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.
Theater Under the Stars, the primary resident of Hobby Center, has been working closely with the venue to create a re-entry plan for their staff, artists and patrons in hopes of starting their 20/21 season with a live performance of The Little Mermaid in December. From parking protocols and ingress/egress pathways for patrons to infrastructure modifications and contactless opportunities for ticketing, programs and concessions, TUTS has been busy preparing for a smooth, socially distanced opening.
“We are looking at everything from the moment you arrive at 800 Bagby to the moment you walk out the doors,” said Executive Director for TUTS, Hillary Hart.
For 52 years, TUTS’ mission as a non-profit is built around community building and communal experience, making them eager to return to the stage as soon as it’s deemed safe. But they’re also re-thinking their programming during this time, where Artistic Director Dan Knechtges describes his biggest challenge as the fight between two viruses — one being Covid, the other being the social unrest and racism going on throughout the country.
“We are caught in a conundrum in terms of programming, because to change one virus [social unrest] we need to be back, but we can’t be back because of the other one,” Knechtges said. “We’re caught in this catch-22, how do we have action and how do we create art?”
The upcoming season was planned well before the pandemic, but now TUTS is up against delivering on what they’ve promised, the best of musical theater, and producing the same titles they had announced. Financially, it may not make sense. As Knechtges says, there’s no making money in not-for-profit theater, the goal is simply to break even.
But TUTS is so much more than a musical theater organization. Each ticket supports various non-profits around Houston like Dress for Success, New Hope Housing, the Wesley Center and Combined Arms. A portion also goes toward TUTS-founded programs like the Humphreys School of Musical Theater and The River, which provides affordable, accessible arts education to individuals with disabilities. Not to mention, TUTS also helps finance HSPVA’s musical theater program.
“A low entry way to support is to buy tickets,” Knechtges said. “But if you can’t give anything at all, you can be an advocate on our behalf, which is equally valuable to us.”