100 Dallas Creatives: No. 87 Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart
Mixmaster presents “100 Creatives,” in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. Know an artistic mind who deserves a little bit of blog love? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the whos and whys.
Don’t let Nicole Stewart’s stature fool you. She may be petite, but she is all power and passion (and a little bit Pilates). For Stewart, pursuing a career in the arts was a no brainer. Her maternal grandparents, Juanita and Henry S. Miller, founded The Dallas Opera, contributed to the creation of the Dallas Theater Center and the Dallas Symphony. As a young actress, she left Dallas for over a decade to pursue both the stage and the screen, but when she was living in Los Angeles, she stumbled into the storytelling arena.
“That’s what really lit a fire under me to get excited about personal storytelling on stage,” she says. Stewart soon returned to Dallas and began a storytelling series called Oral Fixation, an hour-long evening of true, personal stories, each with a new theme and performed by a cross-section of Dallasites. Not only did she want to create a space allowing the oft voiceless to have a voice, it is also a way in which Stewart can continue her grandparents’ legacy.
Thanks to Stewart, the world’s oldest art form has seen a revival here in Dallas and at just 35 years old, we’re excited to see what she does next.
What was it like growing up immersed in the Dallas arts scene? I have memories of going to the opera when it was still at Fair Park with my maternal grandparents, Juanita and Henry S. Miller, just loving walking down to the orchestra pit and seeing what was going on in there. I was exposed to world-class art at a very young age. Through my grandparents and also, through my parents. I studied dance, singing, acting, piano–so I had a very well-round arts education. As I grew through my career and grew through my ultimate self-actualization, it was acting that was a much better fit for me because it satisfies my desire to continue my grandparents’ legacy. However, I think if I was just an actor, I wouldn’t have that same satisfaction as I do with Oral Fixation. But to create a cultural institution that will hopefully have legs for the future does feel in line with what [my grandparents] were doing for the city.
What is the difference between acting on stage versus personal storytelling?From the audience’s point of view, storytelling on stage removes a couple of barriers. It removes the barrier of the audience knowing it’s an actor on stage and then it removes the actor who’s trying to read the playwright’s words and then the actor and the director are trying to capture the playwright’s mission. So there are all these other layers with theater. I think one of the reasons why Oral Fixation is so exciting is that we remove all of that. There are no costumes, there is no set. It’s just the person up there and that’s why it feels so intimate even though we keep growing into bigger venues, it still feels intimate because people don’t really expose themselves in that way. It takes a really special, safe environment where people will feel okay with opening up.
In what ways do you think you and Oral Fixation have impacted Dallas culturally? For one, I am a native Dallasite who, after spending 12 years in Chicago, NYC and LA, decided to return to my roots to nurture my artistic career. So I bring with me ideas and training from those larger markets, which helps Dallas get closer to the cutting edge. It excites me to see more and more dynamic and creative people making a home in Dallas. My husband, Anton Schlesinger, is a similar case: he spent 10 years in NYC and 2 years in LA and now is making waves in lifestyle marketing here in Dallas. I also love meeting folks who are not from Dallas but have moved here from cities in California, Boston and the like to take advantage of the great quality of life and the opportunity to really make a mark on our society. It’s happening more and more which really proves that we are creating something special. A movement is forming and the youth are behind it. It is exciting to be a part of that.
When I moved back here, I saw that there was a void where storytelling is concerned. There just wasn’t anything going on. So it’s gratifying to be the person to revive this ancient art and create a new cultural institution that hopefully will have legs for years to come. In a city that is known for strong opinions about religion and politics, it’s pretty amazing to have created a safe space like Oral Fixation for all points of view to be considered without judgment. I think in choosing to put bold, raw stories onstage on issues such as abortion, abuse, disability, racism and more, I push the envelope about what is taboo in our society. I hope that Dallas is becoming a safer space to “come out” about the various issues our citizens deal with. So rather than keeping our discussions about what’s going on on the surface, I yearn to see people connecting on a deeper level. The more we do this, the less alone we will all feel.
How do you feel about Dallas’ art scene in general? Do you think there is still room for improvement? The show I just produced at the DMA, “Lost in Translation,” really opened my eyes to the reality of the immigrant experience in our community. And working with those 7 storytellers was just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many stories worthy of sharing to encourage compassion and understanding. I’d love to open dialogue in more underrepresented pockets of our city and truly represent the diversity of the voice of Dallas by giving all our citizens a platform for self-expression. Accessing certain socioeconomic levels has been virtually impossible thus far, but it is certainly a goal I work to attain. One idea I have to accomplish this is to partner with city leaders like Christian Yazdanpanah and Byron Sanders who are hard at work improving our education system and mentoring teens. The DMA is also interested in developing an educational curriculum with me to help teens break down barriers by celebrating their identity through sharing stories from their lives. Wouldn’t it be awesome to attend a special teens-only Oral Fixation program and understand better what it is that is important to them?