Saturday, January 28, 2023 Jan 28, 2023
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The New Man in Charge at DTC

When Kevin Moriarty’s name was announced this summer as the new artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, many said, "Who?" Turns out, this Midwestern native is uniquely suited for life in Dallas and success on its most prominent stage.
By Glenn Arbery |
portrait by Tadd Myers

In August of 2006, Richard Hamburger resigned as artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center after 15 years of notable work, just three years before the DTC’s big move into the new Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in the Arts District. It seemed mysterious at the time, less so in hindsight: a new theater means a new era, a new identity, and Hamburger had been here for a long time. Nobody local had a chance at the job—that was clear from the outset. The buzz was that the DTC’s board wanted somebody with a high national profile, somebody who would immediately get the kind of national attention suitable for the new space. Led by Mrs. Ted Enloe, the search committee enlisted the best headhunters in the business, pored over the applicants, and narrowed them down to five, then to three, each of whom spent several days in Dallas. Finally, the choice came. The DTC set up a press conference in the preview area of the Center for the Performing Arts, in the Trammell Crow building. Trumpets, cymbals, envelope: the new artistic director was—Kevin Moriarty.

Who? He bounded from behind a screen wearing a jacket and tie over jeans and sneakers. He looked like an enthusiastic kid. After the usual thanks, he spoke eloquently about his inclusive vision of theater, but somehow, I don’t know—was he old enough to be doing this? Who was he, anyway? After a nationwide search, the DTC had come up with this youngster? One’s inner curmudgeon stirred. Were we supposed to have heard of the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, New York, which he headed for seven years before coming to Dallas? Brown University, sure, where he’d been teaching, we’d heard of that, and Trinity Rep in Providence sounded familiar. But what did his background have to do with Dallas and the role he’d need to play alongside such other newcomers as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Jaap van Zweden? It looked like another experimental foray from the East Coast into the provinces.

But if you want to understand whether the 41-year-old Kevin Moriarty was the right choice, ask somebody like Oskar Eustis, who followed Joseph Papp, Joanne Akalaitis, and George C. Wolfe at the Public Theater in New York. Eustis called me from New York just to praise the man he calls “a complete package as a director.” Even so, it’s difficult to know, artistically speaking, just what that means since Moriarty is still nine months or so away from directing his first play here. Moriarty is using this fall and winter to get his bearings and think over everything he is learning about Dallas. So to get at who he is and what he’s going to mean for the DTC requires a certain triangulation: what he says about himself and his reasons for being here, what impact he has had elsewhere, and what he’s likely to change here.

Talking to him, I have to say, is a disarming experience. In fact, it casts that first June appearance in an ironic light. “I could pretty much do only one thing as an actor,” Moriarty says, laughing. “I could act much younger than my age, bursting out onto the stage, saying ‘Golly, I’ve never kissed a girl before!’ I played all the young, eager kids. Never would anyone think of casting me as Hamlet.” That explains the kid bursting from behind the screen, the inescapable impression. But how do we cast him in our thinking about the city?

His immediate past might be urban and East Coast, but his background links him more to Tony Romo than to Richard Hamburger or Jaap van Zweden. Moriarty looks like he might have made the high school team as one of those springy, crossover soccer guys who becomes a place-kicker, but like Romo, he has an unpretentious ease that feels right in Dallas. Maybe it’s because they’re both from small Midwestern towns, Romo’s 80 miles north and a little west of Chicago, Moriarty’s 80 miles south and a little east—Rensselaer, Indiana, population about 5,500.

That he grew up in Rensselaer (pronounced RINSE-a-leer) amid the cornfields was no accident. During the urban turbulence of the 1960s, the era of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, the war zone of Detroit, and a Chicago verging on anarchy during the 1968 Democratic convention, his parents decided to make a move. “They had grown up in big cities and didn’t want to be a part of it anymore,” Moriarty says. Already memorialized in writers from Mark Twain to Sherwood Anderson to William Faulkner, a small town offered a haven to the Moriarty family, conservative Catholics trying to hang on to a cultural heritage they saw as being threatened. “They moved to this tiny town where we didn’t lock our doors and rode our bikes everywhere. We couldn’t keep any secrets from anyone.”

He tells the story of some helpful neighbors who checked on their house while the Moriarty family was on vacation and locked the door when they went out. The problem was, when the family got home, they couldn’t get in, since they hadn’t used their keys in so long they didn’t know where they were. Moriarty, the littlest, had to climb through a window and let the rest of them in.

His parents didn’t abandon the city entirely, though. They would take the Moriarty children to Chicago to see plays, “the same way we went to the Art Institute and to Bears games and to the symphony”—not to mention Cubs games. As his father was, Moriarty is a diehard, again-disappointed Cubs fan. “Theater became a very big deal for us,” he says, “and my dad would come home early on certain days to take us, and we’d leave school early. I had three sisters, and we’d drive home in the dark and talk about the play. My dad would always say, ‘Kids, I’ve never seen a bad play in my life.’ ” Despite what he acknowledges as the lack of “critical insight” on his father’s part, that broad affirmation might have left him more open to a range of theatrical experience.

So it was a natural step into theater? Wrong. His talents lay in music. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he majored in music, never once acting in a play, much less directing one. During his four years there, he took one course in theater—but it changed his life and opened the road to his future career, right? Wrong. He could have made an A in that course. “But my friend had tickets to see the Milwaukee Brewers on opening day playing the Boston Red Sox,” he says. Honest student that he was, he told his teacher about his dilemma, and she said that she would lower his grade a whole letter if he missed the class. “I thought about it,” he says, laughing, “and decided that it wasn’t like I was ever going to do theater anyway, so no one would ever know.” He went to the game and got a B.

Directly out of college, Moriarty signed on as a music teacher at La Crescent High School in La Crescent, Minnesota, a town of about 5,000 in the southeast corner of the state, about 25 miles north of the Iowa line and directly across the Mississippi River from La Crosse, Wisconsin. Here he is, hidden in a little school, happily teaching music, when the principal, a man named Don Rudd, summons him to his office and tells him that the music teacher always directs the school play. Moriarty’s first thought? He’ll do a musical. No, says Rudd, they did a musical last year. Okay, well, how about A Midsummer Night’s Dream? No, already done it. Our Town? Done it.

 “So then I suggested Medea.”

Medea? Surely not the one by Euripides, the one about the jilted mother (a certified witch) who takes revenge on Jason by melting his new trophy wife with a poisoned robe and then murders her own children to get back at him? That one?

“He had never heard of it!” Moriarty says. “The first play I directed was a high school production of Medea! I photocopied the script from the Great Books”—the set published by the University of Chicago—“and it had no stage directions or anything.”

The Greek tragedies in the Great Books, as I know since I happen to own them, are uncredited, out-of-copyright translations that have a fusty, 19th-century feel to them. In Medea, the nurse says things like this: “Undone, it seems, are we, if to old woes fresh ones we add, ere we have drained the former to the dregs.” One imagines those bemused high school students in La Crescent puzzling out such lines with Moriarty, who, at 22, was hardly older than they were.

“The kids sat down at the first rehearsal and asked what costumes they would wear, so we had to think it through and ask who would see the play and what it meant and was it only relevant for ancient Greece? They asked what our set should be. We had to ask every question. We kept coming back to the questions of who we were doing the play for, what’s it about, and why are we doing this play? The other big thing was that the teenage girl playing Medea asked why she was killing her kids. I learned almost everything about directing a play,” he says, “from that production. Accidentally.”

Midway through the rehearsals, Moriarty found out from another teacher that he needed to spend the entire budget for the play, since if he didn’t, the money would be cut off for the next year. “I looked in the budget and saw that there was $200 for props. Well, we didn’t need props for this play, but we did need blood. So we looked in a catalogue for theatrical blood. We ordered every kind of blood there was.” Shortly afterward, it started showing up in the mail. “I mean, box after box after box. The kids were like, ‘I guess we have to use it all.’ We ended up doing the bloodiest production of Medea in the history of the universe. Everyone was covered in blood! Blood was coming out of the walls!”

Somehow, it reminds me of Melina Mercouri as the prostitute Ilya in Never on Sunday, when she goes to the theater with Homer Thrace and laughs her way through Medea in perfect incomprehension. That wasn’t the effect on his audience, though. They were shocked, deeply moved, stunned by the experience—and so was Moriarty. After three years in La Crescent, he knew he wanted to do theater. The problem, of course, was that all his training had been in music. He loved classical music and opera, and working with students over the course of a year or so, he could begin to bring about what he calls “old-fashioned ears.” But he could not get ordinary people to hear what they might have heard in past centuries when almost everyone in the audience was musically literate and listened to classical music from childhood.

“There was always a gulf between my experience of performing and the way others experienced it,” he says. “I just couldn’t get them to understand what it meant.” And he needed that understanding for his own artistic satisfaction. So he started looking around at graduate schools. “Neither Yale nor Juilliard would even interview me.” It was like Tony Romo going undrafted, but with more reasons. “I had no credentials whatsoever, so I found a professional theater in Providence, Rhode Island, that had a non-degree training program. It was in the professional theater, so you could actually act in the productions there.”

This is modesty showing. The professional theater happened to be Trinity Rep, one of the most respected regional theaters in the country, whose founding director was Adrian Hall (also one of Moriarty’s predecessors at the DTC). Not only did he meet top directors there, but they instantly recognized his gifts. When I asked Oskar Eustis how he met Moriarty, he described coming to Providence. “When I was arriving at Trinity Rep, he was assisting the previous director, I believe on Twelfth Night,” Eustis says. “He had graduated from the Conservancy the year before, and everybody said, ‘This is the brightest student we’ve ever had.’ I got to meet him, and he made a powerful quick first impression, and then he disappeared into the world, and I didn’t see him again for three years.”

Those were the years when Moriarty worked in New York and got his Equity card playing the kid who had never kissed a girl before. Maybe there’s an irony there. During those years, Moriarty also came out as gay, which would never have occurred to him back in Rensselaer. “I am now openly gay and have been for many years. From my vantage point as a 41-year-old living in the 21st century, it’s not a difficult or conflicted issue for me; rather, it’s a natural part of my genetic makeup, and I think of it is as an integral part of my life—as is my identity as a devout Catholic, a loving son and brother, and a passionately committed, active citizen in the democracy. But, looking back at my childhood in Indiana in the 1970s and ’80s, this wasn’t the case. The country was different then, and certainly rural Indiana wasn’t on the cutting edge of gay pride.”

The theater world in New York, of course, was a different story, especially with the depiction of gays in such plays as—this is Moriarty’s list—A Chorus Line, Bent, Angels in America, and even La Cage aux Folles. “I found a group of friends, colleagues, and role models who were willing to accept me as I was—including my sexuality. My coming out was a long process—it took more than a year and was very scary to me at the time. I knew that society had changed enough that I would be accepted in the professional world, and that I could find friendship and love in my personal life, but I didn’t know for certain how my family would react. Fortunately, my family responded with almost immediate acceptance and love.”

In the theater world, his talents blossomed, and when Oskar Eustis saw him again, the effect was powerful. “One of the things that made an instant impression was his music training,” Eustis says. “He had a sense of rhythm and musicality in the theater—not just in doing musicals, but in particular in doing verse drama—that was absolutely unmistakable. It gives his work a kind of crispness and a clarity of form that is really distinctive. He’s such a complete package as a director. He has that musicality, but he also has a genuinely first-rate analytical mind for text analysis. So when he talks about a new play or when he talks about Shakespeare, he’s talking about the form, the external musicality, but he’s also completely capable of analyzing exactly what the historical references are, linguistically what it’s doing. He did two Shakespeares for me—The Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard II. They were both successful, and it was almost unbelievable that they were by the same director, because they were so clearly responsive to the virtues of those individual plays.”

It’s easy to imagine Moriarty telling his Medea story in Providence or New York—say, when people asked him how, still in his 20s, he found himself working with Michael Mayer as the assistant director in the Broadway production of Triumph of Love. “Michael would say, ‘Kevin, go next door and rehearse Betty and Murray and make sure the blocking’s right.” That would be Betty Buckley and F. Murray Abraham (the envious Salieri in Amadeus). His successes led to his being named artistic director at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, New York, and then to Eustis’ request that he devise an M.F.A. program in directing at Brown University.

“What I knew,” Eustis says, “was that he was a born teacher. He had of course done it before he even got into the theater. By that point, I knew the quality of the work, I knew his brain. It’s a very rare thing—I’m looking for it all the time here in New York—somebody who’s able to work within an academic context, so he’s not embarrassing us as a Brown faculty member, he can think with the big guys, but he’s genuinely a practical man of the theater at the same time, he’s not primarily an academic. In the United States, I’m sorry to say, that’s a pretty tough combination to find.”

“He asked me if I’d do it,” Moriarty says. “I told him, ‘Oskar, I don’t have an M.F.A. myself. In fact, I don’t have any degree in theater at all.’ And he said, ‘That’s okay. I don’t have one either. I never even completed my bachelor’s degree!’ ”

Contrast that with Richard Hamburger, graduate of the Yale School of Drama. Rightly or wrongly, Hamburger always struck local theater people as aloof, a man who tended to hire actors from New York with Yale connections and who rarely descended from his own Kalita Humphreys environs to see others’ work. There was an academic or “school” dimension to his work in the perceptions of many, and perception carries considerable power.

Moriarty spent his first week in Dallas seeing plays. When I talked to him in September, he had just been to see Theatre Three’s production of the very bawdy Popcorn and the full-orchestra Carousel at Steven Jones’ Lyric Stage. The audience at Theatre Three surprised him, especially an “elderly couple I thought wouldn’t last for the whole show, but then I saw them laughing hysterically at some of the most foul, profane parts, and I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going on with this audience.’ ” And, even after working for years on the East Coast, he claimed to be bowled over by Carousel. “I have never seen a production with those resources. That orchestra was absolutely amazing. They cast actors with legit voices, actually great actors with legit voices, which you rarely see. Either they can act and not sing, or vice versa. To hear people whose voices actually matched the score, and then to hear the orchestrations—it was revelatory, just stunning.”

Perhaps Moriarty risks not looking professional enough if he spends too much time looking at the work of others. Isn’t an artistic director supposed to bring in his own vision and then impose it on the theater, shaping it in his own image? For him, it’s a matter of reading the theatrical landscape, and he has spent the fall asking DTC staff, artists, and board members, as well as people in the community, even critics, what the key issues are for the city right now and for the Theater Center. His tour of other theaters is part of that enterprise. “I’m trying to get to know in the most organic way possible the actors and directors and the experiences of the audience,” he says. “What stories are being told? What stories are not being told? What does the Theater Center need to be doing?” He does not want to seal off the inquiry there, but to use these meetings as an opening for more challenging discussions to follow. “I want to quickly engage myself in a conversation about life rather than just a conversation about theater. I don’t want to spend my life preaching to the converted, but talking with real people about real things.”

Even in his first appearance on June 6, Moriarty stressed that he wanted to include all the dimensions of the community, which meant drawing upon the experiences, not just of well-to-do white audiences, but also of other distinct constituencies—blacks, Latinos, gays. As he investigates, he might find that most groups already have their own voices in various theaters around town. Suppose it turns out that Cara Mia Theatre and Teatro Dallas already satisfy Hispanics? With Uptown Players and Mark-Brian Sonna’s MBS Productions aimed at gays, Kitchen Dog and especially Undermain willing to try offbeat and avant-garde plays, and both Echo and WingSpan addressing women’s issues, the demand for niche productions drops significantly. Second stages at Theatre Three and WaterTower produce new, controversial plays less likely to appeal to large audiences. What isn’t being done enough might turn out to be what Classical Acting Company did for several years, which was to stage serious works from the canon (Shakespeare, Chekhov, Sartre, and Arthur Miller), as well as the comedies of Moliere and the farces of Georges Feydeau. This indispensable core of the Western dramatic imagination has also been part of the Theater Center’s mission, and Moriarty’s strongest suits—musicals; classical theater in the great, central tradition; and new plays—ought to work well here.

Moriarty’s looming challenge in Dallas will be the following year, when the Dallas Theater Center moves into the new Wyly Theatre in the Arts District. He sees it as a major artistic opportunity.

“I’m never going to have the opportunity to lead an organization into a new home again,” he says. “The profile that it’s going to give us nationally—this is important not because of the alleged prestige it will give us, but the entire city and much of America is going to look at this stunning new building. When they come in to see the building, we’re going to have a play, and that’s going to give us an opportunity to attract people who have never set foot in the Dallas Theater Center before. We’ll become a public square for people to come and engage in theater.”

For Moriarty, it started when he was a public high school teacher in Minnesota. “It was probably during those three years that I did the most good, meaningful work that I’ll ever do in my life,” he says. “I really think that opening night of Medea at La Crescent High School—to have that experience of sitting in the audience and having high school kids owning an amazing work of literature with passion and intensity and personal pride, to be sitting in the audience with other kids who were shocked and upset and really taken aback. To have that experience of being in the position of not knowing why this story spoke to an audience 2,500 years ago and then seeing their reaction—I mean, really. Why would a story about a woman who kills her children in order to somehow have something for herself and take something away from her husband—why did that story last for so long?

“There’s something there, and that means there’s something about us. To be the one calling the shots and then to sit back and be a part of the audience—there’s nothing like that. It’s incredible.”

He sounds like a kid. Inevitable.

Glenn Arbery is a senior editor at People Newspapers. Write to him at [email protected].