As my Facebook feed repeatedly reminds, 2016 was the worst year ever. Just don’t tell that to humans who lived during the first or second World Wars, or other wars, genocides and atrocities around the world. Yes, we lost a lot of cultural icons (Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder, Debbie Reynolds, Prince, David Bowie, Edward Albee, etc.). And we survived a brutal election season only to be deflated and sobered by the results, which, on the upside, should inspire some kick-ass art in the coming years.
I cannot lie: It was not a stellar year in the local theater scene. Sure, there were artistic triumphs, but relatively few compared to previous years. There were also some devastating developments for the scene and, if you’ll allow me to get a little personal, in the field of arts journalism. We lost several critics due to cut backs and changes in editorial direction at various publications, and space continues to dry up for arts coverage in the two major daily newspapers. (When we implore you to CLICK on stories and SHARE-SHARE-SHARE, we’re not joking.) It’s getting desperate, and will probably worsen. That is not good news for the arts.
I saw fewer shows than I've seen in many years as a theater writer: About 140 plays and musicals, which doesn't include dance and opera (in total, I saw 161, which is not even half of what some see). There are always shows I regret not catching (this year the biggest is Slave Letters at MBS Productions, either time). I still caught enough for my usual year-end essay on the scene. It's not as long this year. You're welcome.
In local theater, the boom of space we saw in recent years went kaput because of the fire marshal shut-downs of warehouses and galleries in Trinity Groves, the Design District and Deep Ellum. That sent many groups using those spaces to the Margo Jones Theatre and other spots, because they still can’t afford, or book, other spaces that host smaller companies. This is a problem we’ll continue facing.
On the other hand, Kitchen Dog Theater, which was a victim of a brief shut-down at its Design District space at the Green Zone, moved into a more stable temporary home at the Trinity River Arts Center and purchased a warehouse in the Northern Design District, for which it is raising money for renovation and possibly an opening in late 2018. It will be one of the few theater companies that owns its space.
One downside there is that KDT’s move meant that African American Repertory Theater, which had used the Trinity River Arts Center for several seasons, is looking for a new home. It didn’t have a fall season; I hope it hangs on.
We suffered another death of one of the pioneering founding producers at a professional theater when Rose Pearson of Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre died, after a years-long battle with cancer, in August. Her husband and co-founder, Bill Newberry, will take her position and work with managing director Tim Long for the theater’s future (the 2017 season should be announced soon).
The past six weeks brought devastating news for Sue Loncar. In late November, it was announced that her Contemporary Theatre of Dallas would close after 14 seasons. This is unsettling because CTD was one of the best-paying theaters in DFW, for actors, designers and directors. Then, Sue’s 16-year-old-daughter, Grace Loncar, a student at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, killed herself. A few days after Grace’s funeral, her father and Sue’s husband Brian Loncar, was found dead in the offices of the accident/injury law empire that bore his name.
Another major development happened with one of our biggest arts organizations, Dallas Summer Musicals. In DSM’s 75th season, longtime president and managing director Michael Jenkins was ousted, David Hyslop became interim managing director, and the group joined forces with the country’s biggest touring presenter, Broadway Across America. While the 2017 season, announced before the BAA merger, is notably uninteresting (AT&T Performing Arts Center snagged up all the best touring titles, An American in Paris excepted), look for future seasons to be highly competitive with ATTPAC’s touring presenter, Shorenstein Hays Nederlander (SHN). The big tell will be who gets the tour of Hamilton, which I’ll wager will hit Dallas in 2018 or 2019. But where?
It wasn’t all bad news, though. Two of Dallas’ Small Professional Theatres, Theatre Three and WaterTower, named new artistic directors: Local director/actor/designer Jeffrey Schmidt for T3, and Chicago-based director Joanie Schultz for WTT. Both terrific choices, and it’ll be exciting to see what they bring to their perspective theaters. WaterTower, by the way, had its best year maybe in the entire time I've been going to that theater, which is most of its 17 years. Productions of Lord of the Flies, The Big Meal, The Realistic Joneses, Bright Half Life and Outside Mullingar could have made any year-end list. Most of them have. (I didn't see the Johnny Cash show.)
In Fort Worth, two professional theaters also put new folks in charge: Dana Schultes at Stage West, who is already making her vision for newer work known; and William “Bill” Earl Ray at Jubilee Theatre. I’m looking forward to his development, even though I criticized his lack of including black playwrights in his first season he picked at the area’s longest running black theater. Benefit of the doubt for the future.
If you’ve read my year-end essays before, you know that I usually write way too much about trends observed. Not this year, because, honestly, there weren’t any major new ones. Some have expanded, such as the art of clown and magic (thank you PrismCo, Dustin Curry, NY Goofs, Trigg Watson, Cara Mía Theatre Company and Hip Pocket Theatre); some have flat-lined (new plays by local writers on professional stages are still happening, but nothing groundbreaking this year); others are dying off, such as interesting use of non-traditional spaces (see fire marshal issue).
I hope that new plays by local writers will get more national notice in future years. This year Jonathan Norton won the Osborn Award for 2015’s Mississippi Goddamn, but what needs to happen is a local writer having a work produced at a major regional theater, say the Goodman Theatre or Seattle Rep or the Denver Center. (Tip: Keep an eye on the locally born musical On the Eve and Steven Walters and Erik Archilla’s Booth.)
There was one off-stage trend that I found promising: Artist activism. This year we saw artists protest—through picketing and demonstrations and showing up at City Council meetings—a city “bailout” of AT&T Performing Arts Center. They organized against cultural inequity, and prompted conversation about neighborhood arts centers and the new controversy of diminishing funds for summer programs. David Lozano of Cara Mía Theatre led the charge here, and not long after his company finished one of the year’s notable collaborations, with Dallas Theater Center (an ATTPAC resident company) on the play Deferred Action, part two of Cara Mía’s plays exploring immigration. Good news for the future: These young artists are fueled to become politically active, so don’t expect the establishment-challenging to end anytime soon. Vicki Meek, who writes a monthly column for TheaterJones, is working with younger artists/activists on how to question local government and effectively organize.
I should point out a small trend this year, just a coincidence of play selections of works in which scene transitions are so delicately fast and efficient at space-and-time-jumping and mood-changing that it plays out seamlessly, given the director is on top of it. That happened this year with Nick Payne’s Constellations at Dallas Theater Center; and Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal and Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life, both at WaterTower Theatre. Loved all of them.
In a related note, shout-out to director Carson McCain, who made the scene transitions in Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan at Second Thought Theatre effortless and not distracting. That may seem small, but it’s a beef I have with productions of contemporary, intermissionless plays that have eight or more episodic scenes. It’s a contemporary playwriting formula I’d love to see fizzle.
Side note: Congrats to Second Thought for becoming DFW's newest Actor's Equity Association Small Professional Theatre (SPT).
The mention of Bright Half Life, and, below, Bootycandy at Stage West, brings up a point I'd like to put out there about LGBT stories on stage. BHL deals with an interracial lesbian couple, and Bootycandy's characters include black gay men and women. Let's have more L and T and LGBT of color stories, OK? Personally, I get bored when LGBT themes are dominated by white cisgender gay men (the category I fall into). The exception this year: Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches at Uptown Players, a play that transcends everything.
Moving on, another big positive for 2016: Women rule even more. Dana Schultes and Joanie Schultz taking lead positions at two of our biggest-budget SPTs is major. To boot, many of the year’s best directors were women: Christie Vela, Wendy Dann, Carson McCain, Susan Sargeant, Emily Scott Banks, Cheryl Denson, Katherine Owens, Wendy Welch, Kelsey Leigh Ervi, Shelby-Allison Hibbs, Mara Richards Bim, Penny Ayn Maas, Krista Scott, Robin Armstrong and Tina Parker. And while Sally Nystuen Vahle was the most notable woman to play a role traditionally cast as a man when she did Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Dallas Theater Center, we also saw Lydia Mackay as Marley in Carol, Christie Vela as the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet and Anastasia Muñoz as Brutus in Julius Caesar at Shakespeare in the Bar.
Speaking of Muñoz, we can look forward to what 2017 brings for her Winnetka Church Restoration Project, which swept past several city hurdles to renovate an old church in Oak Cliff for rehearsal, office and performance space.
One final note about the year before the list begins: Whither musicals? Yes, they were plentiful, but nothing was mind-blowing. Lyric Stage had its usual solid year, but no standouts, although let’s credit Penny Ayn Maas in her local professional directorial debut for Anything Goes at Lyric. Dreamgirls at Dallas Theater Center was good, and had one of my favorite moments of the year—Joel Ferrell’s direction of Marisha Wallace as Effie White in the iconic song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Casa Mañana delivered a good Jesus Christ Superstar, but I don’t know how to love that musical. On the horizon is Brick Road Theatre in Plano, which had its first breakout production with Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza. There’s a group to watch.
Now, on to the listy things.
Jessica Cavanagh for Outside Mullingar, WaterTower Theatre; and ’night, Mother, Echo Theatre (I didn’t see Light Up the Sky at Theatre Three)
Runner-up: Janelle Lutz, End of the Rainbow, Uptown Players and The Light in the Piazza, Brick Road Theatre
Blake Hackler, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale, Trinity Shakespeare Festival; and so go the ghosts of méxico – a brave woman of méxico at Undermain Theatre (also love his direction of 10 Out of 12 at Undermain)
Runner-up: Djoré Nance for Bootycandy, Stage West and Ruined, Bishop Arts Theatre Center (I didn’t see him in Soul Rep Theatre’s Topdog/Underdog)
DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR
Christie Vela, who had her first breakout in a string of great shows with the 2015 A Christmas Carol at Dallas Theater Center; and then knocked it out in 2016 with ’night, Mother at Echo Theatre; Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time at The Drama Club (co-directed with Jeffrey Schmidt); and Gloria at Dallas Theater Center. Not to mention she acted in Romeo and Juliet (as the Apothecary) and Deferred Action at Dallas Theater Center, and was especially terrific in A Kid Like Jake at Second Thought Theatre.
BEST SCENIC DESIGN
Large-scale: Jesus Christ Superstar, Casa Mañana
Small-scale: Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time, The Drama Club
BEST USE OF SPACE
Trainspotting, L.I.P. Service at the Rudy Seppy Rehearsal Space, Irving
BEST FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHY AND/OR VIOLENCE/GORE DESIGN
Gloria, Dallas Theater Center
Runners-up: Animal vs. Machine, PrismCo; Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time, The Drama Club; Feathers and Teeth, Kitchen Dog Theater
BEST THEATRICAL CURATION
Tim Johnson’s collection of Beckett and Beckett-inspired plays for A Stain Upon the Silence: Beckett’s Bequest, which included works by Sam Shepard/Joe Chaikin, Suzan-Lori Parks, Will Eno and a commissioned piece by Abe Koogler
BEST NEW THEATERS
This year there are three. None of them officially debuted in 2016 (all began in 2015), but they had breakout moments in 2016:
Brick Road Theatre in Plano, using live music and strong casting for musicals
Cry Havoc Theater, which had an excellent collaborative shows with youth actors, Shut Up and Listen, and one of the best productions in the Festival of Independent Theatres with Naomi Iizuka’s Good Kids. This week they offer another collaborative work, Shots Fired, about the Dallas police shootings.
The Tribe, which sadly folded after a strong trio of Janielle Kastner’s Ophelia Underwater, Ruben Carrazana’s Stacy Has a Thing for Black Guys and Claire Carson’s Hypochondria, because several of its twentysomething founders took off for other scenes. We wish them luck.
BEST YOUTH PRODUCTION
Shut Up and Listen, Cry Havoc Theater
Runner-up: Old McDonald’s Farm: A Children's Fable About the Obama Presidency, Fun House Theatre and Film
BEST SOLO PERFORMANCES
Brigham Mosley in Scarlett O’Hara and the War on Tara at the Dallas SoloFest
Rhonda Boutté in Beckett’s Rockaby and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pickling in A Stain Upon the Silence: Beckett’s Bequest at Kitchen Dog Theater
Max Hartman in Will Eno’s Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured in A Stain Upon the Silence: Beckett’s Bequest at Kitchen Dog Theater
Zoe Kerr in Janielle Kastner’s Ophelia Underwater from The Tribe at the Margo Jones Theatre
No question, it’s Barrett Nash, John Pszyk and Lulu Ward in Beckett’s Play from WingSpan Theatre Company.
Runners-up: Bootycandy at Stage West, The Nether at Stage West
BEST RESPONSE TO CURRENT EVENTS
The third One Minute Play Festival at Kitchen Dog Theater in August, which had several sections reacting to the July Dallas Police shootings
Runner-up: Citizen Drumpf at Ohlook Performing Arts Center. Funny stuff, needs tightening; not sure of its future after Drumpf’s surprising win.
There was some cool shadow puppetry in Maryam Baig Obaidullah’s Jo Chaho Tum in the Drama Club’s Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time, but the puppet to end all was the massive title creation in Hip Pocket Theatre’s The Lake Worth Monster, created by New York’s Basil Twist, operated by three performers.
Johnny Simons’ The Lake Worth Monster at Hip Pocket Theatre to end the group’s 40th season. Costumers, musicians and others who had been involved in previous incarnations of the show in the ’70s and ’80s were brought back to tell Simons’ autobiographical work. It was the first time for me to see the show that is legendary in Fort Worth. Glad to see that Simons’ work and aesthetic hasn’t changed in 40+ years.
BEST NEW PLAYS BY LOCAL WRITERS
Boomer Tyro is Coming Home by Bruce R. Coleman, produced by Uptown Players
Day Light by Bruce R. Coleman, produced by Theatre Three
Deferred Action by David Lozano and Lee Trull, co-produced by Dallas Theater Center and Cara Mía Theatre Company
Ophelia Underwater by Janielle Kastner, produced by The Tribe
Stacy Has a Thing for Black Guys by Ruben Carrazana, produced by The Tribe
BEST NEW PERFORMING ARTS FESTIVAL
Dallas Cabaret Festival, produced by Denise Lee Onstage at the Women’s Building in Fair Park. And yay, it's coming back in 2017!
Also new was the Fort Worth Fringe Festival, but I didn’t catch any of it because of medical issues.
OTHER FESTIVAL NOTES
Notable festival returns: Rhythm in Fusion Festival, Dallas DanceFest, Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, Festival of Independent Theatre, Dallas SoloFest, Teatro Dallas International Theatre Festival, Uptown Players' Pride Performing Arts Festival, One Minute Play Festival, the Dallas Symphony’s Soluna: International Music and Arts Festival
Alert: Out of the Loop is not happening in 2017 because of WaterTower’s transition to a new Artistic Director, and while I’m not sure what the future will bring, new Artistic Director Joanie Schultz has a history with new work and collaborating, so something similar will happen in the future. [Update since this article first posted] Dallas SoloFest will not happen in 2017 either, but founder Brad McEntire assures me that it will be retooled and return in 2018.
BEST TOURS (small-scale)
Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs in the ATTPAC Off-Broadway on Flora Series at Dallas City Performance Hall
Betroffenheit, Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre, presented by TITAS at Dallas City Performance Hall
Eric Bogosian’s Bitter Honey: The Best of 100 Monologues at the Wyly Theatre
Dave Malloy's Ghost Quartet presented in the ATTPAC Off-Broadway on Flora Series at LIFE in Deep Ellum, which was easily one of the most memorable evenings in a theater in years.
BEST TOURS (large-scale)
The Bridges of Madison County, Dallas Summer Musicals
Cabaret, ATTPAC Broadway Series
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, ATTPAC Broadway Series
1 Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches | By Tony Kushner
Uptown Players | Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas
Directed by Cheryl Denson
Uptown Players had a year of good-looking and well-acted and -directed productions of uninspiring or uninteresting plays and musicals, but brought it home where it counts, with one of the masterpieces of 20th century American theater. Of theater, period. Tony Kushner's epic dealing with the AIDS crisis, fate, religion, and many other themes featured a stunning fortress set (by H. Bart McGeehan) and an ace cast, many playing multiple roles, for a stirring, emotional production of a play that feels more timely than ever. Talk about setting the stage for Perestroika in 2017—in more ways than one.
2 Constellations | By Nick Payne
Dallas Theater Center | AT&T Performing Arts Center, Wyly Theatre, Sixth Floor Studio Theatre
Directed by Wendy Dann
How do you create a love story between a physics professor and a beekeeper? If you're Nick Payne, you show many possibilities or probabilities of their meeting and beyond in mircoscenes with heartbeat transitions. It helps to have a director like Wendy Dann and actors like Alex Organ and Allison Pistorius who can fine-tune it perfectly with Ryan Rumery's sound design and Steve Teneyck's lighting. Breathtaking.
3 Bootycandy | By Robert O’Hara
Stage West, Fort Worth
Directed by Akín Babatundé
When I interviewed O'Hara for a story in the Star-Telegram about this play (and his directing engagement of Bella: An American Tall Tale at Dallas Theater Center), he admitted he was surprised to see that a theater in the south was doing Bootycandy. The series of vignettes about growing up black and gay and an artist is outrageously dirty and intently provocative. Stage West, under the keen direction of Babatundé, handled it beautifully, with an all-in cast. Funniest show of the year. Laughter through gasps counts, right? As the final entry of SW's 2015-16 season, it also hinted the direction that newly appointed Executive Producer Dana Schultes might take, which, for 2016-17, would be a season of new(er) plays.
4 The Nether | By Jennifer Haley
Stage West, Fort Worth
Directed by Garret Storms
You might say this production, a few plays before Bootycandy, actually signaled the new direction for Stage West. Jennifer Haley's award-winning script deals with an icky subject (internet pederasty) and sets it a future in which virtual reality has become all too real. It's a layered, thrilling script with one hell of a twist, and Storms' production (he also co-designed an awesome set with Nate Davis) was riveting, thanks to the lead performances of Randy Pearlman and Allison Pistorius.
5 The Big Meal | By Dan LeFranc
WaterTower Theatre | Addison Theatre Centre
Directed by Emily Scott Banks
Life, love, celebration and death all come in waves for a family over several generations meeting at one restaurant, with the characters played by the same ensemble at different stages. So all four sets of actors (Alex Duva/Kennedy Waterman, Garret Storms/Kia Nicole, Jakie Cabe/Sherry Hopkins, John S. Davies/Lois Sonnier Hart) inhabit the parents at some point. Fantastic acting, and a quiet "passing" of actors, nicely staged by director Banks. Inventive and effective.
6 A Midsummer Night’s Dream & The Winter’s Tale | By William Shakespeare
Trinity Shakespeare Festival | Texas Christian University, Fort Worth
Midsummer directed by Stephen Brown-Fried; Winter directed by T.J. Walsh
Midsummer is the Shakespeare play I've seen most, because it's one of the Bard's most popular works and a delight when staged well; but it's never been better than in Stephen Brown-Fried's production for Trinity Shakes. Gorgeous production design, excellent ensemble work and the funniest gaggle of mechanicals ever, led by David Coffee as Bottom, a role that must have been written with him in mind. Paired with Walsh's thoughtful production of the more problematic Winter's Tale (featuring a great turn from J. Brent Alford as Leontes), these two made for quite the seasonal duo. One of Trinity Shakes' strongest seasons.
7 ’night, Mother | By Marsha Norman
Echo Theatre | Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas
Directed by Christie Vela
And sometimes you just want to see a fiercely acted and directed production of a play you forgot was great, until you see a production like this. Jessica Cavanagh as the daughter who announces she's going to kill herself, and Amber Devlin as the mother desperate to stop her, turned in two of the finest performances of the year.
8 Jonah | By Len Jenkin
Undermain Theatre, Dallas
Directed by Katherine Owens
Len Jenkin's long collaboration with Undermain has admittedly resulted in admirable but tough to love, densely metaphorical plays. This one, based on the biblical story of the man who was sent in another direction thanks to a large sea mammal, was his most accessible that I've seen, and Undermain wisely staged it in the round as if under a circus tent, which solved the frequent problem of the view-obstructing columns in that space. Owens and Jenkins spent extra time developing this at Sundance Theatre Lab, and it paid off.
9 The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane | Adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the book by Kate DiCamillo
Dallas Children’s Theater | Rosewood Center for Family Arts
Directed by Artie Olaisen
Thematically related to Jonah was this beautiful production of an engaging story about a toy rabbit who gets lost and goes on a wild adventure with various owners, including one with the sea. If you didn't tear up, you have no soul.
10 10 Out of 12 | By Anne Washburn
Undermain Theatre, Dallas
Directed by Blake Hackler
In 2015, Washburn's Mr. Burns, a post-electric play at Stage West was my number one show of that year. While these two plays are different in tone, it's fun to consider their similarities, notably a theme about the need to make theater and art. In the metatheatrical 10 Out of 12, which is a union term theater peeps use during their dreaded tech week—close to the end of the rehearsal process before a show goes into dress rehearsal, previews and opening—we see backstage theater types (stage manager, designers, crew members, etc.) going about normal, hectic business with a frustrated director and several diva/o actors. We also hear them, as the audience members have headsets and can hear the crew calling cues, discussing lunch and bitching. Undermain's production was a marvel of precision as relates to the minutiae of prepping a house where people will come to be entertained (in this way, it also reminds of Annie Baker's The Flick), and Paul Taylor, who was also great in Mr. Burns, delivered a knockout final speech. And the show goes on.
10 honorable mentions, in alphabetical order:
- Bright Half Life | WaterTower Theatre (Director: Garret Storms)
- Gloria | Dallas Theater Center (Director: Christie Vela)
- I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard | Kitchen Dog Theater (Director: Lee Trull)
- A Kid Like Jake | Second Thought Theatre (Director: Matthew Gray)
- The Lake Worth Monster | Hip Pocket Theatre (Director: Johnny Simons)
- The Light in the Piazza | Brick Road Theatre (Director: Wendy Welch)
- Long Day’s Journey into Night | Undermain Theatre (Director: Katherine Owens)
- Outside Mullingar | WaterTower Theatre (Director: René Moreno)
- Play | WingSpan Theatre Company (Director: Susan Sargeant)
- Stacy Has a Thing for Black Guys | The Tribe (Director: Jeffery Bryant Moffitt)
OUR 2016 YEAR IN REVIEW SERIES
- Thursday, Dec. 29: Comedy by Amy Martin
- Thursday, Dec. 29: Dance by Margaret Putnam
- Thursday, Dec. 29: Dance by Cheryl Callon
- Friday, Dec. 30: Classical music and opera by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
- Friday, Dec. 30: Classical music by J. Robin Coffelt
- Friday, Dec. 30: Broadway, cabaret and vocal recordings by Jay Gardner and James McQuillen
- Friday, Dec. 30: Dale Wheeler, DFW's theater's biggest super fan, lists his favorite shows
- Saturday, Dec. 31: Theater by Janice L. Franklin
- Saturday, Dec. 31: Theater by Martha Heimberg
- Saturday, Dec. 31: The year in Shakespeare by M. Lance Lusk
- Sunday, Jan. 1: Mark Lowry's essay on the year in theater with a Top 10
- Sunday, Jan. 1: Columnist Danielle Georgiou looks back at her year
- Sunday, Jan. 1: Columnist Shelby-Allison Hibbs gives her wish list for 2017
- Week of Jan. 2: More looking forward to 2017