Jennifer Decker, the director of Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company, has always juggled a lot. In addition to her full-time role as head of the woman-centric arts organization, she holds a full-time teaching job at Houston Community College. Since she founded Mildred’s Umbrella nearly two decades ago, she’s been frank about the struggles it takes to keep the doors open while also increasing the quality of its productions. And six years ago, the company moved to Studio 101, in a space shared with 4th Wall Theatre Company. The arrangement was great artistically, but Decker, with characteristic frankness, admits it's be tough to pay the rent. "We don’t have a board with deep pockets,” she says.
Raising and managing funds to pay half the rent on the Studio 101 space took up a lot of Decker’s time and energy. Then this summer, 4th Wall announced its (now reversed) decision to close, and Decker was in the uncomfortable place of determining how she’d manage the full rent herself. That’s when she got an offer she couldn’t refuse: Classical Theatre Company proposed lending their home base at Chelsea Market Theatre. Decker said yes.
“At first, I wasn’t sure,” she says. “I thought that if we didn’t have our own space, maybe it would seem like a step back for the company. But our budget isn’t even close to that of the companies that are considered our peers. Our staff is a two-person volunteer staff. Everyone who works with our company has full-time jobs. It wasn’t good for us to be living above our means.”
So, after the run of Well—set to open this Thursday— and the subsequent Dark Matter, scheduled for a late March debut, Mildred’s Umbrella will reside at Chelsea Market. The change, says Decker, will help the company's bottom line—and, she expects, allow it to grow artistically.
“After Hurricane Harvey stunted our fundraiser this August, we took a hard look at our situation and decided we would rather be able to continue doing the high quality of productions we are known for producing and also continue to pay our artists, rather than spending the majority of our budget on the ongoing rent and maintenance of a space,” Decker said separately in a press release. “We will continue to support the work of women in theatre through our productions in the new location, as well as expanding our reach to include some non-traditional performances that encourage women’s voices to be heard in all areas of performance art.”
Decker is quick to point out that when 4th Wall reversed its decision to close, Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl, the company’s co-artistic directors and founders, reached out to her to ask her to stay. By then, however, she’d already made the decision—with the full support of her board. “I’ll always be supportive of their work,” Decker says. “And I hope they feel the same.”
In the meantime, however, Mildred’s Umbrella moves forward with its 2017-2018 season, opening Lisa Kron’s Well this Thursday at the Studio 101 location. An exploration of the question, “What makes us well?” Decker describes the work as “a play within a play that falls apart and becomes something else in the middle.”
Well tells the story of a playwright, Lisa, and the relationship with her mother, Ann. The non-linear action allows Lisa to both narrate and participate in pieces of the story, delving into the mother-daughter dynamic, how mind-over-body impacts the way we see ourselves, and what wellness actually means.
“It’s a woman’s attempt to tell her story, but, at the same time, she sometimes has to come out of the story to fully understand it,” says Decker. “This looks at what it means to be chronically ill. It’s so timely, with so many people feeling scared and insecure about changes to health insurance policies—worried they might get sick. It's not a traditional play format at all, but the dynamics are those I think will resonate with people.”
Following Well, Mildred’s Umbrella will present Dark Matter, an anthology of "darkly humorous" plays, at Studio 101 in March, before the move to Chelsea Market for its annual Museum of Dysfunction new play festival slated for June.
Whatever happens going forward, Decker is ready for it.
“I’m excited and happy we’re changing things,” she says, “and I think it’s really going to show in the quality of our work.”
Well, Jan. 18–Feb. 3. Tickets $25. Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. 832-463-0409. More info and tickets at mildredsumbrella.com.