Something Wild Felt Unleashed: A Visit to 14 Pews

Article by ben

By Benjamin Rybeck 

On a night last September at 14 Pews—an old church in the Houston Heights now used as an independent cinema—something wild felt unleashed.

The films that evening were documentary shorts by folklorist and author William R. Ferris; I was there because Brazos had been invited to sell Ferris’s books. The films were lovely, specific pieces of work: One featured B.B. KingAnother demonstrated a handful of pigs praying before dinner. The audience laughed like delighted children. After the films, Ferris himself Skyped in for a Q&A session, and the audience asked him lively questions; there was, I remember, a lot of laughter from Ferris and from the attendees. The evening ended with Houston blues musicians Eugene Moody and Tanya Richardson performing for at least an hour. People held beers and swayed in the aisles. I ran into a Brazos board member. Earlier that day, I’d seen him at the store for a Wendy Davis book signing, buttoned-up in a blazer; now, he was in shirtsleeves, jolly.

Is 14 Pews a movie theater? Yes, but it’s a much different experience than, say, your local AMC. And it’s an experience that Cressandra Thibodeaux, who has owned 14 Pews since 2010, wants to cultivate. She had her first 14 Pews meeting in August 2010, the same weekend Houston’s Angelika Film Center closed. Thibodeaux herself is a documentary filmmaker—a Columbia graduate who has since worked with Alley TheaterHouston Heights AssociationACLU of Texas, and many others.

But 14 Pews is more than movies and music and culture, and I remember the other part of my September visit: before the event began, there was a wedding party out back, and a neighbor complaining about the noise. “Weddings!” Thibodeaux chimes. “That’s how we keep our doors opens! Weddings have not gone out of business. It’s unbelievable—like car insurance. People keep getting married, thank goodness.”

Thibodeaux, a serene, slender woman with long dark hair, lives at 14 Pews—or rather, her house is connected to the church, so that attending an event there sometimes feels like entering somebody’s living room. After that Ferris event in September, she offered me a cookie; I expected to follow her into an office, but instead I walked straight into a kitchen, where two dogs pawed at my legs.

Today, back at Thibodeaux’s house for this interview, I learn the dogs’ names: Rusty and Hazel. They’re both rescue dogs. One’s an Irish Terrier mix. The other’s part Chihuahua, part German Shepherd, part you-name-it—“just another wild Friday night,” Thibodeaux says. Rusty gets involved with me, smelling around my feet; Hazel hangs back, watching. Thibodeaux pours two glasses of water and invites me outside.

It feels peaceful on her patio; it’s a warm day, and I suddenly find myself craving a cigarette—a habit that I’ve recently and unfortunately started dabbling in again after a two-year hiatus. Instead of dwelling on this, I sip at my water (which, I confess, is a poor substitute).

Thibodeaux speaks easily about 14 Pews; I barely need to ask her a question to get her going. She tells me about a recent event she did in partnership with Society for Performing Arts: a performance by Malaysian singer Pete Teo, which she describes as “a true cultural exchange.”

But Thibodeaux always has more to say: “For one week, maybe a year ago, I was hooked on Korean insurance commercials.” She gives me an example: a son and a father visit a hospital, and the kid turns to his father and asks, Why do I have to die? “All their commercials were sad,” she says. “Sadness sells.” At 14 Pews, “Teo sang three songs in a row—suicide songs—and we all sat listening, reserved. But [he said] when he sang those songs in Korea, they were crying—crying! There, you can be sad as a group, but in America, you don’t want to show too much emotion.”

Is that sort of energy—emotion, passion, whatever you want to call it—something that Thibodeaux wants at 14 Pews events? “I want to be a place where ideas are shared,” she says, “and where people can connect through cultural events, or political events, although we don’t have as many of those. We’ve had a few political films, and they sometimes go awry.”

She tells me about a screening of We’re Not Broke, a film about how U.S. corporations avoid paying taxes. For the event, she brought in a tax specialist from the University of Houston law school to talk with the audience after the screening. She thought this discussion would be about taxation issues raised by the film; instead, it turned into a forum where audience members were soliciting advice from the specialist on how to avoid paying taxes.

As Thibodeaux speaks, she sometimes leans back and sometimes comes forward, but there’s fluidity to her movements; I’m always surprised to suddenly realize how close or far away from me she is. Myself, I try not to move, because whenever I do, I hear the patio chair squeak beneath me. Around us, Thibodeaux’s two dogs wander, trampling sticks and leaves, occasionally lifting their legs to relieve themselves. I stay frozen, my leg crossed in an unnatural way. But then, when you’re craving a cigarette, no posture feels natural.

I mention the Ferris event to Thibodeaux—it was not political but was cultural, anthropological, and it contained a great sort of energy. “That’s exactly what I want,” she says. “I love history and I love the South. I studied Native American law, but I never graduated. I love researching.” Her excitement here is clear, and she tells me about her family background: her grandparents grew up on a reservation—one was part Scottish, another part Cajun—and her father was Creole. “I love films that capture a culture and a time. They’re like historical gems to me.”

But what she loved so much about the Ferris event was that it contained more than just the films. “Afterwards, to culminate with music, and the have Bill Ferris talk? It just had everything going—visuals, music, a talk with a great mind. That’s where I want to be, but to cultivate that is very tricky.”

I wonder whether part of that trickiness has to do with the noise of such an event, especially here on this quiet Heights street. After all, neighbors called the police during the Ferris event, and there was a moment when the whole thing seemed like it might get shut down like a high school party, all of us running into the night, me trying to schlep the boxes of Ferris’s books over fences and across neighboring yards.

Thibodeaux reminds me that 14 Pews used to be a very well known Church of Christ with a popular choir: “Every Sunday, they would sing here, and the street would be packed. Now, I don’t have many events where eighty-four people are singing in harmony, but if I did, I can only imagine [neighbors] might complain as well.” She laughs. “I have thought of starting a drum circle on Sundays, just to piss them off.”

I listen for a moment and can hear absolutely nothing on this windless afternoon. The sun hangs overhead, and there’s no shade. “Do you wanna go inside?” Thibodeaux asks. “It just got so hot…”

Moments later, sitting at her kitchen counter, water glasses refreshed, Thibodeaux tells me about a recent experience with Two Star Symphony at 14 Pews on a Sunday afternoon. During the performance, a neighbor began setting off a car alarm on purpose, just to disturb 14 Pews, which prompted another neighbor to yell, Just get laid! “Those neighbors who complain are bothering other neighbors,” Thibodeaux says.

In case it sounds like Thibodeaux herself is complaining, let me be clear: she loves her neighborhood and her neighbors, while also observing, with some sadness, the demographic changes. A former neighbor “was a Mexican who loved Rick Perry, but he got deported. I asked him if he was going to take his Rick Perry sign to Mexico, but he said no: he was leaving it for me.”

As an amateur journalist, I make a lot of errors, but not asking her what she did with the Rick Perry sign is a particularly egregious one.

Thibodeaux goes on to tell me about that deported man’s daughter, who “ended up getting a little sidetracked”—a euphemism I avoid asking for clarification about. So Thibodeaux offered this daughter a job as an assistant. “I was teaching documentary classes for at-risk teens for a summer project,” Thibodeaux says, “trying to keep at-risk teens involved in creative things.” In working with these teens, she was shocked to learn how little about Houston they seemed to know: “I showed them this one documentary which talked about the top things to do in Houston—Menil CollectionRothko ChapelOrange Show, etc.—but they’d never heard of them!”

This is a problem I’ve encountered too: people not wanting to leave their bubbles. It’s not just a Houston problem either, although the unique sprawl of the city surely doesn’t help.

“You know what people go out for?” Thibodeaux smiles. “Music, theater, food, and drinks. At the Bill Ferris event, we showed films, we had music that connected, there was a talk—it was a multi-layered evening, and that was worth coming out to.”

To emphasize her point, she describes a recent visit to JRs, a Montrose gay bar where she used to go for the drink specials. “Now,” she says, “I go in, and onstage, there’s this amazing striptease. And not only is there a striptease, there’s also an emcee—a beautiful drag queen who was funnier than hell! Oh, and there’s the drink special, of course—but in the back, there’s karaoke that sounds like a Los Angeles audition. ‘Is that Adele singing?’ Just amazing. To get people out, you can’t just have a drink special anymore. You have to bring it on.”

So what plans does Thibodeaux have to “bring it on” in the near future?

She tells me about another Ferris event—one that’ll include a female gospel group. 14 Pews will also show a series of movies by experimental filmmaker Bart Weiss, director of Dallas VideoFest. Then, they’ll host The Invincible Czars, a local band that has written an original score to an old silent film called The Wind, starring Lillian Gish.

I confess that I often confuse Lillian Gish with Mary Pickford.

“They were best friends!” Thibodeaux says. “And Lillian Gish had a sister named Dorothy Gish, who looked just like her, and who was also an actress.”

Thibodeaux itches to tell me about one more upcoming project: a community outreach program. “I want to interview people from all over—temples, synagogues, churches—and ask them how they describe God’s grace. So maybe I’ll ask you, What’s an example of God’s grace?

I blink, really hoping she doesn’t actually want me to answer. Not sure I could right now, with the cigarette craving like a thin needle poking out from the center of my brain. Not sure I’ve ever had an answer anyway.

Luckily, she continues: “It’ll be documentary theater. So we’ll take these transcripts, and maybe we can shape them into something like The Vagina Monologues, only instead of your relationship to your vagina, this will be your relationship to God, or your relationship to what you perceive God’s grace to be.”

I sense Thibodeaux has more to say—I sense she often has more to say—but I am, at this point, running short on time, so I ask her if she can take me into the church itself. Without the crowd in there, it feels like what it originally was: a place of worship. Thibodeaux asks if I want her to lower the movie screen, and I watch her crank the thing down manually. The dogs run up and down the aisles, until Thibodeaux heads back into her house for a moment, and her animals follow.

Alone, in near dark, with the screen lowered, I remember myself as a teenager, when I used to go to the independent cinema in my hometown once a weekend, maybe twice. I used to see everything, and there felt something vital and pure in that action, like downing spring water. I don’t have the time to go the movies as much anymore, but there’s still a powerful feeling that gets ahold of me for a moment here—a memory of a time in my life when filmgoing felt like sacrament, and like maybe the only one I had.

On the drive back to the bookstore, I stop at a Shell Station for a bottle of water. I pay, eyeballing the packs of turquoise American Spirits behind the counter. Then I leave.

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