This week’s issue of the Dallas Observer (not yet available online) features not one but two sizable arts profiles, cover boy Kevin Moriarty, the new artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, and an inside “City” column on George Steel, the new general director of the Dallas Opera. The usual talk of a watershed moment in Dallas’ cultural history appears in both stories — with reference to the new buildings in the Arts District.
Obviously, the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts is going to make a major impact on the local scene. But here’s another, probably even more significant reason that this is a “watershed moment”: Many of the major players have new talent at the top. In addition to the fresh faces at the DTC and the opera, Bonnie Pitman took over as director of the Dallas Museum of Art in June and Jaap van Sweden makes his official debut as the conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Sept. 11-14.
[Interesting side note: Steel at the opera and van Sweden at the DSO could have a friendly chat about Leonard Bernstein. Both cite the late conductor/composer as a major, early inspiration, both had direct dealings with him.]
Dallas is obsessed with the new, with the big and the shiny, with reinventing itself as new and big and shiny. But as much as the buildings will draw attention, it’s those directors who must transform those institutions and audiences, they are the ones who have to maintain any momentum or excitement for their art in Dallas. Much the same mega-transition happened in 1993, when the city gained six new arts managers in the space of a year and a half, including Andrew Litton at the DSO, Graeme Jenkins at the opera, Jay Gates at the DMA and Richard Hamburger at the DTC. Look who remains from that crew, look how many “world class” ambitions were fulfilled, thwarted or acted upon.
As for the Observer‘s profile of Moriarty (the cover is cleverly made to look like a torn issue of Playbill), author Elaine Liner justly extols her former teacher, Paul Baker — the founding artistic director of the DTC — but then barely mentions the tenure of Adrian Hall in the ’80s and early ’90s.
This conveniently ignores a chief reason Mr. Baker was eventually ousted from the Theater Center: His acting company wasn’t a fully professional one. They weren’t Equity actors, a fact that held the company back and kept them out of the increasingly professional ranks of resident companies around the country. Whatever undeniable, creative advantages Baker’s theater-as-educational-lab approach brought to the stage (and it’s hard to argue with a man who inspired a genius like Robert Wilson), Equity would not grant union contracts to a theater company whose actors were expected to work the box office or the front of house in addition to their acting duties. This is one of the reasons, for instance, that playwright D. L. Coburn gave for refusing to grant rights of production to the DTC for his celebrated drama, The Gin Game: The theater wasn’t fully professional. It was a public embarrassment to have a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a theater that couldn’t stage his Broadway hit in the same town.
Approaching its 50th anniversary season, it is, of course, long past time for the DTC to come to some rapprochement with its own history, its origins with Baker and its eventual dismissal of him. Efforts like Moriarty’s in visiting the 97-year-old Baker are a welcome start. But it helps if the facts are present. A professional resident company of Equity actors is one of the major advances Adrian Hall brought to the DTC, something never mentioned in Liner’s history. Yet it’s this company that Moriarty is reviving in a manner that directly echoes Hall’s approach: a commitment to nine actors (Hall had 12) for at least two roles per season, leaving them free to work at other stages. Liner also gives the SMU version of events for the breakdown of Hall’s attempt to work with the university’s drama program, one of those glimmering, synergistic possibilities that have forever beckoned in the Dallas theater scene and have always seemed to flounder. (It makes sense for most major regional theaters to work in consort with a local drama program, especially a graduate program — they get bodies and the students get professional experience). Hall invited students to audition for roles in his epic production of The Tempest: A number were arrogant enough to demand why they weren’t given lead roles, though none had been promised. And when Hall, in rehearsal, floated ideas for the “island spirit” roles that the students were filling — ideas that included possibly shaving their heads or appearing nude or semi-nude — the students walked out en masse. The roles were quickly filled by local actors eager to work with Hall.
And, if memory serves, they didn’t appear nude.
Dredging up all of these past details about Hall is relevant for another reason Liner omits: Moriarty trained at the Trinity Rep conservatory in Providence, R.I., one of the more respected in the country tied to a resident company. Eventually, he even lead the Brown University-Trinity Rep director’s training program.
The Trinity Repertory Theater was founded by Adrian Hall.