If you want to start a hullabaloo in the Dallas arts, tell a theater festival it might be time for a curtain call. That's what our theater critic Elaine Liner wrote last year about the Festival of Independent Theatres, the annual event at the Bath House Cultural Center meant to highlight small, off-beat Dallas companies. Liner didn't mince her words, describing the year's line-up as, "plays designed to make you hate theater," and suggested that maybe it was played out. The festival's managing director, David Meglino, says he approached the mini firestorm with an open mind. He shared the article on FIT's Facebook page with the comment, "In which Elaine Liner suggests that we be put out of our misery. Do you agree? We welcome your thoughts on the matter." Some artists threw the equivalent of a temper tantrum; others started a thoughtful dialogue. A dialogue that Meglino believes paid off. The line-up for the 17th festival, which opens July 10, might be the strongest defense for FIT's continued existence.
"This year we came into the process with a freshness. We were having great discussions, and people were talking about us in a new way," says Meglino, who notes they had a boost in submissions for this year's festival. "In each of the eight shows we chose you'll see a different idea of what theater is."
SC Dallas uses techniques of stage combat, like swordplay and fight choreography, to piece together Renaissance Fighters, an epic love story; the Circus Freaks use the tradition of magic and illusions in Playthings to vivify the story of a toy maker who wants to bring his creations to life; and in DGDG's The Show About Men, experimental choreographer Danielle Georgiou uses a cast of male dancers and a theatrical narrative to explore gender roles. These less traditional companies follow in the click-clacking footsteps of Rhythmic Souls, the tap dancers who were the first dance company on a FIT line-up just two years ago.
In other spots, the festival looks a bit more like previous years, with familiar companies like Upstart Productions, which produces a one-man show, Sick F**k, starring local favorite Joey Folsom. WingSpan Theatre Company, which has participated every year of the festival, usually with short plays by classic playwrights, steps out with something different in Shoe Confessions, a storytelling show about real-life women and the lives they live in their shoes.
This combination of young and established companies keeps FIT interesting, or at least it's meant to. In a city with a healthy theater scene, the number of festivals constantly rises and falls at a dribbling pace. FIT, along with WaterTower Theatre's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival and Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival, are the only festivals to survive more than a decade. Each of them takes on very different roles. In Meglino's eyes, FIT is meant to be the risk taker, the festival that reads every submission with an open mind. This is what places go-to Dallas actors like Folsom on the same stage as the young cast in CrossOver Arts Theatre Company's Dangerous Things on Dark Nights, all of whom attend Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
"Every year, we try to pick the plays with the most potential. Each show has the potential with the right cast, the right actors, the right director to have that magic, but there's also the risk the shows won't quite get there," Meglino says. It's one of the reasons for the way they pair shows together. Each time slot at the festival includes two sub-hour shows back to back. If you come for some stage combat, you might also get a a ghost-narrated, musical love story about two scientists in The In-Laws' Decline of Ballooning. And every Saturday night, you're invited to stick around for FIT Underground, a casual late-night party. "We think we've got something that works," says Meglino. "But we're always looking for ways to do something new."
Festival of Independent Theatres opens Friday, July 10 and runs through August 1 at the Bath House Cultural Center. Single tickets are $18; festival passes start at $60. For the full line-up and more information visit festivalofindependenttheatres.org.