This weekend, Dallas will become the first city outside of New York to participate in the Public Works project, which taps hundreds of non-actors for productions of Shakespeare. The first play being tackled here is The Tempest.
According to Dayron J. Miles, director of Public Works Dallas, the expanding initiative is an important step toward eliminating the elitism that often plagues the arts. “Theater has been around as long as democracy has been around. It is an inalienable right. An institutional mindset has to occur,” he says. “Any human being that spends two hours of their time in the theater is owed a debt.”
Miles uses the example of a woman he met in South Dallas. Because she’s performing in The Tempest, her family will come to see it, and the rest of her community will also feel involved because they will see one of their representatives on stage. Economic barriers to entry, like the cost of classes and tickets, have created the perception that art belongs to the few who can afford it, and Miles says Public Works’ mission is to change that.
Tickets to see The Tempest are free and mobile box offices have been set up throughout the city. Dallas Theater Center will also release standby tickets right before the shows.
The project was started in 2013 by Lear deBessonet at The Public Theater New York City, with help from linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, who designed it. Their first production was The Tempest, too. DeBessonet was awarded the SMU Meadows Prize two years later to bring the program to Dallas. During her residency here, deBessonet consulted with Dallas Theater Center and SMU Meadows on Public Works Dallas.
Just like in New York, the Dallas production will feature 200 non-actor volunteers from local community centers such as Bachman Lake Together, Jubilee Park and Community Center, Literacy Instruction for Texas and Vickery Meadow Learning Center. The play will also involve local choirs, dance groups and high school drumlines.
There will even be cameo performances by notable Dallasites, including Mayor Mike Rawlings. He’ll share the role of wedding officiant with City Councilmen Adam McGough and Adam Medrano, and Dallas Cowboys spokesman Brad Sham. Sam Lao, who swept the Dallas Observer Music Awards in December, will appear, too. All in all, the cast only features five professional actors.
Miles hails from Toledo, Ohio, where he grew up doing theater and ballet. A career in the performance arts was always in the cards for him. “I was either going to be involved in theater or be a zoologist, because I love animals,” he says.
But eventually he got tired of performing and wanted to explore other aspects of the arts. He took an internship with Dayton Ballet, where his main role was to find ways to attract younger people to the ballet. This eventually let to another job in community engagement, at the Tony Award-winning Alliance Theater in Atlanta.
Miles found he had a knack for this work. He thought about community engagement as a big rehearsal, a time for organized risk-taking. And he was attracted to the philosophy of Shirley Heath, whose work he’d read. In 2013 The Dallas Theater Center contacted Miles and asked him to head up their "Neighborhood Initiative." He packed up his things in Atlanta and moved.
In Dallas he’s met with everyone at Dallas Theater Center, from board members, to donors, to patrons, to staff. He’s poured over zip code data to see which communities the theater center has been reaching. The same ones kept coming up: Preston Hollow, Highland Park. The areas where the big-level donors live.
“That’s great! It’s great that we are reaching them and that they are coming,” he says. “But I thought, ‘If we have the audacity to call ourselves the Dallas Theater Center, we better be representing Dallas as a whole.’”
Miles set out to expand engagement, starting in South Dallas. He says there’s a spectrum he looks at, where community members transform from spectators to engaged participants. I ask him what that really means. “There are so many levels to it. It means we create an authentic relationship with a person,” he says. “It doesn’t just mean we do a black show every now and then.”
Does Miles think Dallas arts organizations could actually change the way they interact with patrons on a wide scale? He says yes, although he’s encountered different challenges here than he did in Atlanta. “In Dallas we talk about race all the time,” he says. “In Atlanta the issues we tackled were more questions about class.”
Alliance Theater was led by Kenny Leon starting in the late 1980s, one of the few black men in a position of leadership at any theater in the country. He was succeeded by a woman, current artistic director Susan Booth. Miles says their leadership infused the bones of the theater so thoroughly that the plays they produced weren’t there to meet a diversity quota. Dallas, he says, still has work to do.
“My goal is to do the work here so that I’m not needed anymore,” he says. “The more we do this, our voices are not just an option but a necessity. The issue is no longer about diversity, it’s just who we are. We won’t have to rely on public initiatives to be a good theater. Every neighbor in our community will see themselves on the stage.”
Making that happen, when it means wrangling 200 first-time actors, sounds tough. But rather than a headache, for Miles it’s a beautiful thing to witness people from all corners of Dallas come together and learn to use their voices in a new way. And he has lots of help. “There are eight stage managers; the finest in the business,” he says.
The production is even getting an unexpected helping hand from Dallas Theater Center’s artistic associate, Joel Ferrell. Despite just having directed The Christians, Ferrell says he couldn’t stand not to participate in Public Works, so he’ll be doing hair and makeup for The Tempest.
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Ferrell describes the magic of the rehearsals: generations of families coming together, some who don’t speak English. They are told to ask their questions and speak up anyway. He says it’s an incredible challenge for some of the cast members to even get themselves to the theater, and that their dedication is inspiring.
Given all of the good it’s accomplishing, you might be thinking, “Who cares if the play is actually good?” But don’t write Public Works off as mere community theater with a cause. Dallas Theater Center’s standard of excellence hasn’t been waived for these volunteer actors.
“The point here is to make this a really good play,” Mile says. “The artistic quality has to be just as strong as any other play we produce at the Dallas Theater Center, and it will be.”
The Tempest runs Friday, March 3, through Sunday, March 5, at the Wyly Theater, 2400 Flora St. Tickets are free. Call 214-880-0202..