In 1958, with the new Kalita Humphreys Theater rising on the east bank of Turtle Creek, architect Frank Lloyd Wright made a prediction about his then-ultra-modern edifice: "One day this will mark the spot where Dallas once stood."
Audacious, perhaps, but an interesting observation about the often underappreciated significance of the performing arts in big-city history.
Half a century from now, Wright's poured-concrete marvel may be as dusty and forgotten as Margo Jones' once-revolutionary theater-in-the-round in Fair Park (still there, but seldom used since Jones' death in 1955). In 2009 the Dallas Theater Center company moves out of Kalita, where it has produced shows since 1959, and into the new $60 million Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre at the Dallas Center for Performing Arts downtown.
Dallas theater, it seems, always has reflected a tendency of status-seeking audiences and benefactors to equate great art with how impressive the building is around it, the shinier and newer the better.
By 2058, however, the Wyly, designed by international architecture star Rem Koolhaas, will be the same age as Wright's Kalitais now. And what arebeing touted now as the Wyly's whizbangtechnical gewgaws (computerized lighting!) and "cutting-edge" theatrical design features (hydraulic rows of seats!) could be as old-fashioned as gas footlights and trapdoors were when Wright planned Kalita Humphreys.
One thing's for certain, though: Whatever the year, whatever the venue, people will still gather to hear live actors and probably not wispy holograms speak lines from Medea, Hamlet, Our Town and A Christmas Carol. These are the "classics." Year after year, decade after decade, these plays never seem to go away (no matter how much some critics and theatergoers wish they would).
Live theater has lived on through the millennia with only the occasional blackout. In ancient Rome, the government shut down theaters, calling them centers of politically subversive thought. That ban lasted more than 1,700 years, well into the Christian era. The Renaissance stirred the arts back to life, and it's been the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd ever since.
Art can be a fragile thing. But even in the worst of modern times, American theater has flourished. After 9/11, large regional theaters such as Dallas Theater Center struggled to survive as corporate donations and individual ticket sales shrank. But actors need to act and playwrights didn't stop typing new plays. So in Dallas and around the country, new, small theater companies popped up, performing in community centers, public libraries, art galleries and other low-overhead acting spaces. In Dallas it's possible to see up to five new productions every week of the year, produced by more than 60 active theater companies on stages as large as the Music Hall at Fair Park and as tiny as the basement-level Theatre Too. From splashy Broadway musical road companies to tour de force one-man shows at the Festival of Independent Theatres, the range of talent currently treading local boards is impressive and encouraging.
That bodes well for the future of the arts here, say theater directors. "In 50 years, I'd love to have a theater community in Dallas not unlike Chicago's or Seattle's," says director René Moreno, who has staged shows at Contemporary Theatre, Theatre Three, Uptown Players and Dallas Theater Center. "I'd love for this to be a place where artists can come and put roots down and really grow and do great work. Maybe have several big Equity houses, not in competition with each other, but with different points of views and different goals. I would hope that by the time we get to 50 years from now, we have several organizations as big as Dallas Theater Center." (DTC is the second-largest League of Resident Theatres member company in Texas, behind Houston's Alley Theatre.)
Technological improvements aside—maybe someday someone will invent a microphone pack that doesn't short out on opening night—theater will always be about audiences sharing space with living, breathing actors.
"I hope it never stops being that," says director Cheryl Denson, who's worked in Dallas theater more than 30 years. "The excitement of theater has always been in human beings responding to each other without being manipulated by technology."
Moreno says he'd like to see theater production get simpler, less dependent on technology and special effects. "There's nothing like being in a theater with live actors onstage. It's a need people have in their community," he says. "Technology won't kill theater any more than movies killed theater. In the end what theater is about is storytelling. It goes back to people sitting around a campfire and someone telling a story that could perhaps change someone else's life. That's what it was, is and will always be." Elaine Liner