Houston Grand Opera premieres “Another City,” a collaboration with Houston’s homeless community

Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

A site-specific production that focuses on the lives of those without housing in Houston, Another City will mark Houston Grand Opera’s 74th World Premiere when it debuts on March 9, 10, and 11 at the downtown campus of Ecclesia Houston.

Based on research, interviews, and volunteer experiences at homeless service organizations, Another City aims to center and give voice to the stories of unhoused Houstonians and to explore the meaning of home.

Local efforts to support and help the city’s homeless community have included a $56 million joint homelessness initiative between the City of Houston and Harris County in 2020 and, as part of that initiative, a $7.1 million contract to rehouse people living in homeless encampments in 2022. As the Houston Chronicle reported last year: “The city’s homelessness programs have garnered attention and praise from other major U.S. cities in recent years following a more than 50 percent decrease in homelessness from 2010 to 2021, according to the Coalition for the Homeless’s data.”

Another City’s storytelling embraces “a constantly shifting and interwoven structure that gives the audience a feeling of moving through the city and the sense that although Houston is making a good deal of progress on this front, there will always be remaining questions, new challenges to resolve,” said librettist Stephanie Fleischmann.

Right side of photo, top to bottom: Alex Amsel, conductor; Jeremy Howard Beck, composer; Stephanie Fleischmann, librettist; and Jeremy Johnson, HGO Dramaturg/Associate Director of New Works during a workshop with artists for “Another City” / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

To honor the stories of people experiencing homelessness, Fleischmann and composer Jeremy Howard Beck held listening sessions – and recorded more than 60 hours of interviews – with Houstonians through collaborations with SEARCH, The Beacon, Star of Hope, Coalition for the Homeless, and New Hope Housing, as well as the Houston Mayor’s Office. They also “joined case managers for ride-alongs … volunteered in kitchens and at clothing drives, and helped with client intake, listening closely to community members generous enough to speak with them,” according to Houston Grand Opera. From these words and rhythms, the opera’s libretto and score began to emerge.

“Listening to all these myriad stories, we soon realized we could not just tell one story, with a single protagonist,” said Fleischmann. “Our mandate, as we saw it, was to attempt to put a city on stage.”

The 75-minute opera – set within the course of a single day in the life of Houston – tells the stories of a young man who has just spent his first night on the street, a woman who has lost her son to homelessness, an unhoused veteran, a teenage volunteer, and others.

“The opera is populated with many other characters who … are all in their own way equally important to this truly ensemble work,” said Fleischmann. She added that the storylines also encounter “a young man fresh out of jail and new to the system, a man struggling to overcome his addiction so that he can be there for his wife, a chronically homeless woman who lives at the bus station.”

L to R: Rohan Ramanan, Joshua Blue, Norman Mathews, and Nick Davis during a workshop for the World Premiere opera “Another City” / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Composer Jeremy Howard Beck said he was inspired by the sounds of the voices of the people he interviewed.

“There were the many different musics of the way people spoke as they talked to us, and I felt a deep responsibility to honor that musicality in how the voice parts were composed,” said Beck.

“Some people told us about their favorite music, and I believed that referencing those musical languages for those characters was something I could give back to them, a way the characters could ‘speak for themselves,’” he said.

Beck also made field recordings around the city to layer in his score, which creates the “feeling of immersion in an urban soundtrack.”

“One recording I made just a few days ago happened to include a sort of ‘duet’ between a post-dawn chorus of songbirds and a worker intermittently power-washing a roof many stories above me,” said Beck. “I also love grackle sounds! I can’t get enough of them and their strange, swoopy, laser-gun, rusty-gate calls.”

Houston Grand Opera says that Another City is not only a vehicle for sharing the stories of unhoused Houstonians but also an opportunity to create continued engagement with the city’s homeless service groups and their clients.

“We have connected with a multitude of amazing individuals committed solving the issue of homelessness. They have educated HGO on how we, as an opera company and not a social service organization, could contribute to the needs of this community,” said Jennifer Bowman, HGO’s Director of Community and Learning.

“Thanks to that guidance, HGO has steadily provided performances and youth, family, and other programming to clients and staff at facilities like The Beacon, Brigid’s Hope, Ecclesia, and House of Tiny Treasures,” she said. “These activities will continue in some form after the close of Another City.”

L to R: Aarianna Longino, Assistant Stage Manager Meghan Spear, Travon Walker, Norman Mathews, and Aaron Keeney during a workshop for the World Premiere opera “Another City” / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Another City is the penultimate commission of HGO’s long-running “Song of Houston” initiative, which since 2007 has commissioned groundbreaking operas that celebrate diverse experiences and contemporary life in Houston – including Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (2010), considered to be the world’s first mariachi opera.

According Bowman, the “Song of Houston” initiative will be discontinued next year (after the commission of The Big Swim, a chamber opera in honor of the Lunar New Year, scheduled for February 2024), as the company shifts its focus to creating new Houston-centric works in collaboration with composer-in-residence Joel Thompson.

“The company will be invested in supporting Mr. Thompson as he continues to grow as a Houston resident and develop multiple projects, including a full-length opera, within this city’s unique atmosphere, history, culture, and diversity,” said Bowman. “He is already working on a song cycle with playwright, educator, librettist, and former Houston Poet Laureate Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, based on oral history archives of Black Houstonians collected by the Emancipation Park Conservancy in Third Ward and others.”

Bowman added, “No matter the initiative, HGO’s mission remains to enrich our diverse community through the art of opera.”

First-ever Houston Theater Week could mark the start of a new performing arts season tradition

In place of the once annual Theater District Open House, Houston First Corporation and the Theater District Houston Association have collaborated to launch the first Houston Theater Week, August 22 – 29, 2022.

Modeled after New York’s Broadway Week (a bi-annual event that offers 2-for-1 Broadway tickets), Houston Theater Week features the opportunity to purchase Buy One, Get One Free tickets to more than 100 concerts and shows presented by more than 20 local arts organizations in the 2022 – 2023 season.

“Think of it like the Black Friday of the performing arts season,” said Holly Clapham, Chief Marketing Officer of Houston First.

Houston First also called the new week-long event “the largest consumer promotion celebrating live theater and performing arts in Houston’s history.”

The previous annual tradition of Theater District Open House took place for 26 years until 2019.  While that event was a day-long festival of ticket deals, as well as activities and performances, Houston Theater Week will focus on providing significant discounts to benefit patrons and to drive ticket sales that will help the local performing arts community continue to recover from the pandemic, according to Houston First.

Clapham told Houston Arts Journal that it was “hard to keep the momentum” of the Theater District Open House in the face of modern technologies, such as social media – and that the new concept of Theater Week “marries well with the way people shop … and engage with products.”

However, with the construction of Lynn Wyatt Square – a new plaza framed by downtown’s major performing arts venues – expected to be finished in early 2023, there is still the potential for a reimagined in-person event in the future, Clapham said. She anticipates that the new plaza will allow for “endless possibilities” to engage the public, and that arts leaders will be taking note of how Houstonians use and respond to that space.

In the meantime, Houston Theater Week provides the return of a collective citywide celebration of the performing arts season – and one that aims to include acclaimed local arts groups that perform beyond the downtown Theater District, such as the Ensemble Theatre, which recently won the Theatre Longevity Award at the 2022 National Black Theatre Festival.

“Houston Theater Week was developed to showcase and strengthen Houston’s diverse professional performing arts portfolio,” said Michael Heckman, Houston First President and CEO, in a statement.

“We are proud to partner with resident companies in the heart of downtown, as well as community theater groups located throughout our city, and look forward to this campaign continuing to grow in popularity and success,” he said.

Participating local arts groups include:

  • 4th Wall Theatre Company
  • Alley Theatre
  • Ars Lyrica Houston
  • Chamber Music Houston
  • Da Camera
  • Dirt Dogs Theatre Company
  • The Ensemble Theatre
  • The Hobby Center
  • Houston Ballet
  • Houston Brass Quintet
  • Houston Chamber Choir
  • Houston Grand Opera
  • Houston Symphony
  • Kinetic Ensemble
  • Main Street Theater
  • Mercury Chamber Orchestra
  • Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company
  • Performing Arts Houston
  • ROCO
  • Stages
  • Tee Zee Productions
  • Theatre Under the Stars

Details on Houston Theater Week will be updated and available here.

UPDATE, 8/16/22, 4pm: This article was updated to reflect the increase in the number performances eligible for discounts from 86 to 93, and to include the addition of the Ensemble Theatre’s participation in Theater Week.

UPDATE, 8/22/22, 9:30AM: This article was updated to include the added participation of Chamber Music Houston, Houston Brass Quintet, Houston Chamber Choir, and Stages. The number of performances eligible for discounts was updated to “more than 100,” and the number local arts groups participating updated to “more than 20,” to reflect the changing numbers on Houston Theater Week’s website.

Hobby Center announces a new President and CEO

Mark Folkes / Al Torres Photography

Veteran Houston arts leader Mark Folkes, formerly of Stages and the Houston Symphony, has been named President and CEO of the Hobby Center, as announced today in a press release.

Folkes “will provide strategic leadership and drive deeper community engagement” in his role, effective August 22, 2022. His selection was the culmination of a search process that began this past January by the Hobby Center Foundation’s Board of Directors.

Hobby Center for the Performing Arts / Courtesy of the Hobby Center

“We are delighted to welcome Mark Folkes to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts,” said Rob Doty, Chairman of Board of the Hobby Center Foundation, in a statement.

“With a passion for the performing arts, an impressive business acumen, and strong ties to the Houston community, Mark stood out as the right candidate for the position. There is no doubt he will be an outstanding leader for the Hobby Center for many years to come,” Doty said.

Folkes comes to the Hobby Center from Greater Houston Community Foundation, where he was Chief Advancement Officer since 2021. His history of arts, community, and fundraising leadership also includes serving as Managing Director of Stages from 2015 – 2021, where he headed the company’s $35.8 million capital campaign to build its new facility The Gordy. Prior to that, he was Senior Director of Development at the Houston Symphony.

“Arts and culture are at the center of our civic identity. Houston has so much to be proud of for fostering a dynamic and diverse arts ecosystem, and the Hobby Center is, in many ways, at the center of this progress,” said Folkes in statement.

“I am excited to lead the team to help deepen our impact in presenting engaging performing arts experiences for all Houstonians,” he said.

Folkes joins the Hobby Center as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. Home to Broadway at the Hobby Center and Theatre Under The Stars, as well as a major Houston Theater District venue for numerous local arts groups and touring acts, it opened in May 2002 and is operated by the nonprofit Hobby Center Foundation.

After two summers without live shows, Houston Shakespeare Festival is back – in person and online

Kyle Clark, Kenn Hopkins, and Laura Frye in Houston Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Cymbeline” / Courtesy of University of Houston

After canceling shows in 2020 due to COVID-19 and curating a Shakespeare film festival in place of live plays in 2021, the Houston Shakespeare Festival returns to Miller Outdoor Theatre for the first time since the pandemic. It runs July 28 – August 6 with free performances of King Lear and Cymbeline.

“We’ve assembled a cast of amazing actors as well as a truly outstanding design team. This year’s dynamic productions of King Lear and Cymbeline will make audiences feel that HSF is back at full force,” said Rob Shimko, the festival’s executive director, in a statement.

The longtime Shakespeare festival has been produced by the University of Houston’s School of Theatre and Dance since 1975, when it was founded by the School’s late director and professor emeritus Sidney Berger. Shimko is the School’s current director.

This summer’s production of King Lear – the festival’s first of this play in more than 20 years – will be directed by Stephanie Shine, who directed 2019’s As You Like It, and feature HSF Artistic Director Jack Young in the title role. In a press release, Young said the set design evokes a “mythical Game of Thrones world” for this tragedy with themes of family loyalty, betrayal, and madness.

Starring Kenn Hopkins as King Cymbeline and Laura Frye as the king’s daughter Imogen, Cymbeline will have a “fairytale Princess Bride ambience” in its production design, according to Young, to help convey this tale of forbidden love, secret plots, and mistaken identity.

King Lear performances are July 28, 30, August 1, 3, and 5, and Cymbeline performances are July 29, August 2, 4, and 6. More information is available here.

With livestreaming now a regular offering by Miller Outdoor Theatre, festival performances can also be watched live online and will remain available for 48 hours on YouTube, according to Miller’s website.

“Both of these plays have a large number of wonderful roles, which is giving all of the performers great lines to say and events to experience – big battles, some of Shakespeare’s most resonant lines,” said Young in statement. “These plays will be a great way for us all to return to Miller Outdoor Theatre.”

What will be the impact of Alley Theatre’s historic $25 million grant?

Melissa Pritchett as Marianne Dashwood, Laura Kaldis as Anne Steele, Todd Waite as John Dashwood, Michelle Elaine as Fanny Dashwood, Chris Hutchison as Mrs. Ferrars, and Melissa Molano as Lucy Steele in Alley Theatre’s production of “Sense and Sensibility” / Photo by Lynn Lane

With its recent $25 million matching grant from an anonymous donor, Alley Theatre announced the largest gift in the company’s 75-year history.

The grant, received once its matching challenge is met, will go toward the $80 million Alley Vision for the Future Campaign, which aims to support the Alley’s endowment, artistic initiatives, building repairs after Hurricane Harvey, and reserve funds for the Theatre.

We at the Alley are so honored to receive this generous gift. Especially after these years of recovery from the pandemic, it is the perfect way to ensure that the Alley is in a strong financial position for years to come. It also means that the art will be supported at a very high level and the work on the Alley stages will continue to have the high production values that we know and love. It comes at a particularly exciting time. We are in the middle of our five-year strategic plan and this gift really put wind in all of our sails to imagine new vistas for the Alley. Anything is possible. I’m extremely excited about the Alley’s future.

Rob Melrose, Artistic Director, in an email to Houston Arts Journal

In recognition of the grant, the theatre’s downtown building has been renamed the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center to honor the Alley’s late, longtime Chairman Emeritus, who passed away in 2020. Long served on the Alley’s board for 31 years and was an influential art dealer, fundraiser, and community leader.

“I was lucky to get to know Meredith during my first years at the Alley,” said Melrose. “I was so moved by Meredith’s love of art and decades long commitment to the Alley. He was a truly great man with a generous spirit, and it will be wonderful to think of him every day as we make great theater for the city of Houston.”  

Alley Theatre Building at 615 Texas Avenue is now known as the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center / Courtesy of the Alley

The Alley says the new building name is effective immediately, with an official unveiling being planned for September.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Dean Gladden, the Alley’s Managing Director, for the following interview on the impact of the record-setting grant on the future of the company – and potentially the Theater District:

This $25 million matching grant will go toward the $80 million Alley Vision for the Future Campaign. Can you tell me a little more about that Campaign and its significance? When do you expect to meet the $25 million challenge, which will kick in this matching grant – and surpass the $80 million goal?

The Vision for the Future Campaign began after Hurricane Harvey. The campaign has four objectives: $31M for the Alley Endowment; $19M for Artistic Investment Fund ($1.5M a year for 10 years to support artistic initiatives, $3M for new Christmas Carol, and $1M for extra marketing expenses over the next 3 years to help us recover from COVID); $20M for renovation and mitigation of the theatre after Harvey; $10M for operating reserves and building maintenance fund. The campaign has raised $55M, and we have up to three years to meet the $25M match and finish the campaign.

Can you go into more detail about what this grant can do for the future of the Alley, such as in terms of programs, initiatives, improvements, etc.?

The campaign will enable us to double the size of our endowment to continue to support the Alley into the future. The Artistic Investment Fund will enable the all the resources to produce shows that we would otherwise not be able to produce. Harvey is self-explanatory. The operating reserve will enable us to always have three months of cash available for cash flow and not have to use a line of credit. Maintenance reserves are self-explanatory. 

What “dreams” of the Alley might this grant help fulfill?

Dreams: The Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony, and Houston Ballet all will still have larger endowments than the Alley. Our dream is to match them in size to support our operations. Another dream is to fully recover from COVID and have the same subscription base as we did pre-COVID. Another dream is to continue to expand our offerings to serve both the Houston community and the national theatre movement.

Morgan Marcell as The Wife, David Guzman as The Husband, and Adam Kantor as The Neighbor
in Alley Theatre’s production of “Noir” / Photo by Lynn Lane

What have been some of the Alley’s greatest challenges, which this grant might help the company overcome or address?

Greatest challenges: Tropical Storm Allison, stock market crash of 2009, renovating the theatre on time and on budget in 14 months, Hurricane Harvey and COVID. These monies will address Harvey, COVID and financial stability to grow in the future.

How will this grant help the Alley recover from the pandemic?  Would you be willing to share a figure for the Alley’s financial losses during the pandemic to help us understand what you’ve been through?

This campaign will definitely help the Alley succeed in the future, as I mentioned above. During the first year of COVID FY 2020 – 21, the Alley was forced to reduce its budget from $19M to $11M. We had no earned income that year, everything was contributed. This past year our budget increased to $18.6M, as we performed during COVID. Thanks to generous gifts throughout COVID and grants from PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] and SVOG [Shuttered Venue Operators Grant], the Alley has operated in the black throughout COVID. In fact, the Alley has generally operated in the black for the last 16 years.

By helping the Alley, what wider impact do you think this grant might have indirectly? How could this grant potentially impact the greater Houston arts community – for example, could it give the Alley the capacity to hire more local artists or make other opportunities available?

By strengthening the Alley’s balance sheet, it will be able to better reach out to the community with its programming and do productions of national scale. It will enable us to hire more actors, theatre artisans and technicians, and expand our education and community engagement programs.

There have been some big announcements in the Theater District recently – such as the $50 million Jones Hall renovations over the next couple of years, the historic $10 million donation to Houston Ballet this past spring, the rebranding of Performing Arts Houston, and now the Alley’s historic $25 million grant. What are your thoughts – and what kinds of conversations are happening – about the future of the Theater District? How does this particular grant fit in with the larger landscape of the Theater District post-pandemic and beyond?

It is very exciting to see all the changes in the theatre district. After our $46.5M restoration of the Meredith J. Long Theatre Center, we were able to give Houston one of the most advanced theatres in America. Now Jones Hall is being renovated, the Margaret Alkek Williams Center for Dance has been named, and the Lynn Wyatt Square is being finished, we are seeing a refreshed Theater District in Houston. The support in Houston of the arts has always been strong, but this new resurgence shows you how vital the arts are to the city of Houston. The future is definitely bright for Houston’s Theater District.

Joel Thompson is named Houston Grand Opera’s first full-time Composer-in-Residence

Joel Thompson in New Haven workshopping “The Snowy Day” / Photo by Matthew Fried

A doctoral student at Yale School of Music with an American Prize for Choral Composition and an Emmy Award to his name, Joel Thompson wrote his first opera for Houston Grand Opera this past season.

That opera was The Snowy Day, with libretto by Andrea Davis Pinkney and based on the classic Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats.

Thompson’s The Snowy Day made its world premiere at the Wortham Theater Center on December 9, 2021 and had a successful nine-performance run with positive feedback from the community and coverage by The New York Times and Texas Monthly. In a historic first, HGO livestreamed the opera’s opening night for free, drawing viewers in 34 countries.

In another historic first for the company, HGO recently announced that it has recruited Thompson to live and work in Houston as its first-ever, full-time Composer-in-Residence, in a role that will aim to strength connections with Houstonians and their communities through opera. His five-year residency begins on August 1, 2022.

“This position was created for Joel because he is one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, a transformative artist that is redefining the future of opera and expanding its reach,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in a statement.

“We are confident that Joel’s artistic contributions are making the world a better place, and we can’t wait to see and hear what he will do next,” Dastoor said.

During his tenure, Thompson will serve as a member of the company’s artistic leadership. According to a press release, his initiatives and plans will include: forming music-based educational partnerships with schools and nonprofits; identifying and mentoring homegrown composers, librettists, and other artists and creatives; composing a major mainstage commission; and composing a set of smaller-scale original works, informed thematically by his collaborations with the people who live here, which will premiere at HGO.

“This residency will provide me with an opportunity to do the things that matter to me most: creating music through community and creating community through music,” said Thompson in a statement.

“I’m especially excited to do this in partnership with HGO, the visionary company that has helped me launch my career in opera,” he said. “HGO is giving me the chance to dream and to create works that I hope will be deeply meaningful to the community we will build together over the next five years.”

Artistic team of HGO’s “The Snowy Day,” L-R: Omer Ben Seadia (director), Andrea Davis Pinkney (librettist), and Joel Thompson (composer) / Photo by Matthew Fried

Thompson’s works have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, Kansas City Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Master Chorale, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and EXIGENCE.

In addition to The Snowy Day, Thompson is known for the choral work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which commemorates the lives of seven Black men killed at the hands of police or authority figures. The work earned Thompson the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition and a 2017 Emmy Award for a documentary about the piece.

Opera is an art form that combines the transformational power of music, visual art, theater, and dance in service of a singular communal experience—it depends on our capacity to connect to one another through our stories. If we do the work to make opera a space where people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, and levels of education have access to this art form, I think that opera can revolutionize our society. If everyone in a community can see and hear themselves on stage, and in the creative team, and play a part in sharing and holding space for each other’s stories, opera can become the space where we connect in an age of increasing isolation. That’s the future I’d like to see.

Joel Thompson, in a conversation with HGO on Art & Activism

While Thompson is HGO’s first Composer-in-Residence dedicated solely to that role, the company has supported other resident composers over the years, including Damien Sneed, who served as Music Director and Composer-in-Residence of HGOco (now HGO Community and Learning) during the 2018 – 2019 season and whose chamber opera Marian’s Song, with libretto by Deborah DEEP Mouton, premiered in March 2020.

Among the five major Texas opera companies that make up the Texas Opera Alliance, HGO is the only company currently with a full-time composer residency – a position that the company considers renewing in the future.

“HGO is committed to identifying and supporting opera’s most extraordinary creatives – the composers, librettists, and other artists poised to push the art form forward,” said Houston Grand Opera in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“When we identify rare talents like Joel Thompson, we will always find a way to support them, and that could very well mean establishing future residencies. We tailor these positions individually.”

Jones Hall’s $50 million renovation plan could help Houston arts recover from the pandemic

Jones Hall under renovation in 2021 / Photo by Paul Hester

This summer, Jones Hall continues major renovations that will aim to improve acoustics, backstage technology, ADA accessibility, restrooms, and more – and potentially help Houston arts groups recover from the pandemic.

The projected $50 million renovation plan – which builds upon renovations made in 2020 and 2021 – will take place primarily in summer months over coming years, as recently announced by the Foundation for Jones Hall. Organizers are hopeful the work will be completed by 2024, according to the Houston Chronicle.

This multiyear approach works around resident arts organizations’ seasons, allowing them to carry on full performance schedules in order to recoup some of the significant financial losses sustained from COVID-19.

The Houston Symphony – which is based in Jones Hall, along with Performing Arts Houston (the former, recently renamed Society for the Performing Arts) – estimates that it lost about $9 million in ticket revenue between March 2020 to September 2021 due to cancelation of shows and performances to very reduced audiences for social distancing.

“Rather than close Jones Hall for a full year or more, this project will be done over a series of summers to allow the Symphony to have its full regular season in Jones Hall, its performance home, without disruption,” said the Houston Symphony in an email.

While Performing Arts Houston says it’s grateful for the support of federal pandemic-related programs, donors, and foundations during COVID, its ticket revenue also took “an extreme hit.”

“In a normal season, almost 70% of our revenue comes from ticket sales, and that revenue came to a full stop in March 2020. It was almost 19 months before we returned to live performances,” said Performing Arts Houston in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“We look forward to Jones Hall improvements to enhance the audience experience to help us grow our ticket revenue back to normal levels and beyond,” said Performing Arts Houston.

Jones Hall under renovation in 2021 / Photo by Paul Hester

Both arts groups point out that the renovations will benefit patrons as well as performers, thus attracting both back to the venue – and potentially strengthening ticket sales, plus diversity and quality of programming.

“Returning audiences will see exciting changes to this iconic Houston structure, updates that many have looked forward to for years,” stated Performing Arts Houston. “And with an improved audience experience, we expect new attendees will be more likely to return again and again.”

For summer 2022, work in Jones Hall will include:

  • Refinishing of the stage floor and rebuilding of orchestra pit floors
  • Replacement of hydraulic lifts for the orchestra pit with a new lifting system, allowing for gentle, quiet movement and stable support of the stage and orchestra pit
  • Work to replumb and redirect cable and conduit, while removing electrical equipment to further modernize infrastructure
  • Replacement of the audio network, which consists of the equipment and data network that support amplified performances, to further revamp acoustics in the hall for musicians and patrons

By the end of 2023 and beyond, expected improvements will include:

  • Renovations to the Green Room, lobby, and other public spaces, easing lobby congestion and traffic flow throughout the facility; lobby layout to be expanded, along with aesthetic transformation
  • New seats installed in the concert hall
  • ADA improvements made for greater wheelchair accessibility
  • Restrooms added, expanded, and relocated, including those on the courtyard level; restrooms accessible by only a short flight of stairs, rather than a long walk up and down, with widened stairways between levels
  • State of the art lighting and rigging systems to improve the efficiency of backstage work
  • New stage automation control to modernize how large pieces of scenery, electrics, and audio-visual components are used in the venue
  • Introduction of fiber networks to enable the hall to unitize the full potential of entertainment industry technology

These renovations come at a time when Houstonians are eager to return to live performances, as evidenced by public response to the 2021-2022 season – the first full, in person season for both the Houston Symphony and Performing Arts Houston, following the pandemic’s nearly two-year disruption to the arts.

“Ticket demand has already rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and the Symphony hopes to continue expanding audiences,” said the Houston Symphony, adding:

“Improvements to Jones Hall support those efforts as they will not only improve audience experience, but also improve the acoustics and artist experience which will enable us to continue to attract the best musicians and guest artists to Houston.”

Jones Hall: During summer 2021 renovations, the focus was on acoustic work, including custom construction with sidewall and alcove “infills,” using metal framing with four layers of sheetrock for acoustic density. This was covered by a wood veneer finish. The infills corrected echoes and sound delays that impacted musical performances and allowed sound to be evenly distributed throughout the hall. / Photo by Paul Hester

An updated Jones Hall may also attract the public’s overall return to Houston’s Theater District, whose parking revenue fell about 45% during the pandemic. Revenue from the Theater District Parking Garage dropped from $9.8 million in 2019 to $5.3 million in 2021, according to figures provided by Houston First.

“Houston has a dynamic and robust love for the arts, which are an integral part of our city’s identity and essential to the quality of life,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press release. “Every Houstonian will benefit from this magnificent project.”

The Foundation for Jones Hall, the nonprofit overseeing the renovations, has currently raised $25.5 million toward the $50 million project through its ongoing capital campaign “Overture to the Future.”  Donors to date include an anonymous donor, Houston Endowment, the Robert and Jane Cizik family, Janet Clark, Nancy and Chuck Davidson, the Shirley and David Toomin family, and the City of Houston.

“Jones Hall has stood the test of time and gave rise to the Downtown Theater District over 50 years ago,” said Barbara McCelvey, the foundation’s board president, in a press release. “We are thrilled to be making this new investment in the Hall so that it can serve millions of artists and the public for the next 50 and beyond.”

The venue’s post-pandemic future includes virtual offerings, which are here to stay– and the technological renovations will benefit those digital options as well.

Since July 2020, the Houston Symphony has livestreamed performances from Jones Hall, and it says it will continue doing so in 2023 and beyond, having developed a loyal virtual audience outside Texas and the U.S.

“The new renovations of Jones Hall include a substantial investment to improve audio/visual capabilities throughout the facility, bringing those systems up to the latest standards … [and] will provide very noticeable improvements in the experiences that our audiences will enjoy both in person and via livestream,” said the Houston Symphony.

Cautiously optimistic, Performing Arts Houston notes that theaters are filling up, but not at pre-pandemic attendance levels – yet:

“Enthusiasm for returning to the theater is continuing to grow … We will have to wait a few more years to enjoy the full benefits of the renovations, but the momentum of support for a thriving and enduring performing arts culture in Houston is continuing to build.”

Three teens win Houston’s only high school playwrighting festival

“These kids are the future of the American theatre,” said Trevor Cone, Executive Director of Dirt Dogs Theatre.

Cone is referring to the teens who participate in his company’s annual Student Playwright Festival, now in its fourth year and open to high school seniors in Greater Houston who submit previously unproduced, original one-act plays.

When he and his company started the festival in 2018 – inspired by the talent and hard work in his daughter’s own high school playwrighting class – he says they were not aware of any other local or regional playwriting festivals specifically targeted at high school students.

“This is one of the reasons we decided to start the [festival],” Cone said. “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.”

The winners receive a $500 scholarship, mentorship by a local professional playwright, and production of their plays at the festival.

So far, Dirt Dogs has produced 9 student plays over the years – with past winners continuing to write and design for theater after graduation at colleges such as Brandeis, Emerson, and the California Institute of the Arts, according to Cone.

“The festival has been extremely fulfilling to the playwrights, the mentors, and Dirt Dogs Theatre Company,” said Cone. “For the playwrights, the [festival] is a validation of their talent and a celebration of their creativity and dedication to their craft.”

The 2022 winners are:

Alexandra Askew (Westside High School). Her play, Absquatulate: To leave without saying goodbye, centers on a family struggling with unexpected loss. She describes the play as “a story about the complex relationship between mother and daughter following the death of their father/husband.” Askew will be mentored by Ted Swindley, creator of the hit musical Always…Patsy Cline and Founding Artistic Director of Stages Repertory Theatre.

Kaleigh Medlow (Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). Her play, Hand Me Downs, takes on the journey of three generations of Black women who hand down a blouse from daughter to daughter, while simultaneously handing down generational trauma and tendencies. Medlow will be mentored by playwright Gwen Flager, whose plays have been produced in Houston, as well as festivals in California, Kansas, and Louisiana.

Pearl Reagler (Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). Her written work focuses on the grotesque, gothic, and futuristic. In her play, Stay Sunny, four teenagers join a group phone call to try and make sense of a mysterious impending disaster. Reagler will be mentored by Doug Williams, a playwright, novelist, and award-winning screenwriter.

The 2022 Student Playwright Festival takes place in person on June 8, 7:30pm at MATCH and virtually via video-on-demand available for view June 9 – 24.

Based on Houston Arts Journal’s review of multiple arts organizations, Dirt Dog Theatre Company’s Student Playwright Festival is currently the only festival of its kind open to high school students citywide.

Houston has an active and nationally-recognized youth theater scene overall, with youth training programs offered by institutions such as the Alley TheatreEnsemble TheatreMain Street TheaterStages, and Theater Under The Stars. Local teachers have garnered prestigious accolades, including Roshunda Jones-Koumba, theater director at G.W. Carver Magnet High School, who will receive the 2022 Excellence in Theatre Education Award on June 12 at the Tony Awards in New York City.

A.D. Players debut new leadership plus a World Premiere

Cast of A.D. Players’ World Premiere production of “Apollo 8” by Jayme McGhan / Photo by Joey Watkins

Jayme McGhan says he no longer wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat out of sheer nerves before a premiere – as he once did early in his career.

The veteran playwright, arts manager, and educator takes the helm this month as the A.D. Players’ new Executive Artistic Director, while his play, Apollo 8, makes its World Premiere at the George Theater, May 4 – June 5.

“Opening a new play is always exciting, but the fear of failure and the pressure to deliver has subsided over the years and has been replaced with joy of process and acceptance of the end product, whatever it may be,” said McGhan.

Streamed as an online production in 2021 but delayed as a full stage production by the pandemic until now, Apollo 8 is the company’s second-ever commission and considered one of the largest projects in its history.

Although he admits there is “a bit of added pressure,” McGhan calls the timing of his new play combined with his new role as Executive Artistic Director “serendipitous.”

His position, announced in February following a six-month national search and effective May 1, is part of a leadership transition within the company. Current Executive Director Jake Speck will leave in June to accept a position in Nashville, as Artistic Director Kevin Dean becomes Artistic Producer, “working alongside McGhan on overall artistic vision, mainstage programming, and new works,” according to a press release.

One of Houston’s largest resident theater companies, A.D. Players was founded in 1967 by the late Jeannette Clift George, a pioneer of Christian theater, a Golden Globe-nominated actor, and the company’s former long-time Artistic Director.

“There are very few theaters in this country that intersect high-level professional production with a Christian worldview like A.D. Players,” said McGhan in a statement. “I look forward to telling beautiful and engaging stories of redemption and reconciliation at the George Theater for many years to come.”

A widely produced playwright with numerous professional directing and design credits, McGhan has served as Dean, Director, and Chair at five universities, including Chair of Theatre at the University of North Georgia and Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Houston Baptist University.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Jayme McGhan for the following interview:

What is “Apollo 8” about, and what inspired you to write it?

I was approached a few years ago by Jake Speck and Kevin Dean to look at the possibility of dramatizing the story of the Apollo 8 – the courageous and borderline audacious mission to break earth’s orbit and circle the moon in 1968.

Upon starting my research, I was struck by the very human experience that coincided with the mission–one of collectively seeing our home in the cosmos from a distance for the first time – a divine glimpse, as it were. 

What most folks remember about the Apollo 8 mission was the reading of the first verses of the book of Genesis by the crew while orbiting the moon on Christmas eve, along with the iconic “earthrise” photo that was a substantial eye-opener for the world at large. 

But the guts and determination it took to get to that moment, from literally hundreds of thousands of Americans who worked on the mission, amidst some of the most tumultuous times this country has ever experienced, is truly jaw-dropping and inspiring …

Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders / Public domain

When I began writing the play a few years ago, I had no idea that 2022 would look a lot more like 1968 than anyone could imagine – a deeply divided country, global unrest, the onset of a new cold war, amongst numerous other mirrored realities. 

The Apollo 8 mission was, at its very essence, a pause for the world – a chance to see ourselves from the celestial bodies and realize that we all share the same reality – that we will grow old, love more deeply than we ever thought possible, suffer equally unfathomable loss, all the while trying to better understand our place as we float through the seemingly endlessness of space on the same shared rock.  I think we need to see that again.  We need to be reminded of who we are and who we were created to be.  We need connection.  I hope Apollo 8 does just that.    

How would you describe your vision as Executive Artistic Director? Do you have any specific plans for the company?

The work that the company has accomplished in relation to increasing production value, solidifying processes and procedures, and growing the audience base over the last five years is pretty fantastic. 

Had it not been for the pandemic, A.D. Players would have continued to grow exponentially and at lightning speed.  Part of the initial vision as I take the helm will be to strategize how we get that momentum back as soon as possible.  Audiences are really starting to come back now, which is wonderful.  But we can’t wait until it all starts humming at full-speed again soon.  

It will take a bit of time and lots of listening before I can really formulate a long-term vision for the theater.  But I can tell you that two aspects that drew me to the position is the relatively new focus on developing and producing new plays and musicals, and increasing our educational footprint by working with underserved communities here in Houston. 

Jayme McGhan / Courtesy of A.D. Players

I’m interested in bringing new stories to the George Theater that celebrate and explore the tension between the corporeal and the divine through the expansion of the Metzler New Works Series

Our new R.A.I.S.S.E initiative is also extremely exciting – not only educating the students who choose to enter our Academy, but also going out into the community and serving students who have little or no connection to the theater world. 

As the father of a little girl with Down Syndrome, the Arts for All program, an internal company that celebrates neuro-divergent artists, is also a huge inspiration and point of excitement for me.

What does it mean to intersect faith and theater to you? And how does inclusivity fit into that vision or approach?

A.D. Players exists to tell stories from a Christian worldview.  That doesn’t mean that we always tell explicit stories of faith, and it certainly doesn’t mean that what we do is always evangelical in nature.  But we are interested in telling stories of joy, reconciliation, and redemption, which is ultimately how the meta-narrative of the Christian faith is shaped. 

A.D. Players has always been ecumenical in nature and practice.  Jeannette Clift George, our founder, set it up with that mindset at the forefront.  All are welcome in our theater.  We have staff members who are committed Christians, we have staff members who are not.  We employ artists of every possible type you can imagine.  And we hope, at the end of the day, that we are known for the way we treat those folks – with deep and genuine love and respect.

I’ve spent the last 20 years intersecting my personal faith in Jesus and my work as a theater professional through my writing.  Out of the 22 full-length plays I’ve written to this juncture, I can only think of two that didn’t somehow deal with that aforementioned tension between the corporeal and the divine.  In many ways, arriving at A.D. Players is like coming home to a home I never knew I had. 

Mildred’s Umbrella Theater joins nationwide reading of #ENOUGH: Plays to End Gun Violence

Actors Juan Sebastian Cruz, Maya Monsavais, Alric Davis, and Chandler Kelly from Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company’s film of the short play “Rehearsal” by Willa Colleary / Photo by Sam Stengler

Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company is one of four Texas theater organizations – and one of more than 50 communities across the country – that will aim to raise awareness about gun violence through a national reading of #ENOUGH: Plays to End Gun Violence on April 20, 2022.

This year’s reading marks the 23rd anniversary of the Columbine High School mass shooting, which was among the first to ignite major discussions about school safety, access to firearms, and youth mental health.

Founded in 2019, #ENOUGH is a national playwrighting competition for teens to “confront gun violence by creating new works of theatre that will spark critical conversations and inspire meaningful action in communities across the country,” according to its website.

“We wanted Houston to be represented in the event, and we think gun violence awareness is really important in Houston, and all over the United States,” said Jennifer Decker, Executive Artistic Director of Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company.

According to data from the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, there were 10 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in Texas in 2021 and 13 in 2020.

This includes the October 2021 shooting at Houston’s YES Prep Southwest Secondary school and the January 2020 shooting at Bellaire High School. More than three years later, painful memories are still fresh from the May 2018 tragedy at Sante Fe High School, which killed 10 people and injured 13.

From nearly 150 national submissions, eight works by high school students – 10-minute plays that address gun violence through a variety of lenses and experiences – were selected by #ENOUGH’s panel of award-winning playwrights to receive a monetary prize, publication, and performance.

Artists from Mildred’s Umbrella produced film versions of the following six winning plays:

  • Rehearsal by Willa Colleary (Los Angeles, CA)
  • It’s Okay by Anya Jiménez (Brooklyn, NY)
  • Salted Lemonade by Taylor Lafayette (Benoit, MS)
  • In My Sights by Tain Leonard-Peck (West Tisbury, MA)
  • Undo, Redo by Cameron Thiesing (Louisville, KY)
  • Write Their Wrongs by Wyn Alyse Thomas (Buffalo Grove, IL)

The company will also present films produced by Pittsburgh’s Alumni Theater Company of the winning plays Southside Summer by MacKenzie Boyd (Chicago, IL) and Allegiance by Arianna Brumfield (Jackson, MS).

The films will be screened virtually on Mildred’s Umbrella’s Facebook and Vimeo pages from April 19 at 7pm through April 21. The online event is free, but donations to the reading are welcome and will go to Texas Gun Sense, an advocacy organization that works to reduce gun injuries and deaths.

This marks the second year for Mildred’s Umbrella to present the Houston reading of #ENOUGH. Decker points out that the winning plays for both years were mostly written by young women – an aspect that fits the company’s mission to support women in theater, which she says has dovetailed thematically with other social issues and concerns, such as sex trafficking and domestic violence.

After its participation in #Enough, the company’s next major production in May is The Mother Project – a World Premiere based on personal interviews with five African American mothers, midwives, and doulas, “illustrating the joy and heartbreak of being a Black mother in an America that still does not treat all people equally.”

“Sometimes our plays are just stories that happen to be about women, but often, the social justice issues come up in the story, and we embrace them and try to make sure we handle them appropriately,” said Decker.

Full disclosure: Houston Arts Journal’s Catherine Lu serves on the Advisory Board of Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company.