Inexpensive but Never Cheap: Theatre Southwest by Rachel McKeehan

8944-A Clarkcrest
Houston, TX 77063
713-661-9505, email

April 2004–As a Theatre Major, I am bound by the laws of physics (and aggressive theatre professors) to see plays every so often. I attend a variety of sorts at the high school, college, and professional level. But the amount of professional productions I get to see is limited due to the loan I need to take out just to look at a ticket to places like The Alley Theatre. So a few months ago I went on a search for the theatres to go to while keeping the majority of the net worth of my being. Enter Theatre Southwest. This is the littlest place I’ve never heard of, but I don’t know it was little when I heard of it. So I call and get some cheap student tickets to As Bees In Honey Drown. I know the title sounds corny, but I needed to see the play to write a paper. The day of the show I looked up directions on Mapquest.com (which I now know sucks, but the way) and got all ready to go. Since my taller, but younger, sisters are interested in theatre as much as I am, I tell them I’ll take them to shows one at a time. Tonight was Olivia’s turn. My mom drives us because I’d get lost if I drove, and Map Quest had us going downtown in a not-so-nice neighborhood.

On the way I decide to call the theater again because Map Quest was getting confusing. The box-office man tells me in his 007 voice that the theatre is in fact not downtown, but off Fondren. I get a little mad and have the 50-year-old box-office man who thinks he’s charming direct my mom there. He does it perfectly.

We drive into this ratty looking strip center and wonder if we did it right. Then we notice the windows of the particularly clean part of the strip center. They are painted with drama faces and big black letters that read, “THEATRE SOUTHWEST.” This is the only evidence that this place is in fact a theatre. I get out of the car and notice odors of a garbage bin that must be near by. There were also a few weird guys down the strip center giving Olivia and me funny faces. Like we would give them the green light with our Mom clearly saying, “I love you Honey, be careful! Call me when the show’s over!”…Nice place right?

Olivia and I wave our goodbyes to my mom as she drives off. We enter the building through glass doors covered on the inside by red curtains, and receive yet another funny smell. An old building smell. To top if off, it turns out the living room of my house is bigger than this lobby, if it can be called that. I notice the ceiling looks as if it will fall in. We walk up to the kind-faced lady at a small desk and request two student tickets. It all costs about half of what on Alley ticket would have cost me. I then walk to another part of “The Lobby” and sit in a sticky chair. After a few mean-spirited words, I end up leaving my stubborn sister to stand next to where I sit because she doesn’t want the chair across and a little left of me. I look around and find an assortment of ages in this place, all of them waiting politely and patiently. Most of these people came in pairs or groups of three. All the faces I see are those of older senior citizens or the younger high school and/or college generation. About fifty of us here in only sixty square feet of space. The lower-than-it-should-be-ceiling adds to the tight, squashed feeling.

A man in a colorful disco shirt comes out and, with the help of various gesticulations, says we can be seated now. (Hmm, wonder if he’s straight.) As we go into the theatre, I realize that the stage is as small as the lobby, maybe smaller. It is a tiny four-sided stage surrounded on all sides by tiny seats. According to the AACT website glossary, this is what you would call a theatre-in-the-round, or an arena stage. It looks only big enough to seat about a hundred people.

My sister and I get seated in the second of three rows. The seats look as if they used to be a reddish color. They are small and padded and my sister soon complains how there is not enough room for her freakishly long legs. The friggin’ giant, serves her right.

The seats full up after about twenty minutes and we begin the show. It is about a con-woman and this poor, beginning writer she cons. He’s kind of cute and her haircut reminds me of Velma Kelly from the musical movie Chicago . I agree with Jay Reiner from The Hollywood Reporter when he says that the con-woman sounds like “Bette Davis on speed.” The actress who plays the con-woman seemed a bit weaker than the other actors because she relied completely on her accent to pull her character through. I was glad her accent appeared less in the second act, because I was going to get irritated if it didn’t. After the first act and half of the second, the innocent writer is dumped. Took her long enough. However, all this leads to his loss of innocence and his shock into the real artistic world. He finds the need to get her back, and, in doing so, meets all the people from her past. All in all, it is a decent play. A bit weird, but good. And that is really all I can ask for from freakishly cheap tickets and a kind ticket lady, despite the weirdo on the phone.

After the show they were going to have a “talk to the cast and crew” session. But Olivia and I needed to go. However, I found it kind of cool that they would consider doing that. After looking at the website and speaking to the people who run it, I know they do care about their audience. They really need to, considering their theatre and location. They do all this, not for fame, not for glory, not for money, but for the love of the Theatre.

A true Thespian will do what they do for the living for free. That’s our problem. That’s why most actors get paid squat. But this theatre doesn’t care. They are known as an amateur theatre (thank you, expensive college theatre class books like The Theatre Experience) but I always find that term to be belittling. I find its connotation means they don’t know what they are doing and they really serve no purpose. But my professor and I share an alternative view on this theatre and other amateur theatre groups: they do it for the love of it, thus they are more dedicated than we who expect to be paid. And this is what I think is the spirit of Houston : they’re constantly striving to fulfill their dreams while building a community with their accessible shows.

It’s not like they don’t know what they are doing. Quite the contrary. The lighting designer for the show I saw, according to the ticket lady, has a resume that can fill a 1 inch binder. He has worked in just about every theatre in Houston , plus many in other parts of the USA and London . The director also was responsible for stage managing and directing plenty of plays in the Greater Houston Area. The story was the same for most of the rest of the cast and crew.

But these people are not snobbish in their experience and do not exclude newer members of theatre to try their hand. The leading lady with the Velma Kelly haircut had never gotten a major role in anything before then. From her bio in the program, she was so very excited to be given the chance to be a part of such a show. I’ve also heard from some of my friends from the UH School of Theatre that they pay about $20 for tech workers. It’s not much, but it gives an inexperienced set or lighting techie the chance to get their feet wet.

Later, under their consent, I looked at Theatre Southwest Online for dates and times for auditions to upcoming shows. To my surprise, they actually encouraged new, never-before-seen actors to audition for these shows. The auditions are set for times that have the ability to fit nicely into a working person’s schedule. Perfect for a student who spends most of their day at school. I also learned from the extremely helpful Theatre Southwest Online that they have been providing “quality theatre since 1957.” 1957!?! This place should now have a historical marker! To be a non-profit theatre company and be able to stay in business for that long, they must be doing something right. Such a small place, such nice people, such good shows… this kind of phenomenon is not seen to much now-a-days.

This is why I believe Theatre Southwest represents Houston: Good people and good places exist that are never heard of before. They also have the ability and drive to offer so much to the community; good, affordable shows, open-minds to new talent despite the theatre’s age, and extraordinary experienced people in accessible areas to be learned from. What else can someone ask for from an amateur theatre group? They love their work, and they love their audience. They must for them to find the nerve and the will to continue their promise: “quality theatre.” I hope you will find out the unheard-of greatness that is Theatre Southwest for yourself. Then tell me that you would rather see a play for the indifferent people from Theatre Under The Stars or the expensive people from The Alley. Don’t get me wrong, they do nice work, but I like my money where it is.

MAP:

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