When Robert Eubanks took on a newly created role with the Foundation for Jones Hall in 2018, he knew there would be challenges. Following the devastation wrought on the Houston Theater District by Hurricane Harvey, Eubanks’ position as managing director of operations for the nonprofit was to help get the half-century-old building back up to par. Working in collaboration with Jones Hall’s resident companies and Houston First Corporation, which operates the building, Eubanks and his team put together a list of necessary upgrades—a list that only grew. Delayed by the pandemic, the foundation finally launched a major capital campaign and renovation project in the summer of 2021.
Jones Hall is shuttered this summer for the most extensive set of upgrades in the multi-year effort. When the Houston Symphony and Performing Arts Houston take the stage again in the fall, audiences will get a completely different experience—from new state-of-the-art seating to dramatically improved acoustics.
Eubanks says stakeholder collaboration has been invaluable in keeping the project moving forward on schedule. And it doesn’t hurt that his boss, the nonprofit executive Kim Sterling, is a force of nature. But what excites him the most is being able to deliver a fresh and innovative experience to Houston audiences in one of the city’s most iconic venues. We chatted with Eubanks about what folks can expect in the coming months and what’s still on the horizon for the historic theater.
You are the managing director of operations at the Foundation for Jones Hall. Can you start by giving us an overview of the foundation and your work?
For some background, Jones Hall was completed in 1966 and really was the only professional performing arts facility in the city at that time. The ballet, symphony, what was then Society for the Performing Arts—everyone was using this facility and the building was never dark in its first years of life. Because of that, the facility underwent a lot of wear and tear. The city decided to privatize the backstage maintenance in the 1990s and the first iteration of the foundation was formed in concert with a capital campaign in 1994. We were created as a maintenance organization and have slowly expanded our role to more of an operating company.
Since I took on this role in 2018, my job has been to grow the institution and our role in the venue. I’ve done that by working hand-in-hand with Houston First and the resident companies so that we can establish and refine an operating model that everyone is comfortable with.
In this current capital campaign, we hope to raise more than $50 million to complete the work now underway, which began in 2021 and we hope to wrap up next year. A great deal of that work is being done this summer, including updating the seating in the audience chamber. Historically, Houston First has focused its maintenance efforts on the front-of-house and the foundation on the stage and back-of-house, but today we are working more closely than ever before to ensure a seamless experience across the entire facility.
What is happening during this off-season and what will audiences notice that’s different when they return in the fall?
The bathrooms are going to be a huge deal. I come from a technical theater design background, so toilets are the furthest thing from my mind. But of course, they are incredibly important to the patron experience—so we’ll be adding more toilets. Along with that we are doing a lot to bring the building up to par for our handicap patrons and we’ve worked extensively with the City of Houston and Houston First on that.
The audience chamber is something that will be a big change for our patrons. The acoustics are going to improve dramatically with a brand-new orchestra shell, which is particularly important for non-amplified performances like classical shows. The biggest visual change will be the seating. We added aisles during COVID because the continental-style seating that we’d had—with seats from one end to the other—is not the experience audiences expect today. By adding aisles, we’re now also able to reduce the number of doors into the chamber because patrons will be able to more effectively maneuver once inside the room. The fewer number of doors will now have light and sound locks. We will also re-rake the room, which means we’ll adjust the pitch or the degree of incline from the front row to the back, and upgrade all of the seating. We’re also excited to get a new glass elevator in the lobby, which was an original feature of the building but needed to be upgraded.
What is changing in the world of performance halls—are there new technologies or ways audiences want to experience productions that are guiding renovations?
Modernizing the building is all about connectivity. Last summer, we laid the groundwork for a lot of what we needed to do in terms of technological upgrades, running distribution for audio, electric and visual networks. We want our building to be completely plug and play, so someone can do video playback or broadcast easily. Audiences today expect more spectacle, and we want our building to be plumbed for the future.
What makes Jones Hall special as a venue?
I think it’s important to preserve spaces like this in our city, where frankly we’re known a bit for tearing things down. The goal is to modernize Jones Hall so that everyone in Houston can enjoy it and it remains relevant. And Houstonians want to support that. We’ve been really pleased to see how many people are emotionally attached to this building and want to support its preservation.
Donors associated with our resident companies, Houston Symphony and Performing Arts Houston, and the city have stepped forward in a big way to make sure this project receives the support it requires. I want to recognize the efforts on behalf of the CEOs of these organizations in connecting their supporters to this campaign. Meg Booth with Performing Arts Houston and John Mangum at Houston Symphony have been excellent partners and their passion for their organizations and the knowledge of what Jones Hall means to those organizations has been a real asset as we go through this campaign.
When it comes to the future of Jones Hall and the Theater District as a whole, what are you most excited about?
I think the future holds continued growth and continued sharing of what the arts community has to offer. We want to focus on that and use the arts to support the entire city and its broad diversity. This project enables Jones Hall to continue its mission.
Learn more about Jones Hall.
(photos by Jhane Hoang | pictured Robert Eubanks and a view from the stage of Jones Hall during construction, August 2023)