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Culture: The Money Pit Dallas 2009 -

Web extra: Founder and producer Tim Shane leads a video tour of the no-frills Dallas Hub Theater.

Dallas Theater Center can spend $400,000 to mount a single production. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas spends up to $40,000.

Budget for a really big show at Dallas Hub Theater? $40.

"In most cases, we're actually at zero for the budget," Hub founder and producer Tim Shane says. "New directors will come here and say, 'We need this kind of paint,' and I'll go, 'Do we really need to spend that 15 dollars?'"

The Hub, a two-stage, 100-seat space on Canton Street in Deep Ellum, puts on 25 productions a year and rents its stages for 25 other low-budget shows by fledgling companies such as Level Ground Arts or Upstart Productions. Most major Dallas theaters schedule only six to 10 productions a season. The Hub keeps humming nearly year-round with main-stage shows, late-night comedies, dinner theater parties and the annual Dallas Fringe Festival. Shane recently launched Cyber Fest, an online new play showcase that had playwrights around the globe beaming in readings of their scripts via Skype.

Almost everything the Hub does, it does on the fly. Shane doesn't sell season tickets because he's never sure month to month what shows he'll be able to afford to produce. He routinely recycles scenery and has no shame about begging Theatre Three or the SMU drama department to loan out or donate used costumes. The Hub's actors, some of them high school and college students, work for a small cut of the box office take, typically topping out at about $75 apiece for an entire three-week run. And unlike other theaters, The Hub doesn't allow actors to comp in friends and family for performances. Everybody buys a ticket. This is a no-frills, low-thrills theater that recently turned to Shakespeare (in abbreviated versions) because the scripts come royalty-free and bookings by school groups help fill the coffers.

"We're using the same set for Romeo and Juliet and Othello," Shane says. "Whenever we build something, we try to think of two or three more shows we can use it for."

A Chicago-born former academic, Shane recently took a corporate day job but he spends every night and weekend at his theater. He earns no salary from The Hub, which he opened in 2005 after producin

g low-budget shows in other spaces. "From a business point of view, The Hub doesn't make any sense," he says. "It is a money pit. But I always wanted to be an artistic director, to have full creative control of a theater. I feel like I'm building toward something."

Shane says his inspiration for The Hub came from the book Sam Mendes at the Donmar: Stepping Into Freedom, which chronicles director Mendes' creation of London's now-legendary Donmar Warehouse. Mendes, best known as a filmmaker (American Beauty) and as husband of actress Kate Winslet, walked by a boarded-up building in 1990 and decided it would make a great venue for independent, experimental theater productions. Mendes ran it as artistic director for 10 years, launching new works by Tom Stoppard and other major playwrights and sending numerous shows, including Frost/Nixon and an acclaimed revival of Guys and Dolls, to award-winning runs in London's West End and on Broadway.

So far, The Hub can claim only modest success as an incubator of new talent, mostly by helping to boost other theaters' interest in exciting young Dallas actors. Jeff Swearingen has played a variety of roles in Hub shows, including the lead in Hamlet and the part of Maverick in Top Gun: The Musical. This summer Swearingen starred at the New York International Fringe Fest in The Boxer, a show that started in Dallas, though not at The Hub.

"I do hope The Hub has its day in the sun someday," Swearingen says. "The place has courage and spunk to be holding on this long. If someone truly cares about the Dallas theater scene, institutions like this can't be left to die. I have a lot of admiration for all of the artists who experienced growing pains with The Hub."

Shane says his dream is for his theater to evolve into the Second City of the Southwest. Second City is the Chicago proving ground for comic actors and comedy writers. Among its hundreds of successful showbiz alumni are Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

"Dallas needs a place for artists to develop their craft before they're discovered," Shane says. "That happens in fringe spaces like ours."

First-time playwrights are welcomed at The Hub as long as they're willing to forgo royalties to get scripts on their feet. Writer Charlotte Miller premiered her drama Traumnovela there and then took it to New York and Barcelona."

We can take risks on new shows that theaters that have large budgets can't," Shane says. "We can try and fail miserably and be able to bounce back. The inverse of that is if too many things are failing at the same time here, we're in trouble."

Over the summer, Shane battled a balky air-conditioning system (he finally got one donated). There have been plumbing problems, and during the production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, the building reeked. The source of the odor turned out to be a plate of barbecue someone had wrapped in a towel and left to molder in the hot prop room for a couple of months. "We now have rules in our contracts about cleaning up backstage," Shane says.

Aesthetics are never a high priority at The Hub, whose dreary ambience local critics have compared to an abandoned coal mine and a serial killer's crawlspace. Shane doesn't take offense. "Everything in this theater is a piece of another theater that they were throwing out," he says. The larger stage is from Pocket Sandwich Theatre. There are bits of the defunct Pegasus Theatre in The Hub. The seats came from an old vaudeville house in Virginia, whose owner offered them to Shane for free. Shane made the drive with a rickety trailer, unbolted each seat himself and drove them back to Dallas through blizzard conditions.

The Hub keeps expenses low because its overhead is high: $12,000 a month rent on the 11,000-square-foot building. That's a good deal as Deep Ellum real estate goes, but a lot for a theater getting by on $15 and $20 tickets. "Month by month it's a miracle that we make it," Shane says. "I'm always a nervous wreck, but something always happens to get us where we need to be."

On his wish list: insulation, more a/c and stage lights that don't suck so much power. "On certain light cues, we have to turn the air-conditioning off," he says.

He may be the Rodney Dangerfield of Dallas theater producers, but Tim Shane is determined to make The Hub a theater worthy of respect. Right now, though, he's got roof leaks to patch and rat traps to check. "I always said I wanted to be an artistic director," he says with a heavy sigh. "But now I'm a plumber and a maintenance man most of the time. You can't have an ego at all in this place. I like to say I'm the chief executive artistic producer- abbreviated, that spells out CHEAP." ?Elaine Liner

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