Dallas’ Kalita Humphreys Theater has long been celebrated as one of the finest creations of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But on Tuesday night at the Kalita, Wright’s shining example of architectural harmony was replaced, at least temporarily, by disccord. Even bitterness.
At issue was something called the “equitable access plan.” That’s a requirement imposed by the City of Dallas to create a rental program that provides access for artistic groups that wish to rent the Kalita for performances, rehearsals, even office space.
The plan does not apply to the Tony Award-winning Dallas Theater Center, which has performed in the Kalita since its opening in 1959. In June 2019, the city extended its lease with Dallas Theater Center, giving it the authority to manage the space for five more years in exchange for rent.
And how much rent does Dallas Theater Center pay? $1 a year.
Jeff Rane is co-executive producer and director of production at Uptown Players, which has used the Kalita since 2010. Rane says Uptown Players currently pays $2,230 a week to use the Kalita for performances and rehearsals and $1,130 a week to use it for office space. Rane was among those speaking out Tuesday night, saying the proposed price hike under the equitable access plan is far too high.
Under the new plan, he says, the price to rent the Kalita would escalate from the current $2,230 a week to $7,000 a week — an increase of almost 214%. The increase is scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1, hence the reason for Tuesday night’s public exchange.
Come Wednesday, it appears as though Tuesday night’s passionate opposition was having an effect.
The equitable access plan was approved in March, said Benjamin Espino, interim director of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture. But after Tuesday’s meeting, the leadership of Dallas Theater Center “and I will be meeting,” he added, “because we really do feel we received a lot of input as to how high the rental rates are.”
Their new meeting will be planned for next week, “and we will see how we can make the rates more affordable. And then obviously we will work collaboratively and meet with Second Thought Theater and Uptown Players in the next few weeks.”
Indeed, Uptown Players was not alone in speaking out against the inflationary plan. Others included Second Thought Theaterwhich wants to continue using Bryant Hall, a black-box space adjacent to the Kalita; Soul Rep Theater, which would like to use the Kalita; and representatives for Kitchen Dog Theater, Cara Mía Theater Co.and even the Addison-based WaterTower Theater.
Those sitting onstage, fielding questions and often angry comments from those aiming to the price hike, were Espino; Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center; and Jennifer Burr Altabef, chair of the board of trustees at the theater center. About 100 people attended the event, which was also carried live on Facebook.
“I thought it was a great meeting,” Moriarty said Wednesday, noting that the City Council had asked Dallas Theater Center to make the Kalita available to other groups in addition to Uptown Players and Second Thought Theater “and to do so at market rates and to make more weeks available over time.”
Arts organizations right now are financially hurting, he said, “and any opportunity to find ways to make space or essential things available at the most affordable rates is what all of us need.”
After new meetings with OAC and various theater companies, “I suspect that, at the end,” Moriarty said, “we will have something that will make everybody really happy by the start of the new theatrical season,” which begins Sept. 1.
Some of those interviewed Wednesday said the new prices being quoted for the Kalita fly in the face of the Dallas Cultural Plan, which the City Council adopted unanimously in 2018 as a blueprint for what it called equity and inclusion. Some also cited the absence of accessible performing space as being among the objectives of the Cultural Plan.
“This is very important to us,” Espino said, calling it “one of the six priorities of the Cultural Plan. So, I really believe that we need to make sure that we have equitable access to the Kalita Humphreys Theater, as was the spirit of the plan.”
Rane says local theater companies did not learn of the price hikes until early this year and were immediately alarmed. To use his own theater as an example, Rane says Uptown Players was paying upwards of $130,000 a year to use the Kalita for both productions and office space.
In April, the Dallas Theater Center offered Uptown Players a package of discounts that reduced its weekly production rent to about $6,000 a week, which Rane says was “still more than double” what the company had paid before.
The Dallas Theater Center has responded by saying that the price hikes are necessary to hire additional staff to oversee and maintain the aging theater, once it becomes available to a wider range of occupants. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the Kalita will lie dormant for an undetermined time, because the theater center and the city plan to modernize the theater and its surrounding campus in the Oak Lawn neighborhood.
When the long-promised renovation will begin and how long it will last remain uncertain, as does its final cost. Rane says the estimated minimum price tag for the project as a whole is upwards of $80 million.
Uptown Players describes itself as “North Texas’ only professional LGBTQ+ theater company.” Due largely to issues surrounding the Kalita, it has embarked on a $350,000 capital campaign to move into “a new space for set building, rehearsals and storage” in the Dallas Design District.
Uptown Players debuted in 2001 and is currently staging a production of the Tony Award-winning Kinky Boots, which so far has drawn five out of seven sold-out crowds to the Kalita, whose current capacity is 430 seats. Uptown Players stages “five to six” productions a year at the Kalita, where, Rane says, Dallas Theater Center currently stages “two to three.” Dallas Theater Center’s primary home is the Wyly Theater in the Dallas Arts District.
Under its current five-year, $1-a-year contract extension with the city, Dallas Theater Center is required to present a master plan for the renovation and restoration of the Kalita, which will also extend to building one or more new facilities to replace Bryant Hall.
The master plan was supposed to be presented to the city by the end of 2021, but Dallas Theater Center was given an additional year because of COVID-19.
Rane says he is part of a 15-member steering committee — he is, he says, “the only member of an arts organization on the committee” — to help guide renovations and updates of the campus.
The architectural fee being paid by Dallas Theater Center is, he says, somewhere “between $750,000 and $1 million” for the overall design plan.
Once the renovation plan is submitted to the City Council, which expects to receive it by the end of 2022, the council will vote on whether or not to allocate funding for it in the 2024 bond election, with the Dallas Theater Center responsible for raising the remainder of what it will cost to fund the renovation of the campus as a whole.
So, why is the Kalita valuable?
“It is unique,” Rane says, “in being a very intimate performance space that can seat an audience of close to 450 people. The Irving Arts Center has 700 seats but does not have that intimacy. Moody Performance Hall has 750 seats but does not have that intimacy.”
At the Kalita, he says, audience members can see the facial expressions of the cast members, something most in the crowd cannot possibly do at the Winspear Opera House or the Music Hall at Fair Park. And Uptown Players in particular loves the Kalita, he says, because so many members of the LGBTQ+ community live in Oak Lawn.