COVID-19 shut down the entertainment industry completely back in 2019. Music, live theater, and anything that involved meeting in large groups disappeared from the public stage in order to prevent the spread of disease. Cullen Theater, the event stage at the University of Houston, also fell victim to the national closures. And with its closure went all of the shows it was meant to host.
A lot of changes have happened since then. One of which is the addition of the new theater director, Mark Levine, a Houston native with an insane resume that includes Broadway Across America, Disney and Ticketmaster to name a few.
Lucky for you, Cooglife was lucky enough to get to know Levine in an exclusive interview. We’re sharing it here with you, hoping that you’ll welcome him into our Cougar family. There are a lot of exciting new things coming up at the Cullen Theater Hall, a glance at the Cullen Theater homepage will tell you that. But there’s a lot more still in the works. Stick around to find out more!
Cooglife: How did you come to land this position at the University of Houston?
Mark Levine: When you work in the industry there are lots of connections being made on a minute-by-minute basis, those connections end up being the reason that you have steady work in our world. With those connections come folks who look out for jobs that fit their comrades. It is a very small community (even globally), and we keep tabs on new venues, renovated venues, retiring professionals and changes in the industry regularly. All that to say that when the position at UH became available, proverbial bells went off and I found out about the position. I was taking a COVID-sabbatical and working at a botanic garden, but knew I would get back into the live entertainment world once something made sense. My nuclear family is mostly still in Houston, and I know Houston well, so the opportunity was a perfect fit for me.
CL: What does a day in the shoes of the Cullen Theater Director look like?
Levine: The typical day of a theater director is a major juggling act. We don’t call it drama for nothing. I try to get to the office around 8 a.m. so that I can begin responding to emails until 9 a.m. More often than not, I am in meetings at least two hours each day. I often have agents, promoters, student groups and partners calling to check on our calendar dates. Once I have the new job effect (you know, just trying to get my head above water) under control, I will be spending more time working on budgets and forecasts. We need to find the best shows for our audiences at the best deals, so it is all about making our dollar go further. Pretty typical business stuff.
CL: What goes into re-opening a theater (getting a lineup, implementing safety measures, etc.) during a pandemic?
Levine: I wouldn’t say I am re-opening Cullen, the venue was quiet for the past two years, but certainly not silent or dark (industry term for “not in use”) or shuttered. The charge that I have put on myself is added to the Cullen Performance Hall’s history. I am very fortunate to have a great base already set by my predecessor and the partnerships they fostered. I have worked in the performing arts realm of live entertainment for most of my life, so I will definitely be sprinkling in theater/dance events.
CL: What are some safety measures the theater will be taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Levine: Creating a safe campus environment is a shared responsibility and our campus community and guests have shown incredible resilience, which is how UH managed venues were able to safely return to full capacity last year.
We have the public health tools that we know work well in mitigating the spread of the virus— wash your hands frequently and consider wearing a face covering and getting a vaccine. Stay home if you are sick. If you are exposed or test positive, follow the recommended isolation or quarantine procedures.
As for the Cullen Performance Hall— and all of the managed venues on campus—university-approved operational plans are in place. Our venues are equipped with safe air filtration systems, provide sanitization stations and follow cleaning protocols; we post signage reminding people that face coverings are encouraged. We are grateful to all of our patrons who have taken personal responsibility to protect themselves and those around them.
CL: What is the show you’re most looking forward to hosting? Why?
Levine: I can’t currently reveal the show I am most excited about, because we haven’t announced it. There are about three events that I have been dying to open (since I first interviewed with UH), we just have to wait until contracts are signed and there are confirmations.
CL: How are you liking UH so far?
Levine: It is great to be back on a University campus, I love the energy and the overheard conversations about philosophy and art, and I have definitely spent more than a few days at Moody for lunch and breakfast.
CL: Any big plans for the future of the theater?
Levine: I will be starting with adjusting our marketing and communications strategy so that the student body is more aware that Cullen Performance Hall is more than just the place with the massive UH logo. I want to make sure that students get excited about what we’re bringing to campus. As I get a bit more comfortable with all that we’ve been doing I will be adding some opportunities. I anticipate that we will have student workers, giving ticket discounts for students when we can, and sending out surveys asking for input on what we have/are bringing to UH Campus.
Photo courtesy of Mark Levine