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ARTS: Beauty and the Beat Writer

How a beautiful actress persuaded a theater critic to ditch his cush job and put on a show. PLUS: can’t-miss performances and up-and-coming director Marianne Galloway.
By Glenn Arbery |

THE VIXEN AND THE SCRIBE: Sue Loncar lured Tom Sime away from the News with her, um, charm.

When Dallas Morning News theater critic Tom Sime resigned last spring to become the managing director of Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, a shockwave went through the Dallas theater community. Sime was a respected critic. He’d worked at the Dallas Observer, the Met, and KERA 90.1 before joining the News in 1995. He’d survived the crushing layoffs at the paper in the wake of the circulation scandal last year. But the thin, goateed 46-year-old couldn’t wait to get away from his gray cubicle.

The truth is, he was never at ease as a journalist. And, after he wrote his first play in 2003—he’s written four more since, one of them a prizewinner—he realized that he had to give up his critic’s gig sooner or later.

“There was always something in the back of my mind thinking, ’What next? How am I going to get out of this? When is this phase going to be over?’ I’m a writer. It’s in my blood absolutely. But I was never a very good reporter,” he says, sitting at a table in front of the set for The Dinner Party in CTD’s theater, a block off Greenville Avenue, on Sears Street. “I never could get my facts straight, for one thing. I was king of the corrections page.”

But what really pushed him to make his move was Belo’s decision to interrupt so many careers last October.

“That was terrible,” Sime says. “Despair sort of engulfed everybody. And when an opportunity arose—when this came along—it was like the door was open. Before that, it was, ’What else would I do to support myself?’ It’s the only career I ever had that paid the rent. Sue came along, and she said, ’Too bad you don’t want to run a theater,’ and I sort of pounced on her.”

Sue is his friend Sue Loncar, also 46—the Texas-tall, blonde, beautiful artistic director (and frequent actress) of CTD. Sime’s muse and new employer, she differs from most tall, blonde, beautiful actresses and artistic directors in the fact that she has six children, the youngest of them 5 years old. She’s married to Dallas personal-injury lawyer Brian “Call in the Strong Arm!” Loncar.

She joins us at the table, instantly talking with a rapid, tumbling exuberance, full of pauses, humorous exaggerations, arm-touching, dramatic inflections. “It’s definitely a demotion for poor Tom,” she says. “I warned him of that before he came on. I was like, [slowly, intensely] ’You wanna leave this cush job?’—[faster] ’cause I always thought going to review theater was a cush job—and then over here it’s like slave labor, 24/7! I mean it’s like you’re on call. Like one time we had the water—somebody was building the set and they broke off one of the heads, it flooded the entire building and the set and the unhappy tenant below. I mean, that was, like, 2 in the morning. It’s like working in the ER! Wouldn’t you say?”

“A little bit, yeah,” Tom says, chuckling.

“We oughta do a show!” she says, and plunges on to talk about casting The Miss Firecracker Contest, which opens on August 19.

All week, they have been doing auditions to fill three of the four main roles in Beth Henley’s play about a small-town Southern girl named Carnelle who tries to redeem herself from her bad reputation (“Miss Hot Tamale”) by winning the annual Miss Firecracker Contest on the Fourth of July. Her cousin Elain, a beautiful former winner, shows up after leaving her husband, and Elain’s brother Delmount, who has recently gotten out of the state mental hospital (it was a bad rap) turns up ready to sell Carnelle’s house and everything in it. Popeye, Carnelle’s nearsighted seamstress, falls for Delmount, to complicate matters.

Loncar and her director for this play, Susan Sargeant, cast newcomer Jennifer Knight as Carnelle, the role that Holly Hunter played in the 1984 Manhattan premiere and the 1989 movie Miss Firecracker.

“A precious new little girl,” Loncar says.

“She’s really good,” Sime says.

“Really, really, really good,” Loncar trumps. “She’s like—you know she’s gonna go places.”

“She’s radiant,” Sime says.

“That’s what’s so fun about this job! You catch a lot of people right out of college and you see it and you know they’re special.”

And who’s playing the beautiful Elain? Loncar waits a beat, points to herself, and bursts out laughing.

“I’m a Southern girl. I’ve loved this play, and I lost the role one time to Cindee Mayfield, who I’m on the stage with right now.” In the June production, Mayfield played the enticing and elegant Gabrielle in The Dinner Party.

Loncar asked singer Jenny Thurman, who performed A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline at WaterTower Theatre last Christmas, to perform her first dramatic role, as Popeye.

“She’s got this voice that you can hear in the parking lot,” Loncar says. “I saw Jenny and she was just one of those people that you’re just like—I mean, she’s just [gasps]—I mean, UN-believable. So I just called her.”

Bad boy Delmount is Mark Nutter, who recently performed in A Country Life at WaterTower Theatre.

“The Dallas Voice described him as a beef burrito,” Sime says laconically.

Loncar stresses her love of actors. Even Equity actors might get only $159 a week guaranteed, she says, and some actors who put in 10 or 12 weeks of work on a play might get paid only $150. She wants to do better, and it’s part of the reason that she started her theater.

Her building on Sears Street, constructed as a Baptist church in about 1925, went through incarnations as a nightclub and a Wiccan community center before she turned it into a theater. Loncar and her husband Brian, who comes to most performances (she has to stop him from giving away drinks at the bar) and who has been known to give a curtain speech on occasion, leased the building for the first two years and bought it outright six months ago.

Why is it worth it to her?

“I want to work with talented people who are in it for the right reasons, and I want to do the plays I want to do. Now I can pick something I feel totally passionate about it. Now I can pick and choose. I would never have thought I could handle this!” she cries, changing moods. “It’s all smoke and mirrors!”

“I’m smoke,” Sime says. “Meet mirrors.”

“I told Terry Martin [artistic director at WaterTower Theatre], ’I don’t know what I’m doing! Nothing qualifies me for this.’ He said, ’None of us do. You’re getting ready to be on a HUGE’—he put a big emphasis on ’huge’—’learning curve.’ I’m a self-taught producer, I don’t have a master’s from SMU. I may never get the credibility that other people do. I don’t put on Sam Shepard, Buried Child. I have no desire to.”

What she does have—and this is undoubtedly what drew Sime to her to start with—is a way of combining professional standards and hospitality in the best Southern way.

“The biggest thing that we have going for us is our personality,” Loncar says. “People that come here feel like this is their home. If you go to the Dallas Theater Center, you feel like you’ve bought tickets to the theater.”

Richard Hamburger or Terry Martin will attend a first performance, she explains, and not come again, but Loncar attends every performance, and the actors mingle with the audience after the play every night.

“There’s no other theater where people—they’re vested, I think they’re vested in us. Because I have people walk up all the time and—like, when I didn’t do four plays—’Now when are you going to get back onstage?’ It’s not just going to see a show. It’s an evening with friends.”

Tom Sime has fallen silent before the sheer force of Loncar’s talking. It is as if she is a hurricane and Sime has boarded his windows, waiting for her to blow inland. One has a hard time imagining it’s a problem he faced in his cubicle at the Morning News.

Photo: James Bland

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Futures Trading
A rising star is terrified.

Marianne Galloway

“Dallas is more receptive to young artists coming in and starting their own thing than probably any city in the country,” says Marianne Galloway. “When I went out to LA and I told the story of Risk to the directors, they were amazed that we got the critics to come out to our first show.”

Now 28, Galloway launched Risk Theater Initiative two years ago with Waiting for Godot—in a barn. She did it again, later, in the old bowling alley at Sons of Hermann Hall. The critics loved both versions.

This spring, as a measure of her success, she directed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in a cooperative venture at Samuell-Grand Park with Raphael Parry and Shakespeare Festival of Dallas. She was also one of 70 directors accepted from more than 800 applicants worldwide for New York’s 2005 Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and Los Angeles’ Directors Lab West. We caught up with her between sessions and asked her what happened in LA—besides the 12-hour days.

“Out of 42 directors, I was one of four who were chosen to direct a scene from Macbeth, in a session that was devoted to style and substance,” she says. “We were given the ’Double, double, toil and trouble’ scene, and I was given the last quarter of it, so the appearance of the eight kings, and I was given six professional Equity actors, and 35 minutes. It was the most challenging and terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life.

“But you lead up to that. And the second you get there from orientation, they sit you down and say, ’You are the future of American theater. You’re it. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.’” —G.A.

Photo: Melissa Martinez

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LET’S GET SMALL
When some people think of going to the theater, they imagine dressing up, paying New York prices, and sitting there bored for two hours. Those people need to check out the energy—and the nose rings—at the more than two dozen smaller companies in the area. The Festival of Independent Theatres (FIT) spills over from late July into the first weekend of August. The variety of talents will knock you over. Playwrights on the boards include Harold Pinter, Nilo Cruz, Caryl Churchill, and Horton Foote. New playwrights get fresh, staged readings—and there’s plenty of comedy from groups like Salon du Fit or Audacity Productions’ The Mild Dementia Continuous-Play Variety Hour. It all happens at the Bathhouse Cultural Center on White Rock Lake. www.bathhousecultural.com/FIT2005.html.


**NOT TO MISS THIS MONTH

August 13  Metamorphosis
Mary Zimmerman’s acclaimed adaptation of Ovid’s poem of transformations. Through August 13 at Theatre Three. 214-871-3300.

August 19  The Miss Firecracker Contest
Beth Henley’s story about a girl with a bad reputation who tries to redeem herself in a disastrously funny beauty contest. August 19 at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. 214-828-0094.


Glenn Arbery is a senior editor at People Newspapers.