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How Dwyane Wade Killed a Local Theater Company

Why do the most honorable theater companies end up dead? Because, in some sense, they must.
By Glenn Arbery |
ALL A STAGE: Emily and Matthew Gray at Richland College’s Fannin Performance Hall. They pulled the plug on their Classical Acting Company.
photography by Vanessa Gavalya

Late in January, Matthew Gray, who founded Classical Acting Company in 2003 with his wife Emily, sent out an e-mail announcing that the company was ceasing production. At the top was the heading “Our Revels Now Are Ended,” the line from Prospero’s speech of near-despair in The Tempest, when the magus goes on:

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.

A little more than three years after Much Ado About Nothing won over audiences with its freshness and force, after hardly six months in their new space at the Art Centre of Plano (where Plano Repertory also died not long ago), CAC quietly killed its own season.

It’s hard not to take this untimely demise as a rebuke to the city and launch into a diatribe—not against Emily and Matthew Gray—but against a strangely fickle public, not to mention donors who could fund a whole year of theater with what they pay to water their lawns. Why can’t Dallas manage to support the best and noblest efforts of people willing to sacrifice themselves for important drama?

It would be easy to rail about it, but it would also be unjust. I e-mailed the Grays. Emily was free after a performance of Sleeping Beauty for Dallas Children’s Theater one March afternoon, and so we talked. When I met her for coffee at La Madeleine on Lemmon (just around the corner from her agent), she was hardly the tragic Hecuba I half-expected, but cheerful and upbeat.

Emily says the real reason they had difficulties all goes back to the production of Huck Finn last June. The problem she encountered wasn’t one that she or her husband Matthew could ever have expected. How can you predict a year or so in advance what will be going on, say, with the Dallas Mavericks at the exact same time that you’re putting on a play? When the Grays planned the 2005–2006 season, they thought they would lose money doing Sartre’s No Exit (“an existentialist play in the middle of February,” as she puts it), but then they would make up their losses with Lee Trull’s adaptation of Huck Finn. As it happened, No Exit, which starred the Grays and Kitchen Dog Theater’s Tina Parker, surprised them by doing well. They felt good about going into their last show of the season doing “an American novel that everybody knows, something that was potentially a family show.” They expected it to “sell like gangbusters.”

“Well, the first weekend, it did,” Emily says. “And then the Mavericks hit the playoffs, and that was that. It was unbelievable. The minute the Mavericks started, it just suddenly took a dive.”

Picture Mark Cuban whooping it up during the light show of the introductions at the American Airlines Center: the huge crowds, the national television audience. And over here, Huck Finn, with its big cast, playing to audiences of 12 or 13 people. The show that was supposed to put them in the black last summer put them in a hole going into the new season.

So what do you say about that? Personally, I can’t say a thing. Had it come to a decision—a simple yes-or-no, up-or-down decision, having nothing to do with the fact that I’m a theater critic—which would it have been? Huck Finn way out at Richland College, or sitting in my den, watching the Mavericks play the San Antonio Spurs or the Miami Heat? I admired almost everything I saw by Classical Acting Company. I love the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But sorry, no contest.

Mavericks.

Some theater critics in town scorn sports. I find that incomprehensible. I grew up on football, basketball, and baseball—the staples of the American psyche, the true vista of accomplishment in my childhood in middle Georgia. What war hero or astronaut could compete in sheer glory with Mickey Mantle? Maybe John Glenn. When it comes to a team’s march to the championship in a sport, that’s a once-in-a-decade phenomenon for a city—if it’s extremely lucky—and it’s something that can’t be anticipated, however devoutly it might be wished.

So there I was, riveted, shouting at the TV set, elated and dismayed, feeling as if the series with the Miami Heat came from a tragic abyss darker than in the contrivance of any play. I went through a range of emotions watching those games that I’ve never once felt in the theater, and part of the reason is that I’ve never felt in any play that so much was at stake for my psyche or this city. Sports teams tap into something primal and unpredictable and personal. Part of me wants to make big, moralistic assumptions about Dallas and its corrupted tastes, but how do I argue with phenomena of identification far older than the Trojans on the walls watching Hector lose his showdown with Achilles? The Trojans were up there cursing the great Greek hero as though he were Dwyane Wade.

For Classical Acting Company, what it meant was that people like me, people who love theater and who would otherwise be delighted to see a play, stayed home and watched the Mavericks come this close—this close—and lose.

So what do you say?

It’s part of the nature of any business, even if the business is an artistic one, that it’s subject to Fortune. That’s what. Even theater companies generally try to follow Machiavelli’s political advice about dealing with it: you stave off bad fortune by anticipating it, as you build levees to control floods. For example, Classical Acting Company had thought its No Exit production back in February would get a secularized version of the “fit audience, though few” that Milton anticipated for Paradise Lost. But everybody loved it. The space at Richland College was packed. Then, when it came to Huck Finn, the slam-dunk of their season, everybody stayed home to watch basketball.

With the goddess Fortuna, you try, but sometimes you don’t get it right. Restaurants fail, businesses falter and die, and theater companies cease production. Yet at the same time, nobody’s failed in this case. I think I associated Classical Acting Company with all the miserable agonies of bad faith in their productions of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. I expected their demise to resemble the gloomy end of Willy Loman after his life of illusion and lies crumbles.

Not at all. Emily Gray told me that she had already been commissioned for three more Books on Tape to be recorded in May. (She’s won awards for doing them before.) So when CAC would have been doing a play, she’ll be in New York, in a recording studio, putting in four-hour-a-day sessions reading books in her lovely British accent. Matthew Gray, meanwhile, has become a regular at the Dallas Theater Center, where he has already appeared in three productions this season—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Christmas Carol, and The Taming of the Shrew.

The Grays knew before Shakespeare’s Keeper in January that they would be canceling the rest of the season, and they went into that production (a solo performance with no new expenses) hoping they could make a little money to help pay off their debts and get the company to break even, which they pretty much did. They still have a few debts, but they’re manageable, and that will leave them opportunities to do collaborative efforts later on, maybe with Shakespeare Dallas or other companies. Classical Acting Company still exists on the books. It has not had to declare bankruptcy, and it’s ready to move once things turn.

Emily also said that she and Matthew have been getting along considerably better since they ceased production, because now their private lives are their own. Not everything they do is about keeping Classical Acting Company going. That means, among other things, that they can begin thinking of having a family instead of putting on the next play.
[Curtain.]

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