MasterMinds 2016: Celebrating the Creatives of Houston

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As we announce the winners of the MasterMind® Awards, now in their eighth year, we reflect back on a year of triumph and turmoil, with organizations moving to new or remodeled venues while others lost their spaces, and a host of creative and innovative ideas for the Bayou City.

MATCH (Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston) has opened its doors, with its gallery and numbered “matchbox” spaces serving as home base for numerous performing and visual arts organizations. The Alley Theatre is back in its original home — after completion of its $46.5 million building renovation — with major improvements. A.D. Players has broken ground on its new facility west of The Galleria; Company OnStage lost its Westbury Square location but quickly found a venue for its children’s series at St. John’s Presbyterian Church; and Queensbury Theatre started the season in its new state-of-the-art facility, just a stone’s throw away from its former location. Main Street Theater launched its 40th anniversary season with MainStage performances at the Rice Village location, while moving shows for families and school groups to MATCH.

The visual arts scene saw many changes, but the biggest news has to be the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s unveiling of comprehensive designs for redevelopment of its 14-acre campus, with more than $330 million of the $450 million capital and endowment fund-raising goals already met. Booker • Lowe Gallery will devote more time to travel in search of Australian Aboriginal art, while still holding special events and monthlong pop-up exhibitions; G Gallery moved two blocks over to its new Gspot Gallery on 9th in the Heights; and the Galveston Arts Center — after its renovation project suffered a devastating blow from Hurricane Ike — has returned to its true home on The Strand.

Each year, a panel of judges from the Houston Press — with input from the public — evaluates contributions made to the local arts community during the previous 12 months. Winners are awarded a $2,000 no-strings-attached cash prize and a plaque and are honored at a ceremony during the Houston Press Artopia party. (This year’s event is scheduled for January 30 from 8 to 11 p.m. at Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter.)

Although there have been some ups and downs over the past year, we’re happy to report that each of our 2015 MasterMind® winners made significant gains since winning last year’s award.

It’s been a very busy year for Houston Arts and Media founder Mike Vance, who used the $2,000 prize for some “nice little video toys,” including a sound pre-amp for this nonprofit group of filmmakers, writers and artists who teach history creatively. Work on HAM’s Birth of Texas series — eight feature-length documentaries about the early history of the state — has continued over the past year, with the release of San Antonio and the Alamo supplementing 2014’s San Felipe and American Settlement and Washington-on-the-Brazos: The Politics of Revolution. In addition to gaining national recognition (HAM has schools from as far away as Michigan, Colorado and California requesting copies), the documentaries also are winning awards. At 2015’s Worldfest-Houston International Film & Video Festival, San Felipe took home a silver Remi in history, and Washington-on-the-Brazos garnered a gold award. This year should see the release of the next two documentaries in the series — Goliad and San Jacinto — and in 2017, Houston Arts and Media will publish a big book project, Historic Schools of Harris County, which Vance describes as “a social history of Harris County as told through education.”

Just about everything in Patrick Renner’s life has changed since he was named one of our MasterMind® winners for 2015, including new projects and collaborations, a job change and getting engaged to local filmmaker and photographer Emily Peacock. Renner recently tendered his resignation from his job as an art teacher at Sharpstown International School — making the leap to full-time artist — so the $2,000 prize money helped with “everyday living expenses, but also materials for projects.” In February Renner built a 12-foot-tall Art Deco-inspired sculpture, Sentinel, on the plaza in front of City Hall; and in October the Houston Press named him Best Artist for 2015. He also has formed a new collaborative group, Flying Carpet, which is still taking shape but already has a major commission for the Downtown District’s neighborhood revitalization campaign, Art Blocks. Later this month, he’s invited the community to help paint boards for the piece, titled Trumpet Flower, which should be installed by March or April. He’s quick to quash rumors that he’s moving to Austin, as “there’s a lot of good hometown love” here in Houston, but he is working on installing a permanent public work at The Domain in Austin, a high-density business, retail and residential center. Renner says it will “not only function as visual art, but can double as an amphitheater or for bands to play under, or a central marker for the layout of the campus.”

It’s been a year of highs and lows for the Jefferson Davis High School Mariachi Pantera since the group won its award. The students’ first success occurred after they auditioned for and were chosen to perform at Walt Disney World, with the $2,000 prize helping to fund the trip. Upon their return, however, they were so exhausted that they left their instruments on the floor of the rehearsal room — which happened to be the weekend of the Memorial Day flood — a devastating blow for a school that battles hunger, homelessness and abuse. Not only were instruments damaged, but the group also had to move to an even smaller rehearsal space. The good news is that the publicity from winning the 2015 MasterMind® Award has raised its public profile, and the phone has been ringing off the hook with performance requests. While Mariachi Pantera cannot charge a fee, the donations received from these performances have helped the group start to bounce back, and the financial gifts go a long way toward covering expenses for strings, instruments and costumes.

Now it’s time to reveal our 2016 winners:

University of Houston’s Moores Opera Center
We’ve had our eye on Buck Ross, director and self-described dilettante of Moores Opera Center, and his program for a few years now. For five years in a row, the school’s productions have earned top honors from the National Opera Association; this year Rappaccini’s Daughter won first place in Division V, while the local premiere of Frau Margot placed second. The center’s program selections are innovative, with the group making sure that each season contains at least one opera that’s been written in the past ten years. “We’re a really important place for composers to get second productions, to be able to potentially revive them a bit and make them truly viable,” says Ross. “Most composers will tell you it’s not hard to get a premiere, but it’s very hard to get a second performance. That’s kind of been a niche that we’ve made for ourselves; we’re known for it now.”

Horse Head Theatre Co.
After some initial confusion over what The Whale; or, Moby-Dick exactly was — something about a newly constructed geodesic dome along the banks of Buffalo Bayou — all was revealed for those theatergoers lucky enough to enter Horse Head Theatre Co.’s idea of “the belly of the beast.” What began with a kernel of an idea — Artistic Director Jacey Little asking, “What’s your passion? What are you working on right now?” and Philip Hays’s response that he wanted “to do a one-man Moby-Dick” — resulted in one of the most exciting immersive theater experiences of the season. So much so that the Houston Press named it Best New Play of 2015. Ironically, Horse Head is a nomadic theater company — with past performances taking place at MECA, Obsidian Art Space, PJ’s Sports Bar, Frenetic Theatre, Kryptonite and Brewery Tap, among others — so we find it especially delightful that the company knocked it out of the park by creating its own space in producing The Whale. We may not know all that might be coming in the future for Horse Head, “but be it what it will, [we’ll] go to it laughing.”

Houston Independent School District’s EMERGE program
Fifth-grade teacher Rick Cruz wasn’t satisfied with the expectations and opportunities in place for students at HISD’s Joe E. Moreno Elementary School. He was young and ambitious — it had not been that long since his own graduation with honors from Yale University — and he had not yet learned the words “you can’t do that” or “that’s not possible.”
He, along with a group of elementary and middle school teachers, found that they were teaching kids “that had so much potential, so much drive” but did not have the knowledge or resources to apply to Tier One and Ivy League colleges and universities. Many of the students came from families in which nobody had ever gone on to college; others faced financial hardships that made these high-tuition institutions seem like an unattainable dream.
They got very creative and came up with a program to open up the possibilities for these students in which volunteers worked intensely with students not only on their schoolwork but to successfully connect them with top-level universities. EMERGE was born and has only grown since then.


Moores Opera Center

The University of Houston launched its opera winter season with the regional premiere of Frau Margot. “It was kind of a film noir opera. The best way to describe it, it had a very 1930s, 1940s kind of Hollywood, almost detective-story kind of feeling,” says Ross. “The music was by Thomas Pasatieri, who spent a lot of time on Hollywood movies. He had been a successful opera composer for a long time, then went to Hollywood and made his fortune, from The Little Mermaid to things like The Shawshank Redemption. He wanted to come back to opera, his first love; this was the first piece.” Moores was the first school to perform the opera, and was only the second company to do so after its Fort Worth debut; in the National Opera Association’s annual competition, the production placed second.

The April production of Rappaccini’s Daughter, which took home the National Opera Association’s win, “was a culmination of a project that was started about eight years ago, to do all of the operas of Daniel Catán,” says Ross, who became enamored with the Mexican composer’s work after producing Florencia en el Amazonas in 2008.

“I had liked the experience so much that a few months later I called up the composer and I said, ‘I like your stuff so much that I’m going to commit to doing all of your operas and we’ll do one every two years.’ After that promise, he gave us the first performance of his opera Il Postino, right after it premiered with Plácido Domingo in Los Angeles after it was written. Not just the first school to do it, but the first company. We got it before Paris. It was a real vote of confidence from the composer.”

While Catán was able to attend a few rehearsals, he “died on the opening night of that run. [Doing] Rappaccini was sort of the fulfillment of the final promise I made to the composer. It was an important project for me personally,” says Ross.

At the time of his death, Catán had been working on another opera, Meet John Doe. If the opera can be finished, “based on the sketches he had left, and if they get it into performing shows, that of course would really fulfill my promise,” says Ross. “It’s based on a Frank Capra movie from the ’40s; it was his first opera in English. Everything up to that point was in Spanish. This was his valentine to his country. Spanish operas are quite uncommon.”

As director and producer of the University of Houston’s operatic productions, Ross also teaches acting for singers, and we named him one of our “100 Creatives in 2013.” We’re thrilled that this New Jersey native ended up in Houston — after first studying under the oh-so-famous H. Wesley Balk — because he saw the need for a program for students and ended up founding the Moores Opera Center.

Ross credits Music Director Raymond Harvey for much of the school’s accomplishments. Harvey conducted Frau Margot and handled musical direction for Rappaccini’s Daughter. The opera faculty includes vocal coach Ana Maria Otamendi, along with members of the voice faculty: Cynthia Clayton, Joseph Evans, Timothy Jones, Lynda Keith McKnight, Melanie Sonnenberg, Hector Vasquez and Betsy Cook Weber. Scenic and lighting designer Thom Guthrie “has been a big part of our success here,” says Ross.

It was a full year for Moores Opera Center, with Gaetano Donizetti’s comedy The Elixir of Love returning to the UH stage in January after an almost 30-year absence. Director McKnight’s treatment — moving the setting to a Texas town — offered opportunities for camp humor with its traveling snake oil salesman, a love potion and the classic small-town story of unrequited love.

It was October’s production of Jules Massenet’s Manon, however, that best demonstrates the school’s ability to not only take on massive productions, but also to make them seem effortless. “That was a big, standard repertory piece. Very 18th-century French in its setting,” says Ross. “We had, oh Lord, probably about 60 people onstage and a lot of people in the pit as well, and so there were probably about 120 students involved in that by the time we were done. I pity the costumer who had to produce costumes for all those people, and often multiple costumes at that.”

Ross tends to choose operas based on the talent pool in each school year, selecting productions that fit the voices. “It’s foolish to do otherwise. Opera singing takes very specific roles. Various roles take very specific voices to do; it’s athletic.”

He moves students up through the ranks, giving them a supporting role in the first year, so that he can star them in the second year. “Throw them in the deep end of the pool,” says Ross.

“We’re very careful about what we do. When people ask me, ‘Why did you decide on that opera,’ usually it’s the only opera that we can do, at least in combination with other things, to best serve the students. I’ve been in the business long enough that I’m familiar with this. I do keep my ear to the ground about what’s new, what’s happening.”

Horse Head Theatre

We really sat up and took notice of Horse Head Theatre Co. during the world premiere of Spaghetti Code, written by Abby Koenig and developed and directed by Jacey Little. “I loved the open-endedness of the play and these questions she raised,” says Little. “This kind of train wreck was going in a million different directions.” While technically produced in 2014 — so not necessarily an achievement over the past year — this risky story of promiscuity and neuroses tackled the touchy subjects of abortion and infertility with aplomb. In less capable hands, the production could have taken a wrong turn into raunchy humor and sexual innuendo, but actors Ivy Castle, Drake Simpson, Andrew Love and Mischa Hutchings made us care about a barren woman and her inner circle. We named it a finalist for Best New Play at the 2015 Houston Theater Awards, overshadowed only by Horse Head’s sibling production, The Whale; or, Moby-Dick.

In The Whale, we had lights, projected onto the surface of the igloo-looking dome in otherworldly blues and purples; we had the ambient sounds of a gorged and satiated marine mammal blended with soothing ocean waves; and strewn throughout the pop-up theater space were the flotsam and jetsam of a whale’s belly: fishing nets, suitcases, lanterns and dolls. Playwright Timothy N. Evers took the best parts of Herman Melville’s novel, condensed it down to a palatable length and engaged the audience in the shared goal of trying to escape from the gastric peptide of the inner stomach lining.

After Philip Hays mentioned his desire “to do a one man Moby-Dick,” it was a chaotic five months from conception to writing to grant funding to opening. Little “began researching structures,” with the team exploring “buildings, a cistern, a weird underground water thing” before settling on the dome. It was completely out of their budget, but then they came across a used one and took the plunge to purchase this “really expensive and amazing piece of equipment.”

“When I was looking at the dome and wondering, ‘Can I do this,’ Troy [Stanley] looked at me and he said, ‘We can do this,’” says Little. “It wouldn’t have happened without it.

“We took a dream and a passion and ran with it,” says Little. “I didn’t want us to be limited in the way that we dream; we found the right community. We had 75 volunteers, some that we didn’t know, some friends and other creative collaborators.”

The “crew” of The Whale included Clint Allen (design projection), Brett Anders (stage manager), Bryan Ealey (lighting design), Timothy N. Evers (playwright), Philip Hays (actor and co-creator), Kevin Holden (scenic design), Jacey Little (director), Troy Stanley (scenic design and fabrication) and Yezminne Zepada (sound design), as well as a literal army of collaborators, advisers, constructors and voice-over talent.

Little tells us that Hays will soon be joining Horse Head as a company member. “We’ve been talking about it since The Whale,” says Little. “I’m excited because he’ll be joining me in artistic planning. His input and work on The Whale demonstrated to me 100 percent that he’s the kind of person we need.”

Hays will be joining creatives who not only work well together, but also maintain “flourishing freelance careers.” At Horse Head, Artistic Director Jacey Little serves as director and dramaturg; Founding Artistic Director Kevin Holden handles scenic and lighting design, as well as directing and education; Leah Short covers dramaturg and education; and playwright Abby Koenig handles public relations. The board of directors is composed of Joe Machado (president), Mischa Hutchings (actor/development), Ivy Castle Simpson (actor/educator) and Ariel Jones (president).

The Horse Head team also helped create the immersive experience for the regional premiere of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, produced by Stages Repertory Theatre last fall. They transformed the venue into an authentic wrestling arena, complete with ring, live video feed, the smell (and taste) of popcorn and even a pre-show undercard wrestling match.

“We’ve had a lot of organizations reaching out to us since Stages, and they’re wanting to co-partner with us,” says Little. “We’re going to do that. Just have a big, happy family.”

As for the future for Horse Head, Little shares that there will be two “lower key” productions in 2016, and that the theater really wants to do “a giant project in 2017.” She also wants to continue collaborations with visual artists, like Troy Stanley. “There will be no domes in 2016, but there will be awesome and breathtaking art, so I’m looking forward to that.”

Houston Independent School District’s EMERGE program

In some respects, it is difficult to separate the man from the program. The trajectory for Rick Cruz’s career seems to mirror the success of the EMERGE program.

During his first five years as a teacher, Cruz was twice named teacher of the year. In the spring of 2013, he was named HISD’s assistant superintendent for college readiness, a responsibility that included not only oversight of the EMERGE program but also broader initiatives within the district. In the fall of 2015, he was promoted to major projects officer and, at the end of January, will begin serving as HISD’s new chief of major projects, replacing the retiring chief, Don Hare.

By the end of his second year of teaching, Cruz and a group of volunteers had formed what they referred to as a fellowship. “We envisioned it as students and volunteers working together,” he says. “We started the program at Chávez High School.”

It began with a few presentations, with Cruz talking about his experiences at Yale and dispelling “a lot of rumors or myths about the schools being overly elitist.

“Schools like Rice or Stanford, Dartmouth, Hartford; these schools are not financially accessible,” says Cruz. “But once we showed them the financial aid policies — they had high tuition but also strong financial aid systems — it made it in many cases more accessible, especially for first-generation students, than to go to a local school.”

Of the 125 students who expressed interest, the team of volunteers started with a small group of 14 kids during that first year. “It was a lot of work,” Cruz says of the long hours put in by both teachers and those from the community. “It was really exciting because the following year, those kids all got into Tier One schools with full scholarships. Dartmouth, Tufts, Oberlin, MIT — either that year or the following year. They were the first in their family to go to college, they all got full scholarships; it heightened the sense of possibility.” Not long after that, “a student came up with the name: EMERGE.”

The EMERGE program has experienced similar advancements, growing to eight schools after the first year, and expanding to help 98 students last year. “The most exciting thing is that we’ve helped more than 200 students now. Kids are not just being successful at getting into the institutions, but successful once they’re there. They’re getting financial aid packages of as much as $200,000; tuition is as much as $50,000 a year,” says Cruz.

Success stories like that of Amie Bigirimana, who arrived in the United States about two and a half years ago, after spending much of her childhood in a Botswana refugee camp. She received a Posse Foundation scholarship and plans to study biology at Carleton College, with the goal of eventually becoming a doctor.

Both Daniel Riojas and Leslie Benavides will soon be attending Brown University; he wants to become a doctor, while she intends to major in either political science or psychology in her pursuit of a law degree.

Aspiring writer Deangelo Val is heading to Columbia University, while Emanuel Pinilla shared with administrators that he “aspires to be an anesthesiologist and intends to study chemistry and neuroscience at Stanford.”

The EMERGE leadership team includes Jharrett Bryantt, senior manager, and program managers Lisle Bull, Danny Rojas and Sara Llansa. Their initiatives have garnered recognition within the community as well. “Last year we were approached by Houston Endowment, who were very supportive, and not just the students but the campus and communities; they awarded us with a three-year grant, $5.5 million, so now we’re working this year with close to 700-750 students, and that’s just in high school alone,” says Cruz.

Houston Endowment asked Cruz “what would he do” if additional funds became available. He answered that he wanted to help those kids who might not qualify for financial aid, but who still were not “getting the support they need to go to other types of college.

“We received the matching grant of $3 million to hire a team of 40 individuals,” says Cruz. “That team [of mentors and advisers] is phenomenal.”

Their efforts are supported by EMERGE Fellowship, a 501(c)(3) organization that provides additional curriculum and support “as well as manages our college persistence programming,” says Cruz. “Through EMERGE Fellowship, EMERGE has also just expanded to Spring Branch ISD and hopes to expand to additional school districts in the Houston area.”

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