Dallas Observer Masterminds 2014: Meet the Winners of Our Annual Art Awards

There's a peculiar magic that surrounds creation. A collision of matter, sparked by energy, goes on to be viewed as destiny. In recent years our city has experienced a push of new life, a rupturing of culture. An Arts District was built. A museum became communal space. Public art was created to engage and interact with those who discover it. And somewhere in there we've begun reaching toward a better appreciation and understanding of who we are. The possibilities for what comes next feel electrifying. Infinite.

It's an exciting time to be in Dallas and to examine its culture, stew over its potential growth and reflect on those responsible for its current momentum.

Here at the Dallas Observer, we do that annually through our Masterminds awards, surveying the cultural landscape -- film, visual art, stage, activism -- to identify and honor those fostering our city's artful eruption. The parameters are intentionally loose. We might select an artist whose contributions over several decades proved pivotal for our city's evolution. We might choose a new name whose bold decisions changed how we communicate with and relate to the world. We might pick someone who makes us simultaneously laugh, think and wonder. But once we find them, we declare them Masterminds. Then, we throw money at them.

We selected six winners this year, and I'll hand a check for $1,000 to them Saturday at Artopia, our annual art-fashion-dance party. You should join us for that at Three Three Three First Ave., a restored 1926 industrial building with stunning panoramic views of our city. We'll have runway shows, dance groups, performance artists, live music, a magician, visual artists, a ceremony for these Masterminds and probably way too much tequila.

Selecting these winners from the field of talent wasn't easy. I leaned heavily on a collection of thoughtful minds, composed of members of the art community and last year's Masterminds. Weighing in from 2013's batch was photographer (and storytelling treasurer) Dylan Hollingsworth; flamenco dancer extraordinaire Delilah Muse; video artist Carolyn Sortor; performance artist and community organizer Erica Felicella; the twistedly wonderful chimeral minds of Brian K. Jones and Brian K. Scott; and the brilliant director and set designer Jeffrey Schmidt. From the city at large I lured in art critic Betsy Lewis, Ro2's co-owner Jordan Roth and Danette Dufilho, the director of Conduit Gallery's experimental project space.

Once all were inside the Observer conference area, I locked the door. When we finally emerged, weak and shaky, the space resembled a tattered war room.

Very few beers remained intact.

Read all about this year's recipients in the following pages. They can do whatever they like with the money, whether it's developing a new branch or work, framing pictures for their next big show or just finally paying off that bar tab at the Double Wide. We just hope the $1,000 helps them do what they do best: create. --Jamie Laughlin, culture editor

Jeff Swearingen and Bren Rapp: Teachers to a New Generation of Actors
On an average Friday night in December, while most teenagers were at the movies or playing video games, the young actors at Fun House Theatre and Film participated in a comedy benefit for their 8-year-old friend Elliot, who was fighting a brain tumor.

"We're not just interested in teaching these kids how to act," Fun House Artistic Director Jeff Swearingen says. "We're teaching them what it means to be an artist. To be part of a community."

Since its establishment in 2011, Swearingen and co-founder Bren Rapp's fledging company has challenged the standards of children's theater. They treat the preteen and high school actors like professionals, expecting them to show up on time, memorize their lines and listen to direction. They focus on each actor's growth, refuse to put up with divas, and don't even get them started about stage moms.

"From the beginning we made it our mission that we wouldn't dumb it down for the kids, which means Jeff is going to give notes on what they did wrong," Rapp says. "Sometimes that doesn't make the mothers too happy."

A mother of a teenage actor herself, Rapp met Swearingen when he was teaching at Plano Children's Theatre. They were both tired of pay-for-play productions of Grease and Princess and the Pea. Rapp noticed Swearingen holding the kids to a higher standard, so she approached him to ask if he would be interested in starting his own company. She put her marketing career to work and drafted a business plan; he began to plan full-length productions of Shakespeare and adaptations of Mamet.

"We were going to ask critics to come to Plano to review kids in productions of Hamlet and Edward Albee," Rapp says. "My friends called it 'career suicide.'"

Instead, theater critics and audiences were immediately enamored. The young casts made year-end lists and the DFW Theater Critics Forum gave an unprecedented award to an 11-year-old actress from Daffodil Girls, the re-imagining of Glengarry Glen Ross.

"I've been saying it for years and I think I'm finally proving it, kids are really freaking smart," Swearingen says, laughing. "They're like little sponges, soaking in everything from Chekhov to how to tell a good joke."

In addition to the productions, Fun House Theatre and Film offers summer workshops where students learn theater history, read important playwrights, study different acting techniques and practice improv comedy. If Swearingen and Rapp have anything to do with it, these teenagers will enter college with any tools they will need.

"We might sound like proud parents," Swearingen says, flashing a toothy grin, "but I'm excited to see where some of these kids end up in 10 years." -- Lauren Smart