We are back for our epic annual public chit chat, a tiny snapshot of the thousand dishy emails that fly across the inter tubes discussing what we just saw, missed, didn’t understand or flat out loved. Take a seat, pack a snack (it’s a long one) and enjoy my chat with our versatile, trusted and endlessly chatty ACTX performing arts writers Lindsey Wilson, Tarra Gaines and Sherry Cheng.
Nancy Wozny: Usually, I bypass Holiday events, but no one will be calling me scrooge in chief this season. We even published a holiday story in print with Tarra’s story on the TUTS production of The Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical! I made it to Rob Melrose’s wonderfully bespoke A Christmas Carol at the Alley, Schultz: Christmas Story at Harmonium Stellarum, the mesmerizing Cistern Illuminated at Buffalo Bayou Park and Houston Early Music and Annunciation Church’s presentation of the new and fabulous vocal troupe Regi Cantorum. What got you in the mood this season?
Tarra Gaines: I quite enjoyed Main Street Theater’s production of the third play in Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s Pride and Prejudice sequels, Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley. It feels like a traditional holiday treat with a 21st century sense and sensibility. I’m also definitely looking forward to getting ugly for the Ugly Xmas Sweater Musical, as well. But the holiday show that stood out for me so far was Catastrophic Theatre’s counter-programming with a production that would have been appropriate for the Halloween holiday, a world premiere adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. With immersive staging, video projections, puppets, fantastic spooky performances and creepy dolls everywhere, this Turn haunts these darkest, longest nights of the year.
Sherry Cheng: I’m a pianist, so I was especially thrilled that DACAMERA brought back its popular Beethoven for All series just in time for the holidays (Dec. 4-16). This edition featured the piano sonatas, 20 of the 32, performed by some of my favorite Houston pianists. I remember having to read through all 32 for my graduate piano literature class. It was one of the best learning experiences of my musical life. These are not only masterpieces of the piano repertoire but also some of the most inventive music ever composed. All four concerts were offered free to the public, a wonderful gift to all music lovers.
Lindsey Wilson: I’m looking forward to Jada Bells – A Holiday Extravaganza at Uptown Players and Scrooge in Rouge at Theatre Three. In the former, Lee Walter brings out their popular alter ego, Jada Pinkett Fox, for a holiday party/drag show featuring seasonal tunes, Broadway favorites, and 14 Uptown Players performers—this is the kind of casual fun that Uptown Players excels at. The latter is a screwball comedy—and I love a good screwball comedy—where three members of a community theater troupe must soldier on through A Christmas Carol after the rest come down with food poisoning.
NW: Talk about big moments, history being made, or monumental performances. HGO’s Intelligence was that for me. With a dream creative team of composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Sheer, and director/choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, everything about the show felt like a shining moment for HGO and opera!
SC: Intelligence was definitely a monumental achievement for HGO. Aside from the all-around stellar production, I sensed an incredible energy in the very diverse audience. Patrons were genuinely moved by the powerful storytelling and their response was visceral and vocal. They knew they had been part of something epic. Choosing to open the season with this world premiere places a pillar in the ground and says this is the future of opera. I also want to mention DACAMERA’s production of Kendrick Scott’s Unearthed, a multimedia collaboration between Scott, the Harlem String Quartet, Houston artist Robert Hodge, and former Houston poet laureate Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton. It was inspired by the Sugar Land 95, African Americans whose remains were discovered at a Sugarland construction site in 2018. They were victims of Texas’s convict leasing system which was in essence modern day slavery. This event was impactful beyond just its musical and artistic excellence.
TG: I’m going to give a third Bravo to Intelligence, such a remarkable weaving of story, opera and dance.
But I’ll start my pick with an embarrassing confession for a performing arts writer: I had never seen a live production of Sweeney Todd until the Theatre Under The Stars production in October. For their first self-produced show of the season, it was a big, bold, and yes bloody, opener. Directed by TUTS artistic director Dan Knechtges, the macabre yet somehow delightful production made the case that monsters are made not born. As per usual, TUTS brought together a fine mix of New York and local actors to bring dark life to the Sondheim classic.
LW: For the first six months of 2023, it was impossible to escape His Story: The Musical. A Hamilton-esque approach to the life of Jesus, it was written by a teenager and presented in a tent in a shopping mall parking lot. If that sounds low-rent, it was anything but. This show had Duck Dynasty money behind it, and was promising to be a Broadway-style spectacle that would play several times a day in an open-ended run, with a separate tent devoted entirely to branded merchandise. It abruptly closed one month after opening. I was there opening night and didn’t see the appeal—in fact, I had attended Magic Mike Live the night before, also presented in a tent in a shopping mall parking lot, and declared it a much better experience—but rumors from the cast confirmed my suspicions that His Story had a punishing schedule, haphazard management, and extremely low ticket sales. It ended up being a blip on the DFW radar, but oh what a blip it was.
Dallas Black Dance Theatre in Norbert de la Cruz III’s Critical Mass. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.
Isaiah Harris, Peter DiCesare, Micah Green, Seth Paden, Sammy Swim, Lee Walter, Michael Moore, Brett Warner, and Presley Duyck in the Uptown Players production of Jada Bells - A Holiday Extravaganza. Photo by Mike Morgan.
John Dunn and Brittny Bush in the Catastrophic Theatre production of The Turn of the Screw. Photo by Anthony Rathbun.
The cast of the Rec Room production of Wolf Play. Photo by Tasha Gorel.
DACAMERA production of Kendrick Scott’s Unearthed. Photo courtesy of DACAMERA.
Eiko Otake in A Body with Fukushima, presented by Aurora Picture Show and the Mitchell Center for the Arts. Photo by Jen Bootwala/Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.
NW: Some stories are a privilege to write. For me, that was Jacob’s Pillow legendary archivist Norton Owen’s story for his Dance Magazine Award. Which story inspired you?
TG: I interviewed choreographer Justin Peck about his Houston Ballet commissioned world premiere Under the Folding Sky, inspired by James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace at Rice University. So that was inspiring squared for me. My interview with Fusebox Festival founder Ron Berry inspired me to go to Austin for a few days for the Fest, and I ended up loving every minute of it. Spoiler alert, I’m going to rave about a few of the shows I saw in this wrap up.
LW: I really loved writing the cover story about Vuyani Dance Theatre and its dance and percussion show Cion. I spoke with artistic director Gregory Maqoma all the way from South Africa (that was a first!) and learned so much while researching the company and the political and cultural atmosphere that existed when this work about mourning was created. I also learned quite a bit about Ravel and his “Bolero”! Getting to see the company perform it was extremely powerful and something I won’t ever forget.
SC: I enjoyed writing the two-part story on non-Western story ballets (Expanding the Classical Ballet Canon Part I and II), about the recent works of Texas dancer/choreographer Nao Kusuzaki and Alexa Capareda. Asia Society Texas commissioned Kusuzaki’s Genji, a contemporary realization of The Tale of Genji, an enduring classic of Japanese and world literature from the 11th century written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. I read the entire book during my research for the story and was completely engrossed in the subtleties of court life in Heian period Japan. It made me appreciate even more how Kusuzaki was able to distill the essence of the epic novel by centering her interpretation on the important female relationships in the book. I was thoroughly enchanted by everything from the costumes of deconstructed kimonos, to the elegant stage design, the musical score that transported the audience to a different realm, and the nuanced choreography that reflected the essence of Japanese aesthetics. I hope the success of these new creations from outside the traditional Western canon will lead to more works by diverse artists from different cultures.
NW: Every season holds some surprises. Normally I cringe a bit when I see dancers moving in front of visual art works, but I found Oliver Halkowich’s response to Laure Prouvost: Above Front Tears Nest in South at the Moody Center for the Arts so charming, whimsical, and wonderfully adjacent to the exhibit. Halkowich seemed to fully inhabit the spaces open for his exploration. Also, what a thrill to get three world premieres by Norbert De La Cruz III in Texas! Houston Contemporary Dance Company, Bruce Wood Dance and Dallas Black Dance Theatre all presented his powerful work. What surprised you this year?
SC: Aurora Picture Show and the Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston brought the visionary interdisciplinary dance artist and activist Eiko Otake to Houston for a presentation of her solo performance project A Body with Fukushima. It was incredible to witness her work. In her stillness and the intention and weight of her movements she seemed to carry all the memories of pain, anger, grief, and desolation caused by the environmental disaster. There was a moment at the end of the Q & A session when she let out a piercing wail. I was so shaken by it I started crying uncontrollably. My reaction surprised me. Seeing her complete vulnerability laid bare on that stage–it was shattering, and powerful.
LW: Miss Molly (A Marital Deceit of Honest Intentions) at Amphibian Stage. I thought I was burnt out on “reimaginings” of classic works, but this sassy new take on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, written by Christina Carmela and directed by Evan Michael Woods, both TCU grads, was a pure delight. It explored upper-crust queer life during the Victorian age, and was jam-packed with clever double entendres and physical performances. I really hope it goes on to have a life at other theaters.
TG: I found some lovely surprises in a few small packages this year. A Fusebox presentation, The Director, about the corporatization of family funeral businesses across the globe, made for a moving and weirdly entertaining hour of theater. I got caught up in the illusion of Instructions for a Séance from Austin artist Katie Bender. Séance was all the more magical because it wasn’t a full production but a workshop performance at the Alley All New Festival. A bunch of fav local actors took it upon themselves to produce Almost, Maine at MATCH as a stand alone show without the backing of any theater company in town. Maine is a beloved fluff of interconnected scenes about finding love under the North Lights, but it was a perfect play for the “Hey, let’s get together and put on a show” spirit of the production.
NW: As soon as Musiqa’s performance of Pierre Jalbert’s haunting Voices from the Underground at the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern was over I just wanted to stay for the second show. Was there a show that you loved so much that you just wanted to see it again?
SC: I also loved Pierre’s piece for the Cistern. It was so spacious, dynamic, and mesmerizing. I actually did see something twice this season–Catastrophic Theatre’s Waiting for Godot. It was so good I wanted to introduce my teenage daughter to it right away. Jason Nodler directed the original cast from 10 years ago and they embodied their characters with irrepressible life force. Everyone was at the top of their game.
LW: My emotional state couldn’t have handled it, but Theatre Three’s Next to Normal was brutally beautiful. Cara Serber bared a raw soul as bipolar mom and wife Diana, and the supporting cast matched her note for painful note. I wouldn’t say I wanted to see it again, but I’m very glad I didn’t miss it. But for those who did, Coppell Arts Center offered its venue for a limited run following the T3 closing—more collaboration like this, please!
TG: I was still all-in for fun this year, so the Fusebox Festival’s presentation of High Gothic Pageantry LLC: Orientation Conclave is a show I’m still laughing with and would love to see in Houston. Call me a live performance snob, but I’m usually a bit doubtful about social media stars who attempt to take their acts to the stage. But performer and costume designer Tyler Gunther converted me. His Greedy Peasant, that tassel-loving, influencer–circa ye olde medieval times–could certainly hold a live audience of filthy peasants (a.k.a Fusebox Fest-goers) as he trained us for our parts in a local cathedral pageant to welcome the arrival of an incorruptible corpse on tour and in the running for sainthood. A medieval peasant training orientation to parade a corpse around a cathedral as theater had to be one of the most delightful audience experiences I had this year.
NW: We have to talk about trends because that’s what you all are so good at noticing. I have become increasingly aware of the growing strength of the Dallas dance scene as Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Bruce Wood Dance, Avant Chamber Ballet and TITAS continue to gain national prominence. Congrats are in order to BWD for making it on the Guggenheim’s Works & Process program and Dallas Black for their Joyce Theater show as part of the American Dance Platform series. What’s becoming a curious/interesting pattern in your neck of the woods?
TG: I’m going to get very specific with this one, but my vote for Houston theater trend of the year was the casting of puppets to play children in adult plays with living, human actors playing the rest of the parts and the puppeteer also playing the child character. I know that sounds complicated and it was. The Oldest Boy at Main Street Theater, Wolf Play at Rec Room, Medea from Classical Theatre and The Turn of the Screw all had puppets representing child characters. For Oldest Boy and Wolf the scripts call for a puppet, but Medea and Screw were directorial choices that made for some innovative takes on classics. Tangentially related, JooYoung Choi’s exhibition at Moody Center for the Arts was all about her Comic Womb worlds inhabited by superhero puppets. I have no idea what this trend means but it made for a reminder of the art that goes into puppet creation, how puppeteers are often actors themselves and how deeply we can invest our emotions into pieces of cloth, wood, felt and styrofoam.
LW: Smaller casts are definitely still a thing, but I think that encourages directors to be more creative in their staging. I’ve also been hearing “we’ve been wanting to do this play/musical forever” from artistic directors, so it’s exciting that stars are aligning and passion projects are on the horizon. I’m hopeful audiences will pick up on that extra energy and show up in droves.
SC: The performing arts are engaging more deeply with the issues of our times and that’s a good thing. Stages took on the abortion issue with ROE. Apollo Chamber Players’s entire season “Silenced Voices” confronts the issue of censorship. KINETIC’s first album features music concerned with environmental sustainability and climate change. Musiqa responded to the war in Ukraine by partnering with FotoFest to present a newly commissioned work by Houston composer Theo Chandler, inspired by the major exhibition Fighting: Ukrainian War Photographers. HGO commissioned and premiered the opera Another City, which tells stories from the homeless community in Houston. And I’ve already mentioned DACAMERA’s Unearthed production, which addresses a historical social injustice. This desire to engage deeply with current issues is a sign that the arts are not only relevant but powerful and impactful.
Houston Ballet dancers Jessica Collado, Zoe Lucich, and Saul Newport in Dimensions Variable: Oliver Halkowich at Rice’s Moody Center for the Arts. Photo by Melissa Taylor.
Laura Lites in the Uptown Players production of Head Over Heels. Photo by Mike Morgan.
The cast of Theatre Under The Stars production of Sweeney Todd. Photo by Melissa Taylor.
J'Nai Bridges and Janai Brugger surrounded by Urban Bush Women Dancers in the HGO production of Intelligence. Photo by Michael Bishop.
Houston Ballet Principal Yuriko Kajiya in Stanton Welch’s Tu Tu. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, courtesy of Houston Ballet.
Jocelyn Cottencin and Emmanuelle Huynh, LANDS – Portrait of the City of Houston, 2023. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.
NW: I can’t stop thinking about the DiverseWorks commissionLANDS – Portrait of the City of Houston, by French artists Jocelyn Cottencin and Emmanuelle Huynh. Its layered beauty, visual storytelling, and quietude made for one completely spell-inducing event. Is there a show you are still muling about in your artsy gray matter?
LW: Lonesome Blues at Circle Theatre, thanks to an incredible performance by J. Dontray Davis. It’s the story of Blind Lemon Jefferson, a local blues legend in Dallas, and was originally produced at Undermain Theatre in 2022. A one-man show with music, it all depends on the charisma and versatility of the actor and Davis had it.
SC: ROCO’s Unchambered concert featuring violinist Rachel Jordan and friends at the historic Eldorado Ballroom. The concert was a tribute to Rachel’s father “Kidd” Jordan, who was an internationally acclaimed saxophonist and jazz legend. He had played in the Eldorado Ballroom during his illustrious career. After the first set of classical works by pioneering black composers, Rachel shared the stage with her friends and family for a soulful jazz set. Her sister Stephanie brought the house down with her expressive singing and natural ability to connect with the audience. I was nodding to her every turn of phrase, dancing in my chair, and reveling in the scintillating rhythms vibrating throughout the room. There was a lot of New Orleans jazz royalty in that room. Rachel’s aunt, wife of the jazz great Alvin Batiste, spoke about music being the subliminal force that radiates and permeates our eternal spiritual existence. The music was absolutely life-affirming. The audience asked for one encore after another. I did not want the concert to end and came away feeling a deep sense of inner joy. I’m still basking in it.
TG: I always look forward to another Open Dance Project immersive show, and this year’s 1968: The Whole World Is Watching was worth the wait. I’d say this was one of director and choreographer Annie Arnoult’s most ambitious works to date as she and the ODP dancers and creative designers attempted to chronicle, through movement and dance, one of the most tumultuous years of the second half of the 20th century. Only towards the end of the hour spent watching, wandering through and sometimes dodging danced protests, beatings, debates, boxing matches, assassinations, scenes of hope and mourning did the second part of the title, The Whole World is Watching really hit me. We’re still looking back through time at that year, and it still reverberates into our present.
NW: We all have our favorite performers or troupes. If Houston Ballet principal Yuriko Kajiya is in motion I want to be there. She commanded our attention in Stanton Welch’s glimmering Tu Tu with the most delicate of flourishes, fully embodying Welch’s rarified tone of quirkiness with wit and wonder. Who do you keep track of and why?
TG: I’m going to sidestep this question a little to recognize an ensemble performance. It’s been several years since Austin’s Rude Mechs collaborated on a new, live and in-person show, so I was thrilled to attend the debut of Contranyms (A Performance Ritual), which premiered at Fusebox this year. I have to use the verb “experience” instead of “see” because Contranyms definitely became an experience. Set in some dystopian future, which looks a lot like the present, where words have lost their meaning, supervised, reeducation chant camps become the solution. While my description might sound Orwellian bleak, the Mech’s sense of the absurd made a show about the contradictions of language a fun night at (and of) camp.
LW: I love watching Laura Lites, a terrific and expressive soprano, explore fun character roles. Last December, she was the vain and clueless Pamela in Head Over Heels at Uptown Players, and in late November of this year she played gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in Chaplin at WaterTower Theatre. This is all after turning in a lovely performance as a wistful and romantic Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County (also at WaterTower) in 2022—or what you would assume her “type” would typically play. She also stretched herself as a Kit Kat Girl in Lyric Stage’s Cabaret in early 2023—a dance role!
SC: I’m a big fan of WindSync. They are such dynamic musicians and wonderful human beings, and they’ve developed a strong relationship with their audience over the years. They care about the people they play for. A WindSync concert truly feels like music among friends. The ensemble is celebrating its 15th anniversary this season and I was honored to share their story in ACTX. A newish group I’m following is the early music ensemble Harmonia Stellarum. Its founder and director Mario Aschauer is so knowledgeable as a scholar and so expressive as a performing artist. He’s the best of both worlds and has built a superb ensemble in a short time. I have high hopes for its future.
NW: I have been going to the Underground Sounds series for a few years now at the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. Artists always bring their A game. Meg Booth’s NEW/NOW series at Performing Arts Houston is a game changer for local artists, and Bob Bursey’s curatorial vision at Texas Performing Arts is simply outstanding. Is there a troupe or a series you want to mention for a strong season?
LW: I realized I’ve been giving a lot of kudos to Fort Worth this year, but they deserved it! Between Amphibian Stage, Circle Theatre, and Stage West, there are a lot of stellar choices and exciting risks happening in Cowtown and I am here for it. There’s also been a focus on new works there, and audiences seem receptive to it because the titles are being smartly chosen with this specific audience in mind. It’s a bit of a drive for me from Dallas, but I’ll keep coming if they all keep creating like this in 2024.
SC: Ars Lyrica Houston has been serving up captivating musical enchantments for its 20th anniversary season. Artistic Director Matthew Dirst has a knack for devising absolutely delightful programs–rare gems, mad virtuosity, gruesome stories, paranormal weirdness. Who knew early music could be so full of mischief and fun? The season opener was one of the very best Ars Lyrica concerts I have ever attended. Musiqa is having an outstanding season, with many firsts–first album release party, first time performing in the Cistern and at the Deluxe Theater, new collaborations and commissioning initiatives. On the theater scene, Catastrophic’s 30th anniversary season has been superb. And I’ve really enjoyed all the performing arts and exhibition offerings at Asia Society Texas and the Moody Center for the Arts this year.
TG: Rec Room, a company that tends to squeeze the most drama and stagecraft out of their very small space, has had a stellar season so far. They’ve moved to a Jan.-Dec. season calendar vs. the tradition fall to summer, so 2023 has been a whole season for them. Artistic director Matt Hune selected expectations-defying shows this year. I walked into their opening production, A Number, thinking I was going to see a sci fi play about cloning that ended up being one of the better shows about parent/child relationships I’ve seen in a while. I’m looking forward to discovering how they end 2023 with the classic Peter Pan. I’m willing to bet it will be a Pan like no other.
NW: Tarra, your story on research took a lot of research! What did you learn?
TG: When I began my research on artistic research, I already knew how fundamental it can be to some artists’ process, but I was surprised at how much luck, synchronicity, serendipity, whatever you want to call it, can figure into that process. While not necessarily true for all artists who do make research a part of their process, for several of those I interview there was often one research find–a lost manuscript or old photograph or tangential interview–that wasn’t necessarily something the artist went looking for but it ignited their imagination and sparked creation. Research can be a treasure hunt for some artists, with the audience receiving the bounty.
NW: Lindsey, you interviewed Jeff Goodell for your story on the Blanton exhibit If the Sky Were Orange: Art in the Time of Climate Change right around the time that his new book, The Heat Will Kill You first: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, came out. The heat last summer was indeed trying to kill us. Do you expect more art focusing on Climate Change?
LW: How can we not expect more? Climate change is real and it’s happening, and it was very smart for the Blanton to bring in climate change expert Goodell to co-curate. He and his fellow experts contributed their thoughts and research to complement the art, and it was an ingenious way to approach such a divisive subject in a new way.
NW: Sherry, we sent you to Dallas!
SC: I had not been to Dallas once in the 23 years I have lived in Houston so I was totally embracing my role as an arts tourist. I saw and heard so much in two days but felt like I barely scratched the surface. I was surprised by how compact and convenient the arts district is, with everything just a few blocks from each other. It felt a little strange to attend a concert or a show and not recognize anyone in the audience. It made me realize that the social aspect of any city’s arts scene is important, that sense of community.
Kitchen Dog Theatre’s production of SAFE AT HOME. Pictured: Andrés Carbonell (Marine), Barry Nash (Tim Donovan), Max Hartman (Charlie), Lee George (Barry), Whitney Holotik (Friar), Rosaura Cruz (Andrea Leighton), Ryan Michael Friedman (Victor Castillo), Bryan Pitts (Gerald Carter), Matt Lyle (Mike), and Victoria Angelina Cruz (Alejandra). Photo by Jordan Fraker.
Julian Charrière, Towards No Earthly Pole, 2019, 4k color film, 104:30 min, Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery.
Troy Schulze and Kyle Sturdivant in the Catastrophic Theatre production of Waiting for Godot. Photo by Anthony Rathbun.
Rachel Jordan, Stephanie Jordan, Barry Sames, Arthur Moyler, and Sam Wright performing as part of “ROCO Unchambered: Rachel Jordan at the Eldorado Ballroom.” Photo by Natalie Gaynor.
NW: We have to talk about all the depressing stories about the imminent death of theater in America. Should Texas be worried?
LW: I discussed this in my “what I’m looking forward to” round-up article, and while theaters in DFW are still valiantly trying to do more with even less, there are a few success stories. Stage West is thriving, the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project is giving smaller companies their venues and valuable admin support, and it seems like Uptown Players will always have LGBTQ+ support to tell important stories. But we are definitely feeling the effects of not having enough—or really any—arts coverage in terms of reviews….
TG: Touching on Lindsey’s point, I keep wondering if real estate woes and theater companies’ need to hold on to a permanent, exclusive space has been a factor in a lot of the death-of-theater gloom across the country. I think having a place like the MATCH that serves as home for several Houston theater companies and then gives small arts organizations a place to mount a one-and-done show helps to sustain those companies in Houston. But as to Lindsey’s other point, the death of arts reviews, yeah I don’t know how we solve that problem.
SC: As an occasional consumer of theater, I’ve been seeing sold-out shows, and patron/audience loyalty to theater companies large and small seems strong.
NW: Where did you have to stretch yourself as a writer?
LW: Writing about Juane Quick-to-See Smith and her showcase of five decades of work at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth opened my eyes to a fascinating world of Indigenous art. There is so much I didn’t know! And that’s why I’m grateful to museums like the Modern for making it a point to feature artists who may not have been heard as loudly until now. Juane is well known in the Southwest—she’s even taught in some history courses—but her art and activism were unknown to me until this article. Now I can’t get enough. I hope people will try to go see her work through Jan. 21, 2024.
SC: I am always learning. That’s why I love writing about the arts, especially long-form writing that allows me to dig deep and really tell a story. I had never heard of the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla before writing about the current exhibition at the Meadows Museum, Spanish Light: Sorolla in American Collections. I went to the MFAH library and sat down with every exhibition catalogue I could find on Sorolla and immersed myself in his paintings. I fell in love with this “painter of light,” so much so that I booked a trip to Spain during winter break to see the places he loved to paint. I’ll get a chance to visit his house in Madrid, now the Museo Sorolla, where the largest collection of the artist’s works are held.
TG: Writing the cover story on JooYoung Choi’s two spring/summer exhibitions made for a challenge only because describing her imagined cosmology she depicts in her artwork was a bit like trying to map the Milky Way. But as a novice dance reviewer I think my biggest stretch was Arts and Culture giving me the opportunity to review Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet after I visited London. There was a Houston connection, as former Houston dancer Kayla Collymore held a prominent role in the cast. Though I love interviewing choreographers, I don’t get many chances to review dance and it’s always rewarding to feel the burn of that stretch.
NW: Withstanding change is huge for any arts environment. In Houston we welcomed Julie Kent as the co-artistic director at Houston Ballet, along with farewells to the legendary Miller Outdoor leader Cissy Segall Davis, and Jane Weiner’s Hope Stone Dance to name a few, and will go yet another year without the fabulous international dance festival Dance Salad. Let’s talk about beginnings, endings, closings, and other big changes.
LW: One of my favorite theater companies, Imprint Theatreworks, called it quits in early 2023, but artistic director Ashley H. White landed at Circle Theatre. Other new leaders included Gustavo Ott, artistic director for Teatro Dallas; Kat Edwards, managing director for Theatre Three; Parker Gray, executive director for Second Thought Theatre; Rebecca Lowrey, owner and CEO of MusicalWriters.com; and Samantha Turner, executive director for Dallas Children’s Theater. Joel Ferrell was also named the new director of SMU’s new G. Marlyne Sexton Institute for Musical Theatre, which should really get going in 2024. Longtime theater journalist John Garcia passed away and Shakespeare Dallas artistic director Raphael Parry announced his retirement. But perhaps my very favorite piece of news this year is that the Wyly Theatre is replacing and selling off those torturous green chairs.
SC: The Houston Symphony started its second full season under new music director Juraj Valčuha in a freshly renovated Jones Hall with improved acoustics. Valčuha has already made a mark on the orchestra’s music-making, leveling up the already high performance standards of the orchestra with his attention to detail and his depth of understanding of the repertoire. The Houston Ballet has a new music director in Simon Thew, replacing Ermanno Florio, who stepped down after 32 years in the role. The Lynn Wyatt Square for the Performing Arts opened in downtown Houston’s Theater District this fall. I’m excited to see this public green space come to life, and be a kind of focal point that connects the arts and connects the community to the arts.
TG: I love the swings in the newish Lynn Wyatt Square! (Sorry, but 7-years-old, Tarra had to interject for a moment.) In big endings news, longtime Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin announced he would retire at the end of the 23/24 season. While he seems excited for Stages to bring in new blood, McLaughlin had such a guiding vision that Stages without Kenn will take getting used to.
Last March was probably one of the worst months for the Houston theater community since the pandemic with three major productions postponed or canceled. Still reeling from the fire at Winter Street Studios and the loss of their rehearsal space and offices, Classical Theatre had to postpone their final show of their 22-23 season. They bounced back this fall with a mesmerizing new take on Medea. The Alley canceled their epic production of The Odyssey before opening night, citing a resource issue. Finally, real tragedy befell Catastrophic Theatre as they postponed their long-anticipated production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed after the untimely death of a cast member. They plan to try again next spring.
In happier news, new theater company On the Verge had a successful first season and moved into the Alta Arts space for its second season. The Hobby Center announced new programs including a “Beyond Broadway” that ironically will bring in big Broadway stars for performances and a “Discovery Series” to bring students and teachers to special shows from Houston-based artists.
NW: Do you worry that art writing will go extinct?
LW: I hate to say it, but it already has. When I first moved to Dallas in 2009, the arts writing scene was thriving — I was seeing shows 4-6 times a week, conversing with the many members of the DFW Critics Forum, and watching new and amazing things spring up right and left and actually get coverage. Now DFW has no full-time arts coverage and only a few independent writers who are doing the best they can. Without the foundational support to prove arts are a vital part of the city, it’s impossible to truly stay on top of everything and give companies/creators the recognition they deserve.
TG: I agree with Lindsey. In Houston too, it seems like the opportunities and outlets to write about the arts, especially the performing arts, have narrowed. But one of the reasons I enjoy working on this yearly wrap-up with my wonderful colleagues is that it gives me the chance to learn about some stellar shows I missed. I also hope readers who are reading this for the classical music kudos but hardly ever see theater or theater lovers who want to see if their favorite show got a mention but who don’t usually go to dance performances might discover some new Texas art riches out there and also check out our coverage of those treasures.
SC: Well everyone keeps telling me that arts writing is dying, or classical music is dying, or theater, or galleries. I believe as long as there are people who are passionate about their art form, we will keep on creating and making and telling stories about the human experience. The world is constantly changing, and we adapt.
NW: A new year means new shows! On the dance front, I am looking forward to Stanton Welch’s new work Bespoke, Vitacca Ballet and Ishida Dance’s upcoming shows, and of course Laura Gutierrez’s DiverseWorks commission. What are you looking forward to?
SC: HGO’s Parsifal. More than 30 years ago legendary director Robert Wilson’s critically-acclaimed production of Wagner’s Parsifal changed the trajectory of HGO. It’s one of those monumental and transformative works you don’t take on lightly. Ars Lyrica’s fully-staged production of Handel’s rarely heard opera Amadigi di Gaula, one of the composer’s most beautiful scores. It’ll be a Houston premiere, 309 years after it opened at King’s Theatre in London in a production that was full of wild spectacle and magical effects.
TG: Since seeing a workshop production of The Emporium at the Alley Theatre was one of the inspirations for my research story, I’m definitely looking forward to a full production of this lost Thornton Wilder play found and completed by Kirk Lynn. With all the big musical bios touring Texas, like MJ and Tina, I’m anticipating The Cher Show hitting Houston and Dallas in the spring for the costume changes alone. I’ve heard lots of good things about the Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix, a hip hop version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. So I’m looking forward to Stages bringing it to Houston.
LW: Uptown Players has The Prom and The Boys in the Band on its schedule, and both are right in the company’s wheelhouse: a musical that’s pure joy and a gut-wrenching play. Echo Theatre also has an eerie season of mostly new works for 2024, including the regional premiere of Erin Malone Turner’s the secret keepers. I’m a big fan of Turner’s work so I’m super excited to see this one, a Southern Gothic coming-of-age play set in a run-down boarding school. I love that Kitchen Dog Theater is going nomadic for its latest season—its Design District home is being finished up, but in the meantime the shows will be site-specific. The first, Safe at Home, is at Riders Field, home of the Frisco RoughRiders, and the second is set in a crossfit gym. I’ve already got my tickets.