Waste not, want not

How 500 Inc. could really become leaders in the Dallas performance scene

I recently spoke before about 30 members of the local volunteer arts fundraising group 500 Inc.--with more than a little trepidation. I was the guest of the Undermain Theatre, which, like all major recipients of grants from this group, must provide free "Sample The Arts" events for the organization.

My only payment was one plastic cup of cheap red wine downed shortly before my name was announced. Not that I need an excuse to quaff cheap red wine, but if I did, the rationalization was ripe. This theater critic was about to speak in front of a group that the Dallas Observer had referred to, only a month before, as a "clique of cocktail-swilling philistines who hold too much sway over who gets how much in Dallas." Shortly before I'd swilled my last gulp of vino and took the stage, two 500 Inc. members made joking reference to the article, which I wrote ("Deal of the Arts," February 12). In it, Teatro Dallas executive director Valerie Brogan complained on the record about what numerous other arts groups would only say in confidence--getting money from the 500 Inc. can be more trouble than it's worth. The agency has a lengthy grant application and demands too many reciprocal volunteer hours and too much general promotion of the 40-year-old 500 Inc., critics said. This is particularly true for groups on the low end of 500 Inc.'s funding scale (i.e., the majority who don't receive the Undermain's annual stipend of $20,000). Even one of the top beneficiaries, whose annual budget registers in the millions, complained about what the group must do in order to stay within the 500 Inc.'s funding elite.

Surprisingly, no 500 Inc. philistines spoke up among the respectful, honest, and informed individuals who asked legitimate questions such as: "Since you rattle on about supporting local Dallas theater artists, why did you write a news article that questioned the motives and methods of a long-established volunteer collective that donates free time and money to local theater artists?"

It was difficult to develop a meaningful exchange with these people, because the squawk of Undermain "moderator" Laurel Hoitsma filled my right ear. She was singing, however off-key, for her supper, drowning out both my interrogators and me with unrequested testimonials on the sheer ecstasy of being a 500 Inc. recipient. The desperate cheerleading was understandable: Undermain gets the largest portion of its donations from 500 Inc.; awhile back, they opted to withdraw from city funding, in part because they didn't want to get entangled in the ethnic casting strings attached to that money.

It's important to note that the news article that generated questions at this meeting never challenged the hard work 500 Inc. volunteers contribute to the Dallas arts scene. But ever since that too-short meeting of the minds, ideas about how the 500 Inc. could contribute more have buzzed around in my head, in part because I'm just now coming down from a high inspired by several local productions. The Undermain hasn't decided whether it will stage a full-scale production of Franz Xaver Kroetz's Homework, co-adapted by director Lisa Lee Schmidt and a young Dallas man named Delvin J. Diles. But during a two-week workshop, they elicited dazzling performances from Rhonda Boutte and Walter Hardts as a black couple nearly crushed under the grinding routine of urban poverty. Dallas-based actor Terry Martin donned and doffed utterly unique personalities as easily as if they were period costumes in the Texas premiere of Dan Butler's The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me. Before that, Teatro Dallas expertly alternated subtle comic moods and brash theatrical styles with three one-acts called Latin American Evening, including an original translation by Cora Cardona. You can still catch the last weekend of Kitchen Dog Theater's smart, sometimes hilarious corporate satire Below the Belt, a Southwest premiere.

And coming up are two very promising productions--New Theatre Company's Southwest premiere of John Patrick Shanley's Psychopathia Sexualis, and the sophomore show from Our Endeavors, their interpretation of Albert Camus' God-only-knows-where-and-when-it-was-last-staged Caligula, starring performance artist Dalton James.

With the exception of Homework, 500 Inc. money played either a small role or none at all in these shows. Yet I daresay each of these productions would have benefited enormously from the hard work and cash infusions of that volunteer collective. Then why don't they apply for it? Some, like Teatro and Kitchen Dog, already do. But the system is biased against local talent; the biggest chunk of money indirectly rewards artists who come from outside the city. I maintain that the 500 Inc. could take an instrumental role in nurturing performers who live in our own back yard if it changed their funding priorities. Cliff Redd, the 500 Inc's new executive director, said in a telephone interview that the group was currently in the process of "reinventing" itself. In that spirit, I propose an overhaul of the funding system that comes down to this: Give more money to small troupes such as the Undermain, Kitchen Dog, New Theatre Company, or an embryonic group like Our Endeavors (if they chose to apply) and less to the more entrenched, better-funded institutions such as the Dallas Theater Center and The Dallas Opera.

That's not an attack on the quality of shows being presented by the theater center and the opera. I'm not suggesting they don't deserve 500 Inc. money; I suggest that, relatively speaking, they don't need it as much as many groups. We're talking about two organizations that have the political and corporate clout to build new homes for themselves in downtown Dallas, assuming local voters give their approval in bond elections. (A $10.5 million bond proposal for land acquisition for new homes for the theater center and opera goes before voters in May.) Would either multimillion-dollar organization miss $20,000 a year? They might say yes--times are tough financially all over for performing arts. But I challenge both groups to be chivalrous and forgo their 500 Inc. contributions in the name of assisting the little guys, whose flourishing would, in turn, make our city a more inviting place for the international performers the theater center and opera bring in. This would be especially appropriate as the opera and the theater center are subsidized by Dallas taxpayers.

The Dallas Morning News recently ran an editorial on "What Makes a City Livable." If the Morning News is really interested in making Dallas more livable, it can stop flying stage critic Lawson Taitte out to New Jersey for lengthy articles on how great downtown performance centers are, and start directing him toward a more nuanced examination of local performers. The newspaper can face Dallas' inferiority complex about culture--and overcome it--if it acknowledges how much talent we have here and realizes that paying less attention to international artists and more to our own will, conversely, stir up the interest of outsiders. Most importantly, as a major supporter of 500 Inc., the theater center, and the opera, the Morning News can play a key role in helping make Dallas more livable for its resident stage artists by nudging more money toward those who barely eke out a living, yet create provocative theater. That's how you slowly, patiently create a scene that earns a national reputation.

The 500 Inc. is in a prime position to lead the way on this one, if they just reconsider some basic assumptions behind their funding system. That process might include confronting their own reputation (fair or unfair, you hear it from many different corners) as an organization whose main goal is hobnobbing with opera and symphony board members, not cultivating artistic visions. Cliff Redd and the 500 Inc.'s top brass, the long-term serious-as-a-heart-attack volunteers who sit on the funds distribution committees, could lead the move in this direction.

All this would entail a certain deferred gratification--the process of building a world-class cultural scene isn't as big an ego stroke as living in one. Picking up empty soda cans after a show at the Swiss Avenue Theater is a helluva lot less glamorous than chatting up opera director Plato Karayanis or the theater center's Richard Hamburger at a cast party. But over the long haul, it contributes more to the kind of glamour that counts--the confidence that your city is doing something unlike any other city in the country. When you radiate that kind of pride, outsiders start to notice.

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