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The Show Must Go on…Somewhere Else: The Post-Harvey Scramble for Space

The Show Must Go on…Somewhere Else: The Post-Harvey Scramble for Space

Albina Shagimuratova, Violetta Valéry, Thomas Glass, Baron Douphol and HGO Chorus in HGO’s production of La Traviata.
Photo by Lynn Lane.

Sara Webb and Chun Wai Chan with Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Violetta in Houston Grand Opera’s  La Traviata took her last breaths at George R. Brown’s newly constructed Resilience Theater, Houston Ballet’s Sugar Plum Fairy will dazzle us in Sugar Land of all places, and who knows what else is happening in unexpected places as changes of venues, and other space scrambles are now the new normal for the performing arts in post-Harvey Houston.

Harvey took the floor away from us, and for a large part of the arts sector, the floor was mighty shaky before the storm hit.

“The show must go on” has been a constant mantra since Harvey made a mess of many of the downtown theaters. And it took awhile to get the details about the extent of the damage, with Wortham being out of commission for longer than anyone initially thought, and Jones Hall closed until late October. That’s a lot of shows that needed new homes.

Perhaps you heard me screaming, “What about The Nutcracker?” What theater has 33 open dates just hanging around during the holidays?

The Rush for a Roof

Houston Ballet was first out of the gate with a speedy change to Hobby Center for four performances of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s epic drama Mayerling, followed by two dates for Poetry in Motion, the show that was to be the company’s season opening. It seemed like nothing short of a miracle that the Ballet’s Fall season found a home at the Hobby.

As for The Nutcracker, Houston Ballet’s executive director, Jim Nelson, didn’t wait to get the bad news on Wortham to consider the possibility of moving the show.  He was eyeing possible venues right away. The Nutcracker has a double run, Dec. 10-23 at Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land, and Dec. 30-Jan. 6 at the Hobby Center. “Every one of the Smart Centre’s 3,000 seats is a good seat,” says Nelson, with characteristic confidence. “The sight lines are terrific for dance. Everyone is going to have a tremendous experience.”

Jeffrey Bean as Isaac, Todd Waite as Nikolai, and Liv Rooth as Yevgenia in Alley Theatre’s world premiere of Describe the Night by Rajiv Joseph. Photo by Lynn Lane.

As for the Sugar Plum Fairy returning to her homeland, Nelson quips, “It was meant to be.” Of course, every theater is different, and there will be some accommodations made to fit Stanton Welch’s behemoth production into a new theater. Nelson adds, “Trust me, the Christmas tree will still grow!”

The Alley Theatre also jumped on the search for a new location for Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night in a heartbeat. According to Robert Shimko, the Alley’s managing director Dean Gladden reached out to University of Houston President Renu Khator and Andrew Davis, the Dean of the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts. And it just so happened that UH did not have a play scheduled in the Quintero Theatre. Miracle #2!

“Andrew then reached out to me to see if hosting the Alley for this show would be feasible,” says Shimko. “I should note that Describe the Night is not just any play–it’s a world premiere by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph. It’s a truly amazing new play by a very important American playwright.”

“The School of Theatre & Dance faculty as a whole have been extremely supportive of the Alley’s impromptu residency, and I think it speaks to the generosity of our faculty that they were all able to be flexible in order to accommodate this extraordinary new play,” says Shimko. “I’ll also note that Dean Davis worked tirelessly for weeks to help make this happen. I’m very proud that UH can be part of American theater history in this way.”

Happily, the Alley is now back up and running in their downtown space with A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas, running Nov. 24-Dec. 30.

HGO had a bit more time to make a plan, but opera is not easy to house. What’s not to love about the confidence that HGO leaders Perryn Leech and Patrick Summers projected in their clever update videos? One thing we learned about life post-Harvey is that you can continue to promote your shows without a venue. Why not? It adds to the suspense, and the surprise. I pictured myself just driving around until I heard Albina Shagimuratova’s (Violetta) haunting coloratura soprano voice. Leech and Summers never once considered canceling the season. The team looked at 10 different venues before finding a solution.

Albina Shagimuratova as Violetta Valéry in HGO’s production of La Traviata. Photo by Lynn Lane.

I was secretly hoping that one of these groups would select a venue way out of the black box, and with the GRB locale, HGO went DYI big time, actually constructing a 124,000 square foot space in Exhibit Hall A3 into a place to see opera, with approximately 1,700 seats, all less than 100 feet from the stage. It took 60 people working 15-hour days for 13 days straight to build out the space, all earning Harvey arts hero status in the process.

“We had to be creative,” said Summers. Calling it “Resilience Theater” is another poetic move. Opera does epic so well.

For June Christensen at Society for the Performing Arts, the problem was further complicated by finding both new dates and venues for touring artists. “As you can imagine, the news of the Wortham Center closing came two weeks after we learned that Jones Hall would not be available for our early September dates,” explains Christensen. “We felt very positive that at least our Cullen season of events would remain intact. So after hearing the news, indeed it was a scramble to find venue space, especially if our artists could not move off the dates that we were presenting them. Fortunately, some were able to move, and we have been able to work with the Hobby Center and the University of Houston to move most of our events. The late announcement was particularly troublesome, because most of the venues had already been approached by other arts organizations.”

SPA’s Fall season finally launches with the uber sexy Tango Buenos Aires on Nov. 3 in Jones Hall.

Dance Salad founder and chief Nancy Henderek secured Hobby’s Zilkha Hall for her treasured international dance festival, March 29-31. With a space half the size, Henderek is determined to make it work. “We can make our shows fit the space,” says Henderek. “This is a real change and challenge for us. On the plus side, we were able to keep the exact same dates that everyone was planning on for the tech team and dancers. It will be a special Dance Salad Festival.”

Installation view: The 2017 Texas Artist of the Year exhibition Trenton Doyle Hancock: Texas: 1997-2017, Rice Gallery space. Photo courtesy of Art League Houston.

When Art League Houston discovered that their building had more damage than they thought, they were on the hunt for a gallery space large enough to house Artist of the Year Trenton Doyle Hancock’s show. They turned to Rice University, specifically Alison Weaver, director of the Moody Center for the Arts, who swiftly put a plan in motion to house the show at the former Rice Gallery. “It was amazing that they had not started to renovate the space and we could slip in,” says Weaver. “Jennie [Ash] and Trenton figured it out and the show looked like it was designed for the space.” Weaver also mentioned the incredible support from Rice President David W. Leebron as a contributing factor in making things happen. Go Owls!

The Up Side of New Location

The academic community deserves a round of applause, as both Rice University and University of Houston opened their doors without hesitation to organizations in need. Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music students were certainly closer to the Houston Symphony during the September concerts relocated to Rice’s Stude Concert Hall. Inprint Houston also found an elegant home for the Fall Margarett Root Brown Reading Series at Stude. University of Houston theater students lucked out with Joseph’s Describe the Night on their home turf.

What about that insurance convention next door to the HGO’s Resilience Theater? OK, I made that up, but there will be convention attendees actually running into the opera. I wonder how many curious non-HGOgoers will show up just to see how it’s all going to work. More than one person has told me that a Traviata at GRB, the very place that sheltered 10,000 people during the storm, was something that they had to see.

Ballet Hispánico’s Diana Winfree and Mario Ismael Espinoza in Michelle Manzanales’ Con Brazos Abiertos, which will be performed on May 18 at UH’s Cullen Theater, presented by SPA. Photo by Paula Lobo.

When I read that SPA relocated Ballet Hispánico’s May 18th performance to University of Houston’s Cullen Theatre, I wondered if anyone remembered that Michelle Manzanales, whose brilliant work, Con Brazos Abiertos, graces the program for the company’s engagement, is a UH alum. I certainty did, and reached out to her. I asked the now accomplished choreographer and director of Ballet Hispánico’s school of dance about returning to her alma mater.

“I have no words to describe what it feels like for these two incredible institutions to cross paths,” says Manzanales. “The Cullen Theater is so special to me. It honors the mentors who shaped me, like Victoria Loftin, Becky Valls, Joanna Friesen, and Dwight Shelton. And, it holds so many memories, lessons, blood, sweat, and tears. To have the opportunity to bring back to this community what I have been able to accomplish because of how it nurtured me…well, it is humbling and amazing. To have my choreography on the bill is the ultimate dance dream come true.”

Houston Ballet should definitely bring back some fresh fans from their Sugar Land gig, land of 10,000 dance studios. Nelson is hoping that all the folks who resist driving into the city will enjoy this holiday treat in their backyard.

And didn’t Hancock’s show look smashing at the former Rice Gallery brought temporarily back to life with his bold work? I sure hope some Rice art students are wandering in.

The Shows That Did Go On

You might think that the worst rain event in U.S. history would have some impact on the quality of the art that came forth after the storm, especially since rehearsal periods were shortened in some cases and artists and staff were dealing with flooded homes and such. Not a chance.

Houston Ballet principals Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Houston Ballet’s Mayerling was a triumph on so many levels, starting with it happening in the first place at all. MacMillan’s ballet looked gorgeous on the Hobby stage, and dancing the role of Prince Rudolf, Principals Connor Walsh and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama delivered outstanding performances, both garnering strong mentions in the New York Times.

Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night proved one of the most important plays that the Alley has premiered in a decade. Joseph’s profound puzzle of a play delivered a welcome political punch along with several standout performances.

There was so much to marvel at in HGO’s Traviata starting with Albina Shagimuratova’s vivid Violetta, to the surreal look of the orchestra behind the stage, to the fact that the every detail of the Resilience Theater was put in place by a team of opera miracleworkers.

The Houston Strong: A Theater District Benefit Honoring Local Heroes at Miller Outdoor Theatre also provided a welcome celebratory spirit, along with a fabulous lineup of talent, with performances by Houston Ballet, HGO, Alley Theatre, Jason Moran, TUTS, Houston Symphony, and Da Camera.

The Endless Scramble

The space scramble is far from over. We are still waiting to hear where HGO and Houston Ballet will house their 2018 shows.

And when will Wortham re-open?

HGO music director Patrick Summers conducting at Houston Strong: A Theater District Benefit Honoring Local Heroes at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

It’s been interesting that the large organizations are getting a taste of what smaller ones deal with all the time. Here’s the thing: for most of us in the arts, it’s always a hustle and a scramble. Looking for affordable venues, losing a home or staff or funding–these are everyday concerns. An arts group didn’t need to wake up to a foot of water in their space to be impacted by the storm. Two weeks of lost ticket sales combined with curtailed fundraising efforts take a toll.

Houston’s arts denizens have proven to be a nimble bunch, full of backbone and Texas-size can do-ness. Hats off to all the folks who said “yes” on the other end of the phone. We know that you too did a lot of scrambling to make things happen.

The water rose. Houston rose, but that rising needs to continue. Will 2017 be the year when the arts thinned out because of this storm?

Many shows have gone on by now, along with fundraisers and other heroic efforts, but let’s continue to do our part and show up to all those shows still to come.

—NANCY WOZNY