Dallas — When Bishop Arts Theatre Center (BATC) Founder and Executive Artistic Director Teresa Coleman Wash attended the Dramatists Guild of America National Conference two years ago, she was stunned at what she learned. There she discovered that women write only 22 percent of the shows seen on American stages.
“That’s a huge marginalization,” Wash says. “And it occurred to me, I’m an artistic director so I can do something about this. Right?”
In 2016 Wash and her board decided to replace the company’s annual New Play Competition with an LGBTQ play festival and a one-act play festival called Down for #TheCount. The latter is named to show support for The Count, an ongoing study about American theater productions, sponsored by the Dramatists Guild of America and the Lilly Awards.
This year’s festival features five local and national playwrights and two world premieres: Hypsteria by Josefina Lopez (Real Women Have Curves) and Camika Spencer’s Things That Go Bump. The other three are Smashing the Patriarchy by Cecilia Copeland (regional premiere), The Red Zone by Ashley Edwards and How to Iron a Shirt by Carmela Lamberti. All five are presented in one evening, opening Feb. 17 and running through Feb. 26.
Wash and TeCo’s board members wanted to focus on more social justice issues so producing an event that would give a platform to more female playwrights made sense.
“I think what Down For #TheCount does is give us more of a national platform because we are working with playwrights across the country,” Wash says. “It is a program that people around the country can get excited about and quite honestly, it’s been a joy to put together. These talented women don’t get opportunities like this, so when they do, I feel I am helping a population that really appreciates it and that makes me feel really good.”
But before Teresa Coleman Wash became the overseer of Down for #TheCount, the Executive Artistic Director of the Bishop Arts Theatre Center, and founder of TeCo Theatrical Productions Inc., a request from her church choir in Atlanta, set it all in motion.
Georgia on Her Mind
Growing up in Albany, Georgia, did not provide much in the way of theater for Wash. But seeing the movie The Wiz, starring Diana Ross, while in high school gave her a larger perspective of the world of theater. “I had a larger view of the world through that movie. She hadn’t considered theater as a real option for a career but seeing that movie planted a seed deep inside her.
After she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Albany State University, in Georgia, and had worked for a small television station for two years, she moved into radio when she accepted the position of account executive with WFOX/97.1 FM in Atlanta. There she spent 11 years honing her sales and people skills while building a network of strong business and personal relationships throughout her community and beyond.
During that time, part of her community involvement included singing in Atlanta’s Antioch Baptist Church choir. One day an unexpected opportunity came when her choir director announced that he wanted her to plan the church’s Christmas entertainment. She responded playfully: “What am I supposed to do, write a play?”
Fortunately, his answer was a firm “yes.”
“So I wrote a skit called The Test of Time, and people told me it was really good and that I should write the full-length version.” Then, 18 months later someone else had introduced her to several theatrical promoters who liked her work, so she wrote the full-length version and went on tour.
With The Test of Time, Wash was able to write and tour and as she admits, make a lot of mistakes and lose a lot of money. But that’s what motivated her to think about creating a non-profit. In 1993 she founded TeCo Theatrical Productions Inc., the 501 (c)(3) that owns and operates the Bishop Arts Theatre Center.
Wash stayed busy working for WFOX/97.1 and bringing art and healing through the theater to a group of people who really needed it, men and women recovering from substance abuse. “Many of the cast members were from that population and had never been on stage,” she recalls. “It was a beautiful way for us to connect with the community and it was a beautiful way for them to have an outlet.”
When friends in Atlanta donated a building, it gave TeCo a theater and Wash the freedom to do whatever she needed to do. “This population needed help and I really attribute a lot of our success now [at BATC] to how we started. When you look at some of the work we were doing, even Down For #TheCount, giving a platform to people who are marginalized in the American theater goes back to the very root of who we are.”
While Wash admits that she originally got into the business for purely selfish reasons, to write and produce her own plays, it become much bigger than her.
“I think the reason our benefactors are attracted to us is because they see progress. They see that we are connecting, that we are working with young people, we are giving a voice to the voiceless and I think they see that people want to get involved with that.”
The move to Big D
In 2000 Wash married her husband Al and made the move to Dallas. Wash hadn’t had the opportunity to work in the theater full-time in Atlanta, so when she moved to Dallas, she told her husband that she wanted to give it a shot. She wanted to make a difference. He agreed.
“When we came to Dallas, we had to build our audience. We had to find a space. All of this was very challenging”, she admits. She was told she had to start over and it was years before she received any grants. But doors started to open.
“The Office of Cultural Affairs had a program started by Margie Reese, the Facilities Usage Reimbursement Program, that allowed organizations like ours to get our foot in the door. So we were able to get space in the basement theater in the Hall of State, at Fair Park.”
Once Wash got the space, she knew she could come up with programs that the community wanted, and that’s what kept her going.
Later that same year more good fortune was in store. Wash’s husband, Al, CEO of ALW Entertainment, was putting a show together with Grammy Award-winning musician Fred Hammond. The show was called Been There Done That, but they were not having much success finding the right co-writer. Fred and Wash sat down and together and wrote Been There Done That. Before they knew it, they had started a 40-city national tour. It grossed more than $6 million in sales and it validated Wash as a talent in the theatrical field.
The Bishop Arts Theatre Center is Born
In 2006, renovations to TeCo’s new home at 215 S. Tyler Street in Oak Cliff were being completed. The building, which had been donated by a long-time donor, was a silent movie house built in 1917. Located just off Jefferson Avenue, a historic strip of shops that include restaurants, bookstores and quinceañera shops, the space underwent a major transformation.
When the economy of 2008 started tanking and she knew what was coming, Wash connected with the community. “We asked our neighbors, parents, and patrons, what would they like to see us doing that we were not doing. Once again, that is how and why we survived, by serving the community.”
The BATC seats 170. There are 140 comfortable seats in the main theater and two skyboxes upstairs, instead of a traditional balcony, that seat 15 guests each. When the economy came back they pursued some of their friends at corporations and local foundations for naming right opportunities in the skyboxes. The complex also features a handsome lobby, plenty of office space and, upstairs, education and rehearsal space.
BATC now runs on a $750,000 budget and has several educational outreach programs, including one that teaches theater games to home-schooled children. In 2016, the organization decided to drop the name TeCo as the presenter, and use Bishop Arts Theatre Center in all of its branding and marketing.
Wash serves on the board of Dramatist’s Guild and has been a wizard at raising money and securing grants. BATC has three full-time employees: Wash, education director Sergio Garcia and marketing communications manager Samuel Oviedo. Office assistant and booking agent Lola Redic is paid for by AARP through a program in which that organization pays for part-time employees at non-profits.
“There is something going on in the building every single day,” Wash says proudly. TeCo powers a full season of theater performances, jazz concerts and lectures.
Last year’s area premiere of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, directed by Phyllis Cicero, was one of its most acclaimed productions to date. The theater’s annual production of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity is always a hit. For several seasons, BATC has partnered with the Dallas County Juvenile Department to present a play—this year it’s the premiere of Steven Young’s The World Turned Upside Down. In September 2017, BATC will premiere Paul Kalburgi’s play In the Tall Grass, about the murder of Dallas transgender woman Shade Schuler, in association with the Transgender Education Network of Texas.
BATC also has a speaker series that was created to talk about issues important to the community. The next event, on March 25, features bestselling author Beverly Jenkins, who will speak about Sissieretta Jones and other African-American women singers of the 19th century.
“Right now there is a lot to talk about with what’s going on in the country particularly within African-American communities that is crippling us.” The jazz series sells out, and the speaker series gives members of the community crucial information that they might not have and a chance to talk about it.
Getting Down for #TheCount
And so does the Down For #TheCount play festival. It gives people a chance to come together to be moved by real issues affecting their lives and those around them. Two very important issues, domestic violence and the gentrification of minority neighborhoods are featured by two of the festival’s playwrights.
Josefina Lopez is an award-winning playwright best known for Real Women Have Curves. Her play, Hypsteria, a world premiere, is the story of a woman and her son fighting against gentrification of their Latino neighborhood.
This is a story much like the story of the east L.A. community of Boyle Heights, where Lopez grew up—areas where minorities were allowed to live, but neglected by their city.
“I worked hard to make mine a beautiful community, like the character in Hypsteria,” Lopez says. She originally read about her main character in an article. “I can identify with her, so I wanted to tell the story about this woman and how she’s not going down without a fight.”
Being asked to be part of the festival appealed to Lopez because she’s done the math on women in theater. “I am very aware of the small number of women who are writers or producers. And that is why I started a mentoring program teaching woman how to write and produce and I will continue to mentor women until we have equity.”
Last summer Dallas native Camika Spencer met Wash at a workshop.
A few months later Spencer was on Facebook talking about the five and seven-minute segments of plays she had created in grad school. Then during the Christmas break Wash sent her a message asking if any of her pieces were developed enough and would she be interested in submitting them for the Down For #TheCount festival.
“I was drawn to the idea of being a part of plays written by women. I sent her a piece that I had to present for class and she loved it,” Spencer says.
Things That Go Bump, the second world premiere of the festival, is a dark and heartbreaking story about a small family living in the shadow of domestic violence.
The play was inspired by a three-minute piece she put together in her playwriting class. In the piece, a child keeps coming into his parents’ bedroom because he thinks there is a monster in his room. “I had been reading a lot of news stories about domestic violence and so with that in mind, I developed it into a 10-minute piece,” she says.
“I think it’s important to desire to move people and to give them something to think about. I teach seventh grade English language arts. When I have to bring learning to life, I can see the benefit to every experience I have had. That is an element of playwriting, of living.”
At Her Core
Teresa Coleman Wash comes from a line of strong, black women who gets things done, she says. “And that’s always been my survival tactic.”
She also says she doesn’t take things as personally as she used to. As a member of a professional development group, she is learning that disappointment and setbacks are part of the gig.
“But what I’ve also had to learn is that I have to speak up. When there is an injustice, I don’t let things slide like I used to. When I see an injustice, I confront it,” she says. “And I think that is one of the reasons there is so much division in our country, because we don’t want to have those uncomfortable conversations. I think we’ve got to get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations.”
Wash shared an anecdote about her and her husband buying a washing machine. She said the technician was in their house looking at the old machine. Wash and her husband were sitting at their kitchen table when he came into the room to talk about the machine. “The man looked at my husband and said, let me tell you what the plan is. And I said, excuse me, I have a say in this house. You need to address your concerns to both of us.”
Wash says she would have let that slide years ago. But now she doesn’t tolerate sexism in her house, workplace or anywhere she lives.
“I am going to call it out every time. And I can’t be true to myself [and] give a platform to women in this theater, if in my personal life I let it slide.”