Rebecca (Becky) Udden’s story at Main Street Theater (MST) is as old as the theatre itself. A founding member and first Artistic Director for the company, she has built a small collective into one of the most vibrant arts institutions in the city of Houston. Naturally this is no mean feat, and over her forty year tenure the theatre has seen difficult years, as well as those of tremendous, daring success.
Entering Rice, Udden had a felicity for language. Armed with a degree in French, she envisioned herself entering the diplomatic corps. But involvement with the Rice Players (the resident theatrical troupe at the school) altered this goal. Her last two years she spent working nearly every job in theatre with the group, and by graduation realized her true calling lay in making plays. After a brief stent studying theatre more formally at the University of Tennessee, Udden returned to Houston and assembled a small collective of like-minded passionate young artists. They banded together to mount a reading series, which developed into full productions, which, in 1975, took on the name Main Street Theater. By 1982, the company had moved into their current premises in Rice Village, and Udden had been firmly established as Artistic Director. Since then, she has added on a thriving educational division which is unrivaled in their outreach and employment in Houston theatre. The company has added on a second stage facility, installed satellite offices into the newly formed Midtown Arts & Theatre Center Houston (MATCH), and developed a multi-million dollar annual operating budget. This year the company has just finished a major capital campaign and renovation, and is in the process of planning the next steps for the organization, which includes developing a new strategic plan, increased training for their board of directors, and adding critical new positions to their regular staff.
When speaking to Udden, clear themes emerge in her descriptions of working at MST over the years. First and foremost, she knows her institution. She fundamentally understands the company and knows her goals for their work. It is easy to tell her passion for her job, and it seems she has maintained this zeal by living through her principles: challenging, adventuresome artistry; open collaboration; and a dedication to creating a fun, playful space for all who work on and attend productions at MST.
Tell me about this renovation project.
Well when we moved into this space it was an unused warehouse that was originally built as a laundry and dry cleaners. And we did pretty much all of the renovations ourselves to turn it into a theatre. One of our company members was married to a contractor, and we all worked for him too. So we worked on Jim’s jobs and then came in and built a theatre on the weekends. It took us two years to renovate the theatre. It was never very fancy, it was never completely finished, and there was always something we needed to do. And over the years it had become pretty ragged. We’re just grateful as can be for this renovation. It hasn’t really changed the character of the theatre—it’s still intimate, it’s still comfortable, it’s not fancy. I gave someone a tour the other day and he said, “it’s Apple elegant. Not fancy elegant. Basic. Everything is there that you need.”
How does collaboration play into MST’s productions, and your work?
I’m hoping that being in the MATCH, sort of in the mix of everybody, we’ll be able to do more. We’re planning a collaboration with ROCO [River Oaks Chamber Orchestra]… We’re hoping we’ll be able to do more collaborations. There is already a huge collaboration among the mid-sized and smaller theatres in terms of resources. We’re all in each other’s pockets for props and costumes and advice and last minute emergencies. There’s a really nice network from Main Street down through Stark Naked and Mildred’s [in terms] of growing the theatre community.
Do you do any new play development?
We don’t. And one of the reasons for that is that we just never had the capacity… But with the new renovation we’re actually looking to do that… We did a reading, a singing reading of a musical this summer. John Jory and Peter Ekstrom had done a musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It had never been performed. Ekstrom had written music for Jory’s straight adaptation and somebody had suggested they turn it into a musical and the publishing house said, “oh yeah, we’ll publish it.” But they had never actually heard it performed. So they contacted us and asked us if we’d do a reading, and we said, “yeah!” That was a lot of fun, and lots of people do new play readings, but not many are really spending any time developing new musicals, so that might be a niche for us; to develop one or two musicals a year.
Having run this company for so long now, what are your top pieces of advice for running a staff or running a company?
Different people do it differently. For me it’s always been a matter of collaboration. I never intended that it was my way or the highway. I always wanted to be in a group of likeminded people working for the same goal. So every couple years we have to stop and, “let’s look at what we’re doing, see the problems, what do we need to retool?” We don’t do it every year, but every couple of years all the staff gets together just to set out what’s working, what’s not working, what do we need to be, what do we need to focus on.
What advice do you have for people that are starting out with new companies?
I think you have to have one of two things. If you have both you’re in great shape. You either have to have strong financial backing for a considerable length of time, or you have to have a critical mass of likeminded artists who have a commitment to the same thing you do. Any individual can produce a show. You get people who want to work with you and you treat them well, so that they want to come back. I think that’s really essential. A theatre company really has to start from the passion of its members, rather than one person with a checkbook and ideas, I think. And the understanding that it may not last. You may do the plays that really excited you and it’s perfectly alright if your company only lasts three years and you go on to do something else. There’s nothing that says a theatre company has to go on forever. We’ve hung on this long because, y’ know, it’s working. But there may come a day it’s not working. You just have to accept the fact that we’re not a building. We’re a living breathing organism, and at some point, something may disrupt that.
Udden has done more than build a theatre at MST over her time there. She has built a community. And this is entirely rooted to her goals. She is very direct about the importance of providing a home for professional artists to work, and challenging them and audiences at the same time. She is dedicated to variety in her seasons, deliberately seeking to represent women and minority authors on stage. She consistently looks for new avenues of growth for the theatre. Recently this has meant improving the involvement of the board of directors and growing this arm of the institution. Artistically it has meant seeking out roles which are going unfulfilled in the Houston arts scene and attempting to fill those gaps.
Udden is candid about the lean years in the past, and while MST is on stronger footing today than ever before, she seems fully happy if MST only exists another twenty years or another hundred years. But this is not a lack of love for the organization nor should it be construed as an aloof restrained quality in her: it is in fact her passion which causes her to care less about institutional survival. What she cares about is the art. As long as MST is producing exciting art for the artists and patrons, she’s happy. If ever MST were to have to sacrifice their principles of intimate, engaging, challenging theatre, she would rather see the theatre shuttered than pander. It is this fearlessness which has made her such a dynamic force at the theatre, and this sense of seeking constant challenges, continually learning and developing new agendas and skills, and most importantly, being willing to take big risks, which has grown Main Street into the dynamic institution it is. And now that the theatre has landed a level of institutional security, and is focused on long-term growth, it is thrilling to imagine where she will take the company next.