Eileen Morris: 'Making art is like making gumbo'
The Ensemble Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and Eileen Morris, its artistic director, has been involved since 1982 –– almost from the beginning.
After earning a degree in theater arts from Northern Illinois University and getting married, Morris came to Houston, occasionally, “to get away from the cold” and to visit family. It was her sister, Nia Becnel, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston, who introduced her to The Ensemble Theatre’s founder, the late George Hawkins.
Hawkins launched The Ensemble Theatre in 1976 to create a place where artists of color could practice and perfect their craft.
According to Morris, “He wanted to give the community a view of the richer breadth of the African American experience –not just roles depicting maids and butlers and slaves.”
When she moved to Houston permanently in the early 1980s, Morris volunteered as The Ensemble Theatre’s stage manager. Later, when Hawkins received a grant from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, he was able to hire Morris as managing director.
Morris has since produced more than 78 productions. Under her leadership, the company has been recognized for excellence and won numerous awards, including the 2013 Best Season Theater Award from The Houston Press, and the 2008 Best of Houston Theater Award from The Houston Chronicle.
“Making art is like making gumbo,” Morris said, “but most people who enjoy eating gumbo don’t really understand the process. There’s the shopping, the prep work and the actual cooking — all of which takes a long time. Because the flavors need to blend and settle, it’s actually better the next day. That’s also what happens in the theatre, where all the behind-the-scenes work happens months before a play is ready for the audience.”
Morris makes the initial selection of possible plays to produce. Then, they are discussed and, finally, chosen by The Ensemble Theatre’s program committee — comprised of board members, staff and artists.
“When you gather human beings who come from different walks of life and different experiences, and you put them together to create art, you don’t know what you're going to get,” she said. “You have to believe in the recipe.”
While she has acted, directed and produced –– all the elements for good theatrical gumbo –– Morris has not yet tried her hand at writing a full two- or three-act play. She has, however, assemble the elements for a one-woman show and a medley of playwright August Wilson’s female characters.
“Everybody has a story to tell because our lives are so rich and full of challenges. Of course, I have a story to tell, too, but I don’t feel like I have the time to sit down and write it,” she said.
Of playwrights, Morris said, “They are great human beings. They often report that another voice or unplanned character will come into the play, interrupt the process, and take it in a different direction. This inspiration may come from the Heavenly Father, a higher power in the universe or just the energy from the ebb and flow of living and breathing, but magic does take over.”
She added, “When I’m able to create, it’s because I’ve taken a walk or been near water, or I release myself from the four walls. Maybe I’m watching children play in the park. Sometimes, I’m at the movies, and it happens, or I’m driving. When the mind is able to drift and release the things we deal with day-to-day, the creative energies get an opportunity to awaken themselves.”
Morris commented, “Although George passed away in 1990, not a day passes that I don’t hear his voice in my head, giving me guidance.
“His voice comes to me at times –– ‘Ok, now we’re here, and we’ve got to maintain and keep deserving to be here.’
“So, when I’m choosing plays, I’m doing so for our artists and for the needs of the institution. At the same time, I try to make sure the community is enriched, that it understands what The Ensemble Theatre’s mission is and why we do what we do,” she said. “George Hawkins set the pace for us to be able do that.”
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.