The other arena

With major arts players jockeying for position in a new performing arts center, will smaller groups be left out of the Arts District altogether?

Bruce Coleman is seeking divine intervention.
"We're basically looking for an angel," says the 36-year-old artistic director of New Theatre Company. "And if it sounds desperate, that's because I am desperate."

Coleman has been feeling religious ever since he and New Theatre's co-directors, Charlotte Akin Jorgensen and Jim Jorgensen, learned this past summer that this would be their last season in the space they've occupied for almost a year--the Deep Ellum Opera Theatre. A hefty rent hike made the space prohibitive for the company, which, like most theater troupes in town, lives on a show-by-show basis--either barely breaking even or taking money out of pocket to pay off production debts.

The rent increase was made all the more frustrating for Coleman and company because it came at a time when New Theatre was gaining headway in its struggle for survival, having attracted a core audience that even allowed it to finish some shows in the black. Never too proud to beg, Coleman and the Jorgensens have become more savvy at raising money during their company's five-year existence. Small grants from both private and public institutions have kept this theater alive. "We really feel like we're on the map now," Coleman asserts proudly.

So when Coleman received a phone call from an international arts consulting group called Theatre Projects Consultants (TPC), he thought this might be the break his company so desperately needed. TPC had been retained by a nonprofit advocacy organization called the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts (Dallas Center), whose three-member board only included folks from The Dallas Opera, The Dallas Theater Center, and Dallas Summer Musicals. Oddly, TPC's mandate was a broad one: to assess the space needs of all the performance groups in the city. The reason? The Dallas Center wanted to put before the voters in May a bond package that would allow the realization of a 20-year-old dream: the construction of a "multi-use"performance hall in the downtown Dallas Arts District.

Coleman saw this as an opportunity to find a permanent home for his theater. He compiled a report for TPC that sadly spelled out what he already knew: 24 local theater troupes are without performance space, including his own. An additional 14 companies have folded in the past five years, including potent theatrical resources like Classic Theatre Company, Moonstruck Theatre, and Extra Virgin Performance Cooperative. Lack of affordable housing was a major factor in the demise of each.

"The meeting (with Theater Project Consultants) was short," Coleman confirms, "because they looked at the information I handed them and said, 'This is exactly what we need.' The group was very empathetic and seemed serious in its desire to help the smaller groups."

If this city is serious in developing an arts scene of national or international reputation, then talented groups like New Theatre Company, which specializes in staging provocative Texas or Southwest premieres on a shoestring, must be nurtured. But from Coleman's perspective, and the perspective of the other 60-odd Dallas performance groups interviewed by TPC during the course of its five-month study, there are a few problems. According to the TPC findings, the only companies that are guaranteed access to this proposed new Arts District performance space are The Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center (DTC), the very groups that formed the Dallas Center and commissioned the study in the first place. Both the Opera and DTC have permanent, albeit problematic venues and the ability to raise millions of dollars in private capital at the twirl of a baton.

Although the Dallas Children's Theater has managed to flex its political muscle and lobby its way onto any proposed bond package, its Arts District space will be separate from the Dallas Center. Lacking the same clout, over a dozen small theaters have each been "recommended" for use of the same 100-200 seat theater, a TPC finding that has given rise to charges of tokenism.

Not surprisingly, many of these small, homeless, underfunded groups fear they're being used as pawns to help get new homes for two of the richest, most well-connected performance organizations in the city. If the Arts District initiative makes it onto the May bond ballot, chances are you'll hear many overtures to Dallas' biggest inferiority complex--its desire to become a "world-class city." What will be obscured is a central conflict over precisely how that will happen. In pursuit of this nebulous concept, how should public support be divided between native Dallas talent like New Theatre Company and the Opera and the Theater Center, who bring artists who've established their reputations in other cities to work here?

That's the unspoken issue behind the attempts to get a new Arts District performance space built. And some advocates of this step toward "world class" status are wondering if another, more controversial bid for public support of a new entertainment center--the January referendum on a sports arena--won't exhaust the desire of Dallas voters for bigger, snazzier, "world class" venues.

Hopefully, young, homegrown arts groups like the New Theatre Company won't get buried in all the political rhetoric.

For a small performance company to gain some venue security in the city's art scene, attracting private support is vital. The Undermain Theatre has done just that. Thanks to a decade of dogged existence that included laser-like attention to both the quality of their productions and the marketing of their reputation to deep pockets like American Airlines, they now maintain a home on Main. Kitchen Dog Theater is composed almost exclusively of Southern Methodist University graduates who clearly know how to work a distinguished alumni crowd. This innate ability has secured them a space in the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, although a new rumor flies every few months about the stability of that situation.

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