Dallas — When five theater students at Waco’s Baylor University started Second Thought Theatre in Dallas in 2004, their mission was not unlike other upstarts from serious-minded university students eager to act, direct and write outside of their schools’ theater departments.
“Second Thought Theatre's mission, from the beginning, was to produce thought-provoking, entertaining and inspiring theater that engaged the local community in deep, meaningful conversations about the way we live our lives,” says co-founder Steven Walters, who remains on STT’s advisory board.
Drew Wall, a Baylor student who became involved in Second Thought Theatre’s third season in 2006, remembers trying to navigate the company’s identity in the North Texas theater scene.
“We were looking to find our sea legs and we had been reading a lot of plays and were trying to keep that edgy theater niche. I think we had in our mission statement something like ‘old works in new ways and new works in old ways’,” says Wall, 32, who has had a consistent relationship with STT as an actor, designer and production manager.
Wall is now the company’s director of operations, the first full-time employee of a theater that has had more leadership changes than any other local theater company in 13 years. But through those changes, its dedication to quality, fine-tuned work has become stronger. That’s saying something for a group that became a favorite of North Texas audiences and critics right out of the gate, with its debut production of Jane Martin’s Anton in Show Business.
The group’s mission is now more focused in its wording, but is still close to the original.
“I think that the idea of confronting the difficult challenging questions, social and political, is something that will always be important and have a place in the community,” says Alex Organ, 35, who became STT’s artistic director in 2015. He is also a member of the Dallas Theater Center’s Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company, and directed the show that opened STT’s 13th season, a powerful production of George Brandt’s Grounded, running through Feb. 4 and starring his wife Jenny Ledel, his first time to direct her.
A theater’s mission statement exists to give potential funders information, but mostly to promise its audiences the best work possible with ideals specific (perhaps musical theater or world classics) or broad (“explore the human condition”). But for Organ, there is also another promise worth boasting: paying artists fair wages.
This season, STT begins a three-year transition to becoming a full-fledged Actor’s Equity Association Small Professional Theatre (SPT), joining the ranks of 12 other North Texas theaters with an AEA level of SPT or higher. This means paying Equity actors a minimum weekly amount depending on the house size and number of performance weeks. For a theater like STT, that would be about $230 a week—eight weeks including rehearsals, tech and the run, at 22 hours a week—plus about $250 a week for Equity stage managers. Equity actors and stage managers accrue a certain number of weeks each year to qualify for health insurance.
STT has been using Special Appearance contracts for years, and since 2010 has paid its non-Equity actors competitively.
“I can’t stress the importance of that enough,” says Danielle Pickard Cope, 33, STT’s new director of communications and a non-union actor. “I’ve been acting locally since I was an intern at Theatre Three in 2006, and when I [performed in Mike Bartlett’s play] Cock in 2013, it was my first show with Second Thought and the second locally [in which] I made $1,000 or more.”
Valuing artists through compensation was always a goal for the company, Walters says. In those first seasons the founders—the others were Barbara Bouman, Lance Currie, Tom Parr IV and Mike Schraeder—were not paid for work onstage or off, but the actors, designers, directors and crew were given stipends. That’s impressive for an upstart company with a season of five to seven productions (some of them festival entries) that had a total annual budget less than the budget for one of STT’s three shows each season now.
Currently, STT has an annual budget of $140,000—about double what it was just four years ago. Organ says that the goal is to increase the number of productions in 2018, from three to four, and increase the non-Equity pay to $1,200. The group just received $25,000 from TACA, its largest annual grant from that organization, which rewards fiscal responsibility and artistic excellence. In 2013, they also received a $40,000 Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund grant (also from TACA) for Steven Walters and Erik Archilla’s play Booth.
"The priority became paying artists, putting them at the center of the work we do and moving STT towards union status," says Walters of the new vision for Second Thought that began to take shape in 2010. "To see Alex, the staff and the board continue to fight for these values makes my heart very happy, indeed."
The Wilhelm grant was important in the evolution of Second Thought, which, from the beginning, has been interested in work by local playwrights. Initially, that meant Walters.
That first season in 2004 began with Anton in Show Business, featuring Amy Storemski, Jenny Ledel, and Allison Tolman, a Baylor theater student who moved to Chicago after several seasons, and would hit it big when she landed the role of Molly in the first season of FX’s Fargo. For that role, she was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and it launched her as a film and TV actress. She stars in the sitcom Downward Dog, premiering this summer on ABC.
That 2004-2005 season also included Walters’ Pluck the Day (which would be reworked in 2012), his Apathy and Angst in Amsterdam in the 2005 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, and Walters’ and Tolman’s adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s King Ubu. Subsequent seasons saw the premieres of Walters’ plays History of the World, 6000 Feet to Salvation, and Snake Eyes at the Mardi Gras Hotel, and a staged reading of Little Light.
“In the earliest of days, it was absolutely a platform for the founders to express themselves,” Walters says. “For Tom, that meant directing plays. For me, writing them. For Barbara, creating a strong business foundation was paramount. We were an eclectic group of theatermakers, with a wide range of diverse skills and interests. As a young playwright, it was a gift to have a testing ground to produce my work.”
In the first four seasons, most of it at the Studio Theatre at the Addison Theatre Centre, the founders dropped off as they moved to other markets or career paths. Walters, a budding screenwriter, moved to Los Angeles before returning to Dallas to become a member of DTC’s Brierley ensemble. Parr would co-found another company, Nouveau 47 Theatre, with Pickard and several other artists, before they all moved on to other endeavors (N47 still survives, managing the Margo Jones Theatre space in Fair Park).
Stan Denman, who has been chairman of Baylor's theater department for 17 of his 25 years teaching at the university, has appeared in several STT shows, and has watched the company grow.
"I think that for students to really fulfill the wild dream of starting their own theater company a number of things have to align, and that rarely happens," he says. "I think they have to have a number of qualities—unquestionable talent, incredible drive, they have to be smart, and charismatic. And I don’t think anyone can do this alone. These are rare traits to find in one individual, but to find them in a group, that is rare indeed. Finally, they have to put the group vision before their own self-interest, and that is probably the biggest challenge of all."
"It was that difficult task that threatened the early days of Second Thought," he adds. "I can remember getting calls from these former students during the first year or two asking advice about how to handle some of the infighting that was going on. They eventually worked it out themselves in what I believe were very mature and professional ways. I have such love and respect for all of these former students who began STT. I consider them life-long friends and have sometimes even reached out to them for advice as our relationships have grown and matured over the years. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing your former students succeed and eclipse your own success."
In that Second Thought was created by college students from the same theater department, and has developed into a professional and acclaimed theater, there are only two other local theaters in the same category: Kitchen Dog Theater, started by Southern Methodist University students; and Fort Worth's Amphibian Stage Productions, which emerged from Texas Christian University.
By the 2009-'10 season, the original STT founders were gone. Wall had been involved since 2007 on multiple levels, and in 2009-'10, he and four others (Archilla, Stew Awalt, Jason Driggers and Anastasia Munoz) produced an adventurous but uneven season.
For the 2010-'11 season, Walters was ready to get STT back in shape, with the help of Kelsey Head, Chris LaBove and Derek Phillips in various capacities. In 2012, STT moved into its current home in Bryant Hall, the building behind the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater. They sublease it from Dallas Theater Center, just like Uptown Players does with the Kalita.
“We held a series of strategic planning retreats and drafted a new vision and values statement for STT,” Walters says. He was fully back in charge before handing over the reins to Organ in 2015.
“The changes in leadership came out of people moving and growing out of their skin here in Dallas, wanting to move to New York, L.A. or Chicago,” Wall says. “There was always somebody wanting to keep it going.”
Organ, a graduate of Abilene Christian University who had always planned on a career in classic theater, met Ledel in a 2004 Shakespeare Dallas production of As You Like it. Later, they each moved, separately, to New York, and bumped into each again on an elevator in Manhattan. They married five years ago and returned to Dallas.
When he was cast in Second Thought’s acclaimed production of Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter in the 2010-11 season, he found a kinship with the Second Thought artists.
“After we did Red Light Winter I attached myself to these guys and began recommending plays,” Organ says. “After a year or so Steven made me an artistic associate. I’d seen Steve be in the Brierley company and run Second Thought for several years, which is what gave me the courage to take it over.”
Part of Organ’s vision, just as with the original group, is to nurture local playwrights. This season includes the world premiere of The Necessities by local actor, director and Southern Methodist University theater faculty Blake Hackler; it will be the first STT world premiere since Booth. They’ve also committed to developing a project by four local playwrights—Janielle Kastner, Jonathan Norton, Lee Trull, and Hannah Weir—based on the John Wayne film McClintock!
In between Grounded and Necessities is the area premiere of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men. Like the 2016 season, this year is very contemporary, but STT has staged works by Brecht, Shakespeare, Mamet and Wycherly—and will delve into the classics again when they fit into a season, Organ says.
“I think a lot of the plays we’ve been drawn to are asking large questions that don’t have concrete answers, and what happens when you bring those questions out,” Wall says.
For Pickard, the combination of plays with challenging roles and having an artistic home with like-minded artists is what encouraged her to take on the part-time communications job, in addition to her corporate day job.
“I have a strict rule with myself I only work where I feel comfortable and where I like the people,” she adds, “but at the same time, you get to the point where you get small paychecks and it’s hard to feel like you’re valued.”
With Second Thought, she’s getting the comfort, the company and artistic nourishment—plus reasonable compensation.
That’s a mission worth getting behind.