On Saturday, January 18, Stages Repertory Theatre will leap boldly into a golden new decade when it unveils The Gordy, its new $35 million campus with three intimate, state-of-the-art theaters.
For a company that began its life in the late 1970s in the damp basement of a brewery, it is almost a miracle that the theater has arrived at this point after weathering so many budgetary challenges over the years.
In 2006, when Stages was facing tough financial times, artistic director Kenn McLaughlin lamented in an interview with the Houston Chronicle about the company’s seeming inability to break through the glass ceiling that separates midsized companies from downtown giants like Houston Grand Opera and the Alley Theatre.
Fourteen years later, Stages has broken through that glass ceiling with a vengeance. An initial feasibility study predicted that the company could raise $15 million. Stages roared past that goal, raising $35 million. It has enlisted several heavy-hitters from the city’s old-guard philanthropic elite, while also cultivating new donors from the theater’s subscription base who were willing to step up and make significant seven-figure gifts.
The sleek new complex is located in the 800 block of Rosine, just two blocks south of Stages’ current location in North Montrose. Designed by the Gensler architecture firm, the 66,850 square-foot facility is comprised of three theatrical spaces that will give Stages one more theater than at its former Allen Parkway location.
The Sterling Stage is a 251-seat thrust theater with two seating levels. The Lester and Sue Smith Stage is a 223-seat arena theater with two seating levels. And the Rochelle and Max Levit Stage features a 134-seat black-box theater. The U.K.-based Charcoal Blue firm provided the acoustical design. While Stages grows its total number of seats, it retains the trademark intimacy that has characterized the experience of attending a Stages play for the past four decades.
Broadway legend Chita Rivera will christen the new complex at a special sold-out gala performance on Friday evening, January 17. The next day, the theater debuts to the public with an open house at 2:00 pm.
Stages’s great leap forward has come under the aegis of two dynamic gay leaders: managing director Mark Folkes, and Kenn McLaughlin, who is the company’s longest-serving artistic director, celebrating his twentieth anniversary with the company this year.
1970s Cutting-Edge Theater
Stages was founded in an era of enormous creative energy that gave birth to several pillars of the Houston theater establishment. In 1975, George Hawkins founded The Ensemble Theater to bring the stories of the African-American experience to Houston audiences. That same year, a group of students who had worked together at Rice University founded a collective that eventually evolved into Main Street Theater, led by artistic director Rebecca Greene Udden for over four decades.
In 1978, Ted Swindley, a gay 26-year-old graduate student in the theater program at the University of Houston, looked around the city’s theatrical landscape and saw no other company doing the challenging, cutting-edge work that excited him. He founded Stages in the basement of the historic Magnolia Ballroom. A key focus of his new endeavor was to employ Houston theater artists.
With grit and moxie, Stages began mounting vibrant productions of contemporary playwrights like Marsha Norman, Christopher Durang, Jules Feiffer, and Jack Heifner. The Houston Chronicle would eventually declare that Stages was Houston’s equivalent of New York City’s off-Broadway theaters, in recognition of its daring productions of new plays.
But it was an uphill climb for Swindley. “It was very hard to start a theater,” he remembers. “We started at the lowest circumstances. We worked hard.”
Swindley juggled three or four part-time jobs in order to pursue his dream. When the dishwashing machine in the Chinese restaurant above the theater leaked, Swindley would hang a tarp above the center section of audience seats to minimize the water damage. During one early performance when a raccoon wandered onstage, the actors froze briefly but eventually carried on.
The theater did have its champions. “Our landlord, Bart Truxillo, was really wonderful to us,” Swindley remembers. He also credits Houston philanthropist Mimi Kilgore for her staunch support during the early years.
A Turning Point in 1983
A turning point for the company came in 1983 when Swindley decided to stage Bent, a wrenching drama depicting the way gay men were targeted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The play climaxes in a deeply moving love scene between two men in a concentration camp.
“When I decided to do Bent, I said, ‘This is a test,’ ” Swindley recalls. “This will let me know if the city will support us, or if we will be picketed by people from evangelical churches. It could go either way. It was extremely risky.
“We had an opening date, and we didn’t have enough money to open it. I went to the 11 actors in the cast and said, ‘We’ve got two choices. I can suspend rehearsals, or we can continue rehearsals until we can find enough money to open.’ Everyone in the cast wanted to continue rehearsing.
“It was the first major hit that we had at Stages,” he continues. “Every performance was completely sold out, and there was a waiting list. At that point, I knew that we were on the right path. There was an audience for new, socially challenging work. It was a mountaintop experience. I was thrilled to have the gay community behind us, but the audience was actually very mixed.”
In 1983, Swindley also staged a gender-bending production of Oscar Wilde’s comedic classic The Importance of Being Earnest. On most nights the cast gave a traditional interpretation of the work, but on some nights the cast switched roles and performed the parts of the opposite gender, with Swindley taking on the role of the dowager Lady Bracknell.
The laughter came to an abrupt halt in 1985, when Swindley arrived one day to find his theater doors padlocked. The fire marshal had shut the primitive basement theater down for exceeding occupancy restrictions.
A New Home in Montrose
Bill Neuhaus, a Stages board member, came to the rescue by helping to broker a deal for Stages to rent a property at 3201 Allen Parkway. The space had formerly been occupied by Star Engraving Center, which manufactured high school and college rings. It would serve as Stages’ home for the next 34 years.
Swindley continued to stage queer-themed works such as Charles Bush’s satiric Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (starring beloved Stages actress Sally Edmundson), Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy, and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (which became a big hit for the company). Stages has also produced musicals including a 25th-anniversary production of Hair and Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures.
Swindley’s skills as a dramatist paid off in 1988 when he put together a two-person play with little rehearsal time. Houston was still reeling from the oil bust, and Stages’ prospects looked grim. “The theatre was about to close. I had to think of something that would sell tickets,” Swindley recalls. “I took a great risk on Patsy Cline, whom I knew little about. The story of the show came about from me asking the question ‘Did Patsy ever play in Houston?’” The resulting production, Always…Patsy Cline, has emerged as one of the most popular works that Stages has ever produced.
“It was one of the first jukebox musicals,” says Swindley. It went on to be performed across the U.S., playing off-Broadway and touring Britain, Canada, and Australia. Stages has revived the work regularly over the last three decades to adoring audiences and strong box office.
Swindley left Stages in 1990 to care for a sick family member. The theater faltered for a period in the 1990s until Rob Bundy, an openly gay man, arrived from New York City as artistic director in 1996. Over the next decade, he expanded the company’s audience, raised the caliber of productions, and continued to stage premieres. A highlight of his tenure was Moisés Kaufman’s Laramie Project in 2002, which chronicled the murder of Matthew Shepard. The powerful production was a collaboration with the gay theater group Unhinged Productions.
Kenn Laughlin arrived in 2000, serving first as managing director and then assuming the role of producing artistic director after Bundy’s departure in 2006. Under his leadership, the company has thrived. He has directed over 25 shows and launched box-office smashes such as The Marvelous Wonderettes, the Late Nite Catechism series, and The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Laughlin has continued Stages’s tradition of staging groundbreaking new work focused on the queer experience. In 2017, in collaboration with One Year Lease Theater Company, the company presented the world premiere of Balls, a mesmerizing, marvelously theatrical dramatization of the legendary “Battle of the Sexes” 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome.
Preparing for a New Era
In 2015, Mark Folkes joined Stages as managing director, bringing significant fundraising, marketing, and strategic-planning experience from his past positions at the Houston Symphony and Planned Parenthood.
In February 2016, Stages’s board ratified a five-year strategic plan focused on transformational growth, including expanded artistic, educational, and community-engagement initiatives as well as major improvements in facilities infrastructure, financial stability, and human resources.
Isla and Tommy Reckling agreed to serve as honorary chairs for the capital campaign, and made the first major gift of $500,000. An additional $2.5 million gift from the Sterling-Turner Foundation brought their total contribution to $3 million. The largest theater in the complex will be named for Isla’s mother, noted Houston philanthropist Carroll Sterling Masterson.
Russell and Glenda Gordy, who have been season ticket holders for decades, made a historic gift of $5 million, the largest in Stages’s history. The new Stages campus on Rosine Street will bear their name.
In February 2019, Lester and Sue Smith announced a $2.5 million gift to the campaign, allowing Stages to fully fund The Gordy complex with a 223-seat arena theater that will bear their name.
A Transformed Culture
As the capital campaign shifted into high gear, the company also experienced explosive audience growth. Total subscription and single-ticket revenue has tripled over the last five years. Attendance has increased by 50% during the same period, from 45,000 in 2014 to 67,000 in 2019. The company’s budget has grown from $2.1 million in 2014 to $4.1 million in 2019. To help staff the expanded facility, the company has hired 11 new employees, bringing total full-time staff to 34.
As the company began to plan for its new facility, it went through a rigorous process focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Under the guidance of consultants from artEquity and Theater Communications Group, a key focus has been on expanding the diversity of Stages’s audience. For example, in addition to traditional restrooms segregated by sex, the new complex will include an “all user” gender-neutral restroom.
“We’re able to deliver a different level of patron experience in The Gordy,” says Stages veteran Lise Bohn, the company’s resource development and communications director. “The work on equity, diversity, and inclusion is a journey, and that lens has transformed the culture of our organization at every level.”
New Theater, Classic Production
To inaugurate The Gordy, Stages is returning to a work that is a cherished part of its history. The Fantasticks, running January 24–March 15 on the Sterling Stage, is the longest-running musical in history. Composer Harvey Schmidt and librettist Tom Jones are both Texans. Stages presented The Fantasticks in 1978 as part of its inaugural season, and again in the late 1980s when it moved to 3201 Allen Parkway.
Fittingly, the production, which the company calls “the perfect Valentine to the theatre and the eternal power of love,” will be directed by Artistic Director McLaughlin.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Water by the Spoonful will open the Lester and Sue Smith Stage February 7–23. In the play, an Iraq War veteran and former addict finds solace in an online chat room as he struggles to reconnect with his mother—herself a former heroin addict. The company calls the play “an uplifting and heartfelt meditation on broken lives, forgiveness, and the strength to carry on.”
Founding director Ted Swindley received an advance preview of The Gordy, and is very pleased. “It is my wildest dream,” he says. “It is what I wanted the theater to be when we started in 1978.” Managing director Mark Folkes echoes that sentiment as he prepares to unveil the new complex. “Our world has transformed,” he says.
What: Stages Repertory Theatre Open House at its new three-theater campus
Where: 800 Rosine Street
When: Saturday, January 18 at 2:00 pm
The Fantasticks: January 24–March 15
Water by the Spoonful: February 7–23
This article appears in the January 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.