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Resiliency in the Theater District: Society for the Performing Arts
Organizations respond to pandemic with creative programming

Downtown’s Theater District has been the cultural heart of the city for decades. A place where people of all ages, races and denominations have gathered together to experience vibrant, profound and fantastical works of art. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the damage to many of the venues and organizations was devastating, but they came back stronger than ever. Now, just a little more than two years later, COVID-19 has struck, forcing each organization to re-think the way shows are produced and executed. In today’s physically distanced way of life, the Theater District now looks to Houstonians for support, as their lights remain off and their stages dark. Despite all the challenges, the Theater District organizations continue to hold on to the mantra of “resilience”, something our city knows a thing or two about.

The Society for the Performing Arts has been the resident organization of Downtown’s Jones Hall for more than 53 years. During that time, the performing arts organization has presented artists in all disciplines, from ethnic forms of dance to comedians. When the pandemic forced stages to go dark, SPA used their wide network of artists to launch SPA Creative Connection, a virtual series for their online platforms.

“We just thought, let’s try to create a bright spot in everybody’s day and share how we’re all being creative at home in our own ways,” said Chief Executive Officer Meg Booth. But after recognizing that this was going to be longer than one or two months, her team started brainstorming what might come next.

SPA has always had education and community outreach components, but they also are fortunate to have a small endowment fund for commissioning. In the 2019/20 season, part of the fund was used for the world premiere of a piece by Artists in Motion, Untitled Love. After having to postpone the premiere (until September 2021), SPA shifted to a new idea — The Houston Artist Commissioning Project.

“It’s an opportunity for small-to-medium range artists to be presented in the Theater District so they can focus on their work, and don’t have to focus on selling tickets or affording the technical aspect of things,” Booth said. SPA recognized a gap happening in the Theater District and felt called to bring more attention to artists in Houston. Booth believes “Downtown is for everyone” and the commissioning project is a way to close the gap, while also focusing on diversity and inclusivity.

Booth’s passion for the arts is a breath of fresh air amid a hurting community. Which is why, when asked about ways Houstonians can support SPA, she selflessly states that first and foremost it’s important to remember the value of the arts.

“For anyone who has experienced the arts, it is remembering that palpable exchange of energy between an audience and an artist, and how transformative it is to be in a live performance with your community,” Booth said.

Remembering those feelings and emotions may come naturally, and giving to your favorite arts organizations is one action to show support if you have the means. But Booth said it’s equally important to contact your congress people on behalf of the arts, an action that requires only passion and time. While some organizations received relief in the early stages of the pandemic, we’re now seeing how long it will take for everyone to be back on their feet. And Booth said including the arts in future relief packages is what will ensure the community withstands the difficulties this year has presented.

She closes with a note of promise, stating “We will be resilient, Houston is extraordinarily resilient; and we will see artists lead through this pandemic, but it’s not going to be without pain, and it’s going to take time.”

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