Best of Houston

Best of Houston® 2013: Building Theater at Ensemble W/ Eileen Morris

Eileen Morris, Artistic Director for Ensemble Theatre is one of the people highlighted in this year's edition of Best of Houston® 2013. For more about our 2013 best and brightest, check out the rest of our October 10, 2013 edition.

Over the last 30-something years, the Ensemble Theatre has gone from being a tiny touring company operating out of the trunk of founder George Hawkins's car to being one of the country's largest black theaters that owns and operates its own facility and mounts a full season of in-house productions. How did that happen?

By selling not just tickets but an idea, says Artistic Director Eileen Morris. "People understand that they aren't just buying tickets to see a play, but they're buying into an institution, into an idea," she tells us.

Hawkins imagined an African-American theater providing the means and opportunity for a diverse group of people to practice and perfect their craft. It's that idea that still guides the staff, board and volunteers.

Morris, originally from Chicago, joined the company in the early 1980s as managing director. It was a lofty title, she says, laughing, one that only partially described her role in the fledgling venue. "I tell people that other than building sets, I've done every job at the theater at some time or another. I've swept floors; I've taken tickets; I've designed lights; I've run sound; I've been onstage. All of us did everything. We had to; there was more work than people to go around."

Before Hawkins died in 1990, he asked board member Audrey Lawson to appoint Morris as artistic director. It's a position she's held since then, and she's taken the task of overseeing the company literally, keeping one eye on the stage and the other on the theater's bank account. It's a tough balancing act, she admits. "But I don't do it alone. We have a very strong of pool of people, staff, volunteers and boards, all working together to make sure that new people are introduced to the theater, that we strengthen our production values, that we get the best artists possible in the theater. I may be the head cheerleader, but I have a great team."

Morris has produced more than 80 plays, including 57 regional premieres and four world premieres for the Ensemble. She directed American Menu (2010 Georgie Award for Best Ensemble winner) and The Man Who Saved New Orleans by local playwright Thomas Meloncon for the company. She's also directed productions at other theaters across the country such as I, Barbara Jordan at the Alley Theatre and The Joe Tex Story for New Horizon Theater in Pittsburgh (2010 winner of the African American Council on the Arts Award). The only female in the country who has directed eight of the ten plays of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, Morris was honored by the National Black Theatre Festival with the Larry Leon Hamlin Producer Award in 2011.

The Ensemble is often called "one of the best African-American theaters in the country." Morris has a slightly different objective: for it to be one of the best theaters in the country, period.

"We're a theater first," she says. "George always reminded us that our first goal was to tell stories. Stages, Main Street, the Alley, we're all telling stories, but each of us has a different approach, a different outlook and purpose. I think that was George's dream, and it's certainly been my goal, for people to understand that the human condition is universal, that we're all discussing the same things, just in different ways.

"People ask me all the time why we focus on race. I tell them because if we want to deal with it or not, race is part of our existence. I try to make sure the story has substance first, that the story is engaging to any human being. Part of our mission is to have artists of color onstage and as writers, directors, designers, yes, but none of that will matter if we don't have an engaging story."

The Ensemble produced David Mamet's play Race during the 2012-2013 season. The choice was criticized by some because Mamet is not an African-American playwright and because the play depicted a harsh reality.

"Race was a story that we wanted to tell, and it just happened to be written by David Mamet," Morris says simply. "The language was rough, and that's not something that people are used to seeing at the Ensemble. It might not be what we're used to, but it's the reality of the world we live in."

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Olivia Flores Alvarez