100 Dallas Creatives: No. 54 Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens

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Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. Know an artistic mind who deserves a little bit of blog love? Email lauren.smart@dallasobserver.com with the whos and whys. Katherine Owens has made her mark on Dallas as founder and artistic director of the critically acclaimed Undermain Theatre in Deep Ellum, the culmination of a lifelong passion for the arts. This passion began when Owens was a girl growing up in Odessa, Texas, where her father encouraged her creatively.

"My father was a big reader and lover of painting and music, particularly opera," she says. "Where I grew up, that was a little bit unusual. At first I wanted to be a painter. He tutored me and helped me to recognize the styles and names of the paintings. I always drew. It was something that you could do in a private world of your own, which seemed logical in Odessa."

However, by the time she was twelve, her interest in the arts had drifted to the stage. Owens saw Life with Father at the The Permian Playhouse and her dedication to a life in the theater began.

"It was so captivating to me," she says. "The theater just seemed like the only place to be." Soon after, she started working at Odessa's very own replica of the Globe Theatre. "If you could catch a ride down there, they'd put you to work," she says. "I started working there as a spear carrier, dresser and assistant director."

After college at UT Austin and a residency at a Shakespeare festival in Oklahoma, Owens moved to Dallas where she and Raphael Parry founded Undermain Theatre in 1984. "Dallas was really starting to see itself as a theater town, so I moved here," she says. At first, Owens was concerned that Dallas might be too conservative for her taste, but in time she found Dallas theater goers to be incredibly receptive to the brand of edgy, experimental theater she was interested in producing.

"People in Dallas are very open," she says. "You can do what you want. You don't have to fight a lot of orthodoxies." Undermain just entered season 31, and in that time Owens has never been forced to compromise her artistic values out of fear that Dallas audiences wouldn't appreciate them. "We've absolutely produced what we've found interesting," she says. "It's a commitment that Undermain has made to itself, to make things for specific philosophical and artistic reasons. The creative community in Dallas is incredibly vibrant and enthusiastic. Texas character plus rigor in the arts is a great combination."

Owens attributes part of Undermain's success to its home in the creative hub of Deep Ellum. "We're surrounded by the most incredible community of artists," she says. Many of the people she met in Undermain's early days have played an integral role in shaping the theater as it has matured. Bruce Dubose, who has been acting with Undermain since shortly after its inception, is someone Owens describes as her "creative partner."

"I rely completely on Bruce," she says.

Reflecting on her career, Owens hesitates to isolate a proudest moment or achievement. Productions of Goose and Tomtom by David Rabe, Neil Young's Greendale and Port Twilight by Len Jenkins all earn mentions, but every production occupies a special place in her heart. "There are so many turning points, " she says. "Every play is a kind of turning point. You become completely absorbed. To work on a play is to have a little romance."

Undermain's current production is a sci-fi piece called Tomorrow Comes Today, by playwright Gordon Dahlquist. "It's a very challenging play but to me it's about something important which is climate change, extinctions, the rise of technology and how we know one another when technology is the norm," she says. Owens touches on the marches for climate change that recently took place in Washington DC and New York. She feels a responsibility to offer important political causes a platform. "I think getting these issues on stage is very important because things like climate change will probably be the issue of our times."

See also: Body-Hopping, Science Fiction and Avocados: Gordon Dahlquist on Tomorrow Come Today

Undermain has added a show to its season this year, a reflection of the growth that the theater has experienced and the renaissance that the Dallas art scene in general has continued to enjoy. "In the last eight years we went from a small to a solid mid-size theater and we're now getting national caliber casts for most of our shows," she says. "One of our authors, Len Jenkin, called Dallas a great American city and I think that's so true. It's like Chicago or New York. Why wouldn't you stop here?"

From Owens' perspective, the greatest benefit of this growth period is the opportunity to support fellow artists. "It's pretty awesome to know that we're sustaining the lives of several Dallas artists," she says. "People can pay their mortgage because of Undermain. That's extremely rewarding."

100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick

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