When the news hit last week that 4th Wall Theatre Company headed by the husband-and-wife team of Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl would shutter by year's end, it was met with shock. Some began to sound the death knell for small-scale theater in Houston altogether.
The reason for the closing came down to money, as so many things do. Tobin-Lehl and Lehl founded the company in 2010 as Stark Naked Theatre, with a commitment to pay artists a living wage, and have done so for seven years, taking no more than a small stipend for themselves. It simply hit a point where there was no more funding to support their goals.
“Philip and I are very proud of the work we have done at Stark Naked/4th Wall and that we have spent the seven years always putting artists pay as the top priority, above all other budgetary items,” says Tobin-Lehl. “About a month ago we both looked at each other exhausted and overwhelmed, knowing we had another season in front of us where we alone had to raise the money to fund the season. At the same time, we were heading into our three jobs with a year of 15-hour days, 7 days a week. I said, ‘You know, I am only doing this for you,’ and he said, ‘Well, I am only doing this for you.’ We both knew it was time to stop killing ourselves for this theater model we have fought so hard for.”
Houston audiences, however, still have the opportunity to see the critically acclaimed fruits of that model in 4th Wall’s shortened 2017-2018 season, which kicks off next month with the regional premiere of Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama examines the issues of Muslim identity and Islamophobia. The piece is a pick for Houstonia's Fall Arts Guide for its timely and thought-provoking themes—exactly what Tobin-Lehl, who’s directing the show, hopes to highlight.
“When I first read the play, I was profoundly affected,” she says. “This isn’t just about religious values or identity, it’s about what it means to be American. What are our American values? I think theater should cause you to feel shaken, to force yourself to confront what you think.”
Lehl says Houston's theater scene needs more—not less—of these shows with timely, potentially controversial themes. "I don’t know who’s going to do those plays now that we’re gone," he says.
Following Disgraced, the company will present its final show, the Craig Lucas comedy Reckless for the holidays—a show the company has produced before.
“It’s this magical story,” Tobin-Lehl says of the show, which begins with the main character discovering her husband has hired a hit man to kill her and is now re-thinking that decision. As she hightails it from home to escape her fate, she stumbles into a series of secrets that upend her life even more. “It’s hysterical and weird and scary."
As Tobin-Lehl and Lehl head into their final productions, they are adamant that they are still committed to their belief that Houston’s artists deserve living wages. Both Tobin-Lehl and Lehl will continue acting and training the next generation of Houston’s performers.
“We believe the artist should come first,” says Tobin-Lehl. “We have fought for it for seven years and we will continue to fight for it, just not as the artistic directors of 4th Wall Theatre Company.”
Disgraced, Sept. 7 – 30. Tickets from $17. 4th Wall Theatre Company, 1824 Spring, Studio 101. 832-786-1849. More info at 4thwalltheatreco.com.
Reckless, Nov. 30 — Dec. 16. Tickets TBA. 4th Wall Theatre Company, 1824 Spring, Studio 101. 832-786-1849. More info at 4thwalltheatreco.com.