Teresa Coleman Wash runs her theater like a businessman runs a bank

2018’s Five Fierce Females of Oak Cliff

When Bishop Arts Theatre Center struggled, its founder, Teresa Coleman Wash, turned to the community.

The theater’s building on South Tyler Street had been donated to her theater company, TeCo, which she started in Atlanta in 1993. Her nonprofit had taken out $500,000 in construction loans to renovate it. Heritage Oak Cliff funded a marquee for the building.

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But Wash was unsure how to fill those shiny, new seats.

She went to see famed arts administrator Michael Kaiser speak at the Latino Cultural Center.

“He said, ‘Sick people don’t get well by doing less. Now is the time for you to connect with your community.’ ”

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So the company held focus groups to find out what the community wanted.

That’s how the theater’s successful jazz series came about as well as the summer theater camp, which now has a waiting list.

The theater gives a voice to marginalized playwrights, women and people of color. And it brings to light overlooked parts of society with plays such as “Black at the Assassination,” an oral history-based work about the day of the JFK assassination in Dallas, and “In the Tall Grass,” British playwright Paul Kalburgi’s play about Shade Schuler, a 22-year-old transgender woman from Dallas whose decomposed body was found in a field in the Medical District in July 2015.

The scariest thing she’s had to overcome: Having this building donated to us. I had never been a half a million dollars in debt. But that’s been 10 years ago. And we’ve won awards for demonstrating exemplary management. It was scary, but I was grateful for the opportunity because a lot of theater companies don’t own their space. We have autonomy to do whatever we want, and most theater companies don’t have that.

What she looks for in employees: I’m always looking for people who are smarter than me. I want to lead from behind.

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The best advice she’s received: Connect to the community. Nonprofits exist to serve the community. This theater would not be here if not for that. I think that’s the secret to our success. I want the staff and the board to reflect the community that we serve. And I think that’s why our audience is so diverse. Because we are intentional about making sure that the community is reflected on stage.

We are intentional about making sure that the community is reflected on stage.

The best gift she’s received: The gift of forgiveness. What I love about my board of directors is that they’ve allowed me to fail. You have to take risks, be allowed to fail and get back up again.

Her greatest influence: My mom. I watched her balance work and home life. She did it so effortlessly. I don’t remember my mom not being able to attend a pageant or anything I did. I think, “How did she make that look so easy?” Now that I’m a wife and mom I realize how difficult it is for women to be all things to all people. She never had a breakdown. She held everything together and was always gracious.

Advice for her your younger self: This thing of taking risks. I wish I had done it earlier. I wish I hadn’t been afraid to fail earlier. 

Advice for others: Have a thick skin and be your own cheerleader. I’m always second-guessing myself. Often, we compare ourselves to other people and feel we’re not worthy. But the fact that we’ve been invited into a space validates that we are supposed to be exactly where we are. I’m a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, and I’m sitting there with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights. But every experience is valuable. My voice is incredibly valued because I’m bringing a different perspective. It’s not one-size-fits-all. You have to trust the process.

On the nonprofits she supports: The Well Community. I’ve been a member of the Oak Cliff Lions Club since 2007. The Family Place. We partner with the Promise House to bring in teens to see some of the shows that we’re doing. Big Thought are our partners.

On work-life balance: Nobody gets my cell phone. I don’t respond to work emergencies after 5 p.m. That’s why I hire creative problem solvers. I don’t call my employees after hours, and they don’t call me. I seldom look at my cell phone when I’m in the office. I don’t take meetings that aren’t scheduled. I run this theater like a corporation runs a bank. It’s important to set boundaries, especially for women, because we’re expected to answer to everything all the time, and who can do that?

Who she’d have dinner with if she could: Michelle Obama. That woman is grace under fire.

How she’d like to be remembered: As someone who decreased so that others can increase. I would like to be remembered as someone who made a corner of the world better because of my involvement. 

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