If you're looking for a cozy spot to lay down the blanket, pop a bottle of champagne and enjoy a picnic under the stars, Denton's Courthouse-on-the-Square is the place to be. Thanks to Denton's open container law, you can get your buzz on while nibbling homemade finger sandwiches or take-out from any of the handful of restaurants surrounding the central lawn. What makes the courthouse lawn the ideal spot for a romantic dinner or fun night out with the kids isn't just the outdoor summer movie screenings or beautifully lit trees, but also the bustling nightlife on the square with live music within earshot almost every night of the week.

Alex Organ rarely takes a breath from his liberal rant in Second Thought Theatre's production of playwright Blake Hackler's Enemies/People. Texas playwright Hackler cleverly takes Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People and moves it to a small town in present-day Texas where two brothers are on opposite sides in a dispute about contaminated water and its effect on a potentially profitable business deal. Hackler then ramps up the speed and volume to such a degree that it is nearly impossible to imagine that Organ could maintain that intensity night after night. Kara-Lynn Vaeni provided smart direction to a superior ensemble cast that included Dallas favorites Christie Vela, Gregory Lush and Allison Pistorius as well as delightful newcomers Jovane Caamaño and Sasha Maya Ada. In the end Hackler treats the audience to an especially funny scene using the original Ibsen script. "Enemies/People" asks tough questions about everything from guns to fracking and considers how to effect change in the world from the comfort of an expensive chair.

Associate Artistic Director Jenni Stewart made her directing debut at Shakespeare Dallas in their production of The Taming of the Shrew, a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that centers on one man's efforts to control his woman. The well-cast production got plenty of laughs, but Stewart avoided the temptation to take the low road. She made the decision to update the setting to the suffragette era, when women were fighting for the right to vote. Stewart took the word obedience and imbued it with new meaning that related to the marriage contract itself rather than a wife's subservience to her husband. Stewart proved to be up to the challenge and took what is typically presented as a misogynistic story and made it palatable to a modern audience without changing a word. No easy task in this #MeToo moment.

Bread
courtesy WaterTower Theatre
Bread

Addison's WaterTower Theatre made bold changes in 2017 and 2018 when they set out to attract a younger and more diverse audience. When their long-time director left, WaterTower brought in Joanie Schultz as artistic director, and she immediately set to work. Shultz ditched a previously announced production of Sunday in the Park With George and replaced it with a new play by Chicago playwright Ike Holter, Hit the Wall, about the Stonewall Riots. In spring 2018 WaterTower staged the world premiere of Regina Taylor's Bread, which explored timely issues including police violence and gentrification. Schultz also established a community engagement program called Intersections to facilitate conversation and offer context for the theater's productions. WaterTower's efforts are paying off. The rest of the year looks even more daring and innovative with the irreverent Hand to God, featuring a foul-mouthed puppet, followed by Schultz's own adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

Aviation Cinemas, the folks behind the historic Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff and the Oak Cliff Film Festival, purchased Denton's long-vacant Fine Arts Theatre, located on the Downtown Square, earlier this year. The iconic single-auditorium theater, which, funny enough, was called Texas Theatre until the late 1950s, is more than 140 years old and originally operated as an opera house before becoming a movie theater. After a fire shut down formal operations in the '80s, the Fine Arts Theatre served as a performance venue on and off for various events over the past years. The team behind the new plan of restoring the downtown venue says they'll keep it an entertainment spot — which is sure to breathe life back into the historic theater with unique programming and draw in many music and movie fans from all over North Texas.

South Dallas Cultural Center

Soul Rep Theatre calls The Freedmans a "ritualistic choreo-poem." Written 20 years ago by company members to commemorate the opening of Dallas' Freedman's Cemetery Memorial, it is their poetic tribute to the former slaves who founded Dallas' Freedman's Town shortly after emancipation in the late 1800s. Music and dance play an essential part in telling this moving and poignant story, and that is the definition of a musical. Soul Rep, one of eight companies chosen to participate in this year' Elevator Project, considers The Freedmans to be their signature production. Accompanied by a harpist, the production was filled with beautiful music — four original songs, including "I'm Free" and "Cotton Don't Come," written by company member Keith Price; the song "Tree of Life," from the Gullah tradition; and a post-slavery lullaby called "Lil' Pickininny." Soul Rep's co-founder and co-artistic director Guinea Bennett-Price led a fantastic 12-person cast, and La-Hunter Smith choreographed what was the best musical of last season.

The Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet combines high-caliber dance performance with innovative and original content. Known for fostering creative collaborations, company artistic director Emilie Skinner took things to a whole new level this season. It is not surprising that a ballet company would perform excerpts from classical pieces like La Sylphide and Giselle as they did when they worked with the DMA on a celebration of the paintings of French Impressionist Edgar Degas. But few dance troupes would build a performance around Albert Einstein for a sci-fi show. DNCB has a calendar with a space girls theme and an annual horror-themed series. Skinner created a Black Swan vibe to provide the backdrop for Icelandic indie-rock group Kaleo when they performed at Array as part of DSO's Soluna festival. For their final performance of the season, Blind Tiger, Skinner created a comedic piece with music from the 1920s. Not your typical ballet troupe.

Trinity River Audubon Center

As you hike the soft-surface trails through woods and prairie or bike the paved Trinity Forest Trail, a hidden gem that skirts the property, watch for living things without opposable thumbs. The Audubon Center advertises its birds, and you'll see ducks, herons, woodpeckers and more on guided Saturday morning hikes. But the former illegal landfill that's about 10 miles from downtown is a good place to spot other critters, from dainty butterflies to creepy-crawlies like water snakes and spiny lizards to beavers, hogs and deer — on our last visit, we pulled over along the entrance road to help a jaywalking turtle get safely to the other side.

The museum, located in the West End, cares about people in North Texas. Not only does it house vital history lessons, but its staff have shown a commitment to providing clarity during newsworthy events. When the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany surveyed young people and found that 20 percent didn't know anything about the Holocaust, the museum held a millennial night to teach about the bigotry that led to genocide and the Holocaust, and how to teach others about it. Almost any time someone in the news has said or done something anti-Semitic, you can count on the museum to weigh in and offer commentary.

Yeah, yeah, you've heard this before: the alternative weekly newspaper cheering for alternative music. In this case, though, we salute the North Texas radio station for deleting its music. The station has begun allowing its listeners to vote away which songs they don't want to hear. So if a song is being played too much, you can text in to express your intolerance. And if it gets enough down-votes, the station won't play it again. In the age of personalized music on Apple Music and Spotify, we appreciate a public radio station trusting its users to control what they want to hear.

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