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2014 IN REVIEW

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The Year in New Plays

2014 was a banner year for new plays and musicals in North Texas. Here's why.



published Wednesday, December 31, 2014
3 comments


Photo: Matt Mzorek
Martha Harms and Michael Federico in Barbecue Apocalypse at Kitchen Dog Theater

In early 2012 I wrote a story about the trend of world premiere plays scheduled for that year, the difference from other years being that most of these plays were by local or Texas-connected writers, and a good many of them were scheduled at professional theaters.

In just two years, that trend has grown tremendously. I’ll wager that a major reason for this has been the 2012 initiation of TACA’s Donna Wilhelm New Works Fund grants, which gives $100,000 a year to three or four projects (not just theater). Even if theaters haven't been getting these grants, they've still found the money to produce new work.

In 2013, we started seeing those grant recipients: Jonathan Norton’s homeschooled at African American Repertory Theater and Cara Mía Theatre Company’s The Dreamers Part I: A Bloodline. In 2014 we had two more: Len Jenkin’s Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel at Undermain Theatre and Steven Walters’ Booth at Second Thought Theatre. In January 2015, we’ll get two more: Will Power’s Stagger Lee at Dallas Theater Center and Linda Daugherty and Nick Martin’s Skippyjon Jones at Dallas Children’s Theater. Of those six works, five are by local writers—we’ll count Will Power since he has lived here for about four years; Jenkin is the one non-Texas resident. (The other four grant recipients have been for music and opera projects.)

This momentum—the idea of more challenging plays with money behind them—must be spurring the growth of new plays and musicals at professional theaters in 2014.

Hear me out.

Photo: Carson Nicely
Montgomery Sutton as Booth at Second Thought Theatre

As of the end of 2014, there are 13 professional theaters in North Texas as defined by Actor’s Equity Association, meaning they fall in the four highest AEA categories: LORT (League of Resident Theatres), COST (Council of Stock Theatres), LOA (Letter of Agreement) and SPT (Small Professional Theater). This doesn’t count PFamily Arts, an SPT that shuttered this year; or Our Productions Theatre Company, which is remerging in 2015 as an SPT. That’ll take us to 10 SPTs, which is the most of any metropolitan area in the country. (Major cities like Chicago, D.C., LA and Philadelphia have more LORTs.) Nor does it include theaters that sometimes use Equity Umbrella or Special Appearance contracts, even if we consider them professional because they have full-time staff, pay contractors and/or have education and development departments (like Jubilee Theatre, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and Shakespeare Dallas).

The 13 theaters of which I speak are Dallas Theater Center (LORT), Casa Mañana/Casa Mañana Children’s Theatre (COST/TYA), Lyric Stage (COST) and Dallas Children’s Theater (LOA); plus the nine SPTs: Amphibian Stage Productions, Circle Theatre, Kitchen Dog Theater, Stage West, Theatre Three, Trinity Shakespeare Festival, Undermain Theatre, Uptown Players and WaterTower Theatre.

Of those 13, nine of them had world premieres in 2014. And five of those presented plays by North Texas writers, mostly on a mainstage series. Of the other four, two of them will have locally penned world premieres in 2015 (Dallas Children’s Theater and WaterTower Theatre), one is more focused on the ever-important second and third productions of plays (Circle Theatre), and the other is a classics company (Trinity Shakes).

Now, before I start hearing complaints from the non-Equity theaters that regularly traffic in new plays, mostly by in-house writers (Ochre House, Hip Pocket Theatre, MBS Productions, Fun House Theatre and Film, Pegasus Theatre, Sundown Collaborative Theatre, Dead White Zombies, Pocket Sandwich Theatre, PrismCo., TeCo Theatrical Productions and the groups working at Bath House Cultural Center and Margo Jones Theatre, to name a few), let me emphasize the importance of a professional theater putting some heft behind a local playwright. Dallas Theater Center has even enlisted its playwright-in-residence, Will Power, for playwriting workshops. Such encouragement and financial incentive develops writers, which leads to stronger writing, which will help with the national recognition this community craves.

That’s not to say that the new plays at the non-pro theaters aren’t participating in this conversation—Fun House and Ochre House continue to output strong work. And let’s take a minute to thank all of the local groups, pro and non, that give us new play competitions, festivals and readings, such as Kitchen Dog, TeCo, Stage West, Sundown, Amphibian, Echo Theatre, WingSpan Theatre Company and the latest addition to the play-reading game: The Aviary and its Hatchlings series. It should also be noted that the Festival of Independent Theatres has been heavy on new work in recent years, too.

But let’s examine 11 of those 13 AEA theaters and their recent new works, plus what’s coming up (not included are Circle Theatre and Trinity Shakes, for reasons stated above):

 

The Dallas Theater Center, our only LORT, has been in the new musical game for five years thanks to Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty, who desperately wants a New York hit. All of these shows have nationally known composers and librettists involved:

  • 2010: Give it Up, which became Lysistrata Jones and had a short run on Broadway in 2012 (and is reportedly being made into a movie)
  • 2012: Giant, a co-production with the Public Theatre, where it also played
  • 2013: The year of the “fly” shows: Fly by Night, which later ran off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons; and the Peter Pan update Fly, of which we’ve yet to hear about another production
  • 2014: The Fortress of Solitude, another Public co-pro that received mixed reviews here and in NYC
  • 2015: Stagger Lee begins Jan. 19, and the rolling world premiere of the football play Colossal is later in the spring

 

The Dallas Children's Theater (LOA) has had several new plays by in-house writer Linda Daugherty over the years, but nothing in 2014 (although it did an important area premiere with Mariachi Girl). In January 2015, Daughtery and Nick Martin’s Skippyjon Jones debuts.

 

Lyric Stage (COST) began 22 years ago with a focus on new musicals, and had an impressive number of premieres in its first 15 years, including Richard Cory, After the Fair and The Spectre Bridegroom. But when the focus shifted to preserving the classics with original orchestrations in 2007, the new works became sparse. But in 2014 Lyric had a world premiere with Blue Roses, a musical adaptation of The Glass Menagerie that I thought worked well considering the source’s untouchable status in the American drama canon.

 

Casa Mañana (COST) has stuck to the tried-and-true in recent years (sigh, Steel Magnolias again?), but its Theatre for Young Audiences arm, Casa Mañana Children’s Theatre, has presented a number of world premiere musicals lately. In 2014, that meant the world premiere of Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman’s Snow White and the Prince, as well as new musicals by Noah Putterman, who runs the children’s theater. Recently it was Here Comes Santa Claus.

 

Amphibian Stage Productions (SPT) in Fort Worth had a world premiere comedy, Bank Job by John Kolvenbach, in 2014; and is emphasizing new work in 2015 with the world premiere of Brentha Withers’ Don Quixote de la Mancha. It’ll begin the year with a reading of local playwright T.J. Walsh’s Pleading Infinity, and a few other readings will include weeks of residencies with playwrights Allison Gregory and David Davalos.

 

As a founding member of the National New Play Network, Kitchen Dog Theater (SPT) has been the local champ of new plays for more than a decade. It has given us a world premiere every May in its New Works Festival. In recent years, KDT has ramped up works by local/Texas-connected writers. Just look at this recent timeline:

  • 2012: Ruth by Dallas writer Vicki Caroline Cheatwood and Collapse by Southern Methodist University grad Allison Moore
  • 2013: Me Llama Cristina by former Dallasite Octavio Solis, in an NNPN Rolling World Premiere
  • 2014: Matt Lyle’s Barbecue Apocalypse; and the first Dallas One Minute Play Festival, which gave a whole bunch of local writers a fun and rewarding playwriting exercise
  • 2015: World premiere of Dallas writer Lee Trull’s Wilde/Earnest; and in the New Works Festival, WP of Meridith Friedman’s The Firestorm

 

In 2012, Second Thought Theatre (SPT) was part of the new play trend with Steven Walters’ Pluck the Day and Eric Steele’s The Midwest Trilogy; and in 2014, Walters’ Booth was a highlight.

 

Photo: Chuck Marcelo
Stiff at Fun House Theatre and Film

One of North Texas’ longest running theaters, Stage West (SPT), has given us the Texas Playwriting Festival for several years, and while its winners receive staged readings, two have had full productions: Larry Herold’s The Sports Page in 2012 and Richard Allen’s Starbright & Vine in 2014. In 2015, on their Studio Stage, they’ll do local writer Thomas Ward’s International Falls, which debuted at WaterTower’s Out of the Loop Festival several years back. Not a premiere, but a local writer.

 

In 2014, Theatre Three (SPT) gave the professional premiere of the locally created musical On the Eve, which had an acclaimed debut in Dallas in 2012; as well as the world premiere of Dallas resident Ronnie Claire Edwards’ Candy Barr’s Last Dance. In 2015, look for the world premiere of the musical The Kountry Girls by Texans Ken Murchison, Andy Clendenen and Sonny Franks.

 

Undermain Theatre (SPT) has a long history of world premieres, mostly by writers in New York’s experimental scene, such as Len Jenkin, whose plays Port Twilight (2009), Time in Kafka (2012) and Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel (2014) had their premieres here. 2013 saw the premiere of Sylvan Oswald’s Profanity, and recently we had Gordon Dahlquist’s Tomorrow Come Today.

 

Uptown Players, which is now the highest level of SPT in the area because of the Kalita Humphreys Theater’s seating capacity, has mainly done the premieres through its newish Pride Performing Arts Festival. In 2014, that brought us Bruce R. Coleman’s Mythical Beastie. In 2015, Uptown will return to Jamie Morris’ sitcom spoofs with the world premiere of Gilligan’s Fire Island.

 

In recent years, WaterTower Theatre’s world premieres have mainly come from groups participating in the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival; but in 2015 we’ll get a mainstage world premiere from a local writer, Vicki Caroline Cheatwood’s Monuments & Manicures.

 

For an easy count, here's the list of new works at the AEA professional theaters in 2014 (locally written work is highlighted):

  • Amphibian Stage Productions: Bank Job
  • Casa Mañana: Snow White and the Prince
  • Dallas Theater Center: The Fortress of Solitude
  • Kitchen Dog Theater: Barbecue Apocalypse
  • Lyric Stage: Blue Roses
  • Second Thought Theatre: Booth
  • Stage West: Starbright and Vine
  • Theatre Three: On the Eve and Candy Barr’s Last Dance
  • Undermain Theatre: Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel and Tomorrow Come Today
  • Uptown Players: Mythical Beastie

 

Here are my favorite new plays by local writers in 2014:

  1. Barbecue Apocalypse by Matt Lyle, Kitchen Dog Theater
  2. Booth by Steven Walters and Erik Archila, Second Thought Theatre
  3. Galatea by Jeffrey Colangelo and Katy Tye, PrismCo
  4. Stiff by Jeff Swearingen, Fun House Theatre and Film
  5. The Passing Show by Matthew Posey, Ochre House

Other memorable new works by local writers, in alphabetical order: The Ballad of Jane Elkins by Anyika Herod McMillan, Soul Rep Theatre Company | Christhelmet by Matthew Posey, Ochre House | Finishing School by Elaine Liner, One Thirty Productions | Karaoke Motel by Thomas Riccio, Dead White Zombies | mania/gift by Shelby-Allison Hibbs, Echo Theatre | Rose Nose Rhapsody by Lake Simons, Hip Pocket Theatre | Sleepwalker Man Walk Through Wall by John Leos, Sibling Revelry Productions | Teotl: the sand show by Jeffrey Colangelo, Cara Mía Theatre Co. and PrismCo. | Yes Virginia Woolf, There Is a Santa Claus by Jeff Swearingen, Fun House Theatre and Film

 

And here’s a sampling of new plays by North Texas writers coming in 2015:

  • Will Power’s Stagger Lee at Dallas Theater Center
  • Linda Daugherty and Nick Martin’s Skippyjon Jones at Dallas Children’s Theater
  • Lee Trull’s Earnest/Wilde at Kitchen Dog Theater
  • Jonathan Norton’s Mississippi Goddamn at South Dallas Cultural Center
  • Vicki Caroline Cheatwood’s Manicures & Monuments at WaterTower Theatre
  • Workshop of David Lozano and Lee Trull’s The Dreamers: Deferred Action, from Cara Mía Theatre Company at the Latino Cultural Center, which will eventually be a co-production with Dallas Theater Center
  • PrismCo. will expand the first show it created at SMU, called Prism
  • And you know Jeff Swearingen will come up with something devilishly clever for Fun House Theatre & Film

 

What did I miss? What new plays did you love in 2014, and what are you looking forward to in 2015? Tell us in a comment.

 

Special thanks to Dennis Yslas, the local Actor's Equity liaison, who helped me hash out the Equity stuff Thanks For Reading




Comments:

Gerald Fitzgerald writes:
Friday, January 2 at 2:06PM

What did I miss? What new plays did you love in 2014, and what are you looking forward to in 2015? Tell us in a comment. Journey To The Center Of The Earth at Pocket Sandwich Theatre. White People at Churchmouse Productions. None Of The Above at Churchmouse Productions. Sherlock Holmes On Ice at Pocket Sandwich Theatre. Santa Claus Vs The Martians at Rover Dramawerks (Camp Death Productions)

Taylor Cleghorn writes:
Friday, January 2 at 3:15PM

I don't know where you would put the world premier of a locally written and produced musical "Broken" that played for 2 weeks at Gilley's in Dallas. It was quite non-mainstream and it didn't do well because of that. I'm curious if the people of Dallas are good with non-traditional venues or outside-the-theater productions. Should all new works be done in the established theaters? Or, is there a market for the non-traditional exhibitions?

Mark Lowry writes:
Friday, January 2 at 6:22PM

Taylor, there definitely is a market for that material (several of my top choices were not at the established, pro theaters). I didn't see Broken, but we wrote about it on the site.


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The Year in New Plays
2014 was a banner year for new plays and musicals in North Texas. Here's why.
by Mark Lowry

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