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Plays on the Table

The discussion on local playwrights and new work continues, with added comments. Let's keep it going.



published Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The recent guest column by Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton calling for North Texas' major theaters to make some kind of commitment to local writers has received a few responses, which you can read at the bottom of this blog.

But first, let me enter my opinion.

Norton's piece, "A Place at the Table," was not an accusation against any theater for outright ignoring local writers. Some organizations, in fact, have certainly made great strides. But that doesn't mean there isn't more work to do.

Kitchen Dog Theater, the area's biggest champion of new plays and the only local member of the National New Play Network, has made the brave commitment to showcasing new work at least once a year (although its seasons are typically high on regional premieres). In 11 years of its New Play Festival, four of the headlining productions have been by a writer with local ties. One was the terrific Babette, by Bill Lengfelder and David Goodwin. The other three were from a writer now on the national radar, Allison Moore. After KDT premiered her Eighteen in 2001, when she was a Southern Methodist University student, she became a staple at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. The K-Dogs have also staged her Hazard County and the magnificent End Times in their New Play Festival, and her latest, Slasher, is coming up as part of the theater's regular season.

Fort Worth's Stage West is looking over submissions for its third Texas Playwriting Contest. The first two winners only received a staged reading, though, so here's hoping a full production can't be too far in the future. Still, in recent years the theater has staged productions by Waco's Stan Denman and Dallas' Lee Trull. Speaking of Trull, he's had respectable local success with adaptations: Stage West's Puppet Boy was based on Pinocchio; he co-adapted Titus Andronicus, with Leah Spillman, for Kitchen Dog; and adapted Huck Finn and The Gift of the Magi for the now-defunct Classical Acting Company. Magi, which CAC staged two Christmases in a row, still ranks as my favorite holiday production from any local theater. Considering that Trull is on staff at Dallas Theater Center (where's he's also in the resident ensemble), and a company member at Kitchen Dog, he's the guy in the best position to take the lead on pointing local writers in the right direction.

Many mid-size theaters have staged local writers: Amphibian Stage Productions, Undermain Theatre, WaterTower Theatre, Theatre Three (although recently, only in its basement space), Jubilee Theatre and the two Pockets: Hip Pocket Theatre in Fort Worth and Pocket Sandwich Theatre in Dallas. Both of those produce entire (or mostly) seasons of their in-house writers. The list of talented local writers goes on: Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, Isabella Russell-Ides, Rob Bosquez, Scott Eckert, Steven Walters (who relocated to L.A. a year or so ago) and Matt Lyle (you may have heard that his The Boxer is playing the New York International Fringe Festival this year). Two of my favorites from the past decade were Steven Alan McGaw's landscape with stick figures (at Fort Worth Theatre) and T.J. Walsh's Born On a Sunday, about Strindberg's "Inferno" period, which was staged years ago at Tarrant County College, Northwest Campus. That one still haunts me.

The Festival of Independent Theatres, WaterTower's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival and numerous smaller outfits, such as Echo Theatre, MBS Productions and Sundown Collaborative Theatre, continue to do their part. I, for one, really miss Ground Zero Theater Company, which was dedicated to Texas writers.

But Norton's case remains: Why aren't there opportunities for development from the multi-million dollar professional companies? It we're ever to achieve the national reputation that we so desperately want, this has to happen.

I also urge you to look at the 13-minute video referenced in Norton's column, an interview with Polly Carl of the Playwrights' Center. She talks about the extreme difficulties of breaking out as a playwright—MFA or not. It's a field where the opportunities for showcasing your work on the regional level are becoming slimmer. Here are a few of her quotes:

New plays take an enormous amount of commitment ... Theaters don't budget for [research and development], they budget for a one-to-one relationship between how many seats there are and how much money a play can bring in based on the number of seats. ... They've created a self-fulfilling prophecy that new plays will fail, because they put new plays in the worst space in the house, the black box, and they give it the smallest budget and the least amount of rehearsal time when the reality is, you could probably do Hamlet and succeed on a small budget and not a lot of rehearsal time. ...I think we set ourselves up to fail, especially at that regional theater level, where our expectations are so high in one space and so low in another space, and then new work becomes this horribly big risk. ... If you make your new work look like a 10th of all the other work, then that's how people are going to experience it. ... And the more new plays fail ... the more theaters say "new plays don't sell." Failure is part of any good organization.

Now, here are some of the responses we've received regarding Norton's column. The second one, from Joshua Hill, is lengthy, and worthy of a column all its own. We want to keep this discussion going, so send your comments to editors@theaterjones. (It's the best we can do until the day we have comments on the site. Yes, it's still a point of debate for us.) And keep checking back for more.

 

From playwright Jason Hensel:

As a local (and beginning) playwright, it's shocking to me how little opportunity there is in the North Texas theater community for fostering and encouraging local playwrights. While I applaud theaters such as Stage West for having a Texas playwriting contest and Pocket Sandwich Theatre for producing local playwrights, I just wish there was more out there. Maybe there is, and I'm just not seeing it. One can only Google so many different search phrases before banging his head against the desk.

Thank you.

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From playwright Joshua Hill:

I really wish I knew how to begin.

Just prior to having this article forwarded to me by a friend in the Dallas theatre community, I was fretting about my life—more specifically, my career as a playwright. Or if I will ever have a career as a playwright. Despite the fact that I hold what, I have been told, is a very prestigious MFA from Columbia University. I won't go into the cost and sacrifice of having an MFA—it was a choice I made knowingly, and perhaps the first adult choice I ever made. But to assume that having an MFA is a foot in the door, or that these schools have been "delegated" to find "important' playwrights" is a ludicrous assumption, creating a scapegoat out of education, akin to a class struggle among artists for the inability of many of us (MFA or not) to succeed.

Most of this editorial is, to be quite honest, a series of assumptions that show little idea of how professional theatre in this country works. I find it ironic that you call someone an "expert on play development" when play development comes out the same philosophy that has created the current debacle we call the American theatre in the first place. I find it doubly ironic that your "expert" is from The Playwrights' Center, which, as far as I have seen, has strong ties with UT-Austin (I was an undergraduate at UT-Austin and saw many of the MFA students either come from The Playwrights Center or graduate to The Playwrights Center).

The message that it's "pay-to-play" in America does not come from the theatre, but rather from our parents and our grandparents. Twenty years ago an undergraduate degree was not necessary to have a relatively successful life, to make a good living, own a house and pursue that American dream. But as more and more students went to college (often pushed to by their families), it became increasingly difficult to compete with only an undergraduate degree. Degrees became a way to move up in our class system. Degrees became more specific (a terrible trend in the American higher-educational system) and more and more people continued their career path with graduate school. It is no longer doctors and lawyers, scientists and academics who pursue a post-grad degree, but, rather, nearly everyone. There is a degree in everything, and MFA programs in theatre come from this very place. Schools want to make money as much as everyone else, and they offer a product—education—and they sell that product very well.

But to assume that there is a national cabal between MFA programs and professional theatre is simply a justification for a particular playwright's failure and nothing more. "I didn't make it cause I didn't have one of those fancy degrees." It is the same cry that all of those without degrees—grad or post-grad—use when they are passed over for someone with an education. Just like the recent uprising of female playwrights in New York, crying sexism at the lack of plays by women off- and on Broadway, people instinctively band together against the opposing group (read Eric Hoffer's The True Believer for more on this phenomenon). But what did the female playwrights in New York find when a real study was done? That 1) Female Artistic Directors were harder on plays by women than male artistic directors and 2) The percentage of plays produced were fair (there were more male playwrights than female, and the male playwrights tended to be statistically more prolific). Any kind of deep analysis of the situation you suggest would yield a similar (though not exact) set of results.

While many MFA graduates are being produced, there are hundreds graduating every year. The simple fact that a playwright decides to go to an MFA program suggests that they are, at the very least, serious about making playwriting their career—or trying their damnedest to do so. This in itself suggests a tenacity in their favor. Hard work pays off in theatre just as everywhere else. Theatre remember names when they see them on submissions time and again, they notice the improvement. Those of us who moved on to MFA programs are the ones that are willing to risk it all on their one dream. It is unlikely, because of my debt, I will ever own a home, and those are the types of sacrifices we are willing to make. It does not make us better, but is suggests a heightened seriousness, and single-mindedness. That alone is often enough to trump talent over a long enough time scale.

But also, when playwrights enter an MFA program they have several years to do what most other playwrights cannot: write. In fact, they are required to do so. Practice makes perfect, though the suggestion that playwrights that come out of these programs are "polished" shows a clear lack of familiarity with what people are writing. Playwrights get out of an MFA program what they bring to it. While there may be a focus, no one comes out as a different writer. Every writer is different in their preferences and plenty, plenty writers churn out beautifully rough, unpolished work. And despite what you do or do not believe, some people do get up and write a great play in one draft. For some people playwriting is about rewriting, for others (most notably Edward Albee) it is not at all.

The reason there is a handful of schools that seem to have the market cornered on emerging playwrights is simple: contacts. These are the schools that give their students the best contacts, are willing to introduce their students to the right people, and to shop their students work to others both professionally and personally. The problem with "local" playwrights is not that they do not have an MFA, but simply that they are local. They are not in the right social circles to pass their work on to friends or friends-of-friends—and for most of us MFAs, neither are we. (Full disclosure: I have a very famous mentor playwright, though Columbia had very little to do with that relationship.) And without the ability to nurture those important friendships. The most important thing to any and all playwrights are to find the right people who are both in the position to help a play or a writer along, but who also like that writer as a person and as a talent. While MFA programs may help with this, it is still rare. We see what happens when Paula Vogel (formerly of Brown, now at Yale) takes a writer (Sarah Ruhl) under her wing; or, when a school such as UT-Austin shops a specific kind of talent out to very specific markets. But MFA programs are not in the market of validating talent, they are in the market of making money, and the schools that make the most money and have the most applications are the ones that have the best professors and the best results—just like in any other profession.

However, by invoking Preston Jones, you are also missing the point of his success and invalidating your own. Paul Baker was promoting Southwestern playwrights with Southwestern themes, Preston Jones just happened to be the most successful of those playwrights promoted. Baker's idea of promoting "local" talent was to promote talent that spoke to the people of the community—not the theatre community, but the community as a whole. Jones' trilogy did just that: it was iconically Texan. But he was also an old friend of Baker's, having taught with him for years and was a staff member at DTC. Education was his in.

And, since you are not sure of your history (how can you be, when DTC had its 50th anniversary one year too early?) [Editor's note: DTC opened in 1959, its 50th anniversary season was 2008-09 with its official 50th anniversary gala happening just a few months ago, in 2009] Paul Baker and the Dallas Theater Center had national attention long before Preston Jones' play trilogy came along. Baker's theatre at Baylor University (which he brought with him to DTC when it opened as a graduate school in theatre) had already made national headlines several times (stars such as Burgess Meredith and Charles Laughton coming to Central Texas to see his shows and even direct). Preston Jones was able to feed off of DTC's notoriety and attention to be boosted up the ranks; it was not the other way around.

Local playwrights can wish for production/development as much as they want, but as we are all told, you have to market to the right people and sometimes that means to people who are not local. Experimental playwrights cannot market to theaters specializing in realistic work or vice versa (Austin is better suited to experiment than Dallas, in my experience); people cannot insist on development programs where none currently exist (Minneapolis over Dallas in this area); and one cannot assume that being "local" is a substitute for talent. One must also realize that even the non-profit theatre is looking to make a profit and always has been. There are overheads and salaries, entire lives at stake.

But in all fairness, I abhor the idea of "development." Out of all of the most well-known playwrights we have, Tony Kushner and August Wilson are the only ones to be heavily, heavily "developed." If we really want an improvement we should see more productions from theatres—from the regions to New York—and do away with these development programs altogether. Because, in the end, those "nationally recognized" writers (which, you will notice, are all names—most are not MFA grads) are the ones with the productions while the rest of us are stuck with readings.

And despite my MFA from Columbia, I am writing work that is completely and whole-heartedly Texan, 100 percent homegrown. I wish desperately that I could have a production, a professional production in Dallas, Texas, but I want it honestly—without dropping names and without waving my piece of paper (that's all it is) in the air and screaming about my MFA. (None of us do that, by the way. And if we do, it is a substitute for talent.) So if there's anyone out there who wants to produce a play about Texas, by a Texan (Waco, no less) you know where to find me: far, far away from home.

Joshua Hill can be reached at jjh2136@columbia.edu.

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From Dallas playwright Angela Wilson:

New plays take a lot of commitment from the playwright as well—beyond writing the play. To develop a play to the point where a bigger theater will want them means making the right connections somewhere, and/or mounting the first production yourself so you can see what you have, rewriting it and then making connections. I don't think that first connection comes easy for anyone, unless an introduction is made by the school or a theater one is already working with. It's like posting your resume on the Internet for a job listing—thousands apply.

I can honestly tell you there is a huge audience appetite for local plays—especially if the audience feels they are assisting in the play's development. I believe it's coming around for the local playwrights—in a very big way. With talent as great as those you mentioned in your column, how can great things not happen for locals?

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From Dallas Theater Center and Kitchen Dog Theater company member Christina Vela:

I would like to point out that Kitchen Dog promotes the hell out of the New Works Festival. We receive over 300 submissions a year (and that number is steadily increasing) from all over the country as well as abroad. This year, only nine submissions were local. And two of those were ranked high in the final rounds. For last year's festival, I was almost always the first one to put my hands on the submissions, and I could count on one hand how many were local. Lee Trull's play was one of the final plays selected. As a company, we are encouraged to submit our own material if we want.

We also do Pupfest in conjunction with Junior Players which promotes playwriting at the high school level. If that's not an honest grassroots attempt to promote and cultivate local writers, I don't know what is. Instructions and requirements for submissions are on our website, www.kitchendogtheater.org.

Also, if you are going to submit, take into account whom you are submitting to. Take some time to read the company's mission statement, look at the company's season selection. Everybody has a style. Even company members have to keep in mind who they are writing for. Certainly if you have an awesome piece with puppets that's heavy on the magic realism and visually stunning, you're going to submit to Hip Pocket. If you have a piece that focuses on character development and, to quote Elaine, the "ugly" truth, you might submit to Kitchen Dog. You can't not know what a company is about and then be offended when they don't do your work.

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From playwright Jonathon Norton, who's column jump-started this discussion:

I am so happy that my article struck a nerve, good or bad. That was the point—to get people talking. That said, let me add the following in response to Joshua Hill’s comment.

I have nothing against MFA playwriting programs or their graduates. There is a great deal of talent coming out of those programs. I am also aware that for every Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Sarah Ruhl and Tarell Alvin McCraney who find fame and fortune (or about as much fortune as a young playwright can hope for: commissions, grants, awards, etc.) after graduation, there are hundreds of graduates who struggle and receive very little attention. It is a risk and I applaud anyone who decides to take it. However, I do believe that the theater itself promotes the idea that if you want to be a serious writer, it’s a risk you have to take. Few parents are encouraging of the idea of getting a graduate degree in theater. Business, law, medical school—yes. Drama school, no.

Also, let me clarify. I did talk more about grad schools but there are also a variety of new play development programs that are looked upon as the primary incubators of new work and talent. I referenced that earlier in the article but did not go into detail. But it is both the MFA programs and Developmental Programs that do the lion’s share of nurturing and introducing new writers to the American theater. Yes you can have an MFA. But beyond the MFA, there’s another group of development and fellowship programs that are necessary to help jump start your career. So even beyond the MFA there can be another set of hoops through which playwrights have to jump. But certainly having the credentials from a top MFA program helps with at least getting your stuff read by the literary manager or associate. That’s a start.

The heart and soul of my article is that the regional theater needs to find new ways of identifying and nurturing new playwrights without relying exclusively on the programs I have mentioned. And they should start by looking in their own backyard in addition to scouting writers on the national scene. Ultimately, this will help not only local playwrights, but all playwrights. Why? Because it would minimize some of the importance of the "middle man," who acts as gate keeper for regions of the country that it has very little in common with culturally. And it would allow theaters to identify and nurture writers (local or not) who uniquely reflect the spirit and energy of that theater and its community.

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From Susan Sargeant, producing artistic director, WingSpan Theatre Company:

In the Festival of Independent Theatres, WingSpan Theatre Company has produced a local playwright three times: Only Me (2000), Art on the Fridge (2001) and Sidhe (2007), all by Dallas playwright Valerie Brogan Powell. Plus Only Me received a Dallas/Fort Worth Critics Award in 2000 for New Play.

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From Lisa Schreiner, PR Director at Dallas Children's Theater:

Dallas Children’s Theater produces a brand new play every year, and new work is vital to our mission! Our fearless leader, Robyn Flatt, voraciously supports the idea that we include new work in every season, even if we know we will have to work like the dickens to sell tickets based on the "unknown title" factor. She loyally attends the biannual Bonderman Playwriting for Youth National Symposium in Indiana to learn about new works and budding, new playwrights. DCT’s resident playwright, Linda Daugherty, has received multiple national awards, lives in Dallas and has been contributing to the canon of theater for young audiences for at least 15 years. Her latest three plays for teens—The Secret Life of Girls, Eat (It’s Not About Food) and dont u luv me?—have been swept up by Dramatic Publishing and are being produced across the U.S. and in Canada in schools and professional theaters. Her newest play, which she is currently writing with San Antonio playwright Mary Rohde Scudday, is called hard 2 spel dad, and will debut in spring 2010. To learn more about Linda visit her website at www.lindadaugherty.com.

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From T.J. Walsh, playwright and Artistic Director of Trinity Shakespeare Festival:

I have an MFA in playwriting from UT Austin. I teach playwriting at TCU to undergraduates. I also taught playwriting to undergraduates at UT. I am a playwright. My experience, and what I teach, is those who run theatres love the theatre. If they respond to your play they will produce it. If they do not respond to your play—send it out again. It doesn't live on your hard drive. It is only alive if someone is reading it, and then producing it. And it needs to be out in the world. A play script is potential energy, it needs a production to make it kinetic energy. Send plays out again, and again, and again. Have complete and absolute confidence in your work.

Finally, a push for an organization for playwrights: The Loop is an online community and social network of playwrights, started by Gary Garrison, who teaches playwriting at NYU and is an officer for the Dramatists Guild. The Website is www.thelooponline.net and it offers submission guidelines, advice and support for playwrights.

You can contact T.J. Walsh at t.walsh@tcu.edu.

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From Dolores Godinez, Dallas actress, part time teacher and "fascinated audience member:"

Mr. Norton,

You have created some interesting dialogue young man.

The plight of the catch-22 career of the unproduced playwright is universal. "Want my plays produced. Can't because don't have enough credentials. Don't have credentials because can't get my plays produced."

The situation in Dallas is no worse or better for a playwright than anywhere else from what I have read and heard. Frustrating—yes; unique—no.

Another side to it, which you honorably did not bring up, is the difficulty of crossing the boundaries for plays by African-American, Latino and other playwrights of color in more mainstage theaters, no matter where the hell they are: Dallas, Chi Town, Philadelphia, New York—wherever! I specifically mean big-budget companies like Steppenwolf or the Public. That is just remedied with productions in a theater where you have influence in production. (My age is showing here in that it was a problem in the old days—1980s and before. Now with younger more enlightened artistic directors and producers, I think it is less so.)

As was said in the days of old, "go west young man;" in this case "found your own company/band of brothers and produce yourself, young man" (okay, not as poetic, but I am not the playwright). In this way, with others taking notice that you mean to be a playwright no matter what and are willing to stick it out, comes notice from audiences and critics and finally big budget companies.

Form tangible involvement with the theaters that are out there by going to see their works. Many have pay-what-you-can or low cost theater nights. So the price is usually not out of reach. Like with every profession, it takes hand shaking and face to face associations.

My brief research has brought forth some interesting facts (see below). Many successful playwrights started by founding small shoestring theater companies so that their works could be put on stage. Many are also directors and actors or have collaborative relationships with these other artists who themselves are just starting out in the "life": i.e. a career in theater.

Founding the Playwrights' Forum in Oak Cliff is a great step forward.

I too have written letters and e-mails that the few theater companies in Dallas with large budgets should try to invest in local talent. But as you will note in Kushner's interview, their patrons and backers are a scrupulous lot and as much as the artistic directors may want to produce an "unknown's" work, the pressure of the "deep pockets" is to do already recognizable plays.

You must note that the mid-sized companies are already doing much good work in recognizing and producing local playwrights. Kudos to Kitchen Dog, Undermain, Martice Enterprises (unfortunately, retiring) and Cara Mia, which is about to put up a new locally written piece this year after a hiatus of some years. And then there are the companies in Fort Worth and the DFW area at large, notably Jubilee.

Mr. Norton if you have never produced, a hard fact is that finding money for any production is very difficult. Artistic directors don't have bank accounts that they can magically pull from. You have to sell the product, which is sucko but true. Or you have to invest individual money yourself. In the case of Kitchen Dog and Martice and Wingspan, they have commendably done that in the past. But once a company is established, it is a relief that more grants and fundings sources are able to find the way to the door.

About six months ago, a young man came to me and asked me to read a play. He had no national or regional credentials in playwriting. I told him that it was a fair play with work to be done. I am brutal sometimes. And I told him that unless he was willing to produce himself, it would probably not get produced. He believed he could get it on its feet here in Dallas within the year. I wished him luck. Within three months his play was produced in the DFW area! It took him believing and talking to everybody and anybody connected to theater in the area—not just submitting work—but talking and connecting and going to see other's works for his dream to be realized. I was amazed and awed at his tenacity.

It is brave and provocative that you wrote this piece bringing to light what everyone thinks about in one form or another throughout lots of cities everywhere across the states. One obvious example: In NYC, playwrights use their own money to put up their plays in readings only.

Universities with reputations will definitely help with the early struggles. That is true for playwrights, actors, designers, directors.

Are you willing to outlast the initial head-knocks? That is what must be concluded, for the stubborn conviction is what makes one finally successful—or at least a produced playwright.

Good luck. I hope to hear more about you and suspect I will.

What follows is my puny research on how these playwrights started:

  • Tony Kushner: Click here to see a YouTube video with him, interviewed by the Dallas Theater Center's Kevin Moriarty.
  • August Wilson: In 1968, Wilson co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District of Pittsburgh along with his friend Rob Penny. His first play, Recycling, was performed for audiences in small theaters and public housing community centers. Among these early efforts was Jitney which he revised more than two decades later as part of his 10-play cycle on 20th century Pittsburgh.
  • Octavio Solis: This comes from a blog interview with Solis, who produced his own works for years in Dallas. He was asked about whether America is receptive to the playwright as an artist? He responded:

"I don’t know if this country is more receptive because I don’t know the theater scene in other countries, except the few that I’ve visited. I've visited Colombia, Puerto Rico, Venezuela. In the major cities there, people really, truly respect the theater. They really do. Poetry and theater are very highly regarded. In Venezuela the students have developed a very strong theater-going habit. It’s just part of the things they do. Like in England: they have the theater-going habit."

Solis' foray into theatre was through acting in the late 1980s. He began writing his first plays to showcase his acting talent, particularly in Dallas, where he lived and worked, teaching at a magnet arts high school and bartending in the evenings.

"You're a playwright because you want to work in the theatre, not because you want to be a writer. I loved working with actors, and I loved the theatre in a way that separates playwrights from fiction writers or writers whose work exists in print."

He recalls that people who saw his work performed were invariably more interested in his writing than in his acting.

"I tried to have it both ways at first, as both a writer and an artist, so at first, the material I wrote was something of a vanity project. But after a while, I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, so the acting had to become subordinate to that."
At the time, Solis had already been writing poetry and short fiction, but he also became progressively more interested in playwriting after teaching four writing classes for the stage.
 
"Before doing the writing [seriously], I never really thought of it as a passion," he says. "It was always there, but the realization of the passion came later for me. Thanks For Reading




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Plays on the Table
The discussion on local playwrights and new work continues, with added comments. Let's keep it going.
by Mark Lowry

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