In 2013, Dallas caught my attention because of the Theatre Communications Group National Conference. It highlighted the diversity and professionalism of many theatre groups in that city, and I decided to move there. Three years later, I thought that my reason for staying would be because of the major theatres, but that’s not really the case. It’s the smaller, emerging companies and project-based groups with big ambitions and DIY spirits that are keeping me interested in this evolving city.
Dallas remains a revolving door for many young artists. Every season, a handful of twenty-something artists leave to pursue other dreams (move to a bigger market or start graduate school, for example) and many move here to start their careers in a city that lacks a clear theatrical identity. From my conversations with several young adult artists who have called Dallas at least a temporary home, here are some observations on the theatre climate. Their comments remain anonymous because they all express a deep love for this city, combined with genuine concerns for the future.
Younger artists who don’t have a family or a mortgage yet have three options: accept the conditions as they are and make concessions, leave and try your luck elsewhere, or make changes to the status quo.
Make Your Own Opportunities
While Dallas may not feel like the caricature of Texas (I’ve only seen spurs once since moving here), a cowboy mentality permeates the theatre scene. As one actor mentioned, “Young artists can say: This is what I want Dallas to be, this is the work I want to see.” And if you’re willing to put in the work and your own money into the project, you can make it happen. These smaller companies have been popping up rapidly around the city over the past three years. House Party Theatre has been producing shows all over the city, in houses, on rooftops, warehouses. Same thing with Prism Co., a movement theatre company, Goat Song Theatre Collective, The Tribe, Shakespeare at the Bar, and countless others, all driven by people in their twenties. And there’s a significant amount of cross-pollination and collaboration among these groups. The energy toward transforming the primarily abandoned Trinity Groves area into a new arts district has been spearheaded by Dead White Zombies, led by Thomas Riccio. Before any of these mentioned groups were established, Riccio offered the example to use abandoned and nontraditional spaces. That really wasn't a possibility before. More established artists have created collectives as well, including The Drama Club and Artstillery. Using creativity, you are able to find some kind of space, gather people who are interested/available/talented, and lift your idea on its feet.
The Path to a Professional Career
While self-producing is an option that many young artists are taking, some question the longevity of that pursuit. One actor I spoke with expressed disappointment in the reality that she may have to leave Dallas one day to fulfill her dream of working primarily as an actor. While she books a few shows a year, she knows that there are only so many auditions in this market. When there’s less work, there’s a lot more riding on every single audition and the seasons announced. One actor/writer noted: “I guess you could be an actor and do voice work for FUNiMATION or commercial gigs, but where’s the sustainability?”
Another actor looked at one of the most renowned performers in town as an example of what her future could look like. This performer has a full-time day job and acts in the evenings. The actor had been cast in one of the toughest roles in an American classic for a woman. Since she works full time to support her family, she couldn’t devote herself completely to the role. During one of the previews, this actor broke down during intermission because she knew she hadn’t been able to fully commit herself with to the role—she was too busy supporting herself. As another young emerging professional noted, “Theatre in this city is like a glorified hobby for some actors.”
You can’t help but look at people a decade or two ahead of you and ask: is this where I want to end up? Younger artists who don’t have a family or a mortgage yet have three options: accept the conditions as they are and make concessions, leave and try your luck elsewhere, or make changes to the status quo. The frustration is understandable, but is the career path of an actor easily found in any of the major cities? Also, I do wonder what the generation above these artists, the ones who have created their own ladders (like Undermain, Kitchen Dog, and Second Thought) would say to these twenty-somethings. Is it worth the risk to move to a city with bigger opportunities or to push through and create the systems that Dallas lacks in the prime years of their life?
Young Artists are Finding Support from Non-Conventional Places
All of the artists I spoke with demonstrated a need for smaller, affordable theatre spaces. The Margo Jones Theatre is the most affordable conventional theatre space for these groups, but it can’t house all of them year round. As a result, they think outside the box in terms of space, with significant rewards. Making connections with local businesses like The Wild Detectives, Eight Bells Alehouse, Mill River Arts, and Deep Vellum Books have provided spaces for pop up performances. These young artists are not getting seen (regularly) at the major theatres, but places where their peers hang out.
Branching out into these other places has also sparked wider interest. For Shakespeare in the Bar’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 4200 people noted on the Facebook event that they were attending the two performances (which can only hold a couple of hundred audience members). To have that amount of interest in a singular theatrical event is remarkable. One of the results is that the young professional audiences (in this ever-increasing young professional town) aren’t necessarily getting to know the established theatres in the city. They’re going to the places their friends are producing work—wherever that may be. So it’s very likely that younger audiences are more familiar with The Wild Detectives or a warehouse in Trinity Groves than, say, Dallas Theater Center, because that’s where their friends are creating work. These are places where younger people are hanging out and feel welcome outside of a performance.
You Make a Show Here, Now What?
One of the major concerns of theatremakers in Dallas is the question of next steps for their work, primarily for playwrights. Will their work have a life? If they hustle and produce their work here in Dallas, some artists wonder, “Did I just waste my premiere here?” The city serves well as an incubator to try out new ideas, but for those who hope to move beyond Dallas, there are few examples. This question is on the forefront of many young artists’ minds when they believe they have hit a wall in their professional path. Maybe they’ve gotten a couple of roles at one of the major theatres, but what has come of it? What’s next?
Some artists profess that they need more training. The only MFA that is theatre-specific in this town is at SMU, and that’s for Acting or Design. If you want to study playwriting or directing, you have to go elsewhere. And that’s a sad reality for people who want to still participate in the evolving theatre scene, but also want a better toolbox and connections to make a full career. What’s strongest to many of these artists is FOMO: that if they stay here they will miss out on some unknown opportunity elsewhere.
Does Dallas have a Theatrical Identity?
As one director mentioned, “Dallas feels like a very young city, where artists can impact the culture of the city and civic momentum, in a way that at least artists as young as I am would be able to do that. It feels like there’s a public that’s not over saturated with artistic offerings.” With all of the energy, many note that local voices are not brought to the forefront of many major theatres as much as they would like. There’s a trend to keep in step with the national conversation, by picking up last season’s New York hits or snagging hot writers for premieres. Local writers getting full support for development or even productions are few and far between. As one writer put it, “It seems like Dallas has an inferiority complex.” We want to be a part of the national conversation, but not necessarily by investing in our local writers to make that happen. Without real investment in local artists, perhaps Dallas will remain as a revolving door. Or perhaps, hopefully, these young pioneers will start conversations towards more substantial funding and investment in local artists.