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.

Then there's the darling of 500 Inc., the Dallas Children's Theater, whose high-profile support and national reputation for world-premiere dramatizations of prizewinning children's books wasn't enough to rescue them from eviction. The Children's Theater is only months away from being kicked out of its Cedar Springs address.

Smartly sensing that their theatrical ministry to children could be a potent political weapon, the Children's Theater elbowed its way into the most current plans for the Arts District development. If the $18 million Arts District initiative makes it onto the bond ballot and passes, it will include money earmarked for the construction of a new home for the Children's Theater, independent of the proposed Dallas Center. The first indication of how political things could get came when the Children's Theater's aggressive campaign to city officials earned a warning last October from Howard Hallam, the man appointed by Mayor Ron Kirk to fill the volunteer post of Arts District coordinator: Cooperate or risk being booted out of the master plan.

The Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center, on the other hand, didn't have to trumpet their cause at town hall and city council meetings. Civic insiders for much of their existence, they were involved in some of the earliest stages of Arts District planning.

Both a new opera house and a new theater complex were outlined in a 1977 report called "A Comprehensive Arts Facilities Plan for Dallas," compiled by Carr-Lynch Associates at the request of the city and nine other arts organizations, including the Opera. The Carr-Lynch report, as it's referred to, is a vague blueprint that has been used by advocates, planners, and city officials in forging a vision for a downtown Dallas performing arts center, like New York's Lincoln Center or New Orleans' Bourbon Street. The ideas for what would become the Dallas Museum of Art (which was already planned when the report was filed), Artist Square, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, and the Office of Cultural Affairs-sponsored Neighborhood Touring Program all come from this report. Still-pressing issues like the refurbishment of Fair Park were first proposed here. Included among these most contemporary of Dallas arts projects are visions not yet realized--a "theater complex" and a "new opera house" --both located in the same "single site arts center...within downtown."

The two-decade journey toward this goal has been fraught with peril--real estate and oil busts in the '80s; the troubled construction of the Meyerson in 1989, which some claim went $34 million over budget and had to be rescued by Ross Perot; and a contentious argument over how to divide city funding among ethnic arts organizations in the early '90s. All these problems--combined with the unpopularity of federal public arts funding throughout the last decade--muffled Arts District dreamers.

As Dallas rebounded from the investment debacles of the '80s, Arts District supporters revived their clarion call for the vision embodied in the Carr-Lynch report--specifically, its proposal for an opera house and theater complex located in downtown Dallas. This call was repeated in "A Future Vision for Downtown Dallas," a 1993 report presented to the city council by the Central Dallas Association, an organization of business and government big wheels that included Plato Karayanis, general director of The Dallas Opera.

A November 18, 1997, story in The New York Times, while not specifically mentioning Dallas, confirms that renewed interest in "Arts Districts" is part of a national trend among cities. The article cites the public/private partnerships that have come together to finance downtown performance centers in cities like Chicago, San Jose, and Newark--all in the hopes of increasing local as well as tourist revenue. Sometimes they result in a big boost to the city economy, and sometimes they become underused arts ghost towns that house an occasional convention or bar mitzvah. The success or failure of such ambitious cultural meccas usually rests on one issue--product.

In this city, The Dallas Opera and The Dallas Theater Center have aggressively lobbied both public officials and private donors to secure their product a place in the downtown Arts District renaissance. The Dallas Opera has wanted to abandon its home at the Fair Park Music Hall for decades; stories of artists from Maria Callas to Carol Channing to Cecilia Bartoli registering tart disapproval of the space's cavernous interior are legendary.

"The Music Hall is just too large to accommodate opera," confirms John Dayton, a Dallas Opera board member and the chair of the Dallas Center. "The acoustics are dreadful for the unamplified human voice. You're asking singers to throw their voice across a much farther distance than they normally have to. Plus, the back of the stage is only large enough to accommodate one production at a time. Most opera companies our size maintain a season in repertory (more than one production alternating at the same time)."

The Dallas Theater Center's stake in a downtown performing arts space came, in part, from its own deep pockets. In 1985, when the city of Dallas acquired what's known as the Borden Tract, DTC spent a million dollars of its own money to help build what is now the Arts District Theater on the site. This barn-like space next to Artist Square essentially needs a theater built inside it for every performance. The Theater Center has always envisioned that its Arts District Theater would be temporary housing until a more formidable performance hall could be constructed nearby.

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?"

Bart Weiss, director of the Video Association of Dallas, is another veteran local arts professional who oversees an event unique in the Southwest, and one that, as much as any arts organization in the city, would contribute mightily, if given the proper support, to a "world class" reputation for Dallas.

Every year, the Dallas Video Festival screens documentaries, dramas, and experimental shorts, shipped to them by artists and professionals who work in video from all over the world. It's one of the only festivals of its kind in America, honoring work in a technical medium that has overtaken film as the cultural-social-political record of our time.

Like New Theatre Company, the Dallas Video Festival learned this year it would be homeless in 1998. Priced out of using the Dallas Museum of Art, its home for the past 10 years, it will be holding its event next March at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. And just like New Theatre Company, Bart Weiss was interviewed by TPC about The Dallas Video Association's pressing need for space.

"Who wouldn't be excited when an international consortium flies in and says, 'Tell us what you need?' Weiss wonders aloud. "These are desperate times for a lot of Dallas arts groups, which is supposedly what a new performance space in the Arts District would address. But frankly, I'm skeptical. There's too much they couldn't tell us."

Weiss attended a small meeting last October hosted by the same organizations, only this time at the Dallas Museum of Art. He stood up and asked exactly "what administrative mechanism" would be in place to determine who would use the smallest space in a new performing arts center, how long they could use it, and how much that space would cost. No one had an answer to any of those questions.

What they told him, Weiss says, "was basically, 'Trust us.'"

In September 1997, Theater Project Consultants unveiled the first phase of a master plan for the rejuvenation of the cultural life of downtown far into the next millennium. Its 20-year vision for the Arts District is one of an "arts village," a people-friendly place where pedestrians would roam easily between a lively array of theaters, galleries, restaurants, and shops. Phase 1 details only the performing arts center, which could conceivably hold at least four spaces--a 2,000-seater for the Opera; a 700-seater and a 300-seat black box, both for the Theater Center; and a 100-200 seat "recital hall" or "community room" that's up for grabs. John Dayton points out that the smallest theater could potentially be used by as many as 15 different groups, based on the TPC report.

The smallest space remains a source of controversy. Exactly who gets it, when they get it, for how long, and at what cost is still a mystery. This has led some to charge that the community room is merely a token gesture by the Theater Center and the Opera that allows them to call their potential new homes a "multi-use space that would benefit many arts groups." That's how they sold it to the city council (and would sell it to the voters next May), which, critics charge, is why the Dallas Center retained outside theater consultants [TPC] to conduct a study to determine if space was widely needed. That's why so many of the small, homeless arts groups, some of whom now fear they are being used to justify new spaces for well-heeled groups that already have permanent homes, were asked about their space needs in the extensive five-month study.

"They [TPC] talk about the vision for an arts village in the Arts District, a cultural center full of many different theaters," says Bruce Coleman of New Theatre Company. "Well, that's a great idea, but they admit that it's 20 years down the line, assuming everything got approved. Once they get their new spaces, will the Opera and the Theater Center push the whole plan through for the rest of us? I just don't know."

John Dayton is quick to point out that the Dallas Center, despite the vested interests of its original board members, has always had the most egalitarian of motives. "It has always been our opinion that a new space shouldn't be built unless it benefits as many arts groups as possible. It's true there are still many issues involving management and rental cost that we haven't begun to answer yet. We're just now at that stage, where we sit down with these other heads of smaller groups and hash this out. It's a difficult process. And no, not every small arts group will get a chance at this space." In fact, says Dayton, the Dallas Center board is now being expanded from three to nine members, including representatives of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, TITAS, and the Dallas Children's Theater.

"Including many groups was always part of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts' plans," adds Arts District coordinator Howard Hallam. "That's why they contracted TPC in the first place. They came to us [the city] with this desire." When pushed, however, Hallam says, "If they hadn't offered [for outside consultants to talk to the smaller groups], we would've made them."

If this Arts District initiative actually makes it before the voters next May, some wonder whether the controversial sports arena referendum in January--whether or not that deal passes--will have repercussions for a second request to allocate money for an entertainment center. Hallam attempts to dismiss this fear. "We don't give voters enough credit for common sense," he says. "They know that a new performing arts center and a new sports arena are completely separate issues, and would be paid for differently. The performing arts center would be built from bond money, while the sports arena--which, incidentally, I wholeheartedly support--would be paid for with increased taxes on hotels and rental cars."

Dennis Vincent, who oversees the Arts District Association--the public-private triad of downtown interests that includes the Arts District Friends, Arts District Foundation, and Arts District Management--diverges slightly from Hallam's confident assessment. Concerning all the publicity that has surrounded the proposed sports facility and its possible residual effect on the new Dallas Center, Vincent says, "We're holding our breath."

The ultimate price tag for the Dallas Center, much like the arena deal, will remain unknown to the voters in May, even though they will be asked to approve its initial infrastructure and land acquisition costs totaling around $18 million (which also include construction costs for the new Dallas Children's Theater). If the May bond initiative passes, a second one would later be presented to voters detailing the actual costs of the Dallas Center itself. But to build a "world class" multi-use performance facility on a par with, say, a Lincoln or Kennedy Center will be a pricey enterprise, certainly if done right. And this may cause voters who have just committed over $125 million of city resources to a sports arena serious concern. Of course, a performance hall could not be built without a strong public-private partnership. Donations from generous arts patrons, as well as long-term capital campaigns from individual arts institutions, would be necessary to match public moneys and subsidies.

You can bet, though, that if the city council approves the bond proposal for next May's ballot, voters will be regaled with a vision of a democratic performance space that won't just provide homes for its most immediate beneficiaries--The Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center. No matter what the politicos say, Charlotte Akin Jorgensen doubts that her New Theatre Company will be part of that vision. She doesn't feel terribly surprised--or terribly bitter, for that matter--about the slim prospects of getting a regular season housed in a gleaming new Arts District performance center. These are, after all, lean times for all arts organizations--even The Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center, who enjoy budgets she could only fantasize about, regularly lose money on their shows. She and New Theatre Company are focused on finding a "private angel" to help with their plight, rather than going to the public for support.

The Opera and the Theater Center have the decades and the hard-earned reputations under their belt to deserve whatever they can fairly and honestly get from the voters. Both also have infamous reputations for importing talent rather than relying on the homegrown variety. And in a city where bigger is often confused with better, where appearance is valued over substance, and form seldom follows function, it would be a shame if, in some futuristic downtown Dallas arts mecca, imported spectacle stamped out local talent. "Why should every company aim to fill a 900-seat theater?" asks Theater Three's Jac Alder somewhat rhetorically. "That's crazy. Size often limits what you're able to say. But private money usually follows public money, and right now, the city wants to fund the big guys."

But if Dallas truly wants a world-class "arts village," shouldn't support of its little guys--its talented indigenous artists--be a means of fashioning an environment so hospitable that artists who have earned their international reputations in other cities want to perform here? Certainly a city that prides itself on entrepreneurial zealotry should be able to reach an accommodation where performance groups both large and small can thrive.

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