Joe Messina and Ashley H. White

Finding the Right Space, Part 1

In the fourth Square One column, Ashley H. White and Joe Messina write about the search for performance space for their new theater company.

published Monday, December 18, 2017



Dallas — When last we wrote, we had just nailed down our first season. Choosing the shows was easy, compared to our next challenge. Where were we going to DO them? No one reading this will be surprised to hear that one of our biggest challenges has been SPACE. We had shows, we had spirit, we just didn’t have a performance space, or the capital to have our own home.

It’s a common and frustrating problem for artists in this city, but one that seems to be changing, thanks to initiatives like Arts Mission Oak Cliff, the Elevator Project, etc. The tide is turning but there is still a need. We found ourselves feeling stuck and overwhelmed at the lack of affordable resources for emerging performing arts companies.

During our weekly meetings last summer, we brainstormed and discussed it constantly. Where were we going to live? We ultimately divided up all the spaces we knew of between ourselves, did a ton of Googling, and tried our best to think outside of the box. We did have a nice opportunity, after all, as a new company. We weren’t tied to any pre-existing notions, leases, or neighborhoods. The Metroplex was our oyster. We tried to remember that and to keep from getting too discouraged.

We exhausted ourselves during this search. We contacted area theaters, schools with black boxes, art galleries, warehouses, bars, and everything in between. We looked at outdoor locations and eventually, after feeling helpless, even looked into leasing our own space (spoiler alert: we couldn’t afford it). After weeks of calls, emails, and site visits, we started to feel stuck. Everyone was either fully booked or way out of our price range. We didn’t have a million dollars in the bank, but we knew we had this company in us.

Photo: Kris Ikejiri
Joe Messina and Ashley H. White at the Imprint season announcement party

After weeks of frustration, we realized we needed to stop being discouraged and look at this as an opportunity.

Here is where we discovered what our mistake was. Similar to choosing the season, we were limiting ourselves by thinking we had to have one space for all of the shows. We asked ourselves “Why?” Why not let the show dictate the space itself? That idea presented a fun opportunity and challenge, and it opened us up to the idea of extending our values of emotional honesty to spatial honesty as well. Not all of our shows needed a proscenium, and by taking away that limitation, we were freed to be even more creative. We began again.

It was through starting over and embracing this notion, the shows dictate the place, we found the space for our first three productions, and funny enough, they wound up being in the same location. Something we couldn’t seem to make happen for the life of us when we were trying to force it.

Here’s how it happened:

We decided to start at the beginning with our Season Announcement party. We knew we wanted to have a reception celebrating our launch combined with a performance outlining our season and showcasing local artists. We wanted it to be unique and fun, but with high impact and performance value. Combining a reception and a performance requires a significant amount of square footage, though. So we were hesitant to get our hopes up.

The Bath House Cultural Center is one of the most in-demand performance venues in the county and, sure enough, when we called them, we were told they were completely booked through the end of their calendar and not booking beyond it. Jessie Wallace, our Company Manager, had a gut feeling: we still needed to check it out. We asked to take the tour even though they were fully booked. Maybe we could use it for future Seasons, or could be put on a waiting list in case a spot opened up. We showed up on a rainy Saturday in June for the tour.

It was during that tour that we made a discovery: the BASEMENT! OK, it’s not a basement. The Lake Level is a rarely utilized lakefront space below the main building. Expansive, open, soaring with potential, and in need of a little TLC, it was mostly used for after parties and as a storage for the resident theatre company at The Bath House. Occasionally, they had live music played down there and it is where the Bath House Mural Project is located. But as a theater space, it was mostly unused. It was a hidden gem.

We walked around the Lake Level in awe. Here we were, in a city full of artists clamoring for places to do their work, standing in about 3,000 square feet of usable performance space that no one really knew about. All it needed was some clean up and sweat equity, and it could be the perfect venue. We found ourselves inspired and bouncing ideas off each other like crazy. So much potential! The team at the Bath House was just as enthusiastic.

It was also during this tour that the manager at The Bath House mentioned the Mainstage being booked completely for the next year, save three weeks. All of our ears perked up. “You actually do have availability in 2018?” They did, three open weekends, but they were right after Christmas, in a time slot when most theater companies are dark. Here we were standing in one of the coolest theaters in Dallas, and we could use it for our inaugural production in addition to our Season Announcement Party! We jumped on it right away, even changing the dates for our first production, Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, so that we could have it at The Bath House.

We also decided to return to the Lake Level for our First Impressions Festival for Local Playwrights. It was the perfect space once again, an urban and distinctly Dallas feel, plenty of space for readings and receptions, and a stunning view. It was perfect and returning to it for our week of world premieres not only felt right, but even a bit poetic. The Lake Level was becoming one of our favorite places, a place for new beginnings.

As actors like to say—“Booked it!”

In one meeting, we had three major items checked off our list and the location was true to the vision of each event. We left feeling great and enthusiastic about the path our season was taking, and relieved to have at least our first three spaces booked... Three down, three to go.

As you follow our journey, you’ll find a constant theme and it’s been a huge lesson for us. Trust. Trust each other, trust the work, trust the process, and trust that everything will work out okay. We just have to do our homework.

We’ll continue this story next month. We have a big announcement coming regarding one of our spaces that we can’t share yet, but it was a huge journey of its own and we can’t wait to share the story with you. Stay tuned.


» Ashley H. White and Joe Messina are co-artistic directors of IMPRINT theatreworks, which begins its first season in January with David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

» Square One runs on the second Monday of the month (except in December, we went with the third Monday).



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Finding the Right Space, Part 1
In the fourth Square One column, Ashley H. White and Joe Messina write about the search for performance space for their new theater company.
by Ashley H. White and Joe Messina

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