Just 60 days after Hurricane Harvey swept through the Gulf region in late August, spilling more than 19 trillion gallons of water in the Houston metropolitan region—and leaving eight feet of water in downtown streets—the city, its residents, and its vibrant arts community are rebuilding and finding creative ways to move forward.
Despite millions of dollars in damage to performance spaces—and in some cases a total loss of their artistic homes—Houston’s arts organizations are continuing with their programming. Among the hardest hit: Houston Grand Opera, and its artistic home, The Wortham Theater Center, which completely flooded during the storm.
“We lost our two performance spaces, rehearsal spaces, and offices indefinitely, along with our costume shop and several vehicles,” Houston Grand Opera Managing Director Perryn Leech tells Playbill. “The basement of our building, the Wortham Theater Center, was completely flooded, and there was water on the stage and in the seating area. Because our internet and telephone connections were located in the basement, we were unable to conduct business for nearly two weeks, just at the start of the fall sales period.”
The Alley Theater, a massive arts complex that takes up an entire city block (housing performance and rehearsal spaces, administrative offices, and scenic studios), was also hit hard. While the Hubbard Theatre, the larger of its two venues was unhurt, the company’s smaller 310-seat Neuhaus space was completely destroyed. Unique among arts organizations, the Alley owns the entire physical building, which has given the theatre a head start on demolition of the Neuhaus and other structural repairs.
Artistic Director Gregory Boyd points out that because the Alley is able to operate independently, however, it doesn’t receive financial aid from the city as some other non-profits do. “We are doing it all on our own,” he says. “There’s about $15 million worth of damage, and we think the insurance will cover about half of that, which means we have to raise the other half. We’re still looking for help, for sure.”
Another devastating blow was the loss of the Alley’s vast props collection amassed from over 30 years of productions. “It’s about a million objects, and we lost about 75 percent of that,” Boyd says. “That was huge. A lot of those things were one-of-a-kind items that just can’t be recovered. That was hard.”
Theatre Under the Stars—the city’s leading producer of musical theatre—operates out of the Hobby Center, which survived Harvey nearly unscathed thanks to the swift thinking of two employees who stayed on site during the hurricane. “Water was coming in through one of the loading docks in the small theatre, and they reverted the water around the theatre so that it came in through the side door and poured into the orchestra pit, and then they flushed it into the sewer system,” explains TUTS Artistic Director Dan Knechtges. “It basically saved the stage. The orchestra pit was raised, so it only damaged the electrical beneath it. The theatre can still be used—it’s just that the pit can’t be raised and lowered until the electrical is fixed.”
Harvey proved to be a baptism by fire for Knechtges, the Tony-nominated choreographer of the Broadway musical Xanadu, who was announced as TUTS’ new artistic director in early August. “My first day was going to be the day the hurricane landed. And, of course, that changed, and I arrived ten days later,” he says. “It was like being a general taking over a battle in a war that I knew nothing about. I quickly learned about relief and how to marshal the forces. Our staff was already on the move on how to do a lot of this stuff. They really started to put much of this in place before the hurricane because they knew what was coming.
“I got in my rental car, arrived directly at the theatre, and I was immediately pulled into a meeting that included all of the area theatre heads. It was an awful way to greet the community, but also a wonderful way to come together. We were all in the same boat.”
“It was clear at once that there was a common bond and willingness to help each other out in any way that we could,” Houston Grand Opera's Leech adds. “The overall feeling of ‘What I have is yours if you need it’ was a very strong, emotional crutch during a very difficult time for all of us as we made plans for our individual companies. I cannot speak highly enough about the amazing collegiality and friendship of every one of these people.”
After losing the Neuhaus, the Alley was able to move its world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night to the Quintero Theatre across town, while scheduling was shifted in order to move a planned production of Laurence Wright’s Cleo to later in the season. The Alley will officially reopen its doors November 24 when performances of A Christmas Carol begin in the Hubbard Theatre. “We are hoping the Neuhaus will be open by Valentine’s Day, which is the opening of another world premiere, the new Duncan Sheik-Suzanne Vega musical, Lover, Beloved,” Boyd says.
At the Hobby Center, TUTS was able to continue with the rolling pre-Broadway engagement of The Secret Garden, which concluded its scheduled run October 22. (Dates of a Broadway arrival have yet to be announced.)
Faced with the total loss of its performance and rehearsals spaces, Houston Grand Opera constructed a 1,700-seat theatre, combining stadium and floor seating within the exhibition hall of the Houston Convention Center. Productions of Handel’s Julius Caesar and Verdi’s La Traviata are currently running in repertory in what has been christened the HGO Resilience Theatre.
“We looked at many possible spaces, but few could accommodate the complex needs of an opera company—that is why the Wortham was built,” explains Leech. “But when I saw the exhibit hall in the Convention Center, I knew it was possible, with a lot of work, to create an exciting and even intimate space there for opera. I had experience creating a pop-up theatre in a sports arena in Edinburgh after a fire, so I knew it could be done. Fortunately, the city of Houston, through Houston First, runs both the Wortham and the Convention Center. They moved more than 30 conventions and other bookings to enable us to use the hall.”
“We never considered cancelling the season,” adds HGO Artistic Director and Music Director Patrick Summers. “It happens that this fall marks the start of Seeking the Human Spirit, our six-year multidisciplinary artistic and community initiative to highlight the universal spiritual themes raised in opera. We hope that the beauty of opera will help people find hope and healing to carry them forward.”
This is only a temporary fix for such a major arts institution, and Leech and Summers remain cautiously optimistic. “We still do not know where we will be presenting our final two productions, West Side Story and Norma, in the spring,” Leech says. “It is a challenge to find rehearsal space for performances by our HGO Studio and our community engagement programs. On the business side, it has cost us more than a half million dollars to build this temporary theatre, and our total losses could amount to as much as $15 million. So we have quite a mountain to climb. It could take three to five years to get back to where we were.”
While each organization has set up funding pages to help with relief efforts, Knechtges adds, “The thing people can do most besides giving is to buy a ticket. If we lose our audiences, that’s everything. So, buying a ticket and showing up is the best thing that people could do.”
After the shared experience of weathering Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians have welcomed the invitation to gather and share in an uplifting communal experience. For many, attending the theatre or the opera is the first opportunity they have had to come together in public.
“It’s going to be a year where people are going to feel a little out of sync, but the audiences went through it, too. We can’t forget that,” Boyd says. “We all live in the city where everybody went through it. The coming together of any audience in a room is powerful, but now to have that and then to share this incredible back story with each other—it’s been amazing.
“The conversations that go on are amazing,” he continues. “You really find out what a theatre company means to people. To see how audiences reacted. It’s a great theatre story.”
How you can help:
Donate to Houston Grand Opera or purchase tickets by clicking here.
Donate to the Alley Theatre or purchase tickets by clicking here.
Donate to Theatre Under the Stars or purchase tickets by clicking here.