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60-year-old Theatre 3 survives a makeover, tries TikTok and finds new audiences in Dallas and beyond

Artistic director Jeff Schmidt in Theatre 3's new lobby
Jerome Weeks
/
KERA News
Artistic director Jeff Schmidt in Theatre 3's new lobby - with the theater's old sign

Next week, Dallas' second oldest stage company opens its 60th season. But it's hardly preparing for retirement.

At the moment, Theatre 3 is being physically transformed — and gaining new audiences. And it's doing this while putting on shows in the midst of what sometimes resembles World War I trench warfare.

Of course, pretty much every North Texas performing arts group has its tales of COVID woe: cancelled shows, performers and staff members falling ill, revenues plummeting.

But few have also had a huge, muddy pit dug right next door — six floors deep.

Underground garage being dug for the Quadrangle - next door to Theatre 3
Jerome Weeks
/
KERA News
The Quadrangle's new underground garage being dug. Theatre 3 is to the right, just out of camera frame.

The Quadrangle, the office-and-retail center in Uptown which has been Theatre 3's home since 1969, is being completely overhauled. The idea is to return it to origins as a "walkable, mixed-use destination."

To that end, most of it's already been demolished, including the former Dream Café and the various restaurants and clubs around it -- leaving Theatre 3 next to a vast hole that will become an underground garage.

Eventually, the garage will have a twelve-story office tower built on top. That means the noise and construction chaos next door will continue for at least another two years.

But Theatre 3 has gotten something substantial out of all this. Stream Realty, which owns the Quadrangle, has given the theater a larger, better-equipped, brand-new entrance and lobby -- for free.

"Well, it hasn't come without a cost," said a smiling Jeffrey Schmidt, the theater's artistic director. He said the recent run of the play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was delayed and disrupted by COVID -- and construction issues.

"Because of debris, all of the sewer lines backed up in the new lobby," Schmidt said. "So -- that was fun. But it's just the process of construction."

Map of the new Quadrangle complex in Uptown
Stream Realty
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Map of the new Quadrangle complex in Uptown

In fact, Stream has been conscientous with the theater's situation, Schmidt said — starting with the fact that it was willing to buy and rebuild the Quadrangle with Theatre 3 remaining as a significant asset.

The result is the biggest re-do of Theatre 3 in more than 30 years — back when the late artistic director Jac Alder employed his architecture background to redesign the tiny lobby, offices and the downstair spaces.

Now the lobby is big enough to hold a grand piano, two restrooms, a real box office and space for a small cabaret.

But there's been a different transformation going on as well -- one that's not so noisy.

"It started happening prior to the pandemic," Schmidt said. "We saw this shift of more diverse, younger crowds coming to see shows. Even during the pandemic, our audience numbers didn't drop. But who was coming definitely shifted."

Schmidt credited the new shows he's been presenting for all the new and diferent theatergoers. Two years ago, Dallas performer-playwright Denise Lee's comedic drama, Funny You Don't Act Like a Negro, was heading to be the season's biggest draw -- then COVID hit. This year's hit was a farcical musical comedy about Stede Bonnet, a real-life pirate who was so clueless his crew deserted him to join Blackbeard. In a performance that kept the show sailing along, Parker Gray played Bonnet as a foppish upper-class twit and hilarious coward who eventually fights back (more or less).

To premiere a new musical (this one was conceived and written by Nicole Neely with music and lyrics by Clint Gilbert) is a major gamble for a theater. But Schmidt said the gamble paid off: Around 700 people who saw Stede Bonnet also saw Theatre 3 for the first time.

First-timers like Whitney Longcrier. The marketing support specialist from Wichita Falls follows theater in Dallas. And having already seen the touring company of Come from Away at the Music Hall, she wanted to expose her boyfriend to some more musical theater. So they went to see Stede.

"I just thought it sounded quirky and fun," she said.

But it's the theater itself that's likely to draw her back. Theatre 3 has only 242 seats. It's one of the few stages in North Texas that's designed to be in-the-round.

"It's a smaller, more intimate space," Longcrier said. "And I remember just the energy in the room during the performance was electric."

Theatre 3's new entrance is its old rear entrance.
Jerome Weeks
/
KERA News
Theatre 3's new entrance is its old rear exit. Part of the new lobby to the left is where the original Dream Cafe stood. The sign is deliberately reminiscent of Theatre 3's original sign when it was on Main Street in Deep Ellum.

Theatre 3 also got lucky. Stede Bonnet happens to be the main character in the popular HBO comedy series, Our Flag Means Death. For the role of Blackbeard, the show features writer-director Taika Waititi, the eccentric talent behind Jojo Rabbit and Thor: Love and Thunder. Inevitably, internet interest in Bonnet himself boomed and fans discovered the little musical in Dallas.

"People flew from out of state to see that show," Schmidt said. "It was really exciting to see people walk up to the theater of all of sizes, shapes, colors, identities. It was really exciting."

Schmidt knows the HBO draw for Bonnet was a fluke. But he pointed out that last year, Theatre 3's outdoor staging of the classic musical, The Music Man, also drew 500 first-timers — with no nationwide streaming tie-in.

"I think we're viewed as a fun place to be now," said Schmidt. "A lot of that has to do with social media engagement."

Theatre 3's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Kris Ikejiri
/
Theatre 3
Theatre 3's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with Jeffrey Schmidt, Felipe Carrasco and Christie Vela

That's how Meagan Black, who works in marketing in Dallas, learned about Stede Bonnet.

"I had seen a lot of rumblings on social media about it," she said. "And then I saw a TikTok and it was like a little clip of the show. And that got me really excited."

One of those TikTok videos (above) garnered more than 450,000 views. Theater 3 has flooded its social media outlets with such clips, short videos that often feature Schmidt or associate artistic director Christie Vela in tongue-in-cheek performances that often have only a slight or sly relevance to an upcoming production.

"Christie and I are not afraid to look like fools in a video," Schmidt said. "And frankly, it's fun."

When Theatre 3 opened in 1961, Jac Alder was one of the original founding trio. Alder led the company until his death seven years ago -- one of the longest tenures of any founding theater director in the country.

But since Schmidt took the reins in 2017, Theatre 3 has increasingly reflected a different sensibility -- and these days, a different audience.

It's Jeffrey Schmidt's theater now.

Theatre Three opens its 60th season with a revival of Big Scary Animals, a comedy of small-town Texans encountering gay life in the big city. Previews begin tonight, Sept. 1, opening night is Monday, Sept. 5, and the show runs through Sept. 25.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

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Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.