Five decades of bringing the best international shows to the most diverse city in the country
PHOTO: TODD ROSENBER
June Christensen was barely 10 years old when she first walked into the lobby of Jones Hall. The swirling staircase, red carpet, expansive foyer and the promise of an artful adventure forged a palatial ambiance that any child would find beautifully overwhelming and thrilling. June was visiting the theater to support her sister, an accordion student with impressive skills who was a member of a larger melodeon band.
While almost all of her immediate family had innate artistic abilities, June saw herself as more of a facilitator, having the kind of aptitude that, over time, would lead to a successful career in arts administration. She thought her fluency in Italian would come in handy when she applied for a permanent position with Texas Opera Theater, Houston Grand Opera’s then traveling educational troupe, and accepting the post offered her the opportunity to learn everything that happens backstage — operational logistics, costs and feasibility.
Since 1989, June has been dedicated to the Society for the Performing Arts, today serving as the CEO and president.
“I enjoy the challenge of working with a company that presents a broad spectrum of performing arts genres,” June explains. “With my team, we’re able to examine a show, identify the complexity of its components and discern whether the concept is suitable for a diverse and dynamic Houston audience.”
For research, June travels frequently to balance SPA’s offerings with exciting, groundbreaking shows that reflect the complexity of a rapidly changing and growing urban center.
“My talent is the lens through which I look at artists,” she adds. “I may see 20 dance companies within a three-day period and discern what will be important for Houston.”
This year, SPA is celebrating a significant milestone — its 50th anniversary of bringing the best international performing artists to the Houston Theater District, which is festooned with banners commemorating the golden birthday.
Founded in 1966, SPA’s 50th anniversary season includes an expanded family series that features STOMP, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood; speakers David Sedeais and Neil Gaiman; the Houston debut of 13-year-old jazz prodigy Joey Alexander; and an original commissioned work from Jessica Lang Dance. The overall season spotlights shows new to Houston as well as audience favorites.
When pressed to point to one show that personally tickles her imagination, June chooses Circus 1903 - The Golden Age of Circus, June 9-11, 2017 at Jones Hall. Hailing from Australia, Circus 1903 is produced by the same company as the Illusionists in partnership with puppetry designers Significant Object, which theater goers will remember as the creative force behind War Horse’s fantastical characters. Alongside impressive larger-than-life animal puppetry, the family-friendly performance includes strong men, contortionists, acrobats, musicians, knife throwers, high wire acts and more.
Looking back at five decades, a critical aspect that has flourished in SPA’s programming has been the nonprofit’s community engagement component, with an objective to delve more deeply into diverse segments of Houston to foster important conversations through aesthetic mediums. It’s also an opportunity to enrich the lives of Houstonians who might not be able to join SPA in Downtown Houston.
“Because of the type of artists we bring in, we are really poised to be a strong vehicle to reach beyond the concert hall to different communities,” June explains. “Our artists speak different languages and come from all over the world — reflecting the spirit of the most diverse city in the country.”
SPA had one more reason to party recently. The Jones Hall 50th Ball: A Mad Mid-Century Celebrationcombined a joyful concert with the Houston Symphony and acclaimed violinist Itzhak Perlman, who’s been a guest of SPA numerous times in the company’s history. Chaired by Alexandra and David Pruner and James Postl and honoring the substantial contributions of the Jones Family and the Houston Endowment, the gathering was created by the Friends of Jones Hall to subsidize a theater refresh.
With the support of Houston First and Houston Endowment, New York-based Ennead Architects and Scott D. Pfeiffer of Chicago-based Threshold Acoustics have been contracted to usher Jones Hall into its next 50 years.
Ennead recently completed a two-year renovation of the Robinson Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 2015, Ennead re-designed the public spaces in the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Scott Pfeiffer has earned accolades as a fellow in the Acoustical Society of America for his achievements in the design of performing arts spaces. He serves on the Knowles Hearing Center Advisory Board at Northwestern University and the Univeristy of Nebraska-Lincoln Durham School Architectural Engineering Industry Advisory Committee.
“Jones Hall is in need of a renewal,” June says. “Some of the hall features that were suitable back then do not meet the standards necessary for certain genres such as spoken word and small music groups. The public spaces in Jones Hall also need rethinking and redesigning to create an open, warm feeling with easy access to guest amenities. We need to bring Jones Hall into the 21st century while being able to accommodate the growing and changing needs of SPA, the Houston Symphony and other organizations that rent the performance space for public and private events.”
And what will happen with SPA in the next 50 years? June hopes that SPA will continue to draw keenly from international presence in Houston for programming inspiration. The health of SPA will be determined by the administration’s ability to tune into, and engage with, local cultures so that the presenter remains relevant and current.
“When audiences change, the arts need to change with them,” she says.