Dallas — Echo Theatre’s stated mission, since its founding in 1998, has been to produce the works of women playwrights in an arena where male playwrights dominate the boards. The company, based in Dallas’ Bath House Cultural Center, has led the charge for gender parity in theater over the past two decades. Just a short list of Echo’s hit shows includes Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, Madeleine George’s Precious Little, Diana Son’s Stop Kiss, Maria Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends, and Her Song, the popular musical revue beloved by Dallas audiences for five seasons.
Many award-winning actors and directors have contributed to Echo’s ongoing mission over the years, as board members, supporters and producers. The list includes Kateri Cale, Pam Myers-Morgan, Linda Marie Ford, Denise Lee, Elly Lindsay, and current company manager Alett Gray.
How does a small company keep going for so long? TheaterJones talked to longtime company member and newly appointed Managing Artistic Director Kateri Cale about the first show of the 21st season, Carly Wijs’ Us/Them, “a children’s play about terrorism,” plus Echo’s upcoming project of #metoo stories, and the future of Echo Theatre.
TheaterJones: Echo opens the fall season with Carly Wijs’ Us/Them, an hour-long performance work directed by Katy Tye, contrasting the innocence of captive children to the single-minded end game of terrorists. Why this play? Why now?
Kateri Cale: I was actually gifted with this play, because my colleague Eric Berg brought it to me determined to get it onstage for Dallas audiences. His timing was perfect. I had just been appointed to lead Echo and I like plays that examine such critical social issues. With gun violence and acts of terrorism in our news every week, I like that this play takes the audience inside a siege and into the naïve logic of children as they struggle to understand what’s happening. The playwright kept the script under an hour to hold the attention of teenage and adult audiences, and leave time for discussion afterward.
You’ve been working with Echo Theatre many years. What are the challenges of keeping a small company afloat at a time and in a city in which arts funding grows scarcer — or more spread out — by the season?
You know, you’ve actually summed up the recent situation of Echo Theatre. This company kept itself small for two decades. We’ve been run by mission-inspired volunteer producers good at balancing home, art and income. We took a paycheck only when we filled a position during the run of a show. Our producing partners made magic from a hundred bucks, and when the hundreds turned into fives, it got difficult. There was a real risk that Echo would go dark for the rest of this year, but the board of directors and I determined to continue. At present, we are essentially starting up a brand-new theater company; albeit, one with 20 years of experience behind it. It’s empowering to know that there’s renewed public and critical support for Dallas’ premiere women’s theater. Now we need patrons to buy tickets and make donations to support the company financially.
What are the women's issues we should be addressing right now?
I feel many of the hard-won rights of women, and families, in our country are slowly being eroded. There are threats to reproductive choice, and continuing sexual harassment and unequal pay in the work place. There is less protection against domestic violence, and changes in health care guidelines make being female a pre-existing condition. American women need to make sure elected representatives stand up for the basic human rights we’ve fought for. Of course, our country’s concerns pale in the face of women’s issues in other countries, and we must stand firm.
What is the role of Echo Theatre when it comes to women’s stories?
Echo can present a play like Ruined, by Lynn Nottage, or ‘Night Mother. by Marsha Norman, and move an audience to action or, at least, to awareness. The human condition is the stuff of theater, whether explored through drama, comedy, language, or song. Echo seeks out the women chroniclers of our time and puts their work on the stage so these voices are included in the theatrical canon.
How do racial and gender issues intersect in upcoming works in your season?
The demand for individual and political freedom is at the core of most international terror attacks. Us/Them was inspired by the horrible 2004 Beslan School Siege, when armed Chechen rebels took over a school in Russia. They held over 1,100 students, parents, and teachers hostage. It ended in the siege just three days later, with 700 people injured and 334 people dead; 186 of them were children. This was carried out in the name of freedom and peace for Chechnya. What do we make of that?
Last fall, Echo put out a call for #metoo stories and received over 60 pieces by women. I’m currently deciding on the presentation format that best serves these stories and anticipates the audience. We will get that done before the end of this year. In 2020, our Echo Reads series will be selecting scripts from work written by a multi-cultural group of women that look at racial and gender issues worldwide. This approach allows us to reach out to many new actors and directors. I’m looking forward to meeting them. Other exciting projects are in the works. Look for Echo’s season announcement soon.
What might Echo Theatre fans do to keep the company alive and presenting new work into the future?
Come to the theater and support our shows with your entertainment dollar. Buy a ticket, or maybe get a theater club together and start seeing plays with your friends. Become an Echo 100 Member and support the theater with yearly donations. Serve on Echo’s board of directors. Join me at the planning table and become an “Echo Creative.” I’m looking for partners and volunteers to go with me into our third decade. We’re building something truly exciting and I invite all your readers to join me!