Theatre Review: “Dash Thirty Dash” at DivaFest

A week ago Friday night I drove through stormy weather to the Indy Fringe building in downtown Indianapolis to see the premiere of “Dash Thirty Dash,” written by Amy Wimmer Schwarb and directed by Matthew Roland.

This was one of the five winning plays in the first annual juried “DivaFest” – an event developed by the now year-round Indy Fringe Festival to celebrate and encourage women playwrights.

It was about recent cataclysmic changes in the news industry, shown through the experiences of the staff of a small, local newspaper in Florida.  Their lives change completely just in the short time between 2004 and 2008.

I had to work hard to understand what anyone in the cast was saying, either because they mumbled or they didn’t speak loudly enough, but what I could hear, I loved.  The piece was rich with fascinating details related to both the Florida setting and newsroom culture.  The story gave me a lot of good food for thought for my own life.

Hanging with Marion

I sat next to Marion Garmel, retired theatre critic for the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News. I remember the News from when I was a child:  the Star was delivered to our house in the morning, and the News was delivered in the afternoon.  At some point the owners decided to publish only a morning paper, though, and the News was no more.

“What does ‘dash thirty dash’ mean?” I asked Marion while we were waiting for the show to begin.

“It means ‘the end’,” she said.  “We used to write -30- at the bottom of everything we wrote.”

“Would you become a theatre critic again, if you had it to do over?” I asked her at another point in our conversation.

“Oh, yes!” she replied.  “I loved it.”

She told me that theatres used to always give her an aisle seat so that she could leave quickly and file her review in time to meet the newspaper’s nightly deadline.  She also told me that she used to read the script for each play ahead of time so that she could write a better review of the production.

I enjoyed chatting with Marion about her experiences as a professional theatre reviewer.  Part of me wishes that I could go back to school for a degree in theatre journalism and pursue it as a career.

But in “Dash Thirty Dash,” the reporters, the photographer, the editor, and the middle manager all are devastated because newspaper work is “All I ever wanted to do…all I know how to do” and it is getting harder and harder for them to make a living at it.  I am afraid that art imitates life in this case.

Still, I loved getting to know the characters in “Dash Thirty Dash” almost as much as I loved getting to know Marion.

“There’s no ‘I’ in newspaper.”

In “Dash Thirty Dash,” an idealistic and energetic young reporter from Indiana, Kate Perkins (Jessie Smith), applies to join the staff of The Mosquito County Press in rural Florida.  She has left the farm on which she grew up and come to Florida because its built-in conflicts – natives vs. snowbirds, environmentalists vs. developers, etc. – make it a reporter’s dream.

The harried editor, Roy Hooper (Joshua Kay), reads her clips in between shouts to other staff.  He calls her writing melodramatic.

“Sometimes life is melodramatic!” Kate shrugs. 

“It’s best to let the reader be more excited than we are,” Roy tells her.

Kate gets the job, though, and is soon going after stories. 

She meets the scruffy but talented staff photographer, J.T. Hamilton (Brian Boyd), who tries to date her simply because she is eligible.  He explains that there are very few single women his own age in their small town that are not potential subjects.  Kate does not want to date a co-worker, but she and J.T.  do become friends.  They both love their jobs.

She also meets veteran reporter Sandy Troxler (Beverly Ann Roche.)  Sandy refers without self-pity to her loneliness and tells about the time she met a woman with whom she thought she might become friends.  “But then I got curious…”   Sandy pushed for answers, learned that the woman was running a scam, and wrote about it to expose it.  Sandy still has no close friends, but her stories have helped her community.  For her, the trade-off is worth it.

Paulette Huntley (Anne Purcell), a dressed-for-success representative of the corporate owners, appears from time to time in the newsroom to share directives from headquarters.  When it is time to fire people, she uses a bullhorn to call people in.  However, we learn that beneath her slick, cold exterior, her heart is breaking over the changes, too.

Early on, Kate hears about Richard Wescott, the person that had her job before her.  Sandy tells Kate about Richard’s arrogance, how he was always more concerned about prizes and other recognition than anything else, and how he left the paper to improve his “personal brand.”   Sandy makes a distinction between newspaper reporters, who pitch in to help the organization where needed (“someone has to write the obituaries!”), and journalists, whose only concern is themselves.

At the end of the play, Richard makes a cocky appearance.  During DivaFest, the part of Richard was played by a different local news industry leader at each performance.  On the night that I saw “Dash Thirty Dash,” the role was played by Dennis Ryerson, vice president and editor at the Indianapolis Star.  He did a great job: very believable.

“Change Has Come”

Marion commented that the set was quite detailed and good, especially for a Fringe show – i.e., a show that has to be easily set up and struck within minutes so that the next show can go on. 

I liked the set, too.  There were wooden desks, a water cooler, a coat stand, a plant that grew larger over the years, a filing cabinet with a coffee pot on top and a bottle of whiskey in the bottom drawer….and a front page blown up into a huge black-and-white poster hanging on the back wall. 

In the first scene, the poster included a headline from 2004.  I’m sorry; I don’t remember what it said.  But in the last scene, the front page from 2008 showed a photo of Barack Obama under a large headline that read “Change Has Come.”  The difference was striking.

In 2004, when J.T. went outside to hammer up the storm shutters to prepare for a hurricane, people called the paper for the inside scoop on the storm.  In 2008, though, when he went out to put up the shutters, the phones stayed silent.  People not only no longer thought of the newspaper as the best source of insider information, they assumed the shutters meant the newspaper itself was shutting down.  The pounding noises offstage were effective both times.

I also admired the pre-show and set change music, which included a song with “I read it in the Daily News” as part of its lyrics.

The set was designed by stage manager Kristin Sims.  Patrick Weiland was the technician.  Ethan Roche was the run crew.

Description of a Hurricane and a Plea for Help

The play ends with Kate becoming a meta-character, a playwright writing the story as it happens, hoping that her words will stimulate her audience members to jump up and do something to help.  The other characters tell her that people don’t care.  She hopes they are wrong, but the future does not look good for newspapers or newspaper employees.

After the show I got a chance to chat a little with the playwright as she was talking to a friend.  She told us that she believes newspapers are resilient and she has already re-written the ending to reflect that.

“Good!” I said, relieved to think that there might be some hope.

But her friend said something like, “I think the ending is solid as is.  Don’t change it to make it more comfortable.”

Upon reflection, I have to say that I agree with him artistically.  However, I still admire her faith in the industry.

So…what I hope for now is that Amy Wimmer Schwarb will eventually be able to write another play.  “Dash Thirty Dash” vividly captured a destructive, hurricane-like transition in the written word news industry. I hope that Amy’s next play will show that the written news industry has figured out how to pick up the pieces and get back to work.

‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com, too.

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