These days, small North Texas theater companies struggle to find affordable, practical stages. The local real estate market steams ahead – pricing out young artists — and the spread-out, freeway-swarmed nature of our area makes finding, drawing and holding an audience especially hard. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says, that’s why three of Dallas’ more daring companies are trying to band together — and move across the Trinity River.
The beefy, bald, white-clad scientist (Brad Hennigan) shouts about “alien invasions!” and “predatory mollusks from the deep, dark nest of consciousness!” Which is pretty much what you get in ‘DP92,’ the latest, layered craziness from the Dead White Zombies. You get alien invasions — of a sort.
The Zombies specialize in site-specific, ‘immersive theater.’ They create not dramas set on a conventional stage, but total environments, maze-like installations through which theatergoers are herded, interrogated or left bewildered. And sometimes entertained, sometimes even enlightened. With ‘DP92,’ we’re in an old, ramshackle ice house on Beckley Avenue. The company has raised a haunted house experience to (something of) the coercive level of a Stanley Milgram experiment. The show mixes and mocks — all at once — science jargon, technological dependence, the authority of scientists and, especially, all those cheesy old monster movies from the ’50s with their radioactive terrors and their simultaneous hopes for salvation-by-science.
In ‘DP92,’ lab assistants take notes or discourse endlessly, while other actors portray bath-robed test subjects as if they’re primates in cages, slowly succumbing to the ‘mollusk mind.’ The show’s old-school, spacey effects even include a theremin, the woo-woo electronic music instrument heard on the ‘Outer Limits’ soundtrack.
The result is akin to getting lost with Prof. Irwin Corey in a carnival attraction. It’s more amusing than spooky, also a little long, a little wordy (with all the panic over disasters, it’s a bit of a letdown when relatively little happens that you weren’t expecting). Mostly, ‘DP92’ offers creepy atmosphere and sensory disorientation — with a big, woolly guitar solo for a flourish and a finish.
“A few young women came in,” Thomas Riccio recalls of one performance, “and they were just very afraid. But then they enjoyed themselves and had a good time. So it’s an interesting collaboration and confluence of contradictions.”
Indeed. “Collaboration and confluence” could be what Riccio and his Zombies are up to with two other adventurous stage groups in West Dallas — they’re that “alien invasion” referenced above. Riccio is a UTD professor of theater and aesthetic studies as well as the mind behind the Zombies. In 2011, even before the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge opened and brought jam-packed crowds to the restaurants in Trinity Groves, Riccio was hunting for cheap performance spaces in the immediate area.
That’s because, amid his world-wandering quests for ritual, myth and theater-as-spiritual-liberation, Riccio once ran the Organic Theater in Chicago. He’d seen how small storefronts helped galvanize that theater scene. They became cheap, quick and dirty launching pads for young talent.
“So much great theater has come from Chicago,” he says, “because they had that seedbed of so many great spaces, which we don’t have here. It’s hard to go from SMU or UNT or UTD as an undergraduate into the Dallas Theater Center. And as a consequence, we have a talent drain because they’re leaving to go to New York, LA or Chicago. That’s where the work is. There’s nothing here where they can develop.”
David Denson agrees: “Space is the biggest obstacle for small theaters.” And we need a range of small theaters in North Texas as ‘feeders,’ as part of a healthy theater ecology. They provide fresh oxygen and minerals — and places to fail and learn. Not surprisingly, Denson was one of the forces behind the short-lived Elevator Project, which boosted six small companies upstairs to the sixth floor space in the Wyly Theatre. It gave them a little Arts District exposure (and kept that space busy).
Denson heads Upstart Productions, which has teamed up with the Dead White Zombies and the theater movement troupe, PrismCo, to try to create what would be the first, permanent performance space in West Dallas. The groups coordinated three shows this fall to help bring attention to West Dallas as a cool new theater destination, raw but fun. And they’re negotiating with Butch McGregor, owner of Trinity Groves and a number of other sprawling warehouse properties in the area, to establish a base camp there.
McGregor has already helped Erin Cluley open her gallery nearby. He’s “a contemporary Medici in his openness to artists,” Riccio says. It makes sense: The idea of ‘incubating’ a theater complex is not so different from Trinity Groves’ own function as a testing lab for themed restaurants. To set up a kind of ‘critical mass’ of entertainment and dining and post-show drinks in a single area: That is your basic, urban-revival, cultural strategy that downtown’s Arts District still hasn’t mastered. Here, it may be accomplished with run-down warehouses — and a big-deal Calatrava bridge conveniently funneling eager people right into the neighborhood.
The three theater companies are trying to assemble a board and they know they’ll need a manager somewhere down the line. Riccio calls their plan “an interesting not-for-profit, for-profit collaboration.” Jeff Colangelo, co-founder of PrismCo, says, “We definitely have a very good business pitch and we have a very good way of how we will make money.”
Specifically, the trio would like to use 500 Singleton Boulevard as a multi-purpose venue. It’s a former ironworks just down the street from Trinity Groves. It is 37,000 square feet of jammed-together sheds, offices and loading docks. The sprawling space could easily hold a beer garden, a large art gallery and two black-box theaters, plus a workshop to spare. The trio’s money-making could come from the gallery, a wine bar and the beer garden. And there’s the possible space rental to other companies, dance ensembles, out-of-town groups.
What the giant tin shed is holding at the moment is PrismCo’s new show, ‘Persephone.’ Without dialogue, using mostly dance and music, ‘Persephone’ tells the story of the Greek goddess who was abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. Persephone is the ancient Greeks’ origin story for the change of seasons: When she’s down below with Hades, winter comes. When she returns up top to her mother, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, spring arrives.
Persephone is played by PrismCo’s co-founder Katy Tye, who also wrote and directed. But Hades (Josh Porter) and his hell demons are giant shadows. They’re cast on huge sheets stretched across a dirt-floor stage spanning one corner of the Singleton complex.
The Greek term for the dead was ‘shade.’ Tye has made it literal — and haunting and charming. Shadowplay is a simple technique that Pilobolus and even Twyla Tharp have used but mostly for dazzling stunts. This is the first time I’ve seen it integrated fundamentally into a movement theater narrative. Dirt floor and all, ‘Persephone’ plays like a jeweled music box — with little flourishes, courtesy of ‘magic consultant’ Trigg Watson.
Says Colangelo: “This kind of guerilla theater — low-tech, McGyver-everything-you can — I think it provides a charm and a pathway to innovation you don’t often find in other places where everything is handed to you. For example, our technical guy has managed to work everything from some lamp dimmers and his phone. That’s how our tech works, and honestly, I think it’s beautiful.”
The last time Dallas had a fair number of cheap, raw, empty, urban spaces available for pioneering artists was Deep Ellum in the early-to-mid-’80s, and it certainly provided proof for the give-them-empty-spaces-and-artists-will-come theory. The era spawned Pegasus Theatre (which moved to Richardson), the Deep Ellum Theatre Garage (which mutated into Ochre House just over in Exposition Park) and the Undermain Theatre, among several others. Only the Undermain remains in Deep Ellum today. But it’s not coincidental that that period was the last time Dallas experienced something of a ‘theater boom,’ with artists actually moving here (and even sticking around awhile), partly because, simultaneously, Dallas Theater Center artistic director Adrian Hall had established an acting company — just as artistic director Kevin Moriarty has done at the Theater Center. Are the stars aligning — cheap spaces, interested entrepreneur-developers, paid artists with a local acting company, eager experimenters fresh out of school and a pretty decent economy?
Whether this new, leaky, low-tech, miniature Arts District in West Dallas will ever be more than shadowplay could be settled by early next year, says Riccio. And the name for it? So far, the three companies are going with ‘Be Happy.’
Sure, a smiling Colangelo says. That way, anytime you want to see a show here, he says, you can tell a friend, ‘Let’s go be happy.’