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Stage West at 40: Entertaining, inspiring and challenging theatre

🕐 9 min read

Stage West

821/823 W Vickery Blvd.

Fort Worth 76104


Stage West was founded on October 18, 1979 by Jerry Russell, on Houston Street in a downtown Fort Worth. The first space was a 65-seat storefront theatre next to Russell’s European Sandwich Shoppe, and the first production was Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, starring Russell and Joe Berryman.

‘A Doll’s House Part 2 examines women’s role in the family, men’s role in the family. What are our obligations to our children and to ourselves as individuals and to our spouses? Where are we resting in our roles that society has over centuries made for us as men and woman and our children?’

– Dana Schultes

Stage West at 40

Building community with entertaining, challenging works

It started in a downtown sandwich shop. The idea was simple bring solid, entertaining, inspiring and challenging theatre to Fort Worth, which then had a theatre scene known more for multiple versions of standard repertoire than works that pushed the envelope.

Now, 40 years later, that same artistic aesthetic remains key to Stage West’s success. For its 40th season, for instance, six of the eight plays in the season are regional premieres.

Among those are A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath, a 2017 sequel of sorts to the 1879 Henrik Isben play that was a recent critical and popular success on Broadway.

“We are opening [the season] with A Doll’s House Part 2, a huge hit on Broadway. It’s a follow-up piece to the Ibsen A Doll’s House. Water Tower Theater in Addison is producing A Doll’s House, the original, during that same frame, so people can go to see both,” said Dana Schultex, executive producer at Stage West.

A Doll’s House Part 2 examines women’s role in the family, men’s role in the family. What are our obligations to our children and to ourselves as individuals and to our spouses? Where are we resting in our roles that society has over centuries made for us as men and woman and our children?,” she said. “This is a really brilliant play.”

Schultes, the executive producer, worked with Stage West in various capacities for over 15 years, but officially joined the staff in 2004 as development director.

She was instrumental in tripling the company’s budget since that time, especially in the areas of individual donations and grants.

She also initiated and oversaw many of Stage West’s signature programs including the Festival of the Kid, Neighborhood Play Contest, Summer Conservatory and Southwest Playwriting Competition.

She became co-producer in 2013 after the retirement of Jerry Russell. Russell died that same year.

Schultes was named executive producer in 2016 and was also recognized in the Fort Worth Business Press 40 Under 40 class.

The Fort Worth Business Press spoke with Schultes about the theatre’s 40th season:

So, 40 years. How did that happen?

Schultes: Forty years? A lot of hard work and a lot of belief in the company and loyalty, because it has not been a perfect journey, because there is no perfection in art. Part of what makes up art is its flaws and time and that journey along the way.

This organization has made it to 40 years because around a hundred people have made sure that they were going to put in the time to and the hours to seeing it through. Expand that a number times hundreds more who have simply said, ‘Hey we like this.’ Over that time, three-quarters of a million people have walked in and out of the doors and seen some programming.

You’ve always has a pretty good audience.

Schultes: We have a very loyal audience. There are a few dozen people who have been with us since the very first year and have seen almost every play and hundreds more who have come on and have spent decades with us. So those groups are very, very important but equally impactful are the people who pop in once or twice a year and see this show and that show, and help to keep the place moving along.

Fresh blood, so to speak?

Schultes: Fresh blood is so important. When you’re hiring and putting together a staff you want some people who have been there for a long time, you want some people who are familiar with it, but haven’t always been in the thick of it, and then you want some brand new people who offer those super fresh out of the box ideas. … That combination is supposed to be one of the best for creativity.

And I think it goes along the same long lines with audience. You want your long time people to stick around with you because they’ve seen the journey and they been along with that journey and the history, and then those very, very new people to you are bringing a different kind of energy and excitement. It really does take a wide variety of people to continue on because that is life isn’t it?

And that keeps you going?

Schultes: I think that part of it is our mission statement here to entertain, inspire and challenge. Some theatre must be purely escape and entertainment. You come and you get away from all the madness in the world. But at other times it must make you feel a little uncomfortable, because if we don’t face the things that make us uncomfortable, then we are doomed to keep repeating and making terrible mistakes.

We have to have a balance and I think that’s always been a really lovely part of this organization’s core mission to give you both the entertainment and the challenging so that you know when you come here you’re going to get some damn fine acting, directing and design.

What do you wish for?

Schultes: I just wish more people in the community would embrace the arts in our city. I think we do OK, but I know we can do better, and the more we can reach into different segments of the population and bring everyone together even better.

How do you reach out to younger audience members?

Schultes: It’s a whole cultural shift that’s very difficult. Everyone is having these conversations in all the different organizations across North Texas and throughout the broader regions. How do you bring in those younger people?

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on it. There are certain age brackets that are harder to get to. Those will be people who are starting off their new jobs, their lives are going to be a little more complicated toward trying to start a family, find a mate, buy a house and their disposable income and disposable time aren’t as widely accessible as say someone in their 40s and 50s who have had a little time to settle in and breath a bit. That’s really the range that I find it most successful, the 40s and 50 somethings just because they do have that dynamic that allows them to have a little more mobility.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t attract all ages, and I think the way that we do get a wide variety of ages in more now than ever before in our history is having a diverse group of programs and also working very hard to hire people who aren’t the same type. Each time a position opens, or we create a new position, we try to hire someone who may not be your typical face here. So that when you come here you see many different people who you can look at and say, “Hey you’re like me. I belong here, too,” and that continues to feed into more groups of people and that’s important.

You are in a pretty good physical location now, correct?

Schultes: Oh, we are so lucky in this space. This was not our very first home. Our first was downtown at Houston and 6th streets. But after two years there our founder Jerry Russell and his team moved to this location. There’s been seven moves in Stage West’s history and they’ve all been milestone moments that were prompted by one event or another.

The seventh home was the return to the second home and it is in a really wonderful part of the city that is expanding rapidly.

We purchased a mortgage for our building in January of this year and that’s a huge milestone for us as well. We are one of the very few theatres in the area that owns our own building. So everything is put back into the organization, hopefully for future generations way down the road to have an even stronger theatrical home.

Looking at your 2018-19 season, you always seem to have an eclectic mix of plays, How do you go about finding those?

Schultes: I’ve already started searching for plays for our 41st season. That’s how it begins is you start to collect them from the different licensing houses and different playwrights and their agents and start reading.

For me personally, if a play resonates with me and I continue on it well past the initial read. then I know that there’s something that I took from it, … whether it be just the entertainment value of it making me laugh or the thought provoking value of having it make me digest some things I haven’t rested on before.

So this particular season I kind of just couldn’t be more delighted with to be frank. It is a little more escapist than with our prior season, and that is certainly not a mistake. The world right now is so tense, the news is non-stop, no matter where you lie on the political spectrum, or wherever people are at any given time right now, the world has got a lot of tension in it.

I think it’s our job in the arts to respond to where we are and find ways to reach people where we are at any given moment, which is kind of hard since things move at lightning speed these days. But this set of shows, more than any in recent history that I can think of, really addresses humanity in such a beautiful way. I’m very, very proud of what we have put together and I hope that it’s well received.

Memorable moments over 40 years?

Schultes: Each move has been a major game changer, and there have been unexpected donations along the way, every once in a while a foundation or an individual donor gift that has really helped to continue us on and give us a boost of life and spirit.

Clarence Darrow was the first show was performed in our second space and it was the last show of Jerry Russell and that was a major milestone in Stage West history. But we do continue to carry on that same vision he always had because it was strong and a timeless thing that he put together that we all still believe in very much and hope will be around for another 40 plus years.

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