Ask any small or mid-size theater in Dallas and they will tell you lack of media coverage is a real concern. With so many arts organizations vying for attention it is hard to give equal voice to each one. The recent discussions about arts equity in Dallas drew attention to the disparity between large, well-funded arts organizations like AT&T Performing Arts Center and those with smaller budgets.
Almost every conversation about theater will inevitably involve the real problem small and mid-size theaters face with lack of coverage. The correlation between good (or any) press and funding can be very tangible for arts organizations. Critical feedback is important for theaters when applying for grant funding and attracting sponsorships.
In this near-constant dialogue, a new theater in Dallas is tackling this problem and making it their mission to spread the word. Proper Hijinx has only been around for about a year now, but Artistic Director Stefany Cambra has made big strides as she tries to meet as many people as she can and see as many shows as possible. In 2016 alone she’s seen over 70 plays and added 14 to her own résumé.
Cambra is young, and she moved to Dallas with the intention of directing. She noticed many theaters subscribe to a model of either doing crowd-pleasing favorites or edgier, more experimental plays. Cambra wanted to land somewhere in the middle with shows that were crowd-pleasing as well as impactful. Her bottom line is being relatable. Building a community around theater is important to Cambra and her theater.
Cambra did not intend to take on what often functions as a one-woman show. Her first play had a producer that backed out, leaving Cambra with many of the duties to fulfill on her own. As a result she’s gotten really good at knowing what it takes to run a theater. Currently going through the process to make her theater a nonprofit, Cambra is on a mission to connect herself with as many theaters as she can and raise awareness among the theater community about what everyone is doing.
“Dallas is interesting. There’s a lot going on but it’s still very small," she says. "Right now I am learning about this community, the different styles among the theaters, and identifying trends.”
Cambra says it’s not for selfish reasons, though she does want to develop herself as a director. Her plan has more to do with her belief that successful theaters must promote the work of their fellow theaters rather than compete with them.
Cambra hosts “Theater Thursdays” on her Facebook page, a weekly roundup of what’s playing at the various theaters. It includes what she’s excited to see or what she has seen. She posts pictures of playbills when she sees shows to let everyone know where she is.
“I do a lot of Facebook stalking to figure out what’s going on,” Cambra says.
By now she’s developed a reputation as an ally and gets invited to more shows than she can see. She says her weekly posts function as a “bit-size guide” of the volume of theater happening in Dallas.
“There’s a problem with coverage,” she says. “Plays are lucky to get one review.” Cambra knows that as a new company Proper Hijinx won’t always be at the top of the priority list for coverage, but she feels this is why there is such a need to grow the demand for content.
Cambra understands the demand for coverage will be driven by the traffic to the sites that cover the arts. This is why she feels it’s so important to build a community within the theater community. Clicking on the articles and sharing the content is a small, but effective, way to begin.
“Marketing is changing," she says. "You have to know social media and keep up with all the various platforms. And it’s hard to do that alone. It needs to be a community investment.”
Cambra moved around frequently growing up and learned how to gauge a city quickly and make friends before moving on. Now that she’s rooted in Dallas for the foreseeable future, her passion is building a supportive and sharing community for Dallas theater. She works 95 hour weeks; is back in school working on a psychology degree; sees more shows than many critics; and has a three-show season planned for Proper Hijinx.
“It makes me a better artistic director in the end," she says. "I get to know this community better.”
Cambra hopes that collaboration between theaters will also mean sharing spaces and resources, which are becoming increasingly limited in Dallas.
After the Dallas City Council voted this last month to go ahead with funding for an ATTPAC “bailout,” smaller theaters may have to continue raising awareness and funding in a grassroots manner. And if Cambra has her way, the smaller theaters of Dallas will all have each other to lean on going forward.