COUNTRY PLAYHOUSE

How a theater on the verge of insolvency has reversed its fortunes

If an actor lives 50 years without burning out and fading away, or without dying like James Dean or John Belushi, it's a cause for celebration. If a theater lives to 50, it's a miracle. And so maybe nobody was really surprised when Country Playhouse, an iconic West Houston theater founded in 1956, was on the verge of insolvency. The bigger surprise was that its actors were fighting with all their might to save it.

By 2004, the battle looked nearly hopeless. Two poorly attended musicals and an expensive renovation of the theater's lighting system had left it in a deep financial hole, and the clogged traffic from the Katy Freeway expansion was devastating. "We were discussing what day we would be going down to close our doors," says Playhouse board president Larry Hermes. "We were fighting every bill we had because we simply had no money coming in."

And yet the theater was clearly a neighborhood treasure. Founded in a backyard when the "country" part of its name still meant something, it had expanded into a great place for children to take acting classes, for local audiences to watch high-quality shows in a large two-stage venue, and a place where budding actors could catch a break. (Alumni include Alley Theatre core actor Paul Hope and Toby Mattox, former executive director of Society for the Performing Arts.)

For the first time in years, artistic director Barbara Lasater is allowing herself to dream a little.
Daniel Kramer
For the first time in years, artistic director Barbara Lasater is allowing herself to dream a little.

The Playhouse's leaders convened late in 2004 and decided on a drastic plan for revival: They asked the whole staff to stop taking a salary. Amazingly, almost everyone agreed. "That was very, very uplifting," recalls artistic director Barbara Lasater, a 24-year veteran of the theater. Costs were also kept down by bartering tickets for everything from advertising to air-conditioning repairs. It wasn't a tough sell -- the staff assembled a roster of shows that they knew the neighborhood would want to see. A Christmas Story. To Kill a Mockingbird. A series of musical revues.

"In that one year we totally reversed our fortunes," Lasater recalls. "We went from being considerably in debt to having money in the bank."

This year the theater aimed to use its small financial cushion -- and a large amount of ingenuity -- to rebuild its old glory. The directors decided to put on a production of the '80s Broadway musical Dream Girls, a show that normally would be a stretch. The royalties for a Broadway script are typically huge. And how would a theater company in white west Houston produce a show where almost all of the actors are black?

The directors had a plan. DreamWorks, which owns the rights to Dream Girls and is planning a movie based on the musical, was offering to waive royalties for the show for any noncommercial theater. The Playhouse recruited black actors from all over the city, applied for a slew of grants intended to foster diversity in the arts, and prayed.

The plan worked out superbly. Two of the grants came through. The show was well attended; many of the visitors were African-American. "Because of this show," Lasater said, "people are coming out here who have never been to the Country Playhouse."

Two weeks into the show, Lasater led a reporter through the Playhouse's dressing room into the Dream Girls set, which was plastered with glitter and glow-in-the-dark stars. She knew there was still plenty of work to be done. The space needed new carpet and a fresh coat of paint, and the board of directors wanted to hire a full-time theater director. But for the first time in years, Lasater was allowing herself to dream a little. "We're getting back to giving our community quality theater, exciting theater," she said. "And funnily enough, we did that for them on a shoestring.

"It takes creative people," she said, "to do creative things."

 
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