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The High Drama That Running A Theater Demands

At Stage West, Dana Schultes has acted, directed, raised funds and cooked the soups. Now she runs the place. And she's got big plans for the future.

by Jerome Weeks 26 Jan 2017
Dana Schultes

She was only a college sophomore when she got her first professional acting job at Stage West in 1997. Then she became the chief fundraiser, soup cook and leading lady. Now Dana Schultes runs the joint - while still acting, directing, sound-designing and overseeing a new, half-million dollar renovation that'll create two performance spaces. Stage West will be like no other theater in Fort Worth.

And Schultes? She's been doing all this as a single mom.

Jump to the Q and A

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

Single moms do it all, they say – earning a living and raising kids. Some theater leaders do it all too – directing, managing, fundraising. So what happens when it’s the same person? That would be Dana Schultes, executive producer at Stage West.

‘Stupid [Expletive] Bird’ runs at Stage West from Jan. 26th  through Feb. 19th.

Running a theater, Part 1. Handle upgrades.

In the lobby of Stage West, Dana Schultes goes over plans with architect Morris McIntosh and Jayson Rodriguez of Fort Construction. Schultes is starting a half-million dollar project to upgrade the Fort Worth theater into two separate performance spaces with a shared lobby, box office and cafe. When completed, Fort Worth will have nothing quite like it: a theater company with a flexible season alternating between two stages, and one of those a black box theater available for other smaller companies in the area to use. The hitch is that construction has to be scheduled entirely around Stage West’s theater productions, so it’ll be done in phases, starting with –

at the menu board

Schultes at the menu board. Photo: Jake Buchanan

“– the bathrooms,” says Schultes. “Nothing else can happen without the bathrooms. That shuts us down effectively” – meaning while the bathrooms are being overhauled, Stage West can’t operate. And there’s only a three-week window for both bathrooms.

“We can do it,” says Rodriguez.

Running a theater, Part 2. Do everything else.

Stage West is where Schultes was cast in her first professional acting job (Sam Shepard’s ‘Simpatico,’ 1997) and directed her first professional show (‘Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music, 2007). She would become, in effect, the theater’s leading lady in a string of shows, including ‘Our Town,’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ ‘Seasons Greetings,’ ‘Wait Until Dark,’ ‘The Explorers’ Club’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ But during some of that time, she also stage-managed, fund-raised, worked props, started children’s programs.

“I was essentially the café manager and the soup cook,” she says.

And when Stage West founder Jerry Russell moved the theater back into this former warehouse on West Vickery, they had four weeks to open it. Schultes – and others – installed seats, put down tiles, painted walls.

Meaning she’s done just about everything a person can do in a theater, other than bricklaying and pouring concrete. So now, at 40, Schultes runs the place. She still acts, still directs – and still finds time to help design the sound for the company’s newest offering, ‘Stupid [Expletive] Bird,’ a sardonic update of Chekhov’s play, ‘The Seagull.’

Gabriel

Michael Corolla and Schultes in ‘Gabriel.’ Photo: Buddy Meyers.

Even so, Schultes says, with all this experience and work background, “I’m basically flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve never been this busy, and I just keep hoping that no one finds out that I’m just making it up as I go along.”

Maybe. But growing up in Arlington and going to Texas Wesleyan, Schultes already was passionate about theater. And by ‘theater,’ we don’t mean just loving the spotlight. It was the entire experience, it was about creating worlds onstage.

“There was no other option for me,” she says. “I lit up watching shows. I was in awe of The. Whole. Thing.”

So perhaps Schultes was destined to run a theater someday. But she more or less inherited running Stage West from Russell, its beloved founder – after he died three years ago. She and longtime Stage West actor-director Jim Covault were co-producers until Covault retired last September, leaving her in charge. But because Jerry Russell was also Schultes’ mentor, that adds even more emotional freight. Running Stage West is both a professional and personal legacy.

“I do think of Jerry often,” she says, “and how important it is to me not only to represent what he wanted but also to lay the foundation for my own legacy.”

“No one,” says Harry Parker,”is more loyal to Jerry Russell than Dana.” Parker is the theater chair at TCU and the managing director of the Trinity Shakespeare Festival. “But she also knows that she’s not Jerry, and the theater needs to be a living, changing entity. I think Dana is brave.”

dana and matilda

Schultes and daughter Matilda. Photo: Dana Schultes

Schultes is brave, Parker says, because of the daring plays she’s been choosing, the new directions she’s taking the theater. The past several months have seen ‘The Nether,’  Jennifer Haley’s foreboding drama about pedophilia and the web, ‘Bootycandy,’ an outrageous comedy about growing up black and gay, and now, as Schultes says, “our first play with the f-bomb right in the title.” Schultes points out Russell pushed boundaries, too – “he would have loved ‘Bootycandy'” – but Schultes’ current season is nothing but new plays and even a world premiere. And although she’s continued Russell’s balancing act with more audience-friendly plays like ‘Murder for Two,’ it was noteworthy watching ‘Bootycandy,’ says Parker, and hear Stage West’s typical, mostly grey-haired crowd “shriek with laughter. And I didn’t see anyone leave, either.”

Running a theater, Part – well, this is the hardest part.

Schultes has done all this – acting, directing, fund-raising, pushing boundaries, cooking soups – as a single mom. Her daughter Matilda is eight.

“I am lucky,” Schultes says, “to have a job that allows me to be a single mom, to work the hours that I need to, to take off when I need to.

“But I pay a large price by never disconnecting from it.”

In fact, Schultes says she warns younger actors about allowing their art to consume them, about not leaving any time for themselves.

“Theater and my own choices wrecked my relationships,” she says quietly. “And helped to destroy my marriage. I have at least been able to learn from where I have been and not make the same mistakes twice.

And I do not want to set an [unhealthy] example for my daughter.”

So that may be the hardest part: finding balance, learning when not to run a theater.

“I think it was just yesterday,” says Schultes, “that I asked Matilda to remind me – to put my phone down.”

So what about this big project, the major renovation and expansion you’re starting? You’ve used this studio space here, next door, your rehearsal space, a little bit for shows. What’s your plan for it?

Well, we opened it in 2013 with Jerry doing ‘Clarence Darrow,’ his one-man show. We kept it open, but it only had 60 seats, it was bare-bones, a black box. And we realized early that we didn’t have enough seats to afford to do anything more than a one-person show. So this past season, we changed things around, so it now has 134 seats.

dana directing

Schultes directing Seb Archibald auditioning for ‘The Aliens.’ Photo: Jerome Weeks

How many seats in the mainstage?

146. We made this wider to get 134 with this three-sided configuration. We still have work to do on it, that’s why it’s all covered with plastic. We’re going to hold this space until we have a major public opening when we’ve gotten everything done. We’ve got half-a-million dollars’ worth of construction to go through over the next 24 to 36 months.

How will all that happen?

It’ll happen in three phases. The first is going to be a complete re-do of our restrooms, making them so they can handle all activity for the building.

So they can accommodate the audiences from both theater spaces.

Yes. So in the second phase, I have to figure out how to do next season. And that’s a big one. A lot of work. But once we get the bathrooms done, we can go to the city, present what we want to do on this side [the studio space]. And then just shut it down, have nothing happening here onstage. That way, we can do all the work on it that needs to be done while we produce plays next door [the mainstage].

Then, once we get this side done, we can switch. We’ll produce only here, while we work on the mainstage next door.

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Schultes with Thomas Ward in ‘The Explorers’ Club.’

So you don’t know if all of next season will be done here in the studio? Or will it be the season after?

More likely the season after. But I’d rather split it up. Finish out the last half of next season onstage in here – because I love this space, it’s cool – and then we can finish the improvements we’ve been dreaming about on the mainstage during that same half. And the next season, we can do whatever we want, even rent it out.

Rentals? How big a factor will they be?

I get calls every week, I’m turning people down. Can they use the theater to do a stand-up show for one night. They want to try out a play. Weddings. I tell my board, I’m turning away revenue here. And rentals will be a major factor in affording two spaces. Our two spaces are something that Fort Worth doesn’t have anywhere else. It’s exciting for me as a theater artist to know that we’ll have more spaces to play with. And it’s exciting for me as a citizen of Fort  Worth to know that other artists will have a home here, other companies can use this space when we’re not using it, and it’ll be affordable and the right size.

What happens with the lobby?

The lobby will have two tiers – like a New Orleans-style balcony against the far wall. And the box office will be moved forward, toward the door, where it makes more sense. The box office is going to take up some of that cafe space. However, the new bar configuration will open up some space as well.

Really, what I want it to do is make the whole cafe and entrance less of a big box and give it some architectural interest. Right now –

You feel like you’re coming into a converted warehouse.

Yeah, and you are, essentially. But I want it to have some style. If I could have done anything, I’d go back and take all that paint off the brick [wall]. That bare brick would be so nice.

talkng pictures2

Schultes with Thomas Ward in Horton Foote’s ‘Talking Pictures.’

So as the executive producer, with all this in the works, while you’re still acting and directing – are you creatively satisfied?

I’m getting there. My first eight-nine years on staff here were almost exclusively fund-raising and I did not have much creative say. Now Jerry recognized that, especially because I started in ’04, became development director, and when we moved in here in ’07, I squawked and said, ‘You know, Jerry, this is not fun for me. I’m doing the fund-raising and I’m cleaning the bathrooms and vacuuming and helping with the cafe and all of these other things, but I’m never getting to make any creative decisions.’ I would act of course – that was great but hardly enough. He recognized that and he made sure that I was always part of the season’s final decision-making from that moment on.

And I appreciated that. And I am just now really, this year, getting to find my creative soul again.

Which is scary because that can atrophy. You can lose that. And I hadn’t known whether I still had that in me until the decisions started to be on my shoulders. Now I have to say, ‘OK, we’re going to make this choice, and we’re going to move forward with this designer, and hey, what if we tried this effect?’ All the while trusting the foundation that was built through working with [theater teacher] Larry Cure over at [James] Martin High School [in Arlington] and with Jerry, knowing all those things are going to thrive.

So our mission here is to entertain, inspire and challenge, and getting to do those things, getting to pick pieces that may help to change our community – that’s an impact I’m glad to have the chance to make. Even with all the sacrifices that come with it.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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