BWW Interviews: Rebecca Udden and Vivienne St. John Talk About Everything Main Street Theater
Main Street Theater has been a staple in the Houston theatre scene since Rebecca Udden found the company in the 1970s. Over time, the company has continued to evolve and grow. It seems that Houston audiences may not be fully aware of just how dynamic this stellar theatre company is. To help set the record straight, Rebecca Udden, Founding and Executive Artistic Director, and Vivienne St. John, Theater For Youth Producing Director, spoke with me about this fantastic and multifaceted theatrical company.
Rebecca Udden (RU): A lot of people know Main Street [Theater], but we talk about ourselves as a three-headed dog. People come to us through one of three channels, either the adult Main Stage, the Theater for Youth, which is huge, or our education department, which nobody knows about unless [they] have young children that need something to do, but that's also very big. So, people sort of know one aspect of it, of Main Street Theater, but the whole thing is really what we are. I mean, it's not that we have three separate companies that share an office. Everything is pretty thoroughly integrated, so it's great for people to get the whole picture of things.
What is the mission of Main Street Theater's Main Stage?
RU: (Laughs) You want the official boilerplate thing? We produce challenging plays that encourage our audiences to think and our artists to grow. Our sort of longer version is we were founded to provide challenging work for actors or Houston theatre artists and challenging plays for our audiences of all ages.
I can see what you mean by challenging theatre. You guys produce very interesting pieces.
RU: We're also all about giving people work. (Laughs) You know, which we really triumphed in this past year with THE COAST OF UTOPIA. (Laughs) We don't have many seasons with quite that much work for people, you know, but the Houston theatre community has certainly flourished in the thirty some odd years we have been here. We have a fantastic talent pool that decided to put down roots in Houston. It's a great time to be doing theatre in Houston, I'll tell ya.
What is the mission of Main Street Theater's Theater for Youth?
Vivienne St. John (VSJ): Our mission is to provide children of all ages with a theatrical experience that excites, entertains, educates, and enlightens.
How do you program your respective seasons?
RU: It's a totally organic process, but I have a file where plays that catch my eye live. And then, starting sometime in March or May we start putting little post-its up on the wall of plays that, you know, we'd really like to do. And then we might start out with thirty titles, some of which we've been thinking about doing for years-"oh, wouldn't it be great if we could do thins"-and they make it up on the wall, but they don't make it into the season, so we bring them back the next year. Somehow, after lots of talking and lots of "if you do this play then this other play is very similar so that sort of knocks that one out of the season," finally everything gets sifted out, and the things that are most compelling at that time are what makes up the season. [Laughs] There is a sense of what kind of plays work at what time of year. We joke about the warm and fuzzy slot, which is the time during the holidays-from Thanksgiving to Christmas. You know, you'd be nuts to do something dark and depressing there. Then, the dead of winter slot is right after the holidays, and you can do your sort of darker, more thoughtful, or less happy plays. As the season goes on, you can do Shakespeare in the spring, but at the end of the season you want it to be a little more upbeat. Then, there is just kind of an organic way, at least, our season and what we know about the moods of our audience [Laughs]-at certain times of the year they want certain things so, you know, so we try to match our programming with their moods.
VSJ: I work a lot with educators, parents, librarians, and bookstore owners and just talk a lot with them about what the kids are reading at home and at school. Then I try to gear everything towards what they're interested in. I also like to throw in some classic literature, so that the kids are being exposed to that as well as the contemporary. So, I try to do a little bit of both. And then just make sure that we're programming for all ages-three year olds all the way on up. And that the leads, the main characters and heroines, are split gender based, so that the season is not all girl focused or all boy focused, trying to give something for everybody.
How do you cast your shows?
RU: I attend the [Houston Theatre] Alliance auditions every year to see who's new in the talent pool. I have a huge file of resumes that people submit. I try to go through that every time we're casting a play and look for people who's resume might suggest they might fit in a particular production in a particular role. I do try to sift through the new people. In the back of my mind, I know the people we use a lot, so I know so and so would be great in this role, and I also try to bring in new people with every show. But we do have a sort of go to list of the people I've worked with a lot that sort of get what we do and who enjoy working here-actors who consider this their artistic home, even though we don't have a formal company. There are a handful of people who work here a lot and also work around town, but they would work here first. They always check-in to see what's on the schedule before they take a role somewhere else. We audition for every show. I call people from my files, new people, old people, and I work with the directors, but the director always has the last say in who gets cast in the show.
VSJ: We have a main season audition, typically in June. It's open to anybody that is not Equity, and all the directors are in attendance. From there, we hold callbacks for each show. Typically, all the shows are cast by August because finding actors with daytime availability is quite difficult, so we want to make sure we have them lined up for the whole season early on and that they don't go out looking for other work.
What shows are you doing this season?
RU: Well, we're opening with LIFE IS A DREAM, which is one of those titles that's sort of been on my list for a long time. I've always wanted to produce the play and looked for translations that I really liked. I finally saw it at Repertorio Español in New York City in Spanish. I don't speak Spanish, but I knew the play because I read so many versions of it, so I just went. They were doing a student matinee, and I saw it and realized that the translations I was looking for were the wrong play-I wanted it to be more like Shakespeare with lots of action. It's not really so much action in the way Shakespeare is, it's more about the poetry and the language and the sort of elevated ideas. So, once I realized I was looking for the wrong play in the translations I was looking for, then I found a really terrific one by Nilo Cruz that just really did wonderful things to the language but also made it very accessible to a contemporary audience. That's kind of a long way of saying this is play that's been on the back burner for a long time and we're finally getting a chance to produce it, and that's going to open the season.
Then, the next play is LOVE GOES TO PRESS, which was produced at the Mint Theatre in New York this June. It is a sort of lost play by Martha Gellhorn and Virgina Cowles set in a press camp towards the end of World War II in Italy. It's a romantic comedy set in the middle of World War II about two women war correspondents that show up at this press camp. The ex-husband of one also happens to be there, and hilarity ensues. [Laughs] It's snappy patter, very much a comedy of that period. It tells us nothing new about anything; it's just a fresh look at a period, you know. There are a lot of wonderful plays and comedies from this time in American, well English, theatre, and this is sort of a new-a fresh one-in the vein of HIS GIRL FRIDAY, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and that era of playwriting.
Then, MEMORY HOUSE by Kathleen Tolan will be after the first of the year. That is a mother-daughter play. The daughter is trying to write her college essay and she's put it off. It has to be postmarked by midnight tonight, and she's put if off and put it off and put it off. She's trying to avoid doing it and as the mom makes a pie. The mom is trying to encourage the daughter to write her essay. They're both very reluctant to finish the college essay because that means "oh yeah, she'll be going off to college." They're both facing "what's this going to be like when we're not together." It's just very sweet. It's a play about mothers and daughters. The daughter is adopted, so all these issues of her adoption come up and the mother makes the pie.
Then HENRY V, which is another collaboration with Prague Shakespeare [Festival]; we're excited about that. Guy Roberts is going to direct again, and we'll produce here and then take the show to Prague, as we did last year with RICHARD III. And then we finish the season with CLOSE UP SPACE by Molly Smith Meltzer, which is a wacky comedy about a literary agent who spends more time trying to uphold the high standards of writing than he does trying to help his daughter deal with her mother's death. The daughter shows up speaking only in Russian, carrying a cooler full with snow, and has this boom box with a soundtrack of Russian music, takes over his little office, and forces him to confront being a father. So, we have a mother-daughter and a father-daughter play this season.
VSG: We're opening the season with DUCK FOR PRESIDENT, based on the book by Doreen Cronin. That's running in September and October, followed by A LITTLE HOUSE CHRISTMAS based on the books by Laura Ingles Wilder. That's in November and December. Then, in January and February we're doing A WRINKLE IN TIME from the book by Madeline L'Engle. Then in Feburary and March we're doing MRS. NELSON IS MISSING from the book by Harry Allard and JameS Marshall. And then in April we're doing CHARLOTTE'S WEB by E. B. White. And then, in the summertime, we're doing ALICE IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carrol. We also tour one production each year, and this year we're touring THE MAGIC SCHOOLBUS: THE CLIMATE CHALLENGE.
Why did you pick these particular shows?
RU: Well, the LOVE GOES TO PRESS is-I joke with Jonathan Bank the Artistic Director of the Mint Theatre that I stalk him. He has wonderful resources to find really good plays that have either fallen off the list of plays that people produce or they may have been big successes in the early part of the century, but now nobody's heard of the playwright. So, I really like bringing plays that people really haven't had a chance to see to Houston. That's another sort of thread that runs trough my programming. If the play's been produced a lot we're not going to be doing it. So, I'm always looking for plays that people have never heard of. It makes it a little hard on the marketing department, but that's what I really enjoy.
Then, MEMORY HOUSE is one of those that I read a review of it a couple of seasons ago, I think, in the New York Times and tore it out and stuck it in my file. A lot of times you read about a play and its not published and you have to track down the agent-it's a lot easier nowadays with the internet because usually you can, if it's a non-profit company, find a website and write the literary manager and find out how to get a copy of the script and who's the agent, you know. There are a lot of sort of hurdles you have to jump over before you actually even see if the play is suitable. But this is one that I had cut out the review of and thought, "oh, that really looks like a lovely piece," and then didn't hear anything about it, didn't know where to find the script, and then saw it on a catalog of a publishing company and thought, "Oh great! I'll buy it and read it." And I really like it! After last season-last season was a huge season for us-and because this year we have a couple things going on where we said, "Ok, this is going to be a much smaller season," while I don't consciously go after small cast shows, I knew we had to scale back. We've got a capital campaign going on, and we have an evening rental in our Chelsea Market that we hope will run all year, so we wanted to clear the calendar over there. So, the Main Stage shows we might ordinarily would've done in our large theatre, we're not going to be able to do this year. We're only doing five plays in our Main Stage season, which is a really reduced schedule for us, and they tend to be a little bit smaller than we usually produce. But MEMORY HOUSE is a two-person play, so it satisfied all of our needs.
And CLOSE UP SPACE was another one-I am a submitting company for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and this was a finalist the past season, I believe, for the prize. We're celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize this year, so I wanted to find a finalist to put in the season for that celebration, so that's kind of how I got to that title.
VSJ: Well, I picked DUCK FOR PRESIDENT because of the election. I've actually been holding on to that script for a while. I wanted to do a production-this book is really for our younger kids; our Pre-K, Kindergarten, 1st graders-and I really wanted to find a way to introduce them to the election process and everything that is going on in the world right now in a very fun, exciting, and entertaining way. No partisanship. [Laughs]
And then, A LITTLE HOUSE CHRISTMAS, that one we've done before and we're bringing it back because its just so popular at Christmastime and I'm a huge fan of THE LITTLE HOUSE series. Just going back to the happy pioneer days, warm and fuzzy, is just very popular with our audiences.
A WRINKLE IN TIME, we also did A WRINKLE IN TIME many years ago, but not this adaptation that we're doing. This is a new one that is kind of going around the theater for youth world right now. It's an adaption by John Glore. It's pretty exciting to me, the adaptation, just the way that he had written it. A WRINKLE IN TIME is not easy to stage, and so the way he wrote it ,I just thought it was going to be a great stage adaptation of it. It's fantasy, which our middle school kids are really into fantasy right now. I just love the theme of it-inspiring self-discovery, courage. I just thought was a great mix.
MRS. NELSON IS MISSING is just fun. It's a great springtime show for our 1st and 2nd graders. We've done that before, ten years ago. That was just another one that I thought, "we've got to bring that back." CHARLOTTE'S WEB is required reading for a majority of 3rd graders and is just a huge hit with a lot of people. You know, they just love that classic of the animals, bravery, and loyalty. So, I just thought that was a great mix for our season too.
Coming off a summer of doing PINKALICIOUS which was huge, I wanted to do something else that was little bit fantasy and a fun summer, total silliness, just let go, let loose, be creative and have fun with it show. I just thought ALICE IN WNDERLAND would fit that bill well. Summertime fun, basically.
And then, THE MAGIC SCHOOLBUS: THE CLIMATE CHALLENGE that we're sending out on tour, I just thought that's such a hot topic right now. We always try to do shows that help the teachers educate in some way. Helping them to bring recycling and the climate issues into their classroom and bringing it down to their [the students'] level, and there is just no better way to do that than with THE MAGIC SCHOOLBUS.
So, a mix of contemporary and a mix of classical. A mix of the feminine side with LITTLE HOUSE ON TH PRARIE, an ensemble in MRS. NELSON, animals in CHARLOTTE'S WEB. It's just a lot of fun this season-a lot of fun.
From your upcoming season, is there any show that you are particularly excited to see come to live on stage?
RU: You know, I'm excited about all of them. I guess the other thing about picking a season is, if I'm not excited about it, we're not going to do it. [Laughs] Certainly, I've been wanting to do LIFE IS A DREAM for years. We're very excited about LOVE GOES TO PRESS because I just think people are going to love it, and it's so much fun to have something that nobody's seen-it's really great. And, I love all the others too. I'm very excited about MEMORY HOUSE because I'm actually going to play the mother, so that's very close to my heart. You know, I guess those are the three, for me personally, the three most exciting. Last year, I had the opportunity to be in RICHARD III, and that was just terrific. I'm not going to be in HENRY V. That's a play that I love, but there aren't that many roles for women. As I say, I'm excited about all of them. There are only five, so I can easily get excited about five plays. Some years we do as many as nine, so, you know, that's a little harder to keep them all straight.
VSJ: Like I said before, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE is probably my all time favorite. I just grew up with that. I have two young children that are growing up with LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE. You think nobody really knows it anymore-for a long time I thought that, and then the Broadway musical came about with Melissa Gilbert, and I just find that people are still engaged in it. People like to go back to the simpler times, the pioneer days where there were no Wiis, videogames, and that kind of stuff. Where things were not easier, by far not easier, you know, just more simplistic. Also, the Christmas show always makes me happy because the kids are always so excited at that time of year. They come in and they are just full of life and hope. So, I always enjoy the Christmas show the most. I'm also excited about DUCK FOR PRESIDENT. I mean, how much more fun could that be? We're having what we're calling a Duck National Convention, which is a special event we're hosting and we're inviting people to come. We're going to have hot dogs, cotton candy, and Cracker Jacks, make little campaign buttons, and do all kinds of things. Then Duck is going to give a speech-just, you know, introducing the audience to the election and all that kind of stuff.
What shows would you like to include in future Main Street Theater seasons?
RU: Oh, gosh. Well, you know there are plays that we...[Pauses] You know, it's funny because there are some plays that I don't want to say because I don't want to give my hand away. [Laughs] There are some that are just top secret. There's one title that I have been after for seven years, and in five years it's going to be in the public domain, so I'm going to be able to do it. It's actually a Noël Coward play that was produced in London about eight years ago. The professional rights in America are being held by the London producer for a possible Broadway production and because Houston is a big market, we aren't able-you know, you'd think, "what impact can a 99 seat theatre have on this play for a possible Broadway production," but because we're a big market and we have The Alley here, it means that we can't get the rights. It's just so stupid.
What other plays would I like to see in the future seasons? Well, anything new that Tom Stoppard comes up with, and I'm always looking to make sure we have good representation of plays by women. This year there's actually three of them-three of our five plays are by women playwrights.
We're going to do another co-production next season-we're sort of in a three year plan with the Prague Shakespeare [Festival]-and hope that in the coming [2013-14] season that we can bring some of the Prague actors over here, so we can really have a co-production. And, you know, there are some sort of recent Broadway titles. Yeah, wouldn't I love to do GOOD PEOPLE. You know, I have to kind of wait for The Alley to decide what they're going to do, since we only have 99 seats. Then, I have to wait and see if Stages is going to do it. So, I don't get my heart set on too many things. And you know, The Alley should. They are the institutional theatre. They should be bringing the top titles to Houston, and they also, to their credit, bring in a lot of things that people have never heard of-new plays by up and coming playwrights. They have the resources to do that. And for the playwright, 99 seats or 900 seats, hmmm? Which would you rather have your play produced at? [Laughs] So, I totally understand the way the ecology works.
VSJ: Well, my favorite book of all time that I've yet to be able to produce on stage is FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E. L. Konigsburg. I would love love love to do that. Another one I would love to do is SARAH PLAIN AND TALL. I just haven't found the slot for that; someday I'm going to. Those are probably my two most wanted at this point. I've done quite a few recently that I was dying to do. THE WATSON'S GO TO BIRMINGHAM-1963, I finally got to produce that the other year. If I find a book I really like, I push to make that happen.
One more would be an American Girl story-any American Girl story. I just find that American Girl stories are so good for girls. They have such a great message and a great theme. They can be very empowering for girls, so I would really like to produce an American Girl story.
Tell me a little more about the educational aspects of Main Street Theatre.
VSJ: Our Theater for Youth is our component of professional adults performing for children, as opposed to our Education On Stage component which is kids performing for kids. Education On Stage is made up of summer camp, winter camp, satellite classes in schools, after-school programs, and weekend programs. We have a lot of classes and camps we do at the theatre. But, in terms of the Theater for Youth, we provide study guides for each of our productions that the teachers get once they book it. They also can download it off of our website. We also do residences and workshops. We're planning to do a workshop with our tour of THE MAGIC SCHOOLBUS just to enhance the themes of the show a little more and to work with the kids in the classroom a little bit more about those themes.
Houston's Main Street Theater is a Hydra of a company, providing something for every theater enthusiast in the city. In addition to consistently providing audiences with thrilling and compelling plays at both the adult and children level, they offer a wide range of classes across various venues as well. If you're already familiar with one aspect of Main Street Theater, make it a goal to learn about at least one of their other forms of theatre this season. For those who are just learning about Main Street Theater for the first time, don't be afraid to check into everything they have to offer.
For more information about Main Street Theater visit and explore http://www.mainstreettheater.com/ or call (713) 524 – 3622.
Photos of Main Street Theater logo, Rebecca Udden, and Vivienne St. Jon are courtesy of Main Street Theater.
MST summer camper! Photo by Kaitlyn Walker.
The cast of How I Became a Pirate at Main Street Theater. Photo by RicOrnelProductions.com.
Richard III, a co-production of Main Street Theater and the Prague Shakespeare Festival with Guy Roberts as Richard III. Photo by RicOrnelProductions.com.
MST students in Sally Cotter and the Prisoner of Alacatraz. Photo by RicOrnelProductions.com.
Chris Martin, Marco Camacho, and Kalin Coates in Diary of a Worm, a Spider, and a Fly at Main Street Theater. Photo by RicOrnelProductions.com.