Published November 24, 2020 at 3:13pm
Story and photos by Mary Martin.
Light pours in through the stained glass windows of a renovated church in Oak Cliff, casting bright shadows on the wood floor. Anchoring a corner lot in the historic Winnetka Heights neighborhood, the Winnetka Congregational Church, first built in 1929, now serves as a safe haven for artists of all kinds. Arts Mission Oak Cliff is nothing short of home for playwrights, performers, musicians, costume designers, dancers, and lighting directors. Anastasia Munoz leads Arts Mission Oak Cliff (AMOC), bringing her experience as an arts educator and a deep belief that the theater belongs to all of us.
Anastasia’s role as artistic director of Arts Mission Oak Cliff was birthed out of a desire to see independent artists and small companies share the overhead costs associated with space and creative necessities. “I went to the University of Alabama, came back with my theater degree and started working as a professional theatre artist here in Dallas,” Anastasia says. “During my time as an actor, director, and producer I saw this hole in our community where we needed a place to rehearse, collaborate, take classes, and even teach our own brand of classes. We needed a place to be entrepreneurial in our own capacity as artists.”
When she shared her vision with Lola and Todd Lott, Anastasia could see the spark of an idea become something more. The Lotts were passionate about the performing arts, and had been looking for a place to make a long-term investment. The Oak Cliff church was the right space at the right time, and renovations began in 2015. When doors opened to the performing arts community in 2017, Anastasia was ready not only to host local collaborators, but also launch classes that would draw in the neighborhood. “Here I was with this building and this idea, but it was time to make some programming. We started with a few things, like Beyonce Ballet,” Anastasia explains. “I came to love dance as an adult and wanted to create a beginner ballet class for adults that wasn’t about technique necessarily, but also had some fun and silly elements. So we took the barre and added some twerks.”
Slowly, Arts Mission Oak Cliff added more programming and served more performers, from new opera companies, to tap ensembles and Shakespeare troupes. Their reduced rates drew smaller organizations from across North Texas, and Anastasia could see how a nonprofit model for AMOC could flip the idea of artistic space and its value for the community. “We are thrilled to have a nonprofit status that allows us to be self-sustaining. It is allowing us to grow and put into place some of the programs we dreamed of doing,” Anastasia says.
The dream for Arts Mission Oak Cliff is deeply personal to Anastasia. Once the church renovations were completed she moved into the newly-formed apartment at the back of the sanctuary, taking the idea of live-work-play to its limits. Anastasia and her husband even held their wedding in the space, and only said good-bye to their theater apartment once a baby was on the way. But Anastasia still keeps roots in the neighborhood. “Oak Cliff was on purpose,” she says. “I have been an arts educator for 18 years and one of my favorite schools was Winnetka Elementary, which is less than a mile from the AMOC space. The students there were hungry for theater—they were so imaginative and curious. I knew I would want to raise a family or start a business here, especially with the wonderful system of art spaces that already exists, like the Kessler and Bishop Arts Theater Center.”
Neighborhood immersion plays a key role in one of AMOC’s newest programs, a local artist residency. Four artists will be selected for the three-month residency which includes studio and office space, as well as rehearsal and performance space. Classes and salons will be open to the local community as a way of introducing them to the AMOC residents and their work. And due to Anastasia’s desire for safety during COVID-19, residents will also have access to the film crew that has partnered with AMOC to create virtual performances.
As a performer, there is no escaping the reality of COVID-19 and its impact on the arts and audiences around the world, but Anastasia is a first-hand witness to the immense creativity that has come out of restrictions on gathering. “This is a scary time for performing artists. Broadway is shuttered. We don’t know when we are going to be able to perform for audiences again, but even before COVID it was hard to convince people to spend their entertainment dollar in a theater,” Anastasia says. “I have hope that when we are done people will want to experience something live. Artists are the greatest creative problem solvers and if there is an opportunity to start fresh, what better place to do it than Arts Mission Oak Cliff? We are here for starting over and taking a new step.”
In October the team at AMOC tested the limits of creativity, first hosting a parking lot show for Agora Artists, a community dance organization. Then for Halloween, Anastasia was inspired to create a socially distanced, immersive haunted house that used every corner of the old church building. The event called ‘REQUIEM: A Haunted Experience,’ featured ten actors wearing masks who led individual ticketed groups through the building at timed intervals. The event sold out with a waiting list and Anastasia intends to bring it back next year. The ingenuity will continue into the holiday season with a live streamed radio play and a filmed Christmas sing-a-long spectacular. “We are putting together all the different ways that artists can come and use our space in 2021, showing them how it can be done,” Anastasia explains.
The support of local artists is central to the vision at AMOC, and with a deep well of knowledge about the inner workings of theater productions from her time at Undermain Theater, Dallas Theater Center, and Shakespeare Dallas, Anastasia is a much-needed guide. With various groups struggling to use existing grant funding, AMOC offers a space that is aligned with the artist community, no matter what hardships they may be facing. Anastasia also sees AMOC as an organization that can help connect community members who are passionate about the arts, with emerging groups and talented individuals who need the support.