We all know 2020 was a tough year for the performing arts community. Through it, though, we saw several innovative ways people worked their way around the “new normal” of COVID-19. After all, art entails transforming the abstract into reality, and nothing spurs an artist's mind like a challenge. The pandemic surely provided tons of source material to spark the process.
But as inspirational as that may sound, sometimes we need a little oomph to keep us going – especially when the trying times entail spaces closing and funding evaporating. Houston's Society for the Performing Arts recognized this need for assistance and went to bat for local artists by serving as both a presenter and financier.
To that end, SPA launched its Houston Artist Commissioning Project
last year with the goal of promoting and sustaining Houston’s working artists and artist communities by supporting the creation of new works across all performing arts disciplines. By awarding financial resources for newly created works, the project provided the city's performing artists an opportunity to move their creativity forward.
“This is a first for SPA. We have heretofore for the last 50-plus years brought national and international artists to Houston, but we have not looked in our own backyard,” said Meg Booth, CEO of SPA. “To have the opportunity to focus on creation and support of new work right here in Houston was such a positive focus for those of us who work in the arts. [As arts administrators,] it got us through some dark and ugly times. I’m hoping it helped the artists get through dark and difficult times too.”
For many artists, it did. After more than 60 submissions, the awardees were chosen, and three of them will showcase their work during Houston Artist Commissioning Project LIVE: Part 1 at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Jones Hall. After Saturday’s performance, the artists will join a special post-show treat involving a panel discussion of the featured creators and a Q&A with the audience.
These performances feature new works by indie band Say Girl Say (with Two Star Symphony and INPUT/OUTPUT), poetry group founder Patrick “PJ” Davis, and classical music ensemble Loop38 with Houston Contemporary Dance Company. All works are world premieres and SPA commissions.
Say Girl Say will deliver their unique sound. The group started as a new friendship which grew into a local staple at open mic nights and local bars.
Photo by Pam Ashley Photography
Say Girl Say is composed of Brigette Yawn and Suad Ihsan who are self-taught songwriters and musicians born and raised in the area. The band formed in 2012 and has become crucial for events within Houston's underground artist community. Patrick “PJ” Davis is a creative and social activist and founder of the poetry troop Starving Poets, Ink. Loop38 is a boundary-pushing, artist-driven new music ensemble that aims to build community around innovative, stimulating and culturally relevant musical experiences.
Lucky for art enthusiasts, Booth mentioned the applications were so compelling, SPA leveraged their resources to open up a second weekend of performances with a new crop of artists. Houston Artist Commissioning Project LIVE: Part 2, will feature works by South Asian American ensemble Riyaaz Qawwali, choreographer Harrison Guy, and writer Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton (Poet Laureate Emeritus of Houston), on November 12 and 13 at Jones Hall.
Booth said, “One of our goals of HACP is to highlight the extraordinary breadth and depth of diversity, cultures, backgrounds, and interests in the Houston Community. Houston is so diverse, and SPA is a multidisciplinary presenter, so we intentionally wanted to present a night of music, dance, spoken word…so that people can see the variety and extraordinary talent of artists working right here in Houston. You’ll also see an interesting number of collaborations.”
Booth mentioned that the HACP project is part of a larger call that was recognized by SPA long before the pandemic began. When Booth took the CEO role in 2018, she toured Houston to examine where and how SPA could fulfill its mission of connecting audiences with exceptional artists through diverse performances and learning experiences. Her attention was drawn to the robust performing arts community that doesn’t have a path to being presented in Houston, much less the mainstages in the theatre district.
“For artists to create, it’s one type of activity to go into a studio or put pen to paper…but then to rent a stage, hire stagehands, design and distribute marketing materials, and present? That process eliminates many artists from getting their work out there because the presenting component is so significant. Repeatedly, we heard there needs to be a better opportunity for Houston artists to be presented so that they can spend more time in the studio cultivating their art rather than doing the administration behind that art,” she said.
Given the limits of the pandemic, HACP offered a chance to address the need SPA recognized had been percolating during a time when it was most needed in the artistic community.
"Houston is not given the recognition for its amazing performing and visual arts. The cultural fabric in Houston is extraordinary, and we don’t give it as much credit as it deserves, so HACP allows us to slow down and take stock in the artists Houston produces and celebrate those voices,” she added.
Booth also hints that while this is the first year for HACP, there are hopes to expand the project in the future.
She said, “We intend to make this an annual occurrence and to work with artists who have been awarded the commission to ask them to help in the direction of the program. They might become adjudicators for identifying the next awardees, we may create a mentorship component for HACP. I have a great vision where we might be able to identify partner cities where we create tours for similar projects. We have a lot of hope for the future of this, and we look forward to growing it with our community of artists and our audience.”
Houston Artist Commissioning Project LIVE: Part 1 takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. Houston Artist Commissioning Project LIVE: Part 2 takes place at 7:30 p.m. November 12 and 13. For tickets or information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $25. Masks are required.