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DRAMA IN REAL LIFE

How one theatrical despot replaced another at the Dallas Theater Center
By Mark Donald |

This is a story about the theater that Frank Lloyd Wright built, a place where dreams are made of lemon drops and shattered by corporate resolution, a land where make-believe grows (or doesn’t), a place where life does a great imitation of art.

This is the story of the Dallas Theater Center and the anatomy of a revolution that forced the overthrow of Paul Baker, who ruled it for 23 years with both an iron hand and a kid glove. It was a revolution that witnessed the rise to power of Adrian Hall, a man who differed from Baker in artistic vision but who was like him in his relentless desire for absolute control. It is Adrian Hall who was brought to Dallas almost two years ago, to give a city with international aspirations a world-class theater. It was a lofty ideal, and one that has recently come under fire-both for its costliness and its feather-ruffling insensi-tivity to longtime patrons of the DTC.

This is also the story of a board of trustees that helped to make everything possible-or impossible, depending on the perspective. It’s a story about theater in Dallas, about dreams and controversy, money and art. And it’s a story of emotional power struggles, of artistic egos and tragic flaws. It begins with the original idea for the Dallas Theater Center, conceived by a group of enlightened theater lovers who would breathe new cultural life into Dallas.



ACT ONE: Paul Baker

When a handful of arts patrons decided during the Fifties to build what would become the Dallas Theater Center, they turned to a daring college professor who had been stealing the national spotlight for his experimental productions in what was otherwise a cultural wasteland-Waco, Texas. Paul Baker was a Texas original who was strongly connected to his West Texas roots, rugged in his individualism and fiercely independent to a fault. He was a man with a mission-always with something to prove, always with someone to confront.

Baker’s first confrontation was in 1934 with the Waco Baptist community that supported Baylor University. It was never his intention to unbuckle the Bible Belt, but he did loosen it a notch or two. Prior to Baker’s arrival, there was no drama department at Baylor, merely a club with no regard for drama as an academic discipline or theater as a profession. Baker viewed himself as a “guerrilla fighter for the creative artist.” His mission: “to legitimize the artist as a constructive member of the community.”

Baker knew the terrain was rough, the environment hostile. The Baptist community was fundamentally opposed to a life in the theater, a transient, amoral life going “against God and Baylor.” But he grabbed his adversary right by the fundamentals. He both practiced and preached the conservative virtues of hard work and fiscal responsibility. Instead of make-believe, he served his students life-sized samples of the real world. They worked harder than any other group on campus. They mounted productions that actually paid their own way. And despite the fact that Baker built his experimental theater flush against the Bible study college (one of the more ironic juxtapositions on the Baylor campus), Baker was tolerated-for a time.

Perhaps his success engendered their tolerance, for Baker created the first truly experimental theater in the country, and he received national acclaim for his efforts. In 1953, actor/director Charles Laughton termed Baker’s production of Othello “the most exciting piece of theater in America.” Baker was hailed as a “theater revolutionary,” “an irrepressible force in the cultural life of America,” “a mad genius who broke down every theatrical convention and barrier.” In 1958, Baker and his Baylor Bears were written up in 23 national publications.

As an educator. Baker tried to awaken creative potential in every student-that “little bit of God in every man.” It was that philosophy-and Baker’s reputation at Baylor- that opened the minds and checkbooks of the founders of the Dallas Theater Center.

But controversy marred Baker’s vision in Dallas from the beginning. It was 1959 when Frank Lloyd Wright’s first and only public theater was ready for occupancy. With the help of Charles Laughton and Burgess Meredith, Baker selected his first company. But along with the new company, Baker brought in the Baylor graduate program. A divergence of philosophy quickly developed. Baker believed in the “de-specialization of theater,” where the “theater artist” could explore and develop his creative potential by “operating a spotlight for one scene, wearing a costume he designed in another, and later acting on a set that he had helped paint.” He was vehemently opposed to specialization, with its bent toward the development of the “star system.” Baker was suspicious of the stars, of the power of their fame, of the demands they made on his productions. Not only did “de-specialization” serve his philosophy, but it also served the financial and manpower needs of his theater: One person could be utilized in several positions.

The new actors, unschooled in Baker and his ways, were enraged when they had to man the box office. They even went so far as to petition the board for Baker’s removal. But it was the company that was removed. Paul Baker would not be denied.

For the next three years, Baker ran the Theater Center with his Baylor graduate students, handpicked disciples schooled and skilled in the “Bakerian” way of the world.

In December 1962, Baker was still splitting his time and function between Dallas and Waco. He staged a Baylor production of the Eugene O’Neill Pulitzer Prize winner, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. As Baker tells the story, “An old Baylor ex who belonged to a fundamentalist Baptist group brought a bunch of Sunday School kids to see the show. He heard a lot of ’Goddamns’ and ’bastards’ that enraged his Baptist sensibilities. Afterwards, he told his preacher about it. Then his preacher brought in some strong fundamentalist powerhitters.”

Baker got a call from Abner McCall, president of the university, and was told that the play had to be closed, that McCall’s own job was on the line. Additionally, all future plays would have to withstand McCall’s censorship. The president forced Baker’s hand, as well as his resignation. Baker was quick to retaliate. In one bold, pincerlike move, he brought Baylor to its knees. All 12 faculty members (“Baker’s dozen,” as they were coined), academicians with more than 120 years of experience between them, simply walked out the door.

They followed their leader to San Antonio, where Baker had already found them a new home. Baker had accepted a position with Trinity University as chairman of the department of speech and drama. Trinity also agreed to pick up the Theater Center graduate program. Baker clearly protected his own-but at what price?

Back at the Theater Center, Baker and his re-christened Trinity graduate students were receiving mixed reviews. But Poul Baker was seldom concerned with results. His was a theater for the developing artist. “He would intuitively see things in his students,” explains former company member Andrew Gaupp. “Creative things, things people didn’t know existed within themselves-and he’d push you hard in directions you might not even want to go.” But when he was right, he’d turn designers into actors, actors into playwrights and playwrights back into designers. “If he touched you creatively, if he made you realize yourself, you would forgive the man for anything-forever.”

But when he was wrong, his wrongs would find their way onto the stage. “He had the most pernicious ways of supporting plays and people whom everybody else had given up on,” says Edward Herrmann, a former Baker student and now a film and TV actor. “God knows, if you did a bad job as an actor, he wouldn’t fire you; he’d love you all the more.”

His critics accused him of creating “a fortress on Turtle Creek,” of building a wall around his theater that kept outsiders out and held insiders hostage. Inbreeding, they said, was unhealthy to the creative endeavor.

That’s not to say that some marvelous theater wasn’t presented on the stages of the Dallas Theater Center. In 1964, the DTC represented the United States at the Paris Theater of Nations competition, winning a special jury prize for its production of Journey to Jefferson. In 1968, Paddy Chay-efsky’s The Latent Heterosexual received its world premiere here with Burgess Meredith directing and Zero Mostel in the lead. Baker won the coveted Margo Jones Award, “for daring and continuous new play production,” as well as the Rodgers and Hammer-stein Award for “the man who has done most for theater in the Southwest.”

Despite its acclaim, Baker’s theater remained isolated and inward. But all that was to change in 1974, the year of the first Playmarket, an event that re-focused the eyes of the theatrical world on its originator, Paul Baker. Never before had a market been staged to buy and sell plays-plays written primarily by Theater Center playwrights. It was then that the world got its first glimpse of Preston Jones and his highly acclaimed The Texas Trilogy. Critics from Waxahachie to London praised the event. Jon Jorry took the idea and planted it in Louisville, Kentucky, where his Humana Festival of New American Plays has since blossomed into a theatrical institution.

With national recognition, Preston Jones became a star. The theater felt good about itself. A new sense of independence, born out of approval, spread among the company. People began to feel that their lives did not depend on Paul Baker, that there were other places to work.

Those who stayed were beginning to speak out. Many of Baker’s disciples had come of age, both artistically and psychologically. Some wanted independent lives with more money, fewer hours and an affiliation with the Actors’ Equity. Baker had long given them responsibilities, but without authority or power. Even in managing the business side of the theater, Baker was in complete control. As the theater grew in size, as the operating budget swelled to $2 million a year, as the number of productions increased, as the theater added touring shows, community outreach programs, theater in the park, children’s theater and teen theater, Baker retained absolute control.

The discontent that spread through much of the company also infested the board of trustees. In 1971 came the first challenge to Baker’s rule. Board president Paul Corley, in separate television and newspaper interviews, accused the Theater Center of being primarily an educational institution and not a professional company of actors. He offered the view that outside talent had to be brought in to achieve better productions and that the graduate school would have to go.

It was Paul Corley who would soon be gone. Baker came out fighting-he wanted Corley out. He found a quirk in the Theater Center bylaws and called a special meeting of the board of trustees. His tactic was to catch his adversary by surprise. Within a week of his interviews, Corley resigned. Although the dissent was swept neatly under the rug, the first trumpets had been sounded. Corley was a popular businessman, and Baker’s treatment of him alienated the theater director from a sizable portion of the Dallas corporate community. Within the next several years, Baker either outlived or also alienated much of his original support on the board. His early benefactors began to question whether Baker’s “star” wasn’t taking them down an amateur path.

According to Baker, “a younger board filled with Highland Park people” had slowly begun to assume control. They saw less of the genius of Paul Baker and more of the power he assumed for himself and denied to them. Even Baker’s early recruiter, Waldo Stewart, began to believe that “Dallas deserved a world-class theater, and the Theater Center wasn’t it.”

Baker’s financial support had generally come from a few adoring patrons. With that support fading and Baker unwilling to woo new donors, the board found it increasingly difficult to raise money. As with most revolutions, the economic climate created a more chilling political one. As the Highland Park faction was gaining support, their mission became clear. Paul Baker had to go.

Rather than challenge the “old war horse,” the board opted for a less violent course: attrition. In 1974, at age 63, Paul Baker agreed to retire at the age of 70, his full-time employment terminating August 1, 1981. The board believed, somewhat naively, that “Baker would use the next seven years to groom his successor.” But they misjudged him, failing to understand that to groom a successor meant to relinquish control.

The trustees did manage to work a minor miracle in 1980, when they convinced him to hire Bruce Swerdfager as the new general manager. Baker had done battle with numerous general managers, summarily disposing of each one. Business managers posed a threat to Baker’s power base, reducing his control over the budget, advertising and public relations. But Swerdfager was different. Because he had accrued considerable distinction in the theater, the board thought Swerdfager might be a more palatable partner to Baker. As it turned out, Baker triumphed again-Swerdfager resigned within seven months, but not without leaving his mark on the DTC: He signed a contract with Actors’ Equity, the national union of stage actors. Since the beginning, Baker had resisted unionizing his theater. With the Equity contract came a badge of professionalism that the theater sorely needed. It was the first large crack in the fortress walls.

The board commenced an immediate search for a new general manager. This time they looked for someone a little tougher, a street fighter who, if called upon, could get down in the trenches against Baker. They found Al Milano, former managing director of the Dallas Symphony, who had been celebrated for his unconventional yet prolific fund raising and for his “quiet bulldozer” diplomacy.

It was December 1981 when Al Milano was interviewed in a closed meeting at The Mansion by executive committee members Waldo Stewart, Bill Custard, Marshall Doke and Idelle Rabin. They briefed Milano on the delicate political situation with Baker.

Publicly, it appeared that Baker had hired Milano, but such was not the case. Since Baker needed a strong fund raiser, he acquiesced in the board’s recommendation. But in a few weeks, he realized that Milano was “the board’s man” and excommunicated Milano from “the family.” The company’s general impression was that Milano had been brought on by the board to oversee Baker’s demise, and Milano did little to dispel that impression.

But it was Bill Custard and Marshall Doke who led the final assault on the Baker regime. Milano claims that Custard “felt that it was his mission to get Baker out… spending eight to 10 hours a day working at it-lobbying the board against Baker.” While Custard was going after the votes, Marshall Doke, a local attorney, began a careful study of Baker, the man. “I read his book-several times… nothing he did took us by surprise.”

In March 1982, Milano went to the press and, in effect, announced Baker’s retirement to the public. In a prepared statement to both The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times Herald, Milano told reporters that “just about everyone knows that at some point in the next year, Baker is going to retire.. .The man saw himself as gradually moving out.” Baker was not available for comment, but in a subsequent interview, he told the press that he “planned on directing for another 10 years.”

Privately, Custard had sent a letter to Baker outlining what he perceived to be the “major questions” confronting the theater. “When does Paul Baker plan on retiring? Would his successor be chosen from outside the theater? Can we have a great professional company as well as a great educational institution? Should we sever our relationship with Trinity or pursue an affiliation with SMU?” According to Milano, Custard knew his letter would provoke a response.

Baker read the letter to the company. “He tried to rally his troops,” said one member. “He used the letter as ammunition to scare the company into believing their jobs were on the line.” To the master, “23 years of work were about to be destroyed.”

Baker was adamantly opposed to an SMU affiliation. SMU had developed a theater program based on “specialization,” a premise totally antithetical to Baker’s philosophy. He also had problems with choosing a successor from outside the theater. An outsider would leave DTC with no one to carry on his work, his ways, his dynasty. So several months prior to the Custard letter, unbeknownst to most of the board, Baker made Mary Sue Jones the co-artistic director. Rather than announcing the change or seeking board approval, he simply changed the theater’s stationery and programs to reflect it.

The board was outraged at this flagrant act of defiance. Mary Sue Jones, the widow of the late Preston Jones and a favorite child of Paul Baker, was a talented designer-director-actress, but not the “outside successor of the highest stature and ability” that Custard envisioned. Baker had waited too long to groom his successor.

Meanwhile, the company was being whip-sawed between Baker and the board. Baker was encouraging the company to strike, to bring the theater to its knees, as he had done at Baylor 18 years earlier. Custard and Doke, having studied the man, anticipated this response. The company knew where its bread was buttered, so they engaged the board in a dialogue. Several members of the executive committee met with the company and told them what they wanted to hear: that there would be no “drastic changes at the theater,” that there might be some “weeding out of the dead wood, but they certainly wouldn’t “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” But the company was insecure. “If we walked out,” says one company member, “Milano would just bring in a touring show, and we’d be out permanently.”

A special meeting of the board of trustees was called on May 12, 1982. “Black Tuesday,” as it later came to be called, was the climax of a power play never equaled on the stages of the Theater Center. Baker had called loyal followers around the world, asking them to send telegrams of support to the board meeting, “vouching for the man’s genius.” He had prepared a script (several parts of which were played by company members) reciting the successes of the institution. He denigrated the executive committee for their shabby treatment of his “family.” The play reached its climactic peak with a resolution that Baker would resign upon the appointment of Mary Sue Jones as permanent artistic director. Baker cast himself in the role of martyr, sacrificing himself for his family and his vision. Even uninformed members of the board sensed the dramatic imperative of the moment. As Baker kept pushing his ultimatums down their throats, as his pitch became more fevered, as he “paraded up and down the aisles, waving his hands, shouting to his troops for encouragement,” Baker became his own worst enemy. Even the uncommitted realized that a change was inevitable.

To Custard and Doke, it was all a matter of strategy. “Custard knew he had the numbers to beat Baker,” explains Milano. “For him, it was like a floor fight at a political convention. He came into the meeting with 20 proxies in hand; Baker only had one.” Doke had inside information on the content of the Baker resolution “around 24 to 48 hours before it was introduced.” In response, both men met with company leaders and solicited their opinions on whether a compromise resolution appointing Mary Sue Jones as interim artistic director for one year would keep the company from walking. They were assured that the company would hold. There would be no strike. Baker was disarmed of his most effective weapon.

After 23 years of sovereign rule, Baker was undone. By 9 a.m. the next day, he had abdicated his throne, never to return.



AN INTERMISSION: Mary Sue Jones

If Paul Baker’s crown was temporarily passed to Mary Sue Jones, an original Baylor disciple, hers was to be a lame-duck reign. The board wanted a new look, and Jones was philosophically bound to the old. She could only fix and patch and mend, hoping to make the old look new.

Jones sensed that the board almost hoped she would fail, despite their public protestations to the contrary. The board’s private sentiments were reflected by Michael Lang-ham, the outside theatrical dignitary brought in to head the search committee. “You’re not going to get this job,” he told Mary Sue, “and it’s got nothing to do with your talent. You’ve got too much history for them.”

Although Jones had a strong sense of what needed to be done, she believed she was hampered by “a hostile board” and a fear that Baker would rule her from the grave. Marshall Doke challenged her budget proposals, “cross-examining me as if I were a hostile witness at a trial.” Al Milano, she believes, was working against her, more concerned about promoting his own image than the image of the theater. “He always made himself accessible to people in the press-always seemed to know when something had been leaked to them.”

The balance of power had shifted to Milano. To Milano’s credit, he built a loyal staff, many of whom were adopted right out of the Baker family. His fund-raising techniques were aggressive, if not imperial. Milano entered into an agreement with Pace Theatrical Group Inc. of Houston to co-produce a series of touring road shows at the Majestic Theater, the newly renovated municipal showplace. Milano would be producing his own season independent of the regular Theater Center season. To Milano, “it was a wonderful source of raising funds.” To others, it smacked of “empire-building.”

After what was described as an interna-tional search, the board found its new star in Adrian Hall, the founding artistic director of Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, one of the most respected regional theaters in the country. “The board was after instant status,” says Milano. “They wanted an immediate turnaround, and they wanted it now.” With Tony Award-winning Adrian Hall, they got it.



ACT TWO: Adrian Hall

Fifty-six-year-old Adrian Hall was born in the small East Texas town of Van. He moved to New York in the mid-Fifties in search of a life in the theater. Disenchanted with Broadway’s commercial marketplace, Hall soon devoted his passion to a new movement in American theater, the regional theater movement.

Hall views himself as a “child of that movement, taken by the hand by such giants as Dallas’ Margo Jones and Gilmore Brown of the Pasadena Playhouse.” Although he ran a string of critical off-Broadway successes, gaining the admiration of such theatrical notables as Tennessee Williams and Tyrone Guthrie, Hall was eager to build a European-style repertory company away from Broadway. Like Baker, he was desperately committed to creating a home for the artist, “a core of actors staying and growing with the company.” But while Baker looked to his graduate students, Hall sought out actors of diverse educations and experience, avoiding the taint of inbreeding.

It was 1964 when Hall first opened the doors of his much-heralded Trinity Square Repertory Company. It took him 20 arduous years to shape his dream into “one of the most professional, innovative and stable repertory companies in the country.” To the Dallas Theater Center board, he pledged to do the same thing in three years. He would do so despite the fact that he would spend only six months a year in Dallas, since he was still holding the reins at Trinity Rep. He would do so despite the fact that he insisted on a second playing space, as yet unbuilt. He would also do so despite the fact that he fulfilled the prophecy of Paul Baker by shutting down the theater and starting over. “Adrian said he could turn the theater around in three years,” says Milano, “and that’s what the board wanted to hear. But what they got may be quite different from what they thought they were getting. Adrian is a very verbal guy, capable of laying out a brilliant fog. You don’t know what you’re listening to, but you like the sound of it.”

After Hall’s arrival, the board’s commitment to the perpetuation of Baker’s company was watered down to a guaranteed audition of 30 minutes per company member-and a hard look by Adrian Hall. Hall claims that he “simply couldn’t be generous with most of what he saw.” The board had anticipated that Hall would award full-time contracts to prospective company members, but Hall preferred instead to job-in his talent until he could get a feel for the local pool. The board anticipated that Hall would use many of Baker’s production and technical people, but instead, he imported his own talented, Tony Award-winning designer, Eugene Lee, who summarily dismissed the old regime and brought in his own. The board anticipated that Hall would support some form of educational theater; Hall was opposed to an educational theater, citing “an already crowded marketplace, where 85 percent of the actors are unemployed.” The Trinity Graduate School was phased out, and no overtures to SMU were ever made. The board anticipated that Hall would support the teen and children’s theater programs, but Hall has philosophical reservations about both, refusing to allow the children’s theater the use of the Theater Center stage. And despite the fact that Marshall Doke told Milano that “he would never allow another artistic director to have the power of a Paul Baker,” the board played right into the hands of an equally determined autocrat.

The history of Hall’s regional theater in Rhode Island is not unlike the stormy Baker era at the DTC. Hall had a strikingly similar confrontation in 1975 with his Trinity Repertory’s board. That board differed with Hall’s artistic philosophy, considered him to be fiscally irresponsible and found it virtually impossible to get any corporate support for his theater. They convened a board meeting and fired him. But Hall, in an act of unparalleled bravado, simply fired his old board and formed a new one. The original board regarded their dismissal as laughable, but Hall’s company, loyal to the man, did what Baker’s company refused to do: They went on strike. They shut the theater down. They hit the streets, went to the press, and gained public support for their cause. And Hall had one additional weapon: He was firmly ensconced in the theatrical hierarchy of the country. As a result, the National Endowment for the Arts threatened to cut off its heavy government subsidy to the theater. Baker, the isolationist, had no such clout. After considerable struggle, Hall and his troops were victorious.

Hall’s track record with general managers is also similar to Baker’s. In 20 years at Trinity Rep., Hall went through 17 general managers. And the situation in Dallas with Al Milano wasn’t shaping up any differently.

Milano had been permitted by the board to treat his function as separate, but equal to, the artistic director’s. He had always reported directly to the board, and it had served him well. But according to Milano, “Hall was from the old school of artistic directors who viewed the general manager as accountable not to the board but to the artistic director.” Although Milano believed that “Adrian wanted to bring in his own man from the beginning,” the two did experience somewhat of a honeymoon. Milano used his political savvy at City Hall to help secure Hall’s second performance space in the city’s new Arts District. Based on a design concept by Eugene Lee, the Arts District Theater was originally budgeted at $850,000 as a temporary space, a “prefabricated, blue-collar metal barn,” a monument to Hall’s populist view of theater. With speed and haste as primary planning considerations, the final price tag rose to $1.6 million.

Milano was also given the board’s sanction to build on his Majestic Broadway Series. Although Milano claims that Hall was initially supportive of the enterprise, Hall quickly made his feelings to the contrary known. “These are second-rate Broadway productions… part of the commercial world’s sleaze trade. They defeat the whole notion of the regional theater movement.”

Milano claims that it was less a question of artistic integrity than it was a question of ego. “The week Agnes of God opened at the Majestic, Hall stormed into my office,” says Milano, “and he slammed a newspaper down on my desk, yelling, ’I can’t compete with that-and I won’t compete with that.’”