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Arts & Culture

Not Your Grandma's Theater Space

by Holly Beretto    December 1, 2016

The Rec Room Brings Emerging Arts, Collaborative Energy to Downtown

It’s Monday night, pouring rain, the water banging against the glass windows of the Rec Room, like a mad raven in a Poe poem. It’s the kind of weather that keeps people in, but you’d never know it by the packed house inside the arts space’s main theater.

The diverse group of hipsters, 30-something lovers of 1990s-era TV shows and the occasional pushing-40 office worker trickle in, shedding umbrellas, balancing wine and take-out from Whole Foods, crowding into the seats for the organizations popular

My So-Called Mondays

, in which a cast of about a dozen – with a little help from the audience – enacts an episode of the popular ‘90s coming-of-age comedy,

My So-Called Life

. And by enact, let’s be clear: not only do they say the lines, there’s a performer who reads the stage directions and settings.

"Somebody typed up all the scripts and put them online,” says Stephanie Wittles Wachs, who along with Matt Hune founded the performing arts and co-working space. “So, we’ve been doing every episode of the series. We’ve got a core of seven actors who play all the parts, and we’ll read out the typos in the scripts. Audience members might play Teacher #2 or Girl in the Bathroom. It’s a blast.”

If that sounds like a much less buttoned up theater experience than you might experience elsewhere in Downtown – or Houston at large – that’s the whole point. Wachs and Hune deliberately set out to create a place where weird and wacky pieces could be performed by some of Houston’s established (Bree Welch, fresh from her Main Street Theatre sighting as Marine Antoinette in

The Revolutionists

was on stage as Amber) and emerging actors. More than that, they wanted somewhere that would be a beacon for collaboration, whether someone wanted to come along and produce a one-person show or host movie nights or even watch the presidential debates live, with the ability to offer random comments (and maybe throw the occasional bunch of popcorn) at the screen.

“Matt started a black box theater in his living room,” said Wachs. (Both she and Hune are graduates of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and have taught in elementary school classrooms prior to taking on this entrepreneurial venture.)

“I put in stadium seating and an 11x11-foot stage,” Hune elaborates. “And whatever I hosted sold out.”

It got to the point where Hune’s wife wanted their living room back, and Wachs, who was a new mom, needed a change. The friends teamed up with a mission to bring quality programming with minimal cost to Houston. Hune and Wachs had seen places like the Rec Room in both New York and Chicago, funky spots where groups of like-minded performers and artists gathered for pop-up shows and one-off events, as well as longer series. Talking to each other about the transitions they were facing in their lives, they realized there was nothing like this in Houston – and they were determined to bring it here.

The blue-brick building in the shadow of Minute Maid Park shares the block with The Escape Room, an activity space where groups get locked into a room and have to work together to figure out the clues that will let them out. There’s something appropriate in this being the Rec Room’s neighbor. Both spaces seek to offer a good time, with the easy familiarity millennials so enjoy. There’s a feeling of organic fun to the businesses in the building, and the Rec Room manages to be cutting-edge while still feeling casual. The rambling space, with its cement floors and exposed brick walls is more than just performance space. The Rec Room also hosts a cozy bar, just off the front entrance, where the after-work crowd can drop in without seeing a show, and audience members can gather to grab a glass of wine or beer before one. Across the hall from the main performance space is a large, rectangular room, furnished with long tables that were sourced from an antique shop. They used to belong to a beer garden, and Wachs says they are the centerpiece of the Rec Room’s co-working space. For $10, nomad professionals can come in and take advantage of free Wi-Fi and all the coffee they can drink. For both Wachs and Hune, the idea of a co-working space was a no-brainer; many millennials they know simply don’t go into the office on a daily basis. The Rec Room meets their need for being with other people, while being productive for their companies.

In addition, artists and performance companies are able to rent out any of the Rec Room’s spaces, and Hune and Wachs are committed to being both affordable for the artist community and providing a place people want to use. There’s a reason they call the place both a creative space and a social club.

“It’s about connections,” she says. “Maybe someone comes in here because she’s tired of being in her apartment, and she meets someone who does something similar, and they partner on a project.”

That ability to improvise has served Wachs and Hune well. The two business partners do it all in the small space: before the show, Hune was pushing around an industrial rolling mop stand, cleaning the black and white floor and Wachs was unpacking a cooler of sodas and Lone Star to sell as concessions. Their days are much longer than they were when either of them was teaching full-time, but they don’t seem too phased by it. Building their business gives them as much energy as it drains.

“It’s our baby,” says Wachs. “And we’re creative people at heart.“

"We’re definitely not satisfied with a normal life,” quips Hune.

That’s a good thing, given that the Rec Room is a bit shy of normal, compared to many of Houston’s other performance spaces. If you arrive late, they won’t keep you out of the theater. You’re encouraged to text and post about your experience to social media which, says Wachs, helps her and Hune keep marketing budgets down. The audience skews younger, which might explain the less buttoned-up approach.

“Most of our audience is between 25-35,” says Wachs. “They’re young, young professionals. Our age. They’re looking for something different, something authentic. Something without a lot of rules, where they feel like they are part of it.”

Creating that kind of experience might prove daunting to other people, but Wachs and Hune used every bit of their own artistic training and ability to rally troops. Hune is on stage for performances of

My So-Called Mondays

. So are Wachs’ parents. Wachs is in the booth, running lights and sound. In fact, Wachs and Hune can set their own light and sound cues – and do battle with the computers when they crash. They’ve encouraged their equally creative performing friends to come and be part of their productions, which many of them do on Monday evening, when shows elsewhere are dark. Wachs’ husband created the logo for the business. The space feels immediately both home-grown and welcoming, as well as on the cusp of some new sort of entertainment.

“We hosted a mobile phone film festival this summer,” says Wachs. “Starting this fall, we’re doing a live dating show, like

The Dating Game

. We have new plays we’re going to do. The mobile phone festival was such as success, we’ll do another one.”

If there’s a philosophy the pair embraces, it’s to be entirely inclusive. Wachs and Hune want people to understand the Rec Room really is a space to come as you are and explore something new and kind of quirky. Wachs breaks out into a big grin when she explains that the audience is diverse, not just in ethnic background, but in what they do and how accepting they are of each other. It’s a tangible feeling you get sitting in the space; these are people who are not only interested in being together for a good time, but hoping you do, too.

“Theater tickets are expensive,” says Wachs. “Here, we have a $10 fee, you can bring food and drink into the space, you’ll see something you won’t see anywhere else. Just come as you are. There are no rules here.”

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