By Jonathan Oldfield
Residency at Rice University, Houston Texas.
We gripped tight, knuckles white, to the steering wheel of our white Dodge Charger. 6am in Utah means snow, ice, sleet, the lot. Bound for Salt Lake City Airport at the end of our residency in Provo, we were dreaming of warmer climates: Houston, Texas.
“We’ve got unprecedented cold weather here in Houston, y’all,” says smiley Christina, our contact for the week at Rice. We sigh. We were hoping for some sun.
“It’ll get better towards the end of the week.” She reassures, as we stare up at the grey. “Welcome to Houston!”
Undeterred, the tone for our week in Houston was set by Howard, who drove us from the airport to the rental car pickup. A short five minute journey, he managed to give us a snapshot of Houston itself – 4th largest city in the United States and one of the most diverse. Houston is a cultural melting pot known for its food, culture and (as we came to see first hand) large medical sector. A city that was formed after a coastal disaster moved people in-land. Then they found Oil and Gas, and the fortunes of the city changed. Now it just keeps growing and growing. COVID-19 brought a new wave of people looking for space, and Houston is now threatening to become the 3rd largest city in the country.
Howard is an ex-marine, he passed through Houston 20 years ago and never left.
“We’re actors, here performing Romeo and Juliet and working at Rice University for a week”.
“You’re actors?! No way! I don’t believe you!”. Howard laughed and smiled wide. He preceded to tell us an (almost) unbelievable tale of when his ex-girlfriend introduced him to her family. As he nervously waited in the front room for them to enter, in walks…Sidney Poitier!
“I’m honoured to meet you guys,” he says. We’re not quite Sidney, but we’re flattered.
We take his email, promising to send him details of our shows this week. Who knows, maybe he’ll come along…!
Our hotel is situated across the road from the medical centre of the city. A complex of hospitals, labs, emergency rooms, university spaces, spilling into each other, forming one of the foremost centres for cancer treatment in the United States. The edge of this medical centre backs onto the Rice University campus itself, and it’s a world of difference. Residential roads lined with leafy oaks, that bow over the cars as they cruise by. Runners with dogs, runners without dogs, dogs without runners roaming free. Almost all the students live on campus for 3 out of the 4 years, so it’s got a very strong community feel to it, as well as a kid of grandness: dusty red brick buildings with archways, emblems and names of alumni adorned on top.
Rice Village – the spillover neighbourhood built to clothe and feed the staff and students of the university – is not far away. Boutique shops, yoga studios, coffee houses and an Italian restaurant called Prego where Professor Logan Browning took us out for dinner. Logan (who tells us he sometimes goes by Falstaff to his Shakespearean colleagues) has been watching AFTLS shows for years, and it was such a delight to get to know him and his wife and friends over a bowl of pasta and a glass of red wine (or two…).
As the sun began to shine on Houston later in the week, our brilliant host Christina sadly got struck down with COVID, but not before we had our first shows and warm drinks reception at Hamman Hall. The theatre itself is a great space that, I’m told, used to be a lecture hall, and all of the crew and building staff were extremely kind and helpful – southern hospitality proving it’s infamy! Grace’s partner Ned joined us from the UK, briefly becoming the 6th member of our cast, and whilst we couldn’t find a part for him in the show, he was a diligent audience member across our Houston run.
Houston in the sun is a whole different city – our heavy winter coats stuffed away in our hotel rooms, we strolled through Montrose checking out the vintage shops, nipped into the Rothko Chapel and had ourselves a Mexican brunch at Hugo’s. The show is firmly in our hands now, and we relished the opportunity to showcase our work to Houston audiences who were generous and attentive. As the lights came down on our final show, the rush of applause was punctuated by a familiar face – Howard! He’d bought his daughter and family along to see the show, and rounded off our week perfectly.
Just before hopping on a plane to Kansas there were two things on our list that we had to tick off. We simply weren’t allowed to leave Texas without:
A) going to the NASA museum (‘Houston we have a problem’ needed to be seen first hand)
B) getting ourselves some Texas BBQ.
Both adventures had been earmarked for our day off, Sunday. And as Houston made its way out of the cold, we took a trip to outer space. NASA is a full day trip that, for a reasonable price, gets you unbelievable access to the site and the history of the USA’s lunar and interstellar exploration. We were blown away, or…. blasted off. Either way, the experience was ‘out of this world’. Ahem.
Newly acquired NASA hats on our heads, we drove straight to Goode Company BBQ in the city where our tired legs were much replenished by cold beer, smoked meat and pecan pie. Apart from Kaffe, the only vegetarian among us, who graciously tucked into potato salad.
Houston, goodbye! We’re clicking our heels and heading to…KANSAS.