Editor's Note: This is the third of a 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 — Space and place, within the context of the development and creation of live theater, are critically vital to a production’s artistic vision. The space in which a play is rehearsed, and ultimately the space it is performed in, is nearly as important as what play is being performed or who is performing it.
When seeking out a place to work on and present a production, we initially search for a space that contains the necessary basics, but as we look at a space, detached from meaning, we try to find where the potential for meaning exists, the potential for taking a space and growing it into a dynamic place. In the field of cultural geography, place and space play specific and necessary functions. Space is generally defined as the physical parameters of a given location: the design, square footage, ceiling height, seating capacity, community demographics and so on.
On the other hand, place is essentially defined as space with meaning attached. We assign meaning to a space when we perform rituals in this space. As we perform these rituals, however trivial they may superficially appear, we, as humans, begin to assign meaning to these previously meaningless spaces. They become consequential to us and ideally become a place flooded with significance. As theater-makers we perform various rituals in our performance spaces, so much so that they become highly significant places to each individual involved in the process. The meaning we assign can range in possibility that spans the depth of human emotion, from deeply harmful and vicious to blissful or intimate. We might feel uneasy or uncomfortable about a place. We might sense an incongruence, something that could be detrimental to a public performance. The space matters and when this is overlooked as a result of a lack of options, the art involved can’t reach its full potential.
Homelessness is typically a perpetual problem for new theater companies. This is not New York City. In New York, there is a bed for every homeless person if she wants it. In Dallas, there is not a stage for every theater practitioner.
Metamorphosis finally settled on a place to perform Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman. We planned for this space, held auditions assuming we would have this space, hired actors, created a rehearsal schedule, and people arranged their lives accordingly. Then we learned that the new landlord for the building is unjustly tripling the rent on the theater’s lobby. The theater can’t afford the drastic increase in rent, so they lost their lobby to another tenant willing to pay. Never mind the fact that the theater is the oldest tenant in the building, occupying the space for over 30 years. The lobby space was extremely important because this was going to be shared space between our two theater companies. They would be in the theater while we are in the lobby and then we would have switched. We are in the theater while the company is in the lobby.
In the end, the resident theater company needed what space they had left for their own production and we lost a space to perform. This is a frightening thought two months before the opening night of your play. My dedicated colleague, Tiana Johnson, and I were desperate. We tried calling every theater space we could think of, hoping there would be an opening for that weekend. But there wasn’t. So, we got creative. I thought of a space Tiana and I had the opportunity to visit while conducting research for a play we have been working on about gentrification in South Dallas. Ben Leal, the CEO at Jubilee Park in Southeast Dallas, took us on a tour of their facilities, including a small, recently acquired church with the words “The Old Church” written on the front. It was a large open space, currently used for gatherings and classes, including Zumba. It was in the right neighborhood and it quite easily could have worked for our purposes, but unfortunately The Old Church was booked for one of the nights and therefore didn’t work. But it’s good to know this is an option for future performances or readings.
Tiana brought up the idea of seeking out spaces of significance regarding human relationships with the space as well as historic meaning. We brainstormed: The African American Museum (perhaps performing alongside a meaningful exhibit), Klyde Warren Park, various churches, outdoor spaces including the historic Black cemetery that was destroyed with the construction of I-75, black boxes at the public libraries, coffee shops, bars, and more.
Many of the performance spaces we visited already had meaning attached for us, and therefore were already a place in our minds. For example, the African American Museum at Fair Park, being the only museum of its kind in the Southwest, carried a significant amount of power and meaning with it. The Margo Jones Theater at Fair Park was built in 1936 and designed by the Swiss architect, William Lescaze. The art deco style of architecture was otherwise unseen in the region at the time. In 1947, Margo Jones opened one of the nation’s first professional regional theaters in the building and was dedicated to producing the works of new playwrights, taking absolute authority over the American theater scene away from Broadway. She essentially decentralized theater in the United States by promoting regional theater. This space carried significant meaning for me personally and for our theater and its mission.
Having contacted every known space to us in the city of Dallas, I contacted Mark Lowry, editor-in-chief for TheaterJones, to see if he had any ideas. I suppose it helps to know people who know people. Mark recommended that I take a look at the new Arts Mission Oak Cliff, a lab and rehearsal space for the performing arts and run by the theater practitioner, Anastasia Muñoz. I reached out to Anastasia and she immediately responded with the news that they were available for our weekend. While some spaces already carried meaning for me, others I knew very little about, which was the case with Arts Mission Oak Cliff.
Before I went to visit this past week, I tried to do some preliminary research on the space. I learned that the building was built in 1929 and that it was previously known as the Winnetka Congregational Church. Beyond that, it was pretty much an unknown space to me, a blank space. A historic space, but unattached to any meaning by me. When I first arrived at the building, I was struck by its enduring presence, which was specifically reminiscent of a historic neighborhood church I lived spitting distance from when I was a resident of North Oakland. The neighborhood and the church very much represented Black liberation, Black self-determination, and Black self-love, while at the same time embracing diversity. It is also highly associated with the Black Panthers, with Huey P. Newton’s and Bobby Seale’s childhood homes having only been a few blocks away. So, sitting in my car, before I even entered Arts Mission Oak Cliff, I was flooded with all of the imagery and significance this old church created for me: imagery and significance that is likely entirely unrelated to the actual history of the building. But I toured the facilities, and found an immense amount of potential for meaning. With our play, Dutchman, and the rituals we will perform in the space, we have the power to develop this location, which is a space to most of us, into a potent and meaningful place.
Performance space in Dallas is in high demand and there is a dearth of black box theaters, or any usable theaters for that matter. Many of the spaces available are owned by the city, such as the South Dallas Cultural Center, the Latino Cultural Center, the Bath House Cultural Center, and the public library black boxes (which is not even open in the evenings after the library closes). And while many of these theaters and performance spaces are quite amazing, they are intensely desired for a wide range of uses. Dance performances, plays, workshops, readings, public dialogues, political events, exhibitions and many other happenings constantly fight for space. It’s rough finding the right space for a single event, let alone a full season of plays we intend to produce. So, we either get political and attack city hall, or we get creative and find and create new spaces to perform. I suppose doing both could be quite beneficial.
In the meantime, the struggles of a homeless theater company are real and the city of Dallas needs to do something to address this lack of performance space. It negatively impacts the availability of the performing arts in Dallas and if nothing is done it will not allow the amazing theater scene we have nurtured in our city to thrive and grow. Metamorphosis has been welcomed by a warm and congenial theater community, not as a competitor, but as a fellow collaborator. We have been supported by various artistic directors and have been offered quite a lot of guidance, but if performance space grows more and more scarce, I fear that this lack of infrastructure will create more divisiveness within our community.
» 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 Dallas Theater Center's Electra.
» Living Theatre runs on the second Friday of the month on TheaterJones.com
PREVIOUSLY IN LIVING THEATRE