UH theater striving despite lack of notoriety
On the set of the UH theater department's rehearsal of Our Country's
Good, director Brian Byrnes is concentrating on everything from where the
characters should stand to why the characters feel the way they do.
Written by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Country follows a group of prisoners
as they attempt to stage the first play ever presented in Australia.
Set in 1789, the story highlights the struggles the prisoners face,
and how they overcome those problems to put on the show.
This is the first main-stage production of the semester, and it will
run Feb. 15, 16, 22, 23 and 24.
"It's a phenomenal piece of theater, what it is and what it can be,"
Byrnes said. "It's really a tribute to the human spirit."
Given the fact that Country is a period piece, it is only appropriate
for the director to tend to detail. And as he directs, like a checklist,
notes details about the history of the characters, the role of the
women, underlying meanings in the dialogue and even the food rations.
"Pace doesn't necessarily mean speed," Byrnes tells the cast of students
as he notices a kink in the exchange of words during the rehearsal.
While the veteran faculty member goes on to explain the aspect of pace
in a play, there is a moment where one has to think that, surrounded by
sense of professionalism, this department knows both what it is doing
and where it is going.
When most think about the theater department, they are probably reminded
of the dimly lit area encased by glass walls that is passed when
walking to Entrance 16, next to the Moores School of Music. But, like
a leaf left unturned, most don't give the theater much thought.
Why should they? There aren't posters adorning the walls about coming
plays. There isn't a giant spotlight pointing to the sky. There isn't even
red carpet lying on an elaborate walkway leading to the doorway.
Instead, there is a multitude of knowledge and experience regarding
theater walking in and out of those glass doors.
Award-winning playwright Edward Albee, Tony Award-winning producer Stuart
Ostrow and award-winning designer Kevin Rigdon are a few
faculty members of the University's theater department.
In other words, Albee, Ostrow and Rigdon are contributing their talent
to UH theater and there is hardly a whisper about their work on campus,
not to mention the efforts put forth by Byrnes, other members of the
faculty and student actors and actresses.
Byrnes' experience does not encompass only the Houston-area theaters
like the Alley Theatre, Houston Grand Opera, Stages Repertory Theatre
and Main Street Theater.
The professional actor and fight director has worked with New York theaters,
regional theaters and Shakespeare festivals across the country.
Also, Byrnes has been a member of the UH theater faculty since 1996,
teaching both Movement for the Actor and Stage Combat.
He is also a member of the Society of American Fight Directors, where
he holds the qualifications of certified teacher of stage combat and fight
While some may think this is much ado about nothing, others feel the
faculty and staff of the theater department are largely unacknowledged.
Well, that's theater for you. It's all about the struggle, right?
Not enough money to put on a play, a number of student actors and actresses
getting turned down for a lead role due to their inability to pull off
one-minute monologue, uninspiring adaptations, and so on.
How about no one showing up when everyone is on cue? Of course, a play
can go on without an audience.
But isn't the absence of an audience far worse than experiencing one
of the aforementioned mishaps when attempting to show a theatrical
It's understandable not to know what the theater program has been doing
behind the curtains, considering that Houston wouldn't be considered
one of the more desirable places to be when it comes to theater.
Arguably, save for downtown's Alley Theatre, what the Bayou City has
to offer a theater-going audience would produce nothing more than a
spark on a matchbox in a race to set the world on fire.
With this, one could ask for nothing more from this department, as it
has come quite a way since setting its first marks onstage.
UH theater has survived many "hell weeks" (the time leading up to a
play's first date when sound, lighting and everything else is arranged
set), and has developed a depth of students devoted to their craft.
"I was surprised, because I wanted to go away," senior theater major
and Houstonian Meghan Mason said.
"But when I came here, I found that the faculty is from all over the
place and they've been all over the place, so it's really well-rounded,"
"It raises the standard, making it more of a challenge," Brian Florence,
a senior theater major, said about what the program has to offer. "Coming
to UH and noticing the expertise during and after the audition and
just talking to students, I changed my major the next semester."
As far as theater opportunities outside of the department, there are
programs that give students the chance to appear in plays running at the
as extras or stagehands.
Another program that began in Spring 2001 brings both Alley and UH actors
and actresses together to perform in plays called co-productions, an
experience that would benefit any budding thespian.
To say the least, this department has grown in all aspects of theater
production by implementing a number of ways to create solid work.
From acquiring solid personnel to keeping an eye on its own developments,
UH's theater department aims to carry its own.
Whether the work is noticed now or later, audiences will find themselves
surprised and equally entertained.
And, as Byrnes would say, "That's how you gain pace in a production."