By: Michael Barnes

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: April 28, 2021

Before the arrival of English-language theater in Texas, four types of performance prevailed. For centuries, Indians performed religious rituals that included elements of dance, costume, and impersonation. In Spanish Texas, colonists staged secular dramas to celebrate special occasions. Spanish missionaries presented religious dramas and cultivated a fourth type of performance, a mixture of native dance and Christian theater. Performances occurred near El Paso in 1598, at Los Adaes in 1721, and in San Antonio during the 1770s. This theatrical tradition prefigured such Spanish-language folk dramas as Los Pastores, performed in Texas communities annually since the nineteenth century.

American newspapers reported English-language theater in Columbia as early as 1836. Professional theater arrived in Houston in 1838. Two managers, John Carlos and Henri Corri, founded competing theaters before Houstonians built their first church. Professional actors, who traveled by ship from New Orleans, played leading roles, while amateurs filled smaller parts. Sam Houston, Mirabeau B. Lamar, John S. Ford, and William B. Ochiltree were among the leaders of the Republic of Texas who participated in theater. Theaters presented serious plays and musical concerts as well as a variety of disreputable entertainments. Frontier audiences consisted mostly of men and sometimes turned rowdy. Houstonians publicly debated the morality of theater not long after its introduction there. By 1845 strolling players, or independent performers, had reached Matagorda, San Augustine, Galveston, Jefferson, and other towns on accessible trade routes. During the Mexican War, actors, including future star Joseph Jefferson, performed for United States troops in Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande valley. From 1845 to 1860, professional theater in Texas was chiefly a phenomenon of the Gulf Coast. With its bustling port, Galveston became an attractive addition to the New Orleans-based touring circuit. Small inland towns got by with amateur dramatic societies and the occasional strolling entertainer. A few original plays were written by Texans during this period, including several about the Texas Revolution, such as The Storming of the Alamo. After 1850, sophisticated German-language theater and opera also flourished, presented mostly by social clubs in such German towns as Fredericksburg and New Braunfels. The Casino Club in San Antonio built a series of handsome theaters for German-language performance (see GERMANS).

The Civil War and Reconstruction brought Texas theater to a temporary halt. In the 1870s, however, railroads opened inland markets for traveling troupes. Managers of stock companies, including actor William Crisp, established short-lived resident theaters in Galveston, Houston, and San Antonio. Texans built dozens of theaters, then called opera houses, across the state, some with full scene-changing equipment, traps, and auxiliary rooms. Several of these theaters survive, the oldest being the Bastrop Casino Hall, built in 1848. Utility halls with flat floors-usually located above commercial establishments-sufficed in smaller towns. Balconies and boxes allowed Blacks and women to attend in segregated sections. By the late 1880s, Texas had joined the transcontinental theater circuit. Celebrities such as Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, Sarah Bernhardt, Helena Modjeska, and Lillie (Emilie Charlotte) Langtry performed in Texas. They traveled in special railroad cars and played to intense local interest. "Combination companies," complete with star players, supporting casts, sets, and costumes, toured by train, stopping every thirty to sixty miles to perform for the night. The standard mix of melodramas, Shakespearean plays, minstrel shows, and musical extravaganzas was complemented by vaudeville, or variety shows for respectable audiences, in the 1890s. Large opera houses, such as the Galveston Grand, built in 1894, employed the latest theater technology and provided opulent settings for tours from New York, Chicago, and other cultural centers.

In the 1890s, Galveston businessman Henry Greenwall became a powerful manager of a touring circuit based in Texas. The national touring system was dominated by a syndicate of agents and theater owners, which Greenwall opposed for a time. After 1905, theaters showed films as novelties. Recognizing a growing market, businessman Karl Hobliztelle, who moved his headquarters from St. Louis to Dallas in 1920, built large theaters that alternately presented movies, vaudeville, and legitimate plays. Stale programs, labor problems, and the growing popularity of movies caused the decline of commercial theatrical tours. One exception was the Spanish-language troupes that fled to South Texas during the Mexican Revolution and toured until the 1930s (see MEXICAN-AMERICAN THEATER).

While tours declined, better-educated and urbanized Texans turned to amateur theater as part of an idealistic movement of cultural improvement. Critic and scholar Stark Young organized a drama society, the Curtain Club, at the University of Texas in 1907. It remained active through the 1950s. Other drama clubs soon followed at Texas universities. The San Antonio Little Theatre grew out of a reading group founded in 1912. By the 1920s, dozens of Texas cities and towns supported amateur "little theaters." The Dallas Little Theatre won several national competitions and produced new plays by respected writers such as Paul Green. Secondary schools instituted drama programs after the first University Interscholastic League play contest in 1927. The University of Texas established the first curricular drama department in 1938; its first prestigious faculty member, Shakespeare scholar B. Iden Payne, joined in 1946.

During the Great Depression, commercial tours were confined to the largest cities, while musical entertainment reached smaller towns through tent shows. The Federal Theatre Project, part of the Work Projects Administration, had little success employing theater artists in Texas, but it offered an important opportunity to pioneer director Margaret Jones in Houston. After leaving the project, Margo Jones spearheaded the American regional theater movement, which combined civic-theater idealism and subscription practices with professional artists. She also popularized intimate, arena-style staging through her book Theater-in-the-Round. After receiving encouragement from longtime Dallas Morning News critic John Rosenfield, Jones founded Theatre 47 (its name changed each season) in a small facility at the State Fair of Texas. Almost simultaneously, Jones, Nina Vance, and her collaborators founded the Alley Theatre in Houston. It turned professional in 1954. Texas theater was devastated by Jones's accidental death in 1955; she had directed on Broadway and subsequently nurtured the careers of playwrights Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and the team of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, while proving that professional theater could thrive outside New York City.

During the 1940s and 1950s, innovative educator Paul Baker, working at Baylor University, transformed theories of creativity and theater training. He later led the Dallas Theater Center, which opened its facility, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1959. During the 1960s the Alley and the Dallas Theater Center became the state's dominant resident theaters (Margo Jones's had collapsed soon after her death). These theaters presented works by Texas playwrights Preston Jones, Horton Foote, and L. Ramsey Yelvington, along with American and European classic plays. Aided by large grants from the Ford Foundation, the Alley built a sizable modern theater in downtown Houston, which opened in 1968. In accordance with Baker's educational ideas, the Dallas Theater Center was never fully professionalized during his tenure, which ended in 1982. At the same time, several organizations specialized in large-scale musical productions: Casa Mañana in Fort Worth, Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, and Dallas Summer Musicals, which presented shows in the Music Hall at Fair Park. Texas produced musical talent of national import: actress Betty Buckley from Fort Worth, the University of Texas-trained composing team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (creators of the longest-running show in American history, The Fantasticks), and performer-director Tommy Tune from Houston. Tune helped devise The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (see CHICKEN RANCH), along with other Broadway and touring successes. The financial success of the Texas version of Whorehouse led Houston's PACE Concerts to enter the field of theatrical touring. By the 1990s, PACE Theatrical had become the largest producer of Broadway-scale musical tours in the country.

During the 1970s, another form of commercial theater swept the state. Dinner theaters proliferated in the suburbs of larger Texas cities, offering mostly light entertainment and food. These popular establishments declined in the 1980s, although variety entertainment continues to be served along with food at several large theaters. Outdoor performances also multiplied. The most successful was Texas, still presented each summer at Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park. Also in the 1970s, civic leaders recognized the value of historic theaters and renovated major facilities in Dallas (the Majestic Theatre), San Antonio (Majestic), Austin (Paramount), Abilene (Paramount), Texarkana (Perot) and Galveston (Grand). Smaller theaters were refurbished in Columbus, Granbury, Uvalde, and other towns. After a few failed attempts in the 1960s, a vibrant underground theater also evolved in urban areas in the late 1970s. The success of sketch-comedy troupes, such as Esther's Follies in Austin, inspired satirists Joe Sears, Jaston Williams, and Ed Howard to inaugurate the widely seen Greater Tuna plays. African-American and Hispanic companies began in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin. Experimental plays and performance art could be seen at Vortex Repertory and Frontera/Hyde Park Theatre in Austin, DiverseWorks in Houston, JumpStart in San Antonio, Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth, and several theaters in the Deep Ellum district of Dallas.

In the 1990s, the state's leading theater, the Alley, became more adventurous under artistic director Gregory Boyd. For the first time, visionary artist Robert Wilson of Waco returned to work in his home state, to direct at the Alley, the University of Texas, and Houston Grand Opera, the largest performing-arts group in the state. Wilson's "operas of images" made him one of the world's foremost avant-garde directors. Houston Grand Opera received international recognition for its breakthrough revivals of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha and the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, and later as a leader in presenting new operas. The Alley and Theatre Under the Stars generated new Broadway-scale musicals such as Beauty and the Beast and Jekyll and Hyde. The University of Houston, along with the Alley, made an artistic home for Edward Albee. Dallas Theater Center returned to the spotlight in the 1980s under distinguished Texas director Adrian Hall, who opened a second theater and produced such new works as an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. In the 1990s, DTC expanded further into new work, including projects by Texas playwright Octavio Solis. Smaller towns in Texas continued to see mostly amateur theater, although some semiprofessional projects succeeded, such as Midland Community Theatre and the Shakespeare festivals in Winedale, Kilgore, and Odessa. Among Texas expatriates who made a mark on American play writing during this period were Terrence McNally of Corpus Christi, winner of multiple Tony awards, and Robert Schenkkan of Austin, Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Kentucky Cycle.

The early 1990s witnessed the rise of the medium-sized professional theater company. Zachary Scott Theatre became the leader in Austin, Theatre Three in Dallas, Stages in Houston, and Stage West in Fort Worth. These more adaptable theaters discovered niches that larger resident theaters could not fill. Houston produced a professional touring troupe, the A. D. Players, which specializes in wholesome family entertainment. Dallas Children's Theatre became the state's most notable producer of plays for youth. One of the most unusual theater buildings constructed in the country during this time was the Addison Center Theater, an entirely flexible room for environmental performances. Perhaps the most significant institution in Texas theater continues to be the University Interscholastic League one-act play contest. Almost every high school participates in this spring rite, which exposes thousands of secondary-school students to theater and prepares potential trainees for the state's several large university drama programs. The ubiquity of theater in Texas, home to more than 300 producing theater companies, can be traced to the widespread influence of this contest. See also LITERATURE.

Michael John Barnes, Trends in Texas Theatre History (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1993).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Michael Barnes, “Theater,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 05, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 28, 2021