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.

No more ‘SPA’ – The organization soon becomes ‘Performing Arts Houston’

Winners and performers of the 2021 Houston Artist Commissioning Project with Mayor Sylvester Turner / Asaeda Badat Photography

After 55 years, Society for the Performing Arts is changing its name to Performing Arts Houston.

The major nonprofit arts presenter publicly announced the new name on April 5 in a newsletter to patrons and on social media.

The new name goes into effect on April 12, along with a new website, new branding, and a new membership program. That same day, Performing Arts Houston will also announce its 2022-2023 season and open applications for its 2nd annual Houston Artist Commissioning Project.

“Dropping the word ‘Society’ from the name helps us welcome everyone to the performing arts. This is an experience for all Houstonians,” said the organization in a statement.

The shorter new name is intended to celebrate the connection to local communities, while capturing the depth of arts presented.

“It also lets us lose the acronym SPA,” stated the organization, adding cheekily: “As therapeutic as the performing arts may be, we are not a spa.”

We’ve presented Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for over 50 years. We’ve brought Marcel Marceaux, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Yo-Yo Ma, Martha Graham Dance Company, Lang Lang, STOMP, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Spalding Gray, American Ballet Theatre, and hundreds more world class artists to our city. Parallel to what you see on stage, our education and community programs create and inspire arts engagement to the wider community. We’re proud to continue that work as Performing Arts Houston.

Society for the Performing Arts, April Newsletter

The new name was first revealed to attendees of its April 2 gala, The Kaleidoscope Ball, which raised nearly $600,000 is support of the organization’s presentations and education and community engagement programs.

Local performing arts groups updated – and reduced – COVID safety requirements throughout March

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 & Melissa Molano as Lucy Steele in Alley Theatre’s production of Sense and Sensibility, March 28 – April 10, 2022 / Photo by Lynn Lane

While the omicron variant wave forced some local arts groups to cancel events in late 2021 and early 2022, nearly all of the major Houston Theater District arts organizations have lifted masking or proof of vaccination requirements for audiences this past month – following the significant decline of COVID-19 cases in the City of Houston and Harris County.

In a statement by the Alley Theatre, which changed its protocol to ‘masks optional’ on March 9: “The Executive Directors at the Theater District organizations were in communication with each other around updating policies,” indicating information sharing and support within the arts community.

As March continued, arts groups – one after another – began announcing updated COVID policies on their websites or social media, citing guidance from public health experts, government officials, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (A list of updated protocol appears at the end of this article.)

Two local milestones also helped pave the way. On February 24, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner lifted mask requirements for employees and visitors in city buildings, and on March 10, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered the county’s COVID threat level to yellow, signifying a “moderate or controlled level of COVID-19.”

With a recently reported new BA.2 subvariant now in the Houston area, it’s unclear to health officials if that could lead to another surge.  The average positivity rate in Harris County currently remains low, under 2%.

For now, audiences have the opportunity to attend spring performances with less restrictions, while arts groups – many of whom have recently announced their 2022 – 2023 seasons – hang onto the hope for a healthier future.

Here’s a summary of updated COVID protocol of the 8 major Theater District arts groups and 3 Houston theater companies that operate their own venues:


As of March 1, A.D. Players no longer requires masks and temperature checks for patrons.

Due to the recent, rapid decline in positive COVID-19 cases in our area, revised union guidelines, and the new CDC guidance regarding indoor masking, we are pleased to announce that masks will no longer be required when attending a performance at the George Theater. We cannot thank you enough for your patience and support during this difficult time and we look forward to seeing your smiling faces once again at The George!

Kevin Dean, Artistic Director and Jake Speck, Executive Director


As of March 4, the Houston Symphony no longer requires masks for patrons, though “mask-wearing is strongly recommended for all audience members while inside of Jones Hall.”


Beginning today, Wednesday, March 9, we are pleased to announce that the Alley will no longer be requiring proof of negative COVID test or proof of vaccination to enter the Theatre. Additionally, guests and volunteers will no longer be required to wear a mask inside the Theatre, though anyone is, of course, still welcome to do so.

Alley Theatre website



As of late March, Main Street Theater no longer requires masks, but continues to require proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination, for audience members of its MainStage productions at its Rice Village venue.

Due to the intimacy of our MainStage theater in Rice Village, we are erring on the side of caution and continuing to require proof of a negative COVID test or vaccination.

We are prepared to be flexible. We will adjust as the virus and positivity rates adjust. Also, keep in mind that for our MainStage, we operate under an Actors’ Equity Association contract, so some rules they set. Basically, we are re-evaluating before each new production on both our MainStage and Theater for Youth stages.

Shannon Emerick, Director of Marketing and Communications

Previously in late February, Main Street Theater lifted mask requirements for its Theatre for Youth productions at MATCH. Proof of vaccination was never required for patrons of that series.

Elias String Quartet at the Menil Collection, March 29, 2022 / Courtesy of Da Camera


As of March 21, Da Camera no longer requires proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination, while maintaining its mask requirement: “All patrons must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth at all times, except while actively eating or drinking.”

DACAMERA’s safety policy was recently updated to reflect changing conditions in the community while remaining consistent with the policies implemented by the various venues in which we present performances.

Brandon Bell, General Manager


As presenters at The Hobby Center, both companies follow the safety protocol of the venue.

As of March 21, The Hobby Center no longer requires proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination, while maintaining its mask requirement: “Currently, all patrons must only wear a mask while inside the building and are required to provide their own mask.”

Houston Grand Opera’s 3rd Annual Giving Voice Concert, March 19, 2022 / Photo by Lynn Lane


As of March 25, Houston Grand Opera no longer requires masks for patrons.

Per the latest guidance on COVID-19 safety from the HGO Health Advisory Committee, local health officials, and the Centers for Disease Control, HGO will no longer require masks for audience members, effective immediately, although we continue to encourage their use.

In addition, HGO will remove all previous requirements (masks, proof of vaccine/negative COVID tests) for those attending special events at the Wortham Theater Center, including Opera Ball on April 9, and we will be reopening the Green Room for our spring repertoire.

Houston Grand Opera website


As announced in a March 28 email, SPA will no longer implement the same requirements – masks and proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination – at all of its shows.

SPA has revised policies for several upcoming shows, on a case-by-case basis.

We present artists from around the world, each with varying needs and perspectives. Conversations around health & safety differ for them all.

As the situation around Covid has changed, we’ve kept those conversations going. And we have updates.

Please see revised Covid policies below for upcoming 21/22 Season performances. Like our programs, there’s no one-size-fits-all.

Society for the Performing Arts

Details can be found on its FAQ page, under Health and Safety.


In an email to Houston Arts Journal, Houston Ballet says it plans to lift mask requirements for patrons in time for its next production, Pretty Things, opening May 20, 2022.

As we are planning to head back to the theater in mid-May, our current plan will include having a mask as an option, not a requirement. However, we will continue monitoring local conditions and updating our COVID policies with guidance from our medical partners, government officials, and the CDC.

Angela Lee, Director of Marketing and PR

Updated March 31, 2022, 1:20pm: This article has been updated to include new information provided by Houston Ballet.

Society for the Performing Arts will change its name in April

Urban Souls Dance Company in the World Premiere of “Colored Carnegie” by Harrison Guy, 2021 SPA Houston Artist Commissioning Project / Melissa Taylor Photography

After more than 50 years of being known as Society for the Performing Arts – or SPA, for short – the nonprofit arts presenter will change its name on April 12, 2022.

As recently announced in its March newsletter:

You’ve known us as Society for the Performing Arts. On Apr. 12, we’re changing our name, and our look. 

We’re changing our name, but not our commitment to ignite and cultivate passion for the performing arts, and more than ever, to support and amplify the voice of the artist.  

Society for the Performing Arts

Founded in 1966, Society for the Performing Arts is considered one of the major arts organizations in downtown Houston’s Theater District, and it has become “the largest nonprofit presenting organization of its kind in the Southwest,” according to its website.

Its founding dovetailed with the 1966 opening of Jones Hall. Created with the intention of filling the new venue with performances, Society for the Performing Arts – which would make its home in Jones Hall – would help ensure audience attendance in that space season after season, along with performances by the Houston Symphony and, until 1987, Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera.

CEO Meg Booth interviews 2021 SPA Houston Artist Commissioning Project awardees: musician Sonny Mehta of Riyaaz Qawwali, poet-playwright Deborah DEEP Mouton, and choreographer Harrison Guy / Melissa Taylor Photography

In addition to bringing international touring artists, musicians, dancers, actors, and speakers to Houston, the organization also champions local artists through its Houston Artist Commissioning Project – an initiative launched in 2020 that aims to support new works by the city’s artists, in particular those of marginalized communities.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Society for the Performing Arts with a few questions about its forthcoming name change:

Why is SPA changing its name now?

For years, there’s been interest in changing the name. With our 2020 Strategic Plan, working with our board, community partners, and staff, it was clear that this was a natural time to make the change.

What prompted this decision, and is it possible to say anything about what it might symbolize?

We wanted a name that better represented who we are, to match the scale and diversity of the arts we present on stage.

Will the name change be accompanied by any other changes within the organization or programming that you can share with us right now?

Yes! We’re getting a whole new look, launching a new website, and a new membership program. On the programming side, we’re building on the success of the Houston Artist Commissioning Project.

Something that isn’t changing—we’ll continue presenting the most diverse live arts experiences in Houston. We’re set to announce the 22/23 Season next month.

So the new name will be revealed to the public on April 12 and officially go into effect that day?

The new name and brand, the 22/23 Season, and memberships all go live on April 12. Attendees at the 2022 Kaleidoscope Ball get a first look at the brand on April 2.

We’re so thankful for our stakeholders, supporters, partners, and audiences. Without their financial support, their minds, their love for this city and for the performing arts, this work wouldn’t be possible. Under a new name, we’re ready for decades of arts yet to come.

Any hints you can drop now about the new name?

It’s a bit shorter!

“Sin Muros” Festival continues to grow as a showcase for Latinx theater-makers

Gricelda Silva in “Cenicienta” at the Sin Muros Festival in 2020 / Photo by AxelB Photography

When the Sin Muros Teatro Festival began in 2018, actor and writer Jasminne Mendez called it “groundbreaking”– the first of its kind in Houston to center several days of performances on the stories and voices of Latinx playwrights and actors.

A festival co-founder, Mendez continues to serve on the task force of writers, performers, and scholars that organizes Sin Muros each year, along with her husband Lupe Mendez, 2022 Texas Poet Laureate and this year’s festival coordinator.

Now in its 5th year, Sin Muros has grown to encompass the largest number of Latinx theater-makers in its history – more than 30, including playwrights, directors, cast, crew, and stage managers from local colleges and universities.

Presented by Stages and co-organized by Tintero Projects, the 2022 Sin Muros: A Borderless Teatro Festival opened February 17 and will run through February 20 at Stages’ theater venue, The Gordy. All events are free to the public, with an option to purchase a weekend pass as a donation to the festival.

“On behalf of the Sin Muros Teatro Festival – we welcome you back to the magic making – al puro son del corazón! Come see what all the buzz is about, come see cutting edge work from every kind of thing that is Tejano.”

Lupe Mendez

This year’s festival includes four World Premiere play readings – three in person, one virtual – featuring new plays by Karen Alvarado, Alicia Margarita Olivo, Adrienne Dawes, and Josie Nericcio, all playwrights with Texas roots. In addition, there will be workshops, poetry readings, and an art market.

The festival also honors Ruby Rivera, Artistic Director for the Texas Salsa Congress and a leading female Salsa organizer on the national scene. Rivera will be presented with the 2022 Premio Puenta, an award bestowed by festival organizers on “an individual or organization who has demonstrated great skill, talent, drive, or care in serving the Latinx art community in the Houston area.”

  • The festival schedule, with play descriptions, can be found here.
  • The Tintero poets schedule can be found here.
  • The Inprint Poetry Buskers will write free poems on demand in English and Spanish on requested themes at the festival on Saturday, February 19.
  • COVID-19 safety protocol can be found here.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Lupe Mendez for the following interview:

Why is this festival needed?

Though there are some really good spaces and people creating Latinx theater, we don’t have one space to call our own. From Gente de Teatro to Teatrx, there are no (to my knowledge) full-on theater spaces dedicated to Latinx theater.

It’s been a problem for a long time.  The spaces that should have it, that you would expect for it to exist in, can’t afford it. It’s part of the institutional racism legacy of major cities – we know who has the dollars to invest in the arts, and it is always the case that artists and theater-makers of color have to jockey for space and money. This festival is necessary because it provides a space to celebrate, to honor, to catch a spark of Latinx playwrights and build connections to hopefully one day see these amazing works in full productions. 

Any thoughts on how it reflects – or maybe even leads the way – in what is happening nationally in theater and efforts towards diversity?

Oh yes, I feel that when spaces like Stages are willing to open their doors and do so with care, with a “Hey look, we got this space and we got these resources, tell us what to do” attitude, you are literally inviting in a community to make a new home and it becomes a moment where everyone benefits. They listen. They ask questions. They trust, and I want other communities to find this kind of support. It is out there. You don’t have a space of your own? I am hoping you can find it in theater-making spaces who will trust you and open doors. 

What are the goals of the festival?

The goals of the festival are to highlight the work of Texas-rooted Latinx playwrights with play-readings still in the developmental process. We are now moving into the next phase of the festival – finding ways to ensure that one play moves on to be a part of Stages’ regular season, thus creating a pipeline and launching pad for Latinx playwrights. Can you imagine?  

How have you seen the festival impact the community and artists over the past four years? 

LEGACY. I am serious.  I had posted on Facebook that 20+ years ago, when I was a younger actor, I had a hard time getting cast in shows (we know why) and I gave up my acting dreams and focused on poetry. And now, as the Festival Coordinator for Sin Muros, I am in a different position to help provide space for some of the actors I used to work with. Some of the actors that have come to Sin Muros love it so much, they came back as Assistant Directors and now, Directors. 

We are helping build resumes and artistic CVs. Hell, we are creating work worthy of archival acknowledgment. I told that to the artists who are a part of this year’s Sin Muros: “Be aware that you are making history. You are a part of a larger plan, a larger momentum. Stages holds its archives at Rice University and this whole program goes there.” 

We make history every day we move forward. We are worthy of being spoken about, of being researched because this work is vital, it is necessary, it is grand. So yeah, study us, you future academics looking into what makes up Latinx theater. This is a part of your knowledge base. See how we build dreams. 

A new BIPOC fellowship continues Main Street Theater’s efforts toward equity and inclusion

Shannon Emerick, Elizabeth Barnes, and Jacob Sanchez in Jane Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid” at Main Street Theater, Feb. 5 – 27, 2022 / Photo by Ricornel Productions

In the past two years, against the backdrop of racial reckoning and a global Black Lives Matter movement, national efforts by BIPOC artists have called for American theaters to be more representative, equitable, and anti-racist, and recent studies have examined the lack of diversity among Broadway writers and directors.

Locally, veteran actor Candice D’Meza, with the support of fellow theater professionals, called for Houston theaters to reflect the community, asking for 40% Black, Indigenous, People of Color representation both on and off stage.

Main Street Theater is one local company that has since been assessing its relationship with communities of color and increasing efforts towards equity.

“We always prided ourselves on being open and inclusive, but during the last half of 2020, it became clear to us that we didn’t really have that many actors of color in our circle,” said Rebecca Greene Udden, Main Street Theater Artistic Director.

“In conversations with local artists of color it became clear that, no matter how welcoming we were, artists of color did not see a place for themselves here,” Udden said. “So we set about to change that.”

In July 2021, the company hired Sloane Teagle in a newly created position of Artistic Inclusion and Community Engagement Director – a role that reaches out to artists of color and also leads the historically white staff in examining how it can be more inclusive, according to Udden.

Last week, Main Street Theater announced a new, paid BIPOC Fellowship in directing, design, and stage management, which Teagle will oversee.

Individuals may apply online through April 1, 2022. 

Three fellows will be selected for the program, which will run May through September 2022. The BIPOC fellowship includes:

  • a $1,000 stipend
  • hands-on experience in either a main stage or theater for youth production
  • cohort meetings, led by Artistic Inclusion & Community Engagement Director, Sloane Teagle
  • mentorship from Houston-based theater professionals
  • opportunities to develop leadership skills and a network for future work

“Historically BIPOC artists have not received equitable opportunities and access to work with established professionals,” said Teagle in a press release.

That, combined with the fact that production positions can be harder to come by, means that BIPOC artists have traditionally had fewer opportunities to lead and shape stage works.

A company like Main Street Theater may hire 200 actors over the course of a season but only 10 or 12 directors, according to Udden – in the past tending to rely on talent they were already familiar with.

“If we are going to diversify these strata of our production teams, we need to invest in early-career professionals to give them the experience and seasoning they need,” said Udden.

When asked about the potential impact of the fellowship, Sloane Teagle told Houston Arts Journal in an email:

“I hope, first and foremost, that it will nurture up and coming BIPOC directors, designers, and stage managers as they learn and grow and make professional contacts. I hope it will make those artists confident that they have a place in the Houston theater scene … I also hope this fellowship will introduce Main Street Theater to new BIPOC artists for future consideration.”

The company says it plans to offer the fellowship annually.

Houston’s new BIPOC Arts Network and Fund awards $2 million to 120 local arts groups serving communities of color

TEATRX, a Latinx theater company and BANF grantee [pictured from left to right: Fabiola Andujar, Michael Sifuentes, Matthew Ruiz and Matthew Martinez] / photo by Melissa Taylor

In its first round of funding, the BIPOC Arts Network and Fund (BANF) has announced that it is awarding a combined $2 million to 120 Houston-area arts groups serving Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and other communities of color.

The grants range from $5,000 to $50,000 for 59 artist collectives and 61 arts organizations – with support from the Ford Foundation, Houston Endowment, The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Cullen Foundation, Kinder Foundation, and The Powell Foundation.

“This is a moving moment because there are many grantees who are being funded for the first time, despite having a strong and lengthy track record of work in their communities,” said Marissa Castillo, co-founder of TEATRX, in a press release. The Latinx theater company is the recipient of a $7,500 BANF grant.

“This grant helps TEATRX advance our mission of making Latinx performance arts a vital and prominent part of the artistic identity of Houston by representing and supporting the Latinx community, its artists, and its stories,” Castillo said.

While Houston is the most racially and ethnically diverse city in an increasingly diverse country, 90% of local arts philanthropy goes to 27 mostly white-led organizations, according to a 2017 study by Houston Endowment.

Only about 7% of local public funding goes to Latinx organizations, per a Houston report that was released in 2018 by the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.

Nationally, the 20 largest mainstream arts organizations have a median budget of $61 million – 16 times the median budget of the 20 largest organizations of color at $3.8 million, according to a 2015 Diversity in the Arts study by the DeVos Institute.

BANF was launched in September 2021 to address these inequities locally. The multi-year initiative aims to support BIPOC-led nonprofits that provide arts and culture programming, as well as fiscally-sponsored artist collectives, across the nine counties of Greater Houston (Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery, and Waller counties).

The groundwork for the effort was laid by the Ford Foundation’s America’s Cultural Treasures initiative, which in September 2020 committed an unprecedented $156 million to support BIPOC arts communities nationwide in response to the devastating economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of that amount, $5 million was invested in the Greater Houston region and combined with contributions from local foundations to create BANF.

Alief Art House, a BANF grantee, was founded and organized by Houston Filipinx artist Matt Manalo. A shipping container that houses free art exhibits and events, it brings art into the one of the most diverse neighborhoods within Greater Houston and serves as an outlet to showcase Alief artists. The collective is in the process of expanding to two shipping containers to house offices and workshops. / courtesy of Alief Art House

Of the 155 grant applicants in this inaugural round, 77% were funded after going through a review process by a panel of creatives, arts administrators, and arts and community leaders from Houston’s BIPOC communities.

“We took the opportunity to prioritize learning and abundance and to de-emphasize competition in our grantmaking process,” said Sixto Wagan, BANF Project Director, in a statement.

“We saw this as an opportunity to learn from the written and spoken words of applicants what our communities’ strengths and challenges are as they face the current economic, social, and health realities of today,” Wagan said.

Organizers say that this community-learning approach that centers BIPOC voices will continue to guide BANF as it develops ways to assist artists beyond financial investment – such as by “broadening networks or expanding development opportunities.”

In this coming year, the initiative will host a series of information sessions with grantees and the arts community at large to identify how BIPOC arts organizations and artists want to be supported specifically to meet challenges and needs.

A full list of grantees can be found here.

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.