Washington, D.C. — If you want to see me cry with patriotic joy, just plop me in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Or the Kennedy Center. Or, yes of course, the statue of Alexander Hamilton in front of the Treasury Building. I don’t ordinarily think of myself as an American first; I’m much more likely to self-identify as a director, dramaturg, woman, artist, or cat advocate when asked to define who I am. But when I’m in Washington, D.C., I can’t help being bowled over by the idealism and beautiful, outrageous determination of those who helped shape this country. Our Nation’s Capital loves to erect statues and carve beautiful words about Service and Art in marble to remind us of the best parts of being an American. I defy any conscious art-maker to read what Kennedy said about grace and beauty or Lincoln’s second inaugural address or the names inscribed on the Vietnam memorial with dry eyes. These markers of our history make me want to be better, do better, both for my country as a whole and my artistic community in particular.
My National New Play Network fellowship, which brought me to Dallas, also affords me the opportunity to travel and meet with colleagues in other parts of the country to see how they are making their lives—in and beyond their art—work. After talking with colleagues at the NNPN showcase in Miami last December, I decided that D.C. was the community from and about which I most wanted to learn. Over the course of six days, I set myself the task of trying to see what makes D.C.’s rich, energizing theater scene tick, and how I might bring that knowledge back to Texas. My original intention was to look specifically at community engagement, but what I find myself most struck by is (in traditional D.C. fashion) bigger and bolder. The most important thing Texas can learn from the theater being made in our nation’s capital is to diversify. In order to become the innovative hub of activity in the American theater that it can and deserves to be, Dallas must invest in and commit to creating a more robust, varied, and fiscally adventurous top tier of its theatrical ecology.
Simply put: it’s time Dallas had more than one major theatrical institution. In fact, its future relevance may just depend on it.
To get a little context, I headed to the Census and their QuickFacts for Dallas and D.C. Much of this data won’t surprise you: the average cost of housing is significantly higher in D.C., as is the median income (D.C. is above the national average; Dallas is below). I was a little surprised that Dallas and D.C. have almost exactly the same percentage (80.8 and 80 percent respectively) of people who have lived in the same house for one year or more – that’s much higher than I would have guessed. Dallas has 6 percent more citizens living in poverty than D.C. It only takes, on average, about 4 more minutes to commute to work in D.C. than it does in Dallas. Only 7.1 percent of D.C. residents are living without health insurance compared to an alarming 32.1 percent of Dallas residents. At 24.2 percent of the population, Dallas is home to 10.2 percent more foreign-born residents than D.C.
But here are the statistics I found most surprising: there are 200,000 more households in Dallas than there are in D.C., and the population of Dallas is almost twice that of the District—but we have just one-third the population density, meaning there are a lot more of us, but we live farther apart from one another. By a lot. Manufacturing, wholesale, and retail sales in Dallas dwarf that of D.C. True, one could argue that the two cities are dealing with very different economies and primary industries, but my point is that there is no shortage of money in Texas, especially when you compare the general cost of living in Dallas to that of D.C.
Now for some artistic context: both cities were home to founding mothers of the American regional theater: Zelda Fichandler in D.C., who created Arena Stage, and Margo Jones—this website’s revolutionary namesake—who first articulated the need for theater that was created by and for artists and audiences in the regions. She defied traditional reliance on New York City and its glossy big-budget tours, encouraging artists to make work relevant to their specific communities. So why, in 2016, does Dallas have one LORT theater while D.C. sustains three? Why does D.C.’s theatrical ecosystem feel and behave so differently from Dallas?
A healthy ecosystem requires a few basic elements: soil, water, air, sun, and mostly aptly for this metaphor, biodiversity. Even super-basic models of healthy ecosystems emphasize that in order to survive and thrive, biodiversity is the key. With biodiversity, each species finds a particular job and contributes to the health of the system overall. In fact, biodiversity is what protects the system from damage caused by human interaction, natural disasters, and climate change. Diversity of cultural institutions can guard against similarly destructive human forces.
Each of D.C.’s biggest theatrical institutions—Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Round House Theatre, Ford’s Theatre—have found a niche in the community. Midsize companies like Studio Theatre, Folger Theatre, Forum Theatre, and the newly formed Mosaic Theater Company, along with small companies and a robust fringe festival all feed the system, too. Since, as one of the theatermakers I met with said, there is neither a glass ceiling nor a glass floor for actors in the community, there is also a great deal of cross-pollination among these organizations. Actors you see on stage at Woolly also work at Studio and Shakespeare and Forum and the Folger. The rising tide of the artistic community across D.C. raises all of the boats—and, indeed, it’s this armada of opportunity that allow actors to make a life and a living in this community.
That’s not unlike Dallas; we have that kind of creative cross-pollination, too. But the number of major contracts in D.C. is greater because there are more theaters operating with larger budgets, so there are more opportunities for actors to make their livings on the stage. Proximity to major markets in the East helps, as does the system of trains that connect D.C. to markets like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Public transportation is a really beautiful thing, y’all.
Each of the large and midsize institutions has a distinct aesthetic and personality, but they share a dedication to rigor and professionalism, and each has access to essential resources that enable the quality of their work to stay top notch. It’s difficult to track correlation versus causation here, but I submit that the presence of several top-tier theaters in the same market creates the necessary rigor, differentiation, and specificity with which these institutions are operating. None of these theaters works to be the sole voice of professional regional theater in the District; nobody has to try to be all things to all audiences, so they are able to get specific about what, how, and why their programming is the way it is. This kind of artistic variety also solidifies D.C.’s status as an important cultural hub.
So. What about Dallas? What about Houston, where even before Margo Jones began her theatre in the round, Nina Vance founded The Alley with a dream and 214 penny postcards? With the population, money, and historical significance to the American regional theater that is undeniably part of Texas history, why are there so few major regional houses in our state? And what are we going to do about it?
I was having lunch with an arts administrator and advocate here in Dallas a few weeks ago, and she mentioned that the Arts District downtown boasts more square footage than Lincoln Center in New York. I asked her why that fact was significant; from there, we started to unpack Dallas’s deep need to be compared favorably to New York City.
It’s true: New York City is great and diverse and electric. Some even say it’s the Greatest City in the World. But what is it that makes it great? It’s steeped in history, an internationally recognized hub for culture, business, and is the gateway to the Land of Opportunity. There’s incredible population density in New York: everybody is literally living on top of each other and that creates friction and tension and struggle and incredible collisions that can make remarkable art possible. There’s so much going on, so much to see and do and make. That plethora of opportunity also makes more art possible, and if there are more opportunities for trying, failing, refining, trying again bigger, better, and bolder, the odds of something truly great emerging go up exponentially. Outside the five boroughs, something has to be a nightmare for us to really hear about it if it’s not successful.
We don’t see all of the “meh” and “good effort” work. It’s easy to get the impression that brilliance bursts forth fully formed. It’s easy to hold what we think is going on up as the gold standard. Dallas is trying to match the trappings of New York without finding its—and other successful theater hubs like D.C.’s—engine. We have to get to the heart of the matter.
Dallas doesn’t have to replicate anything structural about New York City or Chicago or D.C. in order to be a world-class arts mecca. However, its artists, patrons, and advocates—as one community—do need to insist on a more meaningfully diversified cultural sector that empowers more than “one of each” to rise to the top tier of their discipline. We can no longer expect one major institution to be everything to everyone.
Changing that expectation will require an incredible amount of support from within and outside of the theater community. It will require a desire for a more competitive arts scene, for more funding dedicated to capacity building and maintenance of that greater capacity, for organizations to prioritize fair compensation for both administrative and artistic staff to make it possible for the best artists to create the professional careers and personal lives they want to have in Texas.
Dallas has to decide that theater and the arts writ large are vital to creating a vibrant, relevant, 21st Century city: more important than technology, more than oil, more than pretty words carved in marble. Art is how we grapple with and record the particular experience of being in the world. It’s not an accessory: it lives at our core and we have to start behaving with that truth firmly in mind and heart and balance sheet. Like JFK, I’m looking forward to an America that is not afraid of grace and beauty. But it ain’t coming on its own. Just like everything else we’ve ever done, we have to build it together.
» Jess Hutchinson is a director, dramaturg, and producer dedicated to new plays and getting to know Dallas/Fort Worth for the first time. She recently earned her MFA from UT-Austin, is currently the NNPN Producer-in-Residence at Kitchen Dog Theater, and a founding member of Austin-based groundswell. She'll be writing about her exploration of the DFW theater and arts ecology in this monthly column on TheaterJones. Learn more about her and her work at www.jesshutchinson.com.