Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Theater Innovator Kenn McLaughlin Talks Retirement, the Power of Events and the National Live Arts Crisis

The Head Honcho of Stages Speaks Out

BY // 07.18.23

“I think it’s good for the system to change over every 20 years. It’s really healthy. The world changes so rapidly and art has to be vibrant. The status quo is deadly for art.”

So says Kenn McLaughlin the longtime artistic director of Houston’s Stages who recently revealed his plans to retire at the end of the 2023-2024 season.

One of the Houston theater community’s great leader, McLaughlin has spend almost 25 years in Stages leadership positions programming their always eclectic seasons. He also became one of the guiding forces behind bringing a longtime company dream into fruition in the form of The Gordy theater complex. A career highlight for any theater director, The Gordy campus boasts a rarity for regional theaters across the country — three separate stages. 

In an exclusive conversation with PaperCity Houston, McLaughlin says there’s no one cause for the retirement or new job on the horizon. Instead, he thinks 25 years is a good time to take a bow.

Kenn McLaughlin’s Year-Long Curtain Call

McLaughlin worked on putting the 2023-2024 season together, while he was in talks with the Stages board about his retirement. When I ask him if he baked some theatrical treats for himself into the season, he says yes. But it’s not something he necessarily recognized until later.

“As I thought this really does feel like the moment (to announce his retirement), then this season made a lot of sense to me,” McLaughlin says. “It’s so strong, very impactful, really joyful season and it asks some great questions about power and spirituality.

“It’s very Stages and emblematic of Stages as I led it.” 

The season begins this month with the first of two shows McLaughlin will direct, the jukebox musical Always… Patsy Cline. The story of Cline’s real and enduring friendship with Houston fan Louise Seger helped put Stages on the map. Stages founding artistic director Ted Swindley wrote the show, which went on to be a regional theater success around the country for decades with an Off-Broadway run in the 1990s. 

McLaughlin will direct Patsy for the fifth time, but speaking to him it’s easy to see that he didn’t program the show because it’s always a guaranteed hit with audiences. He genuinely loves Patsy and finds new facets each time he digs into the script with the cast and creative team.

“It’s a lot more complex of a play than people will every give it credit for,” McLaughlin says.

Always Patsy Cline
Scene from the last time McLaughlin directed Always… Patsy Cline.

Along with Patsy, McLaughlin will also direct the psychological mystery Switzerland starring Stages veteran Sally Edmundson as a fictional version of Texas-born writer Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talent Mr. Ripley.

The rest of the season indeed reflects McLaughlin’s sensibilities that embrace a classic jukebox show just as tightly as a cutting edge work from emerging talent. The lineup includes a world premiere addition to the Late Night Catechism series — Sister’s Irish Catechism — and another original holiday Panto show. McLaughlin first introduced the British Panto style of holiday show to Houston, commissioning new works each year with a Texas twist. 

Along with popular favorites, the season brings more edgy shows like the Q Brothers’s Othello: The Remix, a comic hip-hop remix of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the comedy POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive which recently had a Broadway run and the new comedy Laughs in Spanish.

Though picked especially for McLaughlin’s final season, he won’t direct the last show of the season, A Case for the Existence of God.

“It’s a play that takes the most mundane topic you could imagine and blows it up into an epic spiritual question,” McLaughlin says. “We switched around so that’s the last one because it epitomized, it captures my belief about humanity.

“To think about the last image of that show being the last image of my time at Stages is really, really poetic. That was intentional on my part.” 

McLaughlin gives the producing associate artistic director Mitchell Greco the chance to helm this show.

“Which is also a bit of the poetry,” he says of the choice. “A former student of mine who has risen to amazing achievements.”

Theatrical Crisis

McLaughlin says he’s proud of the Stages team he helped to build and excited about Stages future beyond his leadership but acknowledges the state of regional theater is a precarious one across the country, with weekly news about yet another acclaimed theater in financially trouble or closing. While Houston theaters are certainly having their own struggles to bring audiences back, so far none have closed. 

McLaughlin believes theaters can’t solely blame their problems on the pandemic. He says regional theaters have been under-sourced long before COVID. Compounding this problem, core older audiences, who were loyal season subscribers, have not come back at the same levels.

Meanwhile, younger audiences tend to reject or ignore subscriber programs.

“A lot of theaters who had such a consistent understanding of who their audience was through their subscriber base see that shift radically,” McLaughlin says. “Their efforts to communicate and engage with younger audiences, different audiences, has not been as robust as it needs to be for the level of change we’re seeing.”

McLaughlin thinks the subscribe model might have to change as younger audience won’t buy into a whole season at one time, though they certainly will attend live performances. I noted how the touring musical Wicked landed at the Hobby Center for over a month this summer to large audiences. 

“The anecdotal stories out there right now seem to be that if it’s an event or a brand, they’re going to buy it,” he says of the cultural shift. Taking my Wicked example he notes: “It’s a brand and an event. It’s 20 years old, so now women are bringing their daughters. It’s also a tradition now.” 

And for Stages at least that might be part of the solution. 

“Events and brand that’s part of it,” McLaughlin says, noting that for many audiences Patsy has become a brand and an event to attend. Plumshuga, Stages’ opening 2022 fall show became their best-seller of the season. The biography play about pioneering Houston Ballet dancer Lauren Anderson, written by former Houston poet laureate Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton that also included dance interludes choreographed by Houston Ballet’s artistic director Stanton Welch and Urban Souls Dance founder Harrison Guy gained a must-see status. 

“Lauren’s a brand, and the Houston Ballet a partnership,” McLaughlin says. “All of that energy, it was such an event.”

Kellen Hornbuckle as Dancer Lauren-Stages_Plumshuga_Production Photos_Photographer Melissa Taylor-178
Plumshuga: The Rise of Lauren Anderson became Stages’ biggest hit of the 22-23 season and a must-see event. (Photo by Melissa Taylor)

Still McLaughlin notes in the end that not every show can be an event in that sense.  

“For a theater like ours the brand has to be what Stages is, what Stages does,” he tells PaperCity.

And here might be the other aspect of McLaughlin’s enduring legacy, though not quite as visible as the Gordy. The company has done years of work trying to respond to and reflect more communities in Houston, on making that reflection part of their brand.

McLaughlin acknowledges that though Stages has always produced a range of both popular and more edgy work, sometimes those works were dominantly Eurocentric stories.

“In order to for the work to truly reflect the community we have to change the center of the stories, so that we’re telling Black-centered stories, Latinx-centered stories,” he says.

McLaughlin advocates for the need to hold up a mirror to the community, especially in a city like Houston.

“If you’re going to be in the most diverse city in the country than how you hold up the mirror has to be rooted in the community,” McLaughlin says.

But in order to tell those stories authentically, Stages had to make other changes especially behind the scenes and the creative teams helping to produce the onstage world.

“Asking the questions about inclusion in different ways has started to change the DNA of this company,” McLaughlin says of work that started long before the pandemic. “That’s the biggest change and really seeing the reflection in the audience members that are coming to us, the composition of that audience.”

And as McLaughlin got news of yet another theater’s financial woes — this one in Chicago — just minutes before our conversation, he still remains hopeful for the future. Especially for the Houston theater community and Stages.

“Theater is never going away,” McLaughlin tells PaperCity. “The way in which we come to it, the way in which we make those circles is probably going to change. But the thing itself is never going away.

“Being in authentic conversation with your community — those are the things that really matter.”

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