The 15th edition of the Festival of Independent Theatres has a lot to offer audiences. The four-week fest bows at the Bath House Cultural Center on Friday, May 31, a good month earlier than usual to align with the Theatre Communications Group conference in the Dallas Arts District June 6-8. The line-up includes many staples, including Churchmouse Productions, Wingspan Theatre Company, Echo Theatre and One Thirty Productions. There are several debuts, including solo performance artist John Michael’s provocative new show Like Me and the first-ever dance troupe, Rhythmic Souls.
“This year is a really good sampling of what the festival is about, from new work to reputable local artists,” says David Meglino, managing director of FIT. “The line-up is interesting and will hopefully introduce the audiences to new shows and new companies.”
The works are performed in two-show performance blocks, and like many festivals throughout the country, FIT is a great place to see the work of up-and-coming local performers. TheaterJones caught up with a few of this year’s budding artists about their work in the festival and throughout the city.
You can also read about each of the shows here, which also has info on ticket prices and performance times.
Rhythmic Souls breaks ground this year as the first dance troupe to perform at FIT with the show Play It By Ear. Led by the local instructor and life-long dancer Katelyn Harris, this tap dance ensemble was a festival favorite at WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Festival earlier this year due to the infectious hoofing and live music. In that show she performed with her collaborator Keira Leverton, but for this year’s FIT Harris takes the stage with new performers, some of whom were previously students.
“Our show combines the auditory and the visual aspects of tap dance,” says Harris, an ebullient smile crossing her face. “Audiences respond to tapping because it engages them on multiple levels.”
Harris and Leverton have made it their goal to introduce performers and audiences in Dallas to this American art form. In addition to the performance troupe, they started The Drawbacks Youth Tap Ensemble for the younger generations, where they teach both the technique and history of tapping. The professional shows usually have an educational aspect as well.
“There’s a lot of support for ballet and for jazz, but there isn’t enough tap dance out there,” Harris says. “Developing that community is what I’m passionate about. It’s what I love.”
“It’s been a lifelong goal of mine to play a dinosaur,” local funnyman and theater teacher Jeff Swearingen says about his performance with Audacity Theatre Lab at the festival. “Seriously, ask anyone who knows me well.”
In the middle of Black Forest Coffee next door to Half Priced Books, he’s stopped speaking to imitate a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Just a minute later he untwists his head and stretches his arms out to explain the plot of Dinosaur and Robot Stop a Train.
Playwright and Audacity Artistic Director Brad McEntire’s festival entry has a dinosaur (Swearingen) and a robot (McEntire) from the future converge in the present day. The audience meets them at a press conference where the odd duo attempt to explain how they unwittingly arrived in the 21st century and what they will do now.
“The play has aspects of vaudeville about it. It’s a very funny play that uses clever wordplay,” Swearingen says. “It’s the perfect show for FIT because it’s original and experimental.”
Swearingen’s relationships with both the festival and with Audacity span roughly a decade. In a quick count, he’s performed in seven seasons of FIT—one year acting in three shows. This man stays busy.
An in-demand theater instructor, Swearingen also founded Fun House Theatre and Film with marketing aficionado Bren Rapp in 2011. In less than two years, he’s adapted or written 8-9 plays, which he then directs with a cast of children and youths. In the company’s early years he garnered critical acclaim for his adaptation of The Little Prince and more recently his version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, in which he recast the salesmen as a troupe of young girls similar to Girl Scouts (this show is scheduled for a return engagement June 5-8).
“I’ve always believed that kids are smart, they just need someone to challenge them,” Swearingen says. “I’ve been so lucky with Fun House because I will never get tired of teaching kids to really go after the things they want.”
But what does he want? Well for starters, you could come see his show at FIT, in which he’ll fulfill his lifelong dream in bright green, dinosaur footie pajamas.
Although I’d never met him before, I instantly recognized Ian Ferguson when I walked onto the patio at Ascension coffee for our interview. He’s performed a variety of roles in back-to-back shows all over town from Present Laughter at Theatre Three, to Echo Theatre’s The Lucky Chance to On the Eve at Nouveau 47 Theatre.
“You could call me a chameleon,” Ferguson laughs, after I've asked him to list out his recent shows. “I must not have a type, because I've played different characters in almost every show.”
An Amarillo native, Ferguson launched his career with a degree in theater performance from West Texas A&M University. He spent a few months in New York City before moving back to Texas with his wife Aubrey, who is also an actress.
“Dallas has been a very welcoming place to work as an artist,” Ferguson says. “I’ve worked with incredible directors and actors.”
At FIT, Ferguson plays a high school English teacher who is involved with a student in Rite of Passage Theatre Company’s production of Ask Questions Later, which will be directed by Kelsey Ervi. One of the more topical plays on the festival line-up, this new work by Meggie Spalding explores the subjects of inappropriate relationships and gun violence.
This follows Rite of Passage’s wildly successful festival entry last year, My Name is Rachel Corrie, in which Barrett Nash tackled a one-woman show about the peace activist who was killed during the second Palestinian intifada. The company—comprised primarily of Baylor University theater alumni—is committed to developing new work that challenges its audiences.
“Ask Questions Later addresses the topic of gun violence, as well as student-teacher relationships,” Ferguson says. “But it does it in a thoughtful way. I think theater should ask questions rather than try to answer them for people, and this show does that.”
Later this year, Ferguson will appear in the fall production of The Winter’s Tale at Shakespeare Dallas, in which he will play Autolycus.