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Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House

by Jerome Weeks 16 Jul 2010 7:05 AM

The 12th annual Festival of Independent Theatres opens at the Bath House Cultural Center. FIT, as it’s called, is the oldest theater festival in North Texas. But with the city budget cuts — for the past several years, not just the new ones — FIT continues mostly through the grit and creativity of the artists.


The 12th annual Festival of Independent Theatres opens tonight at the Bath House Cultural Center. Its motto this year: “Shifting Your Focus” (illustrated by the coin-operated binocular that adorns the Bath House veranda).  FIT, as it’s called, is the oldest theater festival in North Texas. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports FIT is continuing these days mostly through the determination and creativity of the artists involved — despite city budget cuts.

  • KERA radio report:
  • Expanded online report:

Four years ago, the entire programming budget for Dallas’ Bath House Cultural Center was $52,000. This year, it’s $17,000. Next year’s proposed budget is $8,000 — that will represent a cut of 85 percent over four years. While bond money and private money funded an apparent North Texas arts boom with projects like the AT&T Performing Arts Center, the city of Dallas was actually, repeatedly, cutting back on the Bath House, the Oak Cliff, the Latino and the South Dallas Cultural Centers.

And much of that that was even before the current round of drastic reductions that will hit city departments this fall.

Marty van Kleek manages the Bath House, and last year, that position was eliminated. Karen Casey, president of the Friends of the Bath House, says that van Kleek continues  in the position — continues to co-produce things like the Festival of Independent Theaters — because it was the Friends of the Bath House who raised the money for her salary this year – as a private grant.

So the festival operates the way many non-profits and city arts efforts actually do: by patching things together. There was no money to mail the brochures this year; they were hand-delivered to restaurants and retail outlets. Concession food is being donated. A garage sale and a book sale are being planned.

Van KLEEK: “Everything that we can possibly do to save money on this year’s festival, we’re gonna put it in the pot for next year’s because we’re pretty sure it’s going to be slimmer.”

Remarkably, even under such straitened circumstances, this year’s festival has added a gallery show of works by 41 Texas artists: the “Fictional” Exhibition, containing paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures loosely inspired by the festival’s dramas (below, one of three Fish Lanterns by Amber Block). Twenty independent theater companies submitted scripts, and eight of those plays are being staged, including four world premieres, in addition to a choral piece by artist-musician-director Elizabeth Swados (Echo Theatre’s Bible Women, above left) and Andre Gregory’s famous modern revision of Alice in Wonderland (presented by White  Rock Pollution, right).

Van Kleek designed the costumes for one of the world premieres, The Turquoise Pontiac, by Austin playwright Ellsworth Schave, presented by One Thirty Productions (it’s a companion piece to his Under a Texaco Canopy, one of three Schave plays One Thirty is staging this year). In Pontiac, a young woman challenges a man to battle. Van Kleek created the armor, breastplate and helmet the young woman builds.

The funky, intricate costume reflects much the same inventive, patched-together, make-do efforts behind the festival itself.

Van KLEEK: “Well, this show takes place in a bar, so I figured she made it from things she could find in the bar: cardboard and baskets that they serve the burgers in and – “

WEEKS: “— bottle caps – ”

Van KLEEK: “And a bottle opener. [laughs]”

  • Veletta Forsythe Lill

    Thank you for spotlighting the Bath House Cultural Center – this is a valuable cultural asset that provides great programming and great leadership for our community. A shout-out to the Friends and to Marty is highly deserved.

    My only concern is that some folks might get a misperception from the opening of this piece that the city has and is busily shifting funds from the Cultural Centers to the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Not the case. The city has used capital funds for a number of improvements to cultural projects over the last 12 years include land purchase for the ATTPAC and City Performance Hall, the current construction of City Performance Hall, HVAC for the African American Museum, infrastructure improvements for the Hall of State and roof repairs to numerous cultural space.

    At the same time, funding for operating and programming are being severely curtailed for all venues. In fact, the cut to the AT&T Performing Arts Center operating is being considered for a 95%. Program funding going to over 100 organizations has been cut by 73% over the last 3 years. Yet each of those dollars that were provided by the city to a myriad of organizations large and small has leveraged $10 of private support.

    These are very difficult times for everyone in the arts. My only request is that it not be portrayed as big v. small, us v. them. In the arts community, we are united in our concern.

  • Jerome Weeks

    Thanks very much for writing and stressing those facts.

    That wasn’t the intention of those opening lines. Rather, when I’ve relayed the budget data to people — the serious decline in programming money for the cultural centers the past several years, for example — the response has always been surprise or disbelief. And they would ask the same question: Hasn’t Dallas been enjoying an arts boom the past few years?

    Similarly, when it comes to the looming budget cuts the city is facing, many in the public feel that the arts have been riding high. There’s an area that should be gutted to save tax dollars. They don’t realize that they’ve already been gutted.

    So yes, it’s not an issue of big vs. small — it’s an issue of the AT&T PAC and other cultural improvements unfortunately giving the public a very different impression of city arts funding than has been the case. As the article indicates, much of what built the PAC was private money and bond issue money — while organizations like those that use the Bath House, the Latino, South Dallas and Oak Cliff Cultural Centers are much more dependent on city money, which has been in serious decline for years, even before the current round of drastic cuts.

  • Veletta Forsythe Lill

    Thanks Jerome. All of us are a bit concerned about any misperceptions, misunderstandings, and misinformation regarding funding. You are absolutely right that folks think that the arts community has been riding high and many think that includes a lot of public funding.

    Many of us are concerned about the future of city funding.
    We have almost been victimized by our strength – a strong ability to leverage and stretch dollars. The city’s seed money has produced a bounty of artists, programming and institutions. And as small as it is, the city funding is very important as a “seal of approval” to foundations, philanthropists and other government funders. A $10 return on a $1 investment in any other business would be seen as a great success and yet there is still not a full understanding of the economic impact of the importance of the public/private partnership that is the arts.

    Any assistance that you can provide in correcting misperceptions and creating dialogue on how to fund the arts would be greatly appreciated.

  • Karen Casey

    Dear Jerome: Thank you very much for highlighting a very important part of the arts scene in Dallas – the first class, yet affordable, programming offered at the Cultural Centers, particularly the Bath House Cultural Center. Having served as President of the Friends of the Bath House Cultural Center organization for a year, I have had the opportunity to witness the dedication of the Bath House staff, the professionalism of the artists who exhibit and perform at the Bath House and the loyalty of the Bath House patrons.

    The artists at the Bath House have always been proficient at turning very small amounts of money into “golden performances.” With the support of city funds for salaries and building expenses they have triumphed over these last years of serious budget cuts for programming. The Friends of the Bath House have stepped in to help provide needed funds for programming services that have been cut over the past year. For the programming to continue, however, the building needs to be staffed and open enough hours for programming to be scheduled.

    In 2011, the Bath House will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Bath House as the city’s first Cultural Center and will participate in the Centennial of White Rock Lake. The Friends will continue to advocate for the Bath House as the premiere location in Dallas to see the work of local artists, actors and musicians.

  • Sylvia Hougland

    It is really important to recognize what it means for the Dallas citizens who attend Bath House events of these enormous cuts of 85%-both visual art and performance Art. The Bath House, like the other Cultural Centers serve the broadest range of groups, ethnically, economically, and culturally. They tie have the greatest mixture of people, young and old, poor and middle class. They support fledgling artists and performances.

    At the Bath House alone , we could lose the 1:30 Productions serving mostly elderly and disabled people who can’t go out at night. With this enormous reduction , there would be a further reduction in the ability to support our resident performance group t. It could be possible that the diminished program and opening time would allow the oldest Art Deco building to lapse into the same state that it did for 20 years-closed.

    The Bath House and other Cultural centers do a unique job for Dallas. They serve people who cannot normally afford arts programs and they enrich the city. So why would we target these enormously successful programs that fill a gap, utilize the cities money effectively and efficiently, raise as much as they can locally, and make no difference to the deficits.