Stages Repertory Theatre is one step closer to their big move down the block as donors and officials broke ground on a new campus at 800 Rosine St. Tuesday morning.
December’s announcement of the Gordy, the company’s forthcoming three-theater, 67,000-square-foot campus, signaled a long-awaited release for an organization Chairman George Lancaster described at Tuesday’s ceremony as “busting at the gills.” Founded 40 years ago in a downtown basement, Stages has long occupied the historic Star Engraving Building along Allen Parkway—a repurposed space that brings with it a host of technical and logistical limitations.
This new project is part of the $32 million "Staging the Future" capital campaign that will turn over their landmarked current home for redevelopment as the new campus project seeks to build a collaborative, multi-use neighborhood where artists can work throughout the day and night. Naming rights for the site were secured by longtime patrons Russell and Glenda Gordy, who threw down a $5 million chunk of pocket change. "We just put it over the hump," Russell said to the friendly crowd who braved the morning heat in their floppy summer hats.
Other staff, community members, donors, and city officials articulated the importance of this purpose-built artistic home for Stages.
“This new home will transform their role in supporting and creating an environment in which arts and culture flourish in our world-class city,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Ellen Cohen (also the area’s councilmember) in remarks that praised the economic boost of Houston’s billion-dollar arts industry that furnishes more than 25,000 jobs.
Internal metrics suggest the capital campaign has inspired a surge of support for the mid-sized theater company. Managing Director Mark Folkes noted total subscriber revenue is up 30 percent and that Stages is “on track to double the number of subscribers as we welcome the Gordy.”
Added Folkes: “For a company with a $4.1 million annual operating budget, this gift has set a new trajectory for Stages and what is possible for the arts in Houston.”
With that cue, Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin took the mic to inject his preacher-like verve to the ceremony, laying out his vision for the place "where dignity and outrageousness walk arm-in-arm." He went on to dissect the etymology of the word “groundbreaking” at length before drawing a scriptural parallel between the new chapter ahead for Houston’s sixth-largest performing arts company and the transatlantic journey of the Massachusetts Pilgrims. Portions of his remarks proved so over-the-top they really must be quoted in full:
“Later today, in an hour from now, somewhere, a child will be born who will one day make theater in this space yet to be. In some other tomorrow way ahead of us, so will their children. In decades and decades hence, the children of their children will make art here, too. The deep place of an endless future is always beyond us, waiting for the wash of time to make tomorrow now.
When we break this ground in a moment, we divide the past from the present and we bring forward the future—unknown, infinite, and shaking with what is possible. We must forever keep a keen eye to what comes next. We must listen for the potential singing from every future breath, and we must reach boldly to grab what now is only what might be and shape what might be into what will be. As we stand together today, imagine all that will work for Stages tomorrow.”
As of press time, it’s possible the aforementioned child has been born, so keep an eye out; moments after his sermon, McLaughlin grabbed a shovel alongside Glenda Gordy, Russell Gordy, Mark Folkes, Tommy Reckling, and Isla Reckling to mark the ceremonial groundbreaking.
In contrast to that showy eye on the future, Stages favorite and Campaign Co-Chair Sally Edmundson viewed the groundbreaking in terms of history. Best known as of late for her portrayal of spitfire former Gov. Ann Richards in Stages’ production of Ann, the actor remembers stumbling upon "this guerrilla, electric theater company" four decades ago when it operated out of a downtown brewery.
She landed her first Stages role—a “meteorologist with bosoms out to here,” she recalls with generous gesticulation—and never left. Eventually, she followed the theater to its current Allen Parkway location, enduring that location's obstructed view, limited technical capacity, and general crampedness.
Edmundson even remembers renting rehearsal space in the warehouse soon to be transformed as part of the Gordy. Until two years ago, it served as conservation and storage facility for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, but Edmundson says she sensed its performance potential decades ago—the “natural progression” from the basement to what will become the Gordy.
Now, with the new campus set to open for the 2019–2020 season, her dream is finally coming to fruition. “I can finally exhale,” she says.