After spending 14 years in Los Angeles and New York City working as a professional actor and training at Stella Adler and Circle in the Square, Kim Tobin-Lehl decided to move back home to Houston. She was 40, and not only did she want to take stock of her life; she also wanted to finish her bachelor’s degree.
Back in Texas, she went to see The Pillowman at the Alley Theatre and took note of an actor who had stepped in as an understudy. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that guy Philip—what a great actor,’” she recalls.
Before long Kim was offered a part in a local production of John DeMer’s musical Deep in the Heart. “It was good pay and an Equity contract, but I wasn’t sure it was my cup of tea, so I said to my friend, ‘Lemme see who’s the lead,’” she says. As soon as she heard it was Philip Lehl, the understudy who had wowed her in The Pillowman a few weeks prior, she signed on.
The rest is showmance history. The two met in rehearsals and hung out as friends, and before long they were dating. Philip, who trained at Juilliard, had lived in New York and Los Angeles during the years Kim had lived there but the two had never crossed paths. “It took 14 years in New York and L.A. only for me to come home to Houston and find a Juilliard-trained actor to fall in love with!” Kim says.
For years Philip had appeared onstage at the Alley and other Equity theatres in Houston, but when he met Kim he felt ready for a new challenge. “Kim had experience producing, and we began to dream about doing our own thing,” he says. Two self-produced shows and one 501(c)(3) status later, Stark Naked Theatre Company was born in 2011.
Says Kim, “As a female in my 40s, I knew it would be hard for me to tap into the scene. I thought, ‘If I’m gonna stay here, I want to start a theatre so I have some control over the roles I play and the shows I direct.’ I’m also such an advocate for pay, so I wanted to supply the Houston scene with a another model.” (The first line of Stark Naked’s mission is, “To develop and support theatrical artists by providing competitive pay.”)
In addition to running Stark Naked, Kim runs a payroll company, Tobin and Associates, which offers a unique payroll setup to theatres paying Equity rates. “A lot of payroll companies don’t trust theatres to pay the money back, so they bond them up front, making theatres pay it all at the start,” she explains. “With my company, I bill week to week, so there’s not as much of a markup involved—other companies should follow my lead!”
Kim thinks that part of the duo’s success is due to the fact that Philip was already an established Houston-based actor with a strong reputation in the local scene. Meanwhile, Kim had tons of ideas about fundraising and competitive pay from her years of experience working in investment banking and producing Off- and Off-Off-Broadway shows. “We were able to go right into second gear,” adds Philip.
As co-executive directors of Stark Naked, the two share a lot of tasks, but they also divide certain job responsibilities: Philip does the books and Kim takes the lead with marketing and development. They both teach in Kim’s acting studio, Kim Tobin Acting Studio, and they have costarred in and codirected Stark Naked shows.
The couple’s latest artistic feat was a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which they starred last month at Stark Naked. “I knew the play, but I didn’t quite realize how huge and demanding a role George was,” says Philip with a chuckle, confessing that the show was primarily Kim’s idea.
“Martha is a role I’ve wanted to play for 25 years,” adds Kim, who recalls reading the script for the first time years ago and sobbing, not because she felt sad but because it felt so familiar to her. Kim, who stopped drinking 26 years ago, confesses, “I’ve got a big personality, and I can be a little pushy. If I hadn’t become sober, I think I would have become Martha. I just recognize her so completely.”
Kim and Philip balance each other out artistically and in terms of their personalities. Kim has Meisner training, while Philip takes more of a Juilliard-based technical approach. “We’ve been able to learn so much from each other’s backgrounds, which has been a blessing,” says Philip. “I’m a fighter,” Kim says. “I don’t have a problem with conflict, but sometimes Philip will keep me from doing something too aggressive. Sometimes I’ll push him to do something he needs to do.”
“I hate conflict!” Philip interjects.
Their varied approaches make them a great codirecting team, they say. In these endeavors, Philip often lays out the blocking in the first half of a rehearsal period, and Kim delves into the emotional stakes during the second half before joining up with Philip during tech. “We’ve learned where our strengths are,” says Kim. “It hasn’t always been easy, but as we get older, we try to embrace it.”
“It can be hard to be a director and give up control,” Philip admits. “I used to think a director had to have a strong vision. But Kim has helped me to imagine a collective vision. I like that model a lot more. Working with Kim has shown me it’s a better and healthier way for me to work.”