Over the past few weeks, I have been on a Dallas theater frenzy.
From Teatro Dallas, I caught “Pizcas,” about migrant workers, as well as Dael Orlandersmith’s one-act play “My Red Hand, My Black Hand,” co-presented by the Cara Mía and Soul Rep companies.
The Dallas Children’s Theater presented a trio of plays by Idris Goodwin on race, while the youth company Cry Havoc presented their project on climate change, called “Endlings”. And Shakespeare Dallas packed a lot of information into the 30-minute “Shakespeare and the Suffragists”.
In Fort Worth, I attended “The October Playlets” at the Stage West Theater; in Irving, just outside of Dallas, I watched “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” a tribute to the comedic bard of middle-class housewives.
Notice that in real life, I never got out of Dallas-Fort Worth airports. Like so many others this pandemic year, my theater in Texas has been virtual.
The evocative “Pizcas”, for example, is an audio track I listened to on SoundCloud. The digital capture of “At Wit’s End,” which I viewed on a laptop, was filmed in the empty MainStage Irving-Las Colinas house at the Irving Arts Center.
Of course, all did not land. For example, Ocher House Theatre’s “Coppertone Jones’s Amazing Traveling Side Show Corker” looked like a hybrid of Pee-wee Herman and the residents, but not as good.
Still, I was happy to check it out – and find out how Texans held their breath and plunged into the new world of Covid-era theater.
“Streaming wasn’t something we even dreamed of doing,” said Clayton Cunningham, chairman of the board of MainStage Irving-Las Colinas, still a little dizzy. (He was chatting via video, like everyone else quoted in this article.)
“I keep telling staff that we put the word ‘pilot’ in front of everything we do because we might never do it again – or we could do that for the rest of the time,” added Todd Hawkins. , executive director of the Irving Arts Center, whose 10 resident organizations include MainStage.
Of course, Covid-19 took a heavy financial toll: An investigation by local arts organizations found that the cultural sector suffered nearly $ 68 million in financial losses between March 13 and July 31.
Yet months after the start of the pandemic, the North Texas theater community has shown resourcefulness and collaborative spirit. Other cultural hubs across the country have stepped up, of course, but Dallas has shown a certain moxia – perhaps because theaters there struggle to be recognized, even at the best of times.
Indeed, Dallas-Fort Worth is generally not considered a national theatrical force, despite a population of over six million people. The Dallas Theater Center – one of the two Texas members of the League of Resident Theaters, along with Houston’s Alley Theater – is the local powerhouse, surrounded by a wide range of companies, large and small, professional and amateur.
But this particular ecosystem and its local funders have provided an encouraging case study of how to deal with an existential threat to art and business.
In March, for example, Stage West was set to open “The Children” by Lucy Kirkwood (who had performed on Broadway in 2017) when it had to close; the professional society quickly pivoted, airing a live capture of the show in April.
Over the following months, Stage West launched interactive digital evenings; presented “Everything Will Be Fine,” from the smaller Prism Movement Theater, at a local university; and sold tickets to the Adirondack Theater Festival ‘cruise in a box’ event. Next comes an original holiday show, “The Naughty List,” which is presented both as a remote production on location (until December 22) and as a stream (from December 4 to 31).
“We took this opportunity to experiment and try as many new things as possible to keep our audience connected,” said Dana Schultes, executive producer of Stage West. “We’ve invested in great cameras and equipment, we’ve learned how to live stream all of these experiences. These are just new tools in our toolbox and I see no reason why we shouldn’t be looking at them in the future.
Sara Cardona, the executive artistic director of Teatro Dallas, which focuses on international plays and the Latin experience, was keen to put on a physical production in the fall, but that too was suddenly new territory. North Texas arts organizations have been tighter than statewide mandates, so Cardona doubled down on security measures: she held the solo “A Grave Is Given Supper” in the Latino’s Outer Square Cultural Center, for an audience strictly separated from 24 people in time. (A streaming version is due January 15th)
While problem solving is rewarding, it doesn’t necessarily fill the coffers. “We have to be able to pay for these programs, and everything costs a lot more than most people imagine,” Schultes said.
An increase in local support has been encouraging, however.
“The saying was, ‘The refineries are in Houston, the people who own them live in Dallas,’ said Terry D. Loftis, president and executive director of The Arts Community Alliance, a local nonprofit that provides grants. and services. programs.
The alliance’s grant cycle was once annual, but Loftis decided to create an emergency fund, aimed at raising and distributing an additional $ 150,000 on top of the $ 400,000 it provided in March. He ended up raising $ 705,000, streamlining the application process so the money could be distributed faster.
The emergency fund was eventually replaced by the TACA Resilience Initiative, designed to reward organizations that innovate rather than wait for a return to normal before the pandemic.
The Dallas Theater Center was about to begin performances of José Cruz González’s “American Mariachi,” a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theater, when the coronavirus hit. Actors’ Equity has accepted a dress rehearsal stream for the show; the theater will soon present its first original, “In the Bleak Midwinter: A Christmas Carol for Our Time” (December 7-January 2)
Sarahbeth Grossman, a producer there, said the streaming (which included educational programming) had helped reach a more diverse audience, some of whom then made small donations.
“We also had, quite frankly, significant donations from sponsors and major donors,” she added. “They said, ‘We see what you’re doing, we appreciate that you’ve stayed intact and working with our community.’ “
In September, that extra money helped the theater integrate its independent acting company for the season, providing 35 weeks of guaranteed work and health insurance if they needed it. Their tasks include educational projects as teaching artists, in the same spirit of volunteerism that the company’s costume store has sewn personal protective equipment and masks for local hospitals.
“It’s kind of everyone on the bridge,” Grossman said. “We have the barn, everyone, let’s put on a show!”
And audiences all over the country, if not the world, can watch it.