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The Festival of Indie Theatres Starts Tonight. Here's Your Survival Guide.

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The monthlong Festival of Independent Theatres, redundantly nicknamed FITfest, opens at the Bath House Cultural Center this weekend. Eight plays, each shorter than an hour, are performed in rotating repertory, Thursdays through Saturdays, over the next four weekends (July 13-August 4).

It's the fourteenth annual FIT, sponsored this year by the Performing Arts Initiative and the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs. Next summer's FITfest will be held in a month earlier, in June, to coincide with the national conference of the Theatre Communications Group, which will bring 1500 theatrical artists, administrators and board members from around the country to Dallas.

Created in 1999 to give smaller companies without their own permanent performance spaces a chance to produce and perform new work, and blend their audiences, FIT has launched some impressive talent. Director-playwright Matt Lyle's comic silent-film-onstage The Boxer started there and went on to major productions at Dallas Children's Theater and elsewhere. Eric Steele's one-man play Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self, starring Barry Nash, debuted at FIT last summer, was then produced as one third of Steele's Midwest Trilogy at Second Thought Theatre this year and has just been made into a independent film starring Nash.

FIT is always a source of surprising work from unexpected sources. One of last summer's best entries was the world premiere of a romantic musical featuring puppet shellfish (The Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef by Robert Askins). Another critical and audience favorite was One Thirty Productions' revival of Tennessee Williams' tragic Madness of Lady Bright, showcasing a jarringly emotional performance by veteran actor Larry Randolph. That one will be revived with Randolph again in the title role, directed by Morgana Shaw, for Uptown Players' Pride Fest in September.

All the shows at the Festival of Independent Theatres are produced for between $500 and $2000. Tickets are a bargain, with festival passes -- $60 for two weekends of shows and $70 for all four weekends - the best way to see the most plays on the packed schedule. There are also music and comedy performances in late-night slots in the FIT Underground (the open-sided basement space below the Bath House, overlooking White Rock Lake).

So what shows are getting advance buzz for this summer's FITfest? We asked managing director David Meglino to tout his picks as potential fest faves:

NYC Coyote Existential, written by and starring Melissa Cooper, is high on Meglino's list of must-sees among the comedies. It's an Echo Theatre production, directed by Pam Myers-Morgan, with music by Thomas Cabaniss. In it, a woman and a coyote meet in Central Park, launching a mysterious connection, with inter-species dialogue. It's based, says the playwright, on a true story. Also starring Rhonda Blair, Xander Ferguson, Hallie Davidson, Casey Myers-Morgan and Cody Samples. (Opens at 8 p.m., Friday, July 20.)

My Name Is Rachel Corrie, produced by Rite of Passage Theatre Company and directed by Clay Wheeler, stars Dallas actress Barrett Nash (daughter of Bob Birdnow star Barry) in the one-woman play adapted by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner from the diaries and email messages of its title character. She was a 23-year-old American, killed in March 2003 by an Israeli Army bulldozer while she was protesting the razing of a home in the Gaza Strip. First performed in London in 2005, the piece has been laden with controversy ever since. Says Meglino, "I think Barrett Nash is a compelling actress for this one-woman piece." (Opens paired with the Echo show on Friday, July 20.)

Edward Albee's Counting the Ways is the latest in a series of Albees directed by Wingspan Theatre Company's Susan Sargeant. "Nobody does Albee better than Susan," says Meglino. "And this one sparkles." The two-person cast features two strong longtime Dallas actors, Lulu Ward and Adrian Churchill. (Opens at 8 p.m., Saturday, July 14.)

I Met You and I Screamed is a world premiere of a multi-media piece -- live theater, modern dance, music, photography - created by Ochre House Theatre heartthrob Justin Locklear. He's also directing the production starring Cindee Mayfield-Dobbs, Cassie Bann, Stefan Gonzalez, Danielle Georgiou and Mitchell Parrack (another Ochre House regular). This Upstart Productions effort "features a little collection of hot young things," says Meglino, "and an interesting drummer." (Opens 8 p.m., Saturday, July 21).

The full schedule of the Festival of Independent Theatres lays out how the shows are paired in two-hour blocks and when they're performed. For tickets, festivalofindependenttheatres.org or call 800-617-6904. (There is no 2 p.m. performance on Saturday, July 14.)

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