Whatever Suits the Show: Houston’s Main Street Theater

Article by annalia

By Annalia Linnan

Here’s the scene: it’s 1975, and Rebecca Udden and some friends want to do some theater. None of them can (or want to) do it full time, but they have enough players to stage some quality (albeit modest) shows. They set up in Autry House, the refectory of the Episcopal Church right across from Rice University. Like the troupe, the space is quirky but functional: each performance involves converting the cafeteria to a stage then back again. Such are the humble beginnings of Main Street Theater.

Does this sound idyllic? Well, the way I hear the tale is less so. It’s February, and Capital Campaign Director Joe Kirkendall and I are on the patio at Under the Volcano, speaking in radio voices and leaning close to my phone in hopes the hissing hip-hop music doesn’t bleed into the recording. In the moment, all we can do is shrug, but thinking about it later reminds me of what Main Street has always been about: doing the best with what you have.

When Main Street switched locations during the ‘80s, its new home was originally a dry cleaner’s. Udden and some volunteers “gutted it,” converted it into a theater, and were running shows by 1982. Two years later, Udden adopted the building next door to add patron restrooms, and that is where Main Street has been ever since, in what Kirkendall calls “these two little oddball buildings stuck together” at the corner of Times Boulevard and Kirby Drive.

Thirty years later, Main Street has become “one of the major theatre organizations in Houston," according to Kirkendall. Though known for its intimacy--the cozy house seats a mere ninety-nine patrons--Main Street has “expanded from just doing main stage shows, [adding] a very active theater for youth division that serves more kids in Houston than any other youth theater organization.” In fact, Main Street’s education program includes not only the Times Boulevard location but satellite locations via in-school workshops and summer camps available throughout Houston and Bellaire.

On the surface, all seems fine, but like a well-loved teddy bear, there comes a time when good ol’ TLC is not enough: repairs must be made. That’s where Kirkendall comes in, though (admittedly) it’s been a long journey. In 2008, Main Street fashioned a capital campaign to buy their buildings and begin renovations. But then--you’ve heard this one before--the recession happened. However, with help from the Houston Endowment and the Brown Foundation, Main Street restarted its campaign a few years ago. At the time, Kirkendall had recently moved back to Houston and did not anticipate becoming head of the project.

“You know, I just happened to be here,” Kirkendall says. And it’s true--he moved away for a number of years then returned to work for Main Street--but his pride is such that he makes his degree in interior design and background doing fundraising for nonprofits seem incidental. But they’re not, and this is how you can tell: for the past two years, Kirkendall has worked closely with the architects to refine the plans for the building.

The goal is to make the changes Main Street needs while maintaining its general feel. “[Udden] built the theater on a tight budget, and we’re doing this project on a tight budget,” says Kirkendall. “It’s gonna look like Main Street theater--it’s not gonna look slick.” And what does Main Street theater look like? Unlike Alley Theater and Stages, Kirkendall describes Main Street as “a little rougher around the edges. It’s a little more, you know, like a concrete floor and an exposed stud.”

In other words, though big changes are being made--the new building will have a second floor, a new classroom, and an elevator -- they’re being made from the inside, for function more than anything flashy. As proof, the theater itself is not going to be any bigger. The seats will be reconfigured--and even movable!--but the biggest change regulars will notice will be the absence of the two I-beams that have always sat in the middle of the playing area, which will provide the theater with much more flexibility.

“In the renovated theater, we will be able to move [the seats] any way we want,” Kirkendall says. “So a director will be able to say, ‘Well, you know what? I kind of would like to have all the seats over here in the corner looking at that facing corner’ or ‘I’d kind of like to make kind of a little proscenium stage at one end.’ You know, whatever suits the show.”

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When I try to contact Udden via email for an interview, I receive this automatic message: “I am working remotely from Prague for several weeks, but I read and respond to email every day. Just know that I am seven hours ahead of Houston, so my response to you is likely to come the next business day. If you need immediate assistance, please email Shannon Emerick.”

I assumed the worst--Prague, several weeks, seven hours ahead--but she wrote me back five hours later, offering to Skype or answer questions over email. Based on her track record, I imagined Udden as intense and meticulous. In actuality, she is generous, enthusiastic, and rarely uses the word “I.” Instead, she uses “we,” making it clear she views Main Street as a family more than her personal darling.

“Yes, I’ve been the ‘leader,’ but I’ve never taken the theater in a direction that the company didn’t already want to go,” Udden writes. “Main Street Theater is an artistic home for a large group of people who come and go but always come back.”

With the renovations at the Rice Village location, and MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theatre Center Houston) building in the works, Udden feels like this is Main Street’s time to shine. “You can’t look at Main Street’s future without considering how we got here,” says Udden. “This has always been an organization that has moved forward because the of the artists that have been committed to it.”

Kirkendall agrees. “It’s been very cool to see local arts foundations and individual donors who have stepped up and said, ‘Main Street has really made a difference for me and I want to give back. I want to help it in its future,” he says. “You know, they’ve seen: [Udden] has run a tight ship for forty years, and they want to see this institution continue.”

After five years of plans and dreams and disappointments, renovations started earlier this month.

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