August 21, 2017

How many people does it take to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest? When you’re using it as a way to forge new relationships across Dallas neighborhoods and community organizations, you’d have as many as 200 people, of whom only a handful were professional actors. And Meadows School of the Arts at SMU played a major role in bringing the event to fruition.

In late February, only one week before this musical version of The Tempest was scheduled to open, an evening rehearsal resembled controlled chaos. Director Kevin Moriarty, also Dallas Theater Center’s artistic director, raised his voice to be heard above the din coming from the rehearsal room on the ninth floor of the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas. Children of all ages (the youngest at 4), who were playing island spirits, squirmed in the staging area while their parents, seated in chairs that lined the sides of the room, chatted with one another.

Other ensemble members were still arriving from work after slogging through Dallas commuter traffic. SMU theatre alumnus Ace Anderson ’13, a member of Dallas Theater Center’s Brierley Resident Acting Company and one of only five professional actors in the cast, rushed in and polished off a fast-food dinner he had picked up on his way in.

Moriarty told the company to start with a banquet in Scene Six. Sitting next to him was Maria Calderon Zavala ’20, a first-year SMU theatre major from Mexico City, who translated into Spanish his directions for many of the adults and children in the ensembles. When words failed him, Moriarty moved to the center of the room and pantomimed his desires for the scene, reminding everyone that time was precious and repetition was necessary to get the movement right.

Not in the room were members of seven local arts groups whose performances would be inserted into the action, including flamenco dancers, an elementary school choir, a high school drumline, a brass band, Aztec dancers, a church choir and Dark Circles Contemporary Dance Company, founded by SMU alumnus Joshua Peugh ’06.

An observer couldn’t help but wonder: With only one week left, could this become a polished performance?

‘Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On’

Seeds for the project were planted in 2015, when SMU presented the Meadows Prize to Lear deBessonet, director of Public Works – an initiative of The Public Theater that engages the citizens of New York City as theater creators as well as spectators, blurring the line between professional artists and community members.

In 2013, Public Works staged in New York’s Central Park a contemporary adaptation of The Tempest by Todd Almond, who transformed it with music and lyrics.

The Tempest is a 400-year-old play about magic, vengeance, forgiveness and redemption.

On a remote island the sorcerer Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place. Through illusion, he conjures up a storm to shipwreck on the island his usurping brother, Antonio, and the complicit King Alonso of Naples. His manipulations reveal Antonio’s treachery, the King’s redemption and the marriage of Miranda to Alonso’s son, Ferdinand.

For her Meadows Prize project, deBessonet spearheaded a new co-production of The Tempest between the Meadows School, which made a $200,000 commitment, and the Dallas Theater Center. Moriarty and Clyde Valentín – director of Meadows’ Ignite/Arts Dallas, an engagement initiative between SMU and the local arts community – had witnessed the New York performance. Moriarty said they wondered “if such a New York-specific idea could take root and flourish in Dallas.” Meadows School and SMU’s Ignite/Arts Dallas collaborated withDallas Theater Center to make Dallas the first city outside New York to develop its own version of Public Works.

Since 2015, SMU and Dallas Theater Center have built partnerships with five local organizations that support low-income and underserved populations in Dallas: Jubilee Park and Community Center, Vickery Meadow Learning Center, Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT), Bachman Lake Together and City of Dallas Park and Recreation. Local actors, including SMU theatre alumna Lydia Mackay ’08, and SMU theatre artist-in-residence Will Power led workshops and classes for the last half of 2016 to transform the five organizations’ community members into stage-ready performers.

“I knew this would be a challenging proposition for our respective institutions because it would require us to collaborate more closely than maybe we have in the past,” Valentín said. “I knew it would be a challenging proposition for the actual participants because we were going to work with people who had no real relationship or history with the Dallas Theater Center or the Arts District in general. And it would be a challenge to get our theater students involved in engaging and meaningful ways beyond performing on stage.”

Both Public Works Dallas and Valentín were committed to paying the SMU students who served as teaching artist assistants at the community centers and as production assistants and volunteer coordinators at the Dallas Theater Center. Valentín set aside Ignite/Arts Dallas funds for such a purpose and actively pursued additional gifts from SMU donors through the Mustangs Give Back one-day giving challenge.

‘Be Not Afeard’

Eleven SMU undergraduates worked on The Tempest. Some served as teaching assistants in the workshops that led up to the auditions for the performance. Others assisted on set, costume, hair and makeup design, and with the run crew and dance ensemble. Still others were volunteer and community coordinators. James Michael Williams ’18, who is earning an MA/MBA in Meadows’ arts management program, served as assistant to Dayron Miles, director of Public Works Dallas.

Sophomore theatre major Kassy Amoi ’19 worked with Will Power as a teaching assistant in storytelling and movement workshops at Literacy Instruction for Texas, and during the performances led the sand spirits ensemble.

“Will and Kassy gently involved every single student to bring out hidden talents that even our students didn’t know they had,” said SMU alumna Lisa Hembry ’75, LIFT president and CEO. About 98 percent of LIFT’s students are adults who have learning differences such as dyslexia and ADHD and have never learned to read, or adults who never graduated from high school and are studying to obtain their high school equivalency certificates. As a result, Hembry says, “LIFT’s students are always wary when it comes to working with new people because generally they have suffered embarrassment, ridicule and bullying their entire lives.”

Amoi, who had previously worked on reading programs with children, discovered that working with adults who have literacy issues was very different. “Many were severely shy. I had to learn how to explain things a bit better, and in a more positive and reinforced way,” he said. “I found that while many of them weren’t experienced in school, a lot were experienced in life, with inspired, powerful stories.” Amoi took pride in the fact that one of his students, Felisha Blanton, was cast in the supporting role of Sebastia. “She’s a natural comedienne, and took on the role fully and openly. She went from being unsure in the room to being completely comfortable with what she had to say while on stage. It was nice to see her blossom.”

Volunteer coordinator Kaylyn Buckley ’17, who graduated in May with a degree in theatre studies with concentrations in stage management and directing, thought working with The Tempest in a managerial capacity would provide real-world applications to her studies. She began work in November and visited each of the centers during auditions, collaborated with all department heads to evaluate their volunteer needs, communicated with Public Works Dallas as she developed the architecture of the volunteer program and recruited volunteers from the SMU community.

“I’d never participated in anything like this – I’m not sure that anyone outside of Public Works has,” Buckley said. “It’s truly a beast unlike anything else.”

Liz Mikel as Ariel.

Dallas Theater Center resident company actor Liz Mikel performs the role of Ariel.

Dark Circles Contemporary Dance Company members perform during the wedding scene.

Members of the Dark Circles Contemporary Dance Company, founded by SMU alumnus Joshua Peugh ’06, perform during the wedding scene.

Caliban plots with clowns against Prospero.

Alex Organ as the monster Caliban plots with clowns Ace Anderson (right) and Rodney Garza against Prospero.

“It’s not just managing 200 cast members, 50-plus crew members and 100-plus volunteers, but also being acutely sensitive to how you’re saying things, the experience you’re creating and navigating a language barrier,” she explains. “You want to cultivate a positive experience for cast members who have never been involved in the arts, many of whom have learning disabilities, are not native English speakers and who are living in poverty. I’d have to be very direct, forward and efficient with 28 Junior League members simultaneously looking to volunteer, then immediately modify my tone and delivery as soon as a cast member approached.”

Theatre/theatre studies major Christina Sittser ’17, who also graduated in May, gained performing experience in her native St. Louis before coming to SMU, attracted by numerous scholarships. For The Tempest, she served as a teaching assistant for acting classes at Bachman Lake Together and at Jubilee Park and Community Center, and during the performances was captain of the water spirits. “I really loved the work. I saw kids so shy at first that they would keep their faces down. It was beautiful to watch them grow as actors and open up more. I didn’t understand that at the end of the show I would leave pieces of my heart behind with these people. It made me think more about the role of community in theater. Listen to what people in the community want and need and then incorporate that into theater.”

‘Our Revels Now Are Ended’

SMU alumnus Ace Anderson as Trinculo.

SMU theatre alumnus Ace Anderson ’13 played the clown role of Trinculo.

When the opening performance on March 3 began, the Wyly had been transformed into a remote island, all the performances flowed seamlessly and the production worked like magic. Audiences were astounded by a type of community performance never seen before in Dallas. Theater Jones critic David Novinski described it as “the ‘you had to be there’ theatrical event of the year.”

Valentín said the success of the show was not just in what audiences saw but also what they couldn’t see: the interactions, bonding and trust-building at the community centers. “It shows what’s possible when you take this large-scale participatory theater approach, treating it as you would any other show in the Dallas Theater Center season that requires the same level of quality, rigor and diligence. We did it! We proved that we can create exceptional, high-quality art with nonprofessionals alongside professionals in a nurturing, safe environment for all those participants, so the space and work truly will begin to feel like it’s theirs. And, it was my hope that our students were transformed by this project as well. What we were able to create for those five weeks was truly exceptional.”

SMU and Dallas Theater Center will use the same model and continue the relationship with the community centers for the next Public Works Dallas production, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, to be staged in September 2018. At that time, Sam Weber ’18 – a Dedman College Scholar majoring in biological sciences, health and society, and chemistry – will be busy applying for medical school but hopes to return as a dance assistant fellow.

“Working with Public Works Dallas is one of the best experiences I’ve had in college,” Weber said. “I’d grown up doing theater and I’ve taught dance and choreography to non-dancers before, so that wasn’t a big shock. But meeting all the extraordinary people and hearing their stories was so special. It was really motivating to work with people who had never done performance art before, but got it; they understood movement and narrative. It really reaffirms how art is truly innate in all people.” Before the final production of The Tempest, director Kevin Moriarty stepped on stage to address the audience. He noted the monumental effort from numerous entities to bring the project to fruition and thanked SMU for its collaboration and support. He said, “Shakespeare belongs to all of us, not only a select few. Our city is at its best when all of us have the opportunity to create, and we are at our strongest and most joyful when we come together.”

– Story by Susan White ’05 with photography by Kim Leeson, unless otherwise credited