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 – pricing out young artists — and the spread-out, freeway-bound 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) 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: alien invasions.
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. ‘DP92’ — with a bit of the coercive nature of a Stanley Milgram experiment — 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 to the ‘mollusk mind.’ The show’s old-school, spacey effects even include a theremin, the woo-woo electronic instrument often heard on ‘Outer Limits’-style soundtracks.
The result is something 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 the many panicked predictions of disaster, it’s disappointing when relatively little happens that you weren’t expecting. Mostly, we just get ordered to move to the next room). ‘DP92’ is more about creepy atmosphere and sensory discombobulation — with a woolly bass guitar solo 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. The same could be said for what Riccio and his Zombies are up to with two other adventurous stage groups in West Dallas. 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 crowds to the restaurants in Trinity Groves, Riccio was hunting for cheap performance spaces in the nearby area. (Infamously, the Zombies once used a former stash house for the production, ‘TNB.’) 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.” And 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. 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. Besides, the idea of ‘incubating’ a theater complex is not so different from Trinity Groves’ own function as a testing lab for restaurant ideas. Getting people to visit both would help them work.
They’re trying to assemble a board and they know they’ll need a manager. Riccio calls the theater 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 little 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 squealing 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’ — a term Dante picked up for his Divine Comedy. Tye has made it literal — and haunting and amusing. Shadowplay is a simple stage 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, magically, into a dance narrative.
“This kind of guerilla theater — low-tech, McGyver-everything-you can,” says Colangelo, “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.”
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 there, you can tell a friend, ‘Let’s go be happy.’