HOUSTON: In a blow for the Texas theatre scene, 4th Wall Theatre Company has announced that it will shut down in December. Initially founded as Stark Naked Theatre in 2011 by Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl, the theatre has equitable pay for artists as its core mission, to the point where its founders cut administrative salaries to make up the difference. “People don’t come to the theatre to watch administrators,” Tobin-Lehl quips.
But the founders’ unwillingness to cut the pay of the folks whose work audiences do come to see—the actors and other artists—is the reason they cite for closing up show.
“We made the priority of changing the paradigm, and we really worked hard at it, and it doesn’t seem to manifest,” says Tobin-Lehl. “We just finally had to say, we’ve done this for 7 years now, and Philip and I put administrative pay second. We’ve been working three jobs, just as actors do, and we just can’t do it anymore.”
Before the company shutters, it will mount the Houston premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (Sept. 7-30), then close with a run of Craig Lucas’s holiday black comedy Reckless (Nov. 30-Dec. 16). “We are going to close with Reckless, which was actually one of our first shows that kind of springboarded us into Stark Naked Theatre,” says Tobin-Lehl. “So that is sentimental and fun, and will be the last show that we do.”
Looking back, Tobin-Lehl cites highlights as having brought the first Annie Baker play to Houston with Body Awareness in 2012, mounting the first regional production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds in 2015, coproducing Bedlam‘s Saint Joan, and starring alongside her husband in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last year.
“We’ve had a terrific and exciting run doing things for Houston that no other company has done in terms of premieres and bringing new works to the city, and then obviously having a great Shakespeare career and reviving big important plays,” says Tobin-Lehl. (The company tended to offer one classic play per season, typically Shakespeare, though in recent years they were bringing the acclaimed Bedlam company to Houston to do St. Joan and Cry Havoc.)
Next week, the company will be lauded for its 2016-17 season at the Houston Press Theatre Awards. The company will take home the best play award for its staging of Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero, and Tobin-Lehl will be awarded best director for a recent production of Sam Shepard’s True West.
“We are really thrilled with what we have done, and we are really happy that we are going out on a high note,” says Tobin-Lehl.
Lehl and Tobin-Lehl plan to continue performing and directing in the Houston theatre community, and leading the fight for artist’s pay. “We’ve seen a lot of people pick up the torch for artist’s pay, and that is enough for me to know that people will continue to fight for this change in structure,” says Tobin-Lehl. “There is a lot of hope in the future for artists, and we plan on being available to anyone in any way that we can help. We are always here—Philip and I are not going anywhere. We’ll be here fighting the good fight for artists.”