Dallas — When the $182 million Santiago Calatrava-designed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge finally opened in the spring of 2012, there was laughter about Dallas’ own “bridge to nowhere”—an expensive structure that led from the highly populated downtown/central Dallas into the, well, not nearly as populous West Dallas.
In the three years since, that area, known as Trinity Groves, has become a dining destination with several high profile restaurants. And the bridge has been handy for anyone traveling west from downtown (or from the west into it) who wanted to avoid rush-hour traffic on the always-jammed Interstate 30, which is currently getting its own fancy bridge over the Trinity.
Of course, there’s one group of people who knew Trinity Groves was cool before the MHH bridge—also known as “Large Marge” and nicknamed “whiskbroom” by Paula Poundstone—provided easy access to it: artists. With a wealth of empty warehouses of various sizes, it was attractive to upstart companies looking for cheap theater space—and plenty of it.
Isn’t it always the artists who identify the hip new area, which then becomes gentrified and too expensive for them to stay there?
Experimental theatermaker and world traveler Thomas Riccio had already found a warehouse at 500 Singleton that would be a fantastic space for his brand of immersive theater. His show blahblah, in which the audience traveled through the space to witness pods of action, happened in May 2011. He used that space several times, and as one of the larger warehouses, it has become important for organizations like Art Conspiracy, which has held its annual fall event there for several years.
Upstart Productions, which had used spaces from the Dallas Hub Theatre in Deep Ellum to the Green Zone in the Design District, premiered Matt Lyle’s The Better Doctor in another Trinity Groves warehouse in 2012.
Never content to stay in one spot, Riccio’s Zombies have used four different spaces in Trinity Groves, including, in 2013, a former crack house for the walk-through, scare-you-crapless piece called T.N.B. In 2014, the movement theater company PrismCo started using the warehouse at 425 Bedford, across the street from 500 Singleton, and will have two shows there this season.
In fact, this month there are four theater productions happening in four different Trinity Groves warehouses, from three of the aforementioned companies plus House Party Theatre, a fairly new group that has been using a variety of alternative spaces around town, including houses and galleries.
For years Riccio has talked about a permanent space in the Groves, which would be shared with other companies (Upstart and PrismCo are interested), and would have space not only for performance, but rehearsal, workshops, classes and hanging out. No official plans for this have been announced yet. And of course, one has to wonder: After Trinity Groves has gentrified and the artists can no longer afford its spaces, where to next? Nobody’s worried about that now. Not when there's all that affordable room to work with.
In the lengthy Q&A below, we talked to representatives from these groups. But first, here’s more about them and their shows.
Dead White Zombies
Riccio has taught and created theater around the country and world. In 2010, he wrote a series of essays for TheaterJones about creating an original theater piece in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (the third of those is here, which links to the other two). A glance at his website tells you there is nothing traditional about his brand of theater. But really, he wants everyone to be happy (read to the end of this interview for more on that). Riccio, who's on the theater faculty at University of Texas at Dallas (in the spring he'll direct Buchner's Woyzeck there), was the trailblazer to first use the warehouses for theater, working with Butch McGregor, one of the main investors in Trinity Groves (the others are Stuart Fitts and Phil Romano, the man behind Fuddruckers and Macaroni Grill, which are two chains you won’t find in the Groves). Riccio’s Dead White Zombies, like most of these theaters, is attracting new audiences that you don’t see at the established theaters (ticket price has a lot to do with that, too). You may come out of his shows not quite understanding what you just saw, but you don’t forget them. His next show is DP92, a "metaphysical sci-fi thriller" running Oct. 29-Nov. 22 at a former icehouse at 2516 N. Beckley, where DWZ presented Karaoke Motel last year. More info on DP92 is here.
Denson has been a major force on the scene for the past year. His full-time job is at AT&T Performing Arts Center, across the Trinity River in downtown Dallas. In 2014 he spearheaded the game-changing Elevator Project in which six small companies used the studio spaces in the Wyly Theatre. He's also responsible for the Off-Broadway on Flora series, which brings smaller touring shows to Dallas. Denson took over leadership of Upstart last year, too. The group is currently staging Ruby Rae Spiegel’s terrific play Dry Land, the first show in the space at 2336 N. Beckley Ave. Because the play is set in a high school girls locker room, and focuses on members of the swim team, Upstart has named the warehouse “Upstart Natatorium.” It runs through Oct. 10. Here’s more info, and look for a review coming on TheaterJones.
JEFFREY COLANGELO and KATY TYE
PrismCo is a movement theater company interested in wordless narratives conveyed via pantomime, clown, aerial feats, weight sharing and dance. Both SMU grads, Colangelo is a prolific fight choreographer around town and Tye is an actress (she’s currently in Undermain Theatre’s The Droll). Their PrismCo work is often based in myth, such as Baba Yaga, Galatea, and Teotl: The Sand Show. Next up is the shadow/movement work Persephone, which like Galatea and the spring’s paint-war show Prism, is performed in the 500 Singleton space. It runs Oct. 30–Nov. 15; more info here. And you can help PrismCo raise money for Persephone at their crowdfunding campaign.
House Party Theatre
Another SMU grad, McCreary’s crew includes other former Meadowsites, including playwright and solo performer Brigham Mosley, whose Mo[u]rnin’ After was a highlight of this year’s Dallas Solo Fest. House Party Theatre has mostly done original work in private homes and galleries. In August, they did a fine triptych of new plays, each one performed in a different space on different nights; all three came together as The Grand Slam in the gallery spaces and sculpture garden of Ash Studios in Fair Park. This week, they open Mosley’s play #basic at the Trinity Groves space at 2203 Obenchain St. It runs Oct. 2-19; look for a review next week. More info here.
And now for the Q&A with Riccio, Denson, Tye, Colangelo and McCreary:
TheaterJones: What attracts you to a warehouse space in Trinity Groves?
David Denson (Upstart Productions): Upstart performs in a variety of spaces, from the Wyly Theatre in the Arts District [in the first Elevator Project] to the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park, and for us it mainly comes down to aesthetics. For our current project, Ruby Rae Spiegel's Dry Land, set in a high school girls locker room, the aged institutional infrastructure of the warehouse space creates a compelling environment reminiscent of a rundown indoor swimming pool that adds to the character of the piece.
Katy Tye (PrismCo): The warehouses offer so much potential—that's what I like best. The space is versatile and allows for anything from constructing a thrust to immersive and environment-based theater.
Jeffrey Colangelo (PrismCo): I love having PrismCo perform in the warehouse spaces because each warehouse acts as a kind of beautiful blank slate where you can just let your imagination run wild. The wide spaces, the high ceilings, the unique sense of history behind each building all brings a kind of power and freedom that you usually don't get with a traditional theater space. The warehouses are the place to make our wildest and riskiest ideas come to life without having to worry about stepping on anyone's toes.
Thomas Riccio (Dead White Zombies): Trinity Groves, West Dallas, is at the crossroads between downtown and Oak Cliff and the crossroads are where I like to be. Its geographical position is a metaphor for the work of DWZ and for the city, of which we are an evolutionary part. West Dallas is still unsettled and holds the vestiges, the warehouses of what Dallas was and what will be. The rough and tumble, the forgotten and neglected heritages of West Dallas run parallel to the evolution of Dead White Zombies, for we also draw and build on the vast warehouses, the industrial shops, the forgotten and authentic of what performance, theater, visual art, installation and the media arts offer to create something new. Our being in West Dallas is a perfect literal, metaphoric, and metaphysical match. The Dead White Zombies have been in West Dallas since 2011—we have been a part of a co-evolution, in spirit, expression and identity. We are part of the city, and this is as it should be.
Chris McCreary (House Party Theatre): Frankly, it's the availability. The work we are currently doing isn't predicated on budget; the largest obstacle we face on any project is nailing down a space. A warehouse is ideal for its mutability. You're likely to have a grid of rafters, which is perfect for lights whether it's a $10 clamp light or a $1,000 instrument. The wide-open floor plan is great because it gives you such flexibility in how to use the space, and conversely what parts of the space you don't use. But a warehouse is still just a warehouse; the warehouses in Trinity Groves are particularly attractive because they are at the center of the independent movement that is happening in Dallas. The timing is perfect; the small businesses, small breweries and independent artists have all found each other at the same time, and a collaborative, symbiotic relationship just organically made sense.
You can use these spaces in interesting ways. Dead White Zombies loves to go immersive and have the audience travel through, and be part of, the story. For Upstart’s Dry Land, the warehouse is used as more of a traditional theater space. What guides these choices?
Denson: Upstart tends to do contemporary scripted work that follows a traditional two-act structure that is written for and is most at home in a physical space that resembles what we think of when we say “theater.” But that is by no means the rule. The plays drive these decisions for us and we're just as willing to break with tradition as we are to uphold it, depending on the demands of the piece.
Colangelo: For PrismCo, I believe the choice for how we present our theater is guided by the type of story we want to tell. PrismCo has always been interested in telling immersive, interactive stories where our audiences can have fun as an integral part of our narrative. We try our best to craft the experience for each show so that from the moment that our guests enter the door of the warehouse to the moment they sit down to watch the show they get the chance to experience their own subtle narrative as the role of the observer.
Even then, while most of our shows in the past have utilized a more traditional “sit down and watch the show” setup, PrismCo is always looking to expand our horizons and challenge ourselves with new and fun ways to tell our stories. We've definitely been inspired by Dead White Zombies and [New York’s] Sleep No More, so I foresee that PrismCo will be producing shows in the future that will be utilizing the space in more immersive ways.
Riccio: Woven into the core of the DWZ aesthetic is the mission to explore and question. We do not accept as a given the inherited ways of seeing the world. Our name provokes us and will not allow us to be anything but an outlier. We explore and question every aspect and dimension of producing and presenting performance, its function, and relationship with our audiences, and most significantly, the cultural and social role of theater and performance to its community. A traditional theater space is essentially conservative and is shaped by a tradition that is increasingly out of step with other evolutions in what it means to be in the world of 2015.
A space in many ways dictates content, delivery and relationship with its audience, how they think, feel and react. In an interactive, sensorial and increasingly complex, contradictory world, the nice and neat confines of a seated and passive audience are comforting but a little quaint. Have you noticed the aging population of most local theaters? Undefined performance spaces and immersive performance offers a; seeking to engage and provoke our audiences, and in turn our community, to see and be in the world in a very different way.
McCreary: How we use a space will always be entirely determined on what is best for the text. Some text necessitates a more formal set-up; our production of [Sam Shepard’s] True West was arguably the most traditional use of the space we've done so far, but True West was also arguably the most “traditional” text we have used. Recently, our writers have been playing with form, so to have this huge chunk of open space is fantastic for the writer to establish text within the limitations of only a box, versus a traditional performance space. They still need the box, otherwise how will they think outside of it? That goes for the directors and writers too, the limitations are always useful, a warehouse has the most beautiful limitation in its simplicity.
Given what’s happening with your theaters, and that fact that Art Conspiracy has used 500 Singleton for several years and pop-up galleries can be found in various spaces, it sounds like the Trinity Groves folks want artists down there.
Riccio: Butch McGregor [who manages the spaces in Trinity Groves] is a modern Medici; he has the soul of an artist and the wisdom to see that the arts are vital to the evolution of a community and the city. What he is shaping—the old-fashioned way, with personal interaction and a handshake—is a scene, a unique and pioneering collaboration between artists and development. And we are all the better for it. Its effect on the city’s arts scene and its artists, be it performance, visual or musical arts, has been felt. The long-term effect on the city, its identity and future will be profound.
Tye: The Trinity Groves developers have been great to work with, it's wonderful because it’s a symbiotic relationship. We want a place to do theater and they are looking for things to draw patrons to the area.
Colangelo: YES! They are so excited about having visual and theater artists down there! Its certainly opened up some great opportunities for collaboration, like the work we've been doing with John Marcucci for our past two springs shows. The people at Trinity Groves definitely want the arts to flourish down there.
McCreary: It is one thing to have friends and family to support you, but to not only have your community but that the business of that community support you as well, is very encouraging. They have this brand new venue they want to showcase, they are looking for organic reasons to feature their establishment. We have this brand new work we want to showcase, we are looking for organic places to perform our work. We have found each other at just the right time.
Denson: Supporting groups like Upstart now, when they're working in these kinds of unfinished, less-than-perfect spaces is crucial to the development of a thriving arts community—something that no great city can do without. When audiences venture down into lesser-known areas and decide to attend performances of plays they may have never heard of before, they are shaping the city's identity in fundamental ways. At Upstart we believe that great art makes great cities and early support for artists is the key to that process.
Everyone talks about the difficulties of finding affordable space in the city. Do you think Trinity Groves is the best solution for that right now?
Tye: I do—yes. Trinity Groves is still young and finding its feet. If the arts can get in there and plant our flag I think that it would mold and transform the area. I am excited to see all the work being done in Dallas by small groups and I think with all of us bringing that energy to Trinity Groves, change is inevitable.
Riccio: The performing and theater artists have been looking and asking for affordable small spaces for years. The city doesn’t get that large spaces are only a part of it—it is the small spaces that engage and develop artists and audiences and create a vital scene. What we are working on and have been developing in West Dallas is one offering—the same needs to happen elsewhere in the city. A lot of the city’s potential is untapped.
Denson: Space is the single biggest obstacle to producing for Upstart and many of the small local theaters. We tried to tackle it a little bit with the Elevator Project at the [AT&T Performing Arts] Center, but what is most needed is a permanent facility that can accommodate several small companies. The size, location and malleability of some of the Trinity Groves spaces makes it easy to see how our local theater could contribute to what is already becoming a real destination for audiences looking for good food and good entertainment.
McCreary: Honestly, from the artist perspective, whoever has the most affordable space will be the best solution. Not being glib, in the spirit of no-excuse theater, as much as we will want a space, if the cost of the space impedes our ability to execute the work, we will find an alternative space. We started in a living room; we have no qualms with returning. When we started we really meant we would work wherever we could, the work will still always be more important than the space. The space and resources shouldn't influence the quality and manner in which you approach work. Hard and good work is hard and good work. I think Trinity Groves is primed better than any area to establish affordable space. It’s what the independent artists are hunting for. If the cost is something you can manage paying out of pocket from your full time job, then you will absolutely lock that place down. Given the proximity within Trinity Groves of so many spaces artists are already using, the bird is practically in hand.
What will it take to get people who have been hesitant to visit that area take the trip across the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge?
Denson: The same things that motivate people to go anywhere I suppose: compelling activities, decent parking and sense of safety. And all of that is either in place or rapidly becoming so. The area is incredibly dynamic and I think once people start to understand that there is regular activity over there beyond just the food options, more will find their way across the bridge.
Riccio: The Dead White Zombies have not had a problem drawing an audience. People will come if there is something to come to. Others will pick up on the scene when and if they are so inclined. Our focus is on the work. People find us, and granted they are the more adventurous and they are younger—but that is how it starts.
Tye: A full evening of activities. Right now the area is in development and the only thing to do is go to the fabulous restaurants, but if people knew that they could come to Trinity Groves and get a great meal and have the option to see a show or a band, they would be more willing to make the trek.
Colangelo: A car, a sense of exploration, and a readiness to have fun. Plus, our tickets are extremely affordable, and there are some excellent restaurants on that side of town that you should check out before you see any of our shows. Those places are great.
McCreary: To get people to come across the bridge, you need to offer more than good food and good brew. That will definitely get them to visit, but what happens after they pay their tab? If you can offer consistent experiences people will seek them out. Foster a culture of new food/brew with local entertainment, and high-quality entertainment, and people will begin to associate Trinity Groves with a good time.
Does what's happening in Trinity Groves resemble any other time period in the performing arts, either here or in another city?
Denson: For me, I think many of the great theater movements occurred when artists were able to work in close proximity to each other—the downtown off-Broadway scene in NYC, the work in Chicago’s loop, etc. Dallas is so spread out, we lack the compression and proximity of other cities so many of our artists don't have the opportunity to engage in the kind of creative discourse necessary for evolution. Opportunities that naturally put artists in close proximity like what we’re beginning to see in TG are crucial to the growth of our theater and artistic community and to the development of Dallas as an artistic destination.
McCreary: As much as I'd like to think I know a thing or two, I'm still nascent as an artist. I grew up in Dallas, and in my experience nothing like what is happening has happened before. Talking to the Old Guard of Dallas, they see us and they tell us we remind us of them. So I'm sure what is happening is part of a greater cycle. Dallas is hungry, and reforming an identity, that always brings the best out of artists. I do know I left Los Angeles for Dallas explicitly for what was developing. For me this is the first. It’s exciting, and it’s raw, but with very high expectations. It is an attractive time and place to be working.
Colangelo: Unfortunately I don't have a very good sense of Dallas theater history, but what is happening in TG is a really excellent example of good city development. Several years ago, most people wouldn't even recognize the name Trinity Groves, but now the artists are starting to move in, and it’s starting to put the place on the map. If things continue naturally like this, we might hopefully be seeing a second arts district in Trinity Groves, with a healthy variety of affordable entertainment and visual arts mixed in with some really quality dining experiences and housing. If those things aren't the ingredients for an entertainment hotspot, I don't know what is.
Riccio: I ran the Organic Theatre in Chicago in the mid-1980s. That was the halcyon days of Chicago theater; there were more than 125 theatres from Steppenwolf to 50-seat storefront theaters. Dallas is a different kind of city, and we’ll do it our way, but we’re doing it. Just have to keep at it, offer opportunities, space, support and artists will make this their home. A community is evolving; a unique scene is evolving. I think West Dallas is our best shot in creating a dynamic and human-scale arts district—a homegrown and vital and living arts district which will be an important counterpoint to the glitz and high art sensibility that is center stage downtown. A city needs both sensibilities in order to become a great arts scene.
What technical difficulties do these spaces bring?
Denson: Ha. All of them. From issues with power and running water to climate control. The downside of using such raw spaces is that standard facility infrastructure is compromised in many cases so not only are we working to build a “set” and all the artistic elements an audience expects in a show, we're also challenged to build the entire theater house, etc. It’s much more work than if we were to rent an established theater space.
Tye: Many—but that's part of the fun. Undermain has their columns that they work around and I view the warehouses the same. We don't have fancy amenities but we work with what we have.
Colangelo: Unfortunately most of these spaces are not weather controlled, so you have to be very particular about the time of year you choose to produce shows in there. That combined with a limited electrical system and a lack of a traditional theatre grid or house presents a few interesting hurdles most theater companies have to jump. Luckily, our “guerilla tech guru,” Jonah Gutierrez, has helped us combine a few old school methods (ropes, pulleys, well-placed buckets and PVC pipe) with some interesting new technology (running a lighting board from his phone, low-powered LED lights, etc.) to work around those problems in some pretty awesome and inventive ways without breaking the bank. Plus, I kind of dig the guerilla theater aesthetic it brings to our shows.
McCreary: So far the only technical difficulty we ran into was power for a space. We were looking for a space, and were given the greenlight, however the space was not wired for power so we had to find an alternative space. A/C or heat you can work around, but without electricity, even the most modest of outfits will have trouble fully realizing the work. Unless of course the piece can be done with daylight. Or you rent a generator to power the show.
Riccio: I don’t see difficulties. I see opportunities in West Dallas. I’m excited all the time about working there.
Is your dream theater home in Trinity Groves?
Denson: We find the aesthetic quality of the warehouses in Trinity Groves to be very complementary to the work we do, but often these buildings lack the infrastructure to make long-term producing truly viable. I think when we dream, we tend to think of spaces that keep the general “feel” and “look” of the warehouse spaces while providing us with reliable technical systems and more patron-friendly support spaces. We want artists to be able to work at their highest level and patrons to be as comfortable as possible. The old Arts District Theatre that Dallas Theater Center used to work out of is a great example of what could happen in the spaces in Trinity Groves. Even better if it’s structured in such a way that it could accommodate several companies so that audiences have constant access to new work.
Tye: 500 Singleton would be my dream home for a theater. It's a huge space with a lot of character that can be manipulated easily. It could easily fit two performance spaces or allow for immersive, Sleep No More-esque productions. Even some classrooms for us to teach!
Colangelo: Honestly my dream for a home in Trinity Groves would be to just have one of those giant warehouses with some air conditioning and heating so that we could use it year round. From there, we would have a space to teach classes during the day and by night, collaborate with a wide variety of different artists on the creation of new works. Just the idea of having a home to do theater in 24/7 is enough to make me want to jump for joy.
McCreary: Our dream home is something we are constantly talking about. I half-joke about purchasing a warehouse, and building apartments into the corners of them, that way our living space is our working space. At this point, I'm like one percent joking. Trinity Groves is a prime location because it is perfectly at the center of all the work being done across Dallas. The warehouse aesthetic really suits the area, and for our aforementioned affinity for warehouses, having a space of our OWN, that we had control over, and could maintain and live in would remove an enormous obstacle to producing work.
No matter the scale you are working on, you still need a space/venue you can get people to come to. As much fun as it is inconveniencing our roommates for rehearsal space, to have a space of our own that has the mutability of a warehouse would grant us rehearsal space, a workshop to build, a performance venue, and a place to live. It would enable us to dedicate even more of ourselves to the work, while also establishing ourselves in an up-and-coming area like Trinity Groves.
Riccio: Our dream is an arts complex unique to the city, state and maybe even the nation. It would contain two theaters, with 100 and 150 seats and flexible seating, rehearsal and workshop space. There would be a major art gallery, a wine/beer lounge that offers jazz, blues, spoken word and comedy, and a small restaurant.
The name of the complex would be “Be Happy.” I want people to ask: “What are you doing tonight?” The response? “I’m going to Be Happy.” This idea is in the planning now.