When the Dallas Theater Center opened Into the Woods earlier this month, the tension backstage could only be described as agonizing. Just days earlier, 37 staff members, including the entire acting company, were informed that they would be laid off following the company’s gala in mid-May.
Over the past few months, the news coming out of the theatre has been increasingly troubling. When Jeffrey Woodward stepped down as managing director last fall, longtime artistic director Kevin Moriarty made the surprising move into the role of executive director. Then in late March, the theatre announced that financial troubles had waylaid the company’s plans to renovate the Kalita Humphreys Theatre, the historic but declining Frank Lloyd Wright building leased to DTC by the city for $1 a year.
Now, as of mid-April, DTC has yet to announce a 2023-24 season, and the company’s layoffs, which have been communicated to staff as being permanent, have nearly halved its employee roster.
Initially the plan had been to furlough the staff. In early March, Moriarty called a company-wide meeting after a rehearsal for the Sondheim/Lapine fairy-tale musical. There he announced that the theatre was canceling all summer programming and apologized that staff hadn’t being alerted about the furloughs sooner.
Almost a month later, near the end of a Friday afternoon tech rehearsal, crew members, stage managers, actors, and various other staffers received a calendar invite to a gathering on Monday—their one day off before dress rehearsals—at which they would receive the terms of their dismissal. They were being fired four days before the show opened.
“The official email said, ‘You’re having a meeting to discuss what’s happening with your position,’” said one backstage crew member, who asked their name not be used, as it might put their severance package at risk. “It was a stressful weekend of rehearsals, because everyone knew what was going to happen.”
For acting company members, the arrangement returns them to their pre-2020 contract status. During the pandemic, all 10 of the Brierly Resident Acting Company members were offered full-time employment at DTC. As one performer, Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, described it, this meant that when they weren’t in rehearsals or performing shows, they assisted with public-facing initiatives and attended company meetings. Ramirez recalled a six-week period during which he spent his time working on a play about Desi Arnaz; he got through about 25 pages of a script and worked with a drum teacher. Now, he said, actors have been told their full-time employment ends May 15, after which they will be contracted on a show-by-show basis.
“It’s unfortunate any way that you look at it, but at the same time, what an incredible thing to have been on salary for the past two years,” Ramirez says. “It was a very brave and admirable decision to do that with an acting company.”
Moriarty declined an interview but sent along a prepared statement, previously excerpted in the Dallas Morning News: “Our organization has made the challenging decision to reduce our workforce to ensure the financial stability and future of the company. We understand the impact that our decisions will have on our institution and we are grateful for the contributions that our staff has made to the theatre, our community, and our audiences. We are hopeful that our community will continue to support Dallas Theater Center, and [that] we remain a healthy and vibrant organization for generations to come.”
None of the staffers and acting company members I spoke with were surprised by the need for money-saving measures. One staffer said that the deficit has been reported internally to be higher than $2 million (I couldn’t confirm this, because 990s for the past two tax years are unavailable and Moriarty declined to comment). Like many theatres across the country, DTC has had trouble drawing large audiences, and has faced a staggering drop-off in subscriptions as well as a decrease in donations since the pandemic. But as Into the Woods director and choreographer and former artistic associate Joel Ferrell pointed out, the decline started long before then.
“The statement in the paper suggested it was primarily the pandemic, but as far as I can tell the theatre was struggling before,” Ferrell said. “I feel like the machinery that is the American nonprofit regional theatre has known for 30 years that the world was changing underneath us.”
What happens next for DTC is uncertain. Other theatres have launched campaigns pleading with their donors to give more or give sooner. Oregon Live recently reported that Oregon Shakespeare Festival launched a campaign to raise $2.5 million this year to save the 2023 season, and has suspended moving forward with plans for 2024.
DTC’s director of communications, Brittani Wilkins, said that DTC plans to announce its 2023-24 season in mid-May. She wrote in an email: “It will be a full season, complete with exciting titles that I believe our audience base will truly enjoy.” I’ve heard from some sources that the first show of the coming season will be The Rocky Horror Show. For now, though, the theatre has to make its way out of the woods.
Lauren Smart (she/her) is an arts writer and journalism professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
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