Padora Theatre


Pandora Theatre
Producing Plays with
Great Roles for Women

Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Fortuitously, it was the work of the Bard himself that brought together a handful of women players performing at a Shakespeare Festival in Richmond, Texas a few years ago.

While Shakespeare wrote many fascinating female characters into his plays, local stage actresses Nicole Lawson Chelly and Melissa Mumper saw a distinct void that needed to be filled in contemporary theatre. Thus, the idea of creating Pandora Theatre was born. 

“Once we passed the magic age of 39, we started to notice there weren’t many interesting roles for us,” said Nicole Lawson Chelly.  “We would go to auditions, and there would be all these great parts for women in their 20s and women in their 60s, but in between, there was nothing.”

Chelly, who avidly watches casting notices from the entertainment world, said she was dismayed to see how many “mom” roles there are — with the stipulation that the actresses must be 30 years old or younger. 

“I just became a mom myself, and I’m in my 40s,” she said. “So, we’re trying to fill that void to tell the story of what women’s lives are really like.”

“We thought we could get together and put on our own plays, because there have got to be good scripts out there,” Chelly added. “And, there are. They’re just not being produced.”

Pandora Theatre’s core troupe consists of Melissa Mumper, a behavior management specialist; Nicole Lawson Chelly, a middle school counselor; Abby Esparza, an art teacher; Jan Searson, a paralegal; and Stacy Bakri, a stay-at-home mom who is also the casting director for the Texas Renaissance Festival. All are in their mid-40s or 50s, except for Esparza who is in her late 30s. 

Incorporated in 2008, their first two one-act plays, Lone Star and Laundry and Bourbon, by Playwright James McLure, were produced in 2009. Needing a couple of guys for the male roles, they first cast their husbands, Brice Chelly and Sam Smith (spouse of Mumper) who continue to act and direct as needed. Pandora Theatre is very family-oriented, and everyone involved is very flexible about taking on responsibilities. For example, when Chelly adopted twins and needed time to bond with them, the rest of the troupe supported her by temporarily shouldering some of her duties.

“It was right in the middle of planning Vox Feminina II, so she really was the director one day and the next day she wasn’t,” said Mumper, who took over the mantle of artistic director. “What was nice about the comradeship we all have is that the rest of us just stepped up and did it.”

Although the traveling troupe frequently performs on stages in midtown and in southeast Houston, it is actively looking for a place to perform in Fort Bend, which is closer to home for most of them and for the majority of their most avid fans. 

Right now, Pandora Theatre is calling for submissions for its fourth annual Vox Feminina production — a celebration of the feminine voice. 

“Playwrights to submit original pieces about women,” Chelly said. “The plays can certainly have men in them, too, as long as there are strong female roles.” 

In 2010, the first year the troupe sent out this call for submissions, it only received two scripts — both written by men and, eerily, both about a wife and a mistress meeting for the first time over a husband’s coffin. Discouraged, the women went in search of scripts more appropriate to their mission and wrote some of their own. 

“We created our own evening of theatre, song and poetry,” Chelly said. “Everything we do with Vox Feminina is dedicated to the female spirit.”

For the past two years, Vox Feminina was accepted by the national group, Support Women Artists Now (SWAN) as part of its annual and internationally celebrated SWAN Day. In addition to performances, Vox Feminina also features an arts market where patrons can buy jewelry and hand-crafted items. The non-profit troupe chooses a charity each year to benefit from Vox Feminina. Past beneficiaries have included the Houston Area Women’s Center and the Friends For Life Animal Shelter. 

“It’s the ultimate girls’ night out,” Chelly said. “You’re not there just to see a show; you’re part of an experience. It really is an opportunity for women to get out of the house, get away from their jobs and come spend an evening filled with love and laughter and warmth in support of other women.”

Until Vox Feminina hits the stage again in 2013, smaller groups of Pandora performers will represent the troupe in supporting roles at other venues. Troupers Debby Summerlin and Karla Hammock are performing in the Houston Fringe Festival (August 30-September 15 at Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation), singing their original composition, Catty Cat. 

“It’s a piece they put together about how women can be kind to each other to their faces but then say catty things behind their backs,” Chelly said. “It’s about truth, and it’s musical!”

Deborah Quinn Hensel is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.