Class act

Dallas Theater Center snags four Leon Rabin Awards in inaugural contest

"Back in the old days," Chuck Carson, MC of the first annual Leon Rabin Awards was saying to a well-coiffed crowd, "Dallasites used to show their displeasure with a play by torching the theater. Now, we just don't go."
Carson, a Dallas native and professional wiseacre, put his thumb on the enduring sore spot of local theater, which is that while there is a surprising amount of theatrical talent in the Metroplex, few people actually make the effort to see it.

The Dallas Theatre League, a confederation of about 20 local theaters, formed three years ago to address this problem. The stated purpose of the League is to "facilitate the common interests of Dallas theater," according to Cecil O'Neal, professor of drama at SMU and DTL's chairman of the board. In laymen's terms, that means putting more warm buttocks in the seats.

One way of getting on the map is to sponsor an award, hence the "Leons." Named after Leon Rabin, a one-time USO organizer and philanthropist who gave the dramatic arts in Dallas a considerable push, the awards honor excellence in acting, directing, and design for shows produced during the previous theatrical season.

Nominations for the awards were made by a committee of five writers, directors, and designers. The nominations were then voted on by DTL members, and by staff, actors, and technicians who worked during the past season at DTL member theaters. The accounting firm DeLoitte & Touche was brought in to make sure there was no ballot stuffing or other hanky-panky.

Held last week at the posh Greer Garson Theater at SMU, the ceremony came off pretty much without a hitch. Balancing humor with restraint, the program was even mildly educational, touching on footnotes from Dallas' theatrical past, including the fact that Tennessee Williams and William Inge both had plays premiere here. The only major snafu concerned Brenda Vaccaro. The noted Dallas actress and former sanitary-napkin pitchwoman was to be given an honorary Career Achievement Award, but she blew off the ceremony to be in a Barbra Streisand movie.

Though smoothly run, several ticklish little political problems were lurking under the surface (and what awards ceremony worth its salt is without them?). The first was that the Dallas Theater Center hogged the lion's share of the nominations (four out of five nominations in the Set Design category, for example). It also won the biggest award of the night--Outstanding Production of a Play, for its acclaimed premiere of Santos & Santos.

A case of the big boy throwing his weight around?
Not really. DTC deserved every nomination it got, and more than the four awards it won. There are some consistently good or generally intriguing companies in town, such as the Kitchen Dog Theatre, the Undermain, and Theatre Three, but the DTC is still to Dallas theater what the Cowboys are to professional sports. Dallas remains a one-team and a one-theater town.

Unfortunately for them, that makes DTC managing director Robert Yesselman and artistic director Richard Hamburger the Jerry Jones and Barry Switzer of local theater. Fortunately for us, where J.J. and B.S. are all about low conniving and Cro-Magnon posturing, Yesselman and Hamburger are all about creativity and class.

That's why it was particularly questionable that DTC was passed over in the Outstanding Direction and Outstanding Set Design categories. Raphael Parry was selected as best director for his work with Kitchen Dog Theatre's production of Fool For Love, a play not nearly as challenging or as well-realized as several DTC productions, most notably A Family Affair.

The latter play, in a deplorable oversight, was not even nominated for Outstanding Production of a Play. How Neil Patel's ravishing set for A Family Affair was bested by Andy Fitch's admirable but comparatively underwhelming set for Fool For Love in the Set Design Category is beyond me. The probable answer is that the League was afraid of a DTC landslide and wanted to share the wealth a bit.

These are minor carps, however, compared to the major one, which is that the Dallas Theatre League is playing a turf game with the Leons. Not all Dallas theaters are DTL members, the most notable exceptions being Theatre Three and the Undermain, two of the most consistently excellent companies in town. These theaters have declined to participate in the League, possibly because of the membership dues required or because they object to being part of a competition.

However, by closing the nomination process to all but DTL members, the League is not recognizing the best theater that Dallas has to offer. The awards' credibility suffers as a result.

Let's hope this policy will be reconsidered, and that the Leons will add a little luster to the local theatrical scene.

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Something of the sort actually happened in The Day the Earth Stood Still, a great B movie remembered fondly by boomers and regularly rediscovered by their kids on TV.

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