|Feature: Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Elliott Gilbert (left) and Adam Dietrich (right), co-founders of The Butterfly Connection, completed a season at Rose Marine Theater, where Rob Bosquez (center) is playwright-in-residence. Naomi Vaughan
Dietrich: “I’m a committed, 2000 percent theater freak.” Naomi Vaughan
Dietrich (center) played a hapless raver in PLUR, TBC’s exploration of teen warehouse parties.
Michael Kreitzinger played a vampire goth rocker in The Boxer and the Blonde, a Quentin Tarantino-like riff on a terrorist world.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
The Butterfly Connection stages “post-hippie” productions for an iPod world.
By JIMMY FOWLER
As grinding techno beats set the audience seats buzzing, cast members strolled up and down the aisles of Rose Marine Theater, glittery insect wings attached to their backs. They blew big shiny bubbles from wands, like children do at backyard parties. A large screen onstage broadcast trippy images of bright colors spiraling and morphing, to help induce a (legal) Ecstasy-like bliss in ticketbuyers, putting them in the proper mood for last year’s PLUR, an exploration of the rave scene by the multi-arts collaborative known as The Butterfly Connection.
Adam Dietrich stood confidently amid the dazzle. In spirited master-of-ceremonies fashion, he narrated the experiences of a first-time raver with self-deprecating humor. His slight build belied his generous personality, which filled the theater. He’s one of those enviable natural performers who never seems to be performing.
During its six-year history, The Butterfly Connection has proven to be the most ambitious theatrical organization on Tarrant County’s small but fertile scene. In a series of earnest if sometimes sloppy original works, they’ve tackled controversial subjects like those drug-steeped warehouse rave parties, the ripple effects of American slavery, and the influence of Quentin Tarantino-ish pop-culture violence on our national debate over terrorism.
To address those rather ambitious topics, they blend theater, video, photography, animation, live music, and puppetry in ways that attempt to merge digital media and the live stage. Dietrich, co-founder and artistic director, describes himself as a “committed, 2000-percent theater freak” but isn’t necessarily interested in using the word “theater” to describe The Butterfly Connection. He thinks that label is limiting and, to some potential audiences, alienating.
Like his mentor Johnny Simons of Hip Pocket Theatre, Dietrich approaches live performances as a chance to unite trained and untrained actors, writers, and designers with audiences eager for a harmonic convergence of creative inspiration. The 31-year-old speaks unabashedly of wanting to cultivate “post-hippie values” — combining the internet’s unfiltered democracy with the idea that artistic expression, however unpolished, should be honored in the public square.
“We’re not performing Shakespeare or Noel Coward, in the sense that there’s a point where the performance is ‘finished,’” Dietrich said. “Our shows are always in the process of development. We want audiences to come and tell us what they liked and tell us what sucked. Then they’re part of the process, too.”
Connection co-founder Elliott Gilbert describes that process as very “plugged in.” “Everyone’s walking around with iPods and cell phones with internet connections,” he said. “People don’t even have the patience to go to Blockbuster and rent a movie. We want to provide a theater experience that’s in your face and visceral, that a digital audience can relate to.”
The Adam Dietrich who literally dreamed the Butterfly group and helped make it a reality is a far cry from the kid who moved with his family to Arlington from Cincinnati in fourth grade. That Adam was shy, had a minor speech impediment, and was bored by football and most other sports. In other words, he was unprepared for public-school life in Texas.
At his parents’ suggestion, he began to study the cello, but that half-hearted artistic pursuit was nipped in the bud by a blunt-spoken fifth-grade band teacher. Dietrich remembered the teacher stopping band practice one day to say something like, “Adam, you suck. Why don’t you try acting as a creative outlet?”
The flippant suggestion was aimed at getting Dietrich out of the band teacher’s hair. But Adam’s parents tried the idea and enrolled him in CATS (Creative Arts Theatre & School), Arlington’s academy for budding performers ages 4 to 18. The CATS manifesto promises, then as now, an educational experience where “youth perform for peers and run the lights, sound, and crew.”
The band teacher had been right. Whereas Adam had been taunted as a “homo” for his complete lack of interest in athletics, CATS allowed him to develop and display a talent for make-believe and mimicry that he’d scarcely known he had.
His confidence growing, he stuck with the extracurricular training at CATS. When he started classes at Boles Junior High School, he made friends and even achieved semi-fame among his classmates by throwing end-of-the-year parties at a local recreation center. He and his “entrepreneurial” pals would save up $200 each and hire DJs and rent slip-and-slides and arcade games for the amusement of peers who didn’t know him that well.
“I was unacknowledged” by his classmates, he said. “Then, after CATS and with the parties, I moved out of the invisible to being at least visible. I had an intense urge to bring everybody together, I think, to create a sense of community for myself.” That need to cultivate fellowship has continued throughout his career as a theater artist, and he still acknowledges it as his driving force.
When it came time for high school, some of his friends enrolled at Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts, while others signed up for James W. Martin High School in Arlington, which had a state and regional reputation for its theater studies. In part because arranging the commute to Dallas would have been tough and also because of the friends who chose Martin, Dietrich decided on the Arlington school. Among the comrades there: Elliott Gilbert, who’s known Dietrich since the fourth grade and who took up acting at Dietrich’s suggestion.
Martin High School boasts a comprehensive and rigorous theater program thanks in large part to teacher Larry Cure. Indeed, Dietrich claimed that he probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school if it hadn’t been for studying under Cure with “The Martin Players.” Last year, the Live Theatre League of Tarrant County recognized Cure’s influence as an award-winning theater arts educator at Martin for the past 26 years.
“If you were going to act on the Martin stage, Larry expected you to be serious about it — as serious as if you were doing any professional show in New York,” said Dietrich. Under Cure’s supervision, Dietrich, Gilbert, and several other classmates wrote, produced, and performed a show called Blue Streets, an examination of homelessness in north central Texas that required the young artists to interview penniless men and women in homeless shelters and on street corners. For that show, they won the University Interscholastic League’s state theater championship.
Cure has taught area stage luminaries from Stage West’s Dana Schultes to Kitchen Dog Theater’s Lee Trull. Cure remembered Dietrich as being “like a sponge — he soaked in everything he learned and made it look easy. He was one of those kids who come along rarely, who are theater monks. They’re willing to live it as a life.”
Something else distinguished Dietrich in Cure’s mind. “Theater is a selfish art. Most people do it for the attention. But Adam was always thinking about the whole cast, not just his role. I think that’s where his desire to do a show about homeless people came from. He wanted to give back.”
Because academic classes at Martin High School had barely engaged his attention, Dietrich hadn’t seriously considered going to college. But the fellowship he’d found in Cure’s theater studies group gave him the final push to apply — along with a handful of his Martin friends — to Southern Methodist University’s theater department. He was accepted, along with Gilbert and three other classmates, in 1996.
Dietrich became disillusioned very fast, perhaps because he’d been spoiled by the supportive and collaborative environments at CATS and Martin High School. At SMU, he felt like he was “paying a lot of tuition to play politics” — that is, to jockey for a place in the program’s food chain, however much that hierarchy may have resembled the real, ego-driven world of the professional stage. After a particularly frustrating incident that involved a last-minute casting switch, Dietrich and several of his friends, including Gilbert, dropped out of SMU after two semesters.
“We had to clear our heads and figure out what our next move would be,” recalled Gilbert. On the invitation of a friend, he moved to Barcelona for a short while and wrote a book of poetry.
For his part, Dietrich went on a Kerouac-style odyssey to various American cities with friends, and eventually visited Gilbert in Spain. Alcohol played an increasingly dominant role in his idle life.
While in Europe, Dietrich had a dream that helped inspire his future multi-arts collaborative: He was standing in front of a large open space where a sign read “The Butterfly Connection: An Experiential Mall.” This imaginary community included a theater and a visual arts space as well as a place for classes in yoga, meditation, and spiritual consciousness. In a nearby dormitory, people lived together and developed outreach programs to help the poor and homeless.
“We sat on the beach and drew out blueprints for the mall by hand,” Gilbert recalled.
Immediately the two of them knew, said Dietrich, that “we didn’t have the life experiences or connections to pull off something like that.” However unlikely the creation of a hub for artistic and social justice activity might sound, the idea remains a kind of utopian vision for both artists. In any case, Dietrich knew that the name “The Butterfly Connection” had been given to him, and he had to use it.
Dietrich was back in Arlington with his family by 2000, drinking, working part-time jobs, and feeling useless. On a lark, he attended an audition with a couple of female friends for a Hip Pocket production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s The Butterfly’s Evil Spell. As the only guy there, he read for the part of Boybeetle, the male lead. The director, Greg Vore, offered him the role, but Dietrich turned it down.
A few days later, Vore contacted Dietrich to tell him that the DELETE had been changed, and he wanted him to audition for a new two-page monologue to be delivered by an actor playing the author Lorca. Adam agreed, but this time, “I showed up drunk,” he said. The Hip Pocket guest director pulled Dietrich aside and said he’d give the young actor another chance if he came back and read it sober. Startled by Vore’s enthusiasm, Dietrich stayed away from the bottle, memorized the monologue, and after another audition, ended up in his first Hip Pocket Theatre show, cast as the persecuted gay Spanish poet.
Dietrich was instantly attracted to the Hip Pocket crowd’s convivial but intense spirit of artistic collaboration. Eccentric, gray-bearded co-founder and artistic director Johnny Simons was always around, although Dietrich didn’t officially work with him until his second production, The Pantalone Follies. One night during the run of that show, the lights went out. Simons urged his actors to perform it for audience members around a campfire — an intimidating last-minute switch for most actors. Dietrich, again, was enchanted with the improvisational resourcefulness at Hip Pocket. Apparently, Simons sensed that the young actor had picked up on that vibe. After the campfire performance, Dietrich said, “Johnny pulled me aside and told me, ‘I’d like to work with you.’ ”
A five-year collaboration followed. In addition to acting in many productions, Dietrich honed his skills in puppetry and as a mime. Hip Pocket became his home in every sense of the word: Because he didn’t have a car to travel between Arlington and Fort Worth, he curled up in a sleeping bag many nights on the outdoor wooden stage or, if it was raining, inside the offices.
He began as an apprentice, his salary paid by a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts. Johnny’s wife Diane Simons, a Hip Pocket co-founder, taught Dietrich how to write grant requests to foundations, fellowships, and corporations (a skill that was to prove invaluable in launching The Butterfly Connection). Eventually, he was hired as the company’s development director and succeeded in getting organizations like Home Depot and the Smallwood Foundation (a Fort Worth-based entity that gives to nonprofits of all stripes) to make their first-ever contributions to Hip Pocket.
The dream of a group of artists creating together in a socially enlightened spirit had already been realized on the grounds of Hip Pocket Theatre. But Dietrich was interested in founding his own “multi-arts collaborative” — one with a sensibility that combined Johnny Simons’ organic, “let’s stage a show in the barn” technique with a younger and more multi-media approach. He wanted to demonstrate his own brand of “post-hippie values” through live performance.
By spring 2002, Dietrich no longer had to sleep nights on the Hip Pocket stage. He owned a car and, with friends, had rented a little yellow farmhouse on five acres of land in Joshua, south of Fort Worth. The first Butterfly Connection show was staged behind the farmhouse, with the collaboration of theater pals as well as neighbors who owned land nearby. The DELETE, written by Dietrich, was called A Gentle Story and depicted his reaction to the events of 9/11.
“The story was about three orphaned brothers searching for their mother,” Dietrich said. “In the play, the mother is a traveling theater artist. She’s very fertile. She has affairs with strangers in each town and then abandons her newborn children and moves on to a different town. I wanted to tap into that feeling of being lost after 9/11, of feeling abandoned by Mother Earth.”
The show ran for three consecutive nights, featuring scenes inside and outside the farmhouse. Candles and a campfire provided natural lighting. Dietrich estimated that 20 to 50 people drove out each night from Fort Worth and Arlington, mostly friends and associates of the Butterfly collaborators.
Gilbert played one of the three brothers, and he remembers it as one of the most challenging and satisfying roles he’d ever taken. “I had never played a show outdoors, to an audience sitting in lawn chairs,” he said. “The light was flickering on our faces. We were casting these shadows. It felt like Greek tragedy.”
The Butterfly Connection had taken flight. The collaborative began to stage more pieces, while Dietrich continued to act with and raise money for Hip Pocket. In 2003, a version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, adapted with an all-new score by Dietrich, was staged at Rhythm Nation Studios in Bedford using puppets and Japanese theater techniques. Adaptations of stories and songs by Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein followed. The group put together a series of productions, with DELETEs by Dietrich, Gilbert, and Fort Worth playwright Rob Bosquez, that used videography and stylized movement to investigate, by turns, the fall of an Eden-like mythic land (Happy); the trippy life and times of a community college janitor cum philosopher (Stars and Stripes: Inside an American Mind); and the real-life tale of a small town Texas murder (Paloma), the last told in musical form, no less. The group even revived Blue Streets, the docudramatic meditation on homelessness from Dietrich’s high school days.
Bosquez is the playwright-in-residence at the Rose Marine Theater as well as director of its teen theater program. He’s had three DELETEs produced by The Butterfly Connection so far. “Adam respects the author’s text in a very real way,” Bosquez said. “He puts the DELETE out there as is, to try it out in front of a full audience. Then you make changes after each staging. That’s exciting for a playwright.”
With a motley band of collaborators, including professional artists and committed amateurs, The Butterfly Connection traveled from venue to venue, including Rhythm Nation (the theater school where Gilbert teaches teen classes), the Rose Marine, Arts Fifth Avenue, and the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. Couch-change-size budgets were culled from donations, the odd grant, and the artists’ own pockets. The effort was exhausting, Dietrich acknowledged, and he began to feel crunched between the demands of creating a new theater company and working to help fund another, well-established one.
By 2006, The Butterfly Connection had assembled a board of directors, received its federal nonprofit status and, thanks to Dietrich’s administrative talents, its first small grant from the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
That’s when Dietrich took the leap. He resigned from his position as development director at Hip Pocket. Besides the professional conflict and crushing hours, he’d hit a wall. “I’d gone as far as I could with Hip Pocket’s business growth,” he said. “They didn’t want to get any bigger, and I didn’t want to turn them into something they weren’t supposed to be.”
Hip Pocket spokespersons did not reply to interview requests for this story.
Cure, Dietrich’s stage teacher from Martin High School, understands the decision. “There’s only one Johnny Simons in the world, and everyone loves his work,” he said. “But Adam is the one person I can think of who comes close to doing what Johnny does.”
If the subject matter of The Butterfly Connection’s past work sounds wildly diverse, even haphazard, the same can be said of the quality of its individual productions. Performances can be rough-edged. Cues and beats are sometimes neglected by actors, videography can be shaky, and the audio hard to hear.
Dietrich won’t apologize for his practice of working with inexperienced actors, designers, and filmmakers. The mission of the Connection includes an “artist first” philosophy, which champions a public venue for creativity at every level. Hip Pocket has long espoused a similarly rough-hewn aesthetic, although that company’s resources are, obviously, wider and deeper thanks to its 32-year history.
As Dietrich puts it, one of the chief attractions of a Butterfly Connection show is the opportunity to “come watch the artists mold something out of dirt and water and imperfection, out of good vibrations and bad vibrations.”
The reality of the Connection’s financial situation, as precarious as that of most nonprofit art groups, also limits their options: They can’t afford to pay performers and collaborators. They rely at least as much on dedication as ability. With that in mind, the group didn’t charge for admission to most of its early shows. They quickly discovered an ironic truth: If you don’t charge something, Dietrich said, many people are wary because “free” often equals “worthless” in a consumer society.
But the cultural tide seems to be shifting. In theory, an untapped Butterfly audience now exists who’ve grown accustomed to getting their entertainment free and self-created: the YouTube generation. With DIY video that goes viral across inboxes and social networking sites, teens and Gen-Y adults have already created a digital common ground where they can share raw performances. For last year’s original show PLUR — a musical romance set against the hallucinatory backdrop of rave parties — the Connection tried to lure the netizens of online rave-related sites. A few fresh ticketbuyers showed up but hardly a flood. Dietrich believes he has identified a hurdle that still needs to be overcome: “They saw the word ‘theater’ [in Rose Marine Theater] and stayed away because it was a ‘rave musical.’ ”
He’s sympathetic with young people who’re wary of the “T” word. “I see as much theater as I can,” he said. “There’s great stuff happening in Fort Worth and Dallas. But a lot of times, I’m thinking, ‘This show is too long, there’s not enough drama, and there’s not enough drama that pertains to me.’ ” For better or worse, he said, Gen X-ers and Y-ers seek out what’s immediately important to their lives, and they have a sense that what’s important is always changing.
This year, The Butterfly Connection alit at the Rose Marine for its first full season of main-stage productions in one space. This helped relieve the burden and expense of venue-hopping, but the initial schedule of one show almost every other month proved daunting for the collaborative, whose members felt short of time to learn their lines or finish DELETEs or video segments. Most of them have day jobs, after all, and hope to build their artistic resumés by working with the company. In addition, ticket sales were generally disappointing.
“It’s tough to build an audience for new works,” said Bosquez. “It’s a little easier for companies with older audiences who do well-known playwrights, but not much. You have to compete with ‘I want to go to a movie instead’ or ‘I’ve got this awesome home entertainment center.’ ”
Next up, The Butterfly Connection will host its second annual “Beauty and the Beast” fund-raiser Nov. 14 with live music, visual art, and short performance pieces. Then in December, they’ll premiere a holiday show called Reindeers Unplugged, co-written by Bosquez, which Dietrich said is “very Pixar.” The story concerns a set of light-up reindeer lawn decorations who try to fix one of their friends before he’s taken by The Collector of Broken Things. Everyone hopes the premiere will prove to be a cash cow — or a reindeer with golden antlers, as the case may be.
Significant changes to the “raw” Butterfly method are coming, however. Although Dietrich refuses to surrender his goal of promoting newbie talent, he does concede, “I think we’ve learned that a show can be artistically satisfying [for the artists], but the material needs to be a good match with the audience.”
For its 2009 season, The Butterfly Connection is scaling back its schedule to just three or four major shows. They’ve formulated a new production method to streamline their work: A private DELETE reading comes first. Then they’ll open a second reading to comments from a general audience. After that, a single workshop performance will be staged — Dietrich is currently negotiating with qthe University of Texas at Arlington’s theater department to host. Finally, after all that, the show will get a full main-stage production.
In addition to the big performances, Dietrich hopes to produce brief, timely performance-art pieces of a disposable nature, like those YouTube-inspired amateur videos that spring up like dandelions. He insists that the word “professional,” in the slick, big-budget sense, should never be in The Butterfly Connection vocabulary. The collaborative has no reason to exist, he believes, if the ensemble spirit of spontaneous creativity is lost.
But he is not oblivious to the need for artists to earn compensation for their work. For its own survival, the Connection will also focus on what Dietrich the development director refers to as “earned income revenues” — sources of cash for artists. He and Gilbert have started touring regional elementary schools with an original show they wrote called Underground Railroad, about the secret 19th-century channels through which American slaves sought freedom. Designers and performers who’ve collaborated on the piece earned a good stipend for their efforts and will continue to do so when the show returns to play Tarrant County schools next year.
In that utopian vision first dreamed of in Barcelona, creativity and social justice made a happy marriage. But who said creators were required to starve for their art?
“Johnny [Simons] lives far below the means that most people can live on” to keep Hip Pocket Theatre a viable institution, Dietrich said. “Artists want to make art, but they need to make a living at the same time.” In his own wildest dreams for the future, “Butterfly Connection will help them do both.”
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