Critics see a lot of productions each year because, well, that's the job. And we love it. In DFW, two of us—that would be yours truly and Dallas Morning News critic Nancy Churnin—see an awful lot each year, like around 175 for me (that includes dance and opera) or more for Nancy, who has been beating me in recent years. We also see a lot of patrons and notice the ones who frequently attend multiple theaters.
There are a few super patrons, such as Al Currie and Elaine Klobe, who we see more often than others. Al is fond of smaller and mid-size-budget theater and dance, and Elaine is one of those troupers who volunteers as an usher almost everywhere.
And then there’s Dale Wheeler. I see him so often at many different theaters, all over the Metroplex, that I asked him how many shows he sees. The number astounded me. It was more than double the amount of shows I see.
As of the most recent time I saw him, at Industry Night for The Book of Mormon at AT&T Performing Arts Center on Dec. 27, his number was at 421 for the year.
That's four hundred and twenty-one.
How is that even possible when there are only 365 days in the year (OK, 366 in 2016)? He sent me a spreadsheet that he keeps of everything he attends. It’s astonishing.
He goes to every possible matinee and evening performance. He sees professional, semi-pro, community and college productions. He goes to staged readings, and every Mama’s Party and cabaret performance he can. He also counts things like the eight shows in the Dallas Solo Fest, which you could catch on three or four nights, as eight shows. He saw everything at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, the Festival of Independent Theatres and the Fort Worth Fringe Festival. A few he sees more than once.
And here’s the kicker: He pays for them. Senior discounts and a lot of pay-what-you-can performances, but still. Not only does he buy subscriptions and tickets, he often donates to smaller companies like DVA Productions. “I think they need the money more than I do.”
Wheeler, 69, a Burleson resident, is a retiree from Lockheed-Martin, where he was a computer programmer. He and his wife moved to Texas in 1983, became foster parents and adopted three special needs children, who now live in group homes in Corpus Christi. When his wife died in 2006, he continued to work to “have something to do.”
He fell in love with theater as a kid after seeing a live broadcast of Peter Pan with Weatherford native Mary Martin. He became involved in theater in high school and college (he played Peter in The Zoo Story, for one), and theater-going became a part of his life. In Louisville, Kentucky, he and his wife attended touring shows. In Texas, he took his kids to Casa Mañana. He saw shows in London, on Broadway, and on tour. After his wife passed, he started seeing more local theater, learning about the local theater scene.
The Theatre Three program, which lists other local productions, led him to WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, and there he found out about a new website covering theater and the performing arts in town. Ahem. He started going to more and more shows.
“I had heard it said that when you retire you should do what you enjoy,” he says. “I decided that what I like is live theater.”
And he likes what he sees here.
“I believe the talent I’ve seen in this area is in many cases better than some of the touring shows,” he says. “I wish that the area would be able to have a black box multiplex where young companies can develop new work without having large rental overhead or concerns about being shut down by occupancy approval.”
So, considering that he sees much more theater than anyone in town (if you see more than Dale, please stand up), I asked him to send me his 10 favorite productions of the year. Which he gladly did.
“My first cut yielded 35 shows which I have winnowed to 10,” he says. “The list is in chronological order in which I saw them. I also did not include in this consideration individual festival shows, e.g. Liberté, Egalité, Adoptée [at Dallas Solo Fest] which I also enjoyed. There were many shows which could have made the list, but these are the ones which were memorable in concept, language, performance and influence on my psyche.”
Without further ado, let's hear it from the theater patron of the year. Any year, it seems.
Dale Wheeler’s 10 favorite shows of 2016:
Slave Letters, MBS Productions at the Stone Cottage, Addison (January)
Temple Spirit, Echo Theatre at the Show Place Theatre, Fair Park (March)
The End of the Rainbow, Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas (April)
Animal vs. Machine, PrismCo at various venues, Dallas (April)
The Scenic Route, The Core Theatre, Richardson (July)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series at Winspear Opera House, Dallas (August)
Death the Musical II: Death Takes a Harmony, Pocket Sandwich Theatre, Dallas (August)
The Light in the Piazza, Brick Road Theatre at Courtyard Theatre, Plano (October)
Ruined, Bishop Arts Theatre Center, Oak Cliff (November)
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas (November)
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