Seated in a corner on the third row in an intimate theater at Stages Houston, artistic director Kenn McLaughlin smiles from ear to ear as he watches Kelley Peters sing her rendition of a song by the titular character in Always…Patsy Cline.
Peters sings directly to McLaughlin, who directed the beloved musical, blowing a kiss before the song ends. Throughout the performance, McLaughlin gazes adoringly toward the stage, laughs along with the crowd, and claps after each number. The steadfast leader, who recently announced his retirement, explains that the power of art is what will lead him into the next chapter of his life.
Having directed more than 30 productions at Stages over the course of his storied career, McLaughlin finds himself celebrating the success of his latest work, Switzerland, which is on The Gordy stage until November 12.
“Sally [Edmundson] was in the very first production I ever directed and she was on the search committee that hired me,” he explains of the play’s female lead. “She’s been a part of my whole journey at Stages, and to be at a space where she and I, as artists, are still making new discoveries reminds me that this has been an incredible journey.”
His current staged production may be McLaughlin’s final public love letter as artistic director, but it’s the memories made behind the scenes that he will take with him beyond his time at Stages. He recalls the time he noticed a transgender lighting designer at work during a rehearsal. “I just became so aware of her craft as she created this beautiful light cue for the opening of the show,” he says, “and I became aware of just how incredible it’s been to be a part of this story, to use whatever I could to impact it and to be on this team of artists who are always reaching.”
Although Switzerland holds a symbolically special place in his heart, given it’s the final show he will helm as artistic director, McLaughlin explains that choosing a favorite production that he’s directed throughout his time at Stages is impossible. “The standouts in my heart are the ones where I challenged myself artistically and where I was able to push myself past where I thought we should be as an organization,” he says. Auntie Mame and Mack and Mabel are among the shows he looks back on fondly, while Road Show, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman, was a particularly interesting experience. “I really believed in that show that has been slaughtered by the critics. This is a brilliant piece of literature with a gay love story at the center of it,” he says. “I was able to really explore who I was artistically through Road Show.”
Soon, McLaughlin’s retirement will be official, and he and his partner of more than three decades will move to Ireland. As moving day nears, the creative leader is beginning to reflect on his time in Bayou City. “Houston is a city of possibility. It really has always felt that way to me. What’s interesting for me to think about, at this point in my career, is that Houston is a theater town that is only just beginning to realize its potential,” he asserts. “I think it’s aspirational and joyful. I love the queer community in Houston. It’s a really joyful community and I’ve always felt very welcomed and supported by it.”
The city of Houston may have his undying affection, but Stages has McLaughlin’s heart. “I am a much better human being for having worked with the people at Stages,” he says. “There is a sense of artistic daring that sits inside of all of us here. We care deeply about what it is that we do and about making something that has challenged us creatively. To think about how to do that for our community, with the resources that we have, perfectly frames up the level of desire and artistic creative passion at Stages that has really opened up my mind.”
Reflecting on how far Stages has come since its early days, having survived a number of natural disasters, a pandemic, and various other challenges, McLaughlin credits the grit of his team and the creativity they brought to Stages through some tough times. “We [as a society] set up these measures of success with spectacle and money, and all these things aren’t necessarily connecting us, changing our hearts, or transforming our lives. Stages has always been the kind of organization that has had to operate in that space, certainly for a long period of time. That has allowed me to be more creative than I ever dreamed I needed to be and push those limits.”
Hoping to have left a legacy of kindness behind, McLaughlin looks forward to stepping back and letting a new generation of leadership take the reins and lead Stages into the future. “These people will be part of my life forever. This is my family. But it’s somebody else’s turn and it’s time for me to take a different space in the larger circle we’ve all created together,” he says. “There’s never a perfect time to do anything. You just have to trust.”
As for his team and the future patrons of Stages, McLaughlin shares his excitement about what’s to come for the organization, encouraging everyone to embrace the unknown. “This set of circumstances that I have in front of me right now is new and unfamiliar and scary. But I ask myself, ‘Where’s its beauty? Where’s the potential? Where’s the opportunity?’ That’s my wish for a creative space in general. It’s a creative, living thing, and it should grow,” he says. McLaughlin pauses before saying, “So, what is the next chapter for this theater? What is the next part of the story? That’s really exciting to think about. It’s really exciting to turn to new pages and they’re blank. Anybody can write in them.”
When: Through November 12
Where: Stages, 800 Rosine St.