Eighteen years in, the Festival of Independent Theatres, FIT for short, is still going strong.
In a decade in which city support for the arts has been continuously shrinking (with no sign of change), the city’s 18-year history of support for FIT (also with no sign of change) is refreshing. It probably doesn’t hurt that the founder of FIT is David Fisher, who until recently was the interim director of the Cultural Affairs Commission and now serves as the assistant director of cultural affairs for the city. Whatever it is, FIT seems here to stay.
FIT’s convening of the area’s independent theaters is once again upon us. From July 8 through 30, the Bath House Cultural Center will once again play home to eight different companies. It's not always the best theater, but it is always some of the most innovative, and with six companies making their FIT debut at this year’s festival, it’s clear independent theater in Dallas is not suffering.
The key to FIT’s staying power lies in its emphasis on the companies, as opposed to the works; sure FIT introduces Dallas to individual artists and new work, but more important for sustainability, it introduces them to a company with whom they can engage throughout the year. New audience development (maybe second only to audience retention) is one of the biggest challenges facing new artists and FIT was founded to help alleviate that problem by allowing theater companies to share, and in so doing, find new audiences. The format encourages this by programming two companies for each evening’s performance so even if you only come to one performance, you’ll leave having seen two companies' work.
Emphasis on the companies' needs also dictates the role of the festival’s director, David Meglino. Each of the eight companies who will be presenting work this month on the Bath House stage are given complete artistic independence to stage their work. Meglino and his staff do the rest: the marketing, box office and venue management. Those are the things independent arts companies (who, it should go without saying, are mostly composed of artists) generally struggle with.
Of course the festival’s definition of an independent theater, that they have no permanent space, or managerial control of the space that they’re in, also lends itself to start-ups, to borrow a word from the tech world. FIT provides a space for experimental work and experimental companies, and incubates young groups for future success; now-established companies such as Second Thought Theatre, for example, began their lives presenting work at FIT. The three world- and three regional-premieres gracing the stage at this year’s festival are evidence of FIT’s commitment to anti-establishment, political and just generally new work.
The debut companies appearing at FIT this year are composed of the young Proper Hijinx Productions, under the direction of artistic director Stefany Cambra, producing a world premiere written and directed by Cambra entitled Missed Connections; the younger House Party Theatre, which is composed of a number of recent SMU Meadows School grads, producing Wealth Management, written by Ted Gwara and directed by Taylor Harris; to the even younger Cry Havoc Theater Company’s production of Good Kids, written by Naomi Iizuka and directed by Shelby-Allison Hibbs.
Fun House Theatre and Film is also making its FIT debut, and while the company isn’t run by kids, it focuses its productions on casting children in roles usually relegated to adults. At FIT kids will take on Rush Limbaugh in Night School, a play about you-know-who written by Charlie Varon and directed by Jeff Swearingen.
Veteran FIT attendees know the festival would hardly be complete without appearances from the veteran Echo Theatre and WingSpan Theatre Company, who helped found the festival back in 1998 and are making their 16th and 18th appearances respectively. Echo, which produces plays exclusively by women playwrights, will stage Brittany Willis’ Blisters, and Wingspan, under the direction of artistic director Susan Sargeant, will produce Samuel Beckett’s Play with a stellar cast.
Rounding out the mix is Frieda Dunkelberg and Company, a new-to-Dallas group interested in experimental movement work, and Lip Service, under the direction of theater critic Alexandra Bonifield who will produce Conor McPherson’s The Good Thief.
Eight companies means eight shows and a limited time in which to see them. Passes are the most popular way to experience the fest and they're available for both 2 and 4 weeks for $60 and $70 respectively. Single tickets are available as well for $18 each. Tickets are available by phone at 1(800) 617-6904, online and at Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive, 45 minutes before each show.