Arts / Performing Arts

The Golden Age of Houston Theater — With World Premieres Bountiful, This Is One Unexpected Post COVID Spike

From a MacGyver Musical to Theater Kids to a Moon Mission, Shows Get Daring

BY // 03.31.22

After almost two years of darkened stages, we wouldn’t have blamed Houston theater companies if their first season back all featured fourth wall to wall feel good familiar fare. Perhaps several Sound of Musics and lots of manor house comedies and mysteries.

Yet something risky happened on the way to Houston theater’s new seasons. We came back to in-person theater for some award-winning plays but also a plethora of shows debuting to the world.

From a fun and now timely 1980s-themed MacGyver musical at Stages to a play about Texas high school theater subculture at The Alley to a look at the Apollo 8 mission at A.D. Players and a musical bio about a Houston’s Reverend Bill Lawson and Mrs. Audrey Lawson at Ensemble Theatre, there are so many new stories and voices on Houston stages. With more still to come.

In this year of back to live, in-person theater, when playing it safe would have meant familiar crowd-pleasers, risky world premieres that are decidedly on-trend are cropping up again. Now, artistic directors around town are opening up on why they’re taking this great leap into the new in such a tentative year back.

Houston Theater and The Art of Risky Show Business

“It is much easier to get audiences to come to something more familiar, something they already know,” Alley Theatre artistic director Rob Melrose says. “At the same time, to be a theatre that is relevant, that is adding to the field, that is offering something new, it is important to take the risk and produce world premieres.”

The Alley recently debuted two world premieres High School Play: A Nostalgia Fest and Amerikin in early 2022 with two more scheduled, the alternate history examination of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow’s relationship called Born With Teeth and Noir, a new musical from the Tony and Grammy winning Duncan Sheik.

A.D. Players artistic director Kevin Dean echoes Melrose’s sentiment for the company’s own world premieres — No One Owns Me, a human trafficking story with hope which debuted in February, and Apollo 8, set for production in May. The season lineup also holds a lively production of Sound of Music, but Dean says they realized this was the time to debut these new works they had been nurturing as part of their Metzler New Works Festival.

“Sometimes entertainment for entertainment sake is important, but we felt that the subjects of our chosen world premieres were stories that needed to be told, and told now, regardless of name recognition,” Dean tells PaperCity. “The Apollo 8 mission took place in December of 1968, the end of perhaps the most consequential and tumultuous years in our nation’s history.

“Twelve straight months of political unrest, military unrest, civil unrest, racial unrest, economic unrest mixed with violence and hate that played out in dramatic and sensationalistic fashion. Sound familiar?” Dean asks.

Then the artistic director points to the “miraculous” Apollo mission when humans saw those images of Earth from the moon.

“That moment changed people’s lives,” Deans says. “It brought healing and hope to a world that needed it desperately. That’s why it’s so important for us to do Apollo 8 now.”

Mildred’s Umbrella artistic director Jennifer Decker also points to these tumultuous years as inspiration to try something new this spring. As a faculty member at Houston Community College, in normal years, Decker doesn’t usually have time to foster brand new work. Ironically the pandemic gave her some creative downtime to focus on new ideas.

“I had my head space back, and the time to think and plan for a very specific thing I was inspired to create,” Decker says. “So it wasn’t so much about ‘coming back with something brand new for us as much as I finally had some down time to create something new. Because the treadmill I was on came to a screeching halt for a bit.”

That head space bore The Mother Project: A Collaboration to Honor Black Mothers and their Children. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a collaboration with Esurient Arts, a diverse group of five artists will weave the work together based on direct interviews with five Black mothers and a doula.

Stages takes the world premiere record this season with six new works. Two of the premieres — Hook’s Tale and MacGyver the Musical — were previously scheduled for 2020. Yet when planning this current season, the company decided simply shifting these premieres would not be enough.

StagesHooksTale6_Ryan Schabach and Donald Corren in Stages’ world peremiere production of Hook’s Tale. Photo by Melissa Taylor
Captain Hook tells a decidedly different story about Peter Pan in Hook’s Tale (Photo by Melissa Taylor)

Stages also offered a holiday Panto from two Houston playwrights in 2021, and now fills spring with three new works from local playwrights: Sunrise Coven, You Are Cordially Invited to a Sit-In and Song of Me. Sit-In also has the distinction of likely being the first ever jukebox musical created around real Houston civil rights history, the sit-in at the Weingarten Supermarket in 1960.

“The fact that so many were new didn’t appear to me as a risk,” Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin says. “It was an opportunity to say to the Houston community — and in particular to Houston artists — we can do this, we can come through this. And our voices will be centered in the process.”

When looking back at almost two years worth of pessimistic and tragic news, McLaughlin says he did feel a disparity from what he was seeing locally.

“It felt like what we experienced as Houstonians and what narratives were dominating were totally out of sync,” McLaughlin tells PaperCity. “So it felt very right to say, what do Houston artists care about right now? What do they have to say?

“Almost in the same way that so much of our civic life has focused on all things local — our response to the pandemic, our economic support structures — it felt like staying close to home with our stories and uplifting those nearest to us was exactly what we needed to do for our healing.”

Future Premieres

Stages recently revealed its 2022 to 23 season lineup and it almost rivals this season, with five world premiere works. These include a musical about the Everly Brothers and Plumshuga: The Rise of Lauren Anderson, a musical bio about one of the first Black principal ballerina of a major ballet company, Houston Ballet’s own Lauren Anderson. With a book by former Houston poet laureate Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton and choreography by H.B artistic director Stanton Welch and Urban Souls A.D. Harrison Guy that show will tell a distinctly Houston story on an international scale.

Lauren Anderson presenting Onstage Dinner Holiday Trivia
Retired Houston Ballet principal dancer Lauren Anderson

Back at the Alley, Rob Melrose believes the world premiere trend, at least in Houston theater, will likely continue in coming seasons. He also agrees with some theater observers who call this a golden age of playwriting.

“Now all regional theaters are doing new plays and many playwrights supplement (oftentimes significantly) their income by writing for TV and film,” Melrose notes.

Melrose even gives PaperCity an exclusive hint at the Alley’s 2022 to 23 season, revealing it will include six world premiere works.

“As we do more new work, it will require a change in mindset,” Melrose admits as a kind of optimistic advisory for Houston audiences. “It will be less about coming to the Alley to see what was popular in New York two years ago and more about the Alley being a place where great work begins.

“Being a theatre that births new plays which then go to New York and the world beyond.”

So perhaps the world better get ready for more theater premiering first in Houston.

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