Dallas — On Labor Day weekend, the Dallas Theater Center presents its second Public Works Dallas program with an exuberant, full-scale production of a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. This program, which was initiated by the Public Theater in New York, kicked off in Dallas with The Tempest in the spring of 2017. With The Winter’s Tale DTC will start producing this massive event on Labor Day Weekend for five performances, bridging the summer and fall arts seasons.
Tickets are free but reservations (which were available all summer at various community centers and other venues) are required. As of press time, there were still tickets for the performances on Friday night, the Saturday matinee, and Sunday night. (Saturday night and Sunday matinee are sold out.) You can reserve tickets here.
DTC, in collaboration with Southern Methodist University’s Meadow’s School of the Arts and AT&T Performing Arts Center, is mounting a community engagement project they say is designed “to blur the lines between professional artists and Dallas community members.” Last year’s Pubic Works Dallas production of The Tempest, a musical adaptation originally produced by New York’s Public Theater, was a hugely popular and critical success. (Disclosure: I was a participant in that production.)
Todd Almond’s musical adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, which also originated at The Public Theater in New York, is directed here by Kent Gash, founding director of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and an acclaimed stage director with strong off-Broadway and regional credentials. Vonda K. Bowling returns as Music Director.
The show features 200 actors and community members, including five professional actors. J. D. Mollison, a Broadway and regional actor, stars as Leontes, the jealous king who sets the play in motion, and also appears as the charming schemer Autolycus. DTC Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company members in the show include Tiana Kaye Johnson as the accused adulteress Hermione; Liz Mikel as Antigonus, the king’s reluctant right-hand man; and Sally Nystuen Vahle as the wise Paulina. Cara Mía Theatre Artistic Ensemble member Ivan Jasso is Polixenes, Leontes’ best friend who the king suspects fathered the baby Queen Hermione is about to deliver.
All other roles are cast from Public Works Dallas’ five community partners: Bachman Lake Together, City of Dallas Park and Recreation, Jubilee Park and Community Center, Literacy Achieves and Literacy Instruction for Texas. The show also features cameo performances by Bandan Koro African Drum and Dance Ensemble, Michelle Gibson and Her Brass Band, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Dallas Mavericks Dancers, American Airlines Drag Queen Danny Cabrera "Liquor Mini", Indian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Mariachi Estampas de Mexico, and choir members from St. Luke United Methodist Church, St. Paul United Methodist Church and Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church.
TheaterJones talked to Mayte Natalio, the show’s chorographer, who was assistant choreographer for The Tempest, and appeared in DTC’s production of Hair. She was also a dancer and assistant choreographer to Camille A. Brown in NBC’s 2018 Emmy Award-winning live production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
TheaterJones: You’re an expert at body language, and you’ve worked on the musical adaptation of last year’s The Tempest. Can you tell me how you and the creative team are managing to get Shakespeare’s poetic verse and complicated plot onto the stage, plus music and dancing?
Mayte Natalio: The starting point in The Winter’s Tale is that the characters move through two very different worlds. Sicilia is colder and more linear, like a city. Bohemia is warmer, more expansive, and in my head, it’s an island. The dance movements arise from ensemble exercises. I ask them to show me what an important person carrying a lot of money and rushing to get somewhere looks like walking across a room. With Bohemia, I ask them how their family members move around when they are in a comfortable place at home. It’s been fascinating to see so many different responses.
What about the complicated plot and poetic language of this late romance?
For one thing, we’ve translated more verse into Spanish, so everything audiences hear is not English. The storytelling in the play is so physically clear that the audience can easily follow the plot, thanks to the terrific actors. It’s true there’s a lot happening, and so much to cover. We’re getting a lot of people and performances into 90 minutes straight, with no intermission, rather than the nearly three hours The Winter’s Tale can run. It’s exciting.
There’s murderous jealousy, child abandonment and a bear eats a character in this play. How do you handle that in a show that includes child actors?
We just say what happens outright. We say a man gets eaten by a bear, and a distraught child becomes depressed. Children have heard worse things happening around them; they understand real loss. In the story, the king’s son dies of depression without his mother. Nothing is sugar-coated, and the children in the cast have been fine with it. We also explain the profound importance of forgiveness at the end.
The Public Theater’s production had its own choreography. Are you starting all over with your new team and cast, or adapting some numbers?
The choreography is all my own, and evolved out of the input of the different people in the Dallas production.
How do you go about training non-pros to dance?
In French, they don’t say “rehearsal”; they say repetition. You learn a routine just as you learned to read, when you repeated the ABCs and read the same words over and over. Here, we do the steps over and again, and if someone is still having a problem, then we ask, why is that hard? Let’s simplify. With non-professionals, a lot of it is calming them down so they can let themselves get it. Artists are used to failing. We mess up and mess up, and keep trying to refine what we’re doing. But that’s not true for most people, who’d get fired if they messed up so much. I assure everyone they can make a mistake because we’re in rehearsal. I’m here to guide. My job is to make them look good. I’m not mean, but I tell them to bring their best effort and then we can make it work.
What do you and the team want community actors to take away from this experience?
I think it’s to find the joy of stepping into the unknown and knowing you have everything within you to succeed. It’s about being open to something in you that can rise to the occasion. Each person brings a whole life of experience here, and that’s what makes the show. It’s their lives and their personalities, and sharing all that with us.
What do you want the audience to take away after seeing the show?
I want the audience to take away a sense of the art of humanity. There’s the beautiful, the dark and the weird. There’s a path we must get through to come to the common ground of forgiveness. The show is about getting through hardships with the help of other people. There are people who know what’s humanly right, and they follow their instincts even when those on top tell them otherwise. We see characters helping each other through bad times and bringing all of us to forgiveness and joy and celebration by the end.
Anything more about your personal response to the production?
Public Works is one of my favorite projects, and I have two strong [assistants]: [Assistant choreographer] Sam Weber, who worked on The Tempest last year, and [associate choreographer] Zac Hammer, who teaches dance at Booker T. Washington. I arrange my work schedule carefully so I can do this project. Honestly, I think I get more out of the whole process than the performers do. I leave here with my wheels turning, looking for other opportunities, for shows that appeal to the larger community. What can I do myself to keep these kinds of encounters going? It’s thrilling.