• Cristee Cook

Artstillery continues development of immersive new work: 'Family Dollar'

Updated: Jan 15, 2021

By Cristee Cook

Early fans of Artstillery will remember Family Dollar as the collective’s seminal project. The site-specific performance took place in 2 shotgun houses on West Main in Dallas and told the story of a mysterious woman named Shirley. When Artstillery opened Family Dollar in 2016, they also debuted an early version of who they were as a company, what type of work they would ultimately produce, and the emerging intricacies of their creative process.

Now, Artstillery is an established company with a curated aesthetic. They spend nine months creating their immersive performance experiences and develop community partnerships while uplifting marginalized communities.

Circling back to the story that launched them, they are diving deep into Shirley’s history, including the history of the neighborhood and surrounding community.

Dallas Art Beat is following Artstillery’s process of creating Family Dollar, and for this feature, I spoke with company members Jennifer Culver and Morgana Wilborn about the process of researching the neighborhood beyond the story of Shirley and how the experience is revealing a deeper understanding of the neighborhood’s generational trauma.

Artstillery team members during a writing meeting for their upcoming production of FAMILY DOLLAR.

Culver and Wilborn have crucial roles in the process, conducting on-the-ground community work and crafting Shirley’s new narrative. Culver shared that this time around, Artstillery “…wanted to return to Family Dollar because it's such a compelling story. Not only the journal we found, but the houses themselves. This time, we really want to create a community and recreate the neighborhood. So, in our interviews, we started with people that we knew were on that street with Shirley and also members of Shirley's church – people who knew her well when she was very active there.”

In the research process, a lot of the mystery about real-life Shirley has been uncovered. In the original production, the team relied on Shirley’s journal entries and community members for information. The resulting production focused mostly on Shirley and the house next door, and much of the storyline was fictionalized.

Wilborn shared how much the local community has assisted them in uncovering information that is bringing them closer to the truth. She said, “There have been a lot of interesting discoveries. We're so lucky to be working with Ms. Paula Hutchinson, who is a West Dallas resident, and she's a community liaison and activist. She worked with Artstillery for the original workshop.” Ms. Hutchinson has been a bridge for the team; introducing them to neighborhood church and community members who have helped them piece together the story’s puzzle.

The original production of Family Dollar looked at Shirley’s trauma, whereas the remount aims to be more uplifting for the community at large. Wilborn pointed out that the new storyline includes strong female protagonists and aims to provoke insightful questions about the ever-changing landscape of West Dallas and its neighborhoods. She said, “We’re also telling the story of generational trauma. And asking questions: How do we raise our children? What odds have we come against that have hardened us? What do we have to do to survive? And how do we pass it on to those that come after us?”

Ultimately, through the process of learning more about Shirley’s story, they seem to be learning about love, endurance, and moving beyond the old stories that keep us stuck. Despite a history of racial oppression and increasing gentrification, the community remains intact. Wilborn told me: "We want to show that people have endured trauma, but that doesn’t have to be their whole story. We’re looking at that and being surprised by that. Because we do want to hold up a mirror to what’s happening in our city. But there’s also love here. People are taking care of each other here.”


Family Dollar is slated for live performance in the Spring (depending on world health) at Owenwood Farm and Neighbor Space in Dallas. A public reading of the new work will be presented on February 25, 2021 at the Dallas Museum of Art and will include a “make and take” art project and live performances of select scenes. Visit Artstillery.org or Text ARTSTILLERY to 85100 for updates. Be sure to also catch up on Dallas Art Beat's ongoing series about the development of Family Dollar.

Photo Collage: Moments from Artstillery's 2016 production of Family Dollar.

Photo Credit: Alisa Eykilis

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