See hard work paying off for Jennifer Decker’s local theater company Mildred’s Umbrella.
“In a lot of the classic plays, women are accessories to the man as he goes on his journey,” says Jennifer Decker, artistic director for Mildred’s Umbrella, the theater company she founded along with John Harvey more than a decade ago. It received its 501(c)3 status in 2004.
“That’s not only not my taste, when we began, we had more women available for roles than men, so I looked for women-centric pieces.”
Seeking those stories became central to Mildred’s Umbrella’s mission, which is to produce theater by and about women and women’s issues. Decker also makes it a point to employ women designers, artists and directors.
Carving Out a Place in the Arts Community
That unabashed female slant has earned her a place in Houston’s arts scene – and garnered the small company both local and national acclaim. At a time when women’s issues are often at the forefront of the national political discussion, Decker’s drive to showcase the intelligence, creativity and strong voice women have is right on point.
The company recently received an American Theatre Wing 2015 National Theatre Company grant, providing cash for operations support of the company. It also picked up a 2014 International Center for Women Playwrights 50/50 Applause award, given to companies around the world that produce 50% or more works by women as part of their seasons.
That’s a long way to come from a company that used to produce plays in bars and wherever else space could be made. And no one knows how long a road it’s been more than Decker herself. But don’t think for a minute she’s sitting around feeling sorry for herself over the rocky road to success.
Growing a Company
“It’s hard,” she says of running the company. “But this isn’t my vanity project. It started out as my baby, but now I’ve got a company where I am responsible for other people – and I love that we’ve collectively created a space where people can spread their wings.”
And it’s not just artists who benefit from Decker’s philosophy. Audience members, too, get to be part of theater that’s decidedly modern and fresh, and have the opportunity to see both established actors and emerging talents on the Mildred’s Umbrella stage.
“I look for works that are different, quirky – something with a surprise to it,” she says. “And as far as the talent of our artists and designers…if you’re good, I want to work with you.”
Her no-nonsense approach combined with her real passion for her work make Decker a true force on Houston’s arts scene. She knows the city is a place where the arts thrive; she also tells the truth about being a small company and the struggles she faces. At the same time, she knows the company is producing quality pieces.
“We’re peers with people who are 10 times bigger than we are,” she says with both pride and a little amazement. “What we’re doing compared to people who have much more money than we do – yeah, that’s satisfying.”
What Supporting the Arts Looks Like
More than the accolades, Decker is satisfied that her company is working. It’s not only part of her mission to produce plays by women playwrights, but also to provide more work for women.
Every artist that’s part of a Mildred’s Umbrella show is paid. If you read the program, there’s a page about the actual cost of theater – and why you’re not paying it. It’s an education in what it means to get a show on stage, and why support for the arts is so important.
Decker realizes the support she’s had has been tremendous. A Houston Arts Alliance grant allowed her to pay a company manager, Rebecca Ayers, who complements Decker’s artistic and management style with administrative and organizational skills.
She’s watched audiences discover her company’s work, and come back for more – and excellent feeling, considering she’s not going anywhere.
Remaining True to Herself Through Taking Risks
“When you look at the small companies that started 15 years ago, like we did, there’s very few left. There’s us and Catastrophic and maybe a couple others. We’re not mainstream. We don’t gloss things over. I want to produce honestly, and not base the choices of material on whether they work in the mainstream – there are plenty of other people who produce more popular pieces.”
Like any actor (and Deceker is also an actor), she knows the role that she plays in Houston’s arts scene. And she’s comfortable with it, however much an uphill climb it seems to be sometimes. She realizes the trail of time and money and emotion that’s behind her, sacrificed for this company.
“I’m not going to stop,” she says. “And I’m not going to not do the kinds of projects I know we should. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes people don’t like a show. But I’m never going to stop taking the risk.”
Mildred’s Umbrella is throwing a Speakeasy New Year’s Eve party open to all on Thursday, December 31, 2015, and the next show in the season, Becky’s New Car, opens Thursday, January 21, 2016. Ticket info and details are available in the Admission link below.
Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company
- Location: Studio 101, 1824 Spring St, Houston, TX 77007
- Parking: Free street parking is available in the surrounding area
- Admission: Click here for tickets and details on upcoming shows