Arts / Performing Arts

Houston’s New $35 Million Theater Complex Wows — Your Sneak Peek Inside The Gordy

The Real Behind the Scenes Stories of a City Changer

BY // 01.10.20

It’s not your typical day in Houston — nor in Texas for that matter, at least not for the performing arts.

It’s little more than a week away from the opening a new theater complex, one that comes with considerable architectural swagger, matched with its 41-year history of producing regionally renowned, and even nationally and internationally known, shows. (Think BentAlways…Patsy Cline, Full Gallop, and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change to The Great American Trailer Park MusicalBlack Pearl Sings and The Marvelous Wonderettes.)

Stages Repertory  Theatre — now rebranded as Stages — will unveil its $35-million theater complex, The Gordy, on Saturday, January 18.

Is it coincidental that its moniker – after quiet patrons supreme Glenda and Russell Gordy – is alliterative with game-changing, as in the game-changing Gordy?

Tommy & Isla Reckling, Glenda & Russell Gordy, standing, Sue & Lester Smith, at Stages Theater Gala 2019 (Photo by Daniel Ortiz)
Magnificent patrons: Tommy and Isla Reckling, Glenda and Russell Gordy, Sue and Lester Smith (seated), at Stages  Gala 2019 (Photo by Daniel Ortiz)

First Peek Behind the Curtain

I’m standing in a light-washed lobby that feels rooted in the space’s industrial past — this once was the off-the-radar conservation lab for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, home to million-dollar canvases getting the art spa treatment — gazing out upon an ever changing city.

A mere block away, on Allen Parkway, stands Stages’ former home for 35 of its 41 years, the historic, Spanish-style Star Engraving Building.

The Gordy's industrial-chic lobby, designed by Gensler. (Photo by Amitava Sarkar)
The Gordy’s industrial-chic lobby, designed by Gensler. (Photo by Amitava Sarkar)

Radom Capital inked a deal at the end of 2019 to acquire the Star Engraving complex with plans to have a James Beard- chef driven restaurant there — whose patrons will be built-in: post-performance theater-goers from The Gordy.

Potent and Poetic Arrival

Emblematic of the new theater’s philosophy, there’s no back door here.

Actors, theater goers and staff all step into the new 66,850 square-foot campus through an expansive arrival area: a two-story, 4,000 square-foot entry that testifies to architect Gensler’s deft handling of its task to transform an undistinguished, serviceable warehouse into a home that’s both intimate and inspiring.

Beginning with 40,000 square feet of existing warehouse space, then adding on an additional 26,000 square feet has resulted in a building that achieves design functionality with an economy of means, while also feeling important and considered.

Its trio of theaters have been brought forth by Charcoalblue, a British theater design firm, which has successfully crossed the pond with innovative calling cards like The Gordy.

The new lobby is a soaring volume of space, but never grandiose — instead human-scaled.

The Gordy's light-filled entrance lobby with signature text work. (Photo by CDA)
The Gordy’s light-filled entrance lobby with signature text work. (Photo by CDA)

The tone for theater-goers is set from the start by a stanza of text, one which embodies Stages’ reason for being, notes managing director Mark Folkes. “We sit together in the dark to know how to love each other in the light,” he says.

On the day of PaperCity’s private tour, as troubling news arrives from the Middle East, this statement reads like a blanket of hope.

“Transformational,” “intentional” and “flexible” are three adjectives that pepper our conversation. They’re matched by a trio of nouns: “community,” “audience” and “function.”

Folkes, along with Lise Bohn, development and communication director, are the Sherpas of my tour.

Artistic director, the creative face of Stages, innovative and long-standing leader Kenn McLaughlin, is amidst rehearsals, explains Folkes. McLaughlin is readying for a rapidly approaching opening night for The Fantasticks, set for Friday, January 24, which will inaugurate The Gordy.

Like proud parents, Folkes and Bohn lead me through all three new purpose-built, and state-of-the art, theaters.

We also peer into handsome back-of-the-house departments, ones stuffed, albeit electronically inventoried and well organized, with all manner of costumes, wiggery and props.

Available to be loaned to other Houston theater companies, these well-used trappings of creativity conjure up decades of performances for Houston’s third largest theater company (and the most significant outside of downtown).

(Photo by CDA)
Behind the scenes at the Gordy’s meticulously catalogued, overflowing costume department. (Photo by CDA)

“It’s intentionally not grand other than this main entrance,” Folkes tells PaperCity. “It is exactly perfectly right for Stages. It’s about bringing a welcoming, accessible space where everyone feels comfortable.”

Bohn notes, “You’re seeing that this space gives us a scope that we’ve never had the ability to work with. So we you get that incredible intimacy which really is amplified even from what it was across the street. But with scope.”

A committed trio of board members — George Lancaster (board chairman), Sally Edmundson (a noted actress who has performed innumerable times on Stages’ stages, most memorably in the role of Diana Vreeland) and Jim Nicklos — co-chaired the $35-million capital campaign, a hefty, impressive one for a mid-sized arts organization.

Isla and Tommy Reckling, whose family Sterling-Turner Foundation names the Sterling Stage, served as honorary campaign chairs.

The Gordy’s Triple Play

The new Gordy, an actors’ Equity theater, ramps up from previous seasons’ 380-some performances to 2019/2020’s 435 performances spanning 12 productions, set to reach an audience of 65,000.

It now boasts a capacity of 608 seats, arrayed in three state-of-the-art theaters — making for a performance arts venue both agile and intimate.

The most traditional is the Sterling Stage, a 251-seat thrust theater, which bears a balcony where the audience will be so close to the actors, it will be like floating over the play.

Sterling Stage (Photo by Amitava Sarkar)
The Sterling Stage at The Gordy. UK-founded Charcoalblue devised the intimate, innovative theater design for all three new stages in the performing arts complex. (Photo by Amitava Sarkar)

And the Sterling is an incredible four rows deep (versus seven rows at the former venue), marrying the feeling of being in a living room with the actors with Charcoalblue’s acclaimed acoustics and new-century aesthetics.

Also double-decker, ringed by a single row on the balcony, the 223-seat Lester and Sue Smith Stage, promises to meld actor with audience into an experience unrivaled for immediacy and power.

Finally, an edgy warehouse-style stage completes the trio. A metallic curtain signals entry to the 134-seat Rochelle and Max Levit Stage, named for the grocery supply family who have long enjoyed and supported Stages’ performances.

And befitting a grand opening — Stages’ inaugural repertoire reflects its artistic breadth and diversity.

“Those three productions are so perfectly Stages,” Folkes says. “We have a classic piece of musical theater The Fantasticks), a Pulitzer Prize award-winning drama (Water by the Spoonful), and then a jukebox musical of country music (Honky Tonk Laundry).

“That’s kind of the unique voice that’s been established is that we do such a broad scope of programming.”

From Parking Lot to Bold New Theater

Joni Mitchell famously crooned, in Big Yellow Taxi, “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”

Although I’m not a songwriter, in Stages’ parlance, that might be changed to, “They went in search of a parking lot, and built The Gordy.”

During our walk through Folkes let us in on the story how The Gordy came to be when he, McLaughlin and a group of board members first looked at the neighboring MFAH building as a possible site for parking lot.

“You know Stages has the most remarkable board of directors,” Folkes details. “That is why we’re able to stand in this building today. When this project opportunity first came to us in December of 2015, we learned about this property and the opportunity. We had a board meeting at the end of November.

“And that night we received our first $100,000 check for this project to purchase this property and do something bigger and bolder than we could ever do across the street. Within 30 days, we had an additional 10 commitments of $100,000 or more from the board of directors.”

Folkes also speaks of the Gordys’ history with Stages, one the goes back to the very early days, when the theater was founded in 1978 in the basement of Bart Truxillo’s Magnolia Brewery in downtown Houston.

“Another part of the story is that of Glenda and Russell Gordy,” he says. “She was taking the bus from Kingwood to meet her husband who was working at Houston Oil and Gas downtown when he would get off work.

“And they would have date night at Stages. Then they continued to attend over the next 40 years. And it wasn’t until we shared this vision for Stages 2.0 that inspired them to say this has been such an important part of our lives for these past four decades, let’s make a meaningful, transformational gift for both ourselves and the institution.”

Folkes tells PaperCity after the milestone of opening The Gordy, Stages is open to considering a book detailing its first five decades in the Texas theater world. Conveniently and fortuitously, the theater’s archives are perfectly preserved and housed at Rice University’s Fondren Library Woodson Research Center.

The Lester and Sue Smith Stage (Photo by Amitava Sarkar)
The Lester and Sue Smith Stage, a 223-seat arena theater is one of three stages at the new Gordy. The Smiths and the Gordys enjoyed a long friendship, which is how the Smith gift came to be. (Photo by Amitava Sarkar)

Folkes get into the back story of Isla and Tommy Reckling, capital campaign honorary chairs. “We have the Sterling Stage that honors the memory of her mother and stepfather who were Broadway impresarios themselves — Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson,” he says. “Isla grew up going between New York and Houston and seeing her parents active in the Broadway community in New York.

“They funded a professional theater in New York. They produced a production called Bajour that starred Chita Rivera, which was one of Chita’s first productions.”

Two Signature Spaces

Folkes and Bohn’s tour concludes with a look at the second-floor, including some very cool administrative offices and an alfresco balcony adjoining the Sterling Stage.

Sterling Stage Exterior (Photo by Amitava Sarkar)
Sterling Stage looking out to the second-floor balcony at The Gordy. (Photo by Amitava Sarkar)

We wrap the afternoon with a peek at two final spaces, adjoining the lobby, still being completed: the Lancaster Lounge, named for board chair George Lancaster. Private wine lockers, and a keypad whose combination — printed on tickets of top donors, to allow access — are some of the tony touches of this private area.

(Don’t miss our exclusive Q-and-A with George Lancaster about this role at Stages in PaperCity‘s February print issue.)

The last stop is the Edmundson Gallery, as in stalwart Stages’ leaders Sally and Philip Edmundson. The multi-purpose space “could be used by the community or other arts organizations for work or meetings or workshops” as Folkes notes. We checked out its unique garage-door style portal, which opens directly onto the lobby.

Folkes confirms that Houston artist Paul Fleming  has been tapped for a site-specific installation (still in the works) for the Edmundson Gallery, which was funded by Stages board member Hans Roth and his wife, Ingrid Cordon. (The artist is represented by Barbara Davis Gallery, Houston.)

Finally, Folkes and Bohn volunteer that Stages is seeking a coffee shop/barista to activate the lobby. Plans call for the lobby to be open during the day to serve the community even when there is not a show. Stay tuned.

The Gordy, 800 Rosine St., 346.701.8862, box office 713.527.0123.

Find more info about opening day, inaugural shows, and the new theater complex here and here. 

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