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What to expect at this weekend’s Houston Theater District Open House

August 22, 2018

A relaxed atmosphere that welcomes shorts and flip-flops for performances at downtown’s stately theaters and grandest halls is one way of making the arts less intimidating. Another is making those shows free and only a half-hour in length.

Approachability — and exposure to a wide variety of genres from local performing arts groups — is the goal for Theater District Houston’s Open House on Sunday, said Kathryn McNiel, the district’s CEO. During the free, festival-style event to kick off the 2018-2019 theater season, attendees can hop in and out of various downtown venues, including the Wortham Center, Jones Hall, the Hobby Center and Alley Theatre. Louisiana Street will be closed to vehicles for the occasion.

“You can get a feel for what touches you and what motivates you,” McNiel said. “It’s a way to explore the creativity inside your own person.”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Theater District’s Open House, though it’s the 24th iteration — last year’s event was canceled because of Hurricane Harvey. But there are some exciting new additions, besides the fact that, for many, it will be a first look at some of the venues that were damaged by Harvey.

For the first time, the Open House extends to Jones Plaza, where a stage will be erected for kid-friendly arts and crafts and live acts, including jazz and mariachi performances by students from Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) and youth cast members from Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS).

Theatrical makeup artists will be on hand to paint kids’ faces like their favorite character from the Houston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” or Houston Grand Opera’s “La Bohème.”

Inside the Wortham Center, kids have a chance to meet those same characters from “The Nutcracker.” Members of the Houston Ballet will lead 20-minute beginner ballet classes, as well.

At Jones Hall, kids can stroll through the Houston Symphony’s “instrument petting zoo,” to touch, feel and play instruments.

Free trolleys will usher families to other stops, including the Hobby Center, where they can sing along to popular Broadway show tunes with TUTS.

At the Alley, visitors can learn the theatrics of stage fighting, using balloon swords, with the cast of “The Three Musketeers.”

Or, said McNiel, “Maybe you don’t want to be on stage. Maybe you’d rather be behind the stage making the costumes or helping with set design or figuring out how to move the stage.” The Alley’s backstage tour gives an insider’s perspective on some of those roles.

For a break from the shows, there are food trucks at each venue and free boat rides along Buffalo Bayou.

The day’s lineup also includes a ballet costume exhibit, a juggler, piano solo, student poetry readings, dance troupes, a ukulele set, and — the culminating event — a full, one-hour show by the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall.

Across the street at Jones Plaza, kids who have been inspired can make their own costume, prop, stage or set. Local community outreach group Bayou City Play is setting up a pop-up playground of recycled materials, including cardboard boxes, fabric, drainage pipes, insulation and shoots of bamboo.

Founder Jill Wood, a school librarian, said the materials encourage the kind of open play and creativity that give children a chance to process the arts to which they’ve just been exposed, perhaps by crafting mouse ears or giant piano keys.

“They’ll see performances and come and play through those performances,” Wood said. “To experiment with art, they need the time and the freedom to incorporate that into their own lives.”

Allison Bagley is a writer in Houston.

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