Editor's Note: This is the second of a new monthly column on TheaterJones, in which Aaron Zilbermann and Tiana Kaye Johnson will chronicle their journey in starting a new theater company, Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, which has a mission of theater for social justice. They will write about administrative and artistic issues as they near the first productions in June and the fall.
Dallas — Starting a nonprofit organization from scratch is certainly not a painless undertaking. The process of cultivating a board occupied with directors that are equally as committed as I am is a rather arduous process that involves a substantial amount of time networking to unearth the right people with the right skills, who also happen to believe in the purpose of Metamorphosis. This takes time and selecting the wrong people too hastily could have a detrimental impact on the growth of our organization.
Once I reached out to and established our initial board of five directors, we agreed as an organization to keep the board small for the time being. This was a complicated decision to make since more board members means a larger network, which leads to more donations. Yet, ultimately we decided not to expand the board as we are establishing ourselves as an organization in the Dallas arts scene. We wanted to retain power and control over our vision and its implementation. The five of us shared a vision. Collectively, we ultimately want to reach the same goals. With every new board member that we add, we run the risk of losing control over the whole endeavor. Our hope is that we will produce quality work, we will grow as fast and as sustainably as we can, and that we will demonstrate to the community that we are worth investing in. And with time, the right people will come along to grow our board.
After establishing an initial board, incorporating as a nonprofit with the Secretary of State of Texas, and starting the application process with the IRS to receive tax-exempt status, we agreed that it would be best to begin producing theater as soon as possible in order to get a few successful activities under our belt as a new organization. We all knew that donors would be skeptical to give money to an organization that has absolutely no track record, and while only a few performances won’t offer the confidence to donors that we need, it is significantly better than asking a donor for money when we have done absolutely nothing. Therefore, Tiana and I were tasked with putting together our first performance.
She and I sat at a café, talking, discussing, laughing, and brainstorming and eventually we decided to create a new piece about gentrification. And since South Dallas is our intended home for Metamorphosis, it seemed only natural to write a play about the gentrification and impending gentrification of Southern Dallas. For the purposes of our project, we defined Southern Dallas as the area of town that is typically referred to as “South Dallas,” as well as South Oak Cliff. However, we focused the bulk of our research in a rather small neighborhood northeast of Fair Park and south of Interstate 30: South East Dallas, a.k.a. Jubilee Park.
We decided to write a play that integrates elements of verbatim theater, a form of theater in which plays are constructed from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a given topic. We also knew that it was essential for us to do our homework on this issue before we even begin to write. It’s an incredibly complex subject and we wanted to explore all sides.
So, we set out to meet people, to get to know the neighborhood, hoping to conduct some quality interviews along the way. We first met with Candace Thompson as she was finishing her last few weeks working at the Jubilee Park Community Center. She introduced us to a lot of the programs the organization has in place to support community members and then she connected us with several residents of the neighborhood who agreed to be interviewed. From there, people kept showing up, eager to talk and eager to be heard.
We had breakfast in residents’ homes (pancakes and fruit to be specific), attended neighborhood organizing meetings, walked the streets, took pictures, engaged with strangers on the street, who welcomed us and quickly became comrades, and formally interviewed countless people. We asked questions and we listened. It was through this process that we solidified our desire to ultimately locate our theater in South Dallas.
The residents of that we spoke with embraced us primarily because we listened to their grievances with the city, with DISD and with various community organizations, without judgement. They embraced us because we were committed to presenting their story in their own words in their own neighborhood. People loved the idea of a play on the topic of gentrification and are excited to attend and discuss the issue. It was obvious that many of the residents in South Dallas want to engage in civic dialogue with city officials and with Dallasites outside of their neighborhood.
South Dallas is a food desert and is a rather isolated part of the city, with most North Dallas residents refusing to cross south of the symbolic concrete wall known as I-30, and yet nearly every person I met expressed sincere interest in civic engagement that would hopefully lead to South Dallas truly becoming a part of the City of Dallas. Community members loved the idea of exploring this issue through art, and it became clear to us that there is also an art desert in South Dallas, with the notable exception of the South Dallas Cultural Center.
Tiana and I have this radical idea that people of color and people living in poverty appreciate theater and art just as much as wealthy white people do. Crazy, I know! Take a moment to wrap your head around that notion because it’s true—yet nearly every single theater in Dallas is located north of I-30, except for Ochre House Theater, which is located a couple of blocks south of the highway in Exposition Park; Soul Rep Theatre Co., which makes their home at the South Dallas Cultural Center; and the Bishop Arts Theatre Centre in Oak Cliff.
The bulk of theater art in the city is in central Dallas, north or east of downtown. This means that the residents of South Dallas must cross that concrete barrier and enter a world where they often feel unwelcome and unwanted. The Arts District is roughly 1.5 miles from some parts of South Dallas, and two miles from South East Dallas (Jubilee Park), yet it might as well be located in a different city. Since we intend to bring social justice theater to the city of Dallas, regardless of race or income, South Dallas felt like a natural home for our organization.
Throughout the process of developing this piece on gentrification, Tiana and I learned a very key lesson: never again would we plan to perform a play on a specific date without a finished script in hand. Our intention was to perform this play, or at least host a reading of a draft of the play, in January of 2017 at the South Dallas Cultural Center. However, the project grew much larger than either of us imagined it would. The research component is essential to writing a quality play, and researching all perspectives on the topic of gentrification in South Dallas quickly became a highly time-consuming task. Eventually, we both felt that the project was too important to rush and we decided to postpone a performance until we have a script.
In my mind, this was an incredibly wise decision and I credit Tiana for bringing it to my attention. I have no regrets spending so much time on the research and ultimately deciding not to perform since we truly got to know many of the people living in a neighborhood in South Dallas. If our theater is going to live there, we need to meet and learn about our neighbors. After our decision to wait for the script to be completed before scheduling a performance date, we quickly began searching for a script that we wanted to use as our first public performance.
More on that in a future edition of Living Theatre.
» Aaron Zilbermann, executive artistic director of Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, has worked with Big Thought and other local teaching institutions. Tiana Kaye Johnson, the theater's director of education, is a Dallas native and Southern Methodist University graduate, and a member of the Dallas Theater Center’s Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company. She currently appears in Cara Mía Theatre Company’s production of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Yemaya’s Belly; next up is DTC’s Electra.
» Living Theatre runs on the second Friday of the month on TheaterJones.com
PREVIOUSLY IN LIVING THEATRE
- Februrary 2017: The introductory column