Bravo! (March, 2006)

Dallas theater is the best it’s ever been. New companies are springing up. The talent here is as good as it is in LA or NY. So why isn’t anyone watching?

THE PRODUCERS: (clockwise from top left) Terry Martin, WaterTower Theatre; Tina Parker; Kitchen Dog Theater; Jac Alder, Theatre Three; Cora Cardona, Teatro Dallas; Raphael Parry, Shakespeare Dallas; Richard Hamburger (with halo), Dallas Theater Center

Back in the late fall, Elaine Liner, who covers the stage for the Dallas Observer, stopped in mid-review to ask whether we’d ever seen anything quite as good as the last few months of theater. New companies, fresh work, good plays, week after week, month after month. The whole theater scene is exploding. In the past three years, six new professional companies have sprung up, and the actors and directors involved in them are as talented as any in New York or Los Angeles. “I think it’s phenomenal,” says Robyn Flatt, founder of Dallas Children’s Theater, who has watched local theater since her father, Paul Baker, started the Dallas Theater Center in 1959.

From mid-September through late November, local companies produced Tracy Letts’ masterpiece of paranoia, Bug (Kitchen Dog); a brand-new one-man show called Shakespeare’s Keeper, written by Chris Pickles and Matthew Gray for Classical Acting Company; Regina Taylor’s Crowns, which she directed herself at the Dallas Theater Center; the regional premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s apocalyptically wacky Wonder of the World (Second Thought Theatre); Caryl Churchill’s dark fairy tale, The Skriker (SATER); Pulitzer Prize-winner John Patrick Shanley’s brutally revealing Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (Wingspan); and Jeff Baron’s Visiting Mr. Green (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas), with Jerry Russell rivaling Eli Wallach, who had the original role in New York. I can’t think of a single production on this list—and it’s incomplete—that I couldn’t recommend.

On one level, it’s easy to explain the boom. Dallas welcomes new enterprises, and for people in their 20s with little to lose and who are willing to work for next to nothing, the theater scene here is ideal. Last summer, Marianne Galloway of Risk Theater Initiative told me that people in New York and LA were amazed that she could start a company, stage a low-budget production of Waiting for Godot in the old bowling alley at the back of Sons of Hermann Hall, and get it reviewed by a major newspaper. With that kind of enviable attention available, Dallas is a great market for fresh talent. Like Galloway, Steven Walters and Allison Tolman at Second Thought Theatre are still in their 20s (see “7 Actors to Watch,” below), as are Todd Haberkorn and Elizabeth Van Winkle, who just did their first production for Theater Fusion last month. Once people get into the seats and see what’s going on, once they realize how vital live theater is and recognize the talent of the people so passionately involved in doing it, they’re much more likely to go to other plays.

But the Dallas stage suffers its losses, too. Established theaters like Plano Rep fail and close. The brilliant Our Endeavors Theater Collective dissolved in November because the financial and artistic pressures of sustaining a company had become too great. It’s one thing to start a company for nothing, but it’s another matter to keep it going—and especially to make a living at it.

Robyn Flatt explains that as theaters grow, they develop layers of administration, at which point the problem becomes keeping the art alive without becoming “administrative-driven.” The other main reason that companies falter is more paradoxical: theater does not get enough attention—a diagnosis I heard from everyone I asked. As Dallas Theater Center managing director Mark Hadley put it, “There are all of these great burgeoning companies doing work out there, but it’s as if no one but a handful of people knows about it.” In other words, theaters can start up and thrive here at first because there’s so much attention to be had. Once they get serious about sustaining themselves, they can easily suffer and die because there’s not enough.

RICHARD HAMBURGER IS STARVING. IT’S JANUARY, ON A DAY so hot they have to turn on the air conditioning in the Dallas Theater Center. On his mid-afternoon break between sessions of rehearsal for Joe Egg, he sits down at the conference table in the Meadows Conference Room in the administrative building and wolfs down part of a huge sandwich, the first thing he’s had since breakfast. I ask him how the Dallas Theater Center, of which he is the artistic director, fits into the city’s burgeoning theater scene. How does he deal with the fact that almost every other theater in Dallas looks to the DTC with envy and longing, if not outright resentment, because of its city-owned buildings, its money, and its recognition?

No other theater group, for example, will be able to afford to use the new Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. The DTC will have it as its home base. If there is a competition for theater support, as there almost certainly is, the DTC seems to have a lock on the contributions of big donors in the Park Cities and North Dallas, largely because it has the prestige of drawing on talent from New York and LA.

Twenty-five years ago, the DTC decided to abandon the teaching function it had under its founder, Paul Baker, and to take on a different identity—more cosmopolitan, less local. But Hamburger defends its place. He points out that the Dallas Shakespeare Festival used the Theater Center for rehearsals. Groups like Second Thought use the smaller upstairs venue, called Frank’s Place. And when the DTC was tearing down the Arts District Theater, it gave the Hip Pocket Theater in Fort Worth “a lot of platforming and stuff like that.” But the main area of support lies in hiring locally.

“I think it’s up to us to promote local talent, to be helpful in any way we can, to have people who live here in Dallas,” Hamburger says. “It’s just great for the community when you have actors and designers and directors who are from here. We’ve got people like Raphael Perry, Bruce Dubose, Chamblee Ferguson, Denise Lee, and Liz Mikel who work here regularly. This year we had Regina Taylor come back [to direct Crowns]. She’s from Dallas. Doug Wright [whose play I Am My Own Wife runs through March 26] is from Dallas. So I feel like we’re doing very well. At the same time, we are a national theater. We’re part of a league of resident theaters. We do audition in New York and LA, and I think it’s wonderful for everybody if you mix it, if you have local actors and New York and LA actors.”

The new Wyly Theatre will allow the DTC to do what he calls “larger, more epic experiences,” and the more intimate, gutsy dramas (“where you can see the sweat on their faces”) will be done on the smaller stage, similar to what happened during the Big D Festival of the Unexpected, a festival of local talent that ran in the spring from 1993 through 1997, then revived for one more go in 2000.

Hamburger is clearly thinking of places like the Alley in Houston or the Guthrie in Minneapolis. But the real comparison might be with WaterTower Theatre in Addison, which was the area theater featured in NPR’s series on regional theater—not the Dallas Theater Center. At least locally, other theaters look to WaterTower’s Terry Martin as a mentor and guide. Many local groups regularly use the spaces of the Addison Theatre Centre, and this month’s Out of the Loop Festival, for groups without their own permanent venues, has effectively replaced the Big D Festival of the Unexpected.

When I turn off the recorder, Hamburger begins to talk about the real problem of Dallas theater: people don’t know about it. He gets asked all the time why there aren’t more ads about upcoming productions. No theater in town, including the DTC, has an advertising budget. How important is that? Think about what happens with films. Even awful movies get mammoth hype, and consumers depend on it to create a sense of importance. They are free to complain after the fact, but in the meantime, hundreds of millions of dollars have rolled into the studio coffers for a lame film like Revenge of the Sith. For live theaters, “unhyped” too often means “unattended.” The DTC’s managing director, Mark Hadley, independently stated the same problem as Hamburger: lack of attention means lack of attendance. So, by the way, did Robyn Flatt, Jac Alder of Theatre Three, and Andrea Redmon, president of the Dallas Theatre League.

“If there was some better way,” Hadley says, “a kind of a coalition, so that people know what’s going on. Or some kind of information source, so more people are aware. I don’t think it’s a lack of talent or interesting work being done. I think it’s a lack of awareness in the community.”

The fact is, just like smaller companies, the Dallas Theater Center barely scrapes by with its $5 million budget. The big kid on the block’s complaint about lack of attention should draw nothing but quizzical amens from smaller companies. Everybody has the same problem. In fact, there is a local coalition—the Dallas Theatre League—and last year, under Andrea Redmon’s leadership, the league started inserting a list of all upcoming shows into the programs of its members. It also maintains a complete calendar on its web site (www.dallastheatreleague.com). Helpful as the list is, though, it only serves people already attending productions. It won’t bring in new patrons who have never been to a play at all.

JAC ADLER’S VOICE HAS THE KIND OF INTELLIGENT ASPERITY you associate with people who have seen it all—a quality both curmudgeonly and genial, a register somewhere between Andy Rooney and Paul Lynde. It’s hard to argue that he doesn’t have grounds for judgment about theater in Dallas. He has led Theatre Three since he and his wife Norma Young founded it in 1961.

And he does not belong to the Dallas Theatre League. Why? Because of the DTL’s annual Leon Rabin Awards.

“Bruce Coleman is a terrific guy, a very talented set designer and costume designer who had a budget of around $250,” Alder says. “There was a Theater League competition for best set, and in that same year there was a nomination for Ming Cho Lee, who had a huge budget [at the Dallas Theater Center]. Bruce was the winner, and I have every respect for Bruce. But you can’t compare someone like Ming Cho Lee—who has also designed for the Dallas Opera and every major place in the world and is a professor of design at Yale, for God’s sake—with Bruce, however talented and however terrific a person he is, who had a $250 budget.”

That example exposes some of the rifts in the theater community. In effect, the DTL had blackballed the DTC, which explains why the DTC dropped out of the league—even though, as Hamburger explains, they still pay what would be the cost of membership. But Alder’s complaints go deeper.

“Leon [Rabin] was a very special friend of mine, and it hurts me dreadfully that his name has been associated with something that has never been set up right and has no real purpose. I just don’t believe in all this mass congratulation. There’s so much work that needs to be done in promoting one another and advocacy in the press, and it’s disgusting that it got set up the way it did.”

The Dallas Theatre League has tried to shake off the major complaint made against it—that all of its funds and efforts go into the Rabin Awards ceremony, a big production in which the theater community gives prizes to its members. The league has changed its voting process to keep it from being a “popularity frenzy kind of thing,” as Alder puts it. In addition to the play listings, it has also begun to offer group health insurance, a major advantage to members who might not otherwise have access to it. But it needs to do more.

The younger members, of course, have no stake in this old quarrel, and their energy can bring about a transformation in the way the league itself is conceived. It clearly needs a makeover as the primary advocate of local theater, and there are two problems that need addressing if Dallas theater is going to realize its present promise: healing the wounds within a community made up of creative people who tend to have highly developed egos, and convincing the larger public to pay attention to what even Alder calls “an amazing spurt of theatrical activity.”

They just need to invent new ways to dramatize their enthusiasm for theater. That love of the art brims over in the young companies, keeps Alder going after 45 years of running Theatre Three, and puts the delight in Robyn Flatt’s voice when she says, “There’s something so alive about the artists’ work. That’s what keeps me wanting to do this. I love the artists, I want to see a home for the artists, I enjoy artists’ arguments and discussions.”

She sees it as a problem of universal importance: “America has to find a better way to somehow honor the artists, to respect the companies, and really understand what it takes to develop a piece of art—how important it is to the whole culture of the city and to the future of our children. And for America.” She could not be more passionate about it. “I think the artist is ultimately the statement of democracy and freedom,” she says.

Alder even has a line for it, the famous one from Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid.”

Click HERE to access “The Complete Guide to Dallas Theater” PDF.

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7 Actors to Watch
These are the actors who are generating buzz—and they’re all under 30.

IAN LESON had a very busy fall. In September at Kitchen Dog, he starred in Bug as a paranoid Army veteran who’s convinced that he’s bugged—literally. His obsession got everybody scratching, and a 15-minute nude scene with Diane Worman demonstrated that it’s easier to find bugs without clothes in the way. In November, playing a repressed gay businessmen, he paired with Jerry Russell in a moving production of Visiting Mr. Green.

The beautiful ELISE REYNARD showed up in Dallas a couple of seasons ago, and already she’s turned in memorable performances for Risk Theater, Wingspan, Second Thought, and Classical Acting Company. For example, last summer, in Horton Foote’s Blind Date, she played a stubborn Southern girl forced into a date by her busybody aunt. In October, on the other side of the spectrum, she was a deliciously trendy airhead in Eric Bogosian’s Humpty Dumpty.

When directors need somebody who can pull extreme states onto the stage, they pick CHAD GOWEN SPEAR, who gives the edgiest characters a compelling vividness, whether it’s the Player in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or a mentally disturbed man in the apocalyptic nightmare world of Jose Rivera’s Marisol, both produced by Risk Theater. Most recently, he played Marko the Magnificent in Kurt Kleinmann’s Mind Over Murder.

JENNY THURMAN, a young woman possessed of a huge voice, made a name for herself performing as Patsy Cline at WaterTower Theatre, where the kudos kept coming. Last summer, she made her acting debut as Popeye in The Miss Firecracker Contest at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.

Will success spoil ALLISON TOLMAN? Already named Best Actress of 2005 by the Observer, she helps anchor Second Thought’s core group of actors. Her talents as a playwright were also stretched when she collaborated with Steven Walters on an adaptation of King Ubu for last summer’s Festival of Independent Theaters.

LEE TRULL has the kind of face that can make you start laughing when he lifts his eyebrows. Recent memorable roles include Titus in Freedomland and several parts in Hazard County at Kitchen Dog. But he’s also in demand as a playwright. The Gift of the Magi for Classical Acting Company spurred new commissions at several area theaters.

As if Second Thought Theatre weren’t getting enough attention, STEVEN WALTERS won the Observer’s Best Playwright and Best Actor. A tall guy, with a mild face equally capable of intense intelligence or befuddlement or anger, he has a contagious energy for theater and ambition to match.

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