What a difference a decade and a half can make. Since 1990, the Houston theater scene has positively blossomed. New venues, new companies and lots of new and innovative shows have spun H-town into the sort of city theater-lovers adore.
Just look at the ever-changing skyline. By 1990, we were already enjoying the posh digs of the Wortham Theater Center, the red velvet seats at the Alley Theatre and the granddaddy grandeur of dear old Jones Hall. But then along came the Bayou Place complex and the sprawling Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, with its star-studded Sarofim Hall -- that made it official. Houston had itself a true Texas-size theater district. By some calculations, we are now second only to New York City in terms of the number of theater seats found in a concentrated downtown area. But that's not even considering what's happened at the edges of our city. A quick glimpse reveals a handsome handful of new small spaces that add depth and artistic complexity to our theatrical table.
In 1990, the intimate Theater LaB opened in a retooled storefront on Alamo. And for the past 15 years, the company has been slamming out eclectic off-Broadway fare and bringing in guest artists nobody else has dared to invite. Who could forget Karen Finely, the radical New York-based performance artist who sat center stage at Theater LaB and covered her naked body in honey as she talked on about the travails of being a woman?
In the late '90s, after waiting more than 20 years, the Ensemble, Houston's only African-American theater, opened a brand-new theatrical complex in Midtown, on Main Street, and now it even boasts its own stop on the Metro rail line.
And everyone who loves experimental work cheered when Infernal Bridegroom Productions finally found a home at the Axiom on McKinney in 2001. They cleaned up the onetime transvestite bar and proceeded to celebrate everyone from Euripides to Tom Cruise. Rhinoceroses have stampeded IBP's stage, and bodies have burned on flaming pyres.
But some of the most innovative work of the past 15 years has been put together by troupes who have no stage at all. Gypsy theater dates back through the millennium. In cities such as New York and L.A., where rent has always been sky-high, homeless theater troupes are common, but the phenomenon didn't catch fire in Houston till the '90s. Today, there are several theatrical communes and troupes who cobble together some wonderfully compelling work in noisy bars and scroungy coffeehouses. Groups like dos chicos, Mildred's Umbrella, Bobbindoctrin and Unhinged have managed to stay creative and build a loyal following despite the fact they have no addresses outside of cyberspace.
Of course, no vagabond troupe has found more unlikely spaces to perform in than IBP did back in the mid-'90s, when they too were homeless. They once made theater in the shadow of a freeway underpass -- what could be more Houston? But the most poetic and magical venue anyone's come up with over the past 15 years has to be an abandoned corner of the tattered Westbury Square shopping mall. The '70s outdoor mall, which was, in its heyday, a sort of homage to New Orleans, was the perfect setting for IBP's production of Tennessee Williams's 1953 Camino Real, a dreamlike narrative featuring Don Quixote. The show's enormous cast landed like beautiful extraterrestrials on the dilapidated mall. Under a balmy Houston sky, Williams's hallucination of a story played out on rusting wrought-iron balconies and in darkened alleyways. And the audience looked on, in amazement and wonder at the broken beauty of it all.
Of course, in the end, it's not the space or the lack thereof that makes a show great. It's the people involved. Over the past 15 years, countless artists have passed through our city, and some of them have stuck around to guide us into the future. Among the most noteworthy is IBP's Tamarie Cooper, the now iconic redhead who spends her days as the company's associate artistic director. But her real gift to the city has been her yearly summer production of Tamalalia. Always original and wonderfully wacky, the musical that changes annually has taken us from Cooper's kitchen table to her nighttime dreams, where she's cavorted with the princes of England. The show's been performed in a moving bus and an art gallery. And though IBP has said that this year we'll see the last Tamalalia ever, we can only wonder what Cooper will come up with next.
In 1996, Rob Bundy came to town and, in true cowboy style, saved Stages Repertory Theatre from drowning in debt. A former associate director of the Hartford Stage in Connecticut, Bundy became artistic director of Stages and turned the foundering company into a theatrical tour de force. Bundy's edgy, provocative taste has brought to Houston work by playwrights as diverse as Paula Vogel and Craig Wright, and the productions his team creates are always crisp and visually elegant, boasting casts full of Houston's most commanding performers.
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Like Bundy, Marsha Jackson-Randolph became the saving grace of the Ensemble, which was suffering from a lack of guidance before the ex-Houstonian came back to town to work her magic as producing artistic director. She graduated from Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and so it makes perfect sense that she'd save the day here at home. Since her arrival in 2001, the theater has gotten better and better.
Of course, Houston's big daddy is the Alley, headed up by the luminous imagination of artistic director Gregory Boyd, who got here in 1989. In 1996, Boyd did a magnificent thing for Houston. He brought home a Tony -- the 1996 Special Regional Theatre Award -- and it put our city on the national theatrical map. Alley shows have since traveled across the country, and Boyd has brought in guest artists as distinguished as Vanessa Redgrave. But the best thing Boyd has done is foster local talent. And no one has benefited more from Boyd's tenure than James Black.
Over the years, Black, a homeboy from La Porte, has turned in one magnificent performance after another. Many will most remember his tough-guy characters, like Butch O'Fallon in Tennessee Williams's Not About Nightingales, and Eddie Carbone in Author Miller's A View from the Bridge. But no performance has been more carefully articulated or devastatingly horrific than his soft- spoken everyman of a pedophile, Uncle Peck in Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive. That was a performance made for haunting dreams, with its quiet intensity and simple, terrifying truth. And best of all, Black has recently emerged as a director of great theatrical intelligence and even bigger heart. His production last season of Our Lady of 121st Street, with its huge cast and sweeping heartbreaks, was one of the best of the year. Who knows what Black will bring to the stage next?
Yes, indeed, 15 years has made a world of difference to theater-lovers in Houston. New venues, new faces and crazy new ideas have made our town one of the best places to be for a ticket-holder on Saturday night.