Arts / Performing Arts

Houston’s Stages is Welcoming Theater Crowds Back — The Most Exciting New Season Ever?

Call It a Comeback — World Premieres and Broadway Hits Included

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Streaming, Zooming, outdoor immersing and even radioing it in, Texas theater companies have tried almost every mode to bring performances to audiences during the pandemic. Now Houston’s Stages will attempt the most radical move of all, bringing audiences and actors back into the theater for live, in-person performances. To mark the momentous occasion, they’ve chosen a show that celebrates that true power of live performances with the musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a depiction of one of Billie Holiday’s last concerts.

Stages will bring audiences home to the Gordy on the heels of revealing its 2021 to 22 season, which boasts a lineup of world premiere plays and musicals. To find out what it took to get back into the Gordy and what led to season with so much new work, PaperCity talked with Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin.

A New Lady Day

Lady Day acts as a kind of bridge between a theatrical year filled with heartbreak and innovation and the next season, which begins in October, hopefully at full audience capacity. For the summer performances, Stages is offering audiences the chance to view performances either inside the Sterling theater space with socially distancing seating or Livestreamed at home.

The Stages production features Houston native and now Broadway star DeQuina Moore. In a bit of light amid the pandemic darkness, Moore came home when New York theaters shut down. Stages was able to lure her to stick around for such a rich role. McLaughlin believes her experience makes her perfect for this type of hybrid performance in front of both in-person and at-home audiences.

“She’s got a lot of film and television credits as well,” McLaughlin tells PaperCity. “She’s exactly the right kind of person you want sitting at the center who understands both mediums.”

McLaughlin hints that while Lady Day is scheduled to run through mid-July, there is a chance of extending the show. He let PaperCity in on other possible summer theatrical fun, including hints of outdoor festival programming targeted to millennials. The biggest news is Stages’ astonishing 2021-22 season lineup that contain all world premiere shows, except for three: the Broadway hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the holiday happening Sister’s Christmas Catechism and the award-winning Black Super Hero Magic Mama.

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Stages launches this parade of world premieres early on with Hook’s Tale, a retelling of Peter Pan from Captain Hook’s perspective in October. In the new year, the theater company will debut MacGyver: The Musical. Both were originally scheduled for the 2020-21 season, along with Black Super Hero Magic Mama. McLaughlin says these works in particular deserve a second chance, as each contain themes that will resonate with audiences even more after a year of COVID-19 upheaval and horrors.

Stages’ Homegrown Theater

Another remarkable aspect of the season is that the majority of the new works come from local playwrights, including Stages’ annual Panto show. Panto Little Mermaid by ShaWanna Renee Rivon and Elizabeth A.M. Keel splashes in for the holidays. Then 2022 brings a comedy about the health care system, plus witches (Sunrise Coven by Brendan Bourque-Sheil) and later the story of Vietnamese Houstonian siblings. Song of Me is written by local actor Mai Lê and created by Lê and Stages sound designer and frequent assistant director Đạt Peter Ton.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the lineup comes next spring with the world premiere of the jukebox musical You Are Cordially Invited to Sit-In, slated for the blackbox Rochelle and Max Levit Stage. Back when the Gordy was only in the planning stages, McLaughlin made it no secret that they wanted a third stage to park a popular show — likely a light musical or comedy with a successful track record — for many months.

The Levit stage becomes that space. McLaughlin says this year gave them some time to think about what crowd-pleasing shows can become.

“We were evaluating what do those shows actually do,” he says. “They’re good for the community because they get a lot of people through the door. They’re good for the artists because artists have repeating work, and they’re good for the playwrights because they create sustaining income so the playwrights can do other things.

“We were questioning how we can do all those things and benefit local artists. So we said: We should commission this.”

Stages Studio Sessions with Teresa Zimmermann. Photo by Josh Morrison
Stages Studio Sessions with Teresa Zimmermann. (Photo by Josh Morrison)

Not only would they commission a new work from a Houston playwright — writer ShaWanna Renee Rivon — it’s also based on real Houston civil rights history, the sit-in at the Weingarten Supermarket in 1960.

“Those jukebox musical, a lot of them are white-centered story and we thought: Can we do a jukebox musical that’s a black-centered story, that’s a Houston story?” McLaughlin describes, adding on Rivon’s work, “One of the things she’s focused on ultimately is how joy can coexist with activism. How can you show beautiful exuberance alongside this really difficult, painful story.”

Risky Show Business

While this Houston-centric season came together organically from relationships between Stages and local artists, McLaughlin admits they setting upon quite the “adventure.”

“It is a dare, a risk for a company to do that, but I’m so proud we’re doing it. It is one of the greatest outcomes of this hideous pandemic,” McLaughlin says. “We recognize how much need there is in our community for care and investment and nurturing.

“When it was taken away for a whole year, we recognize that there’s all this opportunity that we’ve never really tapped into that we want to shift our focus towards.”

During the pandemic, Stages found itself using the Gordy in a multitude of ways, including as a filmmaking studio. They offered streaming shows throughout the year like Panto and the musical Honky Tonk Laundry. They also created a series of spotlight performances for local Houston actors, singers and writers, calling it Studio Sessions. Though he can’t wait to return audiences to in-person performances, McLaughlin does think playing in the digital domain is here to stay for many companies.

“I think it’s a whole new frontier for theaters around the country, opera companies, performance art companies,” he says. “I really believe the next challenge is to figure out how to incorporate this new frontier into your landscape.”

Stages Studio Sessions Lawn Screening at The Gordy. Photo by Greg Warrington (1)
Stages turned the Gordy’s Brown Foundation Lawn into a new space to screen theater offerings. (Photo by Greg Warrington)

The theater company also turned the Gordy’s Brown Foundation Lawn into a unique outdoor theatrical space, broadcasting some of its streaming productions onto the giant LED screens.

“I think that’s going to be a wonderful new asset and wonderful new playground for artists,” McLaughlin says.

But beyond the new skills they learned and new kinds of stages they discovered, McLaughlin says this year brought home to him how much live theater builds a larger community home.

“When you take it away, you recognize the levels of anxiety, and disconnection and isolation that takes hold,” he says. “That value of just being together in the room, whether or not you agree on the content, whether or not you enjoy the same experience, just being in the room together has a value.

“The immediacy of that, the relationship of that, the way we build relationships because of being in person, all of that, I will never take that for granted again. And I think it will make our theater experience when we come back together so much more meaningful on every level.”

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