Building a Theater Town
Dallas struggles with its identity. If the three big cities of Texas were familial stereotypes, Dallas would be the middle child, stuck between its classy older sibling, Houston, and the cool, do-no-wrong youngest sibling, Austin. Dallas is moody and constantly rebranding, which only encourages the development of vague clichés, like “Live Large. Think Big,” and “Big Things Happen Here.” One year Dallas is a sports city, another year it’s a fashion-forward city, then a business city, then a party city.
In spite of its struggles to define itself, Dallas has been blossoming into a city with diverse neighborhoods and fascinating residents. But more relevant to these pages, the city’s arts are booming: Especially, it seems, the theater scene.
Last summer, Theatre Communications Group held its annual conference in Dallas. It was a surprising choice by the national support organization for non-profit theaters, which normally convenes in cities like Boston and Washington, DC. When the location was announced, mid-sized Dallas theaters formed the host committee that launched a concerted effort to ensure the city would impress attendees, to include artistic directors, administrative staff, and artists from throughout the country.
Arts District venues played host to the panels and forums of the conference, and throughout the city nearly every theater company mounted a show. Kitchen Dog Theater was halfway through its new works festival; Fun House Theatre and Film re-mounted its popular Daffodil Girls; the site-specific troupe, Dead White Zombies, was midway through its “crack house show;” and the annual Festival of Independent Theatres (FIT) moved its opening date to align with the conference.
“Moving the festival to be open during the conference seemed like a no-brainer,” says David Meglino, the managing director of FIT. “We were one of the many groups that wanted to demonstrate to outsiders just how much theater Dallas has.”
What was evident that weekend to the outside world, and also to locals like me, was that Dallas theater is flourishing.
Where it’s been
A thriving theater scene is not new to the city. After all, Dallas was one of the pioneers of the regional theater movement. It was here that Margo Jones is credited with establishing the first nonprofit professional resident theater, as well as the first professional use of theater-in-the-round. Her Theatre ’47, which changed its name with every year until her death in 1955, performed only new works, premiering important work by playwrights like William Inge.
“Theater standards in Dallas were high in 1961 when I first started acting and directing,” says Jac Alder, artistic director of Theatre Three, and a staple in the Dallas theater scene for more than 50 years. “I was mindful of the splendid actors that had been on Margo Jones’ stage. But Dallas was a theater town before Margo.”
In the 1920s, the Little Theater was the center of locally-produced performing arts, and it earned a spot on the national scene during its short 20-year existence. It even drew the attention of George Bernard Shaw, who premiered his play The Village Wooing there in 1934. In the 1940s, Dallas Summer Musicals began producing Broadway musicals, for which the company hired Broadway stars to perform alongside local actors.
It seems worthy of speculation that this local arts scene spurred The Dallas Morning News to create an amusement section, headed by a journalist named John Rosenfield. During his 40-year tenure as the drama and music critic, he didn’t just cover the arts, he advocated for their very existence. In the 40s, he wrote countless articles about the innovative ideas of Jones and her theater; in the 50s, he organized the initial meeting about creating an educational theater company with civic support, which came to fruition as the Dallas Theater Center helmed by Paul Baker; in the 60s, he championed Norma Young when she opened Theatre Three.
In the years that followed, Dallas Summer Musicals, Dallas Theater Center and Theatre Three remained mainstays, as community and dinner theater companies formed and disbanded. From time to time, a professional company would open with staying power, such as Shakespeare Dallas, the city’s still-performing Shakespeare-in-the-Park troupe, which mounted its first show in 1972.
In the 1980s, experimental theater took hold in the quirky Dallas neighborhood of Deep Ellum. The streets just East of downtown became home to a number of controversial avant-garde companies like the now-defunct Deep Ellum Theatre Garage and Undermain Theatre, which still performs in its underground space.
“It was an exciting time to open a theater company in Dallas,” says Katherine Owens, artistic director and co-founder of Undermain Theatre, which is currently in its 30th season. “There was an appreciation for new work around the country, and also in Dallas.”
In retrospect, it seems that in the late 80s and early 90s, theater took hold of Dallas like wildfire, with new companies opening left and right, many of them still in existence today: Pegasus Theatre, Teatro Dallas, Kitchen Dog Theater. Later, the city gave independent companies a home at the Bath House Cultural Center, giving shape to companies like Echo Theatre and Wingspan Theatre, both of which still exist today.
All of these companies –and the numerous companies that didn’t survive – trained and polished the hundreds of professional actors who live and work in the city today. “The very biggest strength [of the Dallas theater scene] is the size depth, range and fierce determination of the pool of talent, particularly the actors,” Alder says. “There are more people who are trained, talented, experienced and dying to do it right now than ever.”
Wandering into a New World
Senior year at Southern Methodist University, I landed the coveted role of Arts & Entertainment editor for the student newspaper. Students wanted this job because it meant press screeners of movies, demo albums from cool bands and occasionally press junkets from overeager film companies. But that’s not why I wanted the job.
A few years earlier, a friend had introduced me to Undermain Theatre: first with a performance of traditional Japanese Noh Theatre, then with the one-man stylings of a New York City drag queen, Taylor Mac. I felt as though I had discovered a secret world, where theater never closed its big, red curtains on the audience. Theater lived and breathed just inches from me. It had history, it had music, it was happening in Dallas. I wanted to be a part of that, so I grabbed my reporter’s notebook and started taking notes. That year, I pissed off the young editor-in-chief by publishing more stories about off-campus arts than about our classmates.
What I didn’t realize then was that I stepped into the scene at one of the most exciting times in Dallas theater. The Dallas Arts District had just taken a huge step in vivifying the downtown arts landscape with the completion of the Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre; around Dallas, small companies like Ochre House Theatre and Second Thought Theatre, were creating and producing new, edgy plays; but perhaps most importantly, Kevin Moriarty had recently begun his tenure as the artistic director of Dallas Theater Center.
“It’s been said many times, but you cannot underestimate Moriarty’s role…Bringing back a resident acting company and getting to know the actors and designers before he even directed anything or selected a season was huge,” says Mark Lowry, co-founder and editor of TheaterJones.com. “The ripple effect has spread out to the community, which has become more collaborative and less competitive.”
Moriarty joined the Dallas Theater Center in 2007, immediately instigating this spirit of collaboration. He partnered with countless community and education institutions, including Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts and SMU Meadows School of the Arts. Under his direction, the company commissioned new plays and co-produced plays with country’s leading theater companies, such as the Public Theater (including the upcoming Fortress of Solitude). Dallas actors accompanied plays to Broadway; New York’s stars came to Dallas to perform alongside local talent. It has been clear from the beginning that he was investing in the local theater scene. In 2011, he organized a community-wide Horton Foote Festival to celebrate the Texas playwright. Seven theater companies mounted full productions of plays, including A Trip to Bountiful and The Young from Atlanta.
“The last few years have seen a period of growth in Dallas in terms of the quality and variety of work that we see onstage. This stems partly from the leadership of DTC, partly from the strengthening of the mid-size theaters, and partly from increased receptivity in audiences,” says Owens. “In general, theaters are providing more progressive and varied work for an increasingly curious and open-minded Dallas.”
On Dallas stages today there are sets by Tony Award-winning designers, plays by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights, and performances from some of the country’s finest actors. This all makes sense for Dallas, a city that appreciates production value. But perhaps even more exciting is the path this has laid for the creation of new theater.
The theater experience for Dallas audiences is often one in which spectacle outweighs substance: the flawless high kicks of a touring Broadway show, the well-oiled fight scenes in Shakespeare, and the perfectly grotesque execution of a Martin McDonagh play. A quick trip to Austin for its Fusebox Festival or the latest show from the Rude Mechs reveals the opposite: substance first, polish second. But in the past few years, a contingent of Dallas artists are straying into the creation of new work in a rawer form.
Since 2008, Matthew Posey’s Ochre House Theatre has occupied a storefront in Exposition Park. Posey, who started his Dallas career at Deep Ellum Theatre Garage, returned to Dallas after a stint in Hollywood. Every few months he writes a show for his band of actors, the “Ochre House Boys,” with topics ranging from William S. Burroughs to Frida Kahlo to office politics. His shows are kooky and original, filling the 45-seat theater with an audience that craves something new and off-kilter.
On the other side of town, every few months the Dead White Zombies turn up in a warehouse or in a deserted house to perform a site-specific, immersive show written by the artistic director Thomas Riccio. Last year, the group earned accolades for T.N.B., casually referred to as the “crack house show.” Riccio’s goal is to present site-specific pieces that resonate with Dallas audiences. Last fall, the Zombies produced Bull Game, an interactive event about the ritualistic nature of sports.
In addition to the self-production of Riccio and Posey, up-and-coming playwrights are popping up throughout the city. Earlier this year, Theatre Three premiered the new musical On the Eve, written by local writers and musicians. Last year, DTC started the Dallas Playwrights’ Workshop, which gives younger writers a chance to discuss scripts with the playwright-in-residence Will Power.
And organizations like The Arts Community Alliance (TACA) award a new-works fund to a local playwright every year, which gave Steven Walters the opportunity to finish his play about Lincoln’s assassination, Booth, which will premiere at Second Thought Theatre in May. According to Walters, who is also the co-artistic director of Second Thought, he sees grants like this as one of the final pieces of the puzzle.
“For a long time now, I’ve felt Dallas is a city on the verge of something truly remarkable. But I’ve also felt that in order for the arts in Dallas to reach maximum potential, the community at large must begin to invest real money, time and strategic planning, not just in buildings and infrastructure, but also in people,” says Walters. “It’s really as simple as this: if there is an opportunity for talented young artists to make money doing what they love in Dallas, they will come here. If there isn’t, they won’t.”
What Dallas has learned in the past five years, since opening the Performing Arts Center, is that it’s not quite as simple as “If you build it, they will come.” It’s not about buildings, it’s about the people who occupy them: the Margo Joneses and the Kevin Moriartys. These artists had the notion that they could ask more of the art form, the audience and community, redefining the city of Dallas once again.