Metropolis: Wednesday, September 8, 2004
Billy Scott’s ghost hovers over his namesake theater.
Toil and Trouble

There’s a real potboiler behind the scenes\r\nat Scott Theater.


Billy Scott had been dead for a little over four years when the theater his fortune financed opened in the mid-1960s. The William Edrington Scott Theater, as it was formally known, was meant to be a capstone for Fort Worth’s nascent cultural district. According to one account, the theater’s debut drew actors, architects, and musicians from around the country — and possibly also one mischievous ghost.

In a brief history of the charitable foundation that Scott formed as he was dying of lung cancer, author Michelle Monse writes that some of the paintings from Scott’s collection that were on display at the theater’s opening shifted ever so slightly on the walls, as if an invisible hand were making minute adjustments. The phenomenon was eventually pinned on drafts from the building’s heating system but not before someone mused, according to Monse, that “the movement was really caused by Billy Scott’s ghost.’’

If Scott’s ghost were to return today, he’d likely find more that needs adjustment than just a few paintings. The building once called “a shining jewel in the cultural life’’ of Fort Worth has become fodder for a roiling drama in the city’s diverse theater community.

In the past two years theater groups that had grown accustomed to having the run of the Scott have seen the curtain drop on long-established practices. Interests clashed like characters in a Sam Shepherd play. Center managers came and went like a Greek chorus. Then last week, just as things seemed to be getting better, questions arose about the future of the center’s latest director, C. J. Reynolds.

The Scott is roughly half of a rambling city-owned structure at 1300 Gendy St. in the cultural district. The other half is the former home of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. After the museum moved to its new digs in late 2002, the city rechristened the complex as the Fort Worth Community Arts Center and turned over management to the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, led by Flora Maria Garcia. Things have not gone smoothly.

Theater group leaders say the center, under arts council supervision, has juggled rental policies to make using the Scott more costly, imposed nearly impossible deposit requirements, eliminated classroom space, limited access to the theater itself, and run off manager after manager. “They were just eating them up left and right,” said one veteran of the theater scene, who asked not to be named. “If Flora Maria didn’t like what they were saying, she just fired them.’’

There also have been persistent rumors of discounts given to some groups but not others. “Not all groups have to pay the full rate,” said Deborah Jung, executive director of Kids Who Care, a musical theater group for young adults. “I don’t have a contract here in front of me [that shows that], but I’ve been told.’’

Said the local theater scene veteran who asked not to be named: “Depending on who you were or how loud you squawked, there were differences in what the rentals were.’’

The people who would presumably know whether this was true, however, were not available for comment or chose to keep silent. Assistant City Manager Libby Watson, who has presided over at least one meeting in which the theater groups aired their grievances, did not return telephone calls from Fort Worth Weekly by deadline. Nor did Garcia, the Arts Council president, who some say is partially responsible for the churn.

Stories began circulating in the theater community Friday that Reynolds had cleaned out her desk and was following her predecessors out the door. But even that remains unclear, with Watson and Garcia remaining publicly mum and Reynolds out of the country on vacation.

Texas Nonprofit Theaters, a statewide theater support group, is one of more than a dozen arts groups that lease space in the center. The organization provides services ranging from dramatic workshops to what executive director Linda Lee describes as advice on “what to do if a volunteer goes insane.’’ She’s had front-row seats to the controversy during the last two years.

“The traditional users of this space are feeling a little bit disenfranchised,’’ she explained. “They have a history of using this building, and their history is being jeopardized.’’

One of those “traditional’’ users is Jung’s Kids Who Care, the organization that lost its bid to run the center when the city awarded the contract to the arts council two years ago. Jung complains that the center made it impossible for her organization to hold classes at the center.

Before the arts council took over, Jung said, Kids Who Care had 100 to 175 students “with access to training in a professional venue.’’ Now that the group is no longer allowed to hold classes in the center, the student count has dropped to between 75 and 85. But there’s more lost than enrollment. Those who remain in the program aren’t getting the benefit of practice and instruction in a professional theater. Instead, the courses are taught in a church. Rather than shunting aspiring artists into other venues, Jung said, “Fort Worth ought to be embracing its young artists on this corner.’’

Others complain that the center has made it difficult to impossible for some theater groups to continue using the Scott. The center, they say, is trying to require a deposit of 50 percent of the rental fee a year in advance. The previous deposit was only 10 percent and wasn’t required, according to one account, unless more than one group wanted to book the theater for a particular time period. “There’s not an art group in town that could come up with that kind of money a year ahead,’’ said one theater veteran. Deposits can easily run thousands of dollars — even more out of reach than normal for theater groups that have struggled even more than usual since 2001.

Harry Parker, the new chairman of the theater department at Texas Christian University, believes the Scott needs to make space for educational programs again and to make sure the actors, directors, and stagehands who need access to the theater before and after shows can get it.

“The folks who are running the theater need to understand that theater people don’t work 9-to-5,’’ he said. Parker remembers his own days as a theater student at TCU. “We did about half our season at the Scott,’’ he recalled. He wouldn’t mind using the Scott again, he said, but the problems have made him “a little gun shy.’’

Much of the unhappiness at the theater could be solved with a better exchange of information, but that’s difficult given the fact that the Arts Council serves as the center’s manager as well as a major contributor to some of the groups that use it.

“Some of us are kind of stuck in the position ... that the Arts Council is our landlord but also the funding source,’’ said one theater group official who asked not to be identified. “You don’t want to complain about your landlord who is also your funder. We don’t want to go out and be ugly.’’

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