Local theater stalwart Kitchen Dog Theater is in the midst of its 26th season, and big changes have been coming left and right for the company. One is the introduction of a new program that will release 20 free tickets for every performance.
In 2016, Kitchen Dog Theater was forced to leave the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, its home since ’94. With rents skyrocketing in Dallas, KDT quickly realized that purchasing a property and giving up the nomad’s life would serve them better.
While their upcoming move to a 10,000-square-foot, former tile showroom in the Design District is cause for celebration and excitement, it has also presented some very real and practical challenges, like maintaining an audience while moving into temporary space. KDT bunked with old friends Undermain Theatre and have now set up temporary shop in the Trinity River Arts Center while they renovate their new home.
KDT artistic director Tina Parker started thinking about the ways her theater was changing and what that meant for audiences. She also looked at a theater she admired in Minneapolis, Mixed Blood Theatre. Both KDT and Mixed Blood are members of the National New Play Network, a nationwide coalition of theaters dedicated to producing new work.
Parker was intrigued by an initiative Mixed Blood was trying: offering half of the seats to every show for free. Based in a largely Somali neighborhood, that company realized none of their community members were attending plays, and they wanted to change that.
Parker and Kitchen Dog have always used a pay-what-you-can program at the theater, giving tickets away for whatever a patron can afford during midweek performances. They have done this partly to bolster attendance during the week, and partly to offer affordable tickets to anyone who needed them.
But with other changes on the horizon for the company, Parker felt moved to continue tweaking. The past two years have been hard on the company, and she began to remember how she felt as a struggling young artist.
“Sometimes you’re down on your luck and you just need a free ticket to a play,” Parker says.
Her dream for the new theater is to become a community hub: a place for artists to meet, hold rehearsals or gather for discussions during the day. She is also thinking of all the other companies and artists in town that are also vying for space. Offering their space to those that need it is definitely part of the conversation.
But for now, still in a temporary home, Kitchen Dog wants to offer more than just pay-what-you-can tickets. Parker has adopted the Mixed Blood model and will now give tickets away. The new program, Admit All, means from now on 20 seats will available free of charge for every performance of every play, except opening nights.
“As a young artist, it would have been important to me to see a play for free,” Parker says. “Maybe you can see a group of people you’d like to work with, maybe you’d learn about a school you’re interested in. Maybe you’ll learn about a playwright you didn’t know before.”
She doesn’t care who you are, she just wants you to come. Parker says it’s really just a natural extension of their mission statement. If you want to see a play, you should be able to. Simple as that.
She also felt is was only fair to give patrons the chance to attend a free performance when it worked for them, not just during the week.
“Maybe you have to work on a Wednesday night, or you have child care issues. Maybe a Sunday matinee makes the most sense for your schedule. We just want you here.”
Parker says all they ask in return is that you let them know who you are for grant reporting purposes. They just need to track how many people they are reaching. Having found a real niche in the Dallas community, Parker and KDT felt it was a practical way to rebuild audiences they may have lost in the move.
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“When people go by the old MAC and see the pile of dirt, they think we’re gone,” she says. “We’re not! We have a parking lot and bathrooms here!”
The decisions KDT faced upon moving out of the MAC were big ones. Whether to even keep going crossed Parker’s mind. But she ultimately decided against quitting. Offering free tickets to anyone who needs it is one step closer to her dream — now a reality — of a permanent home for both company and artists, patrons and community members.
“As long as you have clothes on you can come here,” she says. “Try us out — you’ll find we’re not that stuffy.”
Paper Flowers, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 10 and 11, Kitchen Dog Theater, Trinity River Arts Center, 2600 N. Stemmons Freeway, Suite 180. Get free tickets by showing up to the box office 30 minutes before each performance. They are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Regular prices are $25 to $30. Visit kitchendogtheater.org.