Houston's storied Ensemble Theatre isn't letting any grass grow under its feet. In fact, the cultural institution seems to be firmly entrenched in the fast lane with its line-up of alternative performance pieces.
From salutes to visionaries to a focus on Texas playwrights to an exploration of hip-hop, Ensemble's "Celebrating the Creative Journey" offerings were born out of a roundtable discussion about six or seven years ago with Artistic Director Eileen J. Morris.
On deck are a pair of one acts making their world premiere and written by born-and-raised Houstonian TiMOThY ERiC, who is inviting audience members to become part of the conversation (and the performance) through social media.
ParaChute is a futuristic comedic thriller set in the year 2055, a time when our own planet is dying. Main character Chute Warmer, played by ERiC, has led the charge against the government and is fleeing Earth in search of new frontiers. "He, along with 1,000 other participants, is floating toward this exoplanet. He’s alone but he’s still able to talk to one of the activists, and interacts with this artificial companion that comes along with him," says ERiC.
Which is where we, as audience members, enter the equation. ERiC has loaded up some mini prequels on Soundcloud and Instagram, dropping nuggets like, "There is a choice between life and death" and "No more Texas, no more universities; they saw to that in 2045."
He wants audience members to post on social media, using the tag #Para_Chute, before heading out to the play, then see those messages load up on the screen during the show. "It’s important to include an immersive experience so people can send posts to Chute so he can see them in his [space]craft," says ERiC. "Chute discovers something. It changes the entire scope of everything. It’s that kind of shift under his feet, so to speak."
In writing the play, ERiC says he wanted to explore this whole thing that unites us — social media and being connected — against a backdrop of the social activist movement. "We have the ability now to shorten those spaces and lessen those differences [through social media]. If there is something missing, what is it? What is that component that makes us feel so disconnected after having spent hours on it," asks ERiC.
ParaChute is directed by Manning Mpinduzi-Mott and stars TiMOThY ERiC, Carmen Williams and Kimberly J.
Also making its world premiere is Jimmy, the first in a series of shorts that centers on public school closings. ERiC, who grew up in the Third Ward and attended Lockwood Elementary, was saddened when the school shuttered.
The play focuses on two teachers, a principal and a parent, with a community activist off stage. "As the play opens you can see that there’s a lot of tension in the community. There's a protest outside the school, a lot of hurt feelings," says ERiC.
After a heated altercation between a teacher and a parent, the parent returns to the school to start a dialogue, to peel back the layers. "Therein lies the struggle, the situation with the school, the struggle with teaching, wanting to teach better. The struggles that they have, the issue, and what each of them sees as the causation of it. And those can be very different. Seeing the other side of the issue can push through to a new place," says ERiC.
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ERiC is asking audience members for feedback about education. Should public schools be closing? Should they be private? After each performance he'll be asking for contact information and feedback in the lobby. The data that's collected will be rolled into the next episode. "It will come from the work that we do getting those feelings from the community. I would like to illustrate a path forward, something life affirming. I personally believe that it’s something we should do publicly, not privately," says ERiC.
"This is the juice, you know. All theater has a mission. I think, speaking for myself and speaking for the cast and directors this is to me a really, really great opportunity to dive into something difficult and pertinent and timely," says ERiC. "It’s an honor just to do this for those who come to see and maybe change some lives, maybe not. That’s what theater is. Being true. That’s all it should be, it’s just a mirror."
Jimmy is directed by Cynthia Garcia and stars Byron Jacquet, Kimberly Hicks, Kurt Bilanoski and Michelle Harrell.
Performances of Jimmy and ParaChute are at 7 p.m. March 17-19 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055, ensemblehouston.com, $10.