A galvanizing idea...
My boss was not keen on the idea of moving on the program I was recommending. He suspected it would be more trouble than it was worth. He'd sent me to investigate a high school awards program produced by another theater organization and I'd come back to deliver a glowing report. I felt a program that recognized and encouraged excellence in the production of high school musicals could be a winner. I saw the PR, community and audience building potential. He thought it would be a distraction from the bottom line: "if we don't put butts in seats, we won't be here and you won't have a job." "I agree," I said, "I'm putting butts in your seats ten years from now. This will build your future audiences and season subscribers, plus give us benefits in the near term." "If we do this, I want us to have the biggest program in the country," he said. "Yes, sir," said I, and with that, I had my marching orders.
Texas is the land of Friday night lights, and it's not just football stadium lights, but footlights and spotlights. Texans take their sports and their theater seriously, and they are seriously competitive with both, which is sometimes hard for people from other parts of the country to understand. The University Interscholastic League (UIL) One Act Play competition sees over five thousand high schools compete for honors in the largest one act play competition in the country. I had cut my own teeth as a high school Thespian and had been so influenced by my high school choir director that it determined my life's course, propelling me into a life-long career in the theater and entertainment industry. I saw my first musical in our own Music Hall at Fair Park and had been hired into my first professional show at Dallas Summer Musicals by the legendary Tom Hughes. I've always been proud to say I got my start with Mr. Hughes at DSM. Now, twenty-seven years later, I had come full circle: Michael Jenkins had brought me back to Dallas from Las Vegas to work for DSM, and was giving me the opportunity to spark a love for theater in high school kids. This was a challenge I would gladly accept. In the course of my work, I would attend over one hundred shows a year and see some truly amazing young talent and inspiring teachers. It was my privilege to bring them and their work to a wider audience.
Fast forward just four years- we were the second largest program in the country with over eighty participating high schools across north, east and west Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. DSM, a presence in Dallas for over seventy years, had been reinvigorated with a new enthusiasm among its board and subscribers. We had a new vitality and visibility as a cultural leader in the community, attracting donors, supporters and, importantly, subscribers. Our annual Tony Awards style show recognizing excellence by students and teachers was the largest theatrical event in the state with sold-out crowds of over 3,000 in attendance. We've mentored other programs around the country and taken over a dozen students to compete in the National High School Theatre Awards in New York City where they have the opportunity to perform on Broadway before top industry pros, producers and agents. Ultimately, we have given away hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships for young performers to pursue their career goals in college and helped place hundreds of students with colleges through a first of its kind audition mentoring/matching program. As of this writing, we have alumni in two national tours and an off-Broadway premiere. We also have alumni working as theater teachers, inspiring the next generation of performers. I'm sure there will be many more to come!
I'm happy to say I didn't do all this alone, but was marching at the head of a parade of over a hundred volunteers, staff, donors, media and industry partners. It has been a tremendous lesson in how a galvanizing idea can bring people together to build a community connection between organizations, individuals, government and business to create something bigger than ourselves. I think I would have made Mr. Hughes proud and I like to think though we may not quite have hit "biggest in the country," Michael Jenkins would be proud too. As for me, I'll be happy if someday, somebody can say, "yeah, I got my start with Mr. Jordan at DSM."