Shakespeare at the Bar’s “The Tempest” draws a big crowd earlier this month at the Wild Detectives, a hip bookstore and bar in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District. Mark Lowry Special to the Star-Telegram
Shakespeare at the Bar’s “The Tempest” draws a big crowd earlier this month at the Wild Detectives, a hip bookstore and bar in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District. Mark Lowry Special to the Star-Telegram

Arts & Culture

Where is Fort Worth’s fringe theater scene, and why does it lag behind the one in Dallas?

By Mark Lowry

Special to the Star-Telegram

August 24, 2017 12:15 PM

On a recent warm August night at the Wild Detectives, a hip bookstore and bar in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District, the venue’s back yard was packed with hundreds of patrons excited for Shakespeare in the Bar.

It was the group’s 10th production, this time of “The Tempest.” The event features a “barely rehearsed” cutting of a Shakespeare play, complete with drinking games and minimal but clever costumes and props. It has become such a hit that tickets sell out minutes after they go on sale.

Shakespeare in the Bar is one of Dallas’ hottest theater tickets, and it’s one of several fringe theater events in the city — all byproducts of the long history of Southern Methodist University students looking to create something off the beaten path for theatergoers.

For those who know the arts scene across North Texas, it begs the questions: Why isn’t something like this happening in Fort Worth? And why aren’t Cowtown college students more active in the fringe theater scene?

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Granted, Dallas is a bigger city with more theaters and artists, but Fort Worth is no slouch when it comes to professional and long-running theater companies. Still, it has long lacked a notable independent and fringe theater scene, except for outfits like SceneShop and DragStrip Courage, both of which perform at Arts Fifth Avenue, a tiny multidisciplinary space on the south side.

This could change, however, with the second Fort Worth Fringe Festival, happening Friday and Saturday on Labor Day Weekend in various spaces at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.

“Although Fort Worth has a healthy and thriving theater scene, the Fort Worth Fringe allows theater patrons an opportunity to experience something they might not see on a local theater stage,” says Dennis Yslas, executive director of Fort Worth-based Texas Nonprofit Theatres Inc., which co-produces the fringe fest with the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.

Last year, the inaugural event was in the spring, but Yslas says the plan it to keep it in the Labor Day slot for the foreseeable future. “I love that newly formed Brainstorm Theatre Company is creating an immersive experience, something new to the Fort Worth theater scene, with their [production of Sam Shepard’s] ‘Killer’s Head’ in the Vault space [in the FWCAC basement].”

Theresa Furphy, who is directing “Killer’s Head,” in which one actor (Chuck Huber) is in the electric chair musing on his life, has been a presence on the Fort Worth theater scene for nearly three decades, having been a production manager at Casa Mañana, and now Bass Hall.

“Finding space for a theater production or a recital space in Fort Worth is tough,” she says. “I think for anybody starting an independent theater company it’s a hard road to hoe — getting a space, raising the money. When you’re in a startup you don’t have the money to throw your name out there. …That’s why the Fort Worth Fringe Festival is beneficial.”

Some Cowtown groups have shown that it can be done. DragStrip Courage opens its seventh season in November with a reading of Wallace Shawn’s “The Designated Mourner,” and will co-produce an absurdist classic with Fort Worth theater staple Michael Muller in the spring, both at Arts Fifth Avenue.

“We just wanted to do titles that are not being done,” says Seth Johnston, who founded DragStrip with his wife, Lark. “It’s stuff that main established theaters can’t do because they can’t take that kind of risk. Our audiences are small but [we are] able to fund our next production with each show we do.”

Fort Worth has seen small, independent theater companies crop up over the past two decades — promising outfits like the Box, FireStarter Productions and the Butterfly Connection gave a few years of interesting work, and then left the scene.

Amphibian Stage Productions is the newest professional company to have sprung from a group of college students locally — from Texas Christian University — and the Phibs are approaching 20 years old.

“We have talked about augmenting our program to bring in entrepreneurial theater locally,” says Harry Parker, chairman of the theater department at TCU. “Our focus has been musical theater, and our students are in productions across the Metroplex — and New York is the hub for musical theater, so they often head there out of school.

“SMU also has a graduate program, and they have older students that are more likely to start a storefront theater,” adds Parker, noting that TCU also hosts the 9-year-old Trinity Shakespeare Company, one of the strongest companies in North Texas, using professional and student actors.

Finding affordable, usable space is difficult to come by across North Texas, but it is easier to find in Dallas, given the amount of city-operated performance spaces like Bath House and South Dallas Cultural Center, and initiatives like the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, which offers its auxiliary spaces for smaller and emerging performing arts companies. Additionally, the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs has started granting money to independent artists.

But even those spaces can be cost prohibitive to emerging arts makers, which is why Dallas groups like Dead White Zombies, House Party Theatre and PrismCo Movement Theatre have started in and often stayed in unconventional spaces, such as warehouses and breweries. And yes, even staged Shakespeare at a bar.

Fort Worth Fringe Festival

  • 4 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Sept. 1; 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Sept. 2
  • This year’s lineup includes: mentalist Grant Price; Fort Worth Poetry Society; dance from Jude McCoy, American Classical Ballet Academy and a Polynesian troupe from Midland; short films from the Lone Star Film Society; and theater productions from solo performers EllaBeth Bondo and Lisa Loving Dalton. The headliner is Upstart Productions’ “Lenny Bruce Is Back.”
  • Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy St., Fort Worth
  • $20 per event; festival passes are $50-$105
  • www.texastheatres.org