Houston Ballet keeps production manager Brian Walker on his toes
by Marene Gustin • Photo by Pam Francis
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” —The Wizard of Oz
Unless that man is Houston Ballet’s Brian Walker, that is.
“The first big show I saw [as a child] was Starlight Express in London,” says the 35-year-old Walker. “And I was hooked.”
So much so that he and his little friends put on their own home production, making sets and passing out flyers. His mom made the costumes. Maybe it was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock score—or more likely, the roller skates. Whatever the cause, a theater nerd was born.
“I was just a ‘let’s do a show’ kinda person,” Walker says. Shades of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.
Walker, a Houston native, spent his childhood in Saudi Arabia. The family often flew through London, where his parents would take him to shows in the West End. He knew early on that he wanted a career in theater, and attended the University of North Texas in Denton where he got his degree in lighting design and stage management.
Despite being a non-dancer, he got on well with the dance faculty and wound up lighting all of the university’s dance performances, as well as those of local dance companies. The school even asked him back after graduation, and in 1999 he was offered the production manager’s job at the Fort Worth Ballet (now Texas Ballet Theater). When a comparable job opened up at Houston Ballet in 2002, he jumped at it.
Today, as production manager for Houston Ballet, the five-foot-ten man with a shaved head, who is now bearded, oversees a large staff of wardrobe workers, electricians, stage managers, carpenters, and lighting designers—all of whom work hard to make sure performances come off without a hitch.
“It’s my job to make sure the show looks good,” Walker says. “But there’s a whole slew of things I do in a day. If I’ve done my job, then during the show all I have to do is sit back and watch.”
But getting to a show’s opening night is often stressful—particularly when mounting a new production, or during company tours to a new venue.
In 2009, Houston Ballet took Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s full-length Marie on the road at the invitation of the New Orleans Ballet Association. The three-act story of Marie Antoinette has massive sets and lots of moving pieces—not an easy production to tour. “They have a very different attitude in New Orleans,” says Walker. “It was interesting. But in the end, we pretty much got the crew to understand what we wanted. And I don’t think the audience noticed any problems. Luckily, they didn’t see the chaos backstage.”
Walker was also on the road with the company when it performed at the historic Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia—an event he calls “pretty amazing.”
As part of the upcoming 2011–2012 season, Houston Ballet returns to New York City for performances at The Joyce Theater in October. “That’s very exciting,” Walker says. “It’s been a long time since the company has been to New York City for a full performance run [25 years, in fact], and never at The Joyce.” Luckily, Walker had previously done shows at The Joyce when he was with Fort Worth Ballet.
From a production standpoint, Walker sums up his touring work simply: “Get it in, get it up, get it done.”
The self-described theater nerd also has an un-nerdlike passion for sports. He’s been involved with the Montrose Softball League for the past nine years. And not only does he play, he also manages a team that has made it to the Gay Softball World Series for the last two years.
Besides being an outlet for fun and exercise, his softball passion led him to another passion: it’s how he met Paul Samson a year and a half ago. They’ve been dating ever since. Basically, they like to be low-key and just hang out, sometimes cooking at Walker’s home in the Heights.
So who’s the better chef?
“It depends on who you ask,” laughs Walker. “He’s definitely the more creative one—or I should say more inventive. He’ll put green tea in something just because he thinks it sounds good.”
Houston Ballet’s Upcoming Season
Besides the New York City tour, Brian Walker manages the backstage chaos for a new version of Giselle this season in Houston, as well as a world premiere by Artistic Director Stanton Welch and standards such as The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet. For more info on Houston Ballet’s season, visit www.houstonballet.org.
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.