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?

If the Dallas Theater Center were to relocate to the downtown Arts District, the fate of its current space, the 38-year-old Kalita Humphreys, is something that concerns many people. Paid for by the founders of DTC, the Kalita Humphreys--one of only three theaters designed by Frank Lloyd Wright--was sold to the city and is currently leased back to the Theater Center for a dollar a year. Jac Alder, a Dallas theatrical veteran of 36 years who, with his wife, Norma, co-founded Theatre Three, registers concern over what he calls "a Dallas landmark." Alder was also interviewed by Theatre Projects Consultants.

"In many people's minds, the Theater Center and the Kalita Humphreys are inextricably bound," Alder says. "Frankly, I'm stunned that the DTC's plans include abandoning the Kalita. Everyone's heard about the technical limitations there--not enough fly space (above the stage) or wing space. But in some cases, technical limitations can stimulate the imagination. This is theater, for God's sake. And as far as the Dallas Theater Center wanting more seats, do they have the audience right now to fill them?"

DTC's artistic director Richard Hamburger dismisses the idea that technical limitations are the reason his company wants to move, although he acknowledges that the wing and fly space have been troublesome. DTC seeks new housing, he says, precisely because its current home limits the "growth potential" of its audience.

"Adrian (Hall, DTC's previous artistic director) was the one who really didn't like working in the Kalita," he says. "I've had wonderful experiences there. But we need more seats. With just 500 seats, our production costs are greater than our ticket sales bring in, even if we sell out. We're talking about planning for the Theater Center's future, for larger audiences and bigger shows. Right now, we're stuck."

Hamburger also dismisses the idea that the Kalita will be abandoned. If he has his druthers, DTC would use the building to expand operations. "Speaking for myself, there's so many uses we could make of the Kalita Humphreys as a second home. It could provide more space for smaller companies. We could use it as an educational center. I'd love to expand our children's programming there. It's located in a park, after all."

In late 1995, board members Bess Enloe of the Dallas Theater Center and John Dayton from The Dallas Opera, along with Ruth Altshuler from Dallas Summer Musicals, incorporated themselves into the nonprofit now known as Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. Their mission was to jump-start the Arts District, and in the process, gain a beachhead for the arts groups they represented within the as-yet amorphous notion of a performance hall. But it was only after Raymond Nasher announced to the world in March 1997 that he would create his magnificent sculpture garden in the northern quadrant of downtown Dallas that the Arts District was both fiscally and spiritually re-born.

Throughout the summer and fall of this year, the Dallas Center, in conjunction with TPC and Arts District coordinator Howard Hallam, held a series of small and large meetings with the public to determine if a new performing arts space was desired and what needed to be done to achieve it. In addition to everyone from interested private citizens to public school officials, the heads of the 60 arts groups interviewed by TPC were invited to participate, listen, and share their thoughts in feedback sessions.

The Jorgensens of the New Theatre Company attended an August meeting at the Cathedral Santuario del Guadalupe on Ross Avenue. Charlotte wanted, she says, to "let our company's voice be heard. It was very exciting at the time." What she saw there was so impressive, it almost silenced her.

"They [TPC] stood up and gave this elaborate slide show that showcased the beautiful theaters and performance centers all over the world they'd helped build," she remembers. "These buildings were stunning. The speaker kept talking about how they'd revitalized the downtowns of different cites and provided new opportunities for arts organizations.

"But one thing we noticed was, all these venues were humongous--2,000- and 3,000-seat theaters. I think the smallest one they mentioned was 700 seats. I looked over at other small theater groups who were attending, like Kitchen Dog and Teatro Dallas. Then I leaned over to my husband and whispered, 'These people [TPC] aren't really talking to us.' It felt like the haves addressing the have-nots. There wasn't much of a connection.

"People started asking questions like 'Are smaller facilities possible?' and they said, 'Yes, we've built 500-seat theaters.' Then, inevitably, people started asking 'Who would new space go to?' They said 'Anybody that could afford it,' but that's all they said."

Although there are clearly many performance companies out there who'd sell their offspring for a crack at residence in the Arts District, Theatre Three's Alder, who attended several of these meetings, wonders if having "an official arts space" is such a good thing for the long-term flourishing of a local scene.

"On the one hand, I fully support their carving out a space for the performing arts in this district," says Alder, whose theater owns its space in the Quadrangle. "I'm just afraid of a snowball effect. Will all philanthropic money be poured only into the Arts District, because what happens here is culture, and what happens outside here isn't?"

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