The Elevator Project, a collaboration initiated by the AT&T Performing Arts Center (ATTPAC) to bring local productions to the smaller performance spaces of the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, has been called a game changer for Dallas-area arts groups. Upstart Productions, a company with several SMU alumni ties, will launch the six-play series with its staging of “Year of the Rooster” August 22-September 6.
For David Denson ’07, Upstart’s artistic director, using the Wyly’s black box theater has a déjà vu feel. During his three years as a student in the M.F.A. program at SMU, Denson directed student productions at Meadows School of the Arts, including in the Margo Jones Theatre, a black box in which the stage and seating can be arranged in multiple configurations.
“The black box allows us to manipulate the space in more creative ways, and the actors to have a more direct and intimate relationship with the audiences,” says Denson, who also is a programmer at ATTPAC.
Under the leadership of Denson and fellow SMU alumni David Miller ’00, president of the board, and Aaron Page ’10, head of the marketing committee, Upstart Productions has spent the last year becoming reacquainted with audiences following a dormant period. It will be the first company to produce “Year of the Rooster,” a play about cockfighting by Eric Dufault, since its New York premiere in fall 2013. Writing in The New York Times, critic Neil Genzlinger called the play “astonishingly entertaining.”
Denson describes it as “a classic hero story about a man who overcomes significant obstacles to find success.” The playwright is looking at “aspects of society that are ugly, uncomfortable or unsavory but in a way that we also experience empathy toward people we’re inclined not to be sympathetic toward,” he adds. One of the most intriguing facets of the drama is that no live animals are used; all roosters are played by actors.
Other SMU alumni involved in the production are Korey Kent ’03, producer; Christopher Ham ’05, scenic and lighting design; and Christina Cook ’05, costume design.
ATTPAC’s Elevator Project provides a high-profile, state-of-the-art venue for small companies in a city with a dearth of affordable performance spaces. Such scarcity was something unfamiliar to Denson, who moved to New York City after he earned his B.F.A. in performance from East Carolina University. Although he tried acting for a while, he found that directing suited his interests better. And there never was a lack of theaters off- and off-off Broadway.
“People go there from college, and if they don’t get hired right away, they gather their friends and put on a show themselves,” he says. “Many actors are part of founding small companies that last a production or two before they fall apart.”
While in New York, Denson served as artistic director of Yazoo City Productions and The Anomalous Collective, directing productions of Kate Chell’s “The Resurrectionist,” Jeff Hirsch’s “Destination and A Private Conversation,” Foster Soloman’s “The Penny Executive: The Maggie L. Walker Story” and Harold Levitt’s “The Song of the Speechless Whore.”
But after 10 years he felt he had hit a glass ceiling with directing and wanted to expand his repertoire through graduate school. At SMU he studied under Greg Leaming and Stan Wojewodski, Jr., Distinguished Professor and chair of the Division of Theatre. “I lucked out and got two great mentors in the process. I had a lot of one-on-one time with Stan, which meant we were able to break down every aspect of directing the plays and analyze them in a way few people have the opportunity to do.”
At SMU Denson directed several productions, including “The Underpants,” “The Good Person of Szechwan” and “Hamlet.”
After SMU he served as artistic associate and resident dramaturg at the Dallas Theater Center’s 2007-08 season, briefly returned to New York, and then moved back to Dallas. He spent two years promoting the arts in Dallas with the Office of Cultural Affairs where he led the campaign to bring the 2013 Theater Communications Group National Conference to Dallas.
Following Upstart Production’s “Year of the Rooster,” The Elevator Project series will continue through summer 2015 with five plays presented by other local companies. Individual tickets are $20 or subscribe to all six plays for $100. Ticket information is available here.
– Susan White ’05