In Dallas, Women Run the Theater Scene

When Margo Jones opened a Dallas theater she wanted to establish a theater community outside of New York. Jones created much of what would become the regional theater model — theater that existed within a city’s own community and reflected its identity without just regurgitating Broadway hits. Jones wanted theater that changed and grew with time. What began as “Theatre '47” changed its name with each passing year until her death in 1955.

She changed Dallas and the art changed her — it inadvertently killed her, actually.  In some regard, she likely would have wanted it that way. Jones was responsible for debuting some of the greatest American playwrights right here in Dallas. A young William Inge got his start here, and Dallas saw the world premiere of Inherit the Wind thanks to Jones.

The Dallas theater scene was founded by a woman. And since her death that tradition of female involvement continues. Dallas is home to an impressive number of female artistic directors who continue to take risks to create a sustainable home for the theater artists that live here. In a time when gender equity is discussed ad nauseam, these smart ladies are living by example. Some, like Echo Theatre, produce only works written by female playwrights. Others produce seasons with fair distribution of both male and female writers. One thing they all share is an intense drive to create change. Many of them have been around long enough to remember a Dallas that’s nothing like it is today. What they see is a vision for its future, which includes bigger growth and a sustainable home for the mid-size theaters most of them manage. They create the ecosystem that supports and is supported by the city's only League of Resident Theatres member, Dallas Theater Center (a classification that signals things like professionalism, budget and size), which Kevin Moriarty runs. Of course, a town of Dallas’ size with this many theater companies should have more than one large theater. Most serious theater cities have two.

A common argument when the issue of “gender equality” comes up is that it’s just as hard for men to make a living and find jobs in the arts world as women — and this is true. It’s a competitive market. But when it comes to women in leadership roles those jobs are often harder to come by. Statistically the number of women running theater companies is far lower than men. Perhaps this is born out of a notion that women in leadership roles will only produce work by women and for women — and this is simply not true. What the women in Dallas prove is that they’re just as capable as their male counterparts at producing work that’s inclusive of all kinds of people.

Terri Ferguson, artistic director of Echo Theatre, says a common response after Echo productions is surprise that the show wasn’t about a feminist cause.

“I get amused when people — and I have to admit that it’s mostly men, but not always — come up to me after their first Echo production and exclaim that it was not what they expected," says Ferguson. "People often expect Echo Theatre to produce work with a strong feminist bent since we produce work written by women. In fact, we do sometimes present that point of view. But what we’re really all about is just giving women the chance to have their voices heard. And we’ve proven over and over that women can write just as well as men.”

Echo is one of the many theaters in Dallas/Fort Worth proving that women hiring women won't just create theater for women. These ladies know well the challenges that come with producing a full season.

Katherine Owens, artistic director of Undermain Theatre, says the Dallas arts community that exists now is unrecognizable from the one that existed in the '80s and '90s when Undermain was brand new. Owens started Undermain in 1984 with a group of other artists and actors, including Raphael Parry and current Undermain producer Bruce DeBose. Using Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, among others, as a model, the group set out to create something progressive and collectively based. The group wanted to create experimental work together, and to grow their theater with each other. Funding was nearly impossible to get for a theater seeking to do more off-the-wall work.

“We would go down to City Council meetings and beg them not to cut more funding for the arts," says Owens. "Part of that is on us — we knew nothing about fundraising at the time. But there was not any thinking about arts as part of the ecosystem.”

Owens recalls a pledge from the National Endowment for the Arts that asked theaters not to produce works with any gay characters in them. It didn’t just include gay characters, though. In 1990 the NEA asked theaters not to produce any works that could be deemed obscene or blasphemous. For a theater like Undermain this created even greater challenges.

“It’s not like anyone came and took us to jail," she explains. "We still did what we wanted to do. But other artists and theaters around the country took enormous risks.”

Owens feels much of this changed around 2007.

“Annette Strauss was vital to the pro-arts movement in Dallas. We now have a pro-arts mayor," says Owens. "The philanthropy in this town is incredibly generous. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

She recalls a TACA luncheon around 2007 that set the tone of change for her.

“During the prayer the minister included the artists," she recalls. "I had never heard anything like that before. For the first time it felt like something was changing. That we were a part of the conversation.”

Despite this change Owens feels like it’s harder now.

“Expectations get higher. The environment changes. Theater as art changes," she says. "We now try to curate a season around a thematic idea or a philosophy. But we also have access to collaborators we never could have imagined. The world enlarges and you try to do better all the time. Theater as an institution is now part of your work.”

And with the changes comes a scope for a greater Dallas that nurtures theaters like Undermain into something bigger and more representative of the city.

“[Playwright] Len Jenkin called Dallas a ‘Great American City.’ I think that’s true. We have a great cultural life and diversity. Those are reasons to visit," she says. "But we need to better represent our mid-size theaters. When the Dallas Arts District was built there was an idea to build a venue that the theaters we consider to be smaller could use for our shows. In truth, we aren’t small. There is a great need for a 200 seat house — for space to grow these mid-size theaters. It’s not practical for Undermain to be in a large house, but we are a group that needs nourishment. These are diverse groups that produce great works. These artists should be able to make a living doing this work. The institutional funding in Dallas is so generous. We need to focus on how to grow these 'smaller' theaters to an appropriate size. This gives them agility and freedom.”

Owens is not alone in this idea. Tina Parker, artistic director of Kitchen Dog Theatre, is another Dallas theater matriarch. She’s been around to see these same changes and sees a similar vision for the future of Dallas.

“Dallas has a lot of the key components in place to have a robust arts ecology — akin to a Chicago or Washington D.C. or Minneapolis.  We have artists and companies — both young and established — with a variety of aesthetics, taking artistic risks and making diverse, dynamic work in both traditional and nontraditional ways and/or spaces," Parker says. "What we need to become the city Margo Jones always dreamed about is the infrastructure to actively and truly support it."

By infrastructure, Parker explains she means diversified financial support. Big corporations, for example. She suggested the lack of a Dallas-based foundation like the MacArthur, McKnight or Jerome foundations. Theaters in other cities of a variety of budgets seize receive support from a host of corporate donors, she explains. Lately, Parker also has been frustrated by the lack of viable, accessible, affordable spaces to showcase art.

"This was recently amplified for me personally when Kitchen Dog's 20-year home went away and we began the hunt for a viable spot for season 25," she says. "The few that exist that are affordable in Dallas with some semblance of some of the resources needed — lighting sound equip, working toilets, not kidding on that — book up quickly. It's hard enough to book one in a spot much less an entire season of work, and keep an active audience base when you are constantly having to move around. In my opinion, the stability that come with having a home base enables an enhanced ability to take risks as both an individual artist and as a company. Live the nomad lifestyle too long and slowly but surely these artists will keep on moving  — right out of Dallas to vistas more hospitable."

Kitchen Dog has been a Dallas staple for 25 years and are currently still living the nomad life. Parker answered questions for this interview while dealing with a crisis that sent the production of I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard to another theater for one night due to an emergency.

Ferguson was in the middle of a leaking roof emergency during load-in for a show as well.

“I think the biggest challenge in Dallas is finding good performance space. There is a lot of 'create your own space' theater happening out there, but when you’ve got a full season planned, it’s hard to completely create a performance space over and over. Echo is extremely lucky that the Bath House Cultural Center allows us to do the majority of our shows there. We are partnering with Fair Park for our current production of Temple Spirit," she says. "There have been some challenges, like the leaky roof that took me away from answering these questions for you; but overall we’ve had a great experience out there. Echo Theatre would be happy to find more options to produce in a 100-150 seat venue, but there just aren’t enough fully functional, affordable theaters of that size around in Dallas."

Susan Sargeant, artistic director of Wingspan Theatre Co., got her start in Dallas theater in the early 1990s. Now in its 19th season, Wingspan produces many works by female playwrights. Wingspan also created the Festival of Independent Theaters, which plays at Bath House each summer. Sargeant knows well the commitment and time that goes into running a theater company. She’s in awe of the ladies in Dallas she calls colleagues.

“The best thing I ever did for myself artistically was spread my wings and fly my own course. I am very proud of what WingSpan Theatre Company has contributed to the Dallas/Fort Worth live theater landscape," says Sargeant. "It is challenging at times to be the pilot of your own venture. However, this is also the ticket to artistic freedom. You get to invest in plays that you feel passionate about. I have a deep respect for my fellow female artistic directors in Dallas/Fort Worth. I continue to be inspired by theaters and other arts organizations helmed by women.”

Tina Parker shares the sentiment.

“I think Dallas is actually ahead of the national curve with women leaders heading up quite a few of the arts organizations here. I also think a lot of the movers and shakers who are making things happen in Dallas are women as well," says Parker. "There's that bumper sticker that says, 'Don't mess with Texas women" — that holds true for myself and my Dallas arts sisters. Less BS and posturing; more compassion and commitment. Sometimes probably at the expense of our personal lives."

It's not just these women holding it down either, check out this list of women running theater companies in Dallas - Fort Worth:

Undermain Theatre: Katherine Owens
Kitchen Dog Theater: Tina Parker 
Echo Theatre: Terri Ferguson
Dallas Children’s Theatre: artistic director Robyn Flatt
Teatro Dallas: Cora Cardona
Dallas Comedy House: Amanda Austin — founder and AD
Wingspan Theatre Company: Susan Sargeant
Fun House Theatre and Film: Bren Rapp
Sundown Collaborative: Mandy Rausch, Chloe McDowell
Proper Hijinx: Stefany Cambra
Contemporary Theater of Dallas: Sue Loncar (Miki Bone is executive director)
Brick Road Productions: Linda Leonard
Genesis Children's Theater: Megan Demsky
The Drama Club: Lydia Mackay is part of the leadership 
Risk Theater Initiative: Marianne Galloway
Teco Theatrical Productions: Teresa Coleman Wash
One Thirty Productions
Soul Rep: Guinea Bennett-Price
Shakespeare in the Bar: Katherine Bourne
The Tribe: Katherine Bourne, Janielle Kastner are part of leadership

Out in Fort Worth there's:
Circle Theatre: Rose Pearson
Amphibian Stage Productions: Kathleen Culebro
Stage West: Dana Schultes

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Katy Lemieux is a Dallas-based writer covering theater and the arts. She is a mother to two beautiful human children and three beautiful animal children. She has been published in Esquire Magazine, Texas Monthly, D Magazine, TheaterJones, American Theatre Magazine and most notably The Senior Voice.