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The Best Theater in Dallas

Well, actually it’s in Addison, but WaterTower is setting the standard for all area theater companies.
By Glenn Arbery |
RISK MANAGEMENT: With James Lemons (left) and Terry Martin running the shows, the model for doing theater the right way is in Addison.
photography by Vanessa Gavalya

There’s something chastening about being told to misbehave. It’s quarter to 10, Saturday night, early March. I’m standing in line for The Great American Trailer Park Musical at WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Festival. I’ve been waiting maybe 15 minutes, watching the various swarming clusters of people, who don’t look like actors or critics, waiting to see the musical apotheosis of white trash.

I’m a little bleary. It’s my third play of the day, so when the line finally stirs and the theater fills and James Lemons, the director of this musical and WaterTower’s artistic associate, comes out like a circus barker, I’m light on enthusiasm. He’s pumped, and he wants the audience into this. From the front row, he grabs the cat-eyed Jennifer Green (Sally Bowles in WaterTower’s 2005 Cabaret) along with an actor I don’t know and exhibits them to the audience. He urges us to let them know it if we see some physical attribute we like—Leer! Whoop it up!—just as outrageously as our various proclivities will let us.

I believe it’s what psychologists who study injuries to the cerebral cortex call “disinhibition.” The woman beside me is smiling self-consciously, like a Sunday school teacher who would pretend, if asked, that she thought Chippendales was a furniture showroom.

If it were possible to put a thought bubble in this picture, it would be rising from my head. Wasn’t it this same space where, last year, WaterTower staged its memorable production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which I had considered impossible to like before? Somehow this theater encompasses the range between Puritan witch hunts and Florida trailer parks without seeming schizophrenic. Onstage, Stacey Oristano as a stripper who considerably overfills her clothes is winning the heart of Jim Johnson, a tollbooth operator (they both get money one dollar at a time) who lives in the next trailer.

A month later, I’m at a coffee shop in Richardson, sitting with James Lemons, who seems perfectly respectable now, and Terry Martin. It’s hard to imagine Martin, WaterTower’s dignified producing artistic director, out there urging on the kind of ribaldry that Lemons did, but on the other hand, WaterTower has established that it can do just about anything.

They’re talking about taking risks. The Great American Trailer Park Musical wasn’t one, by the way, but Take Me Out, about a gay major league baseball player, was. So before it opened last summer, they sent a letter to their subscribers explaining why the show was important and what any potentially controversial content matter would be.

“We got maybe 12 letters from people disputing it,” says Martin, a lean, intense man who worked for years as a Dallas actor before he took over at WaterTower in 1999.

“Ironically,” Lemons adds, “none of those letters were from people who had come to see the show. They were just responding to the communication we had sent them and opening up the dialogue.”

Martin explains that their subscribers appreciated the warning. “They said, ‘It’s not something we want to see, but we’ll see you at the next show.’ Nobody said, ‘We’re not gonna subscribe anymore.’ I think they were just grateful for the communication. We didn’t have any walkouts.”

He probably has in mind what happened several years ago when Plano Repertory Theatre failed to warn its subscribers that Shakespeare’s R & J—a play about boys acting out Romeo and Juliet—contained explicit gay scenes. Many people did walk out of that one, contributing to the company’s loss of support and subsequent demise in 2005. By contrast, Martin was able to tell his board that they would not lose money on Take Me Out. In fact, they drew a whole new audience without losing their old one.

On the other hand, they can’t try Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman on their main stage, as they’d like to, because “a general North Texas audience is just not ready for it,” Martin says. It’s about child abuse and child murder, “and it’s written in a way that’s a dark comedy. If the audience is not able to see past the issue—that it’s a comedy—then it becomes a different play, and that is not the type of play my audience wants to see.” Martin and Lemons say they could do a play like that if they had a “second season” like Theatre Three’s downstairs series, Theatre Too, where Jac Alder’s company presented Bryony Lavery’s Frozen (also about child murder) last fall.

Maybe they’re not yet entirely where they want to be, but WaterTower has already become the local model for doing theater the right way. Under Martin’s direction, it maintains a canny balance, both with respect to its subscribers (65 percent of the seats) and its board. With a mix of musicals, contemporary plays, and classic works by American playwrights—Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, among others—they appeal to a broad audience, and they usually succeed with the critics. Addison Theatre Centre, owned by the town of Addison, has two other spaces that other companies can use: Studio Theatre, where smaller companies like Second Thought often perform, and the Stone Cottage on the lawn between the main theater building and Addison Circle. They endeavor to use only local talent in their own productions. (“Why would I want to bring people in from out of town when we’ve got great people here?” asks Martin.) They present plays year-round, and a couple of years ago, they attracted the attention of National Public Radio in an All Things Considered series on regional theater. And they host Out of the Loop.

Without necessarily meaning to, in other words, they challenge the Dallas Theater Center as the dominant theater in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, especially as the DTC’s coming move to the new Center for the Performing Arts raises questions about its direction. Martin claims to know nothing about any local theater except WaterTower, but he has some strong opinions nevertheless.

“I have a board that understands each other,” he says. “They appreciate what we do. My feeling is that that might not be the same at the Theater Center.” Whoever directs it—Richard Hamburger most recently—“may have a really big job to counterbalance the opinions that are sitting on the board. There seems to be something very schizophrenic about what they want to be. The interesting thing to me is that they say they want people in the community, and then they build this monstrosity of international scope, and how can you hire somebody who knows the community here? How do you hire somebody like me or James who knows the community very well, and build it into an international—” He breaks off and concludes: “It’s very schizophrenic.”

So why isn’t WaterTower? This month, they mount a revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Martin, who had wanted to play George himself—which is why they picked the play—had to give it up after the season was announced because he’ll be too busy. That’s because WaterTower has expansion plans of its own. Working with the town of Addison, the theater is in the final stages of a feasibility study for a larger venue.

For five years after he took over WaterTower, Martin did not act on its stages, because he did not want it to be “a vanity thing.” He’s acted since, but playing George might have been a big reward. Giving up the role directly pitted his desires as an artist against the larger needs of the organization he runs—a good way to split someone in two.

It’s unquestionably a great role for a man in his 40s. It would have meant getting to explore a range of bitter emotions, perhaps a bitterness about what he’s had to sacrifice, that one might not associate with a man so clearly successful as Terry Martin. What happens when the passion for art gets pulled increasingly into the administrative decision-making that makes the art possible? That’s a question, I suspect, that they don’t understand in trailer parks.

“You have to swallow the bitter pill that your turn is probably gone, you know?” says Martin.

How much of a consolation is it, you wonder, that he runs the best theater in North Texas?

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