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The Culturephiles

A Rising Tide

A year after Hurricane Harvey, finding determination, collaboration, and a startling new energy in Houston

Andrew Recinoa

Andrew RecinosPresident, Tessitura Network

TitleA Rising Tide

Published8/15/2018

Read/View Time5 min


The priority was safety.

As Hurricane Harvey receded in August 2017, the cultural organizations in Houston, just like everyone in Houston, focused on the safety and security of their families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Hurricane Harvey was one of the largest natural disasters in American history – killing more than 100, displacing more than 30,000, and costing $125 billion in damage. Every cultural organization had staff members that suffered personal loss, and each company organized fund drives to help them in any way they could.

Next, the cultural organizations used their unique talents to help the greater Houston community.

Members of the Houston Symphony visited temporary housing shelters to provide impromptu concerts. The Houston Grand Opera set up shop in the George R. Brown Convention Center. There were still hurricane refugees living in one part of the building, while the HGO “Resilience Theatre” provided a different kind of refuge just down the hall.

Houston Symphony musicians perform at temporary shelters. Photo courtesy of Houston Symphony. 

Seven Houston cultural organizations came together within a month of the hurricane to present “Houston Strong: A Theater District Benefit,” with all proceeds going to the Mayor’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.

And now the cleanup began. For these organizations, the next priority was their own buildings, productions, and seasons. The recently-renovated Alley Theatre had been decimated. The Wortham Theater, home to Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet, Mercury, Da Camera and others, suffered major damage and was closed indefinitely. Overall, damage to the Houston cultural districts was estimated at north of $100 million. Nobody got much sleep.

Nine months after the hurricane, I visited a number of Houston cultural institutions. I wanted to see firsthand how they were doing and hear their stories. I would categorize the vibe of my colleagues at Houston cultural institutions as equal parts weary and determined. The storm and the recovery had taken its toll on their finances and buildings, but not on their spirits. All over town, you saw those words “Houston Strong.” The cultural organizations were no exception.

Andrew visiting with Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet, and Theatre Under the Stars 

The Houston Strong story that affected me the most begins with the Houston Ballet — the country’s fourth-largest ballet company. The Ballet has a permanent home at the Wortham Theater, which suffered major damage in the storm. The hurricane hit just as the Ballet season was set to open in September last year, and as a result, the Ballet spent their 2017–18 season as itinerants, finding temporary homes all over the metropolitan area. They scrambled and made it work, and they did it — but it was at great expense. 

The flood damage at the Wortham was so extensive that it would be closed for more than a year. This meant that in addition to losing the entire 2017–18 season there, the Ballet wouldn’t be able to start their 2018–19 season at the Wortham either. Rather than beginning in September as originally planned, they would shorten their season and start with The Nutcracker in November. In the generic parlance of arts operations, this is referred to as “a hole in the schedule.” In stark reality, it meant that the Ballet wouldn’t be engaging with their audiences, community, and donors for three critical months.

Enter an unexpected collaboration.

Just up the road from the Ballet is Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) — a major musical theater producing and presenting company. While the hurricane affected all Houston cultural organizations, TUTS was fortunate that their home, the Hobby Center, and their offices, were intact and operational. They had a home, a season, and some stability. They also had both a new Artistic Director and a new Executive Director who shared a thirst for collaboration.

The storm and the recovery had taken its toll on their finances and buildings, but not on their spirits.

The week after Hurricane Harvey hit, the organizations of the Houston Theater District met to begin planning what became their “Houston Strong” benefit. Just like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings to create a storm on the other side of the planet, a small connection happened at this meeting that would set up a huge event a year later.

As the meeting was wrapping up, Dan Knechtges, Artistic Director at TUTS, approached Stanton Welch, Artistic Director of the Houston Ballet, and in Dan’s words “gushed all over him.” Dan had been Artistic Director of TUTS for all of a week, and had never met Stanton before, but was a huge fan of his work. It turned out the two companies hadn’t collaborated in 50 years and Stanton had never choreographed a musical. They hit it off immediately.

That short chat turned into lunch, more meetings, and soon, Hillary Hart, Executive Director of TUTS, and Jim Nelson, Executive Director of the Ballet, were involved in discussions. As Dan said, “This idea of both organizations coming together, in the wake of what seemed like one of the worst catastrophes Houston had faced, was irresistible.” They had a desire to collaborate, but the bigger question remained: how could a musical theater organization best collaborate with a ballet company?

“This idea of both organizations coming together, in the wake of what seemed like one of the worst catastrophes Houston had faced, was irresistible.”

Dance has been a key component of musical theater from the very beginning. It is harder to find great examples of collaboration between musical theater and ballet. And yet, it didn’t take them long to find the best one of all. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration — Oklahoma! — was groundbreaking on many levels. One of the most daring and successful moments in the show is the “dream ballet,” choreographed by Agnes de Mille, that ends Act One. 

Things started to fall into place. They realized 2018 was the 75th anniversary of the premiere of Oklahoma!. TUTS saw that by programming it as their September season opener, they would help the Ballet fill the “hole in their schedule.” Stanton would choreograph his first musical — the entire musical, not just the dream ballet. A significant number of the Ballet corps would work alongside the actors. That little butterfly would create a different kind of storm — an artistic one. A collaboration was born.

Artists of Houston Ballet rehearsing Theater Under The Stars’ Oklahoma! choreographed by Stanton Welch AM. Photo courtesy of Houston Ballet 

And while the artistic collaboration is rightfully at the heart of this story, those initial butterfly flaps spawned new kinds of breezes. The TUTS and Ballet administrative teams worked hand in hand to bring this production to the world. The marketing teams worked together on promotion and PR to connect the collaboration to the community. The fundraising teams coordinated on donor events and cultivation.

Artists of Houston Ballet rehearsing Theater Under The Stars’ Oklahoma! choreographed by Stanton Welch AM. Photo courtesy of Houston Ballet 

And now those breezes are becoming gusts, building excitement in the community as they see this unusual and exciting collaboration take shape. Those that support both companies see two of their own passions coming together on one stage. Those that are fans of musical theater find themselves seeing the artistry that their hometown Ballet is capable of. Those who are balletomanes (a word I just learned — “ballet lovers”) get to feel the rush of musical theater. Undoubtedly, future new audiences will be created in the course of a night.

This artistic collaboration of Oklahoma! will feature 18 professional actors, 10 student actors from TUTS’ Humphreys School, 22 Houston Ballet dancers, and 10 Houston Ballet students – a total of 60 performers on stage. This artistic storm will bring down the house, in the best way possible, when the Wind Comes Sweepin’ Down the Plain. I know what you’re thinking. I want to see it, too. (Then go see it if you can!)

With or without a natural disaster, there can be a startling amount of positive energy and beauty that blossoms out of an unusual pairing like this one.

There is a lesson here for all of us, and not just about lemons and lemonade. With or without a natural disaster, there can be a startling amount of positive energy and beauty that blossoms out of an unusual pairing like this one. I spoke to about half a dozen folks from these two organizations, and I could hear the excitement in all of their voices. This one is special — and it is just what they need after the year they’ve had. A few weeks ago, I posted about how two employees at a single institution did great things through an unexpected collaboration. The story of TUTS and the Houston Ballet affirms that the same startling energy is possible at the organizational level too.

Have you experienced the startling energy of an unexpected collaboration?

Hurricane Harvey destroyed or damaged many lives. There is very little good that can be said of such devastation. And yet here is one moment of positivity that never would have happened without the storm – thanks to culture and collaboration. As Hillary Hart told me, “We realized that a rising tide – or flood in this case – could lift both of our ships and bring something new and wonderful to our community.” And so it shall.

Andrew Recinoa

Andrew Recinos

President

Tessitura Network

Andrew Recinos spend his days in conversation with professionals devoted to advancing the world of arts and culture.

He considers himself very, very lucky.

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