Main Street Theater is undergoing changes. Although a new venue takes the theater out of its beloved Chelsea Market location, this is not MST’s last scene, but rather a continuation of the theater’s passionate play for enlightening Houston’s youth.
By Sara G. Stephens
If Shakespeare is right, and “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” it can also be said that “Astage is all the world, And the actors presenting all men and women”—absorbing, understanding, interpreting, and presenting to their patrons the full range of the human condition. The result is an artistic suite of intimate life lessons taught with a vibrancy and connectedness unlike any teaching podium.
When people participate in theater, whether as performers or as patrons, they are fortifying their roles as students of life and becoming all the richer for it. Houston’s Main Street Theater (MST) gets this idea, which is why they created the Theater for Youth program—to start this vital education early in the lives of Houston’s youth.
The program is Houston’s most-attended theater for young audiences, reaching over 135,000 children and families yearly and offering school performances, weekend family matinees and tours to schools and community centers across the state of Texas.
Based on Children’s Literature
MST’s Theater for Youth plays are selected based on literature children are reading at home or at school, a genre chosen with two objectives: to expand horizons and to encourage reading.
Children’s literature is uniquely equipped to open the eyes of children to a world beyond their realities. It is this quality that endears Vivienne St. John, MST’s Theater for Youth Producing Director, to the genre. “So much of children’s and young adult’s literature asks the question, ‘What if?’” St. John says. “I love that question. What if I could live back in the pioneer days? Or travel into the future? Or be a bird? The president? It calls us to use our imaginations to journey and soar! Being able to delve further into the stories and allow kids to see their imagination realized.”
St. John gets the opportunity to watch as lights turn on and new possibilities unfold for the theater’s young audiences. “I love to show up to school matinees and peek in and watch the reactions of the children as they are watching the show,” she remarks. “Or listen to their questions during our actor talkbacks. Kids are so honest. They have great ideas and observations.”
On a second, but equally deliberate, note, MST’S Theater for Youth plans and produces performances of children’s literature with the hope of encouraging reading among its young patrons.
“Reading is so important,” says St. John. “We cannot grow up and be active members of society without the ability to read. But in this day of technology (computers, hand-held games, tablets), children are losing interest in books and care more about gaming. If we can bring to life and excite the child about a certain character or book at the theater, then maybe they’ll go home and read more by that author or delve into some other books.”
MST also believes it’s important for children to read a book in conjunction with seeing the show. St. John consults with area parents and educators to identify literature and themes that will appeal to constantly changing demographics. All children and teachers are provided with free resources that complete the learning arc, including TEKS-based educational materials containing orientation for teachers and exercises and assignments for students; student/ teacher surveys; and student talkbacks. Schools can also book character visits where actors work with students on pre- or post-show activities or read from books in character.
MST Theater for Youth’s outreach program is keen on making the theater accessible to underprivileged kids. With school funding cuts decimating arts programs, it is increasingly difficult for schoolchildren to participate in the arts. Through its education and outreach programs, MST provides a significant resource in Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast region for literacy, theater education, and arts integration.
MST’s Curtains Up Fund was instituted over a decade ago, in response to the fact that most schools can afford only one field trip per season, and Title I schools sometimes cannot afford a field trip at all. Additionally, many Title I and other disadvantaged schools have had to eliminate fine- and performing-arts programming from their curricula altogether. The Curtains Up Fund provides all Title I school students with a substantial discount off the already modest ticket price. If a school needs a greater discount or even free tickets in order to attend, MST makes it possible. Last season 36,744 school students saw a play at MST’s Theater for Youth with free or discounted tickets.
This cultural exposure helps children on many levels, all of which echo the organization’s belief in the intellectually uplifting power of theater. “Cultural exposure to theater allows kids to see that they are not defined by their problems. That they have the ability to create, to imagine and to invoke change in society,” St. John explains. “It teaches them affective verbal and non-verbal communication skills, helps to lower stress, teaches proper social skills and is an emotional outlet. It assists with reading comprehension, teamwork and allows them a place to feel safe and welcome.”
MST’s Theater for Youth also houses a performing arts education program, where professional theater artists serve as mentors. These theater classes focus on traditional theater skills— voice, body, and imagination—but rather than spoon-feeding what they should do, instructors encourage the kids to envision their own characters and write their own dialogue. The result is theater largely created by the students themselves.
The lessons learned in this setting equip a child for far more than being a professional actor, playwright, or director. “By giving the reins to our students and encouraging their creativity, we help them develop skills of leadership and problem-solving,” St. John says. “They also must create their plays as a team, so they learn the give-and-take dynamic of working in a group.”
Change of Venue
MST previously produced plays at two locations: 2540 Times Boulevard in Rice Village and 4617 Montrose Boulevard at Chelsea Market. The Rice Village location is the home of MST’s Main Stage (adult theater), which has been raising money through a capital campaign to purchase and renovate the space. Construction begins in November, with plans for the theater to be ready to host performances in the summer/fall of 2015.
The theater vacated its Chelsea Market space in August, due to a shortage of space. In the summer of 2015, the theater will move into its new permanent home at the MATCH (http://www.matchouston.org/), located at Main and Holman in Midtown. Since the MATCH is still under construction, Talento Bilingue de Houston (TBH), located at 333 S. Jensen Dr.,is temporarily hosting the theater for the 2014-2015 season.
St. John is both grateful to TBH and excited to produce in this venue. “TBH has a beautiful space,” she marvels. “The first time I went there I knew our patrons would love it. It has a huge parking lot for all of our parents and school buses—no more circling around or having to park offsite!” She explains that the TBH stage is not the same as that to which MST’s patrons are accustomed. “But after a while, I think they will enjoy all the benefits that a traditional stage will allow.” St. John adds that the TBH seats are incredibly comfortable, and there are plenty of restrooms.
“The staff at TBH has been so welcoming and accommodating. We could not ask for a better partnership,” she says.
Mostly, though, St. John eagerly anticipates MST’s move to the MATCH, explaining that the space they will be performing in will be larger than what they had at Chelsea Market. MST had outgrown its Chelsea Market space, and over the years have had to turn people away. “The MATCH is going to be a great space where we will be able to produce at an even higher quality,” St. John says, adding that the location sits on the light rail line and is surrounded by fun restaurants for patrons. “We will be sharing the space with other arts organizations, so the collaborations and partnerships will be endless. It is a new and exciting adventure!”