Dallas — I’m great at starting new books. I love watching pilot episodes. But I cried through the last 30 pages of The Time Traveller’s Wife, partly because of the story, but also because it was almost over and I was getting closer to the end of my experience of reading a book I loved with each irresistible page-turn. I don’t want to talk about what happened during the last episode of Quantum Leap. And I’ve been watching Friday Night Lights a little at a time over the past four years rather than binging the whole thing, as I would love to do, because I don’t want to deal with the idea of it ending. I talked to my mom on Friday night and when she asked me how I was doing I told her that since my residency is over on the last day of June: the usual with change. And she laughed because she has known me well my whole life through and knows how complicated my feelings are right now.
As I get ready to close this book and begin a new one, I’m grateful for this opportunity to think through the questions with which I continue to grapple and the hopes I have for our shared future. One last time—for now, anyway.
Since last October, I’ve had the good fortune to get acquainted with this city and I have to say, y’all: there is so much to be excited about in DFW. I have appreciated the time and space of this column to process my experience as I’ve slowly fallen in love with so many of the people and places that make these cities and their surrounds unique. And I’ve had inspiring conversations as a result of some big questions I’ve asked about challenges facing our industry. I believe they aren’t just Dallas issues: they’re questions about space and resources and purpose and people that we all have to ask ourselves, regardless of geography, as practitioners and citizens who continue to make our lives and work in these unpredictable times.
This year more than any other in my lifetime, the political is personal. This November will reveal our true colors as a nation. I can’t think of a time when it’s been more important to choose empathy and compassion and generosity—all of which the theater I love creates. We must work together to put people in positions of authority who will emphasize and elevate the common ground we share as humans. With a world as fractured, angry, and in pain as the one we currently occupy, creating shared experiences that remind us of our common humanity offers more than entertainment—it’s an essential public service. Rallying political support for that work—and getting art back into our schools—is bigger than us, bigger than the theater community. This has been a year where what we thought was impossible keeps turning into reality. For the most part, the results have been pretty horrifying. But I wonder if we can take advantage of this shake-up season to open our political landscape in a more positive direction as well. We must, at the very least, shake off the apathy that tells us our votes don’t matter and that things will never change, because 2016 is reminding us that anything truly is possible.
We can look to the big hub cities in our country for inspiration when we think about change. Many of them are light years ahead of Texas when it comes to philanthropy, audience engagement, diversity and inclusion, and a creative ecology that supports more than one major institution per discipline. But I believe that the most vibrant, necessary art for any community cannot be imported from out of town. Giving audiences the opportunity to build sustained relationships with artists over time has a residency requirement. It takes work and time to build the relationships, trust, and awareness essential for art and artists to not just survive, but also thrive in any community. How can we be inspired by other cities’ systems, artists, and work without allowing our admiration to eclipse the value of the work we’re building here? And how can we use our specificity of place to open our doors a little bit wider? How can we make sure that the people who surround us see the doors are there in the first place?
I was sitting by the window in my new favorite Dallas food and beverage establishment in Deep Ellum, writing this piece when a fella who was part of a bachelor party wanted to know what I was working on. I was annoyed at first, defensive even, because my expectations of any member of the loud, entitled, toxically masculine group that had poured itself into the place were, shall we say, low. When I told him I was writing a column about theater he told me he didn’t know anything about theater (and because I was initially pretty prickly) and so he’d leave me alone. I told him to hang on a minute because there is a lot of great theater happening here—right down the street in fact—and what did he mean he didn’t know anything about it. And this is where I jiu jitsu-ed a potentially annoying interruption into a research opportunity (medal, please).
This guy—living in Fort Worth, married with kids—told me that he just didn’t know it was an option. His daughter does plays at school or church sometimes and he’ll make sure she gets to practice, but when he and his wife have a rare opportunity to go out, going to see live theater isn’t something that’s top of mind. He said he’s not opposed to it, and that in fact it sounds like it’d be a lot better than some of the other options. He said it’s not ticket price or content or even the spatial and social coding that accompanies getting in the door—it’s simple awareness. Oh, random man in the bar, I fear you are the rule and not the exception!
We talked a bit more about how maybe theaters could put tickets on StubHub or other places where sports and stadium concerts and other big events are listed, which isn’t a terrible idea. But it reminded me of the dangerous possibility that we are, more often than not, talking to ourselves, preaching to the choir, the converted, the true believers who already know who we are and how to find us. Don’t get me wrong, I love that choir and keep coming back again and again to sing with it. But what would it look like to truly break out of the box we seem to so often find ourselves limited by? What if our geography could be a positive force in that effort?
Since I moved to Austin in 2012, the pride of place that infuses the experience of being a Texan has been intoxicating. I have the red cowboy boots and a deep love for Dale Watson to prove it. I would think it was calculated branding if it wasn’t coming from so many sources simultaneously and from a place of such sincerity. While the individual specialties of each city, each region, undoubtedly vary, the overarching Texas pride is palpable—but significantly less so in our theater-making. In fact, there seems to be so much looking to and comparison against the other, more traditionally established markets that pride of place can falter. As I’ve decided to make my home and base my artistic life in Texas, I’ve wondered what it means to be a Texas artist, especially coming from Chicago, where a strong if sometimes problematic identity—small, scrappy ensembles who dream of becoming the Next Big Thing—forged the turbine that fuels that town’s sense of itself.
And so I’m curious: how could we define a Texas theater identity? What if Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, and everywhere between and beyond these cities came together and consolidated some of our efforts? And what if that identity was fueled by the most noble qualities that Texan-ness seems to inspire: pride of place, loyalty and camaraderie, and the belief that all we need is right here among the people who choose to make this home?
I’m not advocating for the kind of extremity that becomes isolation: Texas artists need not secede from the union of the American theater. And it need not have one unifying aesthetic—in fact, it feels pretty essential that the work continue to diversify and specify. What I am suggesting is the kind of fiercely local, lovingly national sensibility I’ve learned from Kitchen Dog Theater and Undermain Theatre in particular during my time here, and that I’ve learned from the Rude Mechs and Salvage Vanguard in Austin, too. The specificity of place embedded in all of these companies, the fierceness with which they are Dallas- or Austin-based has allowed them to set down roots. Even in a year of incredible transitions for many of them, these companies are producing work, supporting one another, and seeking solutions to the challenges that keep coming their way. Simultaneously, all four of these companies are contributing to the national theatrical conversation with new work, collaborations with artists based in other cities, and connecting with similarly fierce colleagues across this country.
Fiercely local, lovingly global.
In the two Texas cities I know best so far, I’ve been struck by the similarities of struggle and the places where strengths could complement each other. Dallas and Austin are growing, and finding affordable, dedicated space in which artists can make their work is especially difficult in boom times. In Austin, it’s a downright crisis, and I worry that Dallas isn’t far behind. Each city’s challenges and resources are unique, but I’m curious what support we might be able to offer one another as theater lovers and theater makers across our Texas towns? Maybe we need a Texas Coalition of Theatres to serve as a hub for information, resources, and advocacy on a statewide level in order to create greater impact. Would we be better able, together, to open our wagons into the horseshoe I believe we need to form in order to welcome those folks who might love us to pieces if only they knew we were here?
Perhaps I’m advocating for a unified Texas theatrical identity in part because I’m not ready to let Dallas go. I’ve seen some remarkable work here, and been able to meet excellent, exciting artists who are actively choosing to make a home in Dallas. I’m curious about what greater cross-pollination among Austin, Dallas, and Houston could produce. And while some of my favorites are moving on to other opportunities this fall, I remain hopeful about the future we’re building in this corner of the American theater.
That feels essential to remember: we are building something here. Where some cities already have, for better or worse, established identities, Texas as a whole and Dallas and Austin in particular still feel malleable, as if we can create what we want, what makes sense for us right now in the space available to us. Perhaps it’s the legacy of Margo Jones in the groundwater of this community—a strong feminine sensibility up and eager for change every year, so much so that she reinvented her company to literally keep pace with the times. A new name for each new year—that kind of responsiveness to the present moment takes agility, openness, and bold trust in an audience willing to come along with you wherever you might try to go. I can’t help but think about how much more she might have accomplished if she’d had more time. I can’t help but think about all the ways I want to be like her.
Over the last eight months I have met artists and seen work that I believe would make Margo proud, and it emboldens me to think about the potential of Texas theater writ large. I’m energized by the notion of what we can make together, and I’m determined to not let a little thing like a three-hour stretch of I-35 keep us apart. Austin’s not on the moon, after all, and I’m already making a list of all the exciting work that I’ll have to come back up and see next season. Transitions are challenging, change can be hard, but I’m sure I don’t have to teach myself how to say goodbye forever. I’ll see you soon, Dallas. Thanks for the hospitality. Now, let’s keep the good, hard work going.
» Jess Hutchinson is a director, dramaturg, and producer dedicated to new plays and getting to know Dallas/Fort Worth for the first time. In 2015 she received an MFA from UT-Austin and has just finished a season as NNPN Producer-in-Residence at Kitchen Dog Theater. She's also a founding member of Austin-based groundswell. She has been 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.