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An Opening: Felipe Steinberg


by Francesca Fuchs

 

Dear friends,

This Saturday, August 25th, 2018 I will be staging an Opening at the Playhouse Theatre.

It will begin at 4pm and doors will open at 5pm for the general public.

The event is ongoing and will conclude at 7pm. Refreshments will be served.

The Playhouse Theatre is located at 4816 S Main St

(next door to the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft)

From 5 to 7pm

Hope to see you there,

Felipe

 

I found this invitation from Felipe Steinberg in my Inbox on August 23rd, two days before the event.

Saturday afternoon at 6:15 it was still very hot. I parked at the Lawndale Art Center and walked north along Main Street to the Playhouse Theatre, a building right next to the Craft Center. On the marquee, plastic letters announced ‘OPENiNG SAT AUGUST 25 5 to 7 PM,’ the numbers in red, the letters in black. Outside the door was a group of people hanging out. I went inside. In the foyer, a guy sitting at a desk handed me a flyer and I went on into the theatre. The theater is a theater in the round: a black circular stage surrounded with bright-red seats. One of the sections had been taken out to make more stage. A rigged-up portable air conditioning unit hummed away on stage trying to cool things down, but it was still hot. The theatre was pretty full with people, some fanning themselves.

I was feeling very white. The people in the theatre seats were mostly black, as were the people outside the theatre and in the foyer. A small minority looked like they might be from the homeless community. I sat down next to a guy wearing a fluorescent yellow construction vest. We said hello and he asked me if I was part of the production. I told him that I was just visiting and asked him if he was part of it. He said he was. Right then a guy stood up center stage and told everyone that they could take a 5 minute break, because it was hot. They could go get a drink but they needed to get back right away afterwards if they wanted to get paid. The audience/actors/production members got up and walked out of the theatre area as if following a director’s cue. Not my neighbor. We continued our conversation. I asked him why he was there and he said he had been hired to be there. I asked him who hired him and he told me that he was hired by a guy who would organize different jobs for a bunch of people at different locations and that he worked for him fairly often. He asked me why I was there and I told him that the artist who had arranged the event had invited me and I wanted to come see it. He asked about the artist. What kind of art did he make? Was he a painter? He must have a lot of money to hire this many people to sit around in a theatre doing nothing. I asked how many had been hired and he pointed around saying – everyone here. I told him that this was the artist’s art project, and that his work was often about locations and involved installations and sometimes performances. Did he make a lot of money at performances? my neighbor asked and Was he going to be part of this performance? I told my neighbor I did not know. Felipe was not there.

I got up to get a drink of water at the concession stand in the foyer and explored the rest of the theatre. The curved circular hallway that led around to the restrooms and maybe ‘back stage’ (if there is a back stage in a round theatre) had inspirational sayings on the wall like “Ability may get you to the top but it takes character to keep you there,” “Nobody who ever gave his best regretted it,” “What your mind can conceive and your heart believe you can achieve.” These did not seem like things Felipe would have added to the fabric of the building. Walking back into the theatre itself, I saw Zuqiang, a friend of Felipe’s who was documenting the event and asked him whether Felipe was here. Zuqiang said that he had been in to set everything up, but that he was not present for the duration of the event.

Drinking my cold water I walked back into the theater and sat back down. The man next to my neighbor offered us all some Starburst candies. I chose a lemon-flavored one which are my favorite. As we sat there chewing, a white middle-aged couple, who looked dressed for an art gallery opening, walked tentatively into the room, obviously feeling very uncertain. They walked down the ramp into the middle of the stage and then turned around and walked back out. Audience or performers, we were all unsure of our roles and relationships except that the men and women who had been hired knew they were going to get paid at the end of the evening. I finished my Starburst and said goodbye to my neighbor.

As I walked out there was a black man in the foyer in a well-to-do suit who looked very much in charge. I asked him if he was involved in any way and he said that he represented the owner of the building. I asked him if the inspirational sayings had always been on the wall as well as the two music stands in the foyer saying ‘If not us who?’ ‘If not now when?’ and he said yes – that was all part of the building. He told me this was the first theatre in the round that had been built in the US. He asked me why I was there and I said I knew Felipe. He asked if I was an artist and I said I was. What kind of art? Painting. He said he would come to my openings. I shook his hand and thanked him for letting the event happen and then I left. I walked away not sure what I had experienced or what the meaning was and I think that was maybe Felipe’s intention. I still don’t really know. But I do know that now, a month later, with no mention of the event anywhere, I need to document it.

I did not manage to read the flyer till a few days later. In the flyer is a rambling first person account by someone who is described as ‘the owner’s contact, real estate person and historian of many Midtown properties.’ It talks about the history of Houston’s neighborhoods and in particular about black and white communities in Houston’s earliest housing developments; racism; and old money versus oil money. This is followed by a text attributed to Ronnie Yates, a poet, performer and artist working in Houston. The text gives a very factual account of the paid workers/performers/audience and the theatre. Felipe triangulated a three-block area from the theater to the homeless under highway 59 and the company ‘Pacesetters Personnel Services’, a labor hall that according to the text ‘negotiates work between employers and skilled and unskilled laborers.’

An excerpt from Ronnie Yates’ text:
“Tonight, August 25, 2018, from 5 – 7 pm, the Playhouse Theatre, located at 4816 Main Street, three blocks away from Pacesetters, will be open for a one night only event. Housing a revolving circular stage, the Playhouse Theater has been described as the first theater in the round in the world to be built as a freestanding structure devoted to the purpose of professional theater. It opened in 1951 and was first closed two years later because it failed to generate a profit due to high upkeep, this included air-conditioning the space, an amenity promised in advertisements. Over the years the theater has exchanged owners and managers several times. In 1971 the theater was converted to an adult movie house and renamed the ‘Academy Theater.’ Purchased by the current owners in 1991, the theater has since been used again for live theatrical productions and comedy shows such as the Hip Hop Comedy Stop. In 2004 the theater was dedicated as the National African American Museum.
In 1997 Encore Theater artistic director, Harold Haynes, rented and then re-designed the theater as a modified thrust with a pseudo proscenium arch resulting in a new seating capacity — the original 299 seats were reduced to 219, and the lost 80 seats were simply concealed below the boards of the new stage area. Steinberg has hired 80 temporary employees from Pacesetters Personnel Services–a company which, according to its advertisements, “recruits, dispatches and transports workers for temporary general labor assignments’–to perform (in) an opening he has staged at the Playhouse. The event (from 5 pm – 7 pm) will begin at 4 pm, audiences will be allowed into the theater at 5 pm. Refreshments will be served.”

I know that there are 80 temporary employees and 80 missing seats, making visible what is lost, but I think that may have been a simple starting equation of an experiment that ended up having a feedback loop of layers. Whether you want to think of ‘Opening’ as Theatre of the Absurd set in the limbo of a defunct theater, as true theater in the round where the audience is part of the production; whether you want to think of it as an allegory of America’s racial divide, or its economic divide; as exposing the changing layers of history and place in a city, or the precarious conditions of day laborers; or simply as a disorienting, but very human experience: this much is certain: it is a subtle and radical act of equity redistribution.

The artist is paying members of the surrounding local community, some who live under the 59 bridge, from the grant money he received from the City of Houston’s hotel taxes through HAA*. By my calculation 80 x 3 hours x $7.25 minimum wage is at least $1740, but my guess is that Felipe paid more, as minimum wage is not a living wage.** By my observation arriving after 6:15 pm these paid workers were also the largest constituency to experience this temporary three hour art piece commissioned in part by the City of Houston. And that makes the entire experience not just disorienting and very human, but somehow also delightful.

*  Felipe Steinberg is a recipient of the 2018 Support of Artists and Creative Individuals (SACI) Grant Awards from the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance.

** I got in touch with Felipe after writing the piece to find out how much he had indeed paid the workers. The workers were being paid around $13 per hour. He paid the agency $80 for each worker with half going to the agency.


Francesca Fuchs is an artist who makes paintings about awkward and intimate things. In September 2018 Fuchs opens two concurrent exhibitions in Houston: Something at Art League and How to Tell the Truth and Painting at Inman Gallery. Occasionally she curates shows and writes articles.

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