By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Although it's not talked about much, one of the reasons that WaterTower Theatre has been using a pricey, multi-functional space essentially to stage community-theater fare (albeit starring professional, often Equity actors) is in reaction to the days when it was Addison Centre Theatre and the ambitious Kelly Cotten poured his imagination (and the town of Addison's money) into fearless (some might say reckless) new works and startling new versions of theater staples. Commerce trumped art, of course, and Addison now has WaterTower, a studious, hardworking, but drearily cautious artistic child.
Perhaps, under the tutelage of new artistic director Terry Martin, the kid will finally venture out into the playground and get his knickers a little dirty. And WaterTower producer Gayle Pearson as well as stage manager Jeff Cochran already have made another pledge in the direction of fostering new Dallas talent. Before Martin seizes the wheel in September, Pearson and Cochran, along with other staffers, created The First Annual Stone Cottage New Works Festival. The title refers to the small stone building that was the original site of Addison Community Theater, and then Addison Centre Theatre, which moved into the new space. But the cottage was maintained.
"The town of Addison spent quite a bit of money refurbishing this theater," Cochran says. "It originally opened as a community center in the '30s as a WPA project. Then Addison Community Theater began performing there in the '70s. Addison has now restored it to look just as it did after it opened, removing anything that has been added and putting in hardwood floors and walls."
The Stone Cottage had hosted a variety of small theater companies after the ACT space was built, and Pearson, Cochran, and company are tentatively aiming it back in that direction. The First Annual Stone Cottage New Works Festival is a reading of three plays by Dallas playwrights: Gretchen Elizabeth Smith's Lily, a revisionist historical look at Edith Wharton; Big Band, Natalie Gaupp's glimpse at jazz and racism in the '40s and the '80s; and Algonquin, C.J. Critt and Michael Hirsch's musical fantasy about the ghosts of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley hijacking a hotel. The weekend of July 15-17, there will be audience talk-backs with the playwrights (Lily is read Thursday, Big Band on Friday, and Algonquin on Saturday).
"We had no intention of making this all Dallas playwrights," Cochran says. "We put out a national search, listed ourselves in the Dramatists Sourcebook and everything. But from the 200 or so scripts we received from around the country, it happened that the reading committee focused on these three."
It seems like a great use of city money and a chance to point WaterTower Theatre's big subscriber base toward stuff they've never heard of written by artists living in the same town. Once they sample this stuff in the refurbished Stone Cottage, will they be hungry for more of it back in the WaterTower Theatre main stage? Cochran is candid in his admission that the WaterTower's space, in which audience and stage can be arranged in any corner and height you can imagine, can be a temptation to screw up a show with "tricks."
"The expense on moving the facility around is high," he says. "And we try to keep a certain seating capacity, so there's only so many ways we can reconfigure it. Right now, we change it once a season. It can make you crazy, because everyone walks in and says, 'Oh my God, you can do this and this and this.' But if you do all that, and it's not the right show, you take away from the production for the sake of doing these tricks. When we did Working [a musical based on the writings of Studs Terkel], we had a bridge and scaffolding. But something like Holiday Memories [an intimate comedy-drama based on works by Truman Capote] would be ruined with too many tricks."