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?

Kleinmann acknowledges what can be proven with a glance at Hamburger's six seasons. Hamburger has slowly employed more local actors each year. The 1997 production of A Christmas Carol, perhaps DTC's most important show in terms of revenue, employed almost solely local actors and was directed by the Undermain's Raphael Parry. (The glaring exception was Todd Waite, a Canadian actor, in the role of Scrooge.)

But for the most part, Kleinmann insists, "Dallas actors get the 'tennis anyone?' roles. And many times, the actors he flies in from other cities and puts up here--at considerable expense--are just sort of...adequate. You watch these people and think, a certain local performer could've done this role as well or even better."

It's easy to be an armchair artistic director (and Hamburger has to contend with many of them), but from this critic's perspective, Kleinmann's point is well taken. Still, you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. Hamburger imported Kathleen Dennehy (Brian's daughter) for the role of the drug-addled Mormon wife in both parts of Angels in America. Her combination of delirious intelligence and crack comic timing was utterly distinctive.

But for three productions now, including the current run of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, DTC has employed a male lead that the program trumpets as "one of Canada's top actors." Todd Waite has provided a stable, professional presence, but he seemed overwhelmed by the quick character changes in Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges. He was far too young and gooey for the role of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and currently benefits An Ideal Husband mostly because his blandness seems suited for the role of popular politician. When you consider that DTC pays transportation, housing, health benefits, and a weekly salary to Waite, his work seems all the more disappointing. Hamburger acknowledges, without naming names, that "there are times when I could've cast a local actor, and probably should've. It certainly cuts down on our expenses. But the local actors I know and have relied upon aren't always in town for the parts I want them for. And when you audition, you hire on an impression, a gut feeling."

The problem with the criticism, Hamburger insists, is that "many of the stories come from the actors who didn't get the part. We audition many more actors than we hire, and the ones who get the job aren't going to complain, because they're so grateful to be working."

After he was selected as artistic director, but before he arrived, Hamburger says, "I got phone calls asking me, 'What's your policy on hiring local actors?' I knew what the politics would be."

So what is your policy on hiring local actors, Richard?
"Casting is a meritocracy. I'm not going to make any friends with any decisions I make, but I must be free to hire the people I think are best for the role. Yes, I want to employ as many local actors as I can, but I don't want to hire somebody just because they live in Dallas. Maybe it's because I've worked in so many different cities--I tend to want to broaden the search. I want to keep all possibilities open."

The Undermain's Owens, who maintains a company of exclusively local performers, lends her support to Hamburger. "I think Richard has smartly responded to the pressure by hiring more Dallas actors," she says. "But I'm uncomfortable with dictating artistic choices from outside. We get enough pressure from different places to hire actors because of this gender or that race or this promise. The artistic director must be granted the freedom to make independent decisions, even if they're unpopular."

Speaking from her own experience, Owens says, "The DTC under Richard has been much more generous. They've worked with our actors. Richard has talked about collaborating with us for a while now. Almost the entire set of The Seagull (a recent Undermain production) came from the Theater Center.

"There are many more things local artists could do to help nurture the scene besides tell Richard who to cast," she adds. "Like help push through a hotel-rental car tax that would benefit the arts."

Local press reports suggest that the annual Leon Rabin Awards, selected to honor the "best" local talent by 2,000 members of the local talent pool, have snubbed Richard as best director during the last three ceremonies. The Dallas Theatre Critics Forum, on the other hand, has cited Hamburger as best director four out of the last five years. Bias very possibly informs both extremes: Local theater people don't feel they owe Hamburger anything, while critics can be dazzled by the sparkling pedigree and high production values Hamburger brings to his work.

Hamburger insists he doesn't feel snubbed by the Leons "because they've been very generous to us, especially for our performances. And I understand that it's an award for local talent from local talent. But to tell you the truth, I'm not much into awards, period. I don't watch the national awards broadcasts on TV. That's all sort of showbiz to me. I get excited working with actors, developing plays."

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