About three years ago, theater director and playwright Kara-Lynn Vaeni arrived in Dallas from New York City, where she worked for 15 years after getting her MFA in directing at Yale University. Vaeni also spent her post-university life doing freelance theater work in New York, cobbling together jobs at various theaters and universities around the city. At a certain point, she realized she was "exhausted all the time.”
So, she began looking elsewhere for a more consistent job where, rather than working with a group of people for mere months or weeks on a project, she could work with the same group for years. Two opportunities popped up for Vaeni: faculty positions at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon. Dallas was lucky.
“I loved Dallas a million times more than I loved Pittsburgh,” says Vaeni, explaining how she came to her decision.
Now that she’s been in Dallas for a few years, she can speak to some of the different aspects that make our city a joy to work in. There are three things about Dallas that Vaeni highlighted: the people who are making theater, the people who are going to see theater and her personal trainer.
The first two make sense — a theater-maker herself, Vaeni is certain to favor her collaborators and her audiences. But what about her personal trainer could signify something special about Dallas? It has to do with stereotypes, and defying them.
“My preconceived notions about what Dallas would be like were very different from what Dallas actually is,” she says. Upon being asked what those preconceived notions were, she groans, “Aw, come on. I’m from the North. I had some really wrong ideas.”
And those preconceived notions first had the chance to be corrected during Vaeni's first year in Dallas, when her husband was away for a year for work and she was busy settling into her new teaching job. Because of both these things, most of her interactions were with 19-year-old drama students — and her physical trainer.
“When you look at [my trainer], you’re like, Oh I know exactly what you are. You drive a pickup truck, you have a gun, you have the accent, you love football, I know you. And how wrong I was.”
The misconceptions that she had about her trainer (and the misconceptions he had about her as a loud, obnoxious New Yorker) both broke down Vaeni’s ideas about Dallas and Dallas people, and inspired a new play called Shape, for which Vaeni won the National Endowment for the Arts grant and which she will be directing in New York later this year.
Dallasites have surprised Vaeni in the gym, but they’ve surprised her in theater circles, too. She finds the Dallas theater scene warm and welcoming in comparison to other places she’s worked.
“The theater community really feels like a small town, and often in small towns, there’s a lot of territory and a lot of cliques and a lot of, ‘We can’t accept this new person because it’s gonna threaten what we have,’ but it shockingly isn’t like that here.”
Vaeni finds that Dallas theaters are eager to welcome new blood and aren’t afraid to lose their own foothold. The result of that is ultimately better theater — when you aren’t constantly defending your territory or tearing down others', you are able to open the doors to the talent needed to keep a theater scene thriving. The pulse of Dallas theater extends to its audiences, as well, which Vaeni has thus far been delighted with.
“People are more chill here, which allows them to be more generous and to be a more relaxed theater audience— but still smart. Nobody’s doing stupid plays here.”
Vaeni, of course, has contributed to the number of smart plays being produced in Dallas. In the last few years she’s directed at Second Thought Theatre (Enemies/People, Lela and Co.), Kitchen Dog Theatre (Reykjavik), and Theatre Three (The Manufactured Myth of Evelyn Flynn, Noises Off). Her current project is at Stage West Theatre, where she’s directing Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, onstage March 12 through April 12.
Each of these plays has been uniquely smart — and smart doesn’t necessarily mean socially critical. Citing her direction of Noises Off at Theatre Three, she says, “It’s not a social justice play that’s gonna change the world or anything, but every night that I went, I saw audiences laughing in a way that I had never seen in real life.” The play reminded audiences, she says, “that’s right, we’re not all trash, we can come together, laugh at the same thing, breathe the same breaths, our heartbeats are in sync — that’s something.”
Plays are capable like little else of bringing about that sense of community between audiences. Vaeni's upcoming production, The Children, has little to do with Dallas — it’s about three elderly nuclear scientists in a cottage in England. The actors have to forgo Texas accents and to reference towns nobody in the audience has ever heard of. And yet, it will remain an important work for Dallas audiences because of the critical questions it brings up about the responsibilities of older generations to younger ones.
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Whether a play will have you slapping your knees or not, its role is ultimately to ask questions that strengthen rather than subvert our sense of community. Plays don’t offer solutions to problems they bring up.
“We’re not politicians,” Vaeni says. An audience member could easily ignore the entire play because they disagree with the solution it offers — if you don’t offer a solution, then every audience member simply has to confront the problem head on. In Vaeni’s experience, Dallas audiences are uniquely willing to do that.
“The talk-backs — people stay, and they want to talk. That’s beyond my experience,” she says.
Theater might never be as important to the Dallas community as football is. But by opening our doors to newcomers like Vaeni and by continuing to be strong audience members, theater-makers or both, we can keep the vital backbone of theater alive in our community.