Dallas — Yes, we know we're already a week-and-some-change into 2016, but we needed a little more time to assess the year that was 2015 in terms of performing arts newsmakers and how unexpected losses, changes in venues and leadership and artistic vision affected the scene. These things don't make it on the radar for the mainstream broadcast media in town, but we were keeping store. Here we go:
1 Death of Jac Alder
On May 22, 2015, we lost a giant in the arts scene. Jac Alder wasn't just the co-founder of Dallas' Theatre Three and the longest serving artistic director in American regional theater, with more than 50 years at T3, he was one our most vocal advocates for the arts in this town. He went to city council meetings, met with policymakers on state and local levels, and fiercely defended the arts and not just their economic impact, but their importance in education and toward a better quality of life. His death came on the heels of another T3 great, Terry Dobson, whom Alder had mentored. Alder was a mentor for so many writers, actors and artists who now create work all over the country, including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright. It was as profound a blow as the loss of Stage West's Jerry Russell a few years earlier. But of course, the show goes on. Another of Alder's mentees, Bruce R. Coleman, was named Acting Artistic Director; and Merri Brewer was later hired as Managing Director. In a few months, the 2016-'17 season for Theatre Three will be announced—the first one chosen under Coleman's leadership. There's little doubt that T3 will go on, and there will probably be changes over time; but the entire arts community is poorer for losing Alder's irreplaceable voice. TheaterJones was fortunate to have him write a monthly column for the last year-and-a-half of his life, which he wanted to call "Bit by Bit" from Sondheim's song "Putting It Together," from Sunday in the Park with George. Here is the last of those, in March 2015, which links to the others in the series that he began in September 2013.
2 Huge Year for The Dallas Opera
There were four events that made 2015 a monumental year for the Dallas Opera. Three of them were world premiere operas, and two of those by composers who are arguably the most successful of contemporary opera composers: Jake Heggie and Mark Adamo. The fourth event was the inaugural Institute for Women Composers, and if you don't immediately understand why that's important, then why are you even reading an arts site?
Some of you are probably thinking, "so what, our theater company does six new plays a year." Yeah, that's great. The significance of The Dallas Opera's three new works in one calendar year—Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer's Everest in January, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's Great Scott in October and Mark Adamo's Becoming Santa Claus in December—is major is multipronged. For one, until about 10 years ago, you could barely find one new opera on any major American opera company's season. Now new operas are commonplace, and we couldn't be happier about it. TDO's three works were among the nearly 40 major new operas debuting in the U.S. last year.
On any major opera company's season, you regularly see a new work mixed in with the favorites and rarities of the canon. But three of them in one year? (Everest was in the 2014-15 season, and Great Scott and Becoming Santa Claus in the 2015-16 season.) And from an organization with that large of a budget? Incredible, considering they stand to lose more from such risks. (Dallas Opera's last reported annual budget was more than $14 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year.)
To boot, none of these operas was conventional, especially not Great Scott, which had to be its most expensive commission considering not just the names of the creators but that the cast featured three major international opera stars: Joyce DiDonato, Frederica von Stade and Nathan Gunn. Also, the director was a major, Tony-winning name in the theater world: Jack O'Brien. And Great Scott is not an easy sell: An opera about opera and the art of making art? With the backdrop of a newly discovered bel canto work, and with a contemporary story (which means modern clothing, not exactly what the opera crowd loves) and a plot that includes football? Talk about taking chances. Even with Heggie and McNally's names attached, my guess is that Great Scott will be the toughest of the three to sell to other companies (San Diego Opera signed on as a co-presenter and will stage it this year, without DiDonato) for those reasons. Yes, it's heavy on an inside joke, but we see that in theater and dance all the time? Why not opera?
We have yet to hear about future commissions for the Dallas Opera, but with 2015 setting a standard, we're expecting more.
Taking risks is important and scary for any performance company of any budget size, but it seemed especially significant for The Dallas Opera in 2015.
3 Four World Premieres at Dallas Theater Center
With most of the local focus on world premieres at The Dallas Opera this year, we somehow glossed over the fact that another large-budget arts organization, the Dallas Theater Center (about $8 million in 2013-14), had four premieres in its 2015 calendar year: the long-in-development Stagger Lee by Will Power and Justin Ellington; Andrew Hinderaker's Colossal, which was part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere; Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally's Moonshine: That Hee-Haw Musical, and Samuel D. Hunter's Clarkston. The former two were in the 2014-15 season; while Moonshine and Clarkston are in the current 2015-16 season, which will also bring us the world premiere of David Lozano and Lee Trull's Deferred Action in May—so that makes three premieres in one season.
This is big news and a feather in the cap of Kevin Moriarty, who has been a champion of new works since he came on the scene eight years ago. The Dallas Theater Center gave us very few world premieres in the Adrian Hall and Richard Hamburger eras.
For a regional theater rising on the national radar, new works are key. We'll know what 2016-17 brings when the season is announced in a few months, but for one, we already know that DTC has commissioned three local playwrights, Matt Lyle, Jonathan Norton and Steven Walters, for plays in future seasons. We expect the new titles to keep a'coming, and hopefully some of them will continue their lives at other regional theaters.
4 The Golden Apple Recorded
In the past nine years, Irving's Lyric Stage has changed the game with musical preservation. It has restored original orchestrations of classic musicals and presented them in professional, fully staged productions with full orchestras. Those have included the warhorses, such as the five major Rodgers and Hammerstein titles, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof. But Lyric's Steven Jones and Jay Dias have also been committed to gems from the canon that are rarely produced, such as Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark and, in 2014, The Golden Apple, a 1954 Homer-inspired work with music by Jerome Moross and lyrics by John LaTouche. Directed by Stefan Novinski, it featured DFW performers Christopher J. Deaton, Danielle Estes, Janelle Lutz, Andy Baldwin and Deborah Brown. In 2015, a two-CD cast recording of that production was released, the first time the score has been recorded in its entirety. It's a beautiful recording, sung and played the way it was meant to be heard. Most of these songs never made it into the commonly known repertoire for musical theater, but you occasionally hear the Act I song "Lazy Afternoon" on solo albums (such as on Betty Buckley's fantastic 2014 release Ghostlight). On the Lyric Stage recording, you'll hear that song performed by Estes, and the strings in Jay Dias' orchestra? Sublime. There have been cast recordings for local productions before, but I can't think of one with this level of sound and production quality. A must-have for your showtunes collection.
5 More Dance for TITAS
In the mid-1990s, I was a subscriber to TITAS (before becoming an arts writer), and performances by international dance groups like Sankai Juku and Nrityagram opened my eyes to forms of dance beyond ballet and American contemporary. TITAS has often sprinkled lesser known groups into its seasons of bigger name dance companies, and there seemed to be less of that through much of the 2000s. Executive Director Charles Santos has plugged those in, though, and over the past few seasons, we've seen some great groups make their Dallas premieres because of him, such as the stunning area premieres of Israel's Kibbutz Contemporary Dance and Shen Wei Dance Arts in 2014. In 2015, not only did Santos keep that record going, but with the 2015-16 season, TITAS nixed the music series that had always been part of the TITAS seasons and went strictly dance. The result is we get a bigger season that brought in the first stop of Twyla Tharp's 50th Anniversary tour, along with fellow modern giant David Parsons, but also the area premieres of Akram Khan Company, Mr. and Mme Rêve and Kidd Pivot. Santos is able to do this because of the availability of Dallas City Performance Hall, which has one-third of the seating as the Winspear Opera House. But he's also doing this because he has tremendous vision about the future of dance. We hope the next season is even more exciting.
6 Dallas and Fort Worth Join Forces
For many years it was thought there was competition for audiences with arts groups in Dallas and Fort Worth. But honestly (and sadly), there are surprisingly few people who will drive to the other side of the Metroplex for a piece of theater. That revelation may have changed the game for two of North Texas' three touring musical presenters: Dallas Summer Musicals and Performing Arts Fort Worth. In previous years, they had occasionally shared a national tour, with a show stopping for two weeks at the Music Hall at Fair Park and then one week at Bass Performance Hall. But in 2015, they combined marketing forces. The result: Four tours were shared by both cities, and three of them back-to-back (Cinderella, Dirty Dancing and Pippin) and another, Kinky Boots, with several months between the Dallas and Fort Worth stops. It must have worked out, because the 2015-16 Broadway seasons for both groups share multiple shows: The Sound of Music, Disney's The Little Mermaid and 42nd Street.
Interestingly, although there was no coordinated sharing of resources, PAFW also got two tours, in different seasons, that had been at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas just months prior: Once (Bass Hall in February, ATTPAC in 2014) and Motown the Musical, which was at ATTPAC in July and opens at Bass Hall this week.
Also in this category, Addison's WaterTower Theatre and Fort Worth's Stage West co-produced a show in both their 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, The Explorer's Club and Sexy Laundry, respectively. Same casts and artistic teams, in two different spaces with different subscribers and single ticket buyers. Combined resources. Smart.
7 Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts Expands Reach
Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts has collaborated with local professional arts groups for years, notably Dallas Theater Center. And without a doubt, the school offers some of the best college performances of theater, dance and music in town, not to mention has venues regularly used by music outfits such as Dallas Chamber Music Society and Voices of Change. But in 2015, Meadows expanded its reach into the community in interesting ways, and one of them was, we have to admit, pretty unexpected.
The school announced an Arts and Urbanism Initiative, in which it would focus on bringing art and artists to the Southern Dallas sector. Before that was announced, the project, spearheaded by Clyde Valentín, worked with TeCo Theatrical Productions to bring in the fantastic one-weekend show The Clothesline Muse. Then in November, they brought in Detroit-based hip-hop artists Complex Movements to create an original show called Beware of the Dandelions. You can read our interviews with Complex Movements here, and with Valentín here. And here's our review of Dandelions.
In other Meadows news, the school collaborated with Dallas VideoFest and Dallas Chamber Symphony for a spectacular event in which the silent film Metropolis was screened at Dallas City Performance Hall, accompanied by an original score (played by DCS) and danced by SMU students with imaginative choreography by SMU's Christopher Dolder. One of our favorite arts happenings of the year.
8 Troubles for Fort Worth Symphony
This is an ongoing story, but in 2015, the administrators and musicians of the Fort Worth Symphony began negotiations to restore the musicians' pay, which was cut by 13.5 percent in 2010 to make up for losses incurred with the recession began.
As of last week, the orchestra management has not budged, and wants a year-long pay freeze, even after the FWSO has saved $2.3 million in musicians salaries since the cuts began.
Could a musicians strike be next?
9 Leadership Changes
In 2015, several major arts groups saw changes in leadership, some spawned by unexpected events in 2014 or 2015. For many, we won't know the results until later in 2016. That list includes:
- Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre, which lost its second artistic director since founder Rudy Eastman's death in 2004. The bright, young Tre Garrett was dismissed because of legal troubles. The theater wisely didn't talk much about it, and is now embarking on a search for a new artistic director, although without the help of a national search firm that found Garrett and his predecessor, Ed Smith. As I said in my 2015 recap of theater, here's hoping Garrett's replacement has the vision to take risks and deliver a well thought-out season, brining Jubilee into the national theater conversation.
- In 2014, Dallas Black Dance Theatre hired a replacement for retiring founding Ann Williams, and seems like it wasn't too long into 2015 when April Berry left, and we're still not sure exactly what happened. Williams is back on board in the interim; hopefully there'll be an announcement of a new artistic director in 2016.
- After the devastating death of Bruce Wood in 2014, in 2015 Kimi Nikaidoh was named the new artistic director of Bruce Wood Dance Project. Nikaidoh was a Bruce Wood Dance Company dancer when the group was based in Fort Worth, and knows his movement vocabulary well. She also has the vision to bring in new choreographers, from within the company and outside. At the end of 2015, we found out that in 2016, the BWDP dancers have 40 weeks of work lined up, including rehearsals for the company's big performances in the summer and spring, as well as appearances in festivals both local and national. That's major.
- In 2015 the retirement of Jim Covault, Co-producer and Artistic Director at Stage West, was announced, for the end of the 2015-16 season. Covault has been with Stage West almost since the beginning, and had been groomed by Jerry Russell to take over the theater since the early 2000s. Covault shares producer credits with Dana Schultes. Looking forward to seeing what the theater announces for his replacement this year.
10 New Venues
The big news in venues in 2015 came with Kitchen Dog Theater, which lost its longtime home at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Uptown, and the Dallas Comedy House, which needed to expand into a bigger Deep Ellum home. Kitchen Dog opened its 25th season in September at a temporary new home in the Green Zone in the Design District, a venue built by Claude Albritton, who was also behind the MAC. The group is raising money for a new home, reportedly in the Cedars area. The Dallas Comedy House opened a new spot with expanded space for performances, classes and more. And we'd be remiss not to mention the new digs for Bruce Wood Dance Project, which now has a terrific studio space in the Design District for rehearsals and, as we saw at the end of 2015, swanky big-ticket cabaret affairs.
2015: Year in Review
- Monday, Dec. 28 Margaret Putnam's Year in Dance
- Monday, Dec. 28 Cheryl Callon's thoughts on the year in dance
- Monday, Dec. 28 Katie Dravenstott's thoughts on the year in dance
- Monday, Dec. 28 Columnist Danielle Georgiou's Year
- Tuesday, Dec. 29 Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' Year in Classical Music and Opera
- Tuesday, Dec. 29 J. Robin Coffelt's thoughts on the year in classical music
- Tuesday, Dec. 29 M. Lance Lusk's Year in Shakespeare
- Wednesday, Dec. 30 Jan Farrington's thoughts on the year in theater
- Wednesday, Dec. 30 Martha Heimberg's thoughts on the year in theater
- Wednesday, Dec. 30 David Novinski's thoughts on the year in theater
- Thursday, Dec. 31 Amy Martin's thoughts on the year in comedy
- Friday, Jan. 1 Mark Lowry's Year in Theater
- Sunday, Jan. 10 TheaterJones writers look forward to 2016
- Monday, Jan. 11 The top performing arts news of the year