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Promotional image from Festival of Independent Theatres 2014. Courtesy of FIT.

FIT Response Causes Stir Between Critics and Players

There’s been a lot of talk in the local theater community surrounding an article written by Dallas Observer theater critic Elaine Liner, titled “Is It Time to Bring the Curtain Down on Festival of Indie Theaters?” In it, Liner ponders if perhaps the 16-year-old festival—which features one-act plays, many of them world premieres, written by local playwrights, and staged by theater companies that don’t typically have a permanent performance space—hasn’t deteriorated.

“Like an old actor no longer able to remember his lines, maybe the Festival of Independent Theatres needs to be led gently out of the spotlight for good,” she begins. After citing stand-out productions from past years, many of which featured local talent who have since blossomed into big names both locally and nationally (like former “Best of Big D” actor Steven Walters, currently wowing as a sleazy Monsieur Thénardier in Dallas Theater Center’s Les Misérables, and Allison Tolman, Emmy-nominated for her work on FX’s Fargo), Liner shrugs her shoulders at this year’s crop, saying “This summer’s theme seems to be ‘plays designed to make you hate theater.'”

Unsurprisingly, the North Texas theater community is not pleased. Playwright Shelby-Allison Hibbs, whose two-woman play about bipolar disorder, mania/gift, received an invigorating (I thought) production at FIT, wrote on the D-FW Theater Facebook page:

I really think FIT was the incubator for mania/gift. I needed the opportunity to try it out and produce it, so I can see where the next phase of the work should go. This article is just so discouraging and ridiculous.

The original post encouraging discussion about the article, put up by critic Alexandra Bonifield, was taken down when comments got a little personal. I reposted it, and Hibbs expressed a sentiment similar to her original comment.

Drew Wall is a long-term company member of Second Thought Theatre (which was selected as the best theater company in Dallas for this year’s “Best of Big D”), a company that produced some of the previous excellent FIT entries cited by Liner. He wrote on the same original Facebook post, “What good will come from slashing opportunities for artists and smaller companies that don’t have other performance venue options?”

Steven Walters, a Second Thought founder, agreed on the new post:

The only way to grow as an artist, the only way to chase that unicorn, is to see our work in context. FIT provides this context for countless artists at various stages of our careers. For this reason alone, regardless of what any one person or critic believes about the qualitative outcome of any individual endeavor, FIT is essential.

I have only seen two of this year’s FIT offerings: mania/gift produced by Echo Theatre, and The Watch by Trace Crawford, put on by Churchmouse Productions. Therefore, I’m not able to evaluate this year’s offerings as a whole. This is because I spent the majority of my July in Connecticut at the National Critics Institute, which is run by the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center (Elaine Liner has also attended the NCI, as has Mark Lowry and Dallas Observer arts editor Lauren Smart). There with me were the National Playwrights Conference and the National Musical Theater Conference, groups whose sole purpose is to develop and fine-tune new works. Avenue Q, In The Heights, The House of Blue Leaves, and Fences are just a few of the shows that got their start there.

For many of those playwrights and composers, it is the first time they are hearing their words said out loud. Massive changes take place between readings (to which the public can buy tickets), and the creators zero in on what works and what doesn’t. While that kind of immediate change doesn’t necessarily happen during festivals like FIT, the experience still serves as a test kitchen for a work’s later incarnations.

As Walters later commented:

I haven’t seen any FIT shows this year (sadly), ’cause my work schedule prevents it. But irrespective of whether the shows are good or bad, these artists [are] in process. They are learning. They are getting better. And god bless FIT, for giving independent artists a platform to grow, to risk and fail and to be heard.

I know Elaine values festivals. Heck, she produced one earlier this year: the YOLO Solo Fest, held at the Margo Jones Theatre in January. She performed her own play, Sweater Curse: A Yarn About Love, at the Dallas Solo Fest in May, and right now she’s journeying to Scotland to bring that show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the second year in a row. When I reached out to her for a comment, she responded via Facebook chat, “I’ve seen too much good theater to have patience or support for any more bad theater. No excuses.”

What does FIT think about all this? Here’s FIT spokesperson, David Meglino:

The Festival of Independent Theatres is proud of its commitment to supporting new and local talent. As such, we are proud of and will continue to display pride in all of the productions that we have presented over the years, even those that may have failed at the noble endeavor of taking creative risk. Furthermore, we have no personal objection to the writing of this article, but rather applaud its author for being so willing to express, what could be seen as a potentially unpopular opinion, in an effort to raise the level of creative discourse in our community. We appreciate all of the responses that we’ve received thus far, and would like to encourage you all to continue sharing them in a mature and appropriate manner.

Just as I don’t think Elaine can dismiss FIT so easily, I also don’t think the theater community should so easily dismiss her talent as a critic. A lot of the time us critics are the cheerleaders (yes, I’m being serious), and we enter each new production hoping it will be the most amazing thing we’ve seen yet.

But according to Elaine, this year’s FIT fell well short of its potential. Do I agree with her? As I said before, I wasn’t able to see enough of FIT this year to form a solid critical opinion. I don’t agree with her solution to do away with FIT entirely, but when a critic thinks a work is deserving of something other than praise, it’s his or her job to start a discussion. Elaine certainly did that, even if most think that her proposed solution was off the mark. If this article encourages next year’s FIT to produce a stronger lineup, though, then I’d say she did her job, wouldn’t you?