Every other year, the coastal Texas town of Clute kicks off the holiday season with a visit from none other than the Queen of England herself.
Not, admittedly, the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, but a skillful reincarnation of one of her predecessors, Queen Elizabeth I — courtesy of the Elizabethan Madrigal Feast put on by the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences, or The Center. This year marks the 16th performance of the feast and the 30th year since its first occurrence in 1988, when chairman Cheryl Fowler and director Judi James joined forces.
“I had an idea for this because my mother was in a small community in Illinois that did an Elizabethan Christmas madrigal feast, and the whole community helped and everybody enjoyed it,” said Fowler, who designs the set and creates the elaborate period costumes. “So I pitched the idea to The Center executive committee in — it must have been 1987. They said, ‘We think it’s a good idea, and we think you should be in charge.’ And Judi James, who at the time was on that executive committee, told me after the meeting that she thought it was a good idea and that she wanted to be a part of it. So we have been a team for 30 years now.”
When asked what drew her to the project, James laughed. “It’s just in me. There’s always got to be a play. I grew up that way, and it’s something I enjoy doing. So I leaped at the idea when she was interested in starting something.”
Together Fowler and James researched the Elizabethan time period, using their respective talents — Fowler’s degree in clothing construction and James’ experience as a theater director — to create a truly unique evening. Sharing the extensive work required in preparing an event of this scope are dance choreographers, musicians, caterers and a host of volunteers who help with everything from sewing costumes to plating the dinner.
Production begins in August with auditions for a cast of about 60, including the madrigal singers, dancers, servers and the Shakespeare players. The finalized cast usually features a balance of veteran madrigal feast performers and new faces, Fowler said. One of the recurring pleasures for her is seeing young cast members grow up performing and having that experience shape their lives and sometimes even their careers. Some of them have become professional opera singers, and one boy later went on to perform on Broadway in “West Side Story.”
“I think that’s one of the reasons why I keep doing it, because we keep providing a stage for these young people in the community [to have] this unusual experience that is part of their growing up,” Fowler said.
So what, exactly, happens at an Elizabethan Madrigal Feast?
“It is an evening of instrumental music, singing, dancing and a full dinner,” Fowler said. “And over the years what’s evolved as part of the evening is an abbreviated Shakespeare production that kind of comes and goes during the evening. You have a little music and a little food and a little dance and a little Shakespeare that’s scattered throughout the evening.”
James, as director, takes on the responsibility of preparing the script for the play adaptation.
“I do the Shakespeare cuttings,” she said. “There’s always a ‘Shakespeare lite’ — it’s not the full Shakespeare, but it still has the wonderful story. We always choose a comedy.” This year the play is “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Special attention is paid to every aspect of the production to maintain its historical accuracy and make it an immersive 16th-century experience for the guests. The costumes are period-accurate, “down to the underwear,” James said.
“We give the characters historical names so they know who they are,” she added. “It’s sort of like wearing a petticoat: it might never come up in the show, but it gives a foundation to the [actor] who’s playing a historical person, to know who they’re playing.” Everyone in the cast, from the musicians accompanying the madrigal singers to the servers bringing out the dinner, is in costume and in character.
Because social class was an important aspect of the 16th century, Fowler and James reflect that in the costuming and in the character assignments.
“[The servers at dinner] play the Earl of Warwick’s servants,” James said. (The Earl of Warwick was an actual historical figure in Elizabethan England. Resurrected for the Elizabethan Madrigal Feast, he “hosts” the dinner, and the set is designed to look like the interior of his castle.) As “lower-level characters,” Fowler said, the servers’ attire would indicate their lesser social standing. On the other hand, Fowler said, “the actual madrigal singers [are] outfitted as nobles in more important costumes and sit at a head table, and then they come out and sing and walk around [during the dinner] and dance. Then we have the players in the Shakespeare [performance], [who are] kind of the medium rung on the society level.”
The Elizabethan Madrigal Feast serves as the major fundraiser for the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences and continues to be beloved both by the local community and by all those who work to make it a success as a unique cultural event.
“I thought over the years that it would eventually go away, that people would get tired of doing it and coming to it,” Fowler said with a laugh. “But now I’m told that it’s a community institution and that it has to go on forever.”
The Elizabethan Madrigal Feast will take place at the Dow Arena Theater in the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences November 23, 24 & 30 and December 1, 6, 7 & 8 at 7:00 p.m.; and November 25 and December 2 & 9 at 1:30 p.m. More information and ticket prices can be found at bcfas.org.
Besides the Elizabethan Madrigal Feast, The Center also has a regular season schedule of theater performances. In its 75th year this year, it boasts the distinction of being “the oldest continuously operating community theatre on the Gulf Coast of Texas,” according to its website and has its roots in a distinctive chapter of American history.
“[The theater began] in 1943, during the war when the [chemical] plants were operating,” Fowler said. “And [since] there were shortages, [the workers] couldn’t get tires to drive to Houston or gas to drive to Houston — this is the story I’ve heard — so they started the theater so they’d have something to do.
Just as the chemical plants began the theater years ago during wartime, so they also continue to support its existence today. The Center’s director of communications, Patty Sayes, pointed to the robust support of the many chemical companies who have an established presence in the Brazosport area, including Dow Chemical, BASF and Freeport LNG, which both Fowler and James seconded, acknowledging the unique partnership that exists between the community arts and the “thriving petrochemical industry.”
In addition to their support of the arts, these companies also take a keen interest — understandably so — in the role of science in the life of the neighboring communities. One area where this is particularly evident is in The Center’s planetarium.
“A lot of the planetarium is very expensive and very cool [equipment], so Dow has sponsored it, and BASF. The [chemical] companies have put a lot of resources into our area,” Sayes said. The special link between the arts and the sciences that The Center offers has also attracted the attention of larger communities farther away.
“There’s an astrobiologist who lives in Houston, and someone got him to come down to a play,” Sayes said. “He got here and he saw the planetarium, [and] now he’s going to give a talk [at the planetarium].”
Perhaps the most impressive indication of the planetarium’s influence is the fact that it has held courses for NASA astronauts-in-training. Judi James, in addition to directing the Elizabethan Madrigal Feast and other theater productions, is a retired astronomy teacher and serves as the planetarium director. She teaches the class that the future astronauts take at the planetarium.
“They have to do star identification as part of their training,” James said. “We hope to get the next class. They come when they are in the long process of training to be astronauts. It’s not a navigation course, so I’m not teaching them to navigate, but the stars are in specific patterns, really reliable, so if you need a point of reference when you’re orbiting the earth, the stars are excellent points of reference.”
The planetarium also puts on shows, most designed to be enjoyed by families, about various topics on space and the stars. Tuesdays in November feature a presentation called “The Dark Matter Mystery,” and a special holiday-themed show called “Season of Light” will be offered on Tuesdays in December, which will explore the winter night sky and discuss the biblical Star of Bethlehem as a natural phenomenon. A schedule of showtimes and ticketing options can be found at bcfas.org.
Between theater performances and planetarium shows, as well as an art gallery, concerts and symphony performances and a natural science museum, The Center for Arts and Sciences alone offers more than enough for a full weekend trip, let alone a day trip. However, Clute and the neighboring Brazosport cities also have a full range of outdoor activities as well. Visitors to Clute from Waco might be particularly interested to know that Clute is part of the (unofficial) club of Texas cities that house mammoth remains. In 2003 the remains of a Columbian mammoth, named Asiel by the community, were excavated.
“The discovery was made when [crews] were digging out what used to be an old sandpit to make a diving lake [now called Mammoth Lake],” said Angel Cowley, executive director of the Clute Visitors Bureau. “There is a replica of the tusks and other artifacts on display in the restaurant called Asiel’s that is on the lake property.”
Other opportunities for science- and nature-inclined visitors include the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge in the neighboring community of Lake Jackson.
“The wildlife refuge is very popular,” Sayes said. “It’s very large, and Dow and a lot of the [chemical] plants want to make sure that the wildlife is kept down here. It’s a superb refuge.” Cars are permitted to drive through the refuge, and there are both foot and bike trails throughout, which offer the chance to see wildlife of all kinds, including hundreds of species of birds and even alligators. Sea Center Texas, operated by Texas Parks and Wildlife, is also located in Lake Jackson.
“It is a red fish hatchery, as well as having a touch tank and over 50,000 gallon aquariums,” Cowley said.
And then, of course, there’s the beach.
“Late November and early December is often a very nice time for a Texas beach,” James said. “It’s lovely to walk there. There’s lots of interesting things to do that would make a full weekend for someone who decided, ‘I just really need a break, and I’d love for people to entertain me, and I’d like to see the beach.’”
Sounds like a pretty solid reason to visit Clute to me.