Arts / Performing Arts

When a Hot Houston Garage Becomes a Theater Stage — HSPVA Grads Create an Unlikely Showcase With $7 Tickets

Original Plays, Appreciative Crowds and Even Post Show 1990s Dance Parties

BY // 08.11.23

Even the relentless Houston heat can’t stop young people from creating art. During two humid 90 degree nights, The Garage opened for its second season in Houston. The Garage is the creation of Rafael Pina, Ollie Grishaber and Damon Diaz, who decided to formulate their own venue for theater and community after graduating from Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in 2022,. The first iteration of The Garage theater last summer featured original plays written and directed by Pina and Grishaber, cast with their HSPVA classmates.

The defining characteristic of The Garage is perhaps its location: a garage. What is normally a utilitarian structure is transformed by a simple folding table, an audience in run-of-the-mill folding chairs, a strobe light and a speaker into a vessel for original theater in Houston. The name is amusingly literal, but it speaks to the fundamental nature of the project, one fueled by young tenacity and unrelenting creative energy. 

The cast and directors behind "The Garage" during rehearsals in the Houston heat.
The cast and directors behind “The Garage” during rehearsals in the Houston heat.

“When we first started it, it was this feeling of ‘We’ve gone through our high school experience. We’ve gone through COVID. And we (didn’t) feel like we’ve had enough experiences to actually do art and create the art that we want to,” says Erick Arakelian, who is headed to DePaul this fall. “So there was this idea of ‘What if we just get together and do it on our own?’ ”

So this summer The Garage returned, complete with an after-show of dance-worthy 1990s music (performed by Pina, Ethan Bard, Marla Gallardo and Taylor Dauphine). This time, HSPVA alumni Lily Afghani and Will Newman each wrote and directed an original show.

First came Newman’s play dubbed “American Pop,” which features three people who work in advertising for a fictitious branch of Coca-Cola, spiraling as one of them questions the mundane insignificance of their job and the tedium of everyday life. For Newman, a student studying film & television at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, this marked his debut as both a writer and director in traditional theater. The idea for the play sprang from a question that struck while watching a commercial for Coca-Cola: Why would a product almost everyone uses and knows about need to be advertised?

The show’s dry, biting humor had the audience doubled over in laughter while the characters continued on in their self-absorption, unaware of the absurdity and comedy of their lives. A running gag throughout was one terrible ad idea from the endearing (and helplessly unimaginative) James Jensen, played by Arakelian. In a long, painfully self-conscious pitch, Jensen suggests a play on the ubiquitous “Got milk?” ad campaign, but to avoid copyright infringement, instead asks: “Do you have Coke?

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It is so bad it only deepens the already-consuming existential crisis that has pushed Emma Wallace, played by University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) student Rebecca Lembcke, to quit her pointless job and lash out at her poor co-workers. Max Holm, played by Diaz, is the comically animated and deeply traumatized boss. He only makes matters worse with his zealous chair swinging.

"Do you have coke?" asks Max in one of the original plays performed at Houston's The Garage venue.
“Do you have coke?” asks Max in one of the original plays performed at Houston’s The Garage venue.

Afghani’s play “Sweet Trip” was inspired by the song “Milk” from the band Sweet Trip. Having just completed a year away as a directing student at UNCSA, she was struck with the same existentialism that befalls many freshly-minted college students. She wanted to convey the deeply melancholic feeling of “Milk,” to put into words the layers of complex feelings it inspires. The joy, the nostalgia, the sadness of losing someone you love. 

“Sweet Trip” has a heavy dose of feel-good comedy, one that inspires uncontrollable smiles and a desire to give each of the characters a loving hug. It follows Beetle, Ladybug and Snail — played by Jaden Madgett, Lembcke and Shannon Hoffman respectively, with Savannah Coyne also in the mix  — as they set out on a journey to lift the spirts of Ladybug, who has recently lost her mother.

Beetle is a caring, cheery friend who wants to break Ladybug out of her Sudoku–filled slump. Over and over again, he tries. With cupcakes, meditative sessions, a high-intensity dance workout led by the rambunctious Snail. . .

And over and over again, he fails.

Behind dress rehearsals of "Sweet Trip" by Lily Afghani, one of the plays performed at The Garage venue in Houston.
Behind dress rehearsals of “Sweet Trip” by Lily Afghani, one of the plays performed at The Garage venue in Houston.

Eventually, the trio goes on an expedition through the mountains, and the actors transform into shadow puppets. Presented with a new bigger world, one full of both obstacles and wonder, they learn to accept change and difficulty as an essential part of life. The show concludes with Ladybug and Beetle reappearing, leaning on each other as they finally open up about their hurt and sadness, the dark garage splattered with green light. 

At the heart of The Garage theater lies collaboration and accessibility. At $7 a ticket, it’s unpretentious, experimental and joyful. The audience and cast alike are full of old HSPVA classmates and close friends, reunited to watch each other learn and create in an environment unlike any in traditional theater. 

“A lot of art these days is very product oriented — and I think that The Garage is very process oriented,” Pina tells PaperCity. “It’s about creating together. And that’s what everyone wants to be a part of.”

“The place to do it is here in this community, with your friends,” Afghani notes. “To try things and to make mistakes and have people there to catch you when you fall.”

This creative theater undertaking is a reminder that good, impactful art can exist in any space, whether it is a state-of-the-art theater or a hot Houston garage. As the young people who created The Garage disperse to their various schools and lives across the country, they leave with a greater passion for their work than ever before in many cases.

That is what will continue to fuel the future of theater, one that pushes traditional boundaries and expands access to wider and wider audiences.

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