This story originally appeared on KERA’s Art & Seek.
These days, smaller North Texas theater companies struggle to find affordable, practical performances spaces. The local real estate market continues to steam full-speed ahead, which prices out young artists, and the spread-out nature of the area makes finding, drawing and holding an audience especially hard. That’s why three of Dallas’ more daring companies are banding together to move across the Trinity River.
The beefy, bald, white-clad scientist Brad Hennigan is shouting 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 discrete dramas set on a stage, but total environments, maze-like installations through which theatergoers are herded, interrogated or left bewildered, sometimes entertained, sometimes, perhaps, even enlightened. In this instance, we’re in an old, ramshackle ice house on Beckley Avenue.
With some of the coercive nature of a Stanley Milgram experiment, “DP92” manages to mock — all at once — science jargon, science’s cultural authority, our dependence on technology today and, especially, cheesy old monster movies from the ’50s with their fears of radioactive mutations 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 in various ways to the “mollusk mind.” The show’s old-school, spacey effects even include a theremin, the woo-woo electronic music instrument often heard on “Outer Limits”-style soundtracks.
The result is akin to getting lost with Prof. Irwin Corey in a haunted house attraction. It’s more amusing than spooky, also a little long, a little wordy (with all the panicked predictions of disaster, it’s a bit of a letdown when relatively little happens that you weren’t expecting). Mostly, “DP92” offers creepy atmosphere and sensory discombobulation — with a fine, woolly guitar solo for a finish.
“A few young women came in,” Thomas Riccio says, “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. The same could be said for what Riccio and his Zombies are up to with two other adventurous stage groups in West Dallas — that “alien invasion” referenced above. Riccio is a University of Texas at Dallas 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 area.
That’s because, amid his world-wandering quests for ritual, myth and theater-as-spiritual-liberation, Riccio ran the Organic Theater in Chicago. He’d seen how small storefronts helped galvanize that theater scene. They became 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.” He says we need a range of small theaters in North Texas as ‘feeders,’ as part of a healthy theater ecology. They provide 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 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 with a smile. 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 food and entertainment in the area — that’s your basic, urban-planning, reviving-downtown, cultural strategy that the Arts District still hasn’t mastered. Here, it may be accomplished with run-down warehouses — and a Calatrava bridge conveniently funneling people in that direction.
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.”
The money-making could come from a large art gallery, a wine bar and a beer garden. There’s also possible space rental to other companies, dance ensembles, out-of-town groups. Specifically, the trio would like to use 500 Singleton Boulevard, just down the street from Trinity Groves, as a multi-purpose venue. It’s a former ironworks with 37,000 square feet of sheds, offices and loading docks. The sprawling space could easily hold a beer garden, a gallery and two black-box theaters, plus a workshop to spare.
What it’s 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, played by 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 500 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 has used but mostly for dazzling stunts. Even Twyla Tharp has used it, but this is the first time I’ve seen it integrated fundamentally into a dance narrative. Dirt floor and all, “Persephone” plays like a jeweled music box — with little flourishes, courtesy of “magic consultant” Trigg Watson.
“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,” Colangelo says. “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 proved the give-them-empty-spaces-and-actors-will-come theory. The era spawned Pegasus Theatre (which moved to Richardson), the Deep Ellum Theatre Garage and the Undermain Theatre, among several others. Only the Undermain remains there today (although Matt Posey’s Theatre Garage, over a long period of time, evolved into the Ochre House just over in Exposition Park). It’s not coincidental that that period was the last time Dallas experienced something of a ‘theater boom,’ with artists actually moving here (or at least, sticking around awhile), partly because, simultaneously, Dallas Theater Center artistic director Adrian Hall had established an acting company.
Ironically, what 500 Singleton most resembles — in a more jumbled-together fashion — is the Dallas Theater Center’s original, barn-like home in the Arts District. It was designed by Tony-winner Eugene Lee and built by artistic director Adrian Hall in 1984. (It stood where the Winspear Opera House now is.) The DTC theater, of course, was a much more contemporary, pre-fab warehouse, but the DIY, anything-is-possible, every-show-is-different aesthetic is much the same (that thinking also helped inspire the internal, high-tech, shape-shifting engineering of the Wyly).
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 with a shrug. That way, anytime you want to see a show here, you can tell a friend, Let’s go be happy.