NOT SINCE Margo Jones’ brilliant work at Fair Park in the Forties and Fifties has there been such promise in Dallas theater. New facilities, new audiences, fresh talent and unprecedented enthusiasm are broadening the city’s perspective on drama. For years, the Dallas Theater Center and Theatre Three were almost the only games in town. Now, a handful of daring new entrepreneurs is signaling the long-awaited arrival of Dallas as an hon-est-to-God theater town. They believe in drama that is original, provocative and bold; and they are proudly pursuing the largest audiences they can get. Above all, they are committed not simply to popular entertainment but to artistically responsible “good theater.”
“You have to intend to do good theater,” says Jack Clay, founding director of Dallas’ most prominent nonprofit theater, Stage #1. “And I have to say, I didn’t always see this intention behind the work I saw around town a few years ago. About the best you could say was that many productions were good, lively shows but not much better.”
Clay has done much better. Stage #1, now entering its fourth season, is a success. Artistically, it has provided Dallas-ites with a wider range of serious drama than they have been accustomed to, and it has set high standards for direction, design and acting. And Stage # I – against all odds – fills seats.
Clay’s office in SMU’s Owen Arts Center is a hodgepodge museum of his many years in theater. An Indonesian dragon mask with a long tongue hangs on a wall near a painting of George Bernard Shaw. A few rattan chairs are provided for visitors. There’s a Victorian toy theater on a shelf along with hundreds of scripts, books on tai chi and a faded cardboard Harlequin jumping jack – all accumulated during his 16 years as head of SMU’s Professional Actor Training Program.
It seems amazing that a man as busy as Jack Clay would choose to open a new theater as an after-hours project. Wouldn’t a full day of teaching and administrating be enough? In fact, it was his work at SMU that served as the impetus to expand. And he was dissatisfied with local offerings. “The reason we started Stage #1 was that we had a feeling that we – faculty people here, some graduates, some students, others from the city- could do better than what was being done.
“And in three years, Stage #1 has established an identity. We’re a recognized entity in the theater community, and we give a Dallas audience a recognized product.
“Doing artistically interesting, mostly American scripts is the first thing we exist to do. We were the first theater in town to produce Sam Shepard [Buried Child], David Mamet [American Buffalo] and Lanford Wilson [Fifth of July] in a serious way. And these were very established writers. The theaters around here had been ignoring them, still doing the old standards, classics and musicals….”
Actually, the first real breakthrough came with New Arts Theatre, founded in the mid-Seventies by Christopher Nichols. The repertoire was, and is, vaguely “modern” with Henrik Ibsen at one end and Agatha Christie at the other. Producing such occasional shockers as What the Butler Saw and The Changing Room (set unflinchingly in a men’s locker room), New Arts certainly was a far cry from the Dallas Theater Center. But the quality of productions has fluctuated and even some of its best shows have played to empty seats.
How did Clay and Stage #1 succeed, and succeed quickly, where others had foundered? Clay credits SMU and the nature of the intensive actor training that takes place there. “There is a kind of directing going on [at Stage #1] that respects the craft of acting in a way not found in other theaters in the city. And I think we’ve managed to do plays that are better acted than any others in Dallas.”
The SMU influence upon Stage #1, as well as the Dallas theater community at large, has been considerable. Theatre SMU has provided some of the best drama in town for years, despite the stigma of “student productions.” And the list of famous alums grows longer daily, topped by the likes of Vanities author Jack Heif-ner, Emmy-winning actor Powers Boothe and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley. SMU is becoming famous in New York for the acting students it turns out, many of whom head east after graduation to begin a career in the toughest theater town of them all.
More and more students apply to SMU’s program each year, and stiffer competition means stronger classes. After four years of intensive training, SMU grads can hold their own with students from the American Conservatory Theater, Juilliard and other important professional training programs. And many of them filter into assorted Dallas theaters before biting into the Big Apple.
But fine acting is not the only thing Jack Clay sees as a reason for Stage #l’s success. Clay also believes that choosing the right material for the right audience has added to Stage #l’s success. “Stage #1 is a commitment to quality in script and acting with respect for both. The fringe audience is what we’ve discovered in Dallas: People who don’t attend establishment theater, who we thought must be out there, interested in quality productions of new work, but without any place to see it done -an audience waiting for a serious new theater.”
Clay looked over a memo of last year’s ticket sales. “See, we did Hi-Jinks! as a piece of froth to attract the big audience-and it did the worst business of the season for us. The audience turned out for the tough ones we were a little worried about – Getting Out and Loose Ends. We’ve learned from this to focus completely on the fringe audience, on the adventurous, the risk-taking audience.
“The rest of the game is continuous fund raising. The same for all nonprofit theaters. But I don’t get obsessed with it: You can only worry so much about where your next dollar is coming from as a manager and still function as a director. I used to worry incessantly; I don’t anymore.
“In these hard-money times, all of us are just on the edge of extinction all of the time. But if Stage #1 disappeared tomorrow-which it won’t – we could say that we’d have accomplished what we had set out to do by raising audience expectations of acting and production standards and doing it with new plays. I think that theater has turned around in Dallas since we opened our first show, Fifth of July, out at the Haymarket Theater [in Olla Podrida]. We kicked open the door for new theater.”
Stage #l’s landlord at its current Greenville Avenue Theatre home is 23-year-old SMU graduate Kjehl Rasmussen. In 1980 he had just finished school and was headed to New York when a friend asked him to design the lighting for a play in Dallas. Rasmussen soon discovered that there was no small, off-Broadway-style theater available for the show. He had a feeling that there was a need for such a theater, so he put New York out of his plans and stayed in Dallas to build it. He raised $80,000 to convert a garage on lower Greenville Avenue into a 99-seat play-house, saw to the rebuilding of the property and has operated the theater successfully ever since. This year his non-profit production company, the Manhattan Clearing House, branched out to Ad-dison and opened the Summer Theatre.
Now there are bigger things ahead for Kjehl Rasmussen and his partner, Polly Lou Moore, at the old Fine Arts Theatre in Snider Plaza -a porno house for many years. With the design help of Jim Augur and Associates, they’re turning it into the Plaza, a 550-seat legitimate theater, due to open in November.
“It’s going to cost $625,000 to convert the Fine Arts into a first-class theater. The University Park Foundation, which has the lease on the building now, is doing that, though I am helping,” Rasmussen says. “That campaign will first match a $75,000 Meadows Foundation grant three to one, with the primary focus on ’selling’ the 550 seats to donors at $1,500 a piece. For that, you get your name on a plaque on the seat itself, then -and I don’t know anywhere else this has been done -you’re guaranteed first pick for tickets to everything that ever happens in that theater, ever. Sure, we’re going after the Establishment and proud of it.
“At the same time, the Manhattan Clearing House is planning a season of four major productions -all done by professional name actors under the artistic direction of Dale AJ Rose [who was Ras-mussen’s drama teacher and mentor at SMU]. That will cost about $400,000. So we’re aiming at selling about 16,000 subscriptions for the series, plus raising contributor and investor money.
“So that’s just over a million dollars to get the Plaza on its feet and running,” he says. “The Plaza will be a fully professional theater operated by the Manhattan Clearing House under the terms of a League of Regional Theaters ’B’ contract. This plugs Dallas into the entertainment industry and makes us take advantage of the talent network throughout the country.”
Already Rasmussen is attracting attention from the larger world of theater. The Plaza’s inaugural show is a new musical called Sullivan and Gilbert or the Show Might Go On. If successful, the entire Dallas production, including cast, will go to Broadway after its run at the Plaza. “Why hasn’t this happened in the past around here?” Rasmussen wonders. “I mean, the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven has done this kind of thing over and over. They’re still getting their percentage of the receipts from every performance everywhere of The Gin Game [by Dallas playwright D.L. Coburn]. Theirs was the first production, and that was the agreement.
“People in New York hear about our plans for a season, and suddenly I’m getting calls from them wanting to get on board. We’re getting the professional casts, we’re looking to serve a big audience and what do you know? They call up, want to make a deal.”
Making a deal comes naturally to Michael Greenblatt and Polly Lou M,oore, whose production firm, City Center Ltd., is the first profit-producing theatrical corporation in Dallas. Offering what Green-blatt calls “hard-core commercial theater” is as new to Dallas as was City Center’s inaugural production, Hair, which back in the Sixties was too controversial to play this city.
Greenblatt is the head of the Kim Dawson Agency’s acting division. Moore, who is Rasmussen’s Manhattan Clearing House partner, is a veteran arts supporter whose energy and generosity, though widely spread, are never dissipated. They teamed up to offer Dallas Broadway-style entertainment such as The 1940s Radio Hour which embarks on a seven-month coast-to-coast tour after it completes its six-week run this month. And that tour, like the flashy shows lined up for the Esquire Theater’s new season, will make money.
Like Jack Clay, Greenblatt is looking for a different audience, but he’s not looking in the same direction. He just wants people to have a good time. Is commercial theater of this sort viable? “Absolutely,” says Greenblatt. “Dallas deserves it; Dallas can do it. Dallas should have it.”
Jim Lee thinks so too, which is why he, along with adman Jim Krause and Jay Hopkins of the Henry S. Miller Co., brought off-Broadway’s Key Exchange to Dallas last spring. But Lee refuses to throw over serious theater for money.
An SMU grad of the Seventies, Lee joined New Arts Theatre in 1979, where he served as general manager through December of last year. Since leaving New Arts he has worked on getting his own firm, ArtVentures, on its feet. This summer he restaged Key Exchange (along with Lone Star) at SMU’s Margo Jones Theatre, acting not only as producer, but as director as well. Most critics agreed that Lee’s home-grown production outshone the slick New York import. Now ArtVentures continues to grow.
“Space. That’s the big word in Dallas’ theater future. Within a year there will be three major new performance facilities opening. First the restored Majestic downtown and the renovated Fine Arts. That’s two major houses available for major pieces of theater.
“And then there’ll be this,” he says, arms outstretched to take in the project that may be the prize of them all, a square block of tall old buildings on Elm Street between downtown and Fair Park, which have previously housed everything from cotton gins to a foundry.
“ArtVentures is in a limited partnership with a developer in town to convert this historical property into a multiuse complex. It will include a 350-seat theater (which can be shuttered down to 225-seats), a 100-seat cabaret, an art gallery, a professional scenery-building shop and a restaurant. All built within these beautiful old factory and warehouse buildings.
“It won’t be just a fine new theater stuck off by itself in the middle of nowhere.
People will be living in condominiums in that big building right over there, looking down out of their windows on this court-yard. Artists can rent space here where they can live and keep a studio. The theater will be a part of a larger picture.”
Rasmussen, Clay and Lee have much to be proud of, but each sees a long way to go before Dallas can become a nationally recognized, nationally respected theatrical community. Their goal now is making people understand that theater can be more than a pastime; it can be a career and a business. “What has been missing in Dallas,” says Rasmussen, “is a commitment to the profession – to earning a living by doing the work. That’s what’s meant by ’entertainment industry’ and that’s what has been absent in Dallas theater. My God, theater must be the only thing in Dallas that thinks small.”
Jack Clay tends to agree. “The next step for Stage #1 is professionalization. I don’t mean that we’d hire a permanent company, but that we’d be able to go Equity as a League of Regional Theaters ’D’ company [the contract describing the smallest recognized theater]. You cannot be a professional theater without that letter of agreement with the actors’ union, Equity.
“There are the beginnings in Dallas of an artistic community, of an acting community. This possibility will become a reality only when an actor can stay here and make a living from piecing together stage work, commercials, film and TV acting: If actors can actually make a living here, we’ll really be kicking doors down.”
“You know,” says Jim Lee, “Dallas has everything it needs to be a great theater town -not just good, great. But if any-thing’s standing in the way of that, I’d have to say it was the people who refuse to think big about the theater. I mean the people doing theater who seem to want to keep it small and manageable, apologetic and cozy, instead of taking a risk. And also the people who go to it, who keep wanting to think of it as this nice little parochial thing, something that they won’t fit into a larger picture.
“When it comes right down to it, what I’d really like to accomplish is to make Dallas a place where you could run a show longer than just five or six weeks.”