On the corner of Commerce and Jackson, in a somewhat nondescript addition to the Wagon Works complex, lies Downtown Houston’s most unique theater, Rec Room Arts. The dream of co-founders Matt Hune and Stephanie Wittles Wachs, Rec Room opened its doors in 2016 as a place where audiences could experience thought-provoking productions and where rising artists might feel at home.
The partners, who both graduated from the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, wanted to transform Houston’s conventional theater scene by championing aspiring artists and playwrights. Fate had led the two back to their alma mater to teach a new generation of HSPVA students, while seeking a place to produce and create their type of high-quality theater.
Theater in the Living Room
The evolution of Rec Room can be traced back to Hune’s rather unique Living Room Series. In his first year of marriage (to an extremely patient and supportive wife), he converted the second floor of their Montrose townhouse into a black box theater. “The stage was 11 by 11 feet and it sat 22 people,” Hune said. “Saint Arnold gave us free beer to serve and it became more than just seeing a play, it was a whole experience.” The Living Room Series consisted of four productions that ran several weeks each and gained a collection of positive reviews. Regardless of the praise, capacity began to exceed the space and the series eventually came to an end.
Hune and Wittles Wachs had no future plan in place, but they had plenty of determination and began looking for spaces to fit their unique brand of theater. Annette McBride, a longtime Downtown resident, introduced them to Stefan Azizi. Azizi’s family manages the Wagon Works building, which also happens to be McBride’s home. Everything fell into place. Rec Room had a home and Azizi joined the team as Managing Director.
Rec Room was initially a space made to house all performing arts in one building. There have been dance productions, operas, comedy acts, concerts and of course plays. As Rec Room’s mission has evolved, the programming has become more focused. “My inspiration are those Downtown New York theaters, who are scrappy, but the work is professional,” Hune said. “We’ve fallen into a niche that is right for us and people and audiences are responding to it. We’re growing and we’re presenting work that I think might be hard to do at other companies in town.”
A Seat at the Table
Hune knows Rec Room is still looked at as the new kid on the block but he doesn’t mind. That perspective gives them the freedom to take artistic risks.
From interacting with a marketing piece and purchasing tickets, to parking the car and walking in the door, it’s not just about seeing a play – it’s about the entire experience. “We want people to come early and stay late, which I think is unique,” Hune said. Rec Room has a dedicated bar in the lobby, which may be modest but is comfortable. “It’s someplace to just hang out in. Our artists, the people in the shows are here hanging out after every show.” Aside from the cozy atmosphere, Rec Room’s programming stands out. Each play the company acquires is either a world premiere or a Houston premiere.
Rec Room’s production of The Children in late 2019 was the largest sell-out to date. The production, directed by Alley Theatre’s Brandon Weinbrenner, starred well-known Houston actors John Felch and Susan Koozin. Thanks to its success and word of mouth, Rec Room has playwrights who are now asking to premiere their work at the venue. “We have extreme talent interested in us producing their work and that’s exciting to me considering we didn’t exist four years ago,” Hune said.
Bring in the Kids
While Rec Room is Hune’s dream project, his day job consists of working with students at HSPVA, where he is the theater department’s full-time acting instructor, a position previously held by Rec Room co-founder Wittles Wachs. Being an alum of HSPVA, Hune never dreamed he would one day return to teach at the place that helped shaped him. “Teaching at HSPVA … helps me be a better producer and director …because one, you’re directing students and you have to be so clear with them, and two, you learn what’s hip with teenagers which, I think, is important to know because it tends to be what is going to be trendy soon.”
HSPVA’s Downtown campus is only a few blocks from Rec Room, which means many of Hune’s students have the opportunity to work as interns at the company doing everything from working the box office to helping build sets and make costumes. “It’s good for us and it’s good for them to get experience in a theater our size. The students at HSPVA, for their age, are just so highly skilled, precocious and mature,” he said. “We love having them.”
Hune’s students are also able to audition for Rec Room’s performances. Appropriate, opening March 28, has two roles for teenagers that will be filled by students. “They’re some of the busiest kids I know. The academics are pretty rigorous at HSPVA, students usually stay until 6 and then if they’re in a show they probably won’t get home until 10 or 11, and then they wake up and do it all over again,” Hune said. “I don’t know how they do it, but it’s dedication.”
Rec Room has big dreams for their future. “Theater is an absurd thing to undertake and pursue, but it’s even more absurd to not,” Hune said. He continues to reflect daily on what our city would be like without the arts, especially what it would be like without theater. “I think the term community gets thrown around a lot in the nonprofit world, especially in nonprofit theater. But we are truly creating a community. It’s smaller, but people are here. I know our audiences by name for the most part.”
It all harkens back to the Living Room Series, where a group of friends sat in a room together and shared an experience, establishing a connection that’s hard to achieve at the big theaters in town. “Houston is a great food town, but theater to me is a lot like that. We’re nourishing you, not with food, but with a story.”