Houston’s only festival for high school playwrights is accepting submissions

“Keep Your Head Above the Water” by 2020 student playwright winner Rachel Iliev, directed by Christine Weems; (L-R: Justin Bernard as Jake, Chris Szeto-Joe as Quinn, Helen Rios as Shalla) / photo courtesy of Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.

Founded in 2015, Dirt Dogs Theatre Company “collaborates with other Houston artists and playwrights to provide an opportunity for new works to be seen” – and this includes works by the next generation of aspiring playwrights.

Since 2018, the company has hosted a competition and showcase of plays by high school students. It is currently accepting submissions for its 2022 Student Playwright Festival.

The festival is open to high school seniors in the Greater Houston area, who are invited to submit previously unproduced one-act plays, up to 30 minutes in length. The deadline is February 11, 2022. Rules and application are available here.

Three to five plays will be selected to be produced by the festival on June 8, 2022 at the MATCH, with the winning playwrights in attendance as guests of honor.

Each winner will also receive a $500 scholarship and the experience of preparing their works for the stage – including mentorship by a Houston-based playwright and participation in the rehearsal process leading up to the festival.

A unique opportunity for area students, Dirt Dogs Theatre Company’s Student Playwright Festival is the only one of its kind open to high school students across the city, based on Houston Arts Journal’s review of multiple local theater organizations.

Other local efforts to engage teens indicate an active youth theater scene overall in Houston, with an emphasis on performance – including youth training programs offered by the Alley Theatre, Ensemble Theatre, Main Street Theater, Stages, and Theater Under The Stars. The University of Houston’s School of Theatre and Dance also produces an annual 10-Minute Play Festival that showcases new works by college playwrights in its B.F.A. program.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Trevor B. Cone, Executive Director of Dirt Dogs Theatre Company, for the following interview to find out more about the impact of its Student Playwright Festival (SPF).

“The New World” by 2020 student playwright winner Jack A. Mowry, directed by Trevor B. Cone; (L-R: Todd Thigpen as Guard, Jeff Featherston as Walter Dunningham, Allen Dorris, Jr. as Jeff Drake) / photo courtesy of Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.

Is there any story behind the festival? How and why did you start it?

Our younger daughter, Sydney, took a playwriting class at her high school in the spring of 2017. Their semester concluded with each of the students in the class producing their plays. The performances were done over a weekend and were mainly attended by friends and family.

We figured there were other high school students who were also playwrights that maybe didn’t have an opportunity to see their work go from the page to the stage but would really benefit from it. After some brainstorming with our artists in residence, Doug Williams and Donna McKenzie, the framework for the Student Playwright Festival was built and then launched in 2018. 

The first two festivals took place in June 2018 and 2019. The 2020 SPF was postponed due to COVID and was held in November in 2021.

How many student plays have you produced through the festival so far?  Are there any particular plays or experiences of mentoring past winners that stand out?

Each SPF has featured three plays, so in total we have produced nine. The mentors have each formed lasting relationships with one or more of the students they have mentored that have extended beyond the festival into their college and adult lives. We continue to hear stories of other projects their students have worked on because of the connections established by the SPF.

How is the scholarship funded?

So far, we have been very fortunate to have the scholarships underwritten by a mixture of individual, corporate, and foundation gifts. Our first SPF scholarships were funded by the Salners Family Foundation. Since then, we have been sponsored by Carrabba’s Original, and this year we received funding from the J. Flowers Health Institute.

Have any past winners gone on to study theater or playwrighting, or go on to produce more plays?

Yes, one of the students in the first festival studied at Brandeis and continues to write and design. Another is currently studying theatre at Emerson College and another is finishing his college career this spring at California Institute of the Arts.

How have you seen the festival impact students and the community?  In these complicated pandemic times, when many companies are struggling to present a full season amidst COVID, why is it important to you to continue to offer this opportunity to students?

The festival has been extremely fulfilling to the playwrights, the mentors, and Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. For the playwrights, the SPF is a validation of their talent and a celebration of their creativity and dedication to their craft. As 2018 SPF winner Carter Prentiss told us, “Seeing my show go from the moments in my mind to the words on a page and finally to actions on stage was nothing short of amazing.”

For some, the SPF exposed them to how a play is produced and all that goes into it. Another 2018 SPF winner Addison Antonoff said, “Being able to help a show go from a draft to full production has given me the ability to work in different areas of theatre I didn’t have previous experience in because I was able to see not just the work of those areas, but how they fit together in a show.” For the mentors and Dirt Dogs, the SPF allows us to foster the talents of the next generation of theatre makers. 

Regarding the company in general, what would you like people to know about how the pandemic has impacted Dirt Dogs Theatre Company?

We were mid-way through Season 4 when COVID-19 reached the United States. Our production of The Dead Eye Boy completed its run on March 7, 2020. The city shut down the following week. We were unable to complete Season 4, and in Season 5 we produced a streaming production of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Originally produced by the playwright as a one-woman show with Ms. Smith performing over 30 roles, Dirt Dogs instead chose to cast 32 local actors, and we rehearsed and filmed them under strict socially distanced guidelines. The cinematic theatrical production was made available on demand during the month of November 2020 and again in February 2021.

We launched our Season 6 in October 2021 with a production of The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson. In December, we continued our ULNEASHED series, which debuted in January 2020 with Jeff Goode’s The Eight: Reindeer Monologues. Both shows were well attended, showing us that people are excited about the return of live theatre.

Rehearsals have begun for our restaging of A Steady Rain, which we originally produced as the first show of our premiere season in 2016. We are hopeful that the current omicron surge will subside enough for our audiences to come back to MATCH when we open on February 18.

As Houston theater veteran, do you know of any other local student playwriting festivals or similar opportunities?

We are not aware of any other local or regional playwriting festivals that are specifically targeted at high school students. This is one of the reasons we decided to start the SPF. With encouragement and guidance, we hope that kids who are interested in theatre, and specifically the creation of new plays, will follow through on that urge. These kids are the future of the American theatre. Hopefully, Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. can have a positive impact on them.

The number of local arts events postponed by the current COVID-19 wave is growing

Jay Sullivan as “Puck” and James Black as “Bottom” in a 2016 Alley Theatre production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The company is postponing a new production, which would have premiered this month, to 2023 / photo by Lynn Lane

Since December, the U.S. has faced a wave of COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant, impacting Houston arts groups during the holiday season and leading some to update their safety protocol.

As of this week, COVID-19 cases in Greater Houston reached a record high, with Harris County’s positivity rate surpassing 34%, and on Monday Judge Lina Hidalgo raised the county’s COVID threat level to “red” (severe).

According to reporting by Houston Public Media, hospital officials say that omicron leads to infections that are generally less severe than those of the delta variant. However, it is highly transmissible, and hospitalizations have surged: “Daily COVID hospitalizations at Texas Medical Center hospitals also saw record numbers last week, with an average of 497 a day. That’s up from an average of 68 daily COVID hospitalizations in December 2021.”

Under these current circumstances, some Houston arts organizations – or their partners – have decided to cancel, reschedule, or reimagine upcoming performances and events.

Here is a list of recent announcements, compiled by Houston Arts Journal:

ALLEY THEATRE

While its on-stage season is currently unaffected, the company is postponing its new touring series, Alley Transported, to 2023 “due to ongoing challenges with COVID-19 and in order to keep the cast, creative team, and community safe,” according to a press release.

Originally set to begin this month with a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Alley Transported is part of an NEA-funded initiative that aims to bring free, intimate performances of Shakespeare and other plays to neighborhood settings, community centers, and schools in order to foster a shared sense of community and a “transporting experience” of live theatre.

“I appreciate everyone’s understanding in this tough decision as well as all the hard work so many have already put toward making this a great show.  It will still be great – a year from now,” said Rob Melrose, Alley Theatre Artistic Director, in a statement.

BROADWAY AT THE HOBBY CENTER

When the January 4th opening night of Hadestown was canceled because of both COVID and non-COVID-related illnesses, the company was hopeful that the rest of the run through January 9th would resume. However, all remaining performances were eventually canceled because of breakthrough positive COVID cases within the show’s company. Hadestown has now been rescheduled for October 4 – 9, 2022.

CATASTROPHIC THEATRE

Catastrophic Theatre is postponing its production of Brian Jucha’s They Do Not Move to next season. The company released the following statement on January 4th:

We regret to inform you that Catastrophic’s upcoming production of Brian Jucha’s They Do Not Move, scheduled to perform February 11 through March 6, has been postponed until next season. 

They Do Not Move is an original work created entirely during the rehearsal process by the Catastrophic ensemble and Brian Jucha. With Covid-19 rapidly spreading across our city, we cannot safely and successfully create, rehearse, and perform this physically intimate piece of work. There is a strong likelihood that we will each come into contact with the Covid-19 virus in the weeks ahead. We don’t want our rehearsal process or production to become a super spreader event.

Thank you for your understanding. It breaks our hearts that we cannot bring They Do Not Move to you at this time. We are moving forward with the rest of our season, with the assumption that we will be in a better place in the spring.

The Catastrophic Theatre

FRESH ARTS

Fresh Arts, a nonprofit that provides resources and support to artists, announced this week that it has canceled its gala, The Unbelieve-A-Ball, originally scheduled for January 22nd.

While we were excited to be back together for the Unbelieve-a-Ball this month, our concerns for the safety and health of our community have to take precedence.

It is disappointing to announce that we will forgo the gala scheduled for Jan. 22 due to the recent Omicron spike.

Fresh Arts

In place of this year’s gala, Fresh Arts will now hold a reimagined Gala Auction, January 22 – 29.

“The Girl” by Tony Paraná, one of the artworks that will be featured in Fresh Arts’ 2022 Gala Auction / image courtesy of Fresh Arts

According to Fresh Arts’ public relations partner Like Minds: “Galas account for a crucial 15-20% of the nonprofit’s revenue,” which is why the organization is moving forward with its fundraising through the auction –whose proceeds will support Fresh Arts and local artists.

In an email with Houston Arts Journal, Like Minds shared more about the Gala Auction:

“A So Unbelievable Auction Pop Up” will be a hybrid fundraiser where art aficionados can browse and bid on 50+ works of art and one-of-a-kind experience packages in all price ranges.

Those who wish to bid on the auction items can do so either online or in-person at participating exhibit spaces around the city, such as Buffalo Bayou Brewing Company, MKT Bar at Phoenicia Downtown, and the Arts District Houston Welcome Center at Winter Street Studios. More locations to be announced soon!

Art from local artists such as Outspoken Bean, Tony Paraná, Renee Victor, and more will be featured in the auction.

Founded in 2001, Fresh Arts also plans to host a 20th Birthday Party later this year “when it is safe to do so,” according to its website.

HOUSTON EARLY MUSIC

Houston Early Music, a presenter of historically informed performances of music from the Medieval through Classical periods, is postponing its January 22nd concert by Sante Fe-based Severall Friends to next season. The organization released the following statement this week:

Houston Early Music regrets to announce the cancelation of its Jan. 22 concert, The Shadow of Night: Mysticism and Magic in Renaissance Music, by Severall Friends. While Severall Friends was forced to cancel their performance because of COVID-19, the early music consortium is working with HEM to reschedule the concert for the 2022-2023 season. For information about ticket refunds, email info@houstonarlymusic.org, or call 713-325-5377.

Houston Early Music

ROCO

ROCO canceled its concert, Beer and Brass, on January 13th and has since rescheduled it to April 6th.

The annual family-friendly event features the ROCO Brass Quintet at Saint Arnold Brewing Company, with performances of traditional beer hall music and brass arrangements, along with craft beer, root beer, and food.

You can find COVID safety protocol for each arts organization on their respective websites.

NEA announces over $33 million in project funding nationally, including $1.7 million for Texas arts

Photo credit: Young Audiences of Houston / Facebook

The National Endowment for the Arts is awarding 1,498 grants totaling nearly $33.2 million for its first round of funding for fiscal year 2022.

Of that amount, $1,746,000 is going to 77 institutions in Texas, with 22 Houston arts organizations receiving $632,000.

The overall funding spans every state, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. The types of grants awarded include Grants for Arts Projects, which represent 15 artistic disciplines; Challenge America grants, “for projects that extend the reach of the arts to populations that have limited access to the arts due to geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability”; Literature Fellowships in creative writing and translation; and Arts Research grants.

“These National Endowment for the Arts grants underscore the resilience of our nation’s artists and arts organizations, will support efforts to provide access to the arts, and rebuild the creative economy,” said Ann Eilers, NEA Acting Chair, in a press release.

“The supported projects demonstrate how the arts are a source of strength and well-being for communities and individuals, and can open doors to conversations that address complex issues of our time,” Eilers said.

Among local grantees, Young Audiences of Houston will receive $50,000 for its Neighborhoods, Identity, and Diversity Project, which aims to increase arts access and equity. By providing free programs across 10 communities, the project works to amplify youth voices, infuse local cultures and traditions into arts-based learning, and collaborate with teaching artists and schools.

“We look forward to sharing over the next year the progress of this exciting project, unique to Houston and the communities that create our region’s vibrancy,” said Mary Mettenbrink, Young Audiences of Houston’s Executive Director, in a statement. “This project will support Acres Homes, Alief-Westwood, Fort Bend Houston, Gulfton, Kashmere Gardens, Magnolia-Park Manchester, Near Northside, Second Ward, Sunnyside, and Third Ward.”

Houston’s Discovery Green Conservancy will receive a $15,000 NEA grant in support of its project, Tejas Got Soul: Celebrating Houston’s Tejano Roots Music Legacy.

Initiated by East End residents Pat Jasper, Nick Gaitan, Isaac Rodriguez, Robert Rodriguez, and Angel Quesada, the project includes 3 free concerts in fall 2022 that feature traditional music genres popular in the Chicano community, from orquesta to conjunto and Tejano to Brown-Eyed Soul. There will also be panel discussions about the history of the local Chicano music scene and a social media campaign to add historical and cultural context about the music, musicians, and the community.

“Part of Discovery Green Conservancy’s mission is to shine a light on the diversity of traditions that exist in Houston,” said Barry Mandel, Discovery Green Conservancy President, in a statement. “The Conservancy is very proud to work with talented Houstonians to present these concerts and is very grateful for the National Endowment of Arts support.”

A full state-by-state listing of grants is available here.

A full list of Houston grantees follows:

Alley Theatre
$20,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Theater

Arts Connect Houston
$100,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Arts Education

Aurora Picture Show (aka Aurora)
$15,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Media Arts

Da Camera Society of Texas (aka Da Camera chamber music & jazz)
$25,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Music

Discovery Green Conservancy (aka Discovery Green)
$15,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Folk & Traditional Arts

FotoFest, Inc.
$25,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Visual Arts

Guez, Julia
$10,000
Literature Fellowships: Translation Projects – Literary Arts

Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature & Fine Arts (aka Gulf Coast)
$15,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Literary Arts

Houston Architecture Foundation (aka Architecture Center Houston)
$12,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Design

Houston Arts Alliance (aka HAA)
$35,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Local Arts Agencies

Houston Cinema Arts Society
$20,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Media Arts

Houston Grand Opera Association, Inc.
$65,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Opera

Houston Symphony Society (aka Houston Symphony)
$15,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Music

Musiqa Inc.
$10,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Music

Nameless Sound
$20,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Music

Open Dance Project Inc.
$10,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Dance

Rothko Chapel
$35,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works

Society for the Performing Arts (aka SPA)
$35,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works

Theatre Under The Stars, Inc.
$10,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Musical Theater

University of Houston (on behalf of Arte Publico Press)
$60,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Literary Arts

University of Houston (on behalf of Blaffer Art Museum)
$30,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Museums

Young Audiences Inc of Houston (aka Houston Arts Partners)
$50,000
Grants for Arts Projects – Arts Education

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and Radom Capital launch a local artist residency in Montrose

Frame Dance Productions will be a CAMHLAB artist-in-residence at Montrose Collective in spring 2022. / photo courtesy of Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

During the pandemic, in the fall of 2020, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston created the CAMHLAB initiative, an artists’ residency based at the museum’s newly renovated upstairs Brown Foundation Gallery.

It was implemented in response to the impact of COVID on Houston artists – in particular, to offset the loss of performance and rehearsal space, and to provide a safe way to connect artists and audiences.

CAMH is now expanding that residency program through a partnership with real estate developer Radom Capital, which has offered to house it in a new gallery space at Montrose Collective – a shopping center that includes chefs, merchants, wellness services, and creative offices. Located adjacent to the Museum District, Montrose is considered by many to be among the city’s most creative, culturally rich, and inclusive areas.

“Walking though Montrose inspires curiosity, wonder, and discovery. In the spirit of our neighborhood, we are honored to announce our curatorial and programming partnership with CAMH,” said Steve Radom, managing principal of Radom Capital, in a press release.

CAMHLAB x MC is a light-filled gallery providing neighbors and visitors with access to an exciting and eclectic lineup of local artists curated by CAMH,” Radom said.

Montrose Collective / photo courtesy of Contemporary Art Museum Houston

Through this re-envisioned residency, local artists will have the opportunity to create new and timely works, while aiming to foster community interaction and connection following nearly two years of social distancing and isolation brought on by the pandemic.

“We are living through wild times and the world is a strange place these days. CAMHLAB is making space for artists to process and interpret,” said Eepi Chaad, artist-in-residence, in a statement. “Each residency is like a capsule of a moment during an extraordinary period of acceleration in the human timeline.”

According to reporting by Glasstire,“artists will receive an honorarium, opportunities to host programming, support for communications and marketing, and additional support as needed from CAMH.”

The gallery is family friendly and free.

“This is an opportunity for artists to move not just beyond the walls of the Museum, but to directly share their creative process with the public,” said Hesse McGraw, CAMH Executive Director, in a statement.

Four artists-in-residence have been selected and will rotate through the space (project descriptions and photos provided by CAMH):

Eepi Chaad

December 15, 2021–January 30, 2022

Artist Eepi Chaad’s “Soft Space” is an installation that celebrates the soft surfaces we associate with our homes. Visitors are invited to learn about surface design, take part in the process of making, and engage with the transformed space created out of handkerchiefs, bandanas, scarfs, afghans, throws, and security blankets. “Soft Space” aims to provide a safe and welcoming space for visitors to create, heal, and connect with one another through a communal project.

Two Star Symphony

February 2–March 27, 2022

Two Star Symphony will utilize the space to create new performance and sound works. The group is often inspired by the movement of dancers, silent film, and other visual mediums. The ensemble will offer regular open studio hours to connect with their audience and make their process visible.

March 30–May 25, 2022

Frame Dance will present “The Family Mantra,” an installation-based participatory performance that explores generational psychological shifts in the Houston community. The group aims to create an environment that will invite interaction with marbles, toy tops, pathways on the floor, pipe cleaner dolls to manipulate, and puppets. Frame Dance will host family dance parties with the goal of building bonding and creative expression.

Dana Caldera

June 1–30, 2022

Artist Dana Caldera’s project, “Paper to Fabric,” will explore the intersection of quilt and collage. An important component of this work is a community sewing circle event, which aims to offer a place for community, organizing for political or social causes, and education that is open to everyone. Caldera’s residency embraces the artist/caretaker role in order to model a family-friendly environment that welcomes children and ensures they are safely included in all events.

Society for the Performing Arts announces new COVID safety protocol

Fran Lebowitz, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Drum Tao 2022 are among the artists on Society for the Performing Arts’ February calendar.

Society for the Performing Arts has announced that it will expand its COVID-19 safety requirements from masks to proof of a negative COVID test or proof of vaccination for all patrons ages 5 and older, starting in February.

By doing so, SPA joins four other major arts organizations in Houston’s Theater District that currently have similar COVID safety protocol – including the Alley Theatre, Broadway at The Hobby Center, and Theatre Under The Stars (which require proof of negative results or vaccination for ages 12 and older), as well as Da Camera.

As “the largest nonprofit presenting organization of its kind in the Southwest,” SPA brings internationally acclaimed artists, musicians, dancers, actors, and speakers to Houston, and champions local artists through its Houston Artist Commissioning Project.

“With the amount of travel [SPA touring artists] are doing, more and more are requiring increased health and safety protocols,” the organization stated in its January newsletter as the impetus for the change.

Beginning next month, all audience members ages 5 and older will be required to show proof of a negative PCR or rapid antigen COVID-19 test, taken within 72 hours prior to the performance. SPA also requires that that the negative result be from a professionally administered test, not an at-home self-test.

Alternatively, patrons may choose to show proof of vaccination in the form of either 1) a CDC designated vaccine card that has two vaccine dates for the Pfizer/Moderna vaccine or one vaccine date for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with the date of the final dose at least 14 days prior to the performance, or 2) a photo or digital copy of the card.

Patrons also need to present ID that matches the name on the test or vaccination card. Children may be accompanied by an adult who can provide identification. 

Masks will continue to be required inside the theater for all attendees ages 3 and older.

According to SPA, current ticket holders who cannot or do not wish to participate in these guidelines may contact the box office or email info@spahouston.org by January 28 to exchange their tickets for credit, to donate tickets, or to request a full refund.

Here’s a look at current COVID safety protocol for 8 major arts organizations in downtown Houston’s Theater District, subject to change:

Alley Theatre

  • Proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination for patrons ages 12 and older
  • Masks required for all ages
  • All staff, artists, creative teams, crews, and ushers required to be vaccinated

Broadway at The Hobby Center

  • Proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination for guests ages 12 and older
  • Masks required for all ages

Da Camera

  • Proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination for all patrons
  • Masks required for all patrons

Houston Ballet

  • Masks required for all patrons
  • All staff and ushers fully vaccinated and masked at all times

Houston Grand Opera

  • Masks required for all patrons
  • All guests attending HGO Special Event dinners required to show proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination, with masks also required at these events

Houston Symphony

  • Masks required for all patrons
  • All staff, ushers, musicians vaccinated; all ushers and staff in Jones Hall masked
  • Mix of full capacity and socially distanced areas in Jones Hall

Society for the Performing Arts

  • Masks required for all patrons
  • Starting February 2022, proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination for patrons ages 5 and older

Theatre Under The Stars

  • Proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination for patrons ages 12 and older
  • Masks required for all ages
  • On-site COVID testing available

How is COVID-19 affecting Houston’s holiday performing arts?

Delphi Borich as Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” from Theatre Under The Stars, which has canceled remaining performances of the show due to COVID / photo credit: Melissa Taylor

This article has been updated to reflect developments [12/22/21, 9:30pm]

As the U.S. faces a new wave of COVID – fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant, making up 73% of new infections last week, according to the CDC – NPR reported via The Associated Press:

Many stages on both Broadway and the West End have been forced to go dark once more as the live theater community grapples with backstage outbreaks of the coronavirus and its variants, temporarily closing everything from London’s revival of Cabaret starring Eddie Redmayne to mighty Hamilton in New York.

At one point last week, according to the report, five of 32 Broadway shows were dealing with canceled performances. This week, producers of the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill announced that it would close that show because of multiple positive COVID-19 cases within the company.

Update: Today NPR reported that nine Broadway musicals have announced that they will be on haitus until after Christmas because of breakthrough infections.

Here in Houston – where hospital officials say that positive omicron cases are doubling every two to three days and the Harris County threat level has been raised to “orange” (significant) as of Monday – local performing arts groups have been impacted by COVID. So far there have not been a large number of canceled performances or productions, though the situation is developing.

The only production that has closed, based on Houston Arts Journal’s review of local companies, is Disney’s The Little Mermaid by Theatre Under The Stars.

Originally scheduled to run through December 24 at The Hobby Center, TUTS announced on December 20, that it would cancel all remaining performances due to COVID among cast and crew:

Update: This evening, the Ensemble Theatre announced that breakthrough COVID cases have forced the company to cancel the December 23 performance of A Motown Christmas – with remaining performances in the run to be determined.

Last week, Stages Theatre canceled performances of Panto Little Mermaid because of a positive COVID test in the cast, according to an email from Dancie Perugini Ware Public Relations. That production has now been cleared to resume on December 22 and will continue, with additional shows scheduled, through January 2.

Stages’ concurrent production of Sister’s Christmas Catechism has not been disrupted and continues to run as scheduled through December 31.

Another show that has coped with COVID is A Christmas Carol at The Alley Theatre, which canceled performances on December 19:

The Alley has since resumed its scheduled run of A Christmas Carol through December 29.

Among other local holiday offerings, the following productions are currently running without disruption:

You can find COVID safety protocol for each company on their respective websites.

Read more here:

COVID surge cancels Houston theater performances, basketball games and holiday parties (via Houston Chronicle)

Latest COVID surge hits Broadway duruing the lucrative holiday season (via NPR)

Local artist produces a docuseries on the African diaspora in Houston

Poet Ayokunle Falomo is featured in Loyce Gayo’s “By Way Of, Houston

2016 article by the Kinder Institute reported that roughly 61,000 African-born people were living in Greater Houston. That community made up about 4.5% of the city’s foreign-born population at the time, described as a “small” but “growing and increasingly visible group here and across the country.”

Indeed, according to the Migration Policy Institute, African immigrants had the highest growth rate (82%) among the city’s immigrant population between 2010 and 2017, and with more recent data suggesting closer to 90,000 individuals in the region.

Poet, educator, and filmmaker Loyce Gayo points out that behind these numbers are multitudes of stories and nuanced understandings of what it means to be an immigrant, to experience both estrangement and belonging, to find home – to shape, and be shaped by, Houston.

Gayo set out to explore and document stories of the African diaspora in Houston, with funding from a grant from the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs through the Houston Arts Alliance.

The resulting project is By Way Of, Houston, a docuseries that profiles five local African immigrants.

It will be shown in a free screening, followed by a conversation with the filmmaker, on Friday, December 17 at 6:30pm at the SAiD Institute. Gayo also plans to archive each episode online in the future.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Loyce Gayo for the following interview.

Loyce Gayo / photo credit: Hakeem Adewumi

Can you tell me a little bit about the story behind this project? How did you come up with the idea and why did you want to do it?

I have been closely studying how African immigrants negotiate belonging in Houston ever since I moved here from Tanzania in 2007. From being able to easily source ingredients for a traditional Tanzanian dish to singing Swahili hymnals in church, Houston afforded me, and many like me, the material conditions to feel at home in a foreign place. I wanted to capture that magic in this project. 

Tell me about the Houstonians you profiled and why you chose them.

I profiled five incredible individuals, Ayokunle Falomo, a poet; Nneka Stefania Achapu, a political strategist; Chukwunonso Ofili, a painter and comedian; and Martins Amune and Anita Okpobiri.

I selected each person because of their unique perspectives on the African Diasporic experience: Ayo’s experience living in Southwest Houston largely informs his poetry. Nneka works closely in the Black immigrant justice movement in Texas and spoke about how local policies influence African immigrants. Martins and Anita spoke about how customs and tradition influence their dating life. And Ofili spoke about the City supporting his work as a visual artist through financial opportunities.

2016 article by the Kinder Institute shares the views of sociologist Anima Adjepong: “Even though Houston’s African immigrant community contains a variety of ethnicities and languages, argues Adjepong, once those immigrants arrive here, they form a common identity. ‘In spaces such as African grocery stores, strangers develop community as African, through shared experiences of estrangement from home, and their need for that space,’ Adjepong said.”

I just wanted to bring in that context to set up my asking you for your thoughts on “home” and “belonging.” What did you learn about those notions from your interviewees?

To a certain extent the sentiment of a common identity is true. There is often a far-reaching sense of kinship, especially in religious spaces, but what I gathered from my interviews was a desire to add nuance and complexity to the common Diasporic identity we know. 

Another thing that was emphasized in my conversations was how that commonality doesn’t translate to organizing towards collective political power.

Clip from Loyce Gayo’s “By Way Of, Houston”

As part of Ayokunle Falomo’s profile, he reads his poem “S.W.A.T, ALWAYS,” an ode to Southwest Alief Texas.

On social media, you wrote: “This poem beautifully captures what it is like living in Southwest Houston, the city’s international district, and where many African immigrants live!” Would you say more about how that poem resonates with you?

I can’t think of a single African immigrant who doesn’t have some relationship to Southwest Houston. When my mother first moved to Houston, we lived in Pasadena but traveled every week to the international church on Beechnut. We bought our sambusas at the halal store on Hillcroft. We bought our clothes and fragrances at the shops on Harwin. Southwest Houston is the backdrop to virtually all African diasporic experiences. 

Was there another moment, or story, in the docuseries that particularly moved – or surprised – you?

I was really moved by Nneka’s comment [in the video below] on the local ordinance affecting the Southwest stretch of Bissonnet. There are a lot of things to celebrate about this city and its ability to accommodate people of all walks of life, but if politicians don’t listen to and work to meet the needs of especially those on the margins of our community, Houston stands to lose the very magic that makes this city special! 

You’re an accomplished poet and performer – was this your first foray into filmmaking?  Did you experiment visually to add to the storytelling?

Yes, this was my first venture into filmmaking! It was both incredibly terrifying and exhilarating. The best part of the entire process was the conversation. I worked really hard to curate a space and thought-provoking questions that promoted deep reflection and vulnerability. I desperately hope the work honors each story shared.

I really wanted to try my hand at a different form of storytelling. The use of split-screen in non-fiction filmmaking is very popular, and that was an experiment.

Why is it important for you to tell, and share, these stories of the African diaspora in Houston?  Does this moment in history – in this time of a global pandemic, political divide, and social unrest – give it more urgency?

My recent Google search of “african immigrants houston” yielded results on travel bans due to the new COVID variant, and reports of “illegal immigration.” The ever-nuanced and complex lives of African immigrants in this city (and ultimately, even their unique needs) go unmentioned and unrepresented! There is an urgent need not to just tell these stories, but use these perspectives to galvanize and collectively organize. 

Clip from Loyce Gayo’s “By Way Of, Houston”


Houston’s first BIPOC book festival is in the works

The Houston BIPOC Book Fest is planned for spring 2022.

Houston journalists Brittany Britto Garley, Jaundrea Clay, and Brooke Lewis are organizing the city’s first BIPOC Book Fest.

Scheduled for spring 2022, the festival is planned as a two-day event centered on writers of color and literary works that feature Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and members of other marginalized communities, according to its website.

Organizers will collaborate with writers and readers to curate artist talks, readings, vendors, and literary memorabilia, inspired by the spirit of book fairs.

“Houston is my hometown. It’s a city full of rich culture and diverse backgrounds that I love deeply,” said Brooke Lewis in a tweet. “Houston also represents the America of today. That’s why we know Houston is the perfect spot to host a festival that celebrates diversity in literature.”

While the BIPOC Book Fest will be the first of its kind in the city, Houston has seen notable efforts to support writers of color, locally and nationally – a testament to its diverse literary scene.

The University of Houston is home to Arte Público Press, the oldest and largest Hispanic publisher in the U.S., and the recently-established Puerto Rican Literature Project, which aims to be the most comprehensive digital archive of its kind when fully launched.

Other initiatives in Houston include The Colony, a summit for writers of color founded by poet Deborah DEEP Mouton; Tintero Projects, a grassroots organization that provides opportunities for Texas Gulf Coast-based Latinx writers; and Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, a longtime literary group and radio show founded by writer-activist Tony Diaz

“I know how important it is to see books with characters that look like me in them,” Lewis said in a tweet. “Representation matters, and we hope all who come to this festival can leave seeing a piece of themselves, but also walk away with knowledge of other cultures and backgrounds.”

BIPOC Book Fest organizers see a link between representation in literature and literacy rates, citing studies that indicate that Black and Hispanic adults are more likely to have lower literacy skills and reading habits, along with an analysis of children’s books in 2020 that showed that only 8% were written by Black authors and 12% centered Black characters, while 7% were by Latinx authors and 6% were about Latinx characters.

With literacy a key motivator behind the festival, organizers say they hope to make reading more inclusive, in an effort to impact local academic success, political engagement, and the economy.

The festival will also aim to bring awareness to BIPOC-led publishers and independent bookstores through local and regional partnerships with Kindred Stories in the Third Ward, Native-owned comic book shop Red Planet, SOA Co Books, Arte Público Press, Brazos Bookstore, and San Antonio’s Guadelupe Latino Bookstore.

Organizers are working to raise $10,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to cover costs of the festival, and have applied for a grant from the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance.

Orange Show’s expanded campus aims to become a major destination for folk and outsider art

Rendering of the expanded Orange Show Center for Visionary Art / Courtesy of Rogers Partners

The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art recently announced plans for a major expansion to its campus, which will lead to more exhibition space, additional facilities, and increased programs to serve the public – and to engage community art-making.

What began as a monument in honor of a favorite fruit – from 1956 to 1980 Houston postman Jeff McKissack used common materials and found objects “to transform an East End lot into an architectural maze of walkways, balconies, arenas and exhibits decorated with mosaics and brightly painted iron figures” – became the Orange Show Center in 1982.

The Center restored and preserved the monument, then later acquired the Beer Can House and developed Smither Park, a mosaic art-adorned green space. Since 1988, it has also produced Houston’s annual Art Car Parade.

Earning its reputation over the decades as a hub for folk art activity in Houston, the Orange Show has also been nationally recognized a “temple for outsider art,” most recently by GQ Magazine.

Rendering of the expanded Orange Show Center for Visionary Art / Courtesy of Rogers Partners

The newly expanded campus – to be completed over the next five years – will aim to bring more attention to its major role in supporting self-taught art, and to widen its reach within the community and beyond.

“We want to encourage visitors not only to see the art, but to participate, make, and engage with it. This experiential environment differentiates the Orange Show from other museums or gallery spaces,” said Tommy Lee Pace, Orange Show executive director, in a statement.

Here’s what to expect from the expansion:

  • The new campus will use a 5.7 acre property acquired by the Orange Show Center in 2017.
  • It includes a 31,000-square foot warehouse building, which will be converted into a performance and exhibition space – with potential use for offices, programs, education, events, and an art library.
  • A new 800-foot ramp will be built throughout the entire campus, serving as an extended display area for art cars and a promenade for visitors.
  • The newly expanded space will be adjacent to the current Orange Show Monument, which is located at 2401 Munger Street.
  • Inclusive of the current site, the total expansion will create an 8-acre campus that will seque into the nearby Fonde Park.
Rendering of Smither Park’s Mosaic Alley / Courtesy of Rogers Partners
  • Smither Park will “nearly double in size thanks to a new ‘Mosaic Alley’ … [and] the public will be encouraged to contribute to the ongoing mosaic project,” according to reporting by Glasstire.
  • The projected timeline is a 2026 public opening.
  • Rogers Partners, a New York-based architectural firm with offices in Houston, will lead the design project.

Read more here:

Houston’s Orange Show Announces Major Expansion (via Glasstire)

Houston’s beloved Orange Show reveals vivid expansion of vibrant headquarters (via CultureMap Houston)

Houston’s Orange Show Center announces expansion to 8 acres of vibrant art cars, creative displays (via Houston Chronicle)

Rendering of the Orange Show Monument / Courtesy of Rogers Partners

$62,500 in grants awarded to local artists show wide range of projects in Houston

The Little Girl in the Lion’s Den by Tierney Malone, part of The Sankofa Project at Lawndale Art Center / photo from LawndaleArtsCenter.org

The latest round of grants from the City of Houston Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA) has awarded a total of $62,500 to 12 artists and nonprofits.

Even as the pandemic continues and artists face challenges, the grants reveal that a wide range of art-making persists in the city, including efforts to work toward social justice, mental health, racial equality, and a greater engagement of local communities.

Grant recipients’ projects involve subjects and genres often rooted in Houston – including community storytelling inspired by the life and childhood of George Floyd, meditation through music in Indo-American traditions, performance art in Third Ward, pop-up theater in Acres Homes, and outdoor cinema showcasing works by underrepresented filmmakers, as well as land art and hip hop.

Seven recipients were awarded $2,500 each through Let Creativity Happen! Digital, a grant program that launched in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It supports projects reimagined in a virtual format or that use digital technology to engage audiences.

Four recipients were awarded $10,000 each, and a fifth recipient awarded $5,000, through the City Initiative grant program, which is in its third round of the year. This program seeks to use the arts to strengthen the city, as it reopens from the pandemic. Projects support cultural tourism, sustainability, and community resilience.

“The arts helped the city flourish and enlightened the lives of our citizens during the pandemic,” said Necole S. Irvin, MOCA Director, in a press release.

“As we continue to recover, we know that the city’s continued support of the creative sector and communities’ support of cultural activities is integral to building back our economy,” said Irvin.

Houston Arts Alliance administers the grants, which are funded by a portion of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax.

The Orange Show Media Project will document performances by Houston artists in front of live audiences at the Orange Show’s historic properties. / photo from OrangeShow.org

The following list with descriptions of grant recipients was provided by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

The seven awardees for the “Let Creativity Happen! Digital” grants are:

George Floyd Childhood in the Cuney Homes
By Crystal Toussant
District B
Mack Performing Arts Collective (MPAC)
Children and residents of Cuney Homes will share stories of growing up in a low-income housing development where many deal with hard times and social injustice. They will explore the life and childhood of George Floyd and use him as inspiration. MPAC members along with the participants will be using texts, lighting, costumes, make-up, and scenery to bring their stories to life.
 
Online Classes Using Art to Support Mental Health
By Andria Frankfort
District C
C G Jung Educational Center of Houston, Texas
Unique in the United States, The Jung Center offers year-round, live-streamed and online classes that employ the arts in supporting the mental health of the community. Two-thirds of their programming is open to the public, while the other third is designed specifically to bring healing arts to support the mental health of social service providers, frontline workers, teachers, nonprofit employees, healthcare workers, and others. Their public-facing programming is taught by psychotherapists, book and film group facilitators, improv actors, musicians, a children’s art therapist, and others. The Online Activation Form includes an incomplete list of public arts programming currently scheduled for Fall 2021: times are to be determined. More classes will be scheduled for the fall as well as for Spring and Summer 2022.
 
Be-Longing
By Mariela Dominguez
District C
Mariela Dominguez will choose an object to be the trigger for a story of a journey that evokes uprooting and regeneration. A set of four videos presents the stories between two speakers, one, the issue of a mother tongue as the other represents the mediator who personifies a new local generation that articulates the dominant English language. This material object evokes cultural ties that are seemingly enigmatic to everyone except those who retain their mother tongue. The development of a set of four videos with English subtitles is projected and additionally, various audiovisual resources will be included.
 
SUKOON: Tranquility Thru Music
By Sheetal Bedi
District C
Indo-American Association (IAA)
Sukoon is an Urdu/Hindi word which translates to calm, peace, relief, serenity, tranquility, and wholeness. Through this project, IAA will endeavor to bring great sukoon and tranquility to digital audiences. Patrons have come to deeply value IAA’s digital concerts at a time of tremendous isolation and loneliness. The Sukoon project will give an opportunity to emerging artists to showcase their ability to connect digital audiences to a meditative space where tranquility can be found at the individual level, even for a few minutes. This will be presented through IAA’s social media platforms.
 
The Sankofa Project and its Virtual Dialogues
By Stephanie Mitchell
District C
Lawndale Art and Performance Center
The Sankofa Project brings light to the events that have been censored or ignored in historical narratives and reinforced the racial oppression of Black Americans. A free Zoom conversation between the artist and collaborating scholar or historian will be held and deepen the conversation on race and inequality and educate the community. These dialogues will be available post-event via Lawndale’s website and social media along with exhibition documentation and materials for public accessibility.
 
Mindful In This Moment
By Nathan Edwards
District D
On a clear morning in February 2022, Nathan Edwards will film a live installation around the theme of meditation. 50 black men and women dressed in monochromatic pastel colors will meet at a Houston park for a staged, live, one-hour installation/meditation that will be filmed, edited, and shared online.
 
Orange Show Media Project
By Sara Kellner
District I
Orange Show Center for Visionary Art
The Orange Show Media Project is a partnership with SWAMP and its young filmmakers to document five intimate performances by visionary Houston artists in front of live audiences at the Orange Show’s historic properties. These will be live streamed weekly starting July 4, 2022.

“Symbiosis” by Cindee Travis Klement is a work of living land art that introduces local color, texture, and variation through a variety of native plants / photo from LawndaleArtCenter.org

 
The 5 awardees for the “City Initiative” grants are:
 
Christmas in the 44: An Urban Christmas Tale
By Norma Thomas
District B
Christmas in the 44: An Urban Christmas Tale (UCT) brings theatre to Acres Homes community in more ways than one. UCT is “takin’ it to the streets!” Staged outside local businesses along the 4 major Acres Homes throughfares, festive tableau style scenarios, much like department store holiday window displays and the live nativity scenes of old, will delight passers-by, create community celebration, and foster holiday spirit.

Scott @ X
By Andrew Davis
District C
Scott @ X proposes a new way of engaging communities with performance art. Throughout November 2021, weekly Sunday performances will occur along Metro Rail stops in Third Ward; with the opening performance at the Leeland/Third Ward stop and closing performance at MacGregor Park/Martin Luther King, Jr. stop. The audience will be able to engage with the performance on site as well as virtually through Twitch using QR codes posted at the Metro Rail stops.

2 Post Cinema
By Britt Thomas
District C
2 Post Cinema is a neighborhood outdoor cinema set to open in November 2021. It will showcase contemporary film and video art created by underrepresented artists and filmmakers. Utilizing the non-obstructed view, they have of T.C. Jester Park’s parking lot from their property, Britt and Prince Thomas will erect a large, retractable rear-projected film screen in their backyard while relaying sound via radio transmission to viewers’ car stereos. 2 Post Cinema is a free, publicly accessible catalyst for bringing together our diverse community via the arts in a safe, socially distanced manner.

Cindee Travis Klement: Symbiosis
By Lawndale Art and Performance Center
District C
Cindee Travis Klement’s Symbiosis is a work of living land art in Mary E. Bawden Sculpture Garden at Lawndale Art and Performance Center, which introduces a variety of native plants to immerse the community in and educate them on the possibility of a more regenerative, sustainable future.

Swisha House: Rollin’ & Burnin’ Since ‘97
By Henry Guidry
District D
With millions of records sold, several Grammy nominated artists and the first record label/music genre to be archived in Rice University’s Fondren Library, Swishahouse has been a staple in the Houston hip hop scene since the mid-90’s. This event, held in East Downtown Houston at 8th Wonder Brewery, will exhibit items from the Rice archive, CD & mixtape covers and never-seen-before photos. The exhibit will simultaneously highlight the impact Swishahouse has made on the hip hop genre while introducing to many, and reinforcing to others, the significance of Swishahouse on the Southern hip-hop movement.