Dallas — Tonight, Theatre Three opens its 2017-2018 Theatre Too! season with Matt Lyle’s Cedar Springs, or Big Scary Animals. It’s the first of three shows in that space that new artistic director Jeffrey Schmidt has scheduled to be world premieres by local writers. In the spring of 2018 is Jessica Cavanagh’s Self Injurious Behavior, which received a staged reading in 2016; and in October comes the newest wordless pieces from Prism Movement Theater, Lear, kicking off that group’s “Shake the Spear” season.
Lyle is well known to local theater audiences, having first made a splash with his homage to silent film in The Boxer, which had its 10th anniversary production at the 2017 Festival of Independent Theatres. He and his wife, Kim, moved to Chicago, but his work kept appearing in Dallas: the quirky Hello, Human Female and the dark comedy Barbecue Apocalypse at Kitchen Dog Theater. The Lyles returned to Dallas in 2015, and a few years ago he was one of three local playwrights to receive a commission from Dallas Theater Center (the first of those plays, Jonathan Norton’s Penny Candy, premieres in the fall of 2018).
Coming up is his company Bootstraps Comedy Theater’s first “live radio variety show” in Dallas, In a Southern City, at Arts Mission Oak Cliff on Sept. 23. That event is an extension of a similar Prairie Home Companion-style show he produced in Chicago with Allison Tolman, another Dallas expat in the Windy City who hit stardom when she was cast in the first year of the anthology series Fargo, and recently in the canceled sitcom Downward Dog.
Cedar Springs is a play he’s had out there for a few years, and it was read in Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival 2016. It brings together three couples of different generations, sexual orientation and races for a dinner party that goes to unexpected places. It’s partly inspired by his own experiences with his East Texas family (he’s from Texarkana) and Kim’s father, who is a gay man who lived in Dallas’ gayborhood of Oak Lawn.
We had an email conversation with him about the script, his work and what’s next.
This play was read at Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival in 2016, how did it end up in Theatre Three and Jeffrey Schmidt's hands?
Other theaters, including T3, had it at the time of that reading and had it in season consideration. Jeffrey jumped on it when he was named artistic director and was willing to commit to it. Getting a show produced is a long painful process.
Why did you set this story in Dallas' gayborhood?
I wanted it to be as specific and local as possible. I also wanted each couple to belong to as many subsets as possible that could set them apart; generational, race, sexuality, politics, religion, etc. I wanted to put people in a room who normally NEVER have a chance to be in a room together. So, I ended up with a conservative, older, rural white couple as fish out of water in a liberal, interracial, same sex couple's home. Then I forced them all to be honest for a few minutes which is really scary and exhilarating for the characters and, I hope, the audience.
Are these characters based on anyone you know? I understand that Kim's father is gay. How did that play into creating this story?
The characters aren't specifically any one person but they're all definitely amalgamations of people I do know. A little personality trait here or there, some phrases. Kim's dad uses the phrase "The old queen" referring to himself occasionally and that made the play. Everyone is pretty much fair game when I'm writing something so I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize to everyone in advance.
A story about trying to understand each other is always timely, not just across sexual orientation and color lines. Why does it seem more relevant right now?
I've never FELT a division like this in my lifetime. We're all out there shouting each other down on social media every day. Don't get me wrong, some people really need to be shouted down, but the regular tone of our cultural discourse is pretty disconcerting. At the same time there is, I think, some generational progress. I have hope that we're currently making the kinds of mistakes that my daughter's generation will learn from and never repeat. The same way people who aren't fucking morons have learned the evils of Nazism from WWII. The play certainly doesn't have all the answers but it is an honest and funny conversation starter.
How does this play differ from the comedies you've become known for here, like The Boxer and Hello, Human Female and Barbecue Apocalypse. Can you chart a progression in those works in terms of writing style?
Those first two were wild ideas playing with style and genre. I tried to wrap a good story around the fun that can be had in that way. Barbecue Apocalypse is the first play where I moved closer (though not all the way) towards realism and have the story flow from a central theme. This one is similar but a little scarier for lots of reasons. It deals pretty irreverently with some very serious topics.
The Dallas theater scene seems like a very different place from before you and Kim went to Chicago. What does it mean, as a playwright, to now have so many theaters—including professional ones—embracing new works by local writers. What more can be done?
It's great. Back in the early aughts it felt like all the new plays were pretty much self-produced. I know there were exceptions but that was my impression. It's still not easy to get a professional production and I recommend self-producing if that's the way it's going to get in front of people, but things have come a long way. It seems like just about everybody is at least open to the idea of local work. What I'd like to see is commitments to playwrights as artists-in-residence and with more commissions and partnerships where we all are not working in a vacuum and then sending out our stuff with our fingers crossed.
You do have a commission from Dallas Theater Center, announced several years ago. Can you say anything about that?
Sure! We're still working on it. The working title is The Sincerest Form: A 3D Adventure. A desperate, modern vaudeville troupe is sucked through a vortex into a "movie world" where it turns into basically a Hope/Crosby-esque road movie where they adventure their way through popular films and movie tropes while recreating magical moments from beloved movies using low-tech, uniquely theatrical techniques. It's kind of a love letter to the movies and the theater and artists in general.