Dallas — For nearly a year, I have interviewed theatermakers across North Texas who develop original work. Every month, I have several projects to choose from for my column (even in the “dead months”). Theater groups in DFW have certainly kept me very busy in that regard. I’ve interviewed so many theatermakers that I am quite optimistic about the creative energy within our area.
However, each time that I have attempted to start this essay, someone has died. Or some terrible event has happened across the globe. I have to shut my computer, because I just don’t want to ponder on this year anymore.
2016 has gradually evolved into a scenario from a Samuel Beckett play, where the endless amount of death and bad fortune has numbed the human spirit into a stupor. I’m like Vladimir (not the Putin variety) endlessly clinging onto the promise that bastard Godot might show up today. The cascade of events makes me question if art within North Texas has been too safe, even to the point of “why are we doing this?” I’ve heard from others that it’s “not cool” to be political in Dallas, that somehow our glossy city rises above the political sphere. It’s rare to see any kind of theater that directly confronts a contemporary event with truly bold strokes.
But then I’ll hop on to social media (as my scattered millennial mind will do), and I’ll see memes from DFW theater friends that declare how badass we’re all going to be in 2017. The one that keeps popping onto my feed is the Meryl Streep one which has a picture of her Miranda Priestly character from The Devil Wears Prada dramatically removing her sunglasses with the caption: Me in 2017.
Really? We’re going to be cold workaholics with amazing haircuts and just plow through the next (four) year(s)?
I think the time is ripe for artists in DFW to evaluate what they hope to accomplish within our city. Because real, authentic change can happen within communities through experiences with the arts.
However: Traditional models of theater are simply treacherous—almost impossible—to sustain.
As I wrote this, an espresso machine screamed, literally screamed. These are ideas that professionals know—and admit in private—but never talk about in public. It’s the nonprofit elephant in the room desperately demanding for an end-of-year donation at your theater’s NYE Party—but we try ignore the fact that our coffers are thin. Just keep the social media pumping with announcements; no one knows we’re in the red as long as we have a great photographer and graphic designer for the website. In case you haven’t learned from this election, Perception is Reality.
When I read the mission statements of theaters around town, phrases include “inspire people, engage our community, offer dynamic educational programs, illuminate the human experience.” Sounds wonderful…and vague. Perfect for a mission statement!
What I tend to see in practice, particularly as I have observed the new play sector over the past year, is something different. These general mission statements posted online don’t talk about maintaining a subscriber base, owning a building, or presenting world/regional premieres of nationally recognized playwrights…but those are the activities that appear to dominate the conversation. At times, I think the current “professional theater model” restricts creativity because the structure and financial obligations are quite rigid. You can’t take that many risks because you must keep the lights on. You need to reach the older patron base, but look at all the people you’re not reaching with that focus. Take into consideration the interactive culture of the younger generation, and traditional theater forms (sitting and watching a play quietly) simply don’t fit.
On top of that, there are real challenges occurring in our world with no one but pundits giving answers. Why aren’t artists guiding those conversations? Why do we need to see another revival of an American classic when our environment is crumbling due to human means? How can we promote another production on social media when the next thing on the feed is a video of children getting pulled out of rubble in Aleppo? What is the value of our theater in a world that is so careless with human life?
I’m calling for theatermakers to be more intentional about creating theater (in all forms) in DFW. I do believe a theater-going culture can develop in our city, but with clearer engagement and relevancy on the part of the theatermakers first. So with that in mind, I’m writing five things I hope to see in 2017.
1. Strengthened Collaboration between Artists and the City of Dallas
A surprising public tension erupted between artists and the City, beginning with the fire marshal shutdowns in the winter. As an outsider, I was surprised to hear that artists’ remorse towards the City had been brewing since the construction of the Meyerson Symphony Center in 1991. The public meetings in the summer only demonstrated a further lack of communication, continued into the ATTPAC deal, and flared up recently when the Office of Cultural Affairs announced that Big Thought would not fund the current summer programming at the cultural centers this summer. This last piece caused a flurry of activity on social media, but appears to be much ado about nothing as the OCA has stated that they are indeed funding those established programs. I sense broken trust and suspicion, sometimes rightfully placed. Since the OCA funds a great amount of organizations and artists through the city with a small staff, I don’t envy their position at all. Regardless, it is clear that these relationships need to be repaired, particularly when things like arts programming for our city’s children is at stake.
2. Creation of Stories about and for Dallas
More theater should be made about our community, our history, and shared to be made accessible for as many citizens as possible. We certainly have a rich history of source material to select from, as the city is filled with diverse pockets of knowledge and history that may fade away without cementing them into writing. I applaud companies like Cry Havoc Theater, which has been working on Shots Fired, a documentary-style piece on the July shooting in downtown. The teens in the company have been interviewing people who were at the protest that night, trying to find connections and make some sense of that horrible mark on our city. We’re living history right now, and we can’t learn from it if it is not recreated into works of art. Isn’t it something that a teen theater company is leading the charge of directly facing that event through theater, and not a professional company?
3. Investment in Local Playwrights
I applaud groups like The Aviary (led by Lauren Ferebee) who have offered developmental readings to help local writers hone their craft. However, there seems to be a canyon between having the play read among a group of friends and then having a theatre company invest even a public reading in your work. How can we develop the theater soul of Dallas without taking chances on Dallas writers? In my wildest dreams, I would love to see the major theaters in Dallas partner with an individual playwright, just to support the development of their voice for even a year.
4. Theater Into the Community
I’d love to see theaters challenge their definition of theater performance, by going out into the communities and creating theatre with ordinary people. I am excited to see how Dallas Theater Center’s Public Works project utilizes people in underserved communities in their production. I’m also interested in seeing theater appear beyond the walls of a traditional space, which frees the theatermakers from the typical restraints of “professional theater.” The time is ripe to break the rules. Holy Bone from Dead White Zombies will be testing the limits of performance in public spaces (along with a digital component). That will be a year-long experiment which will be one you should follow.
5. Plays that Force Us to Confront Something Difficult
We have enough entertainment spewing at us at all angles. Let’s make theater that is uncomfortable and opens a pathway for honest discussion. It can’t just be intellectually stimulating. I want to see work that addresses 21st century problems, through whatever lens available: immersive, realistic, Brechtian. All I’m going to say is that someone needs to produce Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and controversial Disgraced. Because we need to talk about it.
In closing, I call bullshit on our President-elect’s thoughts on my line of work: “The theater must always be a safe and special place.” To use one of his favorite words, “WRONG.”
Theater must challenge, promote community conversation, help us to remember our common identity, and reveal hard truths about the human experience.
In 2017: Make Theater Dangerous Again.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. She writes a column for TheaterJones called Work in Progress, which is conversations with playwrights, theatermakers and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
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