Dallas — Brad McEntire has many interests at which he excels, from his longtime talent for cartooning, to performing improv and sketch comedy, to, at one point, being a birthday clown. These dovetail with his love for the art of clowning and shadow puppety, which he learned in Hong Kong when teaching ESL and vocabulary to Chinese students; and it all plays into his greatest passion—solo performance—an art form that allows him to have the ultimate, multi-hyphenate theatrical job description.
“Solo performance blends together all of my interests: directing, acting, playwriting, producing and even designing,” he says. “It all comes together so that I can present an uncompromised version of my kind of theater.”
Now, his kind of theater has grown into something that has been a dream for years: the first Dallas Solo Fest, which opens May 15 and runs for two weeks at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park. He’s not performing in it, but rather producing it under the umbrella of his company Audacity Theatre Lab.
In the DSF, eight performers will present solo shows, each running about an hour long, with three on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, four on the first Sunday and two on the final Sunday. There will also be workshops with some of the artists.
Three performers are Dallas writer/performers: John Michael, premiering his fifth solo show, Crossing Your I’s; Danny O’Connor, with his Bouncing Ugly, about his days as a bouncer at Coyote Ugly in New York; and theater critic-turned-playwright Elaine Liner, giving the Dallas premiere of her Sweater Curse: A Yarn About Love, which she debuted at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and ran earlier this year in Lewisville.
The five others come from around the country: Veronica Russell (New Orleans), A Different Woman: A True Story of a Texas Childhood; Alexandra Tatarsky (New York), Beast of Festive Skin; Deanna Fleysher (Los Angeles), Butt Kapinski; David Mogolov (Boston), Eating My Garbage; and Zeb L. West (Austin), Innocent When You Dream. (Descriptions of all shows, along with a schedule, can be seen at the bottom of this article.)
The event is a welcome addition to the growing list of performing arts festivals in Dallas, which include the Festival of Independent Theatres (July), WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival (March), and the Dallas Dance Council’s new Dallas Dance Festival (August).
“If this goes successfully, my hope is to do one every year or every two years, depending on the feasibility of it, and make it a new ongoing festival” says McEntire. “I think Dallas is a great town, and it’s a large town—it should have more theater festivals.”
McEntire, a Texas native, discovered theater at Carrollton’s Newman Smith High School because he had a crush on a girl in the drama department. He then went to the College of Santa Fe on an art scholarship, thanks to his cartooning abilities, but ended up doing more theater there. He returned to Dallas and acted in shows at the now-defunct Plano Repertory Theatre, and started Mild Dementia, an improv troupe, where he met someone who has become an important collaborator in the past decade, actor/director Jeff Swearingen. He co-founded Audacity Productions in 1999, and his group performed original work in the Festival of Independent Theatres and Austin’s FronteraFest.
He spent the last few years of the 1990s, and the early part of this millennium, between Dallas and New York, with some teaching gigs, including high school theater at R.L Turner High School in Carrollton ("I had a newfound respect for teachers," he says).
In the Big Apple, he interned with Aquila Theatre Co. and performed in the 2001 New York International Fringe Festival—his first of four appearances at FringeNYC. He left New York to perform in an Austin festival, catching a flight on September 10, 2001.
With the following day's events in New York, he knew it was time to stay in his home state.
After a few more years of having a go at being an independent theater producer, director and performer in Dallas, he found the Hong Kong opportunity, and in 2006, headed east and filed to dissolve Audacity Productions. In Hong Kong, he gravitated to like-minded artists, and before he knew it, was creating theater, including a “shadow puppetry funk musical” take on Rapunzel with expat artists from Australia and England. He even traveled go Australia to catch a performance by one of his theater idols, legendary director Peter Brook.
He returned to Dallas in 2008, and restarted his group as something familiar but new: Audacity Theatre Lab, arriving just in time for the beginning of a new era in Dallas's theater scene.
Kevin Moriarty had been hired as the new Artistic Director at Dallas Theater Center and began making important changes and opening up the city’s biggest theater to the local artist community. And as the Great Recession was getting underway, a new group of theaters cropped up, each with something new and interesting to say, from the Ochre House to Upstart Productions to Nouveau 47 Theatre and the reclaiming of Margo Jones’ historic Fair Park theater as a place to celebrate new work and independent artists.
“Since 2008 I have been pretty much doing plays my own play, filled with rocket packs, dinosaurs and chupacabras—and I’m having a lot more fun,” he adds, referring to such works as Robot and Dinosaur Stop a Train, performed with Swearingen at the 2013 Festival of Independent Theatres, and his solo show I Brought Home a Chupacabra, seen at January’s YOLO Solo Fest, a satellite event around Audacity's revival of The Last Castrato, again starring Swearingen. Audacity has done multi-character plays too, including the 2009 premiere of Hello, Human Female by Dallas native Matt Lyle (who has a new show, Barbecue Apocalypse, opening at Kitchen Dog Theater next week), and 2010’s outstanding production of Clay McCleod Chapman's Volume of Smoke. But in more recent years, Audacity has mostly focused on solo work, including Robert’s Eternal Goldfish and McEntire’s most-traveled festival piece, CHOP, about a man with an amputation fetish.
When Matt Tomlanovich took over operations of the Margo Jones Theatre in 2012, new dreams began to blossom.
“I’ve had an idea of doing a festival of some sort for years, but when Matt invited Audacity to be a resident theater at the Margo Jones, I realized something was doable,” McEntire says. “It opened up a venue you can count on and that you, yourself, are responsible for you when you’re in the space. When Audacity comes into the theater, there’s nobody hovering over me. It’s just us. That’s how I work best.”
ALL FOR ONE
In the past 15 years, McEntire has become familiar with the country’s fringe festivals. In addition to his stints at the FringeNYC, he’s performed at Seattle Fringe Fringe, New Orleans Fringe Fesitval, Phoenix Fringe, WaterTower Theatre's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, and Portland (Ore.) Mini-Fringe Theater Festival; plus at small venues in San Antonio, Austin, Santa Fe and elsewhere. He’s on the waiting list for this year’s Chicago Fringe Festival.
He, along with many who perform in the fringe circuit, accomplish this by “billeting,” a term that refers to sleeping on the couches of friends or people who open up their homes to fringe performers. For travel, he’s able to get donations of airline miles. And for the solo performer it's easier to work the circuit, considering there's no need for crew or many, if any, set pieces to tote.
His experience on the circuit helped him find some of the performers at the Dallas Solo Fest, and taught him how to accommodate them here. Local performers, including Danny O’Connor and Justin Locklear, are housing the out-of-towners; and Audacity has worked out a deal with the car service Uber for transportation.
He also started a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to ensure that all artists are paid a stipend. They get 70 percent of the box office as well, and are able to sell merchandise at the venue (something you can’t do at most fringe festivals, McEntire says). Also, whereas most festivals have an application fee and then, if accepted, a performance fee that ranges from $300 to $800, the Dallas Solo Fest is not charging for any of that.
For McEntire, the festival is more about celebrating the audacity of the individual artist, and making it easier for them.
“I’m a big proponent of theater artists taking initiative, instead of waiting to be handed projects,” he says. “Most theater is an interpretative art—designers, directors and actors are interpretive artists. But I’m more interested in generative artists. I think everybody can be a playwright, if you take it in the literal sense of someone who makes theater.”
“When you’re hired to act in a show, your only responsibility is to give the best performance you can; you don’t have to worry about marketing, or the tech side of things, or stuff like costumes or lights or transportation,” he adds. “That’s what appeals to me about it—the solo performer is responsible from the very beginning until you put it out there in the world for other people to do. It makes the artist very responsible for their artwork; there’s not anyone else to blame if it doesn’t go well.”
He believes that the city is finally ready for something like the Dallas Solo Fest.
“I feel like I can do my own kind of theater because I’m part of a community where lots of people are doing other kinds of theater all around me,” he says. “If I was in a small town, as a representative of the theater, I’d probably be doing The Music Man and American chestnuts. But in Dallas, you have all types of theater, so there’s somebody handling The Music Man, there’s somebody handling Mac Wellman, someone doing Latino theater; all kinds of stuff. So I can be on the fringe doing what I want.”
“I feel A-OK with that.”
Below are desciptions of the shows in the first Dallas Solo Fest, along with performance times. At the end is a complete schedule, including info on the workshops
A Different Woman: A True Story of a Texas Childhood by Veronica Russell (New Orleans), adapted the book My First Thirty Years by Gertrude Beasley. This solo show presents an unvarnished, unapologetic and cynical tale of a rural Texas childhood told by a woman who pulled herself out of the cycle of poverty and abuse in which she found herself. A Different Woman is a darkly humorous stage adaptation of Ms. Beasley's controversial banned memoir.
- Thursday, May 22, 7:30 p.m.
- Friday, May 23, 9 p.m.
- Saturday, May 24, 10:30 p.m.
Beast of Festive Skin by Alexandra Tatarsky (New York City) is an absurdist vaudeville about alchemists, rappers and other creative visionaries stuck in Hell. These deranged darlings of the underworld tell their tales of woe with a truly fiery need to get by. The horror of existence! The agony of creation! The one-woman show people are dying to see!
- Friday, May 16, 10:30 p.m.
- Saturday, May 17, 7:30 p.m.
- Sunday, May 18, 5 p.m.
Bouncing Ugly by Danny O’Connor (Dallas) recounts his experience as a bouncer at the Coyote Ugly Saloon in NYC. He has stories, oh yes, he has stories.
- Thursday, May 15, 9 p.m.
- Saturday, May 17, 9 p.m.
- Sunday, May 18, 8:30 p.m.
Butt Kapinski by Deanna Fleysher (Los Angeles) stars as Private Eye Butt Kapinski. The audience is invited to co-star in an improvisational film noir fantasy. This funny, filthy, fully-interactive ride is riddled with sex, sin, shadows and subterfuge.
- Thursday, May 22, 10:30 p.m.
- Friday, May 23, 7:30 p.m.
- Saturday, May 24, 9 p.m.
Crossing Your I’s by John Michael (Dallas) concerns John’s experiences learning from and working with dementia patients. This world premiere solo show about intergenerational understanding and the messiness of human connections is filtered through John Michael’s uniquely kinetic and hilarious perspective.
- Thursday, May 15, 10:30 p.m.
- Friday, May 18, 9 p.m.
- Friday, May 23, 10:30 p.m.
Eating My Garbage by David Mogolov (Boston). Dumbfounded by a call from a political pollster, David searches himself for a reason to believe the nation isn't utterly doomed. When he can't quite think of one, he turns to irrational reasons. That's when his search gets more promising.
- Friday, May 16, 7:30 p.m.
- Saturday, May 17, 10:30 p.m.
- Sunday, May 18, 7 p.m.
Innocent When You Dream by Zeb L. West (Austin) takes place in the belly of a whale. A heartbroken castaway, swallowed and driven mad has only two books to read: Don Quixote and Moby-Dick. He acts out the books using puppets and masks fashioned from flotsam. This solo adventure uses physical comedy and sea shanties to smash two literary epics into an hour of shameless antics!
- Thursday, May 22, 9 p.m.
- Saturday, May 24, 7:30 p.m.
- Sunday, May 25, 3:30 p.m.
Sweater Curse: A Yarn About Love by Elaine Liner (Dallas) was a 5-star hit at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Bring your knitting (or crocheting) and stitch along as Dallas writer-performer Elaine Liner shares her obsessions with great literature, old movies and the romantic entanglements of knitting sweaters for significant others.
- Thursday, May 15, 7:30 p.m.
- Sunday, May 18, 3:30 p.m.
- Sunday, May 25, 5 p.m.
Thursday, May 15
6:30 p.m. Opening reception
7:30 p.m. Elaine Liner’s Sweater Curse: A Yarn About Love
9 p.m. Danny O’Connor’s Bouncing Ugly
10:30 p.m. John Michael’s Crossing Your I’s
Friday, May 16
7:30 p.m. David Mogolov’s Eating My Garbage
9 p.m. John Michael’s Crossing Your I’s
10:30 p.m. Alexandra Tatarsky’s Beast of Festive Skin
Saturday, May 17
1 p.m. Workshop "Fringe Fest Touring 101" with Grant Knutson ($20)
1 p.m. Workshop Alexandra Tatarsky’s “Makework/Make Play”
3 p.m. Workshop David Mogolov’s “Blending the Personal & Political”
7:30 p.m. Alexandra Tatarsky’s Beast of Festive Skin
9 p.m. Danny O’Connor’s Bouncing Ugly
10:30 p.m. David Mogolov’s Eating My Garbage
Sunday, May 18
3:30 p.m. Elaine Liner’s Sweater Curse: A Yarn About Love
5 p.m. Alexandra Tatarsky’s Beast of Festive Skin
7 p.m. David Mogolov’s Eating My Garbage
8:30 p.m. Danny O’Connor’s Bouncing Ugly
Thursday, May 22
7:30 p.m. Veronica Russell’s A Different Woman
9 p.m. Zeb L. West’s Innocent When You Dream
10:30 p.m. Deanna Fleysher’s Butt Kapinski
Friday, May 23
7:30 p.m. Deanna Fleysher’s Butt Kapinski
9 p.m. Veronica Russell’s A Different Woman
10:30 p.m. John Michael’s Crossing Your I’s
Saturday, May 24
11:30 a.m. Workshop "Fringe Fest Touring 101" with Grant Knutson ($20)
1 p.m. Workshop Elaine Liner’s “Be a Media Darling”
3 p.m. Workshop Deanna Fleysher’s “Naked Comedy Lab”
7:30 p.m. Zeb L. West’s Innocent When You Dream
9 p.m. Deanna Fleysher’s Butt Kapinski
10:30 p.m. Veronica Russell’s A Different Woman
Sunday, May 25
3 p.m. Zeb L. West’s Innocent When You Dream
5:30 p.m. Elaine Liner’s Sweater Curse: A Yarn About Love