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It’s hard out here on a small theater company

It’s rough going in Houston right now.

Horse Head ended operations earlier this month. But it was far from an isolated case. Many other small theater companies in Houston are also fighting for survival, battling gentrification, donor apathy and increasingly competitive public grants.

In the past two years, one other professional company, 4th Wall Theatre, has announced its closure — before being rescued by a donor. Three others — Mildred’s Umbrella, Landing Theatre and Classical Theatre Co. — have been forced out from their homes. Established mid-tier theaters are seeing no growth. Rents inside the loop continue to rise, while revenue and fundraising have plateaued.

If theaters like these continue to shutter, it would be an enormous blow to the performing arts in Houston, leaving the scene without the vital second-rung of talent to supplement what’s available on the better-funded main stages. The trends have raised concerns among local artists.

“Small to mid-size companies can no longer survive in this climate,” said Matt Hune, artistic director of Rec Room, a theater in East Downtown founded in 2016. “We’re seeing dwindling or capped funding, while prices keep rising.”

Last December, Mildred’s Umbrella and Classical Theatre Company were forced out of their shared space in the Chelsea Market shopping center near the Museum District. The development was sold, to be torn down and replaced with high-end apartment complexes.

This has left both companies homeless, in a search for space. But the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH), built in 2015 to address the need of Houston’s smaller galleries, music ensembles, dance companies and theater groups for affordable performance spaces, is at capacity. Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, Mildred’s Umbrella’s former home, became too expensive after then-co-tenant 4th Wall Theatre temporarily shut down in 2017.

Local theaters sometimes help by renting out their spaces to other companies at a discount — the Alley Theatre is housing Mildred’s Umbrella’s performances for two weeks. But artists say they need a permanent solution.

“Inside the loop, there’s nothing affordable,” said Jennifer Decker, artistic director of Mildred’s Umbrella.

Obviously, the sharp rise in property values in what were once cheap inner-city areas is a problem for these theater companies, all of which operate on tight margins. Audience sizes haven’t been great lately, either – one theory I’ve heard is that the type of people who go to smaller and independent theater productions are also the type of people who have been spending a lot more time and energy on politics lately, with the decline in theater-going being a casualty of that. Perhaps that will turn out to be a cyclical thing. I agree with the view that having a thriving local theater scene is a big deal for a city’s overall quality of life and ability to attract high-end jobs. People who have a choice for where to live want to live someplace where there are lots of things to see and do, and especially in a city without natural attractions a strong arts scene is a critical component. There’s still plenty of donor money available for arts, but it tends to be very concentrated at the top. We need to figure out a way to spread the wealth around more, to find more places where theaters can be, and to just generally keep the scene healthy. It will be bad for us all if this ecosystem collapses.