Kitchen Dog Theater's Quarter-Life Crisis

Party with Kitchen Dog to celebrate 25 years of theater.EXPAND
Party with Kitchen Dog to celebrate 25 years of theater.
Matt Mrozek

If you're planning to attend a production of Steve Yockey's Blackberry Winter or The Thrush & the Woodpecker from Kitchen Dog Theater, plug in directions to Undermain Theatre. 

For more than a decade, Kitchen Dog Theater was housed in the bright blue building on McKinney Avenue known as The McKinney Avenue Contemporary. It was the perfect arrangement: They had small offices, two performance spaces and the bills were kept to a minimum thanks to the building's generous owners. But co-artistic directors Tina Parker and Chris Carlos always knew it wouldn't last forever. Real estate prices were going up and eventually, the location in Uptown became too valuable not to sell. Which was the news Kitchen Dog Theater received last year.

For its 25th season, the theater would have to leave its bright blue home. They were offered a one-year stint at The Green Zone in the Design District, but that didn't exactly work out. Displaced for a second time, Kitchen Dog found itself the recipient of a benevolent offer from the folks at Undermain, who offered their space so Kitchen Dog could finish its season.

"There's a bit of serendipity with finishing up our season at Undermain," says Parker, who's been active with Kitchen Dog since 1993. "Before we were at The MAC, they allowed us to use their space. It seems apropos to return to the place that helped us get our land legs. We couldn't be more grateful." 

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When Parker and company received the news of their impending homelessness, they began to pursue a capital campaign to raise $3 million. These funds would allow the mid-size company, which fills an important role in the eco-system of Dallas theater, the opportunity to purchase their own space, increase their full-time staff and sustain their commitment to risky, new work. Of course, they had no idea how attainable this goal really was, until they had what managing director Tim Johnson describes as a "Hollywood moment in fundraising." 

A pair of patrons who'd been attending the theater for over a decade contacted the office interested in chatting with the team about opportunities. Johnson and Parker, unsure of what to expect, prepped for what would be their first capital campaign presentation. At the end of the meeting, in a series of nonverbal signals, the husband and wife proposed that if Kitchen Dog could raise $125,000 in essentially two months, they would give $500,000 toward the acquisition of a new space.

"We all sort of stood there with our mouths open," says Parker. "Our fundraising consultant said in all her years of work, she hadn't seen something like this. We were just like, 'Holy crap, that's a lot of money.'"

Prior to efforts last year, Kitchen Dog hadn't raised that much money in an individual giving campaign. But they met the challenge handily and six months later are moving forward in their capital campaign with both added legitimacy and a financial boost. Plans seem to be lining up well. Next season, Kitchen Dog will perform its season at the Trinity River Arts Center off North Stemmons Freeway, with a contract that allows for three one-year renewal options. And as of last week, they were under contract on a property just north of the Design District and performing due diligence with things like inspections and parking plans. The hope is to move into the building a few years from now, debt free.

"My first day on the job we found out we'd be losing our space," says Johnson. "At that point my role was to act as a cheerleader. It seemed like a long shot. It really did feel like we were dreaming the impossible dream. Now, there are moments when I realize it’s really going to happen."

Numerous mid-size theater companies throughout the country share this narrative of losing a generous lease on a space and pursuing a a space of their own. It's challenging the fabric of regional theater, which often has a three-tiered approach as it does in Dallas: At the top is the League of Resident Theatres member (or LoRT), Dallas Theater Center; in the middle are companies like Undermain, Stage West and Kitchen Dog; and then there are smaller companies like Second Thought Theatre, or pop-up events like House Party Theatre or Shakespeare in the Bar.

After a few decades, a healthy company should reach these crossroads of growth: Stay smaller and unstable, or grow and secure your place in the city's artistic canon. For Dallas companies like Kitchen Dog, choosing the second option is the only way the city can move toward becoming a place like Chicago, recognized for its theatrical output.

"To be a risk-taking theater, you have to have a bit of security," says Parker. "You can't be looking over your shoulder wondering if you can have this space for two weeks or two years." 

Perhaps a risk-taking theater will also have to rely on the generosity of its community. Kitchen Dog will wrap up its 25th season at Undermain, which may seem like a quarter-life crisis, but for Parker it's been a lucky stroke of fate. The duo of Yockey plays, which close the company's season, open directly after Undermain's premiere of Len Jenkin's Jonah

"Yockey was a student of Len Jenkin at NYU," says Parker. "It's a cool link; pretty fortuitous, I think." 

Blackberry Winter and The Thrush & the Woodpecker run in repertory May 20-June 24, as the mainstage productions of Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival, hosted at Undermain Theatre. Tickets and more information at kitchendogtheater.org.


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