The New Dallas Theater Center Will Rock Your World

Think of the departures: Richard Hamburger from the Dallas Theater Center, Jack Lane from the Dallas Museum of Art, Andrew Litton from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and Steve Nash from the Nasher. Last fall, Karen Stone, in perhaps the most surprising move of all, said a sudden goodbye to the Dallas Opera despite the prospect of a venue matched by few in the world.

In mid-June, Larry Allums and I were talking about what’s changed in the Dallas arts scene over the past few years. As executive director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, Allums collaborates with most of the same arts organizations that I write about, and we were both struck by the sea change in leadership. We both particularly regretted the departure in the spring of our colleague among the Dallas Institute Fellows, Dorothy Kosinski, snapped up by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Her exhibitions at the DMA had a consistent brilliance.

Whatever the reasons for these leave-takings (and we couldn’t discern a common thread), all the change accompanies the ongoing phenomenon—sure to be studied by fundraisers for generations—of Bill Lively’s success in eliciting more than 100 $1 million private donations for the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. The huge Winspear Opera House now begins to overshadow the Meyerson next door, and the stark cube of Rem Koolhaas’ Wyly Theatre takes shape to its south. These buildings bring with them an implicit demand to be put to frequent, profitable use. Surely someone lies awake at night thinking about climbing gas prices and the concomitant surge in wholesale prices, mulling over George Soros’ pronouncements that the credit crisis is the worst since the Great Depression, and worrying that these buildings might be completed just as the economy tips into a long, slow dive. Meanwhile, the responsibility for filling the buildings is tangentially related at best to sophistication in the arts.

But, hey, let’s not be dour, as it’s too easy to be. If all goes well, the arrival of the Center for the Performing Arts will announce a new era artistically. Jaap van Zweden with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Kevin Moriarty at the Dallas Theater Center, the first harbingers of what’s coming, bear no visible signs of dread, and both have generated considerable excitement well in advance of actually taking control. Since being named musical director, van Zweden has conducted the orchestra in three well-reviewed concerts (Beethoven Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6, then No. 7 and No. 8 last fall, and Verdi’s Requiem in the spring).

By contrast, Moriarty’s work remains unseen in Dallas, and the 2008–2009 lineup in April contains a few eyebrow-raisers—none bigger than The Who’s Tommy, the first show he’ll direct, in September. My own reaction (call it paisley-queasy) was tie-dyed (I’ll stop) by my experience of the production that Uptown Players crammed into the Trinity River Arts Center on Stemmons in 2005. I wondered at the time why Uptown, the gay theater, was doing it at all. Does Tommy—does pinball?—have some kind of gay subtext? (Stranger things have happened: I was surprised to find that Carl Theodor Dreyer’s great 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc had an enthusiastic gay following because she was such a bold cross-dresser.)

But maybe it’s not the themes. A critic in Los Angeles writes that Tommy is “a great excuse for high-tech stagecraft and exuberant performances”—reason enough for Uptown. When I asked Moriarty about his choice just after the season announcement on April 14, he told me that it seemed to him the perfect choice to “to throw off the cobwebs and blow off the ceiling and play some rock ’n’ roll!” His year of investigation and exploration had obviously convinced him that the DTC’s image needed some strong correction.

But that wasn’t his only reason for picking it. “At heart, it’s a story about a young man searching for enlightenment,” Moriarty says, “a young boy who’s a victim of all of the evils of the 20th century—abuse, false religious leaders, family violence, drug abuse. He finds a way to transcend that. It’s very compelling and surprising in every way.” Classically trained, Moriarty was also taken with the sheer virtuosity of the music. “The Who’s original album, the 1969 recording, is stunning,” he says. “Pete Townshend’s guitar playing just takes your breath away. It’s mind-boggling not only because the music is very sophisticated and smart, but because it’s a complicated work. You have to think about what it means and how you could put it onstage.”

But one of Moriarty’s other announcements on April 14—the news that the Dallas Theater Center would be choosing nine artistic associates from the local theater community—was even more surprising than the choice of Tommy. This move represents an investment in local talent not seen since the days of Paul Baker, the DTC’s founder. The first person named just two weeks later was Lee Trull, whom Moriarty had seen in two plays at the DTC and in Conor McPherson’s Rum and Vodka in WaterTower’s Out of the Loop Festival in March.

The others chosen will be part of the DTC company, not employees, but Trull was actually hired. To put that fact in context, Trull tells me, you have to realize that he’d been supporting himself teaching classes, doing some documentary writing, painting houses on occasion, and even working as a security guard. Once, he got hired on at Best Buy so he could get discounts on Christmas presents for his parents. Now, by contrast, “I suddenly have a job in theater!” he says with trademark astonishment.

Trull has an office at the DTC, but he’s also—at Moriarty’s insistence—still a member of the company at Kitchen Dog Theater. When I talked to him, he was performing in Sick, the mainstage production in the New Works Festival, and looking forward to a stage reading of his play Tall Thin Walls of Regret, set in Dallas at the end of the Cold War. It’s difficult not to feel that things are stirring, rippling out from what’s coming with Moriarty and the Wyly Theatre. A year or so ago, I heard from a local artistic director that the Dallas Theater Center had the rights to such plays as Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman and that it could effectively prevent others from doing the play even if the DTC never produced it. Now, presto, Kitchen Dog—a coincidence?—opens with The Pillowman in September, and WaterTower presents the area premiere of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt in October.

Meanwhile, other major shifts have been taking place in the rest of the theater community, as though a general shaking-up were in progress. A breakup at Risk Theater back in the winter (Tom Parr IV and Ginger Goldman left suddenly) led to the cancellation of the last few plays of the announced season and the substitution, recounted with some hilarity by the theater’s founder, Marianne Galloway, of a children’s play called Pinkalicious—this instead of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, mind you. “I know. Everyone thinks I’m nuts,” Galloway says. “But I’m actually quite excited to be working on something in which no one dies. It’s quite refreshing!” It was also a huge success, already extended by a week as we went to press.

In early May, playwright Tom Sime announced that he was leaving his position as managing director of Contemporary Theatre of Dallas to try his luck with his plays in New York. Taking Sime’s place will be Russell Dyer, the lighting wizard who has been running the Festival of Independent Theatres for the past few years. When I saw Dyer at CTD’s production of The Oldest Living Graduate in May, he said that he’d had to put off taking the reigns at CTD until after FIT ends this month.

There’s a realignment of talent underway, a sense that Dallas theater has now actually been seen by someone in a position to affect it for years to come. The question now is this: how’s Tommy going to go over? I suspect a few people have the lyrics memorized already—especially the line “Right behind you I see the millions.”
No pressure.

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