Embracing Possibilities: Houston’s Stages Conquers Digital Realms at the Gordy

Of all the best-laid plans of mice and women that went awry in 2020, one I regret missing was a conversation with Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin. With the opening of their $35 million Gordy campus in January 2020, Stages became one of those rare regional companies able to boast three theater spaces. Our Arts + Culture plan was to check in with McLaughlin at their three-month anniversary as they settled into all those staging possibilities.

And then the world stopped.

Now during our rescheduled talk—almost a year later—McLaughlin seemed worn but hopeful, as the Gordy has revealed itself as a theater realm adaptable for great change and innovation even as uncertainty reigns.

“It really is the Gordy itself that allowed us to flex some creative muscle. The facility is almost magical in what it’s capable of doing,” explains McLaughlin, recounting how the company slowly made its way back into the building in the late spring and early summer.

Like many Texas performing arts companies, Stages began experimenting with remote and filmed theater, trying a multitude of ways to keep creating and connecting with a distant audience.

“We pivoted really quickly. We were online and moving into a digital space as early as July and our audience went with us. They’ve been on this journey with us and embraced what we’ve been doing,” he says.

They began their first experiments with two traditional shows already on their season lineup, Sensitive Guys and Woman of World, turning them into filmed productions with all the actors remaining in their separate homes.

But it was their late summer Stages Studio Sessions project, which could have been another COVID-crushed idea, that taught them how adaptable the Gordy could be.

Studio Sessions would showcase a different local artist on the Gordy stage singing, monologuing and telling personal stories, for an in-person limited, socially-distant audience.

“The Studio Series was developed to be this slow integration back into the building. That was the logic behind it. We would have these once-a-week cabarets that could be done with a very small audience,” explains McLaughlin.

The set was built, the artists ready, but at midsummer the regional infection numbers spiked. They realized by bringing in cameras they could deliver the show for a home audience.

“Once we started going, it was amazing. It was us staying in tune with what was right for the community and what was right artistically, what allowed us to stay invigorated,” says McLaughlin, adding “It was one of the most successful discoveries of this whole period: what we were capable of and how much the audience loved learning about Houston artists. There were a lot of artists that our audience didn’t know.”

He says the decision to bring back Studio Sessions in March 2021 with a whole new lineup of local artists was an obvious one. From this experience they learned it was possible to produce work inside the Gordy safely to broadcast for an audience at home in Houston and beyond.

In November, they remounted the crowd-pleaser musical Honky Tonk Laundry, which had opened only a week before Texas closed down. The two-person show was performed live under the watchful eye of a COVID compliance officer with director Mitchell Greco running the shoot in another room. Then for December, McLaughlin rewrote his latest Panto script as a one-man show they could film in-house and stream for audiences hungry for traditional holiday fare.

Along the way, they adhered to national, state and regional government policies, as well as union guidelines, to keep their artists safe. Adding to the complicated process was the “tussle” between the national acting unions, Actors Equity and the Screen Actors Guild over organizational jurisdiction as theaters began to film their work.

“Ultimately to have a lot of decisions being driven by what’s happening in the commercial sector of our industry, i.e. Broadway, was extremely frustrating,” McLaughlin said. “Yet even in our industry, we’re fighting with the unions for the rights to put on a play in someone’s home and then they turn around and grant Walt Disney 750 contracts for public performance in Florida at the time when their numbers were way past ours. So it was extremely frustrating to watch how political power was in play, how money was in play, all of those things that were influencing how anyone could do their work.”

Yet for all the frustration, he believes all parties regional and national had the same objective.

“Every participant in the conversation had the same goal. We were all trying to create environments where artists could work safely, and that’s a good shared goal.”

With the new year and after six months “playing around” with the possibilities in a digital space, Stages will continue to experiment in the different modes of bringing artists and audiences together, if not quite physically.

Adding some normalcy to the revised, remote season, Stages picked up a filmed performance of Ann, Holland Taylor’s beloved portrait of Governor Richards. Produced at TheatreSquared in Arkansas right before the pandemic hit, the production stars Houston favorite Sally Edmundson, who portrayed the late great Ann at Stages in 2018.

For their annual Latinx theater fest, Sin Muros in February, the flexibility of the remote environment created some benefits, allowing them to pick four plays for live Zoom readings, instead of the usual three, as well as adding two digital works. Sin Muros will also spotlight Houston artist Candice D’Meza’s Fatherland—filmed at the Gordy—and Yana Wana’s Legend of the Bluebonnet, produced by Indigenous Cultures Institute and Teatro Vivo and intended for younger audiences.

The remaining shows of the season, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and Late Nite Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice, also possess an adaptability and limited cast that give Stages presentation options. They will likely broadcast Lady Day live from one of the Gordy stages, as they did with Honky Tonk. Part of the Late Nite Catechism series of audience participation comic plays, Sister Rolls the Dice might work well as live Zoom theater with Sister interacting with the audience at home, while watching for gum-chewing.

Hope even springs eternal that vaccine miracles could bring a limited audience back into the Gordy before the Fall.

For the 2021-2022 season, McLaughlin has put some of his faith in Dr. Fauci’s recent words to the national theater community that audiences could gather again this year. The Stages selection committee will plan for numerous scenarios.

“We are thinking that we will have a slate of work with both digital and in-person opportunities. Because digital is not going away. We’re in a digital space. There’s a lot to figure out from a union standpoint, an actors’ standpoint from all sorts of things about how we stay in the space, but I believe that it’s here to stay for us and gives us an incredible opportunity to be flexible.”

He notes that the company has not had to lay off any staff and has actually employed more than 100 artists, including some types they’ve never hired before such as video editors. McLaughlin wants audiences and artists back together inside the Gordy when everyone will be safe, but believes some aspects of digital, remote theater will play on.

“The genie is not going back into the bottle so how do we embrace this wonderful set of opportunities is the question before us.”