David Fisher, the Assistant Director of Dallas’ Office of Cultural Affairs, can’t believe his brainchild, the Festival of Independent Theatres (FIT) is 20 years old. The festival intended to support small theater companies and independent artists is celebrating its twentieth anniversary with its usual colorful diversity of shows, now running at the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas through August 4.
Fisher was the theater coordinator on the verge of becoming the manager of the Bath House Cultural Center in 1998 when he recognized an artistic opportunity for theater companies regularly producing at the cultural center to share audiences and make the Bath House Cultural Center a destination.
“I had this holistic view of the theater community and one of the things I realized as someone coming from the theater myself was that all of us had projects we were passionate about that never rose to the occasion of being put in their season,” Fisher said.
For six months, Fisher and his team planned the festival, creating a schedule of one-act performances paired in two-show blocks, essentially giving audiences an opportunity to see two productions for the price of one.
“You might come to see your best friend who was in the first show and stay for the second and say, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard about that theater company. When I hear about them later in the season at the Bath House, I’ll come back,’” Fisher said.
That formula has remained the same since the festival’s debut in 1999. The festival showcases eight shows from eight different companies, and over four weekends, the shows are paired differently to increase the diversity of the experience. Participating companies change each year, but WingSpan Theatre Company has participated in the festival every year. Susan Sargeant, WingSpan Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director, remembers the early days of the festival.
“The original goal was very grassroots. This was before social media platforms. This was even before email was a big push. We were merging mailing lists. We were sitting around a table, slapping labels on postcards,” Sargeant said. “Our hope was to get our banner out there.”Introducing themselves to Dallas audiences remains a central goal for emerging companies participating in FIT. “It is one of the handful of opportunities in this town for new artists to unabashedly and unapologetically try something that they wouldn’t otherwise try because it’s a fairly low-risk scenario,” Isaac Young, the playwright and star of Eccentric Bear Theatre Co’s The Book of Gabe.
The Book of Gabe is this company’s first production and its debut at FIT. “It’s an opportunity to meet a wide range of audiences that we might not have otherwise found on our own,” Young said. “Also, to interact with other artists, to have the opportunity night after night to be in the same space and talk.”
FIT is an artistic challenge for veteran producers and directors like Sargeant. “For me, it’s a testing ground to keep WingSpan’s work viable in the marketplace,” Sargeant said. She feeds off the collaborative energy of FIT, making sure to see all eight shows.
WingSpan Theatre Company’s contribution to FIT is Harold Pinter’s Landscape, a two-person one-act show focusing on the relationship between the characters. The show reflects Sargeant’s personal career trajectory and interest and her company’s artistic development.
“It echoes where I’ve been lately, but it’s a different route, a different flight plan,” Sargeant said. “It’s about a relationship, about a marriage, about a division of a mature relationship. It’s about the human condition.”
Young’s show is an experiment, the kind of risk FIT encourages. “Gabe has been fired as God’s left-hand man, not his right-hand man and now he’s ready to tell his side of the story,” Young said. “It’s wacky and it’s a big dumb idea. I want to see what happens.”
Young is using FIT to gauge the audience’s reaction to the work. “There’s a lot of audience confrontation,” Young said. “I don’t know what’s going to come of that and you can’t rehearse that. You can’t possibly prepare for that and I am all together excited and terrified to see what people will say to this frumpy little angel chain-smoking and drinking from a flask.”
Devoted fans of FIT expect that sort of adventurous experimentation. “One of the biggest things I’ve seen over the years is because the audience has become so dedicated, it’s allowed more new companies and risky work,” Fisher said.
With a combination of classics and new work, the audience never knows what it might discover and that’s the greatest appeal of FIT. “That fresh Christmas morning surprise of never knowing what you’re going to get, this fresh buffet, this little taste of this and little taste of that has remained the same,” Fisher said.
“That’s the magic of FIT,” Sargeant said.