Dallas — Recently, under the banner of my small theatre company, Audacity Theatre Lab, I produced the first ever Dallas Solo Fest, a fringe-like celebration of one-person theatrical performance. The goal was to introduce Dallas audiences to a wide range of solo performances styles as well as raise awareness of the format in the north Texas area. To that end, I brought together a curated collection of solo performers from around the country along with several local favorites.
I have been producing for years and though the festival was small by arts festival standards (with only eight productions), this was the largest event of this kind I’ve ever attempted. I am a hands-on producer and by virtue of the way Audacity Theatre Lab is set up, I was the sole staff member until right before the festival began. The project presented several challenges, but ultimately it went over pretty well.
Here’s what I learned…
Get a Grant
When I began planning the Dallas Solo Fest back in the summer of last year, one of the people I reached out to was Grant Knutson. Through his group Minion Productions, he serves as a sort of consultant/coordinator/coach for fringe performers aiming to tackle the many “fringe” theatre festivals around North America.
Fringes are generally distinguished by short, unconventional performances and low-cost tickets with a large share of ticket sales returned to artists. Many open their stages to amateurs as well as seasoned acts.
Upon its launch in 1947, the Edinburgh International Festival of performing arts was eclipsed by a more grassroots event. In makeshift performance spaces around the city—"round the fringe" of the official performing arts festival, as one journalist put it—artists began mounting small-scale, independent performances. There in Edinburgh, Scotland, the "fringe festival" concept began. It has since spread all over the world.
Grant was curious about how I was putting together a national festival from the ground up and I was curious to pick his brain. He currently sits on the board of the Fresno Fringe and has assisted administratively behind the scenes of several other festivals. So, he, like me, had worked on both sides of the curtain: the artist’s side and the administration side. He also knew several of the artists in the Dallas Solo Fest personally from his own travels. He offered to come down during the fest and help and I took him up on it.
I am so glad I did. Besides supplying lots of good ideas, observations and being a great sounding board, it was good to have another set of hands. Besides the board operator Shea Smith, the staff during the festival itself consisted of me, my wife Ruth Engel and some on-again-off-again support from fellow Audacity artist Jeff Hernandez. Grant did everything from updating social media to taking out trash. And he did it all with a positive attitude.
To have one more informed and good-natured staff member made the whole event much more manageable. My recommendation to anyone doing a festival like this in the future… you should also get yourself a Grant.
Plan for the Unexpected
On the first Saturday of the Dallas Solo Fest, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I learned there was going to be a thousand people right next door to the Margo Jones Theatre in a matter of hours. They would be celebrating something called Bayou Bash. Needless to say, this took me by surprise. The Bayou Bash is a huge picnic-style fundraiser for Alumni Association of Southern University, complete with outdoor DJ and authentic Louisiana cuisine. They had rented the African American Museum next door to the theatre and had spread onto the balcony of the theatre itself.
They did not know we were going to be at the Margo Jones and I didn’t know they were going to be throwing a loud party next door Museum until right before our respective events.
For the most basic of productions, the unexpected will happen. For a festival with so many moving parts I learned this phenomenon increases a hundred fold. Actors had flights cancelled, keys to billets didn’t work, last minute props had to be located, audiences went to the other Margo Jones Theatre (the one at SMU), typos were found on flyers after bunches were printed and so much more.
The whole two weeks was an extended exercise in constant problem-solving. On top of this, if things went smoothly, no one was the wiser. If problems occurred, everyone knew. Though it was certainly stressful, it was also a wonderful challenge…and even kind of fun.
Love the Locals
The three locals brought in their respective audiences, they delivered great performances, and more importantly they served as excellent representatives of Dallas.
Elaine Liner, Danny O’Connor and John Michael could have retreated into exclusively marketing their own shows, just shown up to do their techs and performances and not really been a part of the overall festival beyond simple participant. That didn’t happen. They totally stepped up and got the word out.
Elaine, Danny and John met and chatted with the out-of-towners. They showed genuine enthusiasm for the festival. The individual and rather disparate crowds of Elaine Liner, Danny O’Connor and John Michael really made the festival a distinctly “Dallas” event. And an economically feasible one at that.
Not only did they perform some kick-ass shows, what I am most proud of is that they were great ambassadors for Dallas, especially to the out-of-town artists. Elaine, Danny and John welcomed the traveling performers with open arms. They held and attended workshops. They bought beers and talked shop.
I was so pleased to have these three particular local performers, each in his or her distinct way, represent the cultural landscape of Dallas so well.
The Dallas Solo Fest received sponsorship and partnerships that helped make the event an even bigger and better.
Uber, the car service app, partnered with DSF and supplied $20 credit vouchers for Dallas Solo Fest patrons who became first time Uber users. They allowed us to send out a promo code to our mailing list. We gave Uber cards to festival pass holders, Kickstarter supporters and workshop participants. Cards were given to the out-of-town artists (a great perk in a car-city like Dallas).
How did this Uber partnership happen? Well, I asked them. And they said "yes."
TheaterJones became our official media sponsor. They ran preview articles, profiles of the performers and reviews of all eight shows. They created a special section on their website for the Dallas Solo Fest. It worked out for both parties. It drove traffic to their website and the DSF profited from the exposure.
How did this TheaterJones sponsorship happen? Well, I asked them (and then one of the local performers also asked them). They said “yes.”
Before the festival, I created the ultimate “ask” with a Kickstarter campaign. I asked for monetary support and 34 different people stepped up, donated to the cause and said “yes.” The outstanding Kickstarter supporters helped establish the potential of the fest. They made the initial awesomeness possible.
I have learned not to underestimate the power of simply asking.
Good Vibes Go a Long Way
One bad apple could have spoiled the whole barrel, but that didn’t happen. All the performers, even the ones who had travelled from half-a-country away, were positive and humble. There were no divas. Everyone was patient and courteous and, most importantly, professional.
The audiences spanned a wide range of demographics. All were welcome. We tried to maintain a casual atmosphere in the lobby between productions, encouraged talk with the artists outside after shows and most of the performers gave little-shout outs to the other performers or the festival as a whole from the stage after their shows.
I truly believe the positivity and enthusiasm was infectious. It was generated by the organizers, and spread to the artists and patrons. It went a long way to making the festival a really fun event.
My hope was that the artists traveling in from out of town would leave with a good impression of the city as well as with their experience at the Dallas Solo Fest. From the feedback I have received so far, that has been the case.
Overall, the Dallas Solo Fest was a challenge, but a really enjoyable, educational one. Maybe I’ll have to do another one in the future…
» Brad McEntire is the artistic director and founder of Audacity Theatre Lab, and the founder of the first Dallas Solo Fest.