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:

A.D. PLAYERS

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

HOUSTON SYMPHONY

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.”

ALLEY THEATRE

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

STAGES

MAIN STREET THEATER

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

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

BROADWAY AT THE HOBBY CENTER and THEATRE UNDER THE STARS

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

HOUSTON GRAND OPERA

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

SOCIETY FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS

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.

HOUSTON BALLET

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALLEY THEATRE

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

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

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

BROADWAY AT THE HOBBY CENTER

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

CATASTROPHIC THEATRE

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

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

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

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

The Catastrophic Theatre

FRESH ARTS

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

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

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

Fresh Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOUSTON EARLY MUSIC

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

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

Houston Early Music

ROCO

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Young Audiences of Houston / Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A full list of Houston grantees follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Society for the Performing Arts announces new COVID safety protocol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alley Theatre

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

Broadway at The Hobby Center

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

Da Camera

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

Houston Ballet

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

Houston Grand Opera

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

Houston Symphony

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

Society for the Performing Arts

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

Theatre Under The Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here:

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

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