Jac Alder wasn’t supposed to spend his life in the theater. The executive producer-director and co-founder of Theatre Three, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this season, studied architecture. But before settling down in his native Oklahoma City to work, perhaps lend a hand to his father, who was a homebuilder, Alder decided to see the world first. He was commissioned into the military and, after testing fluent in French, was sent to Metz, in Eastern France. There he served as the liaison officer between the French customs authorities and the Army and Air Force postal systems. He officed in an old horse stable left over on the base from World War I.
He found time to bounce around the Continent a little, but most weekends and evenings on the base in Metz, he had to work hard to stave off boredom and, in so doing, met up with a fellow citizen soldier from Dallas. “Joanna Albus had been here in Dallas and had been very instrumental in getting the Margo Jones Theatre started,” Alder says, referring to the famed company that first produced Inherit the Wind. “She was very, very close friends with Margo, probably in love with her.”
Alder, for his part, considered himself nothing more than a good theater audience member, though he had taken a few turns onstage in college. That was experience enough for Albus, who was organizing a theater troupe of Americans in Metz. She roped in Alder. A man named William P. Johnson, who lives in Dallas now and still attends Theatre Three performances, used a ladder to get to the ceiling where he would lie in a small crawl space and direct a spotlight at the actors. There were two casts of each play, one with the enlisted men and another made up of officers.
“It was peace time, and so a lot of the officers, even the enlisted men, had their families with them,” Alder says, adding that they would cast those family members. “It’s just that you didn’t have an enlisted soldier kissing the colonel’s daughter. You didn’t mix it up.”
On the base in Metz, Alder, Albus, and the rest of the ragtag team of amateur theater producers performed pieces such as Gore Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planet—“a piece that was sort of hot at the time”—and even musicals—“which we did with a chorus that we pulled from a Canadian Air Force base.” It was all small-time and scrappy, but visceral and exciting.
When his stint drew to an end, Alder returned home, only to find that there were no architectural jobs waiting for him in Oklahoma City. Building had slowed, and his father’s business wasn’t doing well. Alder collected unemployment and, to fill the time, took a small role in Visit to a Small Planet at a community theater. “I came off stage one night, after having seriously mangled, in a Freudian, distasteful way, my exit line,” Alder says. “And I remember standing outside the door of the entrance and saying, ‘That’s it, you’ve been fooling around with theater long enough. You better get your act together and get serious about your architectural career.’ ”
He moved to Dallas to find work. Just as he did in Metz, though, he found himself with time to kill on nights and weekends. One day he saw a newspaper posting for auditions at the Way Off Playhouse on Parry Avenue. It wasn’t a very good theater, but it had just scored a coup, convincing a new director to stage a play. She had recently returned to Dallas from New York to take care of her ill mother. Her name was Norma Young.
Alder says he didn’t plan to audition. “I’m just going to go and watch, because I’m never going to get involved in theater again,” he told his roommate at the time. “I’ve learned my lesson.” But then an actor got onstage and read from George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, one of Alder’s favorite plays. “He butchered it,” Alder says. “I had seen Agnes Moorehead, in person, Charles Laughton, and Charles Boyer in Don Juan in Hell in Oklahoma City on tour. And I had subsequently played the recording they’d made over and over because I had enjoyed it so much. So it rankled me that somebody had done such a poor job on such an important piece of material.” The next night, without telling his roommate, Alder snuck back to the theater and read from Don Juan in Hell. “And Norma came up to me and said, ‘I’d like you to be in the play [Six Characters in Search of an Author],’ ” he says. “And that’s how we met.”
The play was well-reviewed. Norma Young had taken a big step to the center of Dallas’ theater scene, and Alder, for better or worse, architecture or not, had hitched himself along for the ride. “I was completely smitten by her,” Alder says of the woman he would eventually marry. “When she called me a couple of months after we closed and said, ‘I’m going to start a theater,’ I was quick to say, ‘I’ll help. What do you want me to do?’ ”
Young died in 1998, but 50 years after its founding Alder is still running their theater. As for architecture, that degree did eventually come in handy. Alder designed and built out Theatre Three’s longtime home in Uptown’s Quadrangle.
Theater Three’s 50th season kicks off on August 11 with Wild Oats.