Embracing the Theatrical in Non-Theatrical Spaces: Kitchen Dog Theater makes all of Dallas its stage

At the start of its 33rd season, Kitchen Dog Theater found itself without a home. This wasn’t a new challenge, exactly, as the Dallas theater company has been in the construction phase with its permanent new space in the Design District since it was purchased in 2016. The “Dogs” had previously performed at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, which was razed in 2015 to become a restaurant, and then moved to the Trinity River Arts Center while their own forever home was being built. But construction was delayed several times, and co-artistic directors Tina Parker and Christopher Carlos learned that the TRAC was giving up its lease at the end of June 2023. All the good, affordable, rentable performance spaces—the “unicorns,” Parker calls them—in the Dallas area had been booked well in advance of their season’s start.

“So Chris and I decided to lean into this obstacle versus let it defeat us,” says Parker. “If we were going to have to move around anyway, let’s really move around. Let’s shake it up and see what we could create without all the bells and whistles. Rediscover the ‘play’ in the play. Let’s embrace the theatrical in non-theatrical spaces, while still telling the actor-driven, provocative stories Kitchen Dog has been known for during its last 32 seasons.”

KDT’s very first show, after all, was MUD by Maria Irene Fornes, and it was performed “in a sweaty attic above Dave’s Art & Pawn in Deep Ellum—and it was magical,” Parker recalls. With all that in mind, Parker and Carlos decided this would be the year that KDT goes nomadic.

Theatre Three had a similar idea in 2021, when its Quadrangle space was undergoing major renovations. It staged two shows at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre, the home of Shakespeare Dallas, and “toured” a scaled-down and highly successful version of The Music Man at three different outdoor venues. KDT is starting its new season at the home of classic American drama: a baseball field.

This will be the second-ever professional production of Safe at Home by Gabriel Greene and Alex Levy, and it will escort small audience groups in, around, and through Riders Field, the picturesque stadium used by the Frisco RoughRiders, the Class AA minor league baseball team affiliate of the Texas Rangers. A cast of 18—no scaling back here— repeats their seven-minute scenes five times a show as the patrons are guided from the owner’s box to the locker room and several spots in between.

The play was pitched to Parker at a National New Play Network conference she attended earlier this year by Jack Reuler, “a living theater legend,” Parker says. Rueler had already directed Safe at Home during its other two productions at baseball stadiums in Minnesota and Arizona, so he knew how to make the project work. Rueler directs again here for five performances only, December 7-10, 2023.

Set during Game 7 of the World Series between the Rangers and the San Diego Padres, the play centers around a rumor that star pitcher Victor Castillo may use the sport’s biggest stage as a political protest. A fun fact, Parker points out, is that the play was written when both real-life teams were famously struggling, though clearly the recent World Champion Rangers have since turned that perception around.

Continuing this “scary and exhilarating” theme is the second show of the season, Shape. Written and directed by Southern Methodist University assistant professor Kara-Lynn Vaeni, the feminist comedy offers a forthright look into fitness, body image, and how we define strength. It will be performed at D-Town CrossFit in the Design District.

“We looked at a bunch of different gyms, but hours of operation around classes and lack of space around equipment, plus parking, made the search more complicated than expected,” says Parker. “Then I remembered seeing Facebook posts of an old friend from my SMU days who was very active in the CrossFit community, Richard Neal, who is also the founder-owner of the rad comic book store Zeus Comics & Collectibles. Turns out he was also one of the managers at D-Town CrossFit, so he was able to ‘use his muscle,’ so to speak, to connect us with the owners.”

Shape is having its regional premiere of what will also be its second-ever professional production. It was first produced at Kitchen Theatre Company in Ithaca, New York, in 2021.

“Kara-Lynn was directing a staged reading for our 2023 New Works Festival this past June when we found out about the possibility of our rental venue going away for the next season,” Parker says. “I was asking her about any non-traditional/immersive plays she had on her radar and she said, ‘well actually, I’ve always wanted to do a production of my play in a real gym.’ And …scene!” Shape runs February 8-25, 2024.

A third production is still TBA, as Parker and Carlos are determined not to “retro-fit or force-fit anything into a venue if the play would be better served by a traditional space.” They are hoping to announce the final title after the first of the year. The current plan is to open season 34 in Kitchen Dog’s new permanent home during the fall or winter of 2024—and Parker is quick to mention that “if anyone out there would like to put their permanent stamp on something cool in Dallas, I have a building they can name!”