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Is The Elevator Project Going Places?

J  FolsomeditJoey Folsom as Odysseus Rex, the the mean little fighting rooster in Upstart Productions’ Year of the Rooster

If you’ve seen a Dallas Theater Center show like Les Miz at the Wyly Theatre, it’s most likely been in the big space. To get to the new series called the Elevator Project, you head upstairs to the sixth floor. That’s where, for the first time, six small theater and dance companies will perform. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, the Elevator Project may also give a longer-lasting lift for some of these groups.

The Elevator Project:

Upstart Productions, Year of the Rooster
Danielle Georgiou Dance Group, DGDG– Nice
Dallas Actor’s Lab, TBA
African-American Repertory Theater (AART), Radio Golf
Cara-Mia Theater Co., Lydia
Second Thought Theatre, Bull

It’s the first play in the Elevator Project, so it’s only fitting it opens with a rooster crowing. It’s a new day, and Joey Folsom, who plays the fierce young bantam in the Upstart Productions show, challenges his mortal enemy, the sun: “Get up now! C’mon, you big celestial ball of light. C’mon sun, get up and get ready for your beating! You’re a coward! You’re a coward and this is my year!”

Year of the Rooster is Eric Dufault’s comedy about swaggering masculinity, its failures, its resentments, all set in the grim, sweaty, little world of cockfighting and gambling And that’s fitting, too, because the Elevator Project is a bit of a gamble. Six small theater and dance companies – ones that typically work in the Bath House or Latino Cultural Centers – are going to all the effort of staging just one show each in the Studio Theatre, the upstairs space at the Wyly Theatre.

Why?

Because, David Denson says, there’s “a dearth of small performance spaces in Dallas.” Denson is artistic director of Upstart Productions, and he’s senior rental sales manager for the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which runs the Wyly. So he knows both sides, the ups and downs, as it were, of the Elevator Project.

“Most of the groups in the Elevator Project,” he explains, “are performing in spaces that are not nearly as nice and are out of the way. So an audience has to really want to go there. What the Arts District does is remove all those obstacles.”

David DensoneditNormally, the Studio Theatre is used by the Dallas Theater Center, not just for performances but for classes. But the Theater Center is facing scheduling difficulties, so for much of its new season, it’s hightailed it back to the Kalita Humphreys Theater, its old home. That left the Studio Theatre mostly empty.

Chris Heinbaugh is a vice president for the AT&T Performing Arts Center: “We know it’s only going to be a short time frame. But it just seemed like an interesting way to do something that might stimulate interest in the theater, beyond what it’s getting used for now, but also that might be supportive of some of these smaller groups.”

David Denson, Upstart’s artistic director

In addition to Upstart, the selected groups are Cara Mia Theatre, African-American Rep, Dallas Actor’s Lab, Danielle Georgeiou Dance Group and Second Thought Theatre — all of them have done estimable work in the past but they have obvious limitations in terms of staff, audience and funding. So they get their hands on some of the best lighting equipment in the city, while the PAC gets some warm bodies on the sixth floor. In fact, the Elevator Project is only one way the space is getting filled. Shakespeare Dallas’ popular staged readings of Shakespeare’s plays are moving in, as is Oral Fixation – that’s the true-life storytelling series.

One reason for this rush to the Studio Theatre is that the Arts District doesn’t really have small theater spaces. The new City Performance Hall has proved itself a welcome addition to the district, especially for mid-sized dance and music groups, but with 750 seats, it’s still too large and too costly for many smaller companies. The Elevator Project may not provide a long-term solution for this need. In all likelihood, it’ll be around for just one season. But with the chance to use a top-notch facility and possibly gain increased exposure, why wouldn’t a company want to hit the up button?

Well, as Denson explains, the Project could be a life-or-death choice for a small theater.

“We’re at a place,” he says of Upstart,”where we either need to grow an audience or kind of go away.” Why should it go on if it merely survives? What’s more, he says, Dallas’ spectrum of theaters is very limited. “We have one really large organization, just a handful of medium-sized and all these small organizations, and we have to start filling out those levels.” Someone in this swarm of smaller companies needs to put d “And my hope is that this is where Upstart starts to grow an audience and build beyond, like I say, this three-man band.”

Given that, given that these companies have only one shot in the Wyly between now and next spring, they may want to heed the advice of the cockfight promoter in The Year of the Rooster, played by Gregory Hullet.

So let’s fight. Fight til your hair falls out! Fight like a killer! Fight like you ain’t never fought before!