What a Collaboration Between a Famous Playwright and a Local Theater Means for Dallas’ Creative Future

For more than a decade, the little TeCo Theatrical Productions, located on Tyler St. in Oak Cliff, has hosted a New Play Competition. The idea, says Teresa Coleman Wash, executive artistic director of TeCo Theatrical Productions, is to showcase new talent and encourage local playwrights, helping them to hone their craft in a real world setting. This year, however, the program received a boost thanks to an unofficial collaboration between big name local institutions, national philanthropies, and the little non-profit theater in Oak Cliff.

On paper, Southern Methodist University, the Dallas Theater Center, and the Mellon Foundation aren’t involved with TeCo’s New Play Competition, but they are part of the story of how playwright Will Power got involved. The San Francisco native, who has been hailed by critics as “the best verse playwright in America” and is known for bridging the gap between contemporary hip-hop and performance theater, first came to the Dallas area after he was awarded SMU’s prestigious Meadows Prize. Then, a grant from the Mellon Foundation to set up artistic residencies at regional theaters around the country created a permanent home for Power at the Dallas Theater Center. That proved serendipitous for groups like TeCo; Power is a strong community advocate and one of the things that attracted him to the region was the ability to nurture local writers.

“A big reason why I moved down to Dallas from New York is to really agitate and excite and provoke and stir up all of the amazing storytellers here,” Power says. “There’s a lot of new energy now in Dallas about the arts district and making Dallas a prominent artistic city. Part of that to me is not just having the Winspear Opera House, which is great and important. But part of it is the newer stories and being able to encourage artists to articulate what is Dallas about, what is North Texas about and getting those stories out locally and then nationally. That’s how you really become prominent as a city, when you begin to articulate what’s going on in your region to the world, not just bring in big acts.”

Power’s stay at SMU as artist-in-residence at the Meadows School of Arts eventually led him to pick up the phone and call Wash in an effort to get more involved with the New Play Competition. Wash then suggested linking SMU students to help with the project in an effort to inspire more local talent.

In the 11th year of TeCo’s innovative program, playwrights submit 20-minute plays that are showcased in a public performance. Audience members can vote for the plays they enjoy the most, and after the last day of shows, the playwrights with the most votes win a cash prize of $1,000. This year, the partnership with SMU will encourage BFA undergrads to get involved and direct each 20-minute play. The benefits of this latest change means that the finalists will get a more heightened perspective of their work.

“Sometimes it’s limiting if you don’t have another set of ears or eyes in the room to give you feedback and see it in a different way,” Power explains.

The contestants fall under two categories. Some are younger, up-and-coming artists that are developing newer stories. Others are a bit older and have been teachers, lawyers, and novelists. Some are retired, some are not, but they’ve all felt a need to develop their abilities as artists. Regardless of age or experience, it’s the passion behind the storytelling that truly matters in this effort.

“They were finally brave enough to take that step and let that artist emerge and that’s what it’s all about,” Power says. “It’s all about emerging, whether it’s young people or older people. I kind of feel like it’s important for everybody to nurture the artist inside them. It doesn’t mean you have to make a living at it, but if you’re a poet you should write those poems, if you’re a playwright – even if you’re a lawyer or doctor – I feel like it stifles your spirit if you don’t express that side of yourself.”

The hope of programs like TeCo’s New Play Competition is to inevitably spark an interest in the hearts of local artists to follow their ambitions and help make artistic production a more salient fixture in the overall story of Dallas. With the addition of passionate veterans like Power to guide the way, the path to a more diverse artistic landscape may well be under way.

In addition to valuable insight, the addition of Power as a mentor to the finalists has created quite a fervor among the contestants.

“He’s a zen archer,” Isabella Russell-Ides, a finalist in TeCo’s New Play Competition, says about working alongside Power. “His observations are measured, swift, and on target. It’s been absolutely lovely knowing there is an art guardian watching over the festival.”

The six finalists for the 2013 New Play Competition are Antay Bilgutay, Victor Bravo, Ruth Cantrell, Isabella Russell-Ides, Kyndal Robertson & Camika Spencer, and W. R. Maxwell. Performances begin tonight and continue through Sunday, March 10 at the Bishop Arts Theater Center. For more information and tickets, go here.