Shanta Thake, director of Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York City, was not expecting a call from Houston. Certainly not a call asking if she’d be interested in exporting the Joe’s Pub experience to a town known more for its oil and space industries than a yearning for the cabaret-style theatre her programming offers.
It’s not as though Thake wasn’t already thinking of ways to take Joe’s Pub on the road—she was. In fact, she was already in the early stages of talking to people who might help make that happen. So why, when the call came in from Houston duo Allison Lott and Kathryn Lott (interestingly, not related), did Thake take the plunge and allow the largest city in Texas to become the first Joe’s Pub presenter outside of New York?
“Allison and I were in New York, and we went to see a show at Joe’s Pub, which of course we loved,” says Kathryn. “Afterwards we had this long discussion about how these cutting-edge shows just weren’t happening in Houston.” The Lotts couldn’t answer why it wasn’t happening; instead they came up with an idea to correct the issue: They’d do it themselves.
But wanting to bring the work to Houston and being able to pull it off proved to be two distinctly different things. “There are plenty of people interested in presenting shows,” says Thake. “But can you actually figure out how to bring that work to your community and make it successful?” Fortunately for the Lotts, not only were they fans who wanted to present; they also had the experience to back up the desire.
The pair had recently left jobs in arts administration to form Lott Entertainment, a consulting and special events firm. But both women were feeling the pull back to the more artistic side of their previous careers. Allison had spent more than 13 years marketing events for the likes of Broadway Across America, the Houston Symphony, and Society for the Performing Arts. Kathryn spent seven years as director of operations at Society for the Performing Arts and was also the creator of the world’s largest group of young opera professionals at Houston Grand Opera. In other words, they weren’t performing arts newbies, and they had sufficient connections to wrangle an introduction to Thake as the new offshoot company, Lott Entertainment Presents.
“When we first went to talk to Joe’s Pub, we thought it was going to be really complicated or they’d say no,” says Allison. “But it was so much simpler than we ever thought it would be and they were actually really excited about it.”
For Thake, it was the Lotts themselves who made the idea of expanding the footprint of Joe’s Pub to Houston a fairly simple decision. “The artists of ours they wanted to present and their passion for their work really stood out,” she says. More importantly, adds Thake, “We had colleagues in common that spoke highly of them. The Lotts weren’t our first conversation for this type of idea, but they had a great reputation and an ability to move quickly and execute in a way we felt confident in.”
That confidence led to a money-free deal that would allow Thake to expand the appeal of the Joe’s Pub brand to a wider audience and offer her artists the chance to tour to Houston with the expectation of the same kind of treatment, atmosphere, and experience they’d enjoyed in New York. In return the Lotts get the opportunity to present shows under the banner of the Joe’s Pub brand, one they’re unabashedly fan-girlish about.
“Sure, we could have brought these artists in ourselves,” says Kathryn. “But ultimately, we love the mission of Joe’s Pub, how they develop new artists or allow artists to develop new work. Our series is an homage/recognition of what Joe’s Pub is—a unique experience where artists take risks and change things up every night.”
But would Houstonians be as enthused? Did they even know what Joe’s Pub was? “I asked myself, Are we just typical New Yorkers that think we’re the center of the universe, so of course people will be interested in Joe’s Pub?” Thake says. “Or does our brand appeal to wider audiences that see it as something relevant and edgier with a finger on a pulse pushing boundaries?”
A definitive answer may be hard to determine, but the first show of the 2015–16 Joe’s Pub Series in Houston was a smashing success on many levels . The Lotts brought in hot-ticket alt-cabaret raunchy songstress Bridget Everett for their inaugural show in November, which took place at the new local performance venue MATCH. Everett’s name recognition, in tandem with the New York coolness of the Joe’s Pub brand, had the media eating the story up and audience members eager for a ticket.
“I’m amazed at the huge amount of press they got right out of the box,” says Thake. Still humble about Joe’s Pub being a big deal in New York, Thake sees the Houston success as proof that the brand is strong enough to live beyond its walls. And while the Lotts are also thrilled by the media and audience reaction to their first show, they have a slightly different take on what it was that got people in the door.
“The Joe’s Pub brand was not the driving force behind ticket sales,” says Allison. “It was the driving force for all the press coverage we got. But audiences were there for Bridget.” Still, the Joe’s Pub brand was a huge support, Kathryn is quick to add. “The partnership allowed us to come out with a strong difference that Houston had never seen before and it gave people something different to talk about,” says Kathryn. “We needed Joe’s Pub like crazy; no one knew who we were. It gave us validity.”
No doubt the Lotts will have a more challenging time promoting and selling Joe’s Pub’s lesser-known artists—comedian/composer Daniel Koren is slated to perform in February, and vocalist, songwriter, and actress Bridget Barkan will be in town for a one-night-only collaborative show in April. “We’re introducing a lot to the community at once,” says Allison. “Our first priority is to educate our audience about the artists we present, but of course we plan on working hard to build a brand for ourselves and Joe’s Pub in Houston at the same time.”
Meanwhile, Thake isn’t resting on the recent Houston laurels. She’s presently in talks with agents about arranging a Joe’s Pub tour of the U.S. “It’s a really exciting process,” says Thake. “It’s forcing us to think beyond the progressive cabaret model as we try to decide what about a particular performer makes them a Joe’s Pub artist.”
Allison says they’re “totally flattered and honored to have been the pilot for this model. That it’s expanding and building on itself is a testament to what a good idea it was.”
Kathryn is more succinct in her assessment: “The more Joe’s Pub in the world, the better!”
Jessica Goldman is a theatre critic with the Houston Press and her reviews can also be found on applause-meter.com.