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Houston Family Arts Center Mining Theater Gold in a Strip Mall

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This week, the Houston Family Arts Center became the first theater in Texas to receive an award from the American Association of Community Theatre.

Is it the polished productions, the talented actors, the teaching academy or the entrepreneurial spirit that gained them this recognition? Or all of them?

It surely can't be the catchy name, since "HFAC" doesn't have the memorability, for example, of "Stark Naked Theatre." HFAC is an acronym for Houston Family Arts Center, but the full name, while eminently descriptive, has about as much dramatic verve as a recipe.

Nor can it be its imposing facade, as HFAC is in a strip mall at 10760 Grant Road, just off Jones Road.

But inside the unimpressive entrance lies a handsome theater, comfortable seats, good sightlines, tiered seating and a sense of destiny. While HFAC Executive Director Bob Clark might not make that claim, I'll make it for him, based on my seeing a large number of its productions in the past 15 months.

The modest-sized stage recently held The Sound of Music, and it served equally well for a brilliant, amusing murder mystery by Ron Urbinati which HFAC commissioned, Death by Design. The facility also has a rehearsal space, and multiple classrooms, for its Actors Academy has programs designed to develop the acting skills of children, and adults as well.

The American Association of Community Theatre is a national organization of 7,000 community not-for-profit theaters which annually awards its Twink Lynch Award (named for a past president) to a theater for successfully completing major steps in new directions, expanding services to its community or moving to the next level of organizational development.

HFAC is the first Texas theater to be so honored. Besides commissioning an original play, HFAC staged an original musical, Kissless, by Houston author Chance McClain, and when it was accepted for the New York Musical Theatre Festival, cast it locally for a three-week run off-B'way at St. Clement's in the Times Square theater district.

HFAC also sometimes uses the 450-seat Berry Center Theatre for productions such as the recent Seussical the Musical, with a cast of 57.

HFAC is certainly a book that can't be judged by its cover, or by its modest admission prices, for its professional level of entertainment is high indeed. Its choice of plays is selected with keen intelligence, though deliberately not "edgy," and it styles its productions with panache and polish. It is a gem in the vibrant Houston theater scene, and it shines brightly in Northwest Houston. It might even be a good idea for those living (gulp! -- dare I say it?) inside the Loop to make the pilgrimage. But, hey, don't take my word for it, check it out yourself.

HFAC's next production is the fast-paced farce The 39 Steps, a send-up of Alfred-Hitchcock-style suspense thrillers. It will be performed April 13 to 29, with information at www.houstonfac.com or at 281-685-6374.

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