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6 at 50: The Dallas Theater Center’s Artistic Directors Look Back


by Jerome Weeks 3 Jun 2009

t was quite a special evening, something very few theater companies in the United States could pull off. Tuesday night at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, the Dallas Theater Center brought together six representatives from the different artistic administrations that have run the company since its founding in 1959: three of the original artistic directors (Kevin Moriarty, Richard Hamburger and Adrian Hall) plus family representatives from the other three (Robyn Flatt, director of the Dallas Children’s Theater and daughter of founding director Paul Baker, Linda Gehringer, widow of Ken Bryant; and Trey Birkhead, nephew of Mary Sue Jones). Paul Baker, 97, also appeared on camera in a moving video intro that surveyed the construction of the Kalita Humphreys (with architect Frank Lloyd Wright) along with highlights of performances and acting company members down through the years, ending, of course, with footage of the new Wyly Theatre.

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dtc-directors-linda-blase-small1It was quite a special evening, not simply for the outpourings of warmth and humor.  It was actually a public panel discussion that very few theater companies in the United States could pull off.

Tuesday night at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, the Dallas Theater Center brought together six representatives from the different artistic administrations that have run the company since its inception in 1959: three of the artistic directors themselves (Kevin Moriarty, Richard Hamburger and Adrian Hall) plus family representatives from the other three (Robyn Flatt, director of the Dallas Children’s Theater and daughter of founding director Paul Baker, Linda Gehringer, former acting company member and widow of Ken Bryant; and Trey Birkhead, nephew of Mary Sue Jones, acting company member and widow of playwright Preston Jones). Paul Baker, 97, also appeared on camera as part of a wonderful video intro that surveyed the construction of the Kalita Humphreys (with architect Frank Lloyd Wright) along with highlights of stage performances through the years, ending, of course, with footage of the new Wyly Theatre.

It was rare not only that all these people were onstage together but with Baker and Hall, the Theater Center has a link to the early generations of major regional theater founders. Hall established the groundbreaking Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, RI, before taking over the Theater Center in 1983. He spoke passionately about some of the earliest founders — including Margo Jones in Dallas and Nina Vance in Houston — as well as their inspiration, Hallie Flanagan, the head of the Federal Theatre Project, part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Adminnistration. (“The women in theater have always been the ones to urge, ‘ go further, do more.'”)

Kevin Moriarty, the current artistic director, handled his role as host with his typical kid-in-a-candy-shop eagerness, but he also brought a deft hand with keeping the conversation going and bringing the audience in with his side remarks. He also asked the occasional question that was surprising  — like did any of the artistic directors have special memories of  board members? It may have been plainly intended to include trustees in the evening’s good fellowship and congratulations, but the fact is that Hamburger, Hall and Baker were all, more or less, fired by their boards.

Take the jump for the evening’s notable moments and its best lines.

Photo by Linda Blase

linda-gehringer1

Linda Gehringer, left, with Synthia Rogers, center, former head of eudcation with the DTC

Two surprising emotional moments: Linda Gehringer teared up and could barely speak after seeing footage of her late husband, Ken Bryant, who was killed in a medical accident in 1990, having served less than a full year as artistic director. As she explained later, she sees pictures of Ken every day and is perfectly comfortable talking about him, but seeing those giant images of him  onstage at the Kalita, it was suddenly overwhelming.

Afterwards, it was notable: Linda couldn’t leave the stage because of the crowd of people waiting to talk to her, far more than for anyone else. Gehringer, an LA actress these days, had the day off and flew in from Chicago, having just opened a new play the night before at the Goodman Theater.

The other surprising, even touching moment came during the discussion of acting companies, what they meant to Hall and Baker, both of whom had based their theaters around them. Acting ensembles remain rare among resident theaters today, despite the promise of the resident theater movement to provide a living for theater artists outside New York.  Considering the bitterness many local actors have felt toward Hamburger,  who did not form a company (having taken over the DTC during a time of economic retrenchment), one didn’t know what to expect when Moriarty suddenly asked what he felt about acting companies.

He wanted to expand the idea of a company to include playwrights and designers, Hamburger said. But he also, in effect, apologized for not having formed an acting ensemble: “I consider it a real failure of my tenure here.”

Other notable lines:

  • Robyn Flatt on the “roller-coaster ride” her father went through in getting the Kalita built with architect Frank Lloyd Wright: “There were lots of challenges but by some miracle, it got built. It was only two-to-three years of hell.”
  • Flatt on the pleasures and hazards of performing at the Kalita Humphreys: “[The auditorium] makes a clean, beautiful statement. But if you ignore that statement, you will not win. It’s a wonderful place to work, but it has huge demands.”
  • Kevin Moriarty, on what Hall said when Moriarty proudly told him he’d formed a new ensemble with nine actors: “Nine? Nine? How are you going to cast anything with nine people?”
  • Hall on the emotional bonds of an acting company: “Once everybody makes that commitment, you go for broke. It’s you against the world.”
  • Hall on building the Arts District Theater in the early ’80s: “If you think there were problems with Frank Lloyd Wright, you should try the  city of Dallas.”
  • Gehringer on what it meant to be in Hall’s acting company: “There was a style. It was a  style that was bold. It was clean. It was about storytelling.”
  • Richard Hamburger on the Arts District Theater: “[It was a place for] creating great events. You could do anything, although it was really crappy acoustically…. You could explore anything spatially. It gave you the sense of endless possibilities. … When they tore down the Arts District, it was like pieces of my skin being torn away …. It was not only a great theater, it was one of the great party places of all time.”
  • Linda Gehringer and Richard Hamburger on the transportation that was used at the Arts District:
  • Linda: “I couldn’t believe — in The Idiot, did we actually have a horse? We brought a horse out at the end.”

    Richard: “Well, we had a motorcycle.”

    Linda: “We had a flatbed truck.”

    Richard: “In South Pacific, we had two flatbed trucks.”

  • Trey Birkhead on his great-aunt’s response after hearing all the profanities in her son Preston Jones’ play, The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia: “We can’t believe those actors inserted all those cuss words into Preston’s play.”
  • When asked about the nature of Dallas audiences and their response to daring material, Hall told a story about actor Richard Jenkins appearing in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love. At one point, Jenkins, holding a shotgun, uttered, then embellished an obscenity. This prompted an elderly couple to head angrily up the aisle. Unknowingly, in turning to watch them leave, Jenkins was pointing the shotgun at their retreating backs. In the silence, Hall said an audience member said out loud, “Pull the trigger.”
  • Flatt, when Moriarty asked for any reflections or comments on notable board members: “I gotta work in this town.”
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