Monday, January 19, 2009

Celebrating with Fire & Ice: A visit with HYPA founder Heather Pray

Opera Vista at HYPA Gala 2008

I first met Heather Pray of Houston Young People for the Arts (HYPA) while working on a story for Artshouston. Instead of whining about why young people don't attend more arts events, she decided to take action, organize, and get her peers coming out in numbers for the arts. Pray fills us in on her life at the HYPA center and their upcoming Gala: Fire & Ice.

Nancy Wozny: I have a memory of being 17 at a performance of Turandot at The Metropolitan Opera. During intermission I looked around and realized that I was the only young person in the entire theater. The experience stayed with me, but I did not go on to found HYPA. You did. I wonder if you had a turning point experience that led to the formation of HYPA.

Heather Pray: I have always been an entrepreneur at heart, whether it was my friendship bracelet/t-shirt business as a child to an international fan club for an English rock band as a teen. Granted they were never created to make money; however, I have been fortunate to take my passions and create something around it to allow other people to enjoy too. My first real memory is the Pompeii show and then the children’s Halloween and Christmas parties at MFAH and being in the Caroline Wiess Law building. I just love that building; it feels magical and full of history.

NW: HYPA has gone from a casual group of friends having art experiences to a more formal, full-blooded organization as part of Houston Downtown Alliance. Give us a flash history.

HP: Kathleen Galvan and I started HYPA in June of 2004 when we invited our friends over to introduce them to the Trey McIntyre Project (TMP). Although they are now based in Boise, TMP was scouting locations for a home base and Houston was one of them. We asked for a suggested $5 donation, had wine and hors d’oeuvres. The money we raised that night went to TMP and was enough to pay for a pair of dancer’s shoes.

Then, as we became even more serious about it, I remember being home on a Saturday night and interested in meeting other people but not wanting to have to go to a bar to do it. We were both recent UT college grads and even though we grew up in Houston, we still didn’t know what the city had to offer us. I did some research that evening to see what existed for people our age and told Kathleen to meet me over brunch. We had visited some art galleries in the past and had a genuine interest in learning more. The next morning, over mimosas, HYPA was formed.

NW: Well good news for you all. SPA is bringing the Trey MCIntyre Project back next season, and they have grown up considerably as a company. Any growing pains in your process?

HP: Of course, anything worthwhile is never easy. Luckily, Kathleen’s sister is an attorney, so she helped us with all of the paperwork and getting our 501(c)(3) status (HYPA was its own non-profit before joining Houston Downtown Alliance). For the first couple of months, Kathleen and I were the only members. One of our first events was with Houston Grand Opera and we were able to get a good group together but it also included our family members – not typically our demographic, but we still didn’t know that many people yet in Houston. We also went out every night (not exaggerating) for practically three years to try to meet as many people as we could and culminate interest our cause. Granted, that doesn’t sound like a pain and it was so much fun. I think I am still recovering.

NW: I was born to art loving parents and they just dragged me around to museums, opera, and ballet. I grew up thinking of art as a food group. We don't all have the privilege of art-centered upbringings and people can discover art at anytime in their lives. Why do you think your 20s and 30s is an ideal time to get involved in the arts?

HP: In your 20s and 30s, you start to have your own discretionary income and have the freedom to use it however you choose. I think it is also a point in our lives when we may not have as many responsibilities that we may choose to have as we get older. We also have the free time to discover what is out there.

NW: I am told (once by you) that Gen Y prefers a Mojito with their Mozart. What's the strategy behind combining social and art experiences?

HP: First of all, we are all strapped for time. This is a way to combine the traditional happy hour with some more depth. So, not only are you socializing and networking, but you are also learning a bit more than you usually would at your standard happy hour. People also enjoy being with other people. It makes new experiences more comfortable.

NW: Tell us about your blog Houston Arts, and any other savvy ways people can find out what to do.

HP: Houstonarts is a tool HYPA uses to let people know about things we aren’t able to include into the free, bi-weekly newsletter. We also try to do a summary of things going on during the weekend, so if you’re home and bored, you can just look at it and see what is going on. We also try to focus on free or inexpensive events. It also has a snazzy new look to it thanks to a partnership with the folks at Caroline Collective. Other places to find out what’s going on include Artshound, Glasstire, Fresh Arts, Spacetaker, and Twitter.

NW: Does HYPA ever collaborate with the other programs designed for young professionals like Houston Grand Opera's Opening Night or Society for the Performing Arts' NiteSPA?

HP: Glad you asked. We working with NiteSPA for a Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo afterparty at Meteor. HYPA is all about giving people a taste of what is out there and that involves collaborating with other organizations and giving our audience the option to see if that particular art form or organization is more of a fit for them. For instance, we have done events with Houston Grand Opera Opening Nights, MFAH Art Crowd, Young Professionals Backstage at the Houston Symphony and DiverseWorks 3D. When partnering with other organizations, we try to give our members the experience of being a member of their group, so that if they do want to participate more, then they know what it's like to be a part of that organization.

NW: There's a lot to see here. Do you curate the listings based on what would interest your group?

HP: The listings and events we participate in are curated on what we think our psychographic enjoys. We also try to include events that are free, inexpensive, or unique to Houston. There was once an article published saying that Houston was not conducive to young professionals. Ever since I read that, it has been my goal to disprove that statement. Nowadays, there may be too much to do, but I think that's an excellent problem to have.

NW: Let's get to some shameless promotion. What's the big deal on your upcoming gala?

HP: This is our 3rd annual gala, celebrating all things art in Houston and our first opportunity to showcase the newest downtown hot spot and destination, Houston Pavilions. The arts scene has been figuring out ways to bring in business partners to support our endeavors and from the very beginning Houston Pavilions has been an amazing and supportive partner for Houston Downtown Alliance.

The evening will be full of many elements and surprises. The venue is partially outdoors so, depending on the Houston weather, you will either want to bundle up in your best winter outerwear or edit your outfit accordingly. The event will be situated around one of the skyrings and includes an exquisite backdrop of the downtown skyline. Advantage BMW Midtown will show off their hottest line of BMWs around Houston Pavilions. We will have projections of fire & ice by Microcinema International, fire pits, hot and cold food stations, ice sculptures and more.

The evening also features delicious food from restaurants at Houston Pavilions (McCormick & Schmick’s and House of Blues), Stockholm Krystal Vodka, Saint Arnold’s Brewing Company and much more. Also, LD Systems is the best in town when it comes to sound and lighting ; they always know how to add that extra touch to my events.

NW: How about art?

HP: Every year we have had performances at the gala, and this year we are stepping it up a notch. We are featuring all local artists including Luminosity fire dance troupe, DJ Ceeplus Bad Knives and local indie electronic band, Glasnost.

NW: Fire dancers? Sounds dangerous.

HP: The idea for fire dancers came to me when I was in Mexico this past summer. When I want something, I will find a way to have it. The fire dancers come with fire safety partners and are absolute professionals. I’m not worried and this is not their first rodeo, either. There will be four of them and they choreograph all of their own dance routines and create their own costumes.

NW: What's next for HYPA?

HP: We have an exciting 2009 season planned and have recently incorporated a steering committee that is led by Blakeley McCracken (NASA), and also includes Lauren Lovell (TUTS), Carey Kirkpatrick (Houston Symphony), April Beasley (Houston Texans), Brian Thorp (Invesco AIM), Liz Gorman (City of Houston Cultural Affairs), Cynthia Conner (NASA) and Kathryn Lott (SPA). I am looking to them to take the reins, share their interests, and create some exciting events for the next season to take us into 2010.

I also want to focus not only on the arts scene but our future artists. The arts scene definitely needs financial support and an audience to exist, but we also need to make sure we are nurturing our future artists, including young students. Getting them involved at a young age is so important. I know we need more arts education in the schools. I would really like HYPA to start an initiative to give back in some way to the arts through our really young people.

NW: Maybe someday I will be at another opera performance and realize that I am the only 50ish person there. Maybe this time I won't be so passive and will start Oldsters for the arts. What will happen when you (heavens forbid) turn 40?

HP: I am already looking at 30 as a big deal – not in terms of getting older but in terms of where I am supposed to be personally and professionally. I definitely want to give other people opportunities in finding the unique and cool things in Houston and letting other people know and enjoy them too. I already see a transformation in my interests and what I do in my free time and it’s changing. Either way, between now, 30 and 40 to 100, I will always promote the Houston arts scene in some way. It’s too fantastic to not.

Houston Young People for the Arts (HYPA) presents the 3rd annual HYPA Gala: Fire & Ice on Saturday, January 24, 2009 from 8 p.m. to 12 midnight at the Houston Pavilions. For more information, call 713-658-8938 or visit or HYPA's blog at

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.