teen counterpart last fall.
Brown received her MFA from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. She won the 2022 Inprint Marion Barthelme Prize in Creative Writing for Students with Service to the Houston Literary Community, and recently earned the #2 rank at the 2023 Womxn of the World Poetry Slam. She also serves as the Narrative Change and Media Manager at Houston in Action.
Houston’s literary community reacted on social media with support and enthusiasm for Brown’s appointment – including local poets who expressed admiration for Brown’s writing.
Poet Ayokunle Falomo wrote on social media: “Aris Kian Brown has been my (as well as the city’s) unofficial official poet laureate for so long. Glad it’s official official now! Lead us, Poet.”
Houston Arts Journal reached out to Brown for permission to print her poem, “Oh, Lola’s,” inspired by the Montrose neighborhood bar, Lola’s Depot:
You bumper sticker junkyard, jukebox bright, blasting the pink-light anthem of a night
gone on too long. Slide my second sour ‘cross the bar beneath the frilly B-cup bras
hanging like neon chandeliers. I’ll chug down your year-round holiday at our snug
side table: string lights & sloped wooden bench, still jacked from back-throat cackles. In moments
I think I missed out, I remember you, backdrop to Polaroids snapped in the blue
hour with all the homies who held me well after the flash. I ask too much of this hell-
swept city, and sometimes, beneath the ice and maraschino cherries, it answers twice.
Aris Kian Brown
As Houston Poet Laureate, Brown will create and an implement a Community Outreach Project. She will also receive a $20,000 honorarium through the City Initiative Grant Program of the City of Houston, which is funded through the Hotel Occupancy Tax that is dedicated to the arts.
Brown’s project, entitled Space for Us: Afrofuturism and the Poetic Imagination, will involve conducting interviews with Houstonians and then stitching a poem from their answers – to highlight the poetry “already embedded in everyday people,” according to a press release. The finished poem will be translated into the top spoken languages in the city.
“My community outreach project seeks to connect with Houstonians in different neighborhoods and learn about their relationship with this city,” said Brown. “I aim to work with community organizations and language justice experts and translation artists to consider how this initiative can be accessible to the communities that speak the various languages of this city besides English.”
“I want to honor the global hub and dynamic that is the love of my life: Houston, while also staying true to my imagination, which is rooted in abolition and Afrofuturism,” she added.
When poet Chris Wise moved to Houston about 20 years ago, he searched for open mics where he could perform his poetry. That’s when he discovered First Fridays—and he’s a better writer for it, he says.
“What I liked about it was that it was free, which is a beautiful comment on who may participate. I was very broke back then,” said Wise. “The range of skill level and notoriety of the readers spanned the spectrum—so there really was a space for everyone. I became friends with the writers I admired, and in turn I learned from them.”
There have been other local poetry readings and open mics that he’s attended over the years, he added, but some are gone or now rebooted under different concepts by different people.
“First Fridays has been consistent and under one person, Robert Clark,” Wise said.
Clark, a longtime Houston-based poet, educator, and director of the Houston Poetry Festival, established First Fridays in 1975. He coordinated and hosted it without interruption until March 2020 when it was indefinitely suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Determined to bring it out of its hiatus and to continue Clark’s vision, a group of 20 local poets and First Friday regulars organized and rallied this past winter, and came up with a plan to revive the series.
“[Robert] has been hoping that someone would pick up his love and passion for his First Friday Reading Series for him,” said Richard Gamez, Clark’s longtime partner. Clark has been struggling with health issues recently, leading loved ones to establish a GoFund Me campaign on his behalf.
First Fridays is now set to relaunch over the next 12 months at Inprint, resuming for the first time since the pandemic. Four local poets (Kelly Anne Ellis, Angelique Jamail, Yolanda Movsessian, and Chris Wise) will rotate as hosts. Each event is free and includes a reading by a featured poet, followed by an open mic for anyone to perform their work.
Wise shared with Houston Arts Journal the First Fridays 2023-2024 season schedule:
April 7, 2023
May 5, 2023
Kelly Anne Ellis
June 2, 2023
July 7, 2023
August 4, 2023
Kelly Anne Ellis
September 1, 2023
Kelly Anne Ellis
Maha Abdel Wahab
October 6, 2023
November 3, 2023
December 1, 2023
January 5, 2024
February 2, 2024
March 1, 2024
The inaugural post-pandemic reading is Friday, April 7, 2023 at 8pm at Inprint. Doors open at 7:30pm. Chris Wise hosts poet-activist Marlon Lizama, author of My Spanglish Hip Hop Story.
“I always have a great time when I am able to go and look forward to getting to hear a variety of poets, those that I have known for years and new friends I’m meeting for the first time,” wrote Lupe Mendez, 2022-2023 Texas Poet Laureate, in an article for Poets & Writers.
Stories of its venue changes have taken on the quality of folklore, according to poet and original attendee R.T. Castleberry.
Castleberry recalls First Fridays’ early years, when the open mics and readings were held at locations like an auction house, the Orange Show, a café, and music clubs and bars—including Hard Thymes, a former folk music venue once located on Bissonnet.
“Hard Thymes was split between a bar area and a performance/eating area complete with an elevated stage. In the five or so years First Friday was held there, it became notorious for the rowdy behavior of both performers and audiences. As mentioned, it had a bar area,” said Castleberry.
After Hard Thymes closed, the series moved to the former Firehouse Gallery on Westheimer.
“The Firehouse featured a large, brick porch for performers and audiences to relax and visit on, a tiny kitchen area behind the performance area where the cool kids hung out drinking beer and double glass doors in the street level performance area,” recalled Castleberry.
“In the days when the Westheimer Weekend Crawl was in its heyday, the poets read with their backs to the street—and the street traffic. The Firehouse also continued in the First Friday reputation for unruliness,” he said.
First Fridays eventually settled down its roots at Inprint, which has provided a home for the series for the past 20-plus years.
“[Robert Clark] wanted there to be a space for local poets to share their work with the public and each other. He was committed to always highlighting a featured writer, followed by an open mic, so that less established writers could share a poem or two,” said Krupa Parikh, Inprint’s Associate Director.
“Our former Houston Mayor Annise Parker was once an open mic poet,” Parikh added.
Legacy as Houston’s “oldest”
First Fridays has often been called Houston’s “oldest poetry reading series”—a distinction based on a general consensus among local poets.
Houston Arts Journal also reviewed the timeline of several local reading series. Inprint’s own Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, now in its 42nd season, is a close second oldest (and features both poetry and fiction). In addition, Houston has plenty of other well-established literary series that have formed in the past two-to-three decades and in recent years, including Gulf Coast, Nuestra Palabra, Poison Pen, Public Poetry, Write About Now, and Tintero Projects. Together, they provide an overlapping network of poets, writers, and lovers of the written and spoken word, forming the fabric of the city’s literary scene.
Parikh believes that First Fridays has had a “tremendous impact” on the local poetry community.
“It has given established and emerging poets a platform to share their work and helped many local poets connect with each other. It has also helped encourage many to keep writing poetry and keep nurturing a love of it,” she said.
Poet Chris Wise also notes that the series’ supportive and welcoming atmosphere creates a space not only to enjoy poetry—but to learn, collaborate, receive feedback, and share opportunities on a more level playing field.
“The collection of word artists who come to First Fridays range from unpublished to widely published,” he said. “First Fridays has always bridged the gap between street poets and academic poets, between the beats and the elites.”
Parikh says that part of what makes First Fridays unique is “a very community-based feel, thanks to the way Robert ran it”—a spirit that organizers have aimed to recreate in their grassroots efforts behind First Fridays’ relaunch, keeping it independent from any institution.
“While Inprint is proud to be host of the series and provide support, the curation, logistical planning, and organizing of First Fridays today is led by community members,” said Parikh. “We are thrilled to see the way these community members are coming together to reignite the series and carry on Robert’s legacy.”
The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston’s downtown Theater District recently announced Deborah Lugo as Vice President of Programming and Education – a new artistic leadership position at the organization.
Lugo officially begins the role in mid-April, taking on programming and education decisions that previously fell under the purview of the CEO and other members of senior leadership, according to officials at the Hobby Center.
Lugo’s responsibilities will include developing arts and education experiences for audiences, as well as “collaborative efforts with Houston’s artists and arts organizations through a lens of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility, supporting the overall growth and sustainability of the arts ecosystem in our region,” as described in a press release.
“I am profoundly committed to applying, weaving, and leveraging the transformative power of the performing arts through meaningful experiences and active participation to build a more connected community,” said Lugo in a statement.
No stranger to establishing new roles, Lugo previously served as founding Executive Director of Arts Connect Houston and the first Executive Director of Mercury Chamber Orchestra. Originally from Puerto Rico, Lugo brings 17 years of experience in performing arts and education to the Hobby Center. She holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Princeton University and a Bachelor’s in Violin Performance from Florida International University.
Lugo joins Mark Folkes – who was appointed President and CEO in July 2022 – as the newest members of the Hobby Center’s leadership team.
“We see tremendous opportunity to evolve our programming, education, and community engagement initiatives,” said Folkes in a statement. “Deborah’s passion, strategic creativity, and deep connection to the Houston community will bring the Hobby Center’s programs to a new level of impact.”
Lugo will also play a key role in developing and implementing a new strategic plan for the Hobby Center’s third decade of operations. Having recently celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2022, the organization is in the midst of a strategic planning process “with the goal of identifying how the Hobby Center can be a catalyst for the continued improvement of the arts ecosystem in Houston,” according to a press release.
UPDATE, 4/4/23: This article was updated to include Lugo’s start date and context provided by the Hobby Center, as noted in the second paragraph.
The Texas Institute of Letters recently announced the winners of its annual Literary Awards – writers whose works represent “the best of Texas literature,” as described by the organization’s president Diana López.
“Each year, the TIL recognizes the best of Texas writing in a variety of genres that includes fiction, poetry, nonfiction, scholarly writing, design, and short form works. Many thanks to our judges for carefully considering the entries,” said López in a statement. “This year’s winners demonstrate the wonderful talent and diversity of writers with Texas roots.”
Eligibility for the 2023 awards required that “the author was born in Texas or has lived in Texas for at least five consecutive years at some time. A work with subject matter that substantially concerns Texas is also eligible,” according to online guidelines. The work must have been published in 2022.
Winners will collectively receive more than $27,000 in prizes, to be presented at the Texas Institute of Letters Awards Ceremony in Corpus Christi on April 29, 2023.
Jasminne Mendez, a multigenre writer and translator based in Houston, is the winner of the 2023 TIL Award for Best Book of Poetry for City Without Altar (Noemi Press).
City Without Altar is a poetry collection and play in verse that explores what it means to live, love, heal and experience violence as a Black person in the world. The titular play in verse that sits at the center of the book seeks to amplify the voices and experiences of victims, survivors and living ancestors of the 1937 Haitian Massacre that occurred along the northwest Dominican/Haitian border during the Trujillo Era. Between the scenes of the play are “interludes” that explore a different kind of “cutting” and what it means to feel othered because of illness, disability and blackness.
Acclaimed Houston poet Ayokunle Falomo was recognized as a finalist in the 2023 TIL Best Book of Poetry category for his collection, AfricanAmeriCan’t (Flowersong Press).
“In AfricanAmeriCan’t, Falomo tenderly traces his body on the American political map. The exciting inventiveness of language wills Diasporic histories into poetic form,” said poet and filmmaker Loyce Gayo, in a statement on the book. “This feat of a project gives those of us tussling with the many failures of nation permission to own and fully embrace a boundless grief, a righteous rage, and bountiful stillness.”
A recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, MacDowell, and the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, Falomo has been anthologized and published by Houston Public Media, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Texas Review, New England Review, Write About Now, and others.
“[Lopez] knows that words, however meager, help to counter life’s irremediable violence,” wrote Woo in his review. “For Lopez, the details begin in Texas, with a father who crossed the river from Nuevo Laredo …”
Lopez’s poetry has been published in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, and Poetry Magazine, and he earned an MFA from Warren Wilson Program for Writers.
Founded in 1936, the Texas Institute of Letters is a nonprofit honor society that aims to celebrate Texas writers, as well as literary works with ties to the Lone Star State. According to a press release, its elected members include Texas-based writers who have won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, Man Booker Prize, Academy Award, International Latino Book Award, Americas Award, Lambda Literary Award, MacArthur Fellowship, and Guggenheim Fellowship.
TIL’s long history of supporting and honoring Texas literature through various author awards can be traced to 1939, as archived on its website.
A complete list of 2023 TIL Literary Award winners can be found here.
Inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale set in China, The Nightingale by Kevin Lau is a piece that Alecia Lawyer, ROCO Founder and Artistic Director, calls “seriously Peter and the Wolf worthy.”
ROCO commissioned Lau’s trio for violin, clarinet, and piano and debuted it in 2018, along with commissioned illustrations by artist Amy Scheidegger Ducos, which were projected during the World Premiere performances.
“It was such a good piece that we performed it multiple times, and I realized that it could be an amazing children’s book,” said Lawyer.
That idea was realized when The Nightingale was released this past December as an interactive, multi-media storybook, featuring music and adapted text by Lau, illustrations by Ducos, and narration by Emmy Award-winning Houston journalist Miya Shay. ROCO will officially launch and celebrate the book with a free performance on Saturday, April 1, 2023, 10:30am at Houston Public Library.
While Lawyer says that ROCO did not initially set out to create a children’s book, Lau’s piece naturally aligned with the organization’s passion for fostering collaboration and access to classical musical.
“All of our art is purposeful but based upon relationships,” Lawyer said, alluding to the personal collaboration between Lau and concertmaster Scott St. John, whose love of Disney led to the fairy tale-inspired commission.
“Our number one value is access,” she added. “We love multi-generational audiences. What better way to encourage this than a children’s book?”
In its book format, The Nightingale combines music, art, literacy, and technology through the use of QR codes that allow readers to choose-their-own reading experience. Through three different QR codes, adults and children can listen to narration and music, music with page-turn prompts, or music only, while reading.
ROCO has long-utilized and experimented with technology in an effort to increase accessibility to concerts and recordings of classical music.
Well before the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdowns, which led many arts groups to develop virtual performances, ROCO had already begun live streaming orchestral concerts on its website in 2013, expanding to Facebook in 2018. It continues to live stream performances, and to archive audio for on-demand listening, on multiple platforms.
Other initiatives to increase classical music access have included the ROCO App, launched in 2018, and ROCO on the Go, pioneered in 2020 with Buffalo Bayou Park “as a response to the pandemic and reaching audiences who were spending more time outside,” according to Amy Gibbs, ROCO’s Managing Director.
The only music project of its kind in the city, ROCO on the Go has curated playlists for numerous Houston landmarks – essentially creating a site-specific soundtrack, accessed by using a smart phone to scan a QR code at that location. Its most recent QR code was placed at James Driver Park in Harris County Precinct 2 and was created in collaboration with Spectrum Fusion, which serves neurodiverse adults.
“Their members curated a playlist of their own favorite pieces from ROCO’s library for the fully inclusive park, which is designed to meet the needs of visitors with disabilities,” said Gibbs.
The release of ROCO’s first children’s book, The Nightingale, is a continuation of such efforts to take classical music outside the concert hall and to offer listeners multiple entry points for enjoyment.
When asked if ROCO hopes to publish more music-inspired children’s books or a book series, Lawyer says there are no definite plans at the moment.
“I am always open to new music and new ways to connect young and young at heart,” she said. “I won’t say ‘no,’ but it isn’t necessary to make it a new endeavor.”
Instead, she says that ROCO aims to continue to engage the community through both book and musical versions of The Nightingale. The ensemble will premiere a new arrangement of the piece for chamber orchestra in a free concert at Miller Outdoor Theatre on September 29, as well as turn it into a coloring book – an idea from a Kinder HSPVA student, said Lawyer. ROCO has also added Braille to the book’s pages, with plans to bring that edition for visually impaired readers to The Lighthouse of Houston in coming weeks.