Allison Morris as Cordelia commands a ballet swordfight in 'Lear,' as captured opening night in Theatre Too, downstairs from Theatre Three. Zack Huggins

Theater

How Three Playwrights Are Succeeding in Dallas

As the theater scene experiences a wave of energy for new work, emerging writers share their secrets.

Dallas Theater Center’s recent winning of a regional Tony and Kitchen Dog Theater’s addition of a local slot to its new works festival are examples of how Dallas talent get some of the recognition — and resources — needed to begin.

I got in touch with three of the more established playwrights in North Texas to hear where they find  inspiration, motivation, and money to produce their work.

Let’s meet them first:

Claire Carson, originally from Denver, graduated from SMU in 2014 and has since written and self-produced three plays. Bath House Cultural Center hosted a run of her soft-horror play Shadow Woman this fall. 

“In terms of it being a sort of female centric-narrative, even if I try not to, that always seems to play a role in the plays I write because I am a young woman, so I deal with those issues,” she says. “The past three shows I’ve written and had performed followed a young woman and that drove the narrative.”

Jonathon Norton is a commissioned playwright for Dallas Theater Center. His work includes the award-winning work Mississippi Goddamn and The 67th Book of the Bible, based on events from the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

 “I always think that what I do is excavation,” he says. “Digging up stuff and trying to dig and find interesting stories and stories that have been buried for so long and trying to find ways to theatricalize them. And of course in terms of African-American history, there’s so many stories that have gone untold.”

Blake Hackler is an actor, writer, and professor with positions at both Yale and SMU and was recently named an artistic associate at Second Thought Theatre. His work has been performed in New York as well as Dallas and multiple other locations across the country.

 “I started acting as a kid in local theaters in my town, and I went to undergraduate and graduate school for acting as well. That’s how I thought of myself and I always knew I wanted to be a teacher too,” he says, “Those were my two paths. I always sort of thought being a writer was the most amazing thing you could be, and I couldn’t imagine that I could do that. It wasn’t until six or seven years ago that I really started writing with any kind of regularity.”

How did you find support and funding?

CC: The first play I did postgrad I produced, directed, and did it completely on my own, and just tried to get everything as cheap as I could and strip it down to the bare minimum. Fortunately I made all of that back plus enough to pay my actors in ticket sales. The Tribe, they disbanded when some of them moved away, but they were doing a similar thing to House Party Theatre, finding young playwrights and artists and giving them money and support and production help to facilitate new works. They got a grant from The Observer, so they were able to front the money for Hypochondria.

It’s not mass amounts of money; you have to focus on the acting and the work and hope the audience will forgive not having an amazing set or know-how to make it amazing on a budget. And HPT: very similar story, they just gave me a budget and we worked with that.

JN: I don’t have a lot of experience with self-producing. I don’t believe I have the skill set that works well for that. The closest I ever got was line-producing my play Mississippi Goddamn. That play was funded by South Dallas Cultural Center through the Office of Cultural Affairs city funds and a $15,000 grant I received from the Mid-America Arts Alliance.

Vicki Meek, the manager of the South Dallas Cultural Center (SDCC) at the time, made me responsible for creating and managing the budget, contracting and paying artists (which included Equity Contracts) working with designers, making postcards — basically all the producing stuff. South Dallas Cultural Center provided rehearsal/performance space, box office and marketing at no charge — because it was part of their season. It was an incredible education. But I really wouldn’t call it self-producing because I only had to do half the work. I didn’t have to worry about securing rehearsal and performance space. And that’s a huge thing.

And even though I received an awesome grant, Vicki Meek was committed to producing Mississippi Goddamn anyway. And it all paid off. We got great reviews and the play was one of six finalists for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and won the 2016 M. Elizabeth Osborn Award given by the American Theatre Critics Association for Best Play by an Emerging Playwright. And I really feel that it was the investment that SDCC and Vicki Meek put into the play that made that all possible. SDCC even funded our workshop phase.

BH: My experience with having things done in New York is that if I wanted something done I had to do a lot of the producing work myself. There was a lot required of me in terms of the producing side of things and that’s just not something that I’m interested in doing. There’s a real growing commitment from places like Second Thought and now from Theatre Three, whose leadership this last season has really done amazing things in giving Dallas playwrights premiers. Here, Second Thought said “Hey, we want you to do this, we’re doing it, it’s on our season’ and that’s it. We’ll find out which parts of the play work and which parts don’t work in front of an audience,” and that’s how it used to be and that’s how it should be.

How is the Dallas theater scene distinct from other cities?

CC: I think it’s cool that our regional theatre does a little more experimental content than some other theaters can. In Denver they’re still doing stuff like Diary of Anne Frank and just have to play it a little bit safer. In Texas, the fact that Dallas Theater Center can push the envelope a little bit is cool. For me, producing or self-producing was really easy because I had a community of people that I went to school with. I’ve felt from the beginning that it was a safe place to put up a play in a garage, which I did. There’s Prism putting up plays in warehouses and Dead White Zombies doing the same thing. The underground theatre scene is really cool.

JN: Because I’m from Dallas I have an audience that’s basically the community. It’s people you know and people you love and often people who know where you live, so if you do something really stupid or crazy there’s a certain accountability in terms of the kind of work that you do and the rigor with which I do it I think because there’s so many people that I feel expect so much from me. So many people have supported my work here throughout the years, I’m always thinking about not throwing them under the bus.

The great thing is that it’s a tight knit, incredibly talented group of artists that live and work here and call Dallas home. I feel like there’s not a lot of competition with artists amongst themselves. There’s not a lot of opportunity beyond self-productions and one-off productions here or there. There’s not a lot of opportunity to develop something that actually resembles a career and something that can kind of sustain you. We don’t quite have that here yet. We have a lot of people doing work for all the right reasons, and that’s wonderful, but by the same token, the artists that live here deserve a bit more than that.

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