Exits and Entrances: Big Changes at Three Dallas Theaters

When one stage door closes...EXPAND
When one stage door closes...
Rob Wilson

Three of Dallas’ oldest theater companies — Kitchen Dog Theater, Theatre Three and Dallas Theater Center — are undergoing major transitions that could usher in dramatic changes as their shows go on.

For Kitchen Dog, it’s a new temporary home inside the Green Zone, a smallish stand-alone performance space on Riveredge Drive in the Dallas Design District. The 25-year-old theater, which specializes in world premieres of new works by American playwrights, recently moved out of its two-theaters-plus-gallery space at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary. That building is being “repurposed” as owner Claude Albritton III transfers his art gallery to a new location in the Cedars neighborhood south of downtown.

To prepare for tighter quarters, Kitchen Dog held a garage sale on July 11 to slough off a quarter century of accumulated props, costumes, furniture and odds and ends. With just five shows scheduled next season – starting September 11 with Harold Pinter’s taut one-act two-hander The Dumb Waiter, starring Michael Federico and Chris Carlos — the company will be “lean and mean,” says Tina Parker, the co-artistic director (with Carlos). The focus for the next year will be simple-to-produce shows with small casts and starring roles for KDT’s core company members, at least until a new home base is acquired.

“We’ve done a big purge. Like a snake, we’re molting,” says Parker. “We always knew that season 25 would be about concentrating on our acting company. And we were told a year ago we’d have to be move, so that kind of worked out.”

It’s not the first time Kitchen Dog has relocated. Founded by SMU theater grads in 1990 (Parker joined six years later), the company started out performing above a pawn shop, then in a church on Inwood Road, in the basement at Undermain Theatre and at the Stone Cottage in Addison. Finding a new permanent space for KDT will take time and money, says Parker. About $3 million, she estimates. Fundraising firm Clarkson Davis is handling the capital campaign.

Kitchen Dog has never been known as spendthrifts. With a full-time staff of just four, the theater has always finished their seasons in the black, says Parker. “I joke that Kitchen Dog is artistically liberal, financially conservative,” she says. “We don’t pay ourselves enough though. We’ve all still got to have jobs outside of theater. I’m lucky that I get to do some film and TV work [she was in Breaking Bad]. I really don’t know anybody who can make a career as a stage actor only, even at the big LORTs [League of Resident Theatres, in which Dallas Theater Center is a member].”

Parker waited tables at Lucky’s on Oak Lawn for a decade after she graduated from SMU, while working as a company member at KDT. Now as one of the artistic directors and a frequent leading actor in productions (she’ll star next as a Michele Bachmann-like character in the Peter Sinn Nachtrieb play The Totalitarians), Parker says she dreams of Kitchen Dog having a new performance space that’s “super flexible.”

“I’d like us to have an intimate space where people feel like they’re still an integral part of what we do. The spaces in the Arts District [The Wyly, City Performance Hall] are too big for what Kitchen Dog does and the kind of plays we do,” she says. “I want people to still be close to the actors. I hope we can find a permanent space, either through a lease option or building our own, where we can be rooted down so I know that we will continue. That would be my dream. To be autonomous but for the space to still have the Kitchen Dog vibe.”

Real estate isn’t the problem for Theatre Three. The 54-year-old company owns its 242-seat theater-in-the-round in The Quadrangle in Uptown, one of only two professional theaters in Dallas to own a building outright (the other is Contemporary Theatre of Dallas). The death of Theatre Three founder Jac Alder on May 22 (of respiratory failure) marked this theater’s major turning point, though it appears that Alder planned ahead for a smooth transition of power, which has made things easier for new artistic director Bruce R. Coleman.

“We had talked about it many times and Jac had put together a succession plan naming me as artistic director,” says Coleman, who has worked at T3 as a director and designer for 30 years. Alder, who opened the theater with wife Norma Young in 1961 (she died in 1998), also left the theater with a healthy financial endowment, says Coleman. (Alder, who for many years took no salary from T3, told me in February that he had recently sold his two Uptown condos for “an obscene amount of money.”)

The biggest change at T3, says Coleman, will be in personnel. He’s interviewing candidates now to add a new managing director, marketing director and bookkeeper to the 10-person full-time staff. Coleman also had to tweak the season lineup when rights for the play Inherit the Wind fell through. In its place later in the season will be William Inge’s Picnic. The first show of the season is Tennessee Williams’ four-character The Glass Menagerie, opening in previews July 30.

“I felt it would probably benefit us to not kill ourselves with a big show so early in the season,” says Coleman, who is directing the Williams drama. “And Theatre Three hadn’t done Glass Menagerie since 1966, when Jac played The Gentleman Caller and directed the production.” (Alder had chosen “great American classics” for this seven-show season’s overall theme.)

Coleman says he felt he was prepared, “but sorta not,” for Alder’s passing. Alder had been seriously ill with pneumonia last spring but had been recovering at home in May when he suddenly got worse. “Within five minutes after he passed away, I was in a meeting at Theatre Three,” says Coleman. “It’s been organizational meetings and go-go-go, trying to tie up artistic loose ends ever since. The memorial for Jac [on July 13 at City Performance Hall] was the first time I really let the emotions flow. I had been so focused on tasks at hand.”

Coleman and Alder “shared some visionary things,” but “we were very different people.” Coleman says he will continue to encourage the production of new plays and will look at the classics in different ways than Alder might have. As with Alder’s philosophy, however, T3 still will not produce any Shakespeare. “There are plenty of other companies around Dallas that do that,” says Coleman.

This summer Coleman launched a new children’s musical theater academy at T3, something he’d wanted to do for a long time and that has quickly proven to be “hugely popular and successful,” he says.

“I’ll always be looking at what’s new, what’s hot, what’s out there,” Coleman says. “But I’ll do it my way. I’m energized and looking forward to getting new directors and new designers in here to work. There are great possibilities. What I tell everybody is, I’m going to approach this job with as much energy and creativity and imagination as I possibly can. Theater is my life’s work. I know so many great artists in this city and I’d like to give a home to those great artists.”

What Theatre Three is going through now, Fort Worth’s Stage West went through two summers ago when founder Jerry Russell died suddenly after complications from surgery.

“Emotionally it was difficult,” recalls Dana Ashley Schultes, Stage West’s co-producing director (with Jim Covault). “We were in a fortunate position, as fortunate as we could be with Jerry’s passing, because he had retired officially in January 2013. He was on the board and was a presence, but he had worked very hard to make sure finances were taken care of and he had been mentoring me on everything I do here. And Jim [Covault] has been here 35 years. We had the closeness of our little family here and had this balance in place.”

Schultes says one of the toughest obstacles after Russell’s death was convincing longtime patrons of Stage West that the theater would continue without him. “Of course, we had patrons who would say, `Well, I guess you guys are going to shut down.’ And we’d say no! We will continue to move forward! It took patrons a little while to come back because they were afraid they would walk into Stage West and be filled with sadness. But Jerry is still so present here. Things have moved on so smoothly. That’s the thing with the transition here. He’s still here in spirit.”

Like Theatre Three’s Jac Alder, Russell took little to no salary as the artistic director of Stage West, which he launched in 1979. Asked what advice she’d offer to T3, Schultes says, “It’s very, very difficult for an arts organization to suddenly need to hire someone who needs a living wage. My advice to them is to seek grants immediately to cover that gap in income that they’re going to have to cover. We were very lucky to have started that transition before we felt that impact of emotional distress. We had time after Jerry’s retirement to plan that.” (Stage West’s next show is the regional premiere of the musical Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, running August 6 through September 13.)

At North Texas’ only LORT house, Dallas Theater Center, there’s a big change happening at the top of the 56-year-old organization. A new managing director, Jeffrey Woodward, started work there July 16, replacing Heather M. Kitchen, who retired this summer after a long career on the business side of theater, her last four years with DTC. The position puts Woodward in charge of the finances, marketing and fundraising at DTC, working closely with his executive counterpart on the artistic side, artistic director Kevin Moriarty.

Woodward’s experience includes stints as managing director at Syracuse Stage in upstate New York and 17 years at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. In a statement announcing Woodward’s hiring, DTC board chair Rebecca Fletcher said that he “stood out [among other candidates] because of his experience helping theaters cultivate their donor bases and developing long-term financial frameworks to support artistic growth.” (The McCarter received the 1994 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater, an award DTC insiders have coveted for years.)

Woodward says his first days on the job at DTC will be spent meeting with each person on the 64-member staff, then he’ll sit down with each of the theater’s 75 board members. “While all that’s going on, I’m also going to try to understand how the city and the theater community here operate and I’ll be meeting with supporters of the theater at all the different levels,” says Woodward.

Before her retirement, Kitchen talked about what she believes makes a managing director successful at a regional theater the size of DTC. “You have to be a really good collaborator. You constantly collaborate with the artistic director, who is your partner. It’s a little like an arranged marriage. And you need to collaborate closely with the board and with all of the staff. You are half of a CEO [sharing the title with the artistic director],” said Kitchen.

Financial acumen and a real love of data and numbers are also required, said Kitchen. Plus “an enormous passion for the art form. It’s hard work. When I reflect on why I did the job, I really believe that it was my way of making a difference in the world – being part of theater,” Kitchen said.

Kitchen’s way with finances pulled DTC out of debt. When she took the job at DTC in 2011, after 14 seasons as executive director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, the Dallas company was about $300,000 in the hole. She left it with “a small surplus” of $50K. “That’s something I’m proud of,” she said. “We have been financially responsible.”

During Kitchen’s tenure at DTC, subscription and ticket income grew more than 40 percent. (Kitchen estimates that there will be 22,000 more tickets sold this season for DTC’s shows at the Wyly Theatre than in the company’s first season there in 2009.) The operating budget grew, too. In 2011 it was $8.5 million. This season it’s $12 million. (The season opener is the world premiere of Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, based on the old TV show, starring American Idol’s first season runner-up, Justin Guarini. The show runs September 2-October 11 at the Wyly.)

Is $50K enough of a cushion with a production and operating budget in eight figures? “In this day, the performing arts in this country are really having a tough time,” says DTC’s new managing director Woodward. “This is true all over the United States. True for all levels of companies, whether you’re a small storefront company or the Metropolitan Opera, which has million-dollar deficits. So I think a balanced operating budget is a good thing.”

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