Texas Monthly LIVE Brings Campfire Tales to Houston

Skip Hollandsworth at Texas Monthly LIVE
Skip Hollandsworth at Texas Monthly LIVE Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

Texas Monthly LIVE
Wortham Theater Center
June 7, 2019

Armchairs and a center stage leather sofa might have been intended to give the setting for Texas Monthly LIVE – a night of multimedia storytelling presented by the “National Magazine of Texas” last evening at Wortham Center – the look of a den, or maybe some bookish type’s home library. When the magazine’s executive editors, writers-at-large and invited guest speakers began relating their Texas tales, Wortham's Cullen Theater transformed into a west Texas, Friday night camp out. The stage lighting and feel-good stories gave everything the warm glow of a campfire circle.

The magazine is now in its second season of this series, which lifts stories from the page and brings them onto the stage, and last night’s presentation had a definite Houston vibe. Scott Brown, the magazine’s president and chief creative officer, opened the evening by playing up to the crowd like a savvy rock star.

“We are so pleased to be in Houston, the biggest, most diverse, most innovative, most resilient Texas city there is,” he said to extended applause. “Houston is my hometown, it’s my favorite town and I’m really proud in some small way my job calls us at Texas Monthly to reflect on and chronicle the ongoing story of Texas and therefore the story of Houston.”

Brown reminded everyone in the hall how remarkable it was we were there together for any event. The Wortham was one of the Theater District’s biggest Hurricane Harvey victims. Maybe $100 million in renovations and the center’s back-to-business approach makes that easy to forget, but Brown remembered.

click to enlarge David Courtney, aka The Texanist, played Ira Glass for the evening. - PHOTO BY JESSE SENDEJAS JR.
David Courtney, aka The Texanist, played Ira Glass for the evening.
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

“Speaking of Houston stories, one in particular cemented for me what an honor it is to do what we at Texas Monthly do, and part of it happened right here in this very room. I was 10 months into the job when Hurricane Harvey hit,” he said, “and Houston reminded everybody, including everybody at Texas Monthly, just what it’s made of. This is a great Texas city. And it’s wonderful to see this building standing strong as Houston always does.”

With that, he turned the evening over to David Courtney, aka The Texanist. Courtney’s the advice columnist for the magazine which, he reminded, has been telling the story of Texas since 1973. He has been there since 2005 and his column is wildly popular. Courtney’s easy, humorous tone – on page and in person – made him the perfect master of ceremonies for the night. The way he wove between stories, bridging them together, gave the performance the feel of a live podcast. Call it “This Texan Life,” maybe, with Courtney in the Ira Glass role.

The stories were moving and quintessentially Texan, starting with "The Lion Tamer," presented by writer-at-large Cat Cardenas. Backed by exquisite animations by Min Liu, Cardenas’ homage to her late grandfather – her “Grampita,” as she called him – was more than a recollection of a pivotal person in her life. It was an immigrant’s tale, a story complete with Mexican folklore and real-life successes, the kind that Texans know all too well. She was followed by Pat Sharpe, whose “Confessions of a Skinny Bitch” struck home. Sharpe is the magazine’s longtime restaurant critic, on staff nearly as long as there’s been a Texas Monthly, and her tale enthralled a room full of Houston foodies. From fascinating tidbits (the magazine has printed more than 35,000 restaurant reviews in its time) to personal notes, it was a funny and engaging look back on a lifelong career.

Animations backed every story and they all benefited from musical accompaniment from a four-piece band led by violinist and vocalist Carrie Rodriguez, whose solo work has been hailed by the likes of NPR and Rolling Stone. The music gave added heft to the stories, the way the songs in Radiolab or This American Life do, and the tunes penned to support author Oscar Casares’ excerpt from his new novel, Where We Came From, should definitely be mixed into any future audiobook of the work.

click to enlarge Houston's poet laurete, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton - PHOTO BY JESSE SENDEJAS JR.
Houston's poet laurete, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

The night’s best story might have been from executive editor Skip Hollandsworth, the Dallas-based, award-winning journalist and screenwriter. Hollandsworth’s “Patient Observation,” first ran in Texas Monthly in 2010. The story of his connection to the Wichita Falls State Hospital is a humorous and poignant reflection on how places make an impact on our lives. It was the perfect setup for singer Bruce Robison’s world premiere of “Astrodome,” a song from his approaching album, Beautiful Lie. He played the song live, with its official video running in the background and reminding Houstonians of the past magic of that beloved building.

Houston’s poet laurete, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton kept the local vibe going with some personal recollections of surviving Harvey and how that experience led to a team-up with the BBC, which asked her to write a poem about Houston in the storm’s aftermath. Mouton is one of the world’s foremost performance poets and it was a thrill to hear her recite the work, “For Those Harvey Left,” in a building once ravaged by floodwaters. Her segment received the night’s longest ovation, which led her successor on the program, Houston’s own Mimi Swartz, to quip, “I feel like Yanni following Mick Jagger.”

Swartz is an executive editor at Texas Monthly and her essay, “Life, In Dog Years,” was a definite tear-jerker, but also gave the audience a chance to reflect on the comfort and joy our fur friends add to life. She gave way to Katy Vine, whose story, “The Biggest Wild Plant Catalog in the World” felt the most like a magazine article, in its informative and easy-flowing tone. The night closed with Michael Hall, a longtime Texas Monthly executive editor and musician, who related the last days of Austin music mecca, Liberty Lunch. The story reflected on a Texas treasure and the “keep it weird” send-off show Hall and friends devised for “the Lunch,” a 24-hour marathon where the Van Morrison song, “Gloria,” was played live and non-stop. The story nearly turned into a sing-along with Hall and Rodriguez and company at the helm.

For many the night must have felt like a campfire gathering, but it could easily have been a counseling session for any self-hating Texans out there, any unwilling transplants to the state or folks who just don’t get how special the designation of being Texan is. If you didn’t leave feeling a foot taller (or humming Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria,’), then maybe it’s time to relocate.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.