Announcing the 2013 MasterMind Winners

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It's hard to believe it's already five years since the Houston Press started out to recognize some of the wonderful artistic talent we have in Houston with the MasterMind Awards.

This year was as tough as any; in fact, for the first time ever, the panel of judges had to meet repeatedly as they debated the possibilities. This wasn't because there weren't enough — rather the reverse, with so many individuals and groups who did great work in the past year. Again, this isn't meant as a lifetime achievement award but in recognition of what is going on now.

As in years past, we checked on how our previous winners had done. As our Brittanie Shey reported in November, it turns out 2012 was a good year for last year's winners as well.

The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, dedicated to the history of African-American soldiers in the United States, was able to move to a new home after the renovation of the 1925 Houston Light Guard Armory Building. Aptly enough, the move was made on Veterans Day. It came after the increased public recognition from the MasterMind Award. Captain Paul Matthews, founder of the museum, said the organization passed out copies of our issue in which they were the cover shot. "It was an opportunity for us to reach a new audience, some of whom had never even heard of Buffalo Soldiers, except the Bob Marley song," he said.

Alex "Pr!mo" Luster, filmmaker, made the documentary film Stick 'Em Up! about Houston's street poster artists. Since MasterMinds, Luster has had several screenings of his film, which won Best Feature Documentary at the Gulf Coast Film & Video Festival a few months ago and screened at festivals in Canada and Mexico. Luster, who called the MasterMinds exposure "awesome," used the cash to move his documentary out to an even bigger audience. "People had been waiting so long; we used it to distribute the DVD. We didn't want to wait any longer."

The Pilot Light Restaurant Group, namely chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan, were providing private dinners out of a men's clothing store when they received their MasterMind Award. Unfortunately, the recognition got them a visit and subsequent shutdown by the city health department. But the $2,000 check helped tide them over till they were able to move into their own multi-concept restaurant, The Pass & Provisions, which opened last September. "There are probably people out there who are working on things and haven't figured it all out yet. It's cool to get recognition for something you wouldn't normally get recognized for," Siegel-­Gardner said.

All of this year's winners will be honored in a special ceremony at the Houston Press Artopia® Party — celebrating the arts — on Saturday, January 26, at Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter.

This year's winners are:

Opera in the Heights: Operating out of a converted church building in the Heights, this opera company has seen the quality of its productions rise dramatically in the last year. Now it's attracting even more singers of top caliber and decided to focus its 2012-13 season on works by Verdi, Bellini and Rossini with characters out of Shakespeare. At the helm as artistic director is Enrique Carreón-Robledo, a conductor who's internationally known for his interpretations of opera, ballet and ­symphonies.

Karen Stokes Dance: Karen Stokes has been a working choreographer and company manager in Houston for years; in 2011 Karen Stokes Dance was born, a modern dance company known for quirky work. This past year, Stokes added cameras to the mix, filming performances as a way to get the group's work out to more people. Stokes also started using the filming to train her dancers between rehearsal sessions so they could come to practice better prepared. Karen Stokes Dance also reaches out to the community, having set up a field-trip program so area school kids get to see performers.

Stark Naked Theatre: Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin launched Stark Naked Theatre because they believed there was a shortage of smaller theaters in Houston doing high-quality work and paying actors at competitive levels. Their first play of the 2012-13 season, Body Awareness, received critical acclaim, and Tobin supplemented the performances by bringing in a visual art exhibition with work from local artists related to the play's theme. In addition, Tobin continues to run her actors studio, founded in 2009 at Spring Street Studios, where she teaches the Konstantin Stanislavski and Stella Adler acting techniques.

Opera in the Heights

Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo has what he calls good problems. The Crystal Globe nominee joined Opera in the Heights in 2011 as artistic director and promptly set about raising the bar for the company. Oh!, already well-respected in the opera scene, refocused its energy and began working toward mounting even better, though not necessarily bigger, productions. When Carreón-Robledo began ­auditions for the company's ambitious all-Shakespeare 2012-2013 season (Rossini's rarely performed Otello, Bellini's I Capuleti e I Montecchi, and Verdi's Macbeth and Falstaff ), he found that the singers vying for roles were of a significantly higher quality than even those he had seen just a year before. "Their experience, their level of proficiency, was very impressive. It's inspiring to see that people of that quality want to come to Opera in the Heights. It makes my work harder and harder to choose a cast, of course. But that's a good problem to have, I think," he laughs.

Each Oh! production has only seven performances split between two casts, but Carreón-Robledo insists that despite the fact that one cast performs four shows to the other's three, there is no first and second lineup. "Absolutely, there is no A and B cast. The level of the singers that want to come to work with the company allows me to do that, to have, if you will, two first casts. That is not to say that they give identical performances; they don't. But neither is better; they are just different.

"I wish we could have an even number of performances so that there will be a mathematical evenness for everyone. But from an artistic standpoint, from a philosophical standpoint, the two casts are very equal. People will have their favorites, so someone will say, 'Opening-night cast was best.' Someone else will say, 'No, closing-night cast was best.' That tells me that I'm getting it right, that I'm getting that balance between the two casts."

Carreón-Robledo's programming has been adventurous, but he's inclined to be much less daring when it comes to launching a campaign to find the company, which currently performs in Lambert Hall, a new home. "Would we love to have our own theater? Yes, of course. But with that comes a lot of responsibility. Let's say we found the financial means to build a theater. What would happen next? We would have to make the operating budget grow so that we can operate within that theater. You have to have a vision about a project like that. I think I have it, but it's a question of being patient, being careful and being realistic of what you're getting into.

"It's like a child who is growing and has to get new clothes. There is only so much that you can stretch and add on before you have to buy new clothes. I think eventually we have to look at some sort of transition into our own space. But I don't think — and I think the board of directors and sponsors agree with me — that we have reached the point where we can make a definite plan for that yet. It is in everybody's mind for our future, yes, but we will see when and how we can make it a reality. You have to be cautious. There was good momentum to our start; now is the time to be mindful. All the practical aspects of running a company have to be in place. Our own theater would mean more shows, more staff, more everything, in order to make it right."

Lambert Hall, a converted church on Heights Boulevard, has been a good home to the company since 1996, Carreón-Robledo says. But with no orchestra pit (the musicians squeeze into a small area on the side of the stage), only 300 seats and a minuscule lobby, the building has its limitations. According to Carreón-Robledo, any new or improved theater would resemble a small house in keeping everyone in the audience close to the action onstage. "The intimacy with which we perform is well known to our patrons. Opera is a spectacle that in the 20th and 21st century has become a big event, with 3,000-seat houses. That's not how it started. And there's still a way to do it in a very intimate scale. I don't want to say small scale, because I do consider what we do to be grand, but it's grand because it has an immediate reach, an immediate effect. It's not grand because of the size of the stage or the number of people in the cast. That's an element of the company I hope we can keep."

Another element audiences hope the company can keep is Carreón-Robledo himself. The Mexico City-born conductor is internationally known as a gifted interpreter of opera, ballet and symphonic repertoire. He's been at the helm of orchestras in Nice, London, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and Düsseldorf, to name just a few, and is in demand as a guest conductor.

He explains that his relationship with Opera in the Heights is like a marriage. He didn't come in thinking about his next wife (or, in this case, job). He's committed to this relationship, and while he's aware there's the possibility it may not last forever, he's hoping it does.

"Let the record reflect that I am knocking on wood; I want to be here in ten years," he tells us, laughing. "We don't know what's around the corner, so I can't account for that. All I can give you is my intentions, and I have every intention of being here and growing this company. Now, will all of the cosmic forces stay aligned? I can't account for that, but I certainly hope so."

Carreón-Robledo admits that both he and the company face challenges, but he's careful to point out that so far the rewards have been worth the efforts. "The artistic work I'm able to do, balancing that with the practical aspects of running a company is very hard. It gives me nightmares every once in a while. But once we turn down the lights and the music starts, we forget about all the hard work that it took us to get there.

"I tell the company there is one more level above performing well; we have to transcend to the level of magic-making. When the magic happens onstage, it's transforming for an audience. It is necessary to do it technically very, very well in order to get to the magic. I can't make it happen alone. I have to find people, singers and musicians, who are dedicated and devoted to what we're doing. Then, together, we make magic."

Karen Stokes Dance

Choreographer Karen Stokes, leader of Karen Stokes Dance, knows that as an artist, she has unusual instruments. Along with sound, lights and costumes, Stokes uses people to express her ideas: "My tools are people, not colors on a canvas." The addition of humans to the equation sometimes complicates things. "When I'm dealing with a dancer, I have to deal with that person's bad day. Sometimes I get frustrated with that and I think, 'I don't want to hear about your bad day; we've got work to do!' At the same time, that's the beauty of it because you never know what a person is going to do or say that might completely change what we're doing."

A working choreographer since 1988 and head of the dance division at the School of Theatre & Dance at the University of Houston since 1998, Stokes co-founded Travesty Dance Group in 1997. Travesty became Karen Stokes Dance in 2011. The modern dance company, currently made up of ten dancers, is known for presenting quirky, rhythmic work often with text and original vocals. Lately Stokes has also added cameras to the mix; she launched a dance-for-camera project in 2012. After seeing an exhibit at Peel Gallery, Stokes was so enthused that she approached the gallery management and asked if she could bring in a group of dancers and film them interacting with the exhibit. "It was spontaneous. I asked them, 'Can we just come in real quick and create some movement?' That was Gallery Construction One, and now we've filmed three more."

Filming performances is not new to Stokes, but using film as the primary medium to present a performance is. "We are so media-driven; this is the best way, in some cases, to reach people. We can get dance out in different ways to the public. And it's fun. How fun is that, to get to go into a gallery and look at someone's art and react to it? I'm seeing more and more of that in the future for us."

Stokes has also begun to use cameras while choreographing new works for the company. She videos herself as she creates movement phrases, then posts the video to YouTube. Her dancers learn the material from the video and come into rehearsal already knowing some of the basic movements in new works. Stokes found that using video freed up her creative process. "When I'm in a studio, I'm having to slow down my creative process. I'm worried about this eight-count and what's the timing. The dancers have a lot of questions, and I have to repeat myself. Here I had no stoppers, and I can create in longer phrases and get to movement I may not have gotten to in the studio because I would have been stopping."

With some five evening-length productions and more than 25 repertory works to her credit in just the last few years, Stokes admits that the start of each new project is like going back to square one. "Every time I start a new project, I tell the company, 'I don't know what I'm doing, and I don't have anything left to say.' So I start every project thinking, 'I don't know anything again. How do I make a dance?'" she laughs.

Several themes run throughout Stokes's work, including the idea of geometrical design and community. One of her first efforts at choreography came while she was a student at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. "I don't know that I set out to do it, but I can look back now and see that I was very interested in the broad brushstrokes of the design of the dancers onstage and how they relate to each other. I had an interest in space and design and how to put people in space. Musically, I've always been very interested in rhythm and percussion and how the dancers are working those rhythms. That has certainly informed my work.

"On top of that, I'm interested in the idea of community. I always seem to end up with a piece that feels like a community. Even if I start out doing a totally abstract piece, at the end it looks like a community. It always ends up with me saying, 'You guys belong together in a village.' It's not a conscious choice on my part, but it's where I always seem to end up."

Karen Stokes Dance has a strong educational component. Besides her work at the University of Houston, where she educates and trains "the next generations of dancers and choreographers and thinkers of dance and art," Stokes has created Framing Dance, a special field-trip program for area schools that provides contemporary dance performances for students at no cost as part of the Hobby Center Discovery series. Stokes's signature athletic and often humorous style especially resonates with kids, many of whom have never seen a live performance in one of the Theater District's professional venues.

Stokes tells us that while KSD has many goals, they all boil down to fostering the performance and appreciation of modern dance in Houston. "We want dance to continue. We want it to grow and build in Houston. We love that we have the Houston Ballet and the classical arts, but we also want to have the funkier, crazier, edgier contemporary work also happening here."

Modern dance sometimes gets a bum rap, Stokes says. "When people tell me they've seen modern dance and they didn't like it, I always ask them, 'Well, how many performances did you see?' If they've just seen a couple of performances or just a couple of companies, they don't have a real sense of what modern dance really is. For my work, I want people to know that I'm reaching to you with this work. I want the work to be deep enough so that an educated dance viewer would be intrigued by it, but I don't want it to be so deep that a viewer who knows nothing about dance can't engage with it. My goal is always to balance those two."

Stark Naked Theatre Company

Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin do not, despite what the title of their group, Stark Naked Theatre Company, implies, perform in the nude. They don't completely rule it out in the future, but it hasn't happened yet. Tobin and Lehl gave their company its rather titillating name because it aptly describes the emotional state they strive to reach every time they step onstage. Lehl says, "We insist that this is the starting point to every play, every ­performance."

Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, Lehl studied at the Juilliard School and Moscow Arts Theatre School. A longtime actor and director with Broadway, television and regional credits, Lehl came to Houston in 2001 and has appeared in dozens of local productions at the Alley Theatre (Hamlet, Eurydice and the ­current Clybourne Park), Main Street Theater (Arcadia), the Houston Shakespeare Festival (Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar), and Theatre Under The Stars (The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady).

Tobin grew up in Houston and spent ten years working as an actor in New York before she returned to Texas to complete her college degree. She had every intention of returning to New York after graduation, but as she and Lehl both joke, "L-o-v-e happened." The two were married, and Tobin's temporary move to Houston became permanent.

She had trained extensively in the Konstantin Stanislavski and Stella Adler acting techniques, including a stint at the Stella Adler Conservatory with Adler herself. After returning to Houston, she quickly found that no one in Houston was teaching those methods (or at least no one she could find). Rather than abandon her training, in 2009 Tobin launched her own acting school, where she would teach the Stanislavski and Adler techniques.

"If you ask a dancer or a musician, if they're not working, they're training," says Tobin. "That same principle applies to actors. When you're not in a show, you're back in the ­classroom."

Lehl points out that, with the right mixture of luck and natural talent, it's possible to occasionally give an excellent performance. But performing at a consistent level of excellence requires constant training and commitment.

"We build a performance the same way that you build a house," says Tobin. "You have to have a foundation; you have walls, some rooms, a door. That's what we do in rehearsal; we build that solid foundation. That way, the play is always the same story and the same texture."

Lehl points out that the goal is not to give the same performance every night but to give an authentic performance.

"It's the same house, but the furniture can be moved around," Tobin adds. "The pictures can hang on the wall in different ways. So one night I might cry in a place that I never cried. One night I might have big tears rolling down my face; the next, my eyes might just be a little moist.

"The point is, you have to free yourself to completely hate someone or love someone in that moment. What an actor's job is onstage is to take everything personal and to judge the other person. Onstage, for those two hours, every single look you give me, every single thing you say to me, I have to take that personal. Because I'm moving towards something, so I have to like it or not like it depending on where I want to go."

Tobin and Lehl launched Stark Naked Theatre not because there was a shortage of small theater groups in Houston but because, as they saw it, there was a shortage of small theater groups promoting a high-quality aesthetic while providing competitive pay to their artists.

Lehl tells us he's heard other directors lament the cost of union salaries (Stark Naked hires some Equity actors for each production). "I've heard other directors say, 'If I could just figure out how to pay union actors less, that would be great.' We think that's moving in the wrong direction. Yes, you can do more plays or plays with bigger casts if you pay everybody less, but I don't think the quality of the play rises, and I don't think the quality of the town rises. We believe we can grow the pool of talent in Houston. We believe people can say, 'Yes, Houston is my town. It's where I want to be because I can make a living here. I don't have to go be a telephone marketer or wait tables in order to be an actor.' We're trying to grow in that direction. Every season we try to up the ante and pay our actors more, not less."

Stark Naked is now in the middle of its second season, with productions of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage and Shakespeare's Macbeth scheduled for the spring. Choosing the season is an admittedly difficult task for the pair.

"We agonize over that sort of stuff because we want to do quality work, but we have to keep an eye on filling the seats," says Lehl. "Our next production, God of Carnage, has some title ­recognition."

Tobin adds, "The Alley did a production of it recently, but Houston artists weren't part of the show. The actors were all brought in from out of town. And that's fine, but we wanted to do the show with Houston artists. So yes, you may have seen the show before, but you haven't seen it with Houston actors. And yes, you might have seen Macbeth before, but we think we're going to do something you haven't seen before."

"Macbeth is going to feel like real people," says Lehl. "That's the difference."

"Our mantra is having a real experience in an imaginary circumstance," says Tobin. "Hopefully it will feel like you're sitting there and watching a real experience."

Stark Naked's home theater is located in the Spring Street Studios art complex, something Tobin took advantage of during the company's recent run of Body Awareness by adding a visual art exhibition. The play discussed female body-image issues, and the group exhibit focused on the human body. It made for an especially apropos setting for the audience to discuss the performance during intermission. "I used to see it all the time in New York. In this instance, it would almost be insulting not to do that, because we've got artists in the building," says ­Tobin.

"Artists should support each other," adds Tobin. "I think that's really important. The more we do that, the more we elevate the entire arts community and the more we cross audiences. We certainly want to continue to do art exhibits with each show. I'm thinking about having music at our opening nights, of seeing how else we can incorporate other art forms into our productions."


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