The Alley’s flooded! Wortham too! And OMG Hobby Center is taking on water. We in the arts community watched in horror and dismay as some of Houston's largest performance spaces felt the wrath of Harvey’s destructive water. We felt the lump in our throats realizing that spaces would have to be gutted, performances would be cancelled or adversely affected and that it would be the artists and arts administrators that would suffer as a result. The very same people who have brought us such joy season after season.
But then a second, perhaps even more worried, thought. What about the smaller theater spaces and dozens of smaller theater companies? The places and people that don’t have wealthy donors or access to other resources to offset the effect a punishing hurricane might have on their livelihoods?
The Twitter/Facebook messages flew, all of us checking in with these folks, hoping to hear that things were safe and dry. And for the most part they were. Mercifully, Houston’s midsize and small companies were by and large unaffected by the flooding.
But that doesn’t mean that everything is fine for them. On the contrary, while these companies escaped devastating physical damage to their spaces, the financial toll on their already-strained resources is just beginning.
For the small companies that had shows running or premiering during Harvey, the cancellations and postponements have hit hard. Gravity Players and Firecracker Productions had to cancel several evenings of their shows mid-run and Dirt Dog Theatre Co. delayed its first production of the season, significantly shortening the show’s lifespan. In each case, the loss of income resulting from cancelled productions and diminished audiences upon re-opening will haunt their financial health for some time to come.
Small companies that didn’t have shows scheduled to run during Harvey are feeling the detrimental after effects on their purse strings as well. Rec Room Arts, a one-year-old performance company and venue that produces multi-disciplinary works such as theater, dance, opera and even children’s shows, took on some water at their location just steps away from Minute Maid Park. But it isn’t the water damage that’s hitting the company hardest; it’s the cancellations due to the flooding that’s threatening their financial viability. “Eleven events and performances have cancelled since the storm resulting in a $5K hit to us”, says Abby Koenig, Rec Room Arts Board president. “That’s more than a month of rent for us.”
The reasons for the cancellations Koenig says range from artists feeling like it’s just not the right time to perform to inability for performers to focus on their work to a late night comedy show having to cancel due to the city’s imposed curfew. While Rec Room is completely empathetic to the situation and these artists, it has left the young company wondering how it will afford to continue programming.
“Before the storm we were just about to start a capital campaign and we had approached underwriters to cover the costs of certain productions”, says Koenig. “But now they are like, no, we can’t do that anymore and we totally understand. But in the meantime we’re trying to figure out what to do. We absolutely want to support Harvey fundraising, but we also need to figure out how to support ourselves as well.”
By ourselves, Koenig stresses that she’s also including Rec Room actors and production staff who are not getting paid due to the aftermath of the storm. “Our tech guy didn’t get paid and our floor manager didn’t get paid,” says Koenig. “All these people who were counting on these funds and now they get nothing.”
However, like so many scrappy small companies around Houston, Rec Room Arts isn’t giving up. Presently they have nine events and performances going ahead between now and the end of the year including their popular children’s sketch comedy show, Garbage Island 4.0, and the regional premiere of Ike Holter’s comedy Sender, a show about a young man who shows up after his presumed death to face off with all those that eulogized him.
And they are looking for more. “If there are artists who want to perform who are feeling like they can’t afford a venue or feel that’s it’s not the right time, please get in touch”, says Koenig. “People need to commiserate and see art and not feel like it’s a guilty pleasure. Rec Room’s goal has always been to get people to come together and be a community of artists and audience members and we all need that now more than ever.”
Adam Castaneda, Executive Artistic Director of The Houston Fringe Festival, is also hoping that people are ready to come out and attend shows again. The Fringe, which started Thursday evening and runs until Sunday at MATCH, is going on as planned, albeit it with a much reduced roster due to Harvey. As happened with Rec Room, many artists slated to perform during the Festival cancelled due to concerns about appropriateness and timing. Additionally, out of town artists felt that coming into Houston and taking hotel rooms and resources away from struggling Houstonians wasn’t something they wanted to do.
“In a nutshell, our roster was reduced by 70 percent,” says Castaneda. Apart from the heartbreak of losing so many of their shows, it’s especially disappointing this year as the Fringe, which is in its ninth year, was for the first time bringing in talent from the national and international Fringe circuit and exposing Houston audiences to acclaimed performers they’ve never seen. And Houstonians were excited.
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“Before Harvey, we were on track to surpass ticket sales from any previous years,” says Castaneda. “But when the heavy hitters started pulling out last week, that’s when we realized that even though we’re still operating, this is an expensive festival to produce and we just weren’t even going to come close to recouping revenue.”
What this means for FrenetiCore, who presents The Houston Fringe Festival, is that the usual three or four full-length dance productions it produces a year might have to be scrapped. “I think it may be in our best interest to hold off a good eight months of production and just rebuild from this," says Castaneda. “In this way, Harvey has definitely impacted our organization.”
For patrons who have bought tickets to shows that have been cancelled, Castaneda says there are three options. People can request a refund, they can switch their ticket for another show or they can donate their ticket price to the Festival. No matter what patrons chose to do, Castaneda has a message to all audiences in Houston: “We need to show that Houston goes on, that we’re a strong arts community and that at the end of the day, art survives and art wins.”
For information about upcoming events at Rec Room Arts, please visit recroomarts.org.