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?

Still, you can't entirely discount the potential negative impact of such displays in Dallas. While discussing Hamburger's bold programming, Katharine Owens confirms that the Undermain Theatre, which has enjoyed strong critical, corporate, and private support for the last decade, has sustained financial damage from its more controversial fare. It lost a Meadows grant because of disapproval of John O'Keefe's violent, sexually explicit health-insurance satire The Deatherians, and another major corporation that has supported The Undermain for years asked that it be warned about controversial future productions.

"Raphael [Parry, Undermain's other artistic director] and I joked about putting on our next program 'Nobody you know has contributed money to this show,'" Owens says. "Still, generally speaking, we've enjoyed a lot of freedom, but that's because our shows are small, and we maintain a relatively tight budget. What Richard has done working with $3 million and the board of a Dallas institution that's conservative at heart is pretty amazing."

It's not just sex that Hamburger has flaunted in the faces of Dallas' top earners, whether they be audience members or contributors. He has broadened the color scheme of a stage that currently plays to an almost exclusively white audience. He produced two main-stage shows with all-African-American casts (Spunk, a virtual lesson in ebonics adapted from the works of Zora Neale Hurston, and Thunder Knocking on the Door, a fable that employed the themes of the great blues songwriters). Santos y Santos, a Texas family saga about the tension brought about by assimilation, had an all-Latino cast, and Festivals of the Unexpected featured numerous all-ethnic small performances.

Hamburger suggests there's an element of confrontation to these shows, just as there was with his selection of Six Degrees of Separation, which concerns a young black man who hoodwinks a privileged, highly educated white couple with charming lies about his past. "Often, what I see in the city where I work is reflected in my choices," he admits. "When I was in Portland, I saw a policeman knock somebody to the ground, so I said, 'Let's stage Accidental Death of an Anarchist.' Driving around Dallas, I see a big class and race division in neighborhoods that are side by side, so I chose Six Degrees because it seemed to address certain local issues.

"Dallas is at the center of the country, literally and figuratively," Hamburger says. "What's happening here with race relations is much more indicative of our national state than anything in, say, Boulder or Portland."

Love, DTC's new managing director, has personal experience with attempts at integrating ethnic shows and white audiences. The artistic director at The Alliance, the Atlanta theater where she came from, attempted a programming change to reflect that Southern city's racial makeup.

"He added more African-American programming, but just a tad," she says. "And at first, there was a significant drop-off in overall attendance. But the goal was to increase black attendance. Atlanta has many fine African-American educational institutions, so the black middle class is stronger there. We wanted to draw from that. The audience went from 1 percent to 18 percent black, so that goal was a success."

While most agree that Hamburger has fought the good fight in bringing stories that reflect racial and sexual issues to a city that would rather ignore both, his efforts at nurturing a local arts scene are more debatable. Why is it that he imports so many actors, especially for the major roles in productions, when there are plenty of underemployed performers living here?

"I understand that Richard has only been here five years, and it takes time to build up a trust, to get to know a community," says the Dallas Theatre League's Kurt Kleinmann. "And I well know the baggage that comes with being an artistic director. But there's been unhappiness from talented local actors who aren't working when they see people they don't recognize on the Theater Center stage. He doesn't mix very much in the community; he doesn't see a lot of local productions, although John [Moscone, DTC's assistant director] has done a good job of taking up that slack."

To be fair to Hamburger, every artistic director over the Dallas Theater Center, with the exception of the late Ken Bryant, has come under fire for building "a fortress on Turtle Creek." For the better part of 23 years, Paul Baker used graduate students from his programs at Baylor and San Antonio's Trinity University (often, people charged, at the expense of having more professional performances) and didn't begin to mix until he was forced to admit Equity Actors back in the mid-'70s. Adrian Hall created a company using both Dallas actors and out-of-towners who essentially became Dallas actors, but was notoriously undiplomatic about his opinion of much local talent. He received his share of hate mail because of it.

"I grew up believing Broadway was the be-all and end-all of performing," Kleinmann says. "And then I saw shows there and realized New York has good actors and bad actors, like everyone else. I've since seen productions all across the country, and geography has nothing to do with talent. There's a perception that if you're an actor in a place like Texas, it's because you can't cut it where the 'real actors' work. I hope Richard hasn't bought into that."

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