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Dallas Directors’ Next Big Thing Makes Some People Nervous

Marianne Galloway and Tom Parr IV have reinvented Risk Theater Initiative and found a stage to call home.
By Glenn Arbery |
LIGHTING A FIRE UNDER IT: Marianne Galloway and Tom Parr IV are business partners who don’t play it safe.
photography by Allison V. Smith

Marianne Galloway does not mind asking a Southern mumbler to repeat what he just said. Partially deaf, the Risk Theater Initiative producing artistic director has a cheerful detachment about not being able to hear indistinct sounds, and you find yourself speaking in her presence (maybe even thinking) more clearly than you otherwise might. Actors must feel the same effect. One of the city’s best directors, she elicits vivid, nuanced performances from men like Ian Leson and Chad Gowen Spear, the principals in Second Thought Theatre’s Lawrence & Holloman in April.

There’s been something bracing about her spirit since she first did Waiting for Godot on the cheap in the bowling alley at the back of Sons of Hermann Hall in 2004. She followed it the next year with an equally exhilarating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on the back of the stage at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre, convincing Shakespeare Dallas to collaborate on its first outdoor production. She’s also resilient. Last year’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches had a run of bad luck (lead actors hospitalized, the entire set stolen at one point) that would have driven some directors to take up phone marketing as more personally rewarding work.

This month, she’s staging Tom Sime’s All of the Above after directing a staged reading of it last year, more evidence that she won’t play it safe. But there’s even bigger game afoot, and it’s sure to make the ground tremble in the Dallas theater community. In April, she sent out an e-mail announcing that Risk Theater Initiative had just hired several new people, including Tom Parr IV, a man I’d virtually identified with Second Thought Theatre. When I asked to talk to her about what was going on, she wanted Tom Parr IV to be there also, and I was happy to meet him, because I’ve admired his work, such as The Glory of Living last fall and Scapino in January.

Galloway works at present from her home in Plano, where several upstairs rooms house the administrative work of Risk, so she suggested that we meet halfway to Dallas at the Café Brazil on Central in Richardson. When I get there, she’s not there yet, but Tom Parr IV (people started calling him that—as in “Tomparrfour”—when he was a theater major at Baylor) sits at a table inside. We shake hands, I sit down, I wonder why he’s nervous. His eyes keep flicking toward the door. Just to make conversation, I ask why he left Second Thought.

That’s exactly what he’s nervous about.

He doesn’t want to say. In fact, he doesn’t want to say anything until Galloway arrives, which she does a minute or so later. She comes in, and there’s a perceptible calming that reframes the situation and subtly shifts the context. I’m not talking about a “whew, here’s Mom” moment. In fact, I feel like a phenomenologist trying to describe it—the experience of a clearing that allows things to open up into their natures [redwoods, silence, drifting mist]. It’s just a conversation over coffee, but what’s strange is that I’ve only had that feeling in the presence of a few other people, all of them very intelligent. No wonder Galloway makes such lucid things happen onstage.

The context she clarifies in this case involves Tom Parr IV himself. As soon as she’s there, he talks: back in December, directing Scapino for Second Thought, “I fired a guy they didn’t want me to fire. I made a mistake in casting, and I fired him, and then they fired me. Some of the cast and crew refused to go on until I came back, so I came back to finish the show, and they kept to their word, and I left.”

To be fair, he fired not just “a guy,” but the actor playing Scapino—less than a month before the play opened. The executive ensemble, from which he says he had already been removed, fired him.

There’s a disagreement on details. Allison Tolman, a member of the executive ensemble and the spokesperson for Second Thought, says that Parr “stepped down as our production manager and as a producing partner long before Scapino was in production. When he stepped down, he assumed the role of resident director for the 2006-2007 season, which is a non-producing position that will not exist for the 2007-2008 season.”

The experience changed Parr. Back when he co-founded (and named) Second Thought several years ago, he thought that the company should not be under any one person’s control. “The whole concept was that we wanted it to be more like Steppenwolf [in Chicago] and have it ensemble-based. My mistake was not placing a head or leader at the top. I wanted everyone to have a vote. I wanted a democracy. Sometimes,” he says now, “democracy doesn’t work.”

Galloway and Parr first met three years ago when she introduced herself after seeing one of his plays. She wanted him to direct for Risk at the time, and he returned the favor by lining her up to direct Lawrence & Holloman. They share much of the same vision—as Parr puts it, “doing the plays that make people slightly uneasy and challenge their sensibilities and where they come from.”

 “What happened when Tom and I started talking about Dallas theater is that—all of a sudden—I got re-energized and re-inspired and invigorated. As soon as he was let loose,” Galloway says, “I jumped in and said, ‘You have to come over to Risk!’”

“When Marianne asked me to join,” Parr says, “I said that there should only be one person to answer to.”

That one person is Marianne Galloway, but she needed his help. She and Parr have already put together a business structure and a five-year plan. They’ve added professionals in real estate, financial planning, and entertainment law to their board. They’re going to stage a full season of plays, starting this fall with Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, about a trial in purgatory. They’re also just secured a permanent home in downtown Dallas. It’s a former wedding chapel across the street from DISD headquarters on Ross Avenue. “It’s gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous,” Galloway says. “The other warehouses attached could serve as a design studio. There’s a donor lounge, a beautiful office. The spaces upstairs give us the opportunities to host other companies.”

They need a space with such potential, because they want “a main stage and then a smaller stage as well,” Parr says. “We’re kinda crazy right now. We want to do cabarets and comedy shows and have a bar. It’s a business.” Grinning, Galloway adds, “It’s incredibly ambitious.” But when I ask the natural question—how they’re paying for this—she looks as innocent as Clark Kent.

“Donors and grants,” she says, which is exactly what all nonprofits say, usually with a tone of barely restrained panic. So why isn’t she panicked? Other young theaters like Second Thought appear to be years away from making this kind of move. “One of the reasons we’ve only done one production a year is because we’ve been working full time on the business side of it,” Galloway says. It helps that she actually likes writing grants. When I make fun of her for saying such a thing, she counters, “I like being able to defend our mission and asking people to support us. Once you get that first grant, other ones start to catch on.”

It makes some people in the theater community nervous—especially if they were hoping to woo the same donors—that Risk’s vision is actually coming into being. We could be watching a theater company that has taken stock of its situation, calmly faced reality, and worked very hard to address necessity instead of avoiding it. If it succeeds as a business and makes a space for its challenging art, what an example it will be.

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