Eileen Morris//Artistic Director//The Ensemble Theatre
By Celeste Bedford Walker
Eileen Morris is eating salad, but we’re talking gumbo. This artistic director of The Ensemble Theatre of Houston, Texas, founded in 1976, has agreed to carve out time on her “day off” to give me her thoughts on theatre in general and how she believes live theatre will survive in the twenty-first century. We have had difficulty coordinating our schedules, so in between running a few personal errands, Eileen has decided to drop by my home for the interview. She’s brought along a light lunch, and a quick change of clothing for a reading she has to attend later in the day.
“Theatre is like gumbo,” she says betweens bites. “Making gumbo, you know, that’s not easy when you think about the love that goes into it, the patience of the preparation, the historical aspect of it even, because the recipe is passed down from somebody to somebody, and each generation adds a new ingredient.”
Taking a sip from her soda, she’s happy to announce that her latest production, High Hat Hattie, about the actor Hattie McDaniel, perhaps best known for creating the role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind, is sold out before it has even begun. And rehearsals for an upcoming production of another show are underway. “I love rehearsals,” says Morris. “If I could create my ideal day, I would wake up in the morning, go on a walk or work out, then I’d come back and be in rehearsal. I would rehearse two or three different things that day, it wouldn’t matter. I’d be in rehearsal for one play, get some kind of little break, and go into rehearsal for another, and then that night have a show. Actors say I’m crazy and out of my head, but I love it. I love the process of discovery, love bringing all of the elements together and stirring them up.
“That’s why I say making theatre is like making gumbo. The first thing you have to figure out is what kind of gumbo you’re going to make. Is it going to be a seafood gumbo, is it going to be an okra gumbo, or is it going to be just a plain old sausage-and-chicken-trying-to-hurry-up-and-do-something-kind-of-gumbo? Then, of course, after you finish you have to let it sit for a while, let the seasonings go through it, because, like a play, gumbo is always better the next day, or two or three days later.”
Morris is making me hungry, but I think using cooking to explain her philosophy of theatre is a good one. Everybody understands cooking in a basic way, especially Southerners. But Eileen is no Southern girl. The product of all-white Catholic schools in Illinois, she’s an intriguing combination of Midwestern directness overlaid with a little bit of Southern charm. Her mother and father, after all, were from Texas, and her grandmother was from neighboring Louisiana. So that’s how Morris knows gumbo.
Morris started acting in grade school and she remembers having to fight for certain parts. “They felt I couldn’t do roles like Snow White or Cinderella,” she says. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding? You can’t tell me that I can’t do this.’ I’m very, very stubborn about certain aspects of who I am as an African-American woman. My mom and dad made sure I knew my worth as an African-American. So when the nuns at school told me that I couldn’t audition for Snow White, I was like hell-to-the-naw (excuse my French). I’m going to audition and then I’m going to turn out to be the best. And most times I got the roles, because I was good.”
Morris laughs now as she remembers that, when growing up, she wanted to be a nun. “I thought that was the thing to do,” she explains. “Because I felt that I was very spiritual, and I felt that I had a gift of being around people, young people, and so I thought, this is my calling, this is my avenue to helping people. But then those teenage hormones started kicking in, and I started thinking…hmmm.”
Fresh out of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in theatre, she met George Hawkins as he was gutting out the interior of the first home of the future Ensemble Theatre. Morris was looking for a role; Hawkins was looking for a good managing director. “I was like, ‘What, are you kidding? This is not what I want to do, I WANT TO ACT.’”
But Hawkins, who founded the Ensemble in 1976, saw that Morris had good organizational skills, could multitask and carry on several conversations at the same time, and was good with numbers. She gave in, deciding that the best way to be around theatre was to be around the theatre. She volunteered: writing
grants, interacting with artists, talking to audiences, luring playwrights, dealing with funders, cleaning bathrooms, wrestling budgets, doing whatever had to be done.
“I was always learning,” says Morris. “Going to conferences, workshops, meetings. And everywhere I went, everybody I met, I took notes, notes, notes.” She reaches inside her voluminous bag. “I always have a notebook. I like notebooks with sayings on them, because they just inspire me.”
Morris, as managing director, continued to work closely with Hawkins from 1982 until his death in 1990, when she was asked to be the interim artistic director and then was offered the position. Immediately she called on the artists she had met at those meetings and gatherings, and asked them to share information and give their viewpoints on what they thought and felt theatre was. Many of these artists became lifelong mentors and friends. “I mean, even to this day, when I call Woodie King, Lou Bellamy, or Ntozake Shange, they ask me, ‘Okay, Eileen, what are you reading? Have you read this book, have you read that book?’” She digs around in her voluminous bag again and pulls out a book on Yoruba that Bellamy suggested she read. “How this book on Yoruba is supposed to help me direct an urban play, I don’t know. But,” she shrugs, “I’m willing to implement it in my art if it will help to strengthen the work or strengthen the actors—if it’ll bring value to the product.”
In 1999, Morris left the Ensemble for the Kunta Theatre in Pittsburgh, where she remained for seven years. But in 2006, she returned to Houston and the Ensemble, and one year later the company was named Best Theatre by the Houston Press and Best Showcase for African-American Actors by the Houston Chronicle.
In the world beyond the Ensemble, Morris has held several offices, including that of president at the Black Theatre Network, and she has the distinction of being one of the few African-American women in the country to direct seven of the ten plays in August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle, and perform in six of them.
The Ensemble moved from its first tiny home to a remodeled furniture store donated by a local furniture mogul, and the board debated whether to build a 200-seat house or go for more seating. Eventually they decided that a well-thought-out 200-seat space would deliver a more compelling experience. Today
The Ensemble Theatre is one of the only professional theatres in the region dedicated to the production of works portraying the African-American experience. It is the oldest and largest professional African-American theatre in the Southwest and one of the nation’s largest African-American theatres to own and operate its production facility.
In these difficult economic times, the decision to go with a smaller house is paying off. Unlike numerous theatres that report their subscription bases dwindling, the Ensemble is showing an up-turn. “Our numbers are climbing,” Morris reports. “The subscription base has gone from 500 to 1900.”
When Morris speaks of the community’s support, she actually gets misty-eyed. “The most important component of our future are the theatregoers, which are 90 percent African-American,” she says. “African-Americans have such a spirit to give, and when people understand that you’re trying to do something for the betterment of your community, and for the up-keep of your artists and all the people that are involved, they don’t mind giving what they have. So it’s vital that we give them the best actors, the best directors, the best plays—the best ingredients in that gumbo.”
Like most theatre professionals these days, Morris watches social media trends and factors them into her long-term planning for the theatre. Keeping up with technology, the Ensemble has changed the way it does day-today business. The staff teleconference many meetings, using Skype. The theatre doesn’t have the budget to stream performances yet, but for the first time patrons can buy tickets online, a must in this age of convenience. Morris remembers becoming increasingly angry that actors were not returning calls from her staff. “Well,” she says, “I found out that the young actors don’t answer phone calls anymore; all they do is text. So now, when my staff tells me they can’t get a hold of an actor, they know I’m going to get upset if I find out they haven’t phoned, e-mailed, and texted them.”
With TV, movies, YouTube, and social media saturating the landscape, what is the Ensemble going to do to bring in and keep younger audiences? “We looked at the Ensemble Theatre’s demographics and saw that over 70 percent of our subscribers and patrons were seniors,” Morris acknowledges. “So we created a program called Act One, for young professionals from ages twenty-one to forty-five who enjoy both live theatre and social networking. We wanted to tap into that demographic, because they have the ability to mobilize large numbers of people to a cause or event through their social media sites.” The Act One Facebook page helps promote the theatre and encourages interaction around productions through chatting, e-mailing, text-messaging, phone calls, or even that oldfashioned standby, talking face-to-face.
Some theatres are experimenting with setting aside “tweet” seats, where restless younger audiences can use their electronic devices without disturbing other audience members. The Ensemble is not ready to go there. Morris disagrees with traditionalists who opine that Millennials will be the death of live theatre. She believes that the desire and need for a good story are inborn, and will drive younger audiences to the theatre when the story reflects their own lives or the lives of people they know.
With that in mind, Morris is especially proud of the Young Performers Program that she was instrumental in initiating, along with president emerita Audrey Lawson. Young Performers is an educational training program for youths ages 7 to 17 that addresses the coming together of art and life skills. “When I look at our Young Performers Program,” Morris says, “I see our future.” And she’s not just talking about actors and directors. She’s talking about future funders, supporters, and lovers of live theatre. Maybe even the future artistic director of the Ensemble Theatre.
As we wrap up our talk, Morris marvels that in the year 2011 she is still something of a rarity in the American professional theatre: an African-American female artistic director. She takes this moment to reveal somewhat shyly that, come August, she will be an honoree for the Producers Award at the 2011 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina. She takes a quick glance at her schedule to be sure of the dates, and I notice that her notebook has an appropriate quote by Thoreau scrawled across it: If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
What is the legacy you would like to leave the Ensemble Theatre, I ask? Morris thinks hard and answers carefully. “I want to leave a healthy theatre behind. Healthy in finances, healthy in resources, healthy in the artists that we train and are able to draw to the theatre.”
“Now, I don’t want to talk myself out of a job,” she explains, “but I want the institution to always be the main thing. The institution can’t be built around a personality. I don’t want that. People are supporting the art that we present—not me or any one person. I am going to retire one day and I want the leadership to be in place to carry the theatre to the next phase.”
She gathers her things as we conclude and seems to experience a sudden welling of confidence that some Millennial is waiting in the wings to take center stage and move the theatre on into the future. “Oh, sure, they’ll do things their way,” she concedes. “They’ll add their own flavor to the mix. To the gumbo. But I’ll be right there in the front row applauding, because it will all be so good.”
Celeste Bedford Walker is an award-winning playwright from Texas. She has been a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a winner of the NAA CP Image Award for Best Play, and an Audelco August Wilson Playwriting Award honoree.
Photo: American Menu (2010). Lee Waddel (front) and Detria Ward (back). Photo David Bray.