The Dallas Children’s Theater Takes on Swine Flu and the Economy
Despite the season’s obstacles, the local theater gears up for the holidays and its 26th year.
ANYTHING BUT ANGELS: Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
features the “world’s worst kids,” whose only goal is to be a part of the annual Christmas play.photography by Mark Oristano
My first field trip was as a first-grader to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I remember this huge wall of gum stuck in marvelous combinations. It was amazing: technicolor, globby, abstract. Some years later, as a preteen in New England, I took a field trip to the Boston Museum of Science. I’m sure we saw prehistoric critters, bubbling machines, and electrical shows. But more than that, I remember a world of unseen, unheard-of things suddenly being opened up to me.
It was with recognition, then, that I heard what looked to be a 6-year-old kid murmur, “Oh, it’s beautiful,” when he saw Randel Wright’s set design for The Tale of Peter Rabbit at the Dallas Children’s Theater earlier this year. I had gone to review the student matinee, and the boy’s excitement nearly made me burst forth with my own. This kid is going places, I thought. He sees and says what moves him.
Inspiring that sort of awe has always been a challenge for the cash-strapped DCT. The economy this past year has made it even more difficult. As it lost $300,000 in corporate, individual, and foundation donations, it was forced to postpone Dracula and release 20 percent of its staff. The swine flu has also taken a toll. But with more than 60,000 students coming in to see matinee productions, and at least 1,500 students enrolled in the DCT’s education courses and outreach programs provided to the Vickery Meadows neighborhood, the DCT remains committed to education. As Nancy Schaeffer, education director at the DCT, says, “This is the kids’ city, and they should get out [and enjoy it].”
But for the DCT, now in its 26th year, finding a space to provide these services hasn’t always been easy. The DCT resided at the Crescent Theater for 15 years, but in 2000, it was asked to find another space to make room for development (there’s a reason its current home is called the Rosewood Center for Family Arts). In 2003, it hit on what had been a bowling alley over in Vickery Meadows. With the DCT’s current Rated Great capital campaign (they are $1 million shy of their $5 million goal), the DCT was able to finish the recent addition of the Dee and Charles Wyly Family Garden at the Rosewood Center. The Wylys donated $500,000 to the project, and the Hersh Foundation gave the initial $1 million. What used to be an ugly chain-link fence, a potholed parking lot, and the former bowling sign, have all been redesigned and manicured.
However, money problems remain. As Robyn Flatt, the DCT’s executive artistic director, notes, some theaters have endowments or receive government funding. The DCT doesn’t. Many contributions to the DCT fall off after donors’ children grow up. “We really need an endowment to cover the cost of operating and maintaining the building so that the facility cost is not also a burden on the operating cost,” she says. “One year in annual operating costs is $1.3 million, and it costs $350,000 to maintain a building: electricity, maintenance, the grounds, cleaning, security, phone lines. We are also very understaffed.”
The DCT does what it must to survive, which means stocking its calendar with the tried and true. But not everything is so focused on the bottom line. “We have some new ideas, the creation of shows and script-writing to create art here,” says Julie Hersh, board president of the DCT. “We’re trying to find a producers’ circle to make an intense financial three-year commitment and make suggestions to support the DCT’s quality. Survival is based on the ability to adapt. We’re adaptable here.” Flatt adds: “We commission plays; we develop the whole production; we produce it; we tour it nationally. We are feeding the field for theater for young people.”
The DCT’s recent work with playwright Linda Daugherty is a case in point. Her plays The Secret Life of Girls, Eat, and dont u luv me were produced in past seasons. This season will see hard 2 spel dad, about learning differences. “Linda’s plays provide a forum for parents and teens to discuss important and uncomfortable issues,” Hersh says. “Her works teach preventive behavior to students in difficult situations.” Daugherty’s plays also educate parents about such issues. Personal stories often flood in after a performance.
On a lighter note, Barbara Robinson’s much loved The Best Christmas Pageant Ever will mark its first run in the DCT’s Baker Theater this month. (It was formerly performed at El Centro.) With two casts of 48 kids each, it’s a hard ship to steer. “But I like it,” says director Schaeffer, “because the play’s about redemption. Some pretty rotten people change. Kids of all faiths can appreciate it because it’s spiritual without being religious. And the teachers love this story.”
Throughout our lives, we carry the memories of our childhood with us: first discoveries of science, theater, and art. The DCT offers such eureka moments. And as The Best Christmas Pageant Ever reminds us, sometimes there’s little at home that a kid can be thankful for. Perhaps some children can go through the doors of the Rosewood and feel that at last they’ve discovered a home.
Events: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, through December 20; Santa’s Holiday for Strings, through December 22, Rosewood Center for Family Arts, 5938 Skillman St. 214-740-0051. www.dct.org.