100 Dallas Creatives: No. 56 Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio
About once a year, the city of Dallas is treated to the offbeat, immersive theater of the Dead White Zombies. Seeing one of the troupe's shows is unlike any play you've seen before. You don't settle into a plush, comfortable seat. There's nothing comfortable about the shows at all - that fall into a category between traditional theater and performance art. Most prominently, the group mounted T.N.B. (typical nigga behavior) in a former drug stash house in West Dallas. That show -about, among other things, the black male experience -was filled with guns, drugs, sex, and violence. Walking out the response varied from "WTF" to "Awesome!"
At the helm of the self-described Pirates of Dallas theater is Thomas Riccio. A theater professor and scholar, whose studies have taken him all over the world, Riccio's primary interest is in the ideas of ritual and the immersive narrative that is everyday life. We once called him "The Weirdest Theater Mind in Dallas" - a reputation he continues to uphold. See it for yourself when the Zombies invade Dallas in November with a play called, Karaoke Motel, the details of which have not yet been announced.
What was the impetus for Dead White Zombies? When I was in college I used to work for a suicide prevention hotline in Cleveland. One guy would call pretty regularly, he was a little nuts but basically he just wanted to talk and for someone to listen. A peeve of his was "Dead White Zombies." He kept saying it, "They are everywhere, at the store, on the bus, on the streets, everywhere you look!" He was a white guy and he was talking about people of any color because everybody was a ghost and white, dead to the world but still walking around like a zombie seeking life. For me "white" is white as in the afterglow of western culture. We are ghost still walking around in a globalized, multi-cultural world seeking life in a reality of remix and spent ways of being as the human species zombie walks towards suicide. It's all about that, and I really like the name, it forces me do provocative work. Can't do safe work with a name like that. We're Pirates. Names have energy and they speak to you and elicit a response.
Are there models in other cities for immersive theater that you model after or just admire? I've read a lot about other groups and artists doing immersive performance work but I almost don't want to see them. There is something to discovery; I like taking a journey without a GPS or a roadmap. I'm comfortable heading out on my own. I ask questions and people give me directions. I also see the world, in this age of the selfie and hyper aware image-brand conscious-narcissism, as one big immersive performance. We walk through narratives everyday; there is text, sounds, sights, characters, costumes, and scenes everywhere you look. I believe most people are genuinely real but circumstances are such today that many are playing scripts they don't know they are playing. Dead White Zombies is a blend of theatre, ritual, installation, therapy, video, dance, music and sound art. It is liberating to have such a large untethered vocabulary at your disposal when you walk into a house or a warehouse and create a work specific to a site. The site becomes a character, a participant, and, in its way, a dramaturgical structure.
Your theater work and studies have taken you all over the world, what do you see as the unifying thread between theater both in Dallas and, say, in an African tribe? People are people wherever you go. We may look different but we share the same anatomy and are linked to the biological cycle of birth, growth, maturity and death. We all have a complexity of feelings, hopes, dreams, fears, loves, pain, disappointments, and triumphs. They may be shaped by culture, society, gender and geography, but they are essentially the same, there is a common well from which we all drink. The unifying thread is that we, no matter who or where or when, are trying to figure this thing called mortal life out. What is our place, where and how do I belong, what does it mean, why should I care? We create art and theatre to offer up a response. A ritual in Africa or anywhere in the world is serving the same deep structure mandate, to reveal the ordering system in which we live, to make it incarnate.
What is your condensed definition of theater? To make visible the invisible that surrounds us.
Do you have a dream project that you want to carry out in Dallas? If so, what is it? I'd like to do a massive outdoor ritual performance, something overnight, beginning at 9 and ending at dawn. With people coming and watching, participating and sleeping if they like. That's a cozy intimacy to be able to sleep amidst a performance and others. You kind of live in a half trance with the performance and collectively go into the night together, which we are all doing metaphorically, to live with and celebrate being surrounded by the mystery of night and the comfort of the community. Fall asleep if you like, that's okay, you are among friends, the performance a shared dream. Sleeping outside at night, among others during a performance works on you in a unique way.
Sleeping as performance, as theater? I've slept through parts of a few all- night folk performances and rituals in India and Africa. They left an indelible mark on my consciousness, especially with the !Xuu Bushmen of the Kalahari. I can see and feel those experiences on my body now. One Bushmen healing took me to the time before time. The rich overlay of chanting, drumming, counter clapping and rattling was like a highway to the origins. It knocked me over emotionally, I never felt or cried so deeply. I'd like to share that discovery and delight with my community. I think it would change things, a nudge, a little something. Little somethings, small intimate things offered with a generosity of spirit stay with you. The power of one. Dallas and Texas is lot about bigness, braggadocio and showmanship. There is more to life.
What are the yin and the yang of the Dallas theater scene? i.e. what is the greatest strength and what is the greatest weakness? More important, is there a balance or is one more weighted than the other? I talked to a dozen or so DFW artistic directors, doing a two-year podcast series for Theatre Jones, trying to figure out, more or less, that very question. What I found is that there's a lot of talent, variety, intelligence, commitment, a tremendous amount of energy here and I'm happy to be part of the eco system. What I found in all my conversations with artistic directors was the haunt of legacy. Dallas was founded essentially as a mercantile and trading center. That little old log cabin downtown was a trading post. The corporate profile of Dallas is trade, exchange and services--we really don't make anything essential here--we have American Airlines, Mary Kay, Frito Lay, ATT, Neman Marcus. There is a lot of exchange commerce going on here and that is what flows through the city's blood stream. Forth Worth has a different history and vibe. Cities grow from their seed of origin.
As a consequence a strain of influence pushing through the veins of Dallas theatre is about trade, service, and being liked. Some actors and theatres try really hard to be liked even if they are playing/producing an unlikable, even despicable character/play. Maybe it is about economic insecurity and the need to sell tickets. Whatever, this tends to stifle the expression of a greater range of human emotions and experiences. Things get general, superficial and people looking for the real deals of life dismiss theatre as safe and dated. I think what is so attractive about the work of Matt at the Ochre House is that they are not afraid to get ugly and offend if that what the piece requires. The Dead White Zombie production of T.N.B. didn't try to be likeable, it worked to serve the spirit of the text (scripts are like a magic chant revealing another world) and refused to slip into being liked syndrome. We work to serve the work, it speaks to us, and by doing so we lead our audience to places they otherwise would not go. That's our aspiration, ideal, our job and value.
Risk takes courage and brings its own, unforeseen rewards. Only courage and a greater willingness for risk and experimentation will elevate Dallas to its next level of artistic maturity. Risk not only in experimentation and newness, but the pursuit of depth, quality, and commitment (this is where perceptive and intelligent criticism comes in). Think of it as aesthetic entrepreneurialism, no pain, no gain. It is easy to open a franchise. Risk grows self-awareness, identity, and confidence. Dallas can be a national leader in the arts and theatre, just a matter of willing it so.
100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.