BWW Interviews: Kim Tobin and Philip Lehl Talk Studio 101 and Everything Stark Naked Theatre Company

Rains are coming and going, altering the barometric pressure in the air and creating what feels like a mix between a pressure cooker and sauna. It's that time of year where summer takes it last, lingering steps before being put to bed for a handful of months in Houston. All of this occurs simultaneously with a new season of theatre dawning in the city. On a particularly humid, rainy Saturday evening, Kim Tobin and Philip Lehl, co-founders and Artistic Directors of Stark Naked Theatre Company, invited me to chat with them in their studio at Spring Street Studios. On the floor below us, Studio 101 is well on its way to be a hot locale for local theatre and the starting point for our conversation.

Was there a collaboration or a sense of working together with Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company, Classical Theatre Company, and Stark Naked Theatre Company before coming together and sharing Studio 101?

Kim Tobin (KT): Well, we all knew each other, but I don't think we really worked together.

Philip Lehl: Well, yeah.

KT: You did.

PL: I had worked several times with Classical Theatre Company as an actor. And I know JJ [Johnson, founder and Executive Artistic Director of Classical Theatre Company,] pretty well because he and I founded the Houston Theatre Alliance as well. So, there's that. We co-produced a reading with Mildred's Umbrella, but not a lot of working together before that. I think knowing each other and knowing having seen each other's work meant a lot.

KT: And Jennifer [Decker, co-founder and Artistic Director of Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company] and I are friends and had been before this space became available.

PL: And so are JJ and I.

How did you find Studio 101? What was that process like?

KT: Well, mostly because this studio that we're in right now-my acting studio here-is in the building, and when it became open, Misha Penton, who had had the space before and was running her company Divergence Vocal Theatre out of that space-an opera type mixed performance art company-and she decided she didn't want it anymore. Because I am in the building, and I know her and Jennifer Decker knew her, we were on an exclusive list of people she e-mailed first saying, "I'm going to be giving up my space." Jennifer and I went down there and said, "We want it." So, because I am on the e-mail list for Jon Deal for the building we got the first dibs at it, and we just took it.

What are your favorite aspects of Studio 101?

PL: I like the intimacy of it, there's that. I also like the high ceilings, which are great for lighting purposes. Misha installed these hardwood floors that I happen to love. I just love the ambience and feel that they provide. They won't be used as the floor for every theatrical production that's in there, but I think they actually have been used so far for everything that's been in there. People like them; they're attractive. I like the fact that it's part of a larger building that houses artists of all types. I like its affordability. This is a big deal to me. You know, that sounds like a flip answer, but The Alley is about to embark on a, I believe, a 70 to 80 million dollar renovation of their space. And I believe The Alley should have the best most beautiful space in town as the sort of flagship theatre in town, but for $80 million they get a space and they produce about 10 to 12 shows a year, and for a fraction of that we produce about the same amount of plays per year. It's kind of an interesting thing.

You guys have kind of formed a partnership by sharing this space and are taking turns doing productions in it. Houston's theatre community is seen as being very close knit, like a family. Even the competing theatres are close, and everyone knows everyone. How is this reflected or supported by the partnership in Studio 101?

KT: Well, I think sharing the space helps us cultivate the sense that theatres should come together and try to form relationships that help each other try to come into places where we can have... I'm not saying this well. When we came together to put the three of us into one space, I think it kind of gave a lot of people in town the idea that, "Hey, you know, if they can do this maybe some of the rest of us that are floating around town should start to look into the idea that sharing-finding communal spaces that we can share and kind of call home-is a good way to find a base where we can actually put a home, so we can cultivate our art and spend more time paying attention to the quality of the work, and the quality of what we put on stage instead of always being worried about where the next place we're going to be able to do a show is." And that helps improve the quality of the theatre, I think, for everybody, if that is something that becomes more available to us.

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David Clarke David Clarke has had a lifelong love and passion for the performing arts, and has been writing about theatre both locally and nationally for years. He joined running their Houston site in early 2012 and began writing as the site's official theatre recording critic in June of 2013.

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