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The Dallas Theater Center Acting Company: An Analysis


by Jerome Weeks 8 Jan 2009

Complete list of the acting company, the radio report and the expanded online story about the Theater Center’s acting company. To put the happy announcement of a new company of actors at the Dallas Theater Center in a historical perspective: When Margo Jones started her pioneering Theatre ’47 in Dallas, she proudly declared she’d eventually […]

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  • Complete list of the acting company, the radio report and the expanded online story about the Theater Center’s acting company.

To put the happy announcement of a new company of actors at the Dallas Theater Center in a historical perspective:

When Margo Jones started her pioneering Theatre ’47 in Dallas, she proudly declared she’d eventually have 50 paid actors in her ensemble and even quite a few resident playwrights as well. She never got close to those grand staffing numbers — and neither has anyone else, really. With founding artistic director Paul Baker at the Dallas Theater Center in the ’60s and ’70s, his company had a peak of some 40 actors. But as part of his theories of education and artistic creativity, all of them pulled several duties — as teachers, designers, ticket sellers and performers. They weren’t Equity professionals, which was to cause problems in later years when unhappiness arose about the seasons’ inconsistencies and the theater’s isolation from the rest of American theater

In the ’80s, Baker’s successor, Adrian Hall, re-introduced the idea of an acting company, but this time with the purpose of giving actors, as Hall insisted, jobs, jobs, jobs. The actor was at the heart of stage drama, Hall argued, so what was the point of a theater if it didn’t have a company of full-time, professional performers to which it was committed, just as it has a contracted artistic director or lighting designer? During the ’80s and ’90s, the Adrian Hall-Ken Bryant company at the DTC had 15 fully professional actor-members — “the golden years,” as past-and-current company member Sean Hennigan half-jokingly, half-fondly calls them.

Hall’s executive director Peter Donnelly said that the DTC’s plan was to expand eventually to 35 performers — “with salaries comparable to an assistant professor’s. That’s way out in the future, of course,” said  Donnelly, “but it’s not unrealistic to expect this city to support as many professional actors as it does professional musicians at the symphony.”

It’s still way out in the future: The DTC company came apart in the seasons following Ken Bryant’s untimely death in 1990.

Today, the DTC announced its new company — of nine actors. This litany of diminishing numbers over the years is not meant to toss a bucket of cold water on the occasion. We’re in a serious recession, one that has already driven some arts organizations out of existence. The DTC itself laid off seven staff members only last month; Water Tower Theatre just announced a major season re-structuring.

So the formation of a company of actors, to whom the theater is committed to hiring for three shows next season, is a testament to Moriarty and the board’s determination, to their understanding of the practical and artistic issues facing the local theater scene. They’re to be commended. Indeed, Moriarty sounded very much like Hall at his rallying best in his interview when he spoke about the serious need to staunch the talent drain from North Texas. Actors stay here for only a few years before heading elsewhere for a real career. We’re giving away some of our most promising, even most accomplished performers. And it’s hard for any theater, let alone an entire theater community, to build a sustained achievement on drifting sand.

Even with just nine actors, Moriarty’s choices are more diverse than Hall’s original 15, who were all white (though that changed in following seasons). But Moriarty hasn’t sacrificed quality for a rainbow coalition. He also seems to have made a few picks with an eye toward musicals (Liz Mikel, Cedric Neal), which weren’t of much interest to Hall. The fact that, in Hall’s company, Candy Buckley had a tremendous, torch-singer’s voice was mostly a happy bonus. And Moriarty has certainly appreciated Kitchen Dog Theater’s membership, either original (Sally Nystuen Vahle) or more recent (Lee Trull, Christina Vela). No other local company is represented by so many members.

But for its part, Hall’s company was notable for its remarkable strengths in older female character actors (Anne Gerety, Beverly May), mature male character actors/comic leads (Martin Rayner, John Morrison, Randy Moore, William Larsen) and three tall, attractive leading ladies (Buckley, Linda Gehringer, Nance Williamson — with Dee Hennigan as their cherubic younger sibling).

In comparison, Moriarty’s company seems slim. And in his interview with me, Moriarty would not commit to expanding the company in the future.

My point here is not to knock the individual talents the DTC has assembled, just to note that the team roster doesn’t have nearly the same depth as Hall’s. But of course, the proof will be onstage. The plan, Moriarty said, is for the company members to fill out one-third of the roles over the course of a season, one-third would be cast from outside town and one-third from the local talent pool.

There is a welcome sense of continuity in the selection of actors — not just with Hennigan-the-Hall-company-holdover, but Chamblee Ferguson and Liz Mikel, who are also old hands at the DTC. And there’s fresh blood as well (Hassan El-Amin, for instance, is a resident theater pro from all over the country, but he just made his debut at the DTC in A Christmas Carol).

One definite step-up that Moriarty has taken is contracting three shows with each actor. Hall’s commitment to his actors was pretty much a handshake and a promise. Actors often appeared onstage five, even six times a year, but there was no real guarantee.  Moriarty’s “associate artists,” somewhat like Baker’s actors, will be doing offstage duties, though — notably in the DTC’s education outreach program.

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