Elizabeth Lavin

Theater

The Underground Culture

Three decades ago, Katherine Owens founded the Undermain Theatre as a haven for the smart, shocking, and strange. Other small, independent theaters followed suit.

In its second season, the Undermain Theatre invested in a heater that rattled so loudly that they had to turn it off for performances. So when it was freezing in the world of Fen, a dark, daring play by the British writer Caryl Churchill, it was actually freezing in the basement theater. Artistic director Katherine Owens, one of Undermain’s three young founders, passed out blankets and absorbed the response. She thinks about doing that play again all the time.

“I just thought we had to take some risks,” Owens says. “The literature was so compelling. The shock value was not an object. But these were things being discussed in the world.”

The Dallas Theater Center, Theatre Three, and Dallas Summer Musicals were stalwarts in a conservative city. New Arts Theatre, founded in the mid-1970s, and Stage #1, a theater devoted to contemporary American work that began in 1979, paved the way for Undermain. In 1984, Owens says, there was a premium on commercial productions. Her theater instead focused on experimental European and American authors and dug out a bunker-like home below Main Street, in a Deep Ellum populated by artists, musicians, and squatters.

“We were picketed,” Owens says. “We had several instances where a lot of funding doors were shut for us.”

But Undermain established a board and received a grant that allowed them to fly in authors, forging the relationships that resulted in world premieres and national praise. Owens’ radical idea—that the city was smarter than what was on offer—appears to have been borne out. Other independent theaters cropped up.

Today, there are more than 35 small to mid-size theater companies in North Texas. Recently, the AT&T Performing Arts Center announced the Elevator Project, an initiative that will see six such smaller companies perform in the Wyly Theatre studio space in the Arts District. The experiment—wrestling with issues of audience, growth, resources, criticism, and diversity—is ongoing.

“The greatest thing you can do is love things deeply, admire fiercely, and stay in touch with what that is,” Owens says. “I suppose that’s a life’s work.”

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