Soul and Style

The Festival of Independent Theatres stages its ninth installment at the Bath House Cultural Center.

JUMP IN: This month the venerable Bath House Cultural Center hosts the Festival of Independent Theatres.
photography by Dave Shafer

In early June, after giving an exclusive to the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Theater Center redundantly staged a press conference hours after the story had appeared in the paper to announce its new artistic director, Kevin Moriarty. Maybe the logic of it lay in the location rather than in the revelation: the Preview Center for the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts in the Trammell Crow Center.

Moriarty came bounding from behind the half wall where he had been hidden (surprise!) and stood at the microphone positioned next to the model of the new Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre designed by Rem Koolhaas. Whatever else happens in Moriarty’s tenure, the Theater Center was saying, the important thing about it is the transition to this new building, which will attract the attention of the nation.

But looking at the model—a sharp metal cube with structures visible inside—well, it strikes me as a remarkably uncomfortable place to produce plays, despite its “advanced mechanized ‘superfly’ system [that] can pull up both scenery and seating.” It makes me nervous. The self-consciousness of it. Putting on a play there would be like wearing a titanium helmet that locks you (with four needles slightly embedded in your skull) inside a Gamma Knife. “Now, it’s okay,” somebody whispers. “Go ahead. Give us your soul.”

Surely, I’m wrong. I sincerely hope the Wyly turns out to be as wonderful as advertised. Maybe it just needs to get its first dent, like the new family Lamborghini.

At the other end of the spectrum stands the Bath House Cultural Center on White Rock Lake, which is the site of this month’s Festival of Independent Theatres (everybody calls it FIT), now in its ninth year. The very name “Bath House”—catch that moist whiff of soap and steam and chlorine?—sounds vaguely disreputable, with associations that go from the hot-floored caldaria of ancient Roman baths, through a cloud of Turkish steam, and straight into the San Francisco bathhouses closed in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

No wonder local theaters love it.

When it was built in 1930, it was still out in the country, and its Art Deco architecture anticipated the buildings at Fair Park by half a decade. People swimming in the lake used it to change clothes or rent bathing suits there until 1953, when the drought and growing racial tensions closed it. It stayed empty for 28 years. Even now, many people doing their bicycle tours around the lake pass it unaware, never realizing what it is or that it now holds a 120-seat theater, as well as art galleries and other mixed-use spaces. It’s home to some cutting-edge plays, including this summer the first area production of David Hare’s The Blue Room, whose London run several years ago featured Nicole Kidman in the altogether.

“It’s hard to believe,” says David Fisher, now assistant director of Dallas’ Office of Cultural Affairs, “that it’s been nine years since I first gathered that group of ragtag theater companies and asked, ‘What if we all worked together to put on a festival?’” FIT features the work of independent theaters in Dallas, groups that have no permanent space of their own. “Independent” is a nice way to say it. “Homeless” might be more accurate. But they’re always welcome in the Bath House.

Unlike WaterTower’s Out of the Loop, FIT is nothing but theater—no dance acts or musical groups—and the format gives each group at least six shows, since the plays appear in repertory for an entire month. What that means for Russell Dyer might make a pretty good Noises Off-style comedy. FIT hired Dyer as technical director several years ago, and Craig Boleman was brought on as marketing director last year, which allowed the participating groups to drop out of the administrative process and concentrate on their art.

“When I came in,” Dyer says, “I was shocked to hear that they were storing the sets in that little classroom on the other side of the Bath House. During intermission, they would roll the sets through the audience.” He looks at me, shaking his head. “I had just come back from New York after working there for a year, and I was just amazed, to say the least.”

This year, FIT will stage nine plays. On most days, that means either two or four different sets in a single space. On Saturdays, six different sets. Don’t talk to Dyer about an “advanced mechanized ‘superfly’ system,” because it says right here that it’s a sin to covet. Known as one of Dallas’ best lighting designers (celebrated in this very column in February), Dyer thinks of FIT in terms of the major technical challenges it presents. He has one light plot (the diagram of the lights and their exact placement) for all nine plays, and he talks about FIT the way Marines talk about taking a hill.

“You can’t have several lighting designers,” he says. “There’s got to be one guy that knows that plot very well. That’s just one aspect of what I do, but that’s, obviously, a very difficult aspect. If a show has done their homework and really know what they want, then once we get into the tech process, then we’re able to help them more. The real technical rehearsals are a nightmare, so we start our techs anywhere from two weeks to eight days before we open.” He explains that even after some shows have already opened, the crew is still doing the tech rehearsal for others. They’re working very hard even before FIT opens, in other words. Then, during the festival itself, “the crew usually does it for 23 or 24 straight days. There is never a break. We have one crew for all of it.”

This summer’s most controversial play—Dyer says he’s a little nervous about it—is Risk Theater Initiative’s production of The Blue Room, directed by Tom Parr IV. Why is Dyer nervous? Author David Hare subtitles it “A Play in Ten Intimate Acts.” In each of the “acts,” a couple played by the same actor and actress gets intimate, then one person from the couple carries over into the next [cough] “act.” For example, “The Au Pair and the Student” is followed by “The Student and the Married Woman,” followed by “The Married Woman and the Politician,” and so on, until the groupings circle back to the beginning. Ashley Wood and Lydia Mackay will play these variations. It’s the first FIT play rated NC-17, I suspect.

Six of the nine plays are by local playwrights: Valerie Brogan Powell, Sidhe (WingSpan); Matt Lyle, The Boxer (Bootstraps); Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, Home Front (Echo); David Goodwin, Ylla (Project X); Robin Armstrong, Smoldering Embers (Act I Productions); and Christie McFadden, I’m Not Here (also Act I). Two-thirds of the festival by local writers—that’s more than heartening. It’s reason to celebrate.

I’ve read only one of the plays, Vicki Cheatwood’s one-act Home Front, and it’s good stuff, set in small-town Oklahoma near a military base, circa 1973. Carrie, a mother in her 30s, tries to shepherd her three bickering adolescent girls through Christmas festivities despite not having heard from her husband, stationed in Vietnam, since before Thanksgiving. It’s about what happens when the call comes. You can sense the Bath House in the way Cheatwood imagines it, and it would be surprising if that weren’t true for the other local plays as well.

Could that change? There’s no way FIT could ever conceivably be in the high-end Wyly, but David Fisher doesn’t know what will happen in a few years when the new City Performance Hall at Routh Street and Ross Avenue comes online. The city of Dallas’ contribution to the Arts District will contain a 600-seat theater and two flexible “black box” theaters. There’s nothing to prevent FIT from using them—but maybe that’s the Office of Cultural Affairs talking. Russell Dyer can’t imagine FIT anywhere else. He thinks the soul of FIT is the Bath House, and when Fisher thinks about it that way, he agrees. “Russell is right,” he says.

That’s the main consideration the Dallas arts community should have in mind as the Center for the Performing Arts comes closer to realization. At exactly what point does the soul of a building come into being, and when does that building begin to give itself to the imagination instead of posing an obstacle to it? Not when it first opens. Not until something dark and wonderful happens in it. Not until a history inhabits it and that history itself has time to get some distance, like the ghostly slap of bare feet on a wet floor.

FIT runs through August 4.


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