Organizations respond to pandemic with creative programming
Downtown’s Theater District has been the cultural heart of the city for decades. A place where people of all ages, races and denominations have gathered together to experience vibrant, profound and fantastical works of art. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the damage to many of the venues and organizations was devastating, but they came back stronger than ever. Now, just a little more than two years later, COVID-19 has struck, forcing each organization to re-think the way shows are produced and executed. In today’s physically distanced way of life, the Theater District now looks to Houstonians for support, as their lights remain off and their stages dark. Despite all the challenges, the Theater District organizations continue to hold on to the mantra of “resilience”, something our city knows a thing or two about.
Rec Room Arts’ Artistic Director Matt Hune is one of the more visionary players in Houston’s theater scene. In spring the theater initially postponed performances, holding off on opening their third show of the 2019/20 season, until finally making the choice to cancel the season in June.
“In theater we’re always conditioned to think that the show must go on,” Hune said, and this motivation is one reason Rec Room canceled their season much later than their larger counterparts in the Theater District.
Hune has spent the last several months dreaming, re-imagining and cultivating ideas for Rec Room’s future. One of their upcoming projects is the Rec Room Writers Group — nine playwrights who have been working on writing new plays over the last six months that will be delivered audio-only, similar to a podcast.
“The silver lining of this pandemic is that we’re able to support these playwrights in ways we hadn’t previously planned, and they’re all local,” Hune said.
With directors and 43 actors, these are full-fledged productions perfect for the limitations Covid has placed on the arts industry. Rec Room Arts will release virtual catalogs that include information on the playwright, a synopsis, their process and how they got to this play, and finally, the audio version of the play being read.
Rec Room has always presented thought-provoking works and their next in-person season will be no different. Hune looks for stories that help push conversations further, lead viewers to ask questions, and ultimately, stories that help better the community.
“We’re not only reassessing Rec Room’s role in Houston theater, but also assessing theater’s role in Houston,” said Hune. “What’s the point of it and why do we do it?”
When asked about Rec Room’s biggest challenge today, Hune says it’s been the same since their inception, and will be in the future as well — financial support, but not specifically from individuals.
“Most companies survive from individual support, but I don’t think that’s sustainable…some countries have stronger support for social services, and I think the arts are an essential social service,” Hune said. “They develop a cultural identity and without that we’re sort of lost in the woods.”
Seeing the arts get pushed aside year by year, decade by decade, is difficult for all artists. Certain stories are life changing, cathartic and a celebration of sorts. To continue hearing those stories, Hune urges advocacy.
“Donating is great if you can, but if you can’t, support by voting for civic leaders who support cultural programs,” Hune said.