Meet the 2016 Dallas Observer Masterminds

Nowhere is the spirit of Dallas more alive than in its artists. Their cultural brain power and unstoppable ambition bring us new events and festivals, revitalize neighborhoods, reflect on our blunders and offer us things to take pride in. Our artists challenge the status quo of theater, film, visual art and dance, and by doing so, chart the city’s destiny. Every year, the Dallas Observer pauses to salute the voyagers exploring strange new artistic worlds. With the annual Mastermind Awards, we offer a $2,000 check to aid these artists, organizations and art collectives. Many were deserving of the honor, and choosing just three was a nearly impossible assignment for our selection committee of previous winners and established writers and artists. Allow us to introduce you to our 2016 Dallas Observer Masterminds, the artists at the forefront of the city’s expedition into a more creative future.

Man on the Edge: Michael Morris
Michael Morris arrives at Mudsmith with a film canister under his arm. In it, his ongoing project, Blue Movie, featuring the legendary Dallas stripper Candy Barr. The name carries a double meaning as the pornographic footage is processed as a cyanotype film, which removes the silver chemistry from the 16mm film and renders the color a rich blue. He showed the first version of it in 2012 at Oliver Francis Gallery on a loop as part of It’s Just Meant to Be — his only solo exhibition in Dallas to date — but he’s hoping to transfer it to film so he can submit it to festivals.

Morris explains all of this before he’s taken the first sip of his black coffee, which he notes is wildly overpriced. He’s been described in publications, including the Observer, as one of the city’s hardest working artists. Glasstire described him as “tireless;” D Magazine said, “there’s hardly an avant-garde media scene without Morris.”

He’s a Dallas native, and his first artistic outlets were poetry and performing in hardcore and punk bands in the suburbs. He wandered into the world of video art while attending Richland College in the mid-’90s. Originally, he entered the multimedia department thinking he’d study sound production. But when he took a video class he was intrigued. That fixation deepened when he attended University of North Texas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film and discovered the films of medium-pushing artists like Kenneth Anger and Barbara Hammer.

These pioneers of experimental video art created new visual languages, using the moving image to shed light on women’s issues and homosexuality. Drawn to their poetic use of the medium, Morris felt he had found direction for his own practice.

He returned to Dallas in 2010 after earning an MFA in Moving Image from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He wanted to bring some of the energy from the robust new media scene there back with him, so he began planning events and screenings. His message has been welcomed. “Mike is one of the most fearless and intelligent artists and individuals I know,” says Danielle Avram, a Dallas-based writer and curator. “He routinely works under the radar, without pomp or posturing, and genuinely does his best to up the level of artistic discourse in Dallas.”

Morris participated in Avram’s educational classes on video art, “Four Nights, Four Decades,” and started a short-lived, under-attended screening series, “Contemplative Cinema.”

Eventually he joined forces with the Video Association of Dallas, working closely with Dallas VideoFest, for which he’s now a curator of experimental programming. Last year he helped launch Dallas Medianale, a video art festival and exhibition at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary.

“We have good festivals and events that come up periodically that are great for video art or new media art,” Morris says. “But not consistent programming, especially programming in a theatrical setting, which is something I’m dedicated to.”

Morris uses deeply personal material for his work, relying on aspects of his upbringing in the Bible Belt to explore subjects ranging from religion to the failings of memory and language, all the while seeking to create a proper tension between the video’s aesthetics and its content.

When it comes to material, he uses equipment that even other filmmakers evolved out of years ago. (When Kodak announced the revival of the Super 8 camera, Morris was one of those celebrating.) Like many artists, he finds himself often just as attracted to the tools as to the work itself. “I’m interested in intensely subjective storytelling, films that have intense meditation, [are] discursive, text heavy, a little bit theoretical but also emotionally potent,” says Morris. “But I also just totally love geeking out over ways of making film.”

This year, once he has Blue Movie on film, Morris hopes to find time to buckle down and work on a single, larger project. But it’s unlikely he’ll allow himself any downtime, as not a month goes by without Morris’ name attached to a new project or group exhibition. An old adage says “work expands to fill the time allotted,” but Morris doesn’t have any time to waste.

The Scrappers: The Tribe

Early last year, Janielle Kastner had a script sitting on her laptop. She’d finished a play during the Dallas Playwrights’ Workshop at the Dallas Theater Center, but didn’t have a next step. Kastner consistently worked as an actress, but she felt lost when it came to developing and producing her own writing. She wanted to see her play on stage to find out if the design elements she’d imagined could work. After a performance of Uncle Vanya, she bemoaned her frustrations to the director, Dylan Key, and castmates Katherine Bourne and David Price. That’s when inspiration struck.

“I think it came down to having tremendous faith in each other’s work,” says Kastner. “And I thought, ‘I want to see the script on your desktop. If you’re not going to ask someone to [produce] it, I’ll ask.’”

Better yet, they could do it all themselves.

The name they chose for their group, The Tribe, speaks to this go-it-alone attitude. They serve as each other’s producers, directors, cheerleaders or whatever else is needed. The circle includes playwright/actors Brigham Mosley and Ruben Carrazana. Each month The Tribe focus on a different artist’s work — sometimes an official member, sometimes an outside talent. They provide whatever the artist requires to make his or her vision a production-ready reality, whether it be a stage to workshop a new play, actors to go over early versions of scripts or designers to visualize the work. They tend to adopt young artists with riskier aesthetics.

“The impulse was for gnarlier work,” says Mosley, who wrote and performed cabaret and one-man shows in New York City. “We wanted to offer a space for work that doesn’t fit into any of the existing festivals in Dallas, work that’s more ambiguous.”

Their first project was to give Kastner’s play, Ophelia Underwater, a design run. She first collaborated with two artists on costume and scenic design to see if her ambitious ideas for a contemporary rendering of Shakespeare’s tragic character would work on stage. With that they were off and running. The group recruited a cast for a reading of Mosley’s play Widows to hear if the words made sense spoken by older female actresses — an age bracket not readily available in his social circles. They found a project space for Key and Bourne’s devised work, Dallas, Etc., during which they led an audience through the streets of Deep Ellum.

The Tribe exist to create an opportunity that didn’t exist for what Kastner describes as “young, orphaned artists.” Methodically, they began adopting artists outside the group, sometimes in large ways and other times allowing writers and performers the chance to develop characters or ideas in experimental cabarets. “There are so many people who want to put work out there when you have to do it alone,” says Carrazana. “To pass that on to six people who can reach out to people and do all that technical stuff allows the artist to focus on the work.”

“I think Dallas is fraught with all the growing pains that cities have,” says Key. “But I feel like it’s flexible enough that we as artists, we have a real vocation here and can effect change in a particular way that we can’t in other cities.”

Although they operate outside of the standard theatrical system in Dallas, they don’t project a rebellious attitude. Kastner describes them as the “student council” of the theater community, operating under principles of inclusion, creation and building a better city. “We all stayed in Dallas for various reasons,” says Bourne, who returned to the city after interning in Chicago. “I think we wanted to see what we could do with this ball of clay and it’s great to see how hungry the community is for art.”

Currently most of The Tribe events are invited audiences of peers and mentors, because of the nature of the developing work. Plans for 2016 include productions of Kastner’s Ophelia Underwater, Carrazana's Stacy Has a Thing for Black Guys, Bourne and Mosley's LIL', a new play by Claire Carson, a solo performance salon and another cabaret.

“Everyone’s hope is that The Tribe will grow into something a little less scrappy,” says Price. “We want to grow as the quality of the artists grows. The idea is to be an incubator for people, so hopefully the writers will improve and then we’ll grow too.”

The Opportunity Maker: Teresa Coleman Wash

Teresa Coleman Wash wrote her first play on a dare. Friends of hers were throwing a Christmas party and placed her in charge of the entertainment with just a few days’ notice. Playwriting had never crossed her mind, until suddenly she didn’t have a choice.

“I wrote a little skit for that night,” says Wash. “But in 18 months I developed that into a full-length play, and before I knew it I was partnering with some people to tour The Test of Time throughout the southwest part of Georgia. And I thought, ‘I want to do this again.’”

She was living in Atlanta when she launched TeCo Theatrical Productions in 1993 for what she describes as selfish reasons. She just wanted a place to produce her own work, all the while working a day job. The theater company Wash was running filled a gap in the community. She was interested in new voices, especially writers engaged in socially conscious topics. When she married in 2000, she agreed to move to Dallas on one condition: She wanted to run the Texas-based TeCo full time.

The first place the company landed in Texas was at the Hall of State in Fair Park. Wash continued her focus on fresh work, founded an annual new play competition and launched educational youth programs. She also recruited a board, whose support has been integral to the growth of the company.

In 2005, one of her board members gifted the company a dilapidated photography studio in Oak Cliff to use as the company’s permanent home. They raised half a million dollars to renovate the space into the Bishop Arts Theatre Center. They neared completion in early 2008 when suddenly funding for the arts screeched to a halt. Those foundations and donors in Dallas who were still investing turned much of their attention to the Arts District, where the performing arts center was under construction. Wash says TeCo had to get smart.

“What that period did for me was force me to think outside of the box,” Wash says. “We had to deeply engage our community. We started a jazz series and a youth summer camp program, two of our most successful programs today.”

For nearly 25 years, Wash has run TeCo with this open-minded, community-driven spirit, but in the last few years she’s become interested in seeing the theater effect change. When submissions to the new play competition became increasingly focused on LGBT issues, she launched the PlayPride Festival three years ago to better serve the playwrights. Last year, national attention turned toward the gender disparity in the production of female playwrights, so Wash took stock of her own billings. This year, the company launches the Down for the Count festival, dedicated to female playwrights.

Years ago, Wash’s name would’ve been top of the list for a festival like this, but she doesn’t have time to write her own plays anymore. “What I do now is create opportunities for other artists,” says Wash. “One of the reasons TeCo has been so successful is that it’s not about me anymore, but it’s about creating a space where artists from all backgrounds can come and have their voices heard.”

Celebrate our 2016 Masterminds at Dallas Observer's Artopia Saturday, January 16. 
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Lauren Smart
Contact: Lauren Smart