The Dallas Theater Center Has One Hell of a Year—and a Tony
DFW’s only LORT theater, in the year that marks 10 years of Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty, had many highpoints. The biggest, of course, was winning the Regional Theatre Tony Award, an honor recommended by the American Theatre Critics Association and given a final vote by the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League.
Onstage, DTC had the first Public Works program outside of New York, with Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This project gave us a memorable production featuring five professional actors and 200 community members. They will repeat this in the summer of 2018 with The Winter’s Tale. DTC also staged two of its finest commissioned works to date: Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi, the best world premiere play of Moriarty’s era, and Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn’s Hood: The Robin Hood Musical Adventure, the second-best new musical (after Fly by Night).
And, after years of big ideas and gimmicky concepts, Kevin Moriarty had three major directorial successes this year, all reimagined—one of them radically. The outdoor Electra, which moved the audience through four spaces in Strauss Square with the backdrop of under-construction buildings reminding of Greek ruins, was quite the experience. His 50th anniversary revival of the musical Hair at the Wyly, with the audience sitting in differently themed areas, was wild and exciting. Most radical was his revival of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, which had its world premiere in Dallas in 1955. Moriarty modernized and cast it without regard to color or gender, and the results were astonishing. (See more about these shows in my year-end essay about the DFW theater scene.) It was such a thrilling year that DTC’s excellent production of Lucas Hnath’s unconventionally structured The Christians, a play I love, wasn’t a stand-out.
Such a great year ended with a thud, though, as Director of New Play Development Lee Trull was fired for inappropriate behavior, and TheaterJones broke the story about Trull’s history of harassment, assault and abuse of power. For more on that, see the item on sex scandals below.
Changes at DFW’s Major Operas and Orchestras
In February, in a shocking move, Darren K. Woods was fired as General Director of the Fort Worth Opera. It was a surprise because he transformed that company, defining it as an opera that champions new work and wasn’t afraid to take on such challenging pieces as the opera of Angels in America and Dave T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s Dog Days. He was fired before the 2017 festival, reportedly because he overspent and put the company deep in the red. The 2017 festival happened, and in late summer, the opera announced his replacement, Finland-born Tuomas Hiltunen, who came in and restructured the staff and canceled the previously announced Das Rheingold in the 2018 Fort Worth Opera Festival—too costly. (That Wagner work was not programmed by Woods.) We’ll see where next year takes the company. A previously planned world premiere commission, about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, was announced for 2020.
Then late in 2017 came another opera surprise: the resignation of Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera, leaving to run the smaller Calgary Opera. Cerny’s accomplishments in seven years include getting the budget evened out, commissioning several new works with major stars, starting the Women’s Conducting Institute, and beginning a program of live simulcasts for the operas. Kern Wildenthal becomes the interim General Director.
Cerny was not the only high-level change, Jonathan Martin, CEO of the Dallas Symphony, resigned, in what is the last season for Music Director Jaap van Zweden, who will take his previously announced post at the New York Philharmonic with the 2018-’19 season. A few days before the end of the year, they DSO hired Kim Noltemy as President and CEO.
Meanwhile in Fort Worth, Amy Adkins, President of the Fort Worth Symphony, resigned after a season that was half shut-down due to the musicians’ strike in the last half of 2016. David Hyslop, who had been the interim director at Dallas Summer Musicals (see below), temporarily stepped in, but he was soon out. Look for an administrative replacement in 2018. Here’s hoping they get it together—in early 2018 the FWSO announced it had reached its goal for a challenge grant from the Amon Carter Foundation, and will receive $3 million.
Broadway Across North Texas
The Broadway touring game changed big-time in DFW, with Dallas Summer Musicals, which in 2016 severed ties with longtime president Michael Jenkins, announced a partnership with the biggest touring presenter in the country, Broadway Across America. This means that Dallas Summer Musicals now has the best chance at scoring the major tours, and snagged Hamilton and Aladdin for the 2018-19 season, using that to sell tickets to an excellent line-up in its 2017-18 season. Performing Arts Fort Worth, which books tours at Bass Performance Hall, looks to keep its partnership with DSM, double-booking some shows back-to-back in both cities (don’t expect that for Hamilton, though). The AT&T Performing Arts Center, meanwhile, is still booking good titles, so that means there’s currently a lot of product out there. But while the 3,000+ seat Music Hall at Fair Park might be great for blockbuster shows like Hamilton, Wicked and The Lion King, it remains to be seen if it can sustain smaller titles like Waitress. Megahits like Hamilton, on which season subscriptions can be leveraged, are rare.
Dallas Black Dance Theatre Looks to the Future
Dallas Black Dance Theatre hired Bridget L. Moore, its second Artistic Director since founder Ann Williams retired. (The first was April Berry, who was short-lived with DBDT). Moore, a Dallas native and Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts graduate, has already recharged the company, choreographing some of her own work and using choreographers from within and outside the company, as well as repeating some of DBDT’s repertoire. We’re expecting big things from her.
Administration Changes in DFW Theaters
WaterTower Theatre and Theatre Three each announced their new artistic directors, Joanie Schultz and Jeffrey Schmidt, respectively, at the end of 2016. But in 2017, Schultz and Schmidt gave us their first seasons and have already marked pronounced changes in their respective organizations. Exciting news for DFW. Meanwhile, also at WaterTower, Gregory Patterson resigned as managing director and Nicholas Even was hired in that role.
Another big change came when Cora Cardona announced she was “retiring” from the company she founded, Teatro Dallas, after 30 years. “Retiring” is in quotes because she’ll still be involved, directing shows and helping book the International Theatre Festival. In the fall, Nestor Eduardo Estrada was announced as the new Executive Director.
Also of note, Kyle McClaran, the longtime Artistic Director of Garland Civic Theatre, resigned. He was the only full-time position at the theater, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017.
In Fort Worth, William “Bill” Earl Ray, who was hired as the new Artistic Director for Jubilee Theatre in 2016, was released. There’s a search for his replacement. That person would be the fourth AD since co-founder Rudy Eastman died in 2005.
At Circle Theatre, Bill Newberry, widower of the late Rose Pearson, announced he was retiring as Executive Director, a position he took when Pearson died in 2016. Timothy Long moves into that position, and there is a search for an Artistic Director, a position the theater has not had before.
And at Amphibian Stage Productions, Lindsey Retcofsky moved into the managing director role, joining Artistic Director Kathleen Culebro.
The Arts in DFW Has a Huge Economic Impact
Nearly half a billion dollars, in fact. That was the latest finding from Americans for the Arts, which conducts an economic impact study every five years. This time they studied not only Dallas and Fort Worth, but also Irving, Richardson and Lewisville. You can see the full study here. And still, the big newspapers (and other print/digital publications) are pulling back on arts coverage. For shame.
DFW Arts Scene Mourns Losses
Well-loved director René Moreno died in the spring of 2018, a shock to everyone. Other artistic greats we lost this year include Dallas Black Dance Theatre dancer Darrell Cleveland, dance educator Kim Abel, choreographer Tanju Tuzer, former Bruce Wood dancer Doug Hopkins, dance educator Janice La Pointe-Crump, Fort Worth actor Michael Goggans, and Dallas actress Barbara Bierbrier.
The Cliburn Expands Reach
In June, the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition added rounds to the quadrennial competition, but also added live streaming via Medici.tv, and the final rounds in cinemas around the world. Organizers say more than four million people around the world saw the event. South Korean Yekwon Sunwoo won the Gold Medal.
An Interesting Year for Lyric Stage
Steven Jones’ lauded musical theater company, which began as a place for new musicals and then focused on restoring orchestrations for classic musicals, performed in big productions with full orchestras, returned to its former mission of new works in 2017. It had two new musicals, Larry Gatlin’s Quanah and a musical based on the film Pure Country, in the first half of the year. Quanah became the theater’s biggest seller ever, despite suffering whitewashing backlash because the title character of a Comanche chief was played by David Phelps, a white actor. Pure Country received middling reviews. Then, in a big surprise, Jones announced that Shane Peterman would become producer, and after 25 years at the Irving Arts Center, the company would move to the Majestic Theatre in downtown. The first show there was The Hunchback of Notre Dame in November. It continues the 2017-18 season with Daddy Long Legs and Guys and Dolls.
Whitener and Posey Attacked
Early in 2017 there were two physical attacks on DFW artistic directors. Derek Whitener of the Firehouse Theatre in Farmer’s Branch was hit on the head in the parking lot of Target at CityPlace in Dallas, and was in recovery for some time. He’s back in the game now. Then, Matthew Posey, founder of the Ochre House, was shot in the face outside a bar in Exposition Park. Some surgery and dental work later, and he was back to making the original, experimental theater for which Ochre is known.
Sex Scandals and #NotInOurHouse
2017 was a year for outing men for abusing their power and engaging in sexual misconduct in Hollywood, creative industries and politics. In response to this reckoning, TheaterJones started an essay series, written by Allison Hibbs, called The Whisper Network. In December, we broke the story about Lee Trull, who was fired from Dallas Theater Center, after abuse of power and allegations of misconduct. Meanwhile, Joanie Schultz and leaders of other Theatre Communications Group (TCG) theaters had been planning an artist town hall to discuss the Chicago Code of Standards, put in place after the Profiles Theatre exposé in 2016. Schultz brought in Laura T. Fisher of #NotInOurHouse Chicago, and in the wake of the Trull firing, the tone changed. But it looks like DFW theaters are working together to create our own code of conduct. Progress is being made.
Other DFW theaters—Second Thought Theatre, Kitchen Dog Theater and Stage West—cut ties with Trull, and a musical adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Trull, playwright Kate Hamill and local composer Shawn Magill for Dallas Theater Center, was dead in the water as Hamill and Magill pulled out of the project.
Broadway Gets a Major Genie
Major Attaway, the Fort Worth native who grew up performing at Jubilee Theatre and later worked at Theatre Three, Theatre Arlington, Dallas Theater Center, and elsewhere, landed a plum role in 2017: Genie in the Broadway production of Aladdin. He had been an understudy, and took over when Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart exited the show. Attaway was given the opportunity to audition when he was referred by playwright Doug Wright, who saw Attaway in a Theatre Three production of his musical Hands on a Hard Body. Other former North Texans working on Broadway in 2017 included Jonathan Fielding and Akron Watson in The Play That Goes Wrong.
The Star-Telegram Axes Arts Coverage
It’s no secret that daily newspapers are still declining because of ad revenue losses, and that arts writers have been on the chopping block around the country—those who weren’t axed in the first few years of the newspaper decline in the mid-to-late 2000s, that is (I was one of those). In 2017, the papers in Louisville and Cincinnati were just a few that cut full-time arts writers and slashed freelance budgets even more because of trends with digital traffic (the Louisville paper might not cover the Humana Festival as much as it has in the past). The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, under the new leadership of executive editor Lauren Gustus, a former sports writer in the busting arts hub of Fort Collins, Colo., decided that Cowtown’s newspaper of record no longer needed arts writing, or not nearly as much of it—and in the interest of disclosure, that cut yours truly out of a big chunk of my income. Remember that we’re talking about Fort Worth, a city that boasts one of the most important classical music competitions in the world (The Cliburn), has three world-class museums in its Cultural District (The Kimbell, the Modern and the Amon Carter), a buzzed-about opera company, DFW’s biggest ballet that’s led by an internationally known name (Ben Stevenson), five Equity theaters, and is contributing significant new works of theater, dance, opera and classical music into the arts ether. Several newspapers in major cities with significant arts scenes have cut back—the Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, no longer has full-time arts critics, but uses freelancers—but the Star-Telegram becomes the largest-circulation newspaper in a Top 10 Metropolitan Statistical Area to cut arts reviews completely. Huge embarrassment for a city with the tagline of “Cowboys and Culture” to have a paper of record that basically tells the arts organizations they don't matter. So much for that big economic impact, as reported above.
A Venue Name Change, with Grants
Houston’s Moody Foundation came to North Texas with a plan for the city-owned Dallas City Performance Hall, which included a name change—it’s now Moody Performance Hall—and announced that the foundation is accepting grant applications for small art organizations, with a maximum of $7,500 per grant. More about that here.
Arts Organization Exits
After 20 years, Theatre Britain—which for some years in the middle of its history only stayed on the scene via its annual Christmas panto—called it quits, with its 2017 season being its last. Founders Sue and Ian Birch are moving back to England. Here’s hoping some group takes up the panto tradition here. We also said goodbye to the excellent chamber music outfit the Hall Ensemble in Fort Worth. New on the scene was Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, and the American Baroque Opera and Lumedia Music. In 2018, look for a new theater company, Imprint Theatreworks, to debut with Glengarry Glen Ross.
Lenny Bruce Sees America
Or, Joey Folsom as Lenny Bruce in the one-man play Lenny Bruce is Back. After performances at several DFW venues, the show, presented under the banner of Upstart Productions, toured to Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville and New York, where it played in the United Solo Festival (another local United Solo entry was Justin Lemieux’s Warm Soda). Bren Rapp of Fun House Theatre and Film produced Lenny, and is next taking Jeff Swearingen’s play Stiff, which premiered in 2014, off-Broadway with an adult cast. It runs in February. To help prepare for that, there will be a benefit performance of Swearingen’s Daffodil Girls, a funny riff on Glengary Glen Ross, featuring stars of DFW theater, including Tina Parker, Sherry Jo Ward, Emily Scott Banks, Marianne Galloway, Whitney Holitik, Kim Lyle, Kennedy Waterman and Lydia Mackay, on Jan. 15 at Theatre Too in the basement of Theatre Three.