Director Dylan Key on Dallas: 'No One Complains that Theater's Dead Here'

My first swings at arts journalism were articles about Undermain Theatre. A poetry student at Southern Methodist University, I turned my eyes up from my belly button just long enough to attend a few shows and immediately began writing about the exciting new work happening in Deep Ellum's basement theater. I'd encourage you to Google my early writings, but apparently student work expires after a certain, unmentionable number of years. God, I'm getting old.

Speaking of gracefully aging, Undermain turned 30 this year. To celebrate the company did what they do every year: produced three new plays, the last of which by playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury runs through April 19. The youngest person in this story is the 24-year-old Dylan Key, an artistic associate at the company, a University of Dallas graduate, a one-time aspiring lawyer, and the director of the the long-winded show, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.

Key is the first theater artist we chat with in a new series, Five Under 25, which highlights local artists in an age bracket that will almost certainly remind you of your wasted youth. Swallow your self-pity and read on about the show, his love of Rangers baseball, and what the Dallas theater scene is missing.

What got you into theater in the first place? I did theater growing up, like a lot of people do. It became real when I was a senior in college and had just applied to law school, taken the LSAT, had a great internship at a law firm and thought theater was lame. The university forced me to be the props designer on Mackinal in the theater department and we had to make all these antique typewriters work. I'm a big baseball fan so we were listening to the World Series Rangers Giants games on the radio, fixing the props and I began to really fall in love with the theater. So, I didn't go to law school.

That simple? Well, I'd been involved in theater before that, but that was the moment I realized the theater could be my home.

This is your first directing job at Undermain? How did it go? I think it went really well. We'll see how the audience responds, I guess. It's been a great experience; it's been like working with all of my closet friends. This is just another aspect of the relationships that we've already have. The theater has been incredibly supportive.

Is it kind of amazing to be your age directing at a professional theater with a national reputation? This is what I talk about with my friends from out of town, they all say some variation of stay in Dallas. If you end up in New York you're fighting with hundreds of other people your age for a spot at Dixon Place or if you're really lucky, a theater like Undermain. Here there are far more opportunities.

Why do you think that is? I don't want to say it's necessarily a smaller pool here, but it's a smaller community for sure and you're able to touch more people up and down the food chain. Certainly I wouldn't have the opportunity to work with actors like Blake Hackler or Shannon Kearns-Simmons.

It seems like you're especially lucky, because you're still able to work on exciting, new work like you would in New York. There wasn't another show I wanted to direct this year other than this script. It's amazing that I have been able to work on this one. They could've hired bigger names, but I got the job.

How would you describe your process for this show? I suppose it's facilitate all aspects of a production to a bigger vision. Being able to work with artists who have more advanced processes than I do has given this show a more collaborative, cohesive final product. There's a really bad version of We're Proud to Present a Presentation that was in my head last year and it's good that today it's a different, more evolved version than that.

Is the kind of work you want to be doing? I want to do new plays. What Jackie has written is really prescriptive in a way. She's very deliberate about things that need to happen, but she's also articulated a lot of open space that allows the play to grow in a collaborative way. Our terrific ensemble has jumped into the play with us. Politically the play is really commenting on the zeitgeist, it's about cultural appropriation. It feels very young, which of course drew to it. So yes, this is what I'm interested in.

When you started at Undermain years ago, is that what you planned to happen? Well, no I had just graduated from undergrad and I had no idea what was going to happen. I thought I'd be moving to New York quickly. But in the first two weeks, I began working on The Shipment.

What kept you from moving to New York? Obviously my work with Undermain has been a huge factor. When I was in undergrad I didn't see shows in Dallas. I think the scales fell from my eyes as I saw more work around town. I think it continues to happen -- I saw my first show at Stage West a few weeks ago and realized I am still discovering other great pockets of talent. I still need to head to Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth.

What would keep you here longer? It'd be the ability to get more training partially, but I also think Dallas needs stronger recognition and awareness of the national scene. Not just outside people looking at Dallas, but also the opportunity to bring in outside. I wish we had more touring shows, more international shows, I wish we were a stop on the tours of the experimental shows. I'd also need a cache of peer artists.

It seems that there aren't that many young talented, driven people here. There's absolutely room for more. I also think it's a Catch 22, because it's also really exciting that there are these opportunities for young people at large institutions. I wonder what would happen if there weren't these opportunities what would happen to fill that gap. Would people like me have to be out in Dallas creating work?

If you look at the Austin scene as an example, there really was a need to create opportunities so you see young people creating companies in order to create new work or perform what they want to. Right, there aren't as many institutional opportunities there for really anyone, so they had to forge their own path.

You see these young people in Dallas popping up from time to time but then they disappear. I'm sure you've written this review many times about the great, new groundbreaking debut production from insert X theater company. They still pop up from time to time. I think it's a pitfall for young artists to feel immediately the need to create an institution right away instead of just producing a play from time to time. You don't need to create a non-profit, you don't have to have a board, you don't even need to get reviewed. I think you see that attitude in Austin and New York a lot more.

Do you find there's any amount of competition between the old and young artists here? Absolutely not. I've had incredible mentorship here. Starting with Katherine Owens (co- artistic director of Undermain), she's taught me so much about how to function as both a professional artist and administrator. Everyone is friendly and interested even if they don't have advice. They all have an open door policy and want to offer you a spot around the creative table.

What do you think the strengths of the Dallas theater scene are? There's the boring stuff like low cost of living, lots of day jobs. The exciting stuff for me is the access I have to all levels of theater professionals. I think Dallas is a city that really believes in institutions and building things. It's exciting that we have female artistic directors leading those institutions and doing new stuff. It's a great cross between what the strengths of the city and the strengths of the artists here. There's such optimism for what can happen here, both in the arts and in the corporate world. No one complains that theater is dead here.

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Lauren Smart
Contact: Lauren Smart