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The Process: Creating a Show with 200 Artists Starts with Dinner for 3

by Jerome Weeks 16 May 2013 4:25 PM

More than 200 North Texas artists were involved in staging and performing A Gathering in 2011. Now the producers of the one-night-only AIDS awareness benefit want to do it again. Jerome Weeks will be following their progress.


This is the first in a series of reports on the development of the second Gathering.

In December 2011, more than 200 area artists were involved in staging and performing A Gathering: The Dallas Arts Community Reflects on 30 Years of AIDS, perhaps the largest, single, cross-cultural collaboration ever staged locally. It involved volunteer dancers, musicians, singers, actors, video artists and choreographers in an AIDS awareness benefit at the Winspear Opera House to mark the 30 years we’ve lived under the pandemic. And the people who brought together the dozen local arts groups for a single evening did it all — writing, coordinating, directing, rehearsing, re-writing — in less than four months.

Now they want to do it again this fall. But do it a little differently.

For starters, they’ll have more prep time. The producers held their first, high-level, planning session Tuesday night at Charles Santos’ house. A Gathering was the brainchild of  Santos, the director of TITAS, the music and dance presenting organization. He had done AIDS benefits before, while in Austin, but A Gathering was his first since moving to Dallas in 2001. He wound up putting his heart and a ton of last-minute effort into it.

Santos conceived the show as something of a “deconstructed musical” or “concert musical,” with songs and dances, no sets or staging, but with a loose ’emotional arc’ pushing things along from loss and grief to eventual hope and community action. The show would focus on Dallas-area history, people, losses, artists, and organizations. It benefited the local, non-profit care organizations in a four-way split: AIDS Arms, AIDS Interfaith Network, AIDS Services of Dallas and Resource Center Dallas.

But in the end, A Gathering didn’t gather the audience it could: the Winspear was not even half full. Santos and Chris Heinbaugh, AT&T Performing Arts Center’s external affairs vice president, figure that’s because a) it was a first-time event, people didn’t really know what it was, what to expect and b) because of that, the groups involved didn’t really promote it the way they could have, certainly not the way they might have pushed a regular, annual fundraiser. Santos says that one group leader, after being blown away by the show,  even called him and apologized for not doing more.

“He saw it was that good, that moving,” Santos says.

So Heinbaugh, Santos, music director Gary Floyd and Joel Ferrel, associate artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, have started conferring for a second Gathering (Ferrell was not at Tuesday’s meeting). They plan on using much the same impressive line-up of local performers — including the Turtle Creek Chorale, the Texas Ballet Theatre, Dallas Opera, Bruce Wood Dance Project, Dallas Wind Symphony and the Dallas Black Dance Theatre — but they’re building a different show.

Why? Heinbaugh says they really can’t employ the historic timeline approach that the occasion of the 30th anniversary permitted them. Heinbaugh researched and wrote the original Gathering, including the speeches and AIDS data that were projected on screens (“In 1985, Dallas County reported 125 cases of AIDS — and 123 deaths.”) That history helped stitch together the first show, made it flow. Now he’s got to find some other threads.

But Santos has been compiling music selections anyway, and he thinks there’s a way to follow a similar emotional arc. He, Floyd and Heinbaugh spent two and a half hours Tuesday listening to some 30 songs from the classical repertoire (Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) and Broadway shows (“Falling Slowly” from Once) to dance-pop hits and faves from The Voice or Smash (Duffy’s “Mercy,” Pink’s ‘Nobody Knows”).  They debated possible local singers for the tunes, wondered which songs would provide good material for a choreographer or for an onstage transition, a shift in tone.

Santos is pushing for songs and for dramatic excerpts that do not directly address AIDS. He wants to get away from the expected material — selections from Rent and Angels in America and away from overused gay anthems like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” He likes taking an “ordinary” song or scene and re-contextualizing it. It’s not too hard to find songs about loss or uplift to fit the occasion. But for him, even Madcon’s “Beggin'” can work. It’s not a soulful grovel by a lovelorn singer; it can be about non-profits trying to raise money.

Santos already has a list of more than 40 songs, and the first Gathering in 2011 used only half that number. So the culling and winnowing will continue over the next several months — as  the producers start meeting with individual artists and groups.