Despite refocusing the 2020-2021 season on virtual or outdoor programming and navigating ongoing economic uncertainty in the years since, Stage West is stronger than ever.
“We’re teeming with energy and excitement,” said director Dana Schultes.
The troupe is excited about an expansive overhaul of their multi-room facility on the Near Southside. After raising funds for several renovation projects in 2019, Stage West took the lockdown as an opportunity to revamp their space to include a bar and cafe near the entrance, better plumbing, a new patio, and refurbished stages and offices. The upgrades allow the company to rent office and meeting space to outside groups.
“We feel fortunate,” she said. “We’re adding five positions this year, another calculated risk. We will have fewer departments of one employee working under the stress of growth. We plan to grow in a healthy way that provides for work-life balance.”
Stage West’s expansion is unique at a time when, across the country and in North Texas, many theater groups have turned to downsizing to shore up revenue losses stemming from a drop in attendance and other challenges. In May, Dallas Theater Center laid off an undisclosed number of staffers as it struggles to rebound from the pandemic. In July, the Hollywood Reporter said that, unlike Broadway, which has seen a rebound, theater attendance has dropped over the past several years due to inflation and labor shortages.
Garret Storms, Stage West’s associate producer, said North Texas weathers workforce shortages due to the deep pool of stage talent which stems from the region’s steady growth. Maintaining robust audience numbers requires thoughtful programming, the directors added.
“People need to see themselves in the literature,” Schultes said. “If you see yourself [represented], you think, ‘I belong there.’ ”
The balance between presenting works that are entertaining and edgy is key, Storms added.
“We are always looking for what’s new,” he said. “That could mean an adaptation. We are competing with people’s couches, Netflix, and Hulu. We are trying to convince people that the thing we are offering is worthy of their time and money.”
With a contentious and undoubtedly divisive presidential election next year, Stage West’s theme for this season is “fun.”
Opener Once Upon a Mattress, co-produced with Theatre TCU, is a readaptation of the popular musical that premiered in 1959. Storms, who is directing the production, said Stage West’s version will be set in a 1950s high school library.
“Typically, the show takes place in a medieval world,” he said. “It’s a big Golden Age show. We are reimagining it a little bit.”
Poor Clare, running from late November through mid-December, is set in medieval Italy but has contemporary cultural references.
The play that reimagines the life of St. Clare of Assisi “has a lot to say about our world and material items and how we can be better toward one another,” Schultes said. “We spend so much time focused on gifts. This play, for me, turns that around. We can think about others and what their needs are. She gave up everything and thought of the poor.”
Stage West opens 2024 with a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Marjorie Prime explores the line between AI and human consciousness.
“This has been on our radar for many, many years,” Schultes said. “AI can be the placeholder for our memories. What does that mean for our society?”
Politically savvy but nonpartisan POTUS centers on a clueless president who leaves a team of female White House staffers scrambling to fix his daily blunders before things devolve into a PR nightmare.
“POTUS doesn’t disclose a political party,” Schultes said. “You could decide while you’re watching who that president is. It is a funny, foul-mouthed farce.”
As summer returns, the Stage West team presents Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear. The Fort Worth production, Storms said, is less broody than typical reenactments of the fictional detective.
“These characters are fun,” he said. “Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde are part of the mystery.”
Schultes said the main characters will age by one decade as they return every summer over three years.
The 2023-2024 season concludes next September with The Importance of Being Earnest.
“Stage West has a history of presenting the classics,” Schultes said. “We try to have a specific lens through which we produce classic shows. We want it to feel familiar but have surprises.”
The company, she continued, has an obligation to evolve as a means of engaging new and younger audiences.
“We are the second generation,” she said, referring to the current team that carries on the work of Stage West founder Jerry Russell, who died in 2013. “We are intentionally doing everything we can to foster this organization’s health and growth, knowing that a third generation will one day have to take over. Long after we’re gone, we hope Stage West is still a thriving, important, and relevant theater commons for our community.”