Back in 1996, Stages Repertory Theatre seemed all but doomed. A series of failed artistic directors and lots of money problems had put the beautiful sand-colored theatrical space overlooking Allen Parkway on the road to ruin.
But what a difference a few short years can make. Since Rob Bundy took over its artistic direction, Stages has become the little theater that could. His financially slick seasons have successfully combined everything from crowd-pleasers such as Funny Girl to quirky works such as The Pitchfork Disney.
Bundy now sits not on his laurels but hunched over a compact desk piled high with papers and scripts. "I want to do the Joe Papp mini model," he says with a grin. "We've got such a great facility here I want to share it with itinerant companies here in Houston." He opens his long arms and expounds on his vision, "I would love it if there was a group, another little theater company that would like to use Stages, sort of the way Mabou Mines used the Public Theater, as their artistic home."
Of course, Bundy would like to have a hand in creating that company. And this is where Houston theater newcomer Chris Jimmerson came in. When Bundy and Jimmerson first got together last summer, it was to talk about doing a gay theater series as part of Stages' regular season. But the plan evolved.
"Stages is a mid-size theater and I think that comes with a certain mission," Bundy says diplomatically, "which is to do new plays for the entire Houston artistic community not just one section." Thus, a whole new gay theater company, Unhinged Productions, was born.
To "test Jimmerson's mettle," Bundy decided he wouldn't do anything to help him until a board had been formed and Jimmerson had tinkered out the group's non-profit status. But Bundy's involvement in Unhinged Productions is undeniably crucial to its existence.
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Though Jimmerson gathered nearly $9,000 in seed money from gay funders, it's clear that Stages is footing most of the bill for the group's first full-scale co-production, The Maiden's Prayer by Nicky Silver. And though Jimmerson is the artistic director of the fledgling company, he acknowledges that Bundy has veto power over anything he doesn't like. After all, "Bundy is the artistic director of Stages," Jimmerson points out with a little bit of awe in his voice.
These days the two men are reading scripts and plotting out a season that includes Walking the Dead, a play about a lesbian performance artist by Keith Curran. But Unhinged is just one of the many things Bundy's trying to produce at Stages.
His next big project will be to "coalesce a Latino visibility" on the Houston theater scene. "I started with the Southwest Festival for New Plays. The Latino plays were for me personally and artistically the high point of that festival because of the enthusiasm and the numbers of Latino artists who came together," he explains. "I definitely have a dream to put something together in the next two seasons. I want to do bilingual Spanish and English alternate performances."
These are big dreams for the little theater that could. And it's perhaps fitting that the first step is Unhinged, a company whose name comes from the metaphor of the closet door. "It's no longer just opened, but it's unhinged," explains Bundy. "So there's no going back."