The Bath House Cultural Center offers great views of the lake. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

What To Do in Dallas This Summer: The Festival of Independent Theatres

Starting July 17, the Bath House Cultural Center stages its 11th annual theater festival. Local companies can take risks on stage, and patrons don’t have to pay a pretty penny for it.

Sustainability. It’s a word constantly being bandied about as we try to maintain our city and its communities. When the Dallas Institute awarded its 2009 Hiett Prize to James McWilliams, a Texas State history professor studying sustainable agriculture and food, it echoed a growing concern in all walks of life about the prudent use of resources. What we consume, build, grow, buy, and honor now all seem to subscribe to sustainable methods.

In fickle times, what are we willing to sustain? Museums and other cultural institutions are seeing attendance dwindle while donations dry up. Who’s going to pony up $50 to patronize a play? The Internet entertains you for less. The arts seem like ancient and defunct gods convalescing up in the empyrean until further notice. The newspapers will soon join them.

Despite this swan song, the Festival of Independent Theatres, now in its 11th year at the Bath House Cultural Center, has kept its engines revved. Thanks to money mainly from the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, but also funds from other sources, FIT continues to offer local, independent companies the chance to stage new, innovative plays. David Meglino, new managing director of FIT, says that for many of these theaters, FIT provides a “safe place to experiment with plays that lie to the corner of their missions. It’s an opportunity to take a risk.” This summer will see eight productions (of which six are new plays) run from July 17 to August 8.

Marty Van Kleeck, the Bath House manager and a seasoned actress herself, says FIT is perfect for tough economic times. For the audience, it’s an inexpensive chance to see theater. And for actors and directors, the festival provides the amenities to put on a production. This year, FIT is asking that companies use old materials rather than create new ones. In fact, The Drama Club is building its set with recyclable materials found in warehouses used by City Hall. As it is, hour-long one-acts require less material than full performances. The abbreviated works can appeal to a new market while holding on to recidivists.

Graeme Bice, performing arts coordinator at the Bath House, shows me around the theater space: 116 seats, one backstage door to squeeze props through, and only two dressing rooms. Companies will use outdoor storage units to house their materials, and a gallery space will serve as a green room. After the first production of the two-hour, two-production set, the audience will step out so sets can be changed. There’s plenty to visit during intermissions: the concession stand, the lake, the White Rock Lake Museum, and Salon du FIT—a FIT gallery exhibit that this year will display set designs, costumes, props, and art renderings from local designers. FIT, like its acronym, makes limited space, time, and resources look both hip and efficient.

One of the independent companies taking a risk this year is One Thirty Productions. It will premiere Austin playwright Ellsworth Schave’s Under a Texaco Canopy. Schave adapted his full-length play as a one-act for One-Thirty Productions. Larry Randolph, producer of One-Thirty and director of Under a Texaco Canopy, is excited for its debut. It’s very out of the ordinary for One-Thirty and more in FIT’s line: cutting-edge, adventuresome in its disjointing of space and time, and with a final twist that a FIT audience should like. In the 1950s, a hitchhiker shows up at a Texaco station in a small desert town. He’s not really from this world. He strikes up a conversation with a waitress working at the station diner who, Randolph says, “is on the same wavelength with the hitchhiker.” They end up solving each other’s problems and falling in love. While the play deals with death, Randolph says it’s more about “the right way to pass over”—the art of dying.

Versed as they are in staging events, arts organizations could probably figure out a way to die gracefully. At the Bath House, at least, that adios is premature. Its projects and festivals aren’t withering up any time soon, especially with water always lapping at its toes. Bice sees cormorants, pelicans, and seagulls swoop down in winter and take off in spring, while boats bob over the lake. Few places in a parched Dallas summer get to feel these hydrating effects day in and out.

Van Kleeck, the Bath House manager, tells a story about the place that embodies its spirit. Years ago, the building was slated to be torn down. But workers had to scrap demolition plans when they realized the Bath House’s concrete structure was too strong to topple with a bulldozer. It’s unclear whether this ever actually happened, but even if the story is apocryphal, it gets retold for a reason: it reveals a larger truth. Now, the Bath House has a notion to renovate and enclose its outdoor veranda so it can be used for wedding receptions and other events. And there are preliminary plans to refit the downstairs for classrooms and rehearsal spaces. The 79-year-old building seems more hip than ever, a prime example of sustainability.

FIT lineup: Audacity Theatre Lab, Arsenic and Roses; The Drama Club, The Old Woman in the Wood; Echo Theatre, Overtones; One-Thirty Productions, Under a Texaco Canopy; Pegasus Theatre, Know-No; Rite of Passage Theatre Company, Angry Glances; White Rock Pollution, Holy Rollers; WingSpan Theatre Co., Seagulls. See for dates and times.

Write to [email protected].

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