The George Theater’s physical presence is noticeable, especially at night when the lights shine brightly through its giant plate glass windows, illuminating what used to be an open field on Westheimer, just west of the Galleria. During the day, the 35,000-square-foot building sparkles in the sunlight, and the fact it is set back from the road a bit makes it even more eye-catching. It is hard to believe the theater company for which this is home – A.D. Players – began in people’s living rooms.
A.D. Players Artistic Director Kevin Dean showed me around The George like someone giving a tour of their house. Inside, the theater is impressive, with its spacious lobby, its 450-seat auditorium, and a backstage area filled with props and pulleys that enable the theater techs to “fly” backdrops on and off stage between scenes. To Dean, however, this is just a place to call home for a theater company he has been a part of for literally half his life.
Now in its 55th season, A.D. Players has become one of the country’s preeminent community theaters, making a unique name for itself as a theater committed to producing shows with a distinctly Christian worldview. The A.D. in its name often makes people think of the abbreviation for “Anno Domini” (Latin for “in the year of (Our) Lord”), the dating designation used to signify years after Christ’s birth. However, in A.D. Players it actually stands for “After Dinner” and points to its origin as a traveling acting group that would perform in people’s homes in exchange for meals served to them beforehand.
Dean shared a bit about the theater company’s history and the life of its founder and former artistic director.
“We were founded in 1967 by Jeannette Clift George, a native of Houston. She was an only child, the daughter of a wildcatter. She decided she wanted to be an actress, so after graduating from the University of Texas, she went straight to New York City. She studied under Harold Clurman and was involved in the theater scene there during the 1950s, a really fascinating time in the history of the theater. Then the Alley Theatre got a grant from the Ford Foundation to bring actors from New York to start a resident company in Houston, and Jeannette came down to audition for it,” Dean said.
Dean explained that Nina Vance, the founder of the Alley Theatre, gave her a scene from Golden Boy to read, not realizing Mrs. George had done her college senior thesis on the play.
“Of course, knowing the play as well as she did, Jeannette nailed it,” Dean continued. “And Nina Vance came down and told the casting director ‘We’ve got to hire that actress. She has the best cold read I’ve ever seen!’ It wasn’t until years later Nina discovered Jeannette’s prior history with Golden Boy.”
Mrs. George became a company member at the Alley Theatre and performed in many of its productions, including Dear Liar, Ring Around the Bathtub, Romeo and Juliet, and The Rivals. She eventually got the urge to start something herself.
“She loved the Alley, but I also think she was inspired by Nina Vance, who is considered one of the matriarchs of the modern regional theater movement and founded the Alley. She wanted to do something like that herself.” Dean expounded, “She was a Christian and couldn’t find plays that really said what she wanted to say about her faith, so she started writing her own plays. In 1967, she started the After Dinner (A.D.) Players.”
“The idea was that we will come and perform for you after dinner – after you feed us. We will come to your house, we will come to your coffee house, we will come to your church…wherever you are. Then after dinner, we will put on a play for you,” he said. “So that’s how it got started, and it evolved into a touring company where Jeannette and the cast would rehearse in friends’ living rooms and then drive across Texas to perform.”
In 1975, Mrs. George was cast in the lead role of Corrie Ten Boom in the movie The Hiding Place, which was produced by Billy Graham and tells the story of a Christian who hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II. For her role, she was nominated for a Golden Globe and a Golden Apple Award and was named “Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles” by the British Academy of Arts and Sciences.
“That movie pretty much put Jeannette on the map nationally. She got offers to move to LA and do all those things, but she wanted to come back and continue to grow the theater, so that’s what she did,” Dean explained. “But because she had gotten some fame from the movie, she would travel around and speak at schools, churches, and universities. And everywhere she went to speak, she would bring the A.D. Players with her, and they would perform. So, they became known as a national touring company.”
In 1979, A.D. Players purchased a church building on West Alabama and Kirby, which became Grace Theater, home to the theater’s mainstage productions for the next 40 years. In the early productions, seating was actually in the original church pews.
Mrs. George continued to promote her vision for A.D. Players, which was to offer a theater experience that would uphold human value, nurture creativity, and promote artistic excellence. In addition to writing and directing her own plays, Mrs. George also performed the leading role in numerous productions, including Driving Miss Daisy, The Glass Menagerie, The Trip to Bountiful, and The Importance of Being Earnest.
Once A.D. Players established itself as a resident theater company, offering seasons of shows, it expanded to include a theater arts academy, offering a variety of drama classes to children, teenagers, and adults. In 1992, it opened Houston’s first year-round children’s theater. While maintaining its strong presence at Grace Theater in Houston, the acting company continued to tour regionally, nationally, and internationally. In 1997, A.D. Players made its Off-Broadway debut performing George’s original play John, His Story at Lamb’s Theater in New York City.
In 2003, A.D. Players purchased the land where the company’s current building sits. After nearly 14 years of fundraising, which was helped along by a $2 million gift by the Robert and Janice McNair Foundation, The Jeannette and L.M. George Theater opened in February 2017 with its first production, To Kill a Mockingbird. The building, designed by Houston architect John Gabriel, enabled A.D. Players to double its seating capacity from what it had at Grace Theater, as well as tripling its height backstage to around 75 feet. Attached backstage is a workshop that allows sets to be built on-site, as well as an alcove for lights that can project scenery onto screens. In addition to hosting its own performances, A.D. Players also rents out The George to various entities.
From productions hosted in people’s living rooms in 1967, A.D. Players has grown to a resident theater company with a pre-COVID budget of $4 million, five mainstage productions a year, and a local and regional touring company. Its performing arts academy now offers classes on-campus as well as at local area schools such as First Baptist Academy. It also has a program called Arts for All, for students with cognitive and learning differences.
Dean has been a part of A.D. Players’ growth for more than 20 years. A native of Odessa, he studied acting at KD Conservatory College of Film and Dramatic Arts in Dallas. Afterward, it didn’t take him long to find A.D. Players.
“After I got out of school, I poked around the Dallas area for a while, doing commercials and television and theater. I was The Penguin and the host of the Batman stage show at Six Flags, and then a friend I was in church with told me about A.D. Players in Houston. I checked into it, and they mailed me information about their internship position,” Dean said. “I came down and auditioned; they hired me, and my plan at that time was to just stay for a year, then move to New York, Chicago, or L.A.”
A year later, Dean wasn’t ready to leave. He had fallen in love – not just with A.D. Players, but with another member of the acting company, Jennifer, who would eventually become his wife.
“I joined the touring company; at that time, we were touring nationally. We did a whole Christmas tour, all the way up to South Bend, Indiana, and back down again. We were doing a play Jeannette had written A Christmas of Many Parts about a group of actors doing a nativity play, but half the cast gets snowed in at the airport, so the other cast members have to do the play by themselves. It’s like ‘the show must go on’ as we say in the business, and it’s about all the crazy things that happen having to do that.”
Dean explained that Jennifer began her internship a year after his, and they toured together. A few years later, she left A.D. Players to teach school, but has come back to the company in several different capacities and currently serves as the marketing director for the theater group.
Dean himself has held eight different positions since he started with A.D. Players in September of 1999. After he completed his internship and toured with the company as an actor for a couple of years, he oversaw the personnel department and scheduling before becoming the director of the children’s program, a position he held for 10 years. From there, he became the company’s associate artistic director.
“As Mrs. George got a little older, she needed somebody to help her oversee not only the children’s theater, but the main stage as well,” Dean explained.
Not long afterwards, A.D. Players began making plans to move into the new building. Jake Speck, an accomplished actor, theater arts producer, and administrator, was hired as the theater’s executive director in 2017. Mrs. George, who had served as its artistic director since A.D. Players’ inception, passed away in December of that same year at age 92. Dean was moved into the role of interim artistic director in 2018, and March of 2019 the board of directors unanimously voted to appoint him as the company’s new artistic director.
In his role as artistic director, Dean wears a number of hats as both a creative and an administrator. He oversees the programming, selecting the productions each season; he assembles the creative teams for each performance including the directors, set designers, costume designers, lighting and sound designers; he works with the directors on casting all of the shows; he oversees the show productions, and will sometimes take on acting and/or directing roles himself. He shares responsibility with the executive director for overseeing the education department and touring units, each of which have directors reporting up to Dean and Speck. Ultimately, he is responsible for making sure A.D. Players’ mission is fulfilled with each season of productions.
“Our mission is to produce compelling theater from a Christian worldview that engages with a diverse audience,” Dean explained. “The Christian worldview is the lens through which we see the world, through which we select our scripts, and through which we run our organization.”
“Not every play we do will have an evangelical message,” he continued. “Some might, but we also have done shows like To Kill a Mockingbird, West Side Story, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner that deal with tough issues but are hopeful. We gravitate towards shows that have messages of hope. Not every story is going to have a happy ending, but is there a through-line of hope, a through-line of faith to some degree or another? We did Miracle on 34th Street last Christmas. It’s about Santa Claus, but the essence of the play is ‘Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to.’ We enjoy stories that explore those themes.”
To that end, a couple of years ago, A.D. Players launched the Metzler New Works Festival – named after board members Gina and Jeff Metzler, who funded the first three years of the program as a gift to A.D. Players. Dean talks about the festival with excitement, explaining that the timing of its inception was not ideal due to the pandemic.
“With the new play festival, we solicit or commission scripts that explore where faith and storytelling collide,” he explained.
“The first season for the festival was supposed to happen in the spring of 2020, but it was cancelled due to the COVD shutdown. Then last year’s festival had to be produced digitally due to the pandemic, so we did virtual stage readings of the plays,” he said. “So this season will be the first year of in-person performances for the festival.”
“Three of our plays this season are world premieres that were commissioned through the festival – The Christmas Shoes, No One Owns Me, and Apollo 8.”
The Christmas Shoes, which ran November 24 through December 23, was an adaptation of the bestselling novel by the same name. No One Owns Me, which opens January 26, tackles the subject of sex trafficking, specifically in the Houston area, and will be produced as a two-person show with “black box thrust” seating, similar to theater-in-the-round, for a more intimate viewing experience. Apollo 8, which runs from May 4 through June 5, explores the 1968 mission to orbit the moon.
“What’s really cool about the Apollo 8 mission is that it was broadcast live on Christmas Eve to the largest TV audience ever at the time, and the astronauts read the first seven or eight chapters of Genesis. It was the first time the people on earth had ever seen our planet as viewed from the heavens.”
While A.D. Players doesn’t shy away from serious subjects – one of Dean’s favorite plays he performed in is 12 Angry Men, a story of an all-White jury determining the fate of a young Latino boy accused of killing his father – the theater company offers lighthearted material of all sorts as well. Another of Dean’s all-time A.D. Players favorite performances is Charlie’s Aunt, a three-act farce about college kids, one of which pretends to be a rich elderly aunt, and the shenanigans that follow. I try to imagine Dean in the lead role as the rich aunt and Robin Williams’ performance in Mrs. Doubtfire immediately comes to mind.
Of course, playing dress-up is all part of being an actor, and Dean isn’t afraid to take on different roles on and off the stage. That includes being a golfer, a baseball and football fan, a husband, and a father to his five-year-old daughter Livey.
“I’m a total girl dad, you know, and I didn’t see that coming!” he exclaimed. “I get my toenails painted, you know. She likes to paint my fingernails. We have tea parties.” And of course, with him doing all the different character voices, story time is their favorite time together. “She hasn’t taken any acting lessons yet, so we aren’t sure whether that will be her jam, but she sure loves make-believe.”
A.D. Players at The George Theater is located at 5420 Westheimer Road, Houston, Texas 77056. The box office number is 713-526-2721. Tickets run between $20 and $75, with student and senior discounts available. For more information on A.D. Players, its 2021-22 season, the touring company, and The George Theater, visit www.adplayers.org.