As most of my friends are aware, I founded a theater in 2001 with a friend of mine, John Harvey. I was acting, and he wrote a play and wondered if I might be interested in helping him produce it. Like most actors, I really didn’t have a full concept of everything that had to happen to actually produce one. If I had, the story might have turned out differently.
Long story short.. I figured it out…. I lost 20 pounds, wasn’t sleeping and almost lost my mind, but a show happened. We called the company Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, after a poem by Gertrude Stein that was in a textbook John was using for a class he was teaching, and we liked the sound of it.
Our theatre was small scale, and there wasn’t a ton of theatre in Houston back then. The things we did were edgy, gritty and everyone involved got their hands dirty making it happen. Also, it was cheap. People who owned bars would let us use their upstairs, or another theatre would rent to us for $500 for the run. We often had to tear down our set every night after the show and get out before 10pm so the band could set up to play in the bar, or have someone guard the door so a tipsy bar patron didn’t crash into the backstage area looking for the bathroom. But we had nothing to lose. John was writing experimental black comedies that we would (as a group) tweak and adjust along the way to create a show.
Nothing we did was about getting press (although, we were thrilled if that happened, we didn’t care if it didn’t). It wasn’t about selling a lot of tickets (we didn’t have enough money invested to lose anything) or getting personal glory from it.
Often someone in the press would sort of ‘assign’ someone as the star, and we’d laugh about it and roll our eyes, because it really always was an organic, collaborative effort, and no one person ever truly deserved that title. I’ll admit, sometimes it made me mad because I was doing a lot of the creating and would sometimes be left out of things in favor of the men I was working with, but that was just the way it was. They seemed to feel the need to do that, and we couldn’t stop them. I guess not a lot of people really understand collaborative art. We were punk rock. We didn’t need a star.
Over the years, the city grew, and the theatre scene grew with it. Spaces are expensive and hard to come by. We can’t just throw something up in a warehouse or the fire marshal might shut us down. We can’t just throw up some pipe and drape curtains and do a fabulous performance in front of them without someone criticizing us for not having a set. We have to pay actors and designers decently now if we want the best people, because theatres with more funding are able to do that. Don’t get me wrong, paying artists is a good thing. Our stipends are still too low for what the artists deserve, but I’m pretty sure percentage-wise, my company pays more of our small budget to artists than anyone else in town, so I’m trying. I STILL don’t get paid for my full time work in the theatre, but I do always make sure the others do. It’s just hard to raise the money for it all.
We were nomadic for the first 11 years. Then we had leased space for a while, and the rent payments almost broke us. I was non-stop raising money for overhead, and it had gotten to where I could no longer really participate in the art. I was farming it out and doing a lot of projects other people wanted me to do. I started forgetting why I ever did it in the first place. So now… 19 years later, we are back to being nomadic. Full circle.
Our budget is still very small. Producing full shows on a shoestring is hard, and I have to personally pick up slack in every area we can’t afford to pay someone to do a job. I have to choose people I know can create within our very restricted budgets, and they often don’t truly understand until we’re pretty far into the process what that means.
So, recently, I was trying to figure out a project we could do without a lot of frills. I needed a show that I could really create and not kill myself with the non artistic side of things. Our mission has evolved (through urging from local funding sources) to a focus on women. A lot of the things I find interesting and writers that do the experimental work that I love no longer fit into our mission. Fair enough. There’s a lot of other stuff that works. But then my husband suggested some shorts written by Samuel Beckett that are specifically written for female actors to perform. Not only does that fit our mission, but it’s in my wheelhouse. I was excited at the idea so I contacted two of my friends, Greg and Jeff, (Greg was with me back in the trenches and was a key person in the collaborations we used to have), and we all decided to do it together.
Together, the three of us chose the actors and discussed our plans. Then, without competition or conflict, we each took the lead on specific plays in the series and brought it together as one show. We did it in a small, awesome, edgy little space downtown. We built the “set” ourselves out of whatever we found lying around (and some borrowed pipe and drape). The money spent was almost all focused on the space and the performers and not on a bunch of stuff that is going to go in the dumpster afterwards due to lack of storage. We each did our thing and helped each other when one of us needed something. Everyone involved in the process had a hand in the creation of this. We didn’t care if anyone came.
NOT I, ROCKABY, FOOTFALLS (from the Beckett shorts), 2020, photo by Gentle Bear Photography
We have been largely ignored by the press for it, in spite of the rarity of this kind of thing happening, which only makes me think they just don’t care or understand this kind of work. Whatever. We didn’t do it for them. The one that did came gave us a glowing review, as have many of our patrons and theatre peers, so that was nice, but it wasn’t why we did it. We did it because it was art that needed to happen. We did it because it was in us and had to come out. And we have gotten more polished since 2001. So this show is just fabulous, and if nobody said anything about it, I would still know it.
Here’s that review, in case you’re interested: https://www.houstonpress.com/arts/things-to-do-a-review-of-samuel-becketts-ladies-night-at-mildreds-umbrella-11418453?fbclid=IwAR0mmyRJ6BzFQgoi_FEeOGy3gANvIwHG3Xx_ppKyGc1MpRXZHipU-46Dzqo
I have missed this. It is making me remember why I do it. I want to go back to doing this all the time. I don’t know how it will happen, but I think it needs to happen. At least some of the time. The whole experience has renewed my reasons for being in all this in the first place, and I don’t want to let it go.