No Barriers: Performing Arts Houston’s New Now Series Nurtures Houston Artists

Can a series of world premiere, multidisciplinary performances also quickly become an annual New Year tradition? It can if that series is Performing Arts Houston’s New/Now. PAH’s project to commission new works from local artists first began as a series of streaming works during the height of the pandemic, but the program took the planned leap onto Theater District stages as soon as possible. Since then, New/Now has become a nurturing ground for up and coming Houston artists as well as a stage of discovery for Houston audiences.

“One of the reasons that we created New/Now is that we really do have an extraordinary cultural sector, and a lot of midsized and independent artists just don’t get on the stages in the Theater District,” explains PAH’s executive director Meg Booth. “So New/Now was trying to create avenues to highlight Houston’s own on the oldest stages and most beautiful theaters in Houston, where they should be. Homegrown.”

For the 2023-2024 season, PAH selected three artists and projects, Group Acorde’s Entrainment, Kam Franklin’s Bayou City Comeback Chorus: Vol. 2 and ShaWanna Renee Rivon’s Emancipation, with their world debuts scheduled for Jan.19 and 20 on the Wortham’s Cullen Theater stage.

Like many previous New/Now projects, Group Acorde blends disciplines, in this case jazz music and dance. Booth says in past Group Acorde performances they’ve used cameras on stage to film close-ups of the artists as they perform and then projected those images throughout the show.

“It intentionally creates an intimacy in a large space where you might not be that close to the artists, but you will see their movement on a large screen and feel right there with it,” explains Booth, who also notes this use of video technology helps them explore themes of community and isolation.

“They want to bring you through an experience that ultimately is a reflection not only of our solitude but our community during COVID” she describes.

Another piece influenced by our interesting times, yet with a decidedly Houston focus, will be Kam Franklin’s Bayou City Comeback Chorus: Vol. 2. The front woman for The Suffers, the soul band that’s gained fans across the country, Franklin’s music and especially Comeback Chorus is influenced by psychedelic funk, gospel, chamber choirs and jazz. But Franklin will likely also take the musical spirit of her city as inspiration.

“We expect Bayou City Comeback Chorus: Vol. 2 is going to be an amalgam of the different personalities and faces and communities in Houston, shining a light on the plurality that exists here.”

While the artists produce very different works and usually create in different media, Booth finds one similarity between musician Franklin and playwright ShaWanna Renee Rivon, Houston.

“Both Kam and ShaWanna are very much artists inspired by the city that they were raised in and are interested in telling stories about their neighbors and experiences they’ve had in the city.”

Emancipation becomes another work in Rivon’s ambitious seven-play cycle centered upon the lives of Black women, with another work in the cycle, the musical You’re Cordially Invited to Sit-In produced at Stages in 2022. The title of this new play refers to Emancipation Avenue in Houston’s Third Ward as well as the arts and culture created by Black Houstonians.

“In a way it is a love letter to Emancipation Avenue. It identifies and highlights many of the extraordinary people who have lived, worked and created on Emancipation,” says Booth.

While audiences will see these works come to fruition in January, the process that takes an artist’s proposal to the stage can take the whole year, and then the work continues. PAH also organizes photoshoots and writes press releases and guides artists through the marketing process. The organization also weaves New/Now into their continuing education and community engagement programs, coordinating outreach programs between the artists and students and community groups.

Of course, a primary goal of putting a literal Theater District spotlight on these Houston artists is to give them more opportunities to share their art with the city and beyond. Some New/Now alumni have taken what they learned into their next projects. For example, after her directorial debut for her short play The World’s Intermission, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton took the helm for her full length play on the life of Houston pioneering prima ballerina Lauren Anderson.

But many of these commissioned works have gone on to other stages with artists Riyaaz Qawwali, Vivalda Ndula and Say Girl Say performing some of the music they created for New/Now in other venues or while touring. Booth says even scientific journal articles are being written on composer Anthony Brandt’s 2023 New/Now collaboration with neuro-engineer Dr. Pepe Contreras-Vidal.

And now PAH will partner with the Hobby Center to continue bringing Houston artists onto Theater District stages. “We are developing a relationship with the Hobby Center and their Discovery Series to have one of our artists within each cohort of commissions participate in the Discovery Series,” explains Booth.

The first New/Now work at the Hobby Center will be choreographer Harrison Guy’s Colored Carnegie in February, 2024. Meanwhile, PAH will offer pay-what-you-can tickets for the New/Now January performances. Booth believes there should be no barrier for audiences to see Houston’s great artists.