Deconstructing Richard

Richard Hamburger transformed the Dallas Theater Center into a regional marvel, but as he faces a million dollar debt and a host of angry critics, is it curtains for his daring vision?

"Hall was not out to win any popularity contest," says Kurt Kleinmann, artistic director of Pegasus Theater and president of the Dallas Theater League, echoing Hamburger's quote unknowingly. "He was always criticizing Dallas audiences as 'white bread' and would make statements in front of people like, 'If all the actors in Dallas were drowning, I'd only save the ones I work with.'"

"He could be petty and kind of mean," confirms Katharine Owens, co-artistic director of the Undermain Theatre. "He held onto the rights of a play we wanted but that everyone knew he had no intention of staging--Goose and Tom Tom. We eventually secured the rights to it, mostly because of his assistant. But Hall could be downright obstructive."

Hall could not be reached for comment.
Hall left in 1989 under widespread rumors that his productions were lavish, heedless spending sprees. Bryant took over until the Theater Center was left reeling from his unexpected death in 1991. Hamburger, then working with his wife, Melissa Cooper, at the Portland Stage Company in Portland, Maine, guest-directed one production for DTC. After a 14-month stretch without official creative leadership, Hamburger arrived as the new artistic director.

He was heralded by a city that's tended to have a self-esteem problem where culture is concerned. His credentials were impressive: the child of two New Yorker writers; attendee at Juilliard and the Yale School of Drama who had studied directing in London; winner of a Rockefeller Grant for one of his two plays; and a former clown who'd toured for a year with Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey. The Dallas Morning News predictably groveled with a "High Profile" feature in 1993, marveling at this exotic Northeastern creature--a native Manhattanite and Ivy Leaguer who didn't even know how to drive! (He's since learned, and claims to be something of an addict.)

"Dallas was definitely a new experience, but I've grown to love it," he says. "Melissa and I weren't sure what to expect, so we told ourselves we were pioneers. There's an improvisatory quality to it, a sense of self-invention. You have a building that Frank Lloyd Wright built (the DTC's Kalita Humphreys) right next to an abandoned parking lot.

"And the courtesy level is definitely much higher down here than in New York. But that's a double-edged sword. People will act politely toward you, but you often don't know what they're really thinking."

More than anything else, what seems to excite Hamburger is the raw potential of Dallas. "Let's face it; we don't have much natural beauty around here. But I see that as a perfect opportunity for artists to develop their craft, to create beauty in a vacuum. If people don't come to Dallas for the scenery, why not come for the culture?"

In relocating his family to the buckle of the Bible Belt, Hamburger wasn't stepping into a theatrical vacuum. Dallas has registered national stage accomplishments over the past 50 years, from the legendary Margo Jones' crucial sponsorship of the early careers of Tennessee Williams and William Inge, to Maria Callas' admiration for local audiences, to the participation of folks such as Charles Laughton, Burgess Meredith, and Zero Mostel in the early life of the Dallas Theater Center. Paul Baker, the DTC's founding artistic director who ruled the institution for 23 years before the board essentially forced him into retirement, was lauded by national critics for his daring productions of classics way back in the late '50s--at Baylor University, of all places.

"People always talk about how conservative Dallas is," Hamburger notes. "But from what I know, the Dallas Theater Center has always supported artistic directors who make controversial artistic decisions, who staged plays that everyone says the city wasn't ready for. And mostly, our audiences have responded."

But not always in the most cosmopolitan of fashions. There was that little embarrassment in 1993, when Dallas police, at the insistence of a deeply offended ticket-buyer, slapped Dallas Theater Center with a citation for operating a sexually oriented business without a license. The outraged patron was reacting to the male nudity in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. Our boys in blue backed down when the effort made news in places like Time and CNN. "Of all the things I thought I'd get in trouble for, it never occurred to me that [the nudity in the Guare play] would do it," Hamburger recalls. "Maybe that's an example of culture shock. By the time I arrived here, I was accustomed to seeing nudity on stage. I honestly didn't think anyone else would be shocked by it."

What has surprised others is the degree of sexual frankness in several shows that Hamburger has directed, including both parts of Tony Kushner's "gay fantasia," Angels in America. "I thought I'd see pigs fly before I saw two men simulate anal sex on the stage of the Dallas Theater Center," confirms the Undermain's Owens, referring to a scene in Millennium Approaches, the first half of Angels. Equally startling was Hamburger's incendiary staged reading of Chay Yew's Porcelain at 1993's Festival of the Unexpected, which included local actors such as Stephen Kalstrup (who's since moved on) and Bruce DuBose. Without leaving the stools on which they sat, two of the actors passionately simulated a blow job given in a public restroom. In the case of both Kushner and Yew, graphic sex wasn't the point, but a means of driving home larger themes. Nobody stormed out angrily, and, according to Hamburger, nobody complained later. Indeed, he insists that he's never been scolded about the content of his plays or told to avoid certain material--not by a DTC board trustee, not by former managing director Robert Yesselman or current top businesswoman Edith Love.

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