Remember that time I made a New Year’s resolution to see 200 shows in a year, and then bragged about accomplishing that in a year-end list on this site? (Yes, that was last year.) Well, it caught up with me. I didn’t see that many in 2014, but it was still about 170 local performances (mostly theater, with a good sampling of dance and opera). Add another 20 or so in other cities (New York, Louisville, Washington D.C., Houston) and, hey, that’s still close to 200. Maybe I’m not such a slacker after all.
That’s enough to have thorough perspective on the year, which had some exciting trends that I hope continue. Let’s start with those, and then we’ll get to the Top 10 and miscellany.
BEST 2014 THEATER TRENDS
World premiere plays and musicals produced by professional theaters. This was such a big trend, in fact, that I have created a separate story. But to put it in perspective: of the 13 North Texas theaters with an Actor’s Equity Association status of LORT, COST, LOA or SPT (the four highest rankings seen in this area), nine of them had world premieres this year, and of those, five featured work by local writers. And this doesn’t include the plethora of new work by local scribes presented at theaters that use Equity Umbrella or Guest Artists contracts—or have no Equity affiliation. And it wasn’t just about quantity. There were some seriously good shows. Read more about this here.
More festivals and encouraging developments. This was a year that not only saw growth in new play festivals, but also Audacity Theatre Lab’s first Dallas Solo Fest, the first Dallas One Minute Play Festival at Kitchen Dog Theater and very hopeful developments in the Dallas Arts District. Let’s do this with a list of the top five:
- The Elevator Project: With the Dallas Theater Center doing half its shows in the Kalita Humphreys Theater this season, it freed up space in the Wyly Theatre; so AT&T Performing Arts Center created the Elevator Project to allow six small companies to use the Wyly’s studio spaces. Two of them have already happened (Upstart Productions’ Year of the Rooster and Danielle Georgiou Dance Group’s NICE), with four more coming in the spring. A real game-changer. Here’s my story on the initiative.
- Off-Broadway on Flora: Another project of ATTPAC, a series of smaller touring theatrical shows in various spaces in the Dallas Arts District. We’ve seen two so far (Michael Urie in Buyer and Cellar; and the Second City’s 55th Anniversary Tour), with even more exciting events in 2015, including monologuist Mike Daisey and Austin’s Rude Mechs. Here’s the story.
- Dallas Solo Fest: Brad McEntire and his Audacity Theatre Lab brought eight solo shows from Texas and across the country to the Margo Jones Theatre. It was such a hit that the second Solo Fest is planned for June 2015.
- Dallas One Minute Play Festival: Dominic D’Andrea’s national event has seen tremendous growth in the past few years, and in 2014 Dallas was added to the list of cities. Presented locally by Kitchen Dog Theater, it will be back in August 2015. If it sounds gimmicky, you didn’t see it. About 30 local writers wrote one or more plays, not lasting more than one minute. All 60 were presented in a rapid-fire hour and some change, separated into (sort of) thematic blocks. One of the most entertaining nights of theater this year.
- Shakespeare in the Bar: Created by Dylan Key, Katherine Bourne and Alia Tavakolian, the idea is that actors come together to perform a “barely rehearsed” Shakespeare play, for free, in the outdoor space at the Wild Detectives book store/coffee shop in Oak Cliff. There were two this year; I caught the second, Love’s Labour’s Lost in December. It was wildly successful, with about 200 people there. Language was changed, actors stood on tables, there were clever updated pop cultural references and songs, and a drinking game added to the hijinks. (If an actor called “line,” everybody drank.) The crowd was overwhelmingly younger than 30—and they ate it up. The Bard himself would’ve approved.
Growth of non-traditional spaces: Shakespeare in the Bar was a perfect example of directors and actors moving away from traditional theater spaces to make something more accessible and interactive. Judging from the crowd, it’s working. Dead White Zombies began the local immersive trend several years ago, using various warehouses and spaces in Trinity Groves. This year’s DWZ show, Karaoke Motel, was its most cohesive. (Still odd, though.) But, like Shakespeare in the Bar, I saw people there I don’t see at other theaters. Something’s working. Also in this vein, a group of SMU kids presented an original work, Chipping Smooth, in the backyard carriage house of an Oak Cliff home. Again, amazing turnout. PrismCo. also used various warehouses in Trinity Groves for Galatea and its co-pro with Cara Mía Theatre Co., Teotl: the sand show.
Tours that were not national touring musicals. As mentioned above, ATTPAC’s Off-Broadway on Flora series is super welcome for those of us who can’t bear another tour of Mamma Mia!—or for the folks who can’t/don’t want to dole out beaucoup bucks for the touring shows at Winspear Opera House, the Music Hall at Fair Park and Bass Performance Hall. What’s cool about this trend is that it’s not just ATTPAC. The Eisemann Center in Richardson has been doing smaller tours for years, but they have been very safe (the Late Night Catechisms, those Martian Men/Venusian Women-themed shows). This season they amped things up, with an incredible show from Connecticut’s Split Knuckle Theatre, and the spring has more daring entries, including a piece written and performed by Taylor Mac and Mandy Patinkin. And at South Dallas Cultural Center, director Vicki Meek has deep connections with the National Performance Network and has been bringing interesting dance and theater productions to her small venue. To boot, WaterTower Theatre’s long-running Out of the Loop Fringe Festival finally feels like it’s on the fringe circuit. This year had more traveling fringe shows than ever before; let’s hope that continues. Don’t forget to include the Dallas Solo Fest’s out-of-town shows in this trend.
Best small-scale tours of 2014:
- The sooooo-funny Buyer and Cellar with Plano native Michael Urie, Off-Broadway on Flora series at Dallas City Performance Hall
- Split Knuckle Theatre’s physical, devised work Endurance, which used the character of Ernest Shackleton to comment on corporate America
- Speed Killed My Cousin, the devastating look at war and PTSD from Knoxville, Tenn.’s Carpetbag Theatre, presented at South Dallas Cultural Center (and featuring local actress Ashley Wilkerson)
- WaterTower’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival had several good ones this year, including Trick Boxing and Tonight a Clown Will Travel in Time, but I especially liked Aztec Economy’s trapped-miners story Butcher Holler Here We Come
- Teo Castellano and D-Projects brought its fascinating dance-theater piece Fat Boy to the South Dallas Cultural Center
Provocative work that continued the conversation about race and/or class. This is a fairly common theme in theater, but it seems to have been amplified this year, most notably in Zoot Suit at Cara Mía Theatre (the correlation to the #ICantBreathe events of the last few months was jaw-dropping), Oedipus el Rey and The Fortress of Solitude at Dallas Theater Center, The Brothers Size at Jubilee Theatre and Honky at WaterTower Theatre; but also in Tomorrow Come Today (Undermain Theatre), Booth (Second Thought Theatre), Spunk (WaterTower Theatre), Detroit ’67 (African American Repertory Theater) and even Kevin Moriarty’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol at Dallas Theater Center, which is more critical of the one percent than any previous adaptation of that story I’ve seen.
Clown resurgence. Hip Pocket Theatre has long been the local standard-bearer for the art of clown, and had a terrific clown show this year, Rose Nose Rhapsody, from Lake Simons. Cara Mía Theatre has played with clowning in shows for years, but with PrismCo.’s Jeffrey Colangelo, CMTC found new ways to clown. Colangelo himself clowned away in PrismCo’s Galatea, playtime at the Festival of Independent Theatres and in his one man show about being a clown at Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, Playing With Myself. To boot, North Texas’ best clowns, Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley, continue their work with Lone Star Circus and their children’s hospital outreach Funnyatrics, not to mention lead a spring clown intensive at University of North Texas. And at WaterTower’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, we saw Miniature Curiosa’s Tonight a Clown Will Travel in Time. Expect more clowning in 2015, plus the circus-inspired revival of Pippin (on tour at Dallas Summer Musicals and Bass Performance Hall) and in the upcoming Circus Freaks production Almost 5: An Office Life (Circus) Story.
MY TOP 10 LOCAL PRODUCTIONS OF 2014
1. The Brothers Size, Jubilee Theatre (director Tre Garrett)
Lyrical, moving and beautifully acted and directed, it was time for a work by Tarell Alvin McCraney to finally appear on a North Texas stage. Jubilee did this play that's inspired by Yoruba folklore proud, accented by the onstage original score by S-Ankh Rasa.
2. Oedipus el Rey, Dallas Theater Center (director Kevin Moriarty)
Luis Alfaro’s adaptation of the Sophocles masterwork, set in the LA barrio with a searing commentary on class and power struggle. In the end, is it all about fate?
3. Zoot Suit, Cara Mía Theatre Co. (directors Rodney Garza and Ariana Cook)
This revival of Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking musical came in December, amid the growing protests about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner shootings. This story of the real-life youths (mostly Latinos) who encountered police brutality and were wrongly convicted, but eventually received justice, hit like a hammer. Great performances and dance numbers, too.
4. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Uptown Players (director B.J. Cleveland)
Christopher Durang’s comic take on Chekhov is insanely funny, and this cast was pretty perfect. Funnier if you caught all of the Chekhov references.
5. Dogfight, WaterTower Theatre (director Terry Martin)
This Justin Paul and Benj Pasek musical is one of my favorites of this century, and WaterTower’s regional premiere (the first outside of NYC) hit all the right notes in a touching, sometimes heart-wrenching story about a group of American soldiers on the eve of the Vietnam war who play a mean trick on a woman—but learn a valuable lesson.
6. Barbecue Apocalypse, Kitchen Dog Theater (director Lee Trull)
Matt Lyle’s play, the centerpiece of Kitchen Dog’s New Works Festival, exhibited his wicked sense of humor, but was more mature than his previous plays. Turns out that power shifts and mindgames in the most desperate of times—apocalypse—makes for scary-funny observations on the human condition. This one should have a life beyond Dallas.
7. Fiddler on the Roof, Lyric Stage (director Len Pfluger)
It wouldn’t be a year without an amazing Lyric Stage revival of a musical warhorse, and this one—led by the outstanding Jason Kane as Tevye—was top-notch. Reminds you what a great show this is.
8. Year of the Rooster, Upstart Productions (director David Denson)
The first show in the Elevator Project was a caustically funny examination of masculinity, with standout performances by Joey Folsom and Steph Garrett. Our review summed it up thusly: “It’s all the destruction of NASCAR crashes without the safety of the cars.”
9. Booth, Second Thought Theatre (director Steven Walters)
In a year filled with new work by local writers, this play about John Wilkes Booth had history, mystery and conspiracy, plus a little love story, but ultimately gave us two great characters with Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Here’s hoping it moves on, with some fine-tuning, to more theaters.
10. Galatea, PrismCo (directors Jeffrey Colangelo and Katy Tye)
An engaging, wordless movement piece from one of the most exciting new companies in town, PrismCo., which is dedicated to movement theater. Happening in a closed-in area of a large warehouse in Trinity Groves, paper, dance, pantomime, aerial stunts, clowning and music came together for an interesting take on the Pygmalion myth.
Look, I have the space, so here’s the next 10: The Fortress of Solitude, Dallas Theater Center | Tomorrow Come Today, Undermain Theatre | Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jubilee Theatre | Spunk, WaterTower Theatre | Stiff, Fun House Theatre and Film | Cock, Second Thought Theatre | Killer Joe, L.I.P. Service | Orlando, Stage West | The Passing Show, Ochre House | The Echo Room Presents: Her Song, Echo Theatre
Best National Tours
- Once, AT&T Performing Arts Center
- Nice Work If You Can Get It, Dallas Summer Musicals and Performing Arts Fort Worth
- Evita, Dallas Summer Musicals
- A Christmas Story, Dallas Summer Musicals
Best ensemble cast:
- Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Uptown Players
- Oedipus el Rey, Dallas Theater Center
- The Brothers Size, Jubilee Theatre
- Spunk, WaterTower Theatre
- Barbecue Apocalypse, Kitchen Dog Theater
Ashley Wilkerson’s terrific turn as a Southern maid in The Mountaintop at Jubilee Theatre and an angry Afghanistan war vet in Speed Killed My Cousin at South Dallas Cultural Center
Ben Bryant, astonishing as Lord Richard Buckley in The Passing Show at Ochre House
More Great Performances:
- J. Brent Alford, The Tempest, Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- Adam A. Anderson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jubilee Theatre
- Jaxon Beeson, Stiff, Fun House Theatre and Film
- Gail Cronauer, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, Undermain Theatre
- Stormi Demerson, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Theatre Three
- Stan Denman, Booth, Second Thought Theatre
- Joey Folsom, Year of the Rooster, Uptstart Productions
- Rodney Garza, Zoot Suit, Cara Mía Theatre Company
- Julienne Greer, The Other Place, Circle Theatre
- Janelle Lutz , The Boy from Oz, Uptown Players
- Jason Leyva, Killer Joe, L.I.P. Service
- Anastasia Munoz, Orlando, Stage West
- Sarah Elizabeth Smith, The Boy from Oz, Uptown Players
- Montgomery Sutton, Booth, Second Thought Theatre
- Juliette Talley, Dogfight, Watertower Theatre
- Drew Wall, Nocturne, Second Thought Theatre
- Lulu Ward, The Two-Character Play, WingSpan Theatre Company
Best recording: Fort Worth gal Betty Buckley’s new album, Ghostlight, produced by T. Bone Burnett, is truly gorgeous. Love the atmospheric arrangement of Lazy Afternoon from the musical The Golden Apple. If you haven’t bought/downloaded it yet, do so immediately.
Best debut production: Thoroughly Modern Millie, Prism Theatricals at Will Rogers Auditorium in Fort Worth. Big talk from this group, but they delivered; too bad it’s such a dopey musical.
Most welcome comeback: (tie) Soul Rep Theatre Company remerged after 10 years, and playwright and funnyman Matt Lyle moved back to Dallas after seven years in Chicago, and was named an artistic associate at Fun House Theatre and Film
Single funniest onstage moment: That precisely planned column/baby incident in Jeff Swearingen’s Stiff at Fun House Theatre and Film. My side still hurts from laughing—and that was in August.
Best hat trick: One of the area’s most criminally underrated actors, Seth Johnston, pulling off an amazing feat with Harold Pinter’s Old Times for his company DragStrip Courage at Arts Fifth Avenue in Fort Worth. Not only did he direct, star in and design the production, but he also ran the lights as part of the show. It’s a small space, and this mostly entailed turning off/on a few lamps, but also—while speaking and listening to Pinter’s language—moseyed back to the light board to hit a few cues. Somehow, it worked.
- Lyric Stage’s orchestra in all of its revivals, thanks to music director and conductor Jay Dias, who found the original orchestrations for Desert Song, The Human Comedy, Titanic, Fiddler on the Roof and The Golden Apple. This has been going on for seven years, and it’s astonishing each and every time.
- S-Ankh Rasa in Zoot Suit at Cara Mía Theatre Co. and an original score in The Brothers Size at Jubilee Theatre
- The music by Home by Hovercraft in On the Eve, which had its professional debut at Theatre Three this year. Seth Magill’s tuba and Irish step dancing as percussion: love.
- Fabricio C.F.’s fantastic soundscape in Galatea, at PrismCo.
- The original music in Christhelmet at the Ochre House
Best solo shows with food consumption as a crucial plot point: Allergic Me by Kennedy Waterman, YOLO Solo Fest at Margo Jones Theatre; Lizard Boy Eats a Dorito by Brad McEntire, Sundown Collaborative Theatre’s Mixtape at Margo Jones Theatre.
Former North Texas theater peeps who hit it big on TV, Broadway, London and elsewhere.
- Allison Tolman, an original Second Thought Theatre member who relocated to Chicago five years ago, and landed a lead role on the acclaimed TV series Fargo—racking up Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, plus a Critic’s Choice award in LA
- Brian J. Smith, who nabbed a Tony nom as the Gentleman Caller in the revival of The Glass Mengerie, and has some TV projects brewing
- Jay Armstrong Johnson, who’s getting acclaim as one of the leads in the outstanding Broadway revival of On the Town
- Brian Gonzales, currently in Broadway’s Aladdin as Babkak
- Cedric Neal, who was in the 2013 revival of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and moved up to the role of Sportin’ Life for the London production (and is the star of Stagger Lee at Dallas Theater Center, opening in a few weeks)
- Ben Thompson, a Texas Christian University graduate who has been in American Idiot and Matilda on Broadway, and was featured in the short-lived Tupac Shakur musical Holler If Ya Hear Me.
- Jaime Castañeda, another TCU grad who has directed locally at Dallas Theater Center, Circle Theatre and Amphibian Stage Productions, and was an artistic associate at NYC’s Atlantic Theatre Company. He was recently appointed Associate Artistic Director at La Jolla Playhouse.
- If I missed someone, let me know in comments
R.I.P.: PFamily Arts, which might just be in hiatus while they hunt for a new space; Texas Family Musicals, which called it quits after many years; and Fort Worth’s Pantagleize Theatre Company, which has survived several loses of space throughout its history, so here’s hoping it makes yet another comeback.
In Memoriam: This year we lost some notables from the theater world, including Larry Randolph, Larry O’Dwyer and Vince Davis. The biggest hit for me was Matt Tomlanovich, who helped revive the Margo Jones Theatre and created a place where independent companies could develop work and perform in a historic space. Matt was one of the most gracious people in the arts community, and a true visionary. Everyone will miss him tremendously; I’m glad to hear that the leaders of the other Margo Jones companies will continue his legacy there.