New Theater on the Block

"You're not the first person who's asked that question," William Hardy replies with a grin. After nearly three years of working to create -- and raise money for -- the new Houston Repertory Theatre, he is accustomed to myriad variations on the bemused inquiry, "Why would anybody try to start a theater in Houston?" At long last, his theater is finally about to stage its first production -- The Night Hank Williams Died, at Rice University's Hamman Hall -- and Hardy is full of optimism and enthusiasm about his fledgling company and about the larger possibilities of live theater in Houston.

"I see no reason why Houston can't support more theaters, when a half a dozen to ten smaller cities around the country have been able to do so." Hardy points to the example of Seattle, which has several professional Equity companies and a theater community that has been known to woo good actors away from Houston simply because of the greater availability of regular work. With only three professional companies -- the Alley, Stages Rep and Theatre Under the Stars -- Houston seems ripe for additional theaters. In recent years, several non-Equity companies have gotten off the ground, with uneven success. Hardy is determined to establish a fully professional company -- "not just an Equity house, but a bigger Equity house which can do the larger shows for a larger audience" -- that would occupy a niche between the Alley and the handful of smaller, primarily amateur companies around town.

Current plans call for the Houston Rep to do several "gypsy" productions in various venues over the next year, with an optimistic hope to occupy its own building (planned for the Kirby/Alabama area) by the fall of 1995. But Hardy acknowledges that it may take longer than that -- he has already adjusted his timetable several times since chartering the company in February of 1991. "I didn't think I was naive... but we're talking coming on three years." Hardy, aided by Peter Masterson (co-author and co-director of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), eventually became convinced that he had to put a board of directors together, announce a production and get to work.

"We needed to pick a play, rent a theater, say we're gonna do it, and then I tell my board we've got to raise money. They had to have something to work for. A deadline, a time and specific dollar goals." The board, which includes television anchors Bob Boudreaux and Ron Stone, held a fundraiser for the theater June 24. The national board includes Horton Foote and Tommy Tune.

Hardy is directing The Night Hank Williams Died, Larry King's comic drama. For Hardy the play is a return to a favorite playwright. He joined the touring company of King's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1979 as the Sheriff, under the direction of Masterson, and in the Houston company met actress Susan Shofner. They married in 1982 and moved to New York City, where Hardy spent the next ten years acting on stage, film and television.

In 1991 Hardy returned to Houston to direct and play in T.E. Bell's The Ascension of the Flying Ranger, and he began to lay the groundwork for a new Houston company. His theatrical roots were here -- he'd spent several years at the Alley in the '50s and '60s, performing and directing in more than 90 productions. Those are legendary years in Houston theater, and Hardy looks back to that time for his inspiration for the new company. He wants the new theater to have "diverse programming": classical and contemporary, musical and non-musical, traditional and experimental. Eventually the plan is to have a regular subscription series, a series of new works and a children's theater program.

Following The Night Hank Williams Died, Hardy plans a production of George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell, tentatively scheduled for the Heights Theatre. Shaw is a favorite of Hardy's, but Hardy adds that the range of plays suggested by these first two productions gives a clue as to his own eclectic taste, which he traces to the Alley's founder, Nina Vance. "Nina did plays that she thought Houston needed to see, but she also did whatever was necessary to keep the doors open."

Hardy hopes his new company will embody that same combination of vision and pragmatism, and that it will eventually become an anchor of what he sees as a "Theater Row" developing from the Upper Kirby area (A.D. Players, Radio Music Theater, Actors Theatre of Houston) down to Rice Village (Main Street Theater and Rice University). He notes the success of Theatre LaB Houston, north of downtown, as another harbinger of good fortune. "The audience is out there," he insists. "We just need to give them a theater that is diverse, challenging and entertaining."

-- Michael King

The Houston Repertory Theatre's production of The Night Hank Williams Died previews July 7, opens July 8 and runs through July 24 at Hamman Hall on the Rice University campus, 668-5407.

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Michael King