Thursday, May 23, 2024 May 23, 2024
74° F Dallas, TX

Who’s Afraid Of Richard Hamburger?

When the Dallas Theater Center named its new artistic director, tongues wagged. Now, on the eve of his arrival In Dallas, Richard Hamburger discusses his new town, his fondness for socially significant stagework and his pursuit of that elusive thing called art.

You’d think we eat the avant-garde with our chili. Tough, risky, sexy, adventurous theater is, surely, de rigueur to Dallas/Fort Worth theatergoers. After all, we sit unfazed in the glow of Texas-targeted Chevrolet TV commercials that begin with this fabulous absurdism:

“It’s not easy being a truck.”

Well, it’s not going to be so easy being Richard Hamburger, either. Before Chevy can say “the Suburban is the national car of Texas,” Hamburger will be on board as the new and sorely needed artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center.

Hamburger’s 40. He has worked at Great Lakes Theater Festival, the Juilliard Theatre Center, Circle in the Square Theatre School, John Houseman’s The Acting Company, Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Place Theatre. Since 1987. he has been the artistic director of the Portland Stage Company in Maine. And he has led it, some might say, down a path to a righteous revolution unknown in mainstream Dallas theater. Fisher folk and shop merchants in Portland have watched stuff that could send our box-office managers roaring off in their Chevies in terror.

Hamburger likes “fabulous young writers exploring theatrical forms.”

Not Agatha Christie. More like, for example. Mac Wellman. Hamburger and his partner-in-life Melissa Cooper produced Wellman’s Terminal Hip at Portland before it helped Wellman win a Village Voice Obie for off-Broadway achievement. Locally, the Undermain Theatre, Dallas’ second theater power, premiered Wellman’s politically furious A Murder of Crows late in 1991, confirming Wellman as a gleeful satirist of conservatives, of censors, of American Christianity, of the Persian Gulf war. Could such heresy be nearing the sainted stages of Our Theater Center, the flagship house of North Texas and. some would say, a very yellow rose on our arts scene?

“You cannot immediately hit an audience with Mac’s work.” Hamburger quickly reassures. “It takes time. We’ll build to Mac Wellman. Every step of the way, we’ll be informing the audience of what we’re doing. And Mac Wellman will seem positively conservative some day.”

Hamburger’s five-year contract begins in June, but he’ll announce his first season of plays in early summer. He already has named some shows he’s considering. And while he has the outspoken support of Idelle Rabin-third-generation Dallasite, a Theater Center founding member, “an arts advocate up to my eyeballs” and Mayor Steve Bartlett’s appointment to the chair of Dallas’ Cultural Affairs Commission-Rabin predicts dust storms in Hamburger’s future: “For those of us who love new theater and the experimental,” Rabin says, “he’ll have a heyday in the Theater Center’s basement space. But on the main stage, well, unfortunately, Dallas is a buying public for things they know and like. The Dallas audience is really very conservative.”

Judging from his spiel these days, the same line so many of us talk if we are new to this town of prairie promise and hidebound potential. Hamburger is galloping in on a collision course with Texas Tradition.

“I think Dallas can be challenging and I think it can be exhilarating,” Hamburger exudes. “One of the reasons I’m here is because of the diversity of Dallas. The Portland audience is homogeneous. It makes me feel like I’m not living in my time. It doesn’t relate to what I’m watching on the news. It’s important to me to be grappling with the difficult issues, I’m naive enough to feel that theater can make a difference and that an artistic director is an important community leader. There’s a Hispanic community here, for example. This country is increasingly Hispanic. Its second language is Spanish. Perhaps some year we’ll have A Christmas Carol in a Hispanic version. We’ll be starting right at the geographic center of America and resonating across the country and through Dallas.”

Let’s say Hamburger is right. Let’s hope he’s right. Say he and Cooper move here, cultivate the trust of the DTC company and Dallasites, and turn them on to socially significant theater. Let’s say the man it took DTC’s diligent search committee 14 months to choose can do all this. What will he have accomplished? There’s an ancient, brilliant and misunderstood word for it: Art.

N 467 B.C., WHEN AN ACTOR PLAYING the son of Oedipus walked out onto a sun-blanched Athenian stage in Seven Against Thebes and boomed, “You citizens of Cadmus,” he called into session something we’ve forgotten.

Over the centuries, Western theater has been nearly eclipsed and hotly seduced by an awful, glittering industry of entertainment. In an age when a screen, big or small, can overwhelm the senses with addictive “sit back and relax” sounds and sights, guaranteeing laughs, banishing worries, at little or no cost to the consumer and with stupendous profits for producers, it has become next to impossible to remember that this isn’t theater. Theater is not a mass entertainment medium. By definition, theater must be performed live. Therefore, the number of people who can see one performance is limited to a single hall. To this day, the largest sensible venue for live theater is no bigger than the Greeks’ great theater at Epidauros, built around 340 B.C. with some 14,000 seats. And ideally we’re looking for something much more intimate.

So is Hamburger, philosophically speaking. His hair never quite under control, his hands flying and eyes flashing, he talks with bounding candor of the kind of intimacy he wants with audiences and artists. He wants to make this 32-year-old theater nothing less than the heart of Dallas’ cultural consciousness. He wants to make Art, the kind of work that will put Dallas on a national regional-theater map as more than the stubborn dead end it generally has been, a curious dirt-road cul-de-sac off the main highway of American drama.

His work is cut out for him. And in truth, this man Hamburger, whom the board’s search committee chairman, Harold Gaar, insightfully values because “he can provide artistic leadership in the broadest sense of the word,” may be precisely the right choice for DTC. He looks good, very good. But it’s not going to be easy. In a popularity contest, the odds are on the truck.


You’d think the Chevy had hit a cow. On Dec. 20, when Hamburger’s appointment was announced to a search-weary Dallas Theater Center company of artists and staff, an actor named Dee Hennigan walked to a telephone, called The Dallas Morning News and told critic Jerome Weeks that she and her cohorts were disappointed with the choice of Hamburger. He had been tough to work with during his eloquent guest direction of DTCs The Substance of Fire by Jon Robin Baitz, Hennigan said.

By the time she was on stage in January and February’s The Importance of Being Earnest and rehearsing for / Hate Hamlet, Hennigan no longer would return calls about the incident. She virtually had stranded herself on an island of discontent in a sea of praise for Hamburger. Actors, designers, composers and writers around the country readily countered Hennigan’s charges that Hamburger was more dictator than collaborator in the artistic process. Evidently, “the Dee thing” was just that, one talent’s loud-mouthed unhappiness resulting quite possibly from the fact that Hennigan is part of DTC’s standing repertory of actors-actors who may feel nervous knowing that Hamburger undoubtedly will import some of his own favorite artists from elsewhere.

What was striking wasn’t Hennigan’s harangue but the Wagnerian proportion the occasion seemed to take on for DTC officials. They freaked, and badly, at the thought of the topic arising in this article, despite assurances from all around them that no one was going to judge a new artistic director on the naysayings of a single, disgruntled actor.

Jeff West is the managing director resoundingly credited with keeping DTC afloat during the nightmarish months after artistic director Ken Bryant’s accidental death in October 1990. West now perceives that the real kick in Hennigan’s attack was not substance but surprise. She blind-sided them. There had been no warning that anyone in the company had been unhappy with Hamburger’s work.

“I’m driving across the country at Christmas,” West recalls, “buzzing right along, and all of a sudden my car phone’s ringing with ’Dee said this’ and ’Dee said that.’” While everyone was looking forward to a much-needed celebration of the center’s new boy, they got hit, instead, with a flying lump of coal. Hamburger chose to comment as little as possible on the situation at the time and put it down to natural new-boss willies. But he, too, was unmistakably shaken.

The incident is important only as a tip-off to DTC’s overriding problem: The Dallas Theater Center, after three decades, is still an insecure adolescent in terms of its own institutional identity.

As Hamburger himself puts it, the center “has always been a sort of huge, gangling animal, and people around the country have said, ’Can someone pull it all together and create great theater?’”

It may surprise you just how “huge” this animal is.

With a staff of some 60 full-time and seasonal employees and 25 to 30 additional workers in telemarketing and other areas, DTC has an annual budget of about $3.5 million and operates in three separate facilities. Second only to Houston’s Alley Theatre in size among Texas’ Equity-professional not-for-profit regional theaters, DTC expects to do $190,000 in single ticket sales this season, excluding sales for A Christmas Carol. The balance of its operating expenses, West says, must be made up in contributed income that includes a projected $450,000 from corporate donors; $45,000-$50,000 in foundation money (in addition to a Meadows Foundation contribution of $500,000 to the company’s goal of a $6 million endowment fund by year’s end); $245,000 in individual donors’ gifts; $232,000 from government sources including $120,000 in utilities and other support from the city of Dallas; $176,000 from organizations such as TACA, 500 Inc. and the theater’s guild; and $100,000 from the annual summertime Centerstage Gala, which will feature Tommy Tune this year.

DTC is a heavy member of an often grotesquely underestimated local arts industry that executive director Pal Porter and The Dallas Business Committee for the Arts estimate had a $442.2 million impact on the North Texas economy in 1990 alone. The arts drew more than 6 million admissions to more than 11,000 arts events, creating jobs, jobs, jobs-1,416 full-time, 1,229 part-time and 2,325 jobs for contract workers.

To bring DTC into focus, however, you must invoke not only economics but also ghosts. You must utter the name of Margo Jones.

No, Jones didn’t found the Theater Center. She’s credited, however with inspiring the American regional-theater movement of professional artistry outside New York. She did a lot of that ground-breaking work in Dallas until her death in 1955. Her Theatre ’55 closed in 1959 with the enviable distinction of having produced a roster of 70 percent new plays, according to Helen Sheehy’s biography, Margo.

The same year, a transplant to Dallas from Cleveland named Bea Handel saw her dream of an extensive community theater come true with the establishment of the Dallas Theater Center under the aegis of educator Paul Baker. First in cooperation with Baylor, then with Trinity University, DTC would spend its initial quarter-century both limited and driven by Baker’s teacherly vision. DTC’s second chapter comprised the 1983-1989 artistic direction of Adrian Hall. The third period was cut woefully short by Ken Bryant’s late-1990 death.

All three segments of DTC history, in retrospect, shiver in the shadow cast by Margo Jones’ legacy of nationally important theatrical pioneering. No one has equaled the hard-driving swagger of Jones’ reputation or the deceptive glamour of DTC’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater-a building that artists bitterly berate (“Wright was wrong”) for its inflexible structure.

Theatre Communications Group, the nation’s New York-based regional-theater organization, has, over the years, recorded a series of starkly different points-of-view from DTC”s successive leaders.

From Paul Baker at the end of his tenure in 1982: “The Dallas Theater Center is firmly committed to professional and educational excellence and strong community involvement .. . [and] operates a graduate program offering an M.F. A. degree in theater through Trinity University.”

From Adrian Hall in 1988: “The form of government we have agreed on |in the Dallas Theater Center] is the troika rule-artists, administrators, trustees. If the artist doesn’t produce, he fails. If at least one half of the annual budget is not paying the salaries of artists, then the balance is wrong. If the grass-root hooks are not being applied, then the trustees must be charged.”

And from Ken Bryant in 1990: “The most important thing an institution can offer the artist is an environment in which to flower. .. I want the Dallas Theater Center to continue to bend our collective imagination to creating an intimate dialogue with the audience, the community. Fashionable entertainment is no longer enough.”

With those three statements in mind, it’s not hard to draw a triangular guess at what the center’s board might achieve with Hamburger’s appointment.

To begin with, DTC now has a squarely professional, as opposed to educational, focus. The inadequate daytime shows still staged by DTC’s Teen/Children’s Theater program are the last vestige of Baker’s educational emphasis. There are no university connections left and that’s as it should be until [he theater develops a stable enough artistic character to offer quality training to advanced students. Virtually everyone’s favorite DTC story is of how Hall tried to set up a liaison in the 1980s with Southern Methodist University’s nationally prominent Meadows School of the Arts Theatre Division. Hall’s first request was that students shave their heads and shift sets in the nude. Nobody talks of M.F.A. programs at DTC anymore.

The second part of the board’s three-way wisdom harkens back to the national attention that the passionate and flamboyant but self-absorbed and design-oriented Hall brought to the center with his stagings of such works as Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men and Peter Barnes’ comedy about the Black Plague,Red Noses. The attention was right, only Hall’s price of ego-driven auteur-hood was too high. A national presence in theater is correctly expected of Dallas by those who still see it as the cradle of Jones’ American regional-theater mission. It’s also simply what Dallasites deserve, whether they know it or not.

And the third and prime directive inherent in the selection of Hamburger as artistic director is a development of the nurturing “artistic home” that was started by Bryant. This doesn’t promise necessarily another 30 years’ residence to actor Randy Moore or other longtimers at DTC, but it does evoke a healing, supportive environment in the wake of Hall’s “troika rule” that recalled more than anything that great Russian proverb “Either bring home food or be eaten yourself.”

Hard Truckin’ Ahead

“I’ve come with my eyes open,” Hamburger is fond of saying. He revels in talk of his new town, his new theater, his love of new scripts.

“I think the greatest challenge will be to take all the intrigue out of the Dallas Theater Center,” Hamburger says, “and get us honestly communicating with each other, reestablishing it as an artistically driven organization. DTC will be a social experiment in terms of bringing people together and different kinds of artists. It’s hard to locate Dallas’ center. I believe this theater can be that center.”

All rich words, sparkling hope, grand concepts. But if Hamburger’s eyes really are open, then he surely has spotted some of that “intrigue” already clinging to him. Minutes after West, in one office, says that Hamburger’s appointment is in part related to the company’s desire to have a new building, Hamburger, in a separate office, says that a new structure isn’t important. Then, in a later interview, the company line apparently has been clarified. Hamburger gracefully backpedals. “Naturally, my priority this year will be people, building the theater from within and spiritually, But it would be exciting to build something with the flexibility of the ADT but more durable.”

There it is, the ADT or Arts District Theater, (he company’s finest bone of contention. Al Milano, whose tenure as the company’s general director spanned the transition from Baker to Hall, recalls that “Adrian Hall and [scenic designer] Eugene Lee blew into town and didn’t start talking about building something until they got there.”

Milano, now with arts-funding consultants C.W. Shaver and Co, in New York, remembers Hall and Lee talking of a $600,000 price tag on the ADT they wanted to build. Not only did the huge, gloriously adaptable theater ultimately cost $1.6 million, but “I walked into the building during the first show’s rehearsals,” Milano says, “and it sounded like Hiroshima.” Rain was hitting the metal roof. It cost around $30,000 just to pad the roof against a Texas gully-washer.

Today, DTC’s scene shop is housed at the Arts District Theater. The Kalita Humphreys main stage theater and basement performance space are in the Frank Lloyd Wright building. And the company’s offices and rehearsal hall are in the Heldt Building next door. A unified space would be nice. A snazzy-looking structure in the Arts District would be even nicer.

But Hamburger thinks there’s something right about “theater as the bastard art,” embodied in a mammoth shed next to the grandeur of the Meyerson. He may be less a victim of the “edifice complex” than other DTCers who speak privately about their desire for a new building.

“It’s a pain in the ass having the shop in another place,” Hamburger concedes, “but I don’t think it’s essential that it’s all in the same place. If we get an ’opulent hunk of concrete’” in the Arts District, he says, borrowing an interviewer’s phrase for the kind of architecture often favored in civic efforts at housing the arts, “it should be a flexible space, a huge black box that can in some ways outdo the Arts District Theater. I salivate over the ADT, a beautiful space.”

Even bigger than issues of buildings and the strain on arts donations that a major capital campaign would create are questions of what the DTC could and should mean in Dallas and what Hamburger thinks he can do as a johnny-come-lately to some deep water under the bridge.

DTC’s three decades have been shared, for example, by Jac Alder at the 30-year-old Theatre Three. Though he has hung onto that theater’s control through nearly disastrous financial travails and rumored attempts of staff mutinies, Alder’s recent productions have taken on a Technicolor vividness, a sitcom-bright artificiality. From Alder’s offices in the Quadrangle, DTC’s bid for national prominence looks like a mistake: “I don’t mean to advocate provincialism,” Alder says, “but you’d better be important to the people who come to see you, 1 think you gel into trouble when you’re going to try to be nationally important. Why not be important to yourself? Then the world will come to you.”

A contrasting view comes from Cecil O’Neal, chairman of SMU’s Theatre Division and a former director with Ontario’s revered Stratford Festival. O’Neal, who has championed modern Canadian stage literature locally and supported Dallas’ risk-taking Kitchen Dog Theatre company, argues forcefully for the sort of sophisticated language of theater in which Hamburger is fluent.

“A theater with the resources and history of the Dallas Theater Center,” O’Neal says, “has a leadership role to play in the cultural life in the community and that means having resident artists who are worldclass, as well as importing some. My argument with the Theater Center isn’t that there aren’t very talented actors working there consistently but that the minimal standards of acceptability arc too low. And, in terms of reaching out to the o(her arts organizations of the community, I think that [former executive managing director] Peter Donnelly made an effort at that, I think Jeff West certainly has tried to do that and Ken [Bryant] demonstrated an interest in doing that; but Ken’s death meant the focus had to go back to the internal needs of the theater.”

Indeed, with (he exception of the insular Adrian Hall, Katherine Owens, co-artistic director with Raphael Parry of the Under-main Theatre, feels that “we’ve always had great relations with everyone at the Theater Center. And, if anything, Adrian’s example helped the rest of us know that tribal rivalries are useless in this town.”

Owens is a leader in the successful cooperative called Chimera, a group of smaller theater companies that this spring includes Undermain, Pegasus, Addison Theatre Centre, Teatro Dallas, the Classic Theatre Company, the Gryphon Players and Actors Theatre of Dallas. And. Owens is looking to arrange joint productions with other companies, aggressive efforts in collaboration.

Rebecca Young applauds such moves, lamenting that “instead of developing audiences, a lot of time has been spent by our companies looking over their shoulders- the competition between them has been stronger than it might look.” Young, whose The Young Company is a public relations firm for not-for-profit organizations, hopes Hamburger can spearhead a search for new audiences that all Dallas’ theaters will join.

Hamburger is ready for that challenge. “I want our audience to be mixed-races, ethnic backgrounds, economic strata, ages. I think there’s nothing provincial about the city of Dallas or its audiences. The DTC is going to be an umbrella organization for people like Katherine [Owens] and something Dallas can be proud of.”

The list of plays Hamburger is considering for next season includes Friedrich Dür-renmalt’s harrowing morality play, The Visit; Luigi Pirandello’s dark existential fantasy. Six Characters in Search of an Author; Arthur Kopit’s study of Native Americans’ mistreatment, Indians; Richard Nelson’s recent Broadway show about rival thespians. Two Shakespearean Actors; Henrik Ibsen’s drama of insanity and forbidden love. Ghosts; and several clusters of plays such as Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (adapted by Edward Albee) or Irish shows Playboy of the Western World by John Synge and Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.

Ben Cameron, theater program director with the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC, describes the anticipation that DTC has attracted in its selection of Hamburger as “symptomatic of the industry. It’s all about new bodies filling old chairs, new energy. Richard’s appointment is perfectly in keeping with the national changeover mood. He’s a di rector who not only can orchestrate comedy to within an inch of his life but also can tap into much darker drama with amazing success.”

In order to focus on his transition to DTC, Hamburger has given up a chance to direct Lynn Siefert’s Little Egypt this spring at New York’s prestigious Playwrights Horizons Studio Space.

And, however unconsciously, he performed in January an impressive, quiet ritual of sorts that might be understood instinctively by Dallasites. Hamburger went to Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company to see actor Linda Gehringer’s rave-review performance in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. After the performance, the two met. She then visited Portland Stage to see his production of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Mandrake. And the two drove back to Boston together. According to those close to both Gehringer and Hamburger, they liked each other.

Gehringer is the widow of Ken Bryant. And while she is far too unassuming ever to assert any right of approval, her apparent comfort with Hamburger is maybe just the understated but pertinent parallel that some in the Dallas theater world need to see. Hamburger is taking up the torch in so loving and concentrated a way that his eagerness envelopes you in oathlike rhythms.

“This theater,” Hamburger says, “will be a place to grow not only for actors, but for directors and designers and composers and for writers, for everybody in the theater. Our work will be truly responsive to the time we live in. We’ll really grapple with what’s on people’s minds, things we don’t look at, things that are too frightening to look at. It can be done with a classic as well as a new play.

“I looked at the Dallas Theater Center through Linda Gehringer’s eyes and I realized how precious time is. There’s time only to build. Not for what’s petty. People don’t need to believe I’m great until they see it. Just come and look.”

The truck stops here.