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.

PL: I can say, in a different way, that I don't believe that theatre companies are in competition with one another in general in this town. I think that theatre as a whole is in competition with TV shows and bars and restaurants, maybe. Although, we can work in conjunction with bars and restaurants. But I do believe that the theatre community as a whole is a family because we realize that if we can grow a bigger audience for theatre in general, they will come to many of them-many theatres' shows. (To Kim) And you're saying that in a sort of small way.

KT: I am-yeah-in a different and smaller way, yes.

PL: That's why I don't begrudge The Alley it's sort of position as the flagship theatre in town; TUTS maybe too. I think they should spend a lot. I think it should be flashy. I think it should be, you know, the epitome of theatre in town. But that should reflect its light on all of us.

How do you program at Stark Naked Theatre Company? How do you decide what shows you guys are going to do for the season?

KT: Well, we basically choose our plays based on the first part of our mission, which is about a particular aesthetic of acting. We believe in an aesthetic of acting that is based on, you know, truthful acting... I am having a hard time today.

PL: You've been teaching all day.

KT: I've been teaching for four hours, so my brain's a little tired. But, we look for things that are really powerful on relationship driven drama, things that are about what's important in relationships and story that's going to be in a small space. Something that an audience feels like they're getting a very nice intimate close look to what's very powerful, intimate, and poignant about relationships between people. So, as for this season we have speaks to, we have BODY AWARENESS, which is a Houston premiere for the play and the playwright. Then we have an 80s comedy, [Christopher] Durang piece we're going to do, which is going to be kind of fun and interesting to bring back. And then we're doing a Shakespeare. It doesn't mean it has to be a particular style or particular genre to have that kind of aesthetic about relationship, truth, and honesty, which is what our basis is on. It goes to any kind of play. But, in our environment and what we're doing, we believe we look for pieces that put that right there for an audience where they have to deal with having really emotional, challenging, truthful relationship experiences very close to them. That's what we look for.

PL: It's about emotional truth. It's about finding plays, and really any play can qualify.

KT: Almost.

PL: As long as we think that our look-our production of it-will reveal an emotional truth that either hasn't been seen in a production of that play, in our opinion, or in a play that hasn't been seen period in the recent past.

KT: And it's also plays that we feel might particularly highlight that. You know, that are very strongly written about those journeys.

PL: But we're not limited in any way, really. So, the real answer to the question is: We read a lot of plays. We read a lot of reviews of plays, and

KT: We go to New York and see them.

PL: Or Chicago.

KT: Or Chicago.

PL: Or really, we'd love to go to other places to, but budget won't really allow us to.

KT: Yeah, but those are primarily where we go because we can see a bulk.

PL: And because we're married, we sit around at night and at dinner talking about this stuff a lot. We have a list already of about 10 plays that we'd be interested in doing at some point. That makes it easy because we can only do 3 a year.

KT: And I think we're both fortunate enough that we have some pretty strong relationships still in the Chicago and New York community, and I have people send me plays and tell me about plays in the different theatre companies I worked in and the different places I worked, saying "Oh, this new play just opened Off-Off-Broadway at this theatre and you should go see it if you come up." So, I have connections to people who tell me about things.

PL: We found Annie Baker because we wanted to do another play of hers called CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION. We inquired about the rights, and they're not available. So we started reading her other work and found this other play that was just as good as CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION. Actually, two other plays that are just as good as CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION. We may be doing a lot of Annie Baker.

KT: Yeah, she's great. (To me.) You'll love her.

She not a playwright I'm familiar with.

KT: Well, most people here aren't going to be, so it'll be neat to bring her to the Houston audiences.

PL: She's young. I think she's in her 30s-early 30s; if she's even in her 30s. Hopefully, she doesn't get snapped up by TV and she continues writing plays. (Kim laughs.)

What advice do you offer to a someone or a group that is interested in starting up and develop their own theatre Production Company?

PL: We just had a meeting with a young man that is interested in that very thing last week. (Looks at Kim.)

KT: Go ahead.

PL: Well, we what told him... the biggest most important thing we told him is, Kim was really saying it, was that if you're trying to do it for notoriety or to further your career, you should forget it. But, if you're doing it to work on your craft, to work on things that you feel you haven't been able to work on. to get better as a director, as an actor, as a designer, then you're doing it for the right reasons. (Laughs.) You're going to loose money. You've got to find money somehow to do these things, and theatre is a losing proposition money wise. It's why most theatre is not for profit because it has to rely on the kindness of strangers, donations from private individuals, foundations, or corporations. What else did we tell him?

KT: That's basically what I told him. I ran two theatre companies in New York-well, as part of the team of people that ran two theatre companies in New York and one in Los Angeles. But, when you first start, before you're non-profit-because you have to do all that paperwork, so it takes you at least a year to get that status-that you do it as a group with people that you love. That you're doing projects that you love and you all agree upon, and you're all putting your money in together. So, you're going to lose your money. You might make half your money back, so know that if you have 15 people involved in the project and you're all putting in $500, you might get $200 of your money back. You just have to know it's a labor of love and you're doing it together because you want to do art and you want celebrate what theatre is about, and you want people to come out and be a part of that experience. You cannot be doing it for money and for fame in the theatre level. It has to be about the experience, the creation, and the learning, and you will have that. That will happen. And then you'll grow into somebody who loves the art of theatre, and you'll do it forever.

PL: And your theatre might last and it might not.

KT: Right.

PL: We admire the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago a great deal. Steppenwolf started with a dozen kids that got out of Southern Illinois University, and most of them are movie stars now. They built a theatre together over 10 years.

KT: Started in a little church.

PL: Right. And they just did it for the reasons we're talking about. Then some great things happened to them, and in fact many of them aren't involved with the theatre anymore. But they built something that is still a juggernaut and a wonderful organization.

KT: But they were just a bunch of kids. Nobody knew that they were going to turn out to be the geniuses and talents they were.

PL: And I don't know what they were hoping for. My guess is that they just wanted to do theatre, and they wanted to find out how to do theatre better. And that's why it worked. And that's why they became famous.  Not because they started out to become famous.

KT: That's what I'd imagine. And do it for the love of learning and what you want to do. Don't worry about making any money or being famous because you'll be sadly disappointed. (Laughs.)

That reminds me of a line from TITLE OF SHOW: "I want to be 9 people's favorite thing/Instead of 100 people's 9th favorite thing."

PL: I love that. I just listened to "Die, Vampire, Die" just the other day to pick me up. (Kim laughs.) To just make me happy.

Together Kim Tobin and Philip Lehl have programmed a fascinating season of dramas for Stark Naked Theatre. They'll be producing BODY AWARENESS by Annie Baker from October 25, 2012 to November 10. BEYOND THERAPY by Christopher Durang opens February 21, 2013 and runs until March 9. Then, they'll be providing their spin on Shakespeare's MACBETH from June 6, 2013 to June 22. For more information about their season and tickets please visit or call (832) 866 – 6514. 

Photos courtesy of Kim Tobin and Philip Lehl, Stark Naked Theatre Company.

Headshot of Kim Tobin.

Headshot of Philip Lehl.

Promotional Poster for BODY AWARENESS by Annie Baker.

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