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Starts and Stops

Two of Houston's small theaters succumb to urban development

The Little Room Downstairs Theater and Actors Theatre, two of Houston's most well-established small theaters, have closed their doors recently -- both apparently as a result of the high-dollar town-house development taking over their Southampton neighborhood.

Richard Laub, the Little Room's artistic director, will not relocate. Sitting in a space above the theater, among boxes and dusty props from bygone productions, Laub tells his story quietly. "It was ten-thirty at night on October 10," he says. "We were about to open Over the River and Through the Woods on that Friday. Some of the actors were leaving rehearsal and the fire marshal just popped in. He introduced himself and said he wanted a tour of the space." After spending two hours "touring," the marshal cited the theater for multiple infractions and told Laub he wasn't even sure the building could be brought up to code.

Fire marshals have closed down Ashland Street Theatre and the Atomic Cafe as well, but Laub sighs when he says, "Everybody in the cast believes that we were turned in. Of course no one has any evidence. The fire marshal himself said that he was just passing by." Duane Hefly, fireman and new owner of the neighboring Kay's bar, also received a long list of citations that night. "He suggested that there was a civic group who wanted certain properties gotten out of the area to build more huge condos over here," says Laub.

The director looks at the odd assemblage of theatrical detritus and says with a shrug, "We gave it a good run."

The closing of Actors Theatre has a happier ending. Sitting on a flowered couch in the group's new temporary Midtown office space, co-director Kate Revnell-Smith spreads her arms and says in a crisp British accent, "Isn't it great?" After more than a decade at its squat little building on South Boulevard, just one block north of the Little Room, Actors Theatre packed up its operations in July and moved to this two-story house on Austin Street.

"Our rent on South Boulevard was high -- very, very high. And they wouldn't give us a long-term lease, nor would they make any repairs. It was a mess," she says.

There's no performance space in the new building, but Revnell-Smith is most emphatic when she says, "We haven't disappeared by any means. We're just taking a little break." She waves a sheet of paper full of upcoming productions around town. Actors Theatre will open Lonely Planet at Unhinged Productions in January; and the company hopes to mount plays at Stages Repertory Theatre, the Ensemble Theater and with Infernal Bridegroom Productions (which has just found a new semipermanent home east of downtown at its old stomping ground, the Axiom). In addition, Actors Theatre has received some unexpected funding that may make it possible for the company to build its own theater.

Things are going so well that Revnell-Smith, who popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate leaving South Boulevard, hasn't even taken the time to drive by the old building. But she isn't the least bit surprised to hear that there's already a development sign staked in the front yard.

 
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