It was January 2016 and Houston playwright Brendan Bourque-Sheil was on top of the world. Stages Repertory Theatre, one of the biggest companies in town, was opening his new play, The Book of Maggie, with a full bells and whistles production.
A mainstage show at a prestigious theater is a dream come true for any playwright, let alone an unknown, local, 25-year-old artist just beginning his career. There was a lot to celebrate - Brendan got his work seen, audiences got introduced to a new voice from their city and Stages would soon see the fruits of the show’s substantial financial success.
Surely this would lead to more locally written work on our stages. And by more we mean greater than the paltry amount Houston is presently used to, on average, two, maybe three shows a season from the entirety of our theater community.
Other than Borque-Sheil’s play, a musical at Queensbury Theater and a handful of Christmas pantos, not a single Houston-based playwright has been produced on an equity stage over the last six years in Houston. Those figures go up somewhat when Houston’s smaller/independent companies are considered, but even then, the amount of local work produced in this town is minimal.
For purposes of comparison, Atlanta, a city approximately the same size as Houston, last year had ten full productions of local playwrights and is set to have at least seven this season.
So, what gives? Where are the Houston-based playwrights and why aren’t we seeing their work on our stages?
Talent isn’t the issue says Dr. Rob Shimko, Director of the UH School of Theatre & Dance and head of the B.F.A. degree in Playwriting/Dramaturgy. He’s seen many promising writers in the ten years he’s led the program. It’s what happens after school that’s the issue.
“When young writers graduate from college with theater degrees and they look around at where the opportunities are, they’re pretty savvy,” says Shimko. “They know their opportunities won’t just be in the theater, they might make a good chunk of money working in film/TV for example, so they follow where the market is, where they can make the greatest mark.”
While Shimko understands the talent drain, he attempts to counter it by impressing upon his students that Houston is a city of untold stories. "We have many discussions in my playwrighting classes that Houston is the city of the 21st century, certainly demographically,” says Shimko. “Many of my students are realizing that Houston, unlike LA or NYC, has untapped terrifically interesting stuff.”
But talented playwrights remaining in town doesn’t necessarily mean local audiences benefit, says Elizabeth Keel, one of the very few Houston-based playwrights whose work is regularly produced at smaller theaters in the city.
“There’s a thing in the theater world, I call it the virginity complex," says Keel. “People want world premieres. I’m invested in Houston so I don’t care about getting a world premiere in NYC or Chicago, I’m not actively seeking it. But other playwrights, I can see that if they have a great play and it gets a premiere in Houston, it’s harder to get someone to look at a new script that’s already lost its world premiere shine.”
While some of the blame can be placed on the shoulders of the playwrights themselves, to truly understand the deficit Houston faces, we need to look at ourselves, our theaters and the way talent development is handled in this town.
David Rainey, Executive Artistic Director of Landing Theater, a company that does occasionally produce local work, remembers a time when Houston audiences were eager to be the first to see something. Now he says they have a wait and see attitude, making it much harder to produce new work, local or otherwise.
“I talked to an AD recently and they said we’d love to do more new works but every time we do, we take a hit at the box office,” says Rainey. “A lot of smaller companies don’t want to take that kind of risk. So, they look for plays that already have a track record.”
Tamarie Cooper, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Catastrophic Theatre (the company with a history of producing the most local work in Houston), agrees that the expense can be prohibitive. “You don’t have the built-in marketing tool of saying you’re presenting a well-known piece of theater that people read in school or had seen the film version of, so it’s always more challenging to get people out to see new work,” says Cooper.
So seasoned is Catastrophic on the perils of presenting new local work, that they budget the 'fail' into the company's budget to cover themselves. "That said, we wish we had the funding to have an established, competitive well-funded playwright in residence so we could commit to bringing new or more new work in every season,” says Cooper.
Add to the financial worry, the grass is greener attitude of Houston theaters, says Shimko. “Theaters want the best possible plays for the season from the best possible playwrights. They also do recognize that theater is very local, and so I think that there’s a feeling that yes, they want to support Houston playwrights but all the good playwrights live somewhere else.”
This notion of a “good playwright” isn’t simply snobbery on the part of Houston theater and audiences, it’s a real issue when understanding the roadblocks to local work production. We absolutely have the talent here, but historically have lacked the platforms to help our talent develop beyond any schooling they may have had.
“A new play is like a barn-raising,” says Borque-Sheil. “It's time-intensive, labor-intensive, largely thankless, unglamorous but unlike a barn-raising at the end, there's no guarantee that you'll have something of value. The only guarantee is that you’ve sunk a lot of time into it.”
In other words, playwrighting is not a prodigy business. Writers need continual developmental support if their work is going to improve and be stage-ready. Too often, talented writers produce work that has the potential to be a great play, but it’s not great yet. And if it gets produced too soon, without any opportunity for development, the play gets iffy reviews, doesn’t get produced anywhere else and ends up on the forgotten script boneyard.
And for far too many years, this is the way things have gone in Houston. Playwrights operating in isolation without any support. They’ve suffered, their work’s suffered and Houston audiences have been deprived of seeing our own voices and stories.
The good news is that things are beginning to improve.
The Alley, as part of their Alley All New Festival (a free six-play festival of new work comprised of both workshop productions and readings being developed under the Alley’s guidance), featured an early draft preview from local playwright Arthur M. Jolly.
Additionally, the Alley recently hosted a showcase of work from University of Houston students and recent grads and in 2018, the Alley All New Reading series featured Houston artists Jake Margolin and Nick Vaughan.
We reached out to Alley Artistic Director, Rob Melrose, as well as Alley Director of New Work, Liz Frankel, to talk to them about this and other ways the company is presently supporting local playwrights in Houston/the importance of developing local talent, but both declined the opportunity to speak to us in person. Instead, Melrose provided a statement saying, "When it comes to new work, I believe that the Alley’s focus must be both national and local and that is already embodied by this season.... I've been attending theaters around Houston regularly since I moved here and have been so impressed by the talent. I look forward to working with more Houston playwrights in the years to come."
Rec Room co-founder and Artistic Director, Matt Hune, on the other hand, was eager to discuss the program his company established to support local playwrights.
Called Rec Room Writers, the initiative brings Rec Room artists and ten local playwrights together in a residency like environment. “Our first goal was to have a community of playwrights come together to be able to share ideas and provide feedback,” says Hune. “The playwrights work on their ideas and then each session, a writer presents work and gets notes from the group until eventually, we can do a reading. Not just for the public, but for other artistic directors as well."
Whether Rec Room ultimately produces the work or another company does, isn’t Hune’s concern, he simply wants more Houston voices on our stages. “I think local work is important because it brings the community together,” says Hune. It’s fun to see a play about Chicago when you’re in Chicago, and then fun to see that show go somewhere else. Plays like that change the landscape of American theater and there’s no reason Houston can’t be a part of that.”
Perhaps no one is in a better position to affect this type of change presently than Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin thanks to the company's new, three-stage facility.
“Stages does produce local work but we’ve never created a platform for the ongoing nurture of playwrights in the community,” says McLaughlin who believes strongly that it’s important to expose audiences to local voices. “What we’re trying to figure out here is how are we going to leverage our new building to the benefit of artists in Houston across sectors. When you look at needs, playwrighting is a legit need, so how do we get behind and provide resources and support to expand that?”
McLaughlin says he wants to hear from Houston playwrights about what they think they need, what the perceived barriers are and what is happening for them that they feel is preventing them from being seen and produced and how he can open the conversation not just with Stages, but with the theater community as a whole.
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“For the record,” says McLaughlin, “I’m all in on figuring out a way to nurture local playwrights in Houston.”
Of course, all these good intentions (development, workshops, readings, the marketing needed to sell a new local show) need to be paid for. Easier for a company like Stages with large donors and city funding. But what about smaller companies? The ones like Landing Theater that have been scrambling to put local voices on our stages and want to continue doing so?
“In a ten-year period, this city built six brand new, state-of-the-art theatre complexes, collectively adding up to over $100 million,” says Rainey. “We built MATCH, Queensbury, The Deluxe, A.D. Players, Main Street, Stages, and twice rebuilt the Alley practically from scratch. We did all of this in such a short span of time, and nobody went broke. Now that those projects are completed, think what else could be done if those who still have these kinds of resources turned some of the next wave of funding to the smaller companies in town.”
Rainey says that just a fraction of that money would allow companies like his and many others in town to take risks like developing and producing local work. To invest in work that could compete nationally and have an impact. “I think that is, or should be, what we want from our arts organizations.”
Borque-Sheil puts it more succinctly, “If we don’t produce new plays from within the community the best thing Houston can ever be is a really good cover band.”