When Disaster Strikes
The Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Houston’s Small Theatres
While theatre communities across the nation were enjoying their dark Monday, Houston, Texas' theatre community was in the middle of a natural disaster. As Hurricane Harvey continued to pound the city with torrential rains on the morning of August 28, 2017, pictures began circulating around Twitter of water approaching the Alley Theatre’s main entrance and in the front rows of Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center. Shortly thereafter, Wei-Huan Chen, theatre critic for the Houston Chronicle, texted me asking what I knew. Inspired, I took to Twitter where local theatre writers Tarra Gaines and Jessica Goldman joined me in tweeting at local companies alongside any updates we had. We started doing what we do best—covering Houston’s art scene.
Much has already been written about the effects of Harvey on these large companies. Here, I’m interested in examining the potential effects of Harvey on Houston’s smaller theatres; those more likely to be without comprehensive insurance policies, or deep donor bases to stem the tide of inevitable loss ahead. It’s important to acknowledge the challenges these companies face in order to rally support, as well as to recognize that though it is Houston artists who face them today, extreme weather events are likely going to become more common in the coming years, and that the global theatre community needs to take these threats seriously and do whatever we can to combat them.
'How can we, as artists and arts organizations, come together now to support the community who usually supports us? It’s also important to ask how we can survive a period when the community is less able to give us the support we so desperately need—and have always needed—to exist.'—Wittels Wachs.
Shunya Theatre, Gravity Players, Rogue Productions, and Rec Room Arts
As in most cities, Houston's small to mid-sized companies often don’t own their own spaces; they are itinerant or rent spaces. The effects of cancelled shows and evacuations will likely take their toll on these organizations, especially ones that are still emerging such as Shunya Theatre, Gravity Players, Rogue Productions, and Rec Room Arts. While each of these companies faces a different set of circumstances, they demonstrate just how much small theatre companies hang on by a thread and will need to rely on the greater Houston community for their continued survival.
Shunya Theatre is the city’s only company dedicated to the South Asian community through both the visual and performing arts. After a three-year hiatus, the company was all set for their first full production since 2014—Tanika Gupta’s The Waiting Room—when the run was interrupted. The invited dress and opening ran, but weekend performances were cancelled. The Friday opening saw only about half of the reservations show up. When I spoke with Managing Director Sanjay Mediwala, he noted, “It’s heartbreaking to me that what should have been a triumphant conclusion to months of hard work would be interrupted.” As cast and crew members were affected by the flooding and evacuation, Shunya decided to cancel their upcoming Labor Day weekend shows and perform in late October.
And herein lies another problem with Harvey: beyond property damage, how much did companies lose from not having performances? While larger companies have built-in contingencies to absorb this loss of income, smaller companies depend on selling tickets to stay afloat. For Shunya, the financial repercussions of the storm are already detrimental. “We operate on a shoestring budget as it is, with our main goal being to break even so we can continue these productions. We're still waiting to see what we can salvage, but at best I think we are left at zero funds moving forward,” says Mediwala. “There will be a period of rebuilding after this. The South Asian and the arts community in Houston, though, is large and has always been supportive, and we will be relying on them more than ever.”
Similar to Shunya, Gravity Players was forced to cancel four performances from flooding and weather caused by Harvey. The new company had launched with a dynamic and popular production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The timing of Harvey leaves Gravity Players with an uncertain future. Aside from establishing the young company as an artistic force, Judas Iscariot was supposed to make money. They were on track to make enough on it to be able to pay everyone involved a living wage, and save enough to produce another show. Gravity Players has decided to finish the run, but will have to nearly sell out the final weekend’s performances and boost their crowdfunding campaign to cover the show’s production cost and stay afloat. According to company member and founder Courtney Lomelo,
How do we ask a city that has been beaten to death for money? Or to come to the theatre after what it's been through? I say, how can we not? We are asking the city to invest in their theatre community. It belongs to them, to us. We enrich ourselves by making the arts possible. That is what we are here for? To tell this story in the face of adversity, give the people a place to go and listen and share and take part in the culture of the arts and the Houston community.
While their performance schedule was uninterrupted, new company Rogue Productions, which focuses on theatrical experiences that represent Houston’s diversity, was forced to cancel a fundraiser for their upcoming production of I Love You Because, which now leaves the show in limbo. According to a statement from Co-Artistic Directors Rachael Logue and Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, “As a new company, maintaining momentum is essential for survival and this storm has halted all operations for the time being so we can rebuild our own lives and help others with theirs. The unknown is the most terrifying and the waiting game seems impossible.” Rogue plans to reschedule its fundraiser and shift the goal of the event to one that more closely aligns with the community’s needs.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Matt Hune founded Rec Room Arts in 2016. It has quickly become a local favorite in the arts scene, but, like any new company, it’s still finding its footing in the city. The physical space of Rec Room had minor leaks and some water damage during the storm, but as Executive Director Wittels Wachs writes in “Art After Harvey,” the impact of the storm will be felt in “much larger, less visible ways.” Even so, Wittels Wachs questions the role of the arts in Houston during a time of crisis and rebuilding:
The arts are a vital part of the community, and the community is a vital part of the arts. We feed off of each other. So how can we, as artists and arts organizations, come together now to support the community who usually supports us? It’s also important to ask how we can survive a period when the community is less able to give us the support we so desperately need—and have always needed—to exist.
Harvey hit during what was supposed to be the weekend of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Theatre District Open House, one of the biggest weekends for the Houston performing arts community. And, while we didn’t get the chance to gather in person to celebrate local theatre, we did build community in other ways. Harvey shows the power of social media to connect a community in times of crisis. Main Street Theater Technical Director Mark Roberts began a Facebook roll call on Houston Theatre People, updating the community on the status of theatre companies and spaces. As Roberts updated the list and people added their own updates, we collectively celebrated the unaffected theatres while mourning the damages wrought and the less visible impacts to come.
As the storm continues to pound the city, I have been receiving personal messages from my national theatre community asking me what they can do to help. While I don’t have the answers right now, I will say that the Houston theatre community will need its national community in the months—and even years—to come. Below I offer some resources:
- The Texas Commission on the Arts is (TCA) working with the National Endowment for the Arts to determine the impact of Hurricane Harvey on arts organizations in Texas. For more information or a list of disaster recovery resources, visit TCA.
- The Actors Fund put out an emergency alert for Gulf Coast artists who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey.
- Fresh Arts, a local arts service organization, created an Emergency Resources for Artists Google Spreadsheet, which includes emergency response info, Houston shelters, a resource guide, and funding opportunities.
- American Theatre’s Hurricane Harvey coverage includes updates and donation links for local companies.
This is also a good time to take a long, hard look at our work and ourselves. As Politico put it, Harvey is what climate change looks like. What are we doing—in our lives, in our work, in our art-making, and in our communities—to adapt to this new reality? What are we doing to prevent it from worsening?