The Ensemble Theatre celebrates its 35th anniversary season this year, marking a long journey from the original location on to its current home at 3535 Main Street.
The Ensemble Theatre is the oldest African-American theatre in the southwest and one of the only professional theatres in the south dedicated to the production of works portraying the African-American experience.
“We have been celebrating our anniversary all year long,” said Janette Cosley, executive director of The Ensemble. “We are so grateful for being able to sustain in this community for the past 35 years and to have reached such a diverse group of people.”
The theatre held a reunion this year, where long-time contributors and past artists came back to the old space on 1010 Tuam. In that humble place where it all began, more than 50 people reconnected, shared memories and gave thanks to the ancestors of the theatre. Doves were released for the event, and African drummers followed the procession on the 10-block journey to the new location on Main Street.
The late George Hawkins founded the Ensemble Theatre in 1976. Hawkins worked for the an oil company in Houston as an accountant and did some modeling on the side. Realizing he wasn’t getting opportunities to grow as an artist, he decided to start The Ensemble theatre. In the formative years, the theatre operated as a touring company based out of the trunk of Hawkin’s car.
The woman behind the curtains is Eileen J. Morris, the Ensemble Theatre’s artistic director. Morris worked closely with the theatre’s founder from 1982 until his death in 1990.
“George was warm and very personable. He could get you to do anything for him,” said Morris. “He was very good at what he did — as a director, playwright and as an actor. Working with him helped us understand why we had to make sure we always present the best art and really believe in what we are presenting. The attributes George instilled in all of us who worked under him are part of what carries us today. We stand on his shoulders and the shoulders of those who have gone on before us, in order to continue making great art.”
The Ensemble Theatre produces six main stage shows per season and operates two auxiliary programs. It reaches over 60,000 people annually.
The Performing Arts Education Program provides educational workshops, artist-in-residence experiences and live performances for students both off-site and at the theatre.
The Young Performers Program offers spring and summer training for youth ages six to 17. Additionally, the theatre boasts a new young professionals group called Act One, which organizes pre-show networking mixers, private meet-and-greets with the cast and a poetry slam.
According to Cosley, there has been a significant increase in ticket sales and subscribers this year compared to seasons past.
“We still have a lot of potential for growth. Midtown is becoming more residential, so we will be drawing audiences from neighborhoods closer to the theatre,” said Cosley.
Patrons have enjoyed new facility upgrades this season due to a $400,000 grant from the Houston Endowment for the Arts. Included are new paint, carpeting, bathroom renovations, resurfaced cabinets and new, modern seats in the main stage theatre. All make it easy to forget the theatre’s building was formerly a car dealership. Also, an art collection now adorns the walls, courtesy of donations from Lloyd Gite and Friends.
Previously, Board President Emeritus Audrey Lawson led the campaign for The Ensemble’s $4.5 million building renovations that were completed in 1997. This has been the first building upgrade since then.
Spectra Energy, which has supported the theatre for nearly 30 years, recently donated $20,000 in recognition of Kathy Anderson, wife of former Spectra Energy Chairman of the Board and Director Paul Anderson. The Andersons had been long-time individual supporters of the theatre.
This season’s line up featured Lotto: Experience the Dream, Cinderella, The Ballad of Emmett Till, Cuttin’ Up, King Hedley II, and Sanctified.
This year, The Ensemble has the unique distinction of being one of the few theatre companies in the country to complete August Wilson’s Ten Play Cycle. And, with the inclusion of King Hedley II, Morris becomes the only woman to have directed eight of Wilson’s 10 plays.
“Our mission calls for us to help preserve African-American expression, but that does not mean that our performances are only for African-American audiences. The stories are universal,” said Cosley. “We want people who represent the entire Houston population to come here. The ‘E’ in Ensemble is for everyone.”
Bethany Redd is a senior majoring in journalism at the Valenti School of Communications at the University of Houston. She is also an intern at Houston Woman Magazine.
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