Voice of one

A few theater companies cry out in the wilderness of Dallas' stage scene

I write this, my final column for the Dallas Observer, from an otherwise empty townhouse I have just moved into, somewhere between the Beltway and Virginia's Bible belt. It is the transitory nature of this business that just when you feel confident in your writing gig and your babysitter and you have a regular place to go for a good breakfast, it's time to move on.

Sitting here, once again dropped unceremoniously from the skies, I'm catapulted back a few years to my arrival in Dallas and my subsequent assignment to cover Big D's theater scene. I considered the task daunting not only because I was unfamiliar with the work being done in Dallas, but because some people likened my task to covering art galleries in Arlington or crime in Colleyville.

Dallas is not one of the more prolific theater cities, for sure, and there's surprisingly little in terms of homegrown talent. This past season was worrisome in that it had fewer companies producing fewer productions. But if Dallas theater makes you think of New York also-rans and summer musicals, you have very much missed the point here.

As I have said in this column before, it is much easier to be derisive of Dallas' theater scene than to discover it. A little-known fact, however, is that a few theater groups in the city--primarily the Undermain Theatre, and to some extent the Dallas Theater Center (particularly the Festival of the Unexpected) and the Chimera Festival--have become the lonely nurturers of an emerging, vital breed of playwright.

Erik Ehn, Jeff Jones, Mac Wellman, and most recently, Naomi Iizuka: their names are not familiar to most. Their plays are not synonymous with the words "accessible" or "entertaining." But their work has been commissioned, produced, and lovingly directed in Dallas by the likes of Raphael Parry, Katherine Owens, Melissa Cooper, and Richard Hamburger.

Impish, irreverent, punk poets, their hip quotient doesn't keep these playwrights from writing from the heart. (I've lumped them together because they share a certain Zeitgeist, but their approaches to material and bodies of work are immensely varied.) The appearance of their edgy, raw, distinctive plays in Dallas has kept the theatrical landscape from idling in sheer derivation. Instead of being just a base for touring musicals and the sprawl that spawned the hit Greater Tuna, Dallas has at times offered a university-like setting for these young artists.

Called American Surrealists by some, these writers create free-associative and wildly imagistic works that have become iconographic maps of the United States--the disenfranchisement of urban California, the mythology of the Texas-Mexico border, dysfunctionalism in the Heartland. Their contemporary, edgy plays are non-narrative glimpses of what ails us: alienation and poverty, addiction and violence. But for all their explorations of the underbelly, both existential and post-industrial, many of these pieces are redemptive in alluring, enigmatic ways.

Naomi Iizuka's Skin was the dark but meditative soul of the recent Festival of the Unexpected. Erik Ehn's Beginner was an experimental, intimate musical about Texas commissioned by the Undermain. Mac Wellman's Hyacinth Macaw was for many the highlight of the last theater season. The previous season, Undermain performed Jeff Jones' difficult Love Trouble, and some of Ehn's Saint Plays were performed at last year's Chimera Festival.

The local commitment to these alternative writers predates my tenure in Dallas. What is so important about that support is that most cities, some supposedly more cutting-edge or arts-friendly than Dallas, are not showing this work. And while these playwrights are being written about and talked about, being produced is another matter entirely. I remember Jeff Jones speaking with some exasperation about how inhospitable New York and other traditional theater cities have become to new, alternative work.

So that leaves us with a surprising, unlikely reality: Dallas has become a haven for a few of America's most interesting playwrights--particularly Ehn and Jones. Seeing their work performed and nurtured has truly been the highlight of my short tenure here, and the one true hope that the alternative theater scene might thrive in Dallas.

Directors like Parry and Owens sell the shirts off their backs to introduce their audiences to challenging plays and muscular writing. Even Hamburger, strapped as he is with a conservative board and subscribers looking for Broadway on Turtle Creek, is trying to push the envelope, one lick at a time. You may even see Wellman, Ehn or, hell, Suzan Laurie-Parks, on his mainstage before he's through here. (And then he may really be through here, but at least he would go out with a bang.)

As for me, I will sorely miss following the likes of Undermain, Kitchen Dog Theater, and Hamburger's progress at DTC. I already miss the strong, exciting Dallas companies that are dormant or whose productions are infrequent for lack of encouragement here--namely, Classic Theatre Company and Gryphon Players.

And Addison Centre Theatre's loss of Kelly Cotten as artistic director is another in a series of amber lights that the brave work being done in Dallas is at risk.

I won't miss sitting in 100-seat theaters watching plays with the director and his two friends, the rest of the house empty, the actors' voices echoing through the drafty, lonely spaces. I will leave Dallas without answering a philosophical question: Can there be a thriving alternative theater scene if most of the theatergoing audience doesn't want to be challenged?

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