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?

Edith Love, who's been managing director of the Dallas Theater Center since October 1997, joins Hamburger for the last part of the interview. A tall woman with a smart, padded-shoulder jacket and a serious expression, she comes armed with statistics about the current financial health of the Dallas Theater Center. This imposing woman with the reputation for rigorous cost-cutting clearly does not relish giving sensitive information to a writer, though she is honest, and later in our talk relaxes and becomes quite charming.

Toward the end of her more than two decades at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, Love presided over a six-year period of debt elimination that painted her theater in the black. They were the last to receive a million-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which greatly helped balance the books. Still, what she accomplished from when she took over as managing director of the Alliance in 1985 until she left last year is eye-popping: The overall budget rocketed from $2 million to $8.5 million.

And the buzz goes thus: Love turned things around primarily by nudging it toward safer, more commercially friendly fare. The "commercial compromise" part she flatly denies, proclaiming, "The Alliance staged Angels in America in a Southern city. How much more controversial can you get?"

Indeed, the Amazon bean-counter reputation doesn't entirely mesh with the woman who commissioned and developed Alfred Uhry's Last Night at Ballyhoo, the comedy-drama that went on to win last year's Tony for Best Play. Nor does it explain her Jill-of-all-trades experience at the Alliance, from costume assistant to tech crew member to actress to director to, finally, budget savior of an ailing institution.

Still, Love's formidable accounting skills might suggest that the Dallas Theater Center is ready to rent the Kalita Humphreys for year-round bar mitzvahs. (Theater rental is indeed a major source of income now: "Having an office party? Want to rent the theater?" Hamburger interjects when we're discussing budget.)

How much money has the center lost in the last few years?
"With a budget of $3.7 million for the '97-'98 season, we're currently operating at a deficit of $1.2 million," Love says, then quickly raises a hand. "But it's important to realize that most of this debt is actually just on paper. We've established a cash reserve for lean times; $800,000 of the 'debt' is, essentially, money we already have in the bank."

The most recent breakdown of revenue goes like this: "Fifty-seven percent is earned, chiefly from ticket sales, tuition from our educational programs, and the fees we get for renting the theater," Love says. "Forty-seven percent is contributed to us from public and private resources."

The Dallas Morning News reported last year that about half of the 57 percent earned revenue came from ticket sales, which means the Dallas Theater Center received less than a third of its overall income from the box office. That story goes on to say that, in addition to the budget resurrection Love achieved with her former Atlanta theater, Tony-winner The Alley in Houston proved profitable enough to double its budget at a time when DTC's has remained stagnant.

Love insists that she's too new to make any hard connections between the current deficit and the last five years of Hamburger's leadership. "I know we increased our subscribers by 500 between this season and last. And my understanding is that more people saw A Christmas Carol this year than ever before. But the amount of the deficit has fluctuated from season to season. The important thing to realize is, a significant portion of it has been around since the late '80s."

Stories of audiences increasing and budgets quadrupling are the exception to the current regional theater rule: Companies all over the country have felt the sting of falling attendance and private contributions while city, state, and federal arts funding has plummeted. As president in '96 and '97 of LORT (League of Resident Theaters), Love points out, she helped negotiate union concessions for a third of the members who were under financial stress. The new buzzword in arts funding is "cultural tourism." Arts groups are attempting to convince civic leaders that galleries, museums, and stages are worth subsidizing not because art is good for us, but because they indirectly benefit a city's overall revenues by attracting people who come for the culture and spend money in other places.

All this is part of a national struggle; the more pressing local question is, Should the patrons who've enjoyed Richard Hamburger's brave, elaborate, lyrical stagings brace themselves for safer fare? The answer appears to be...maybe.

"The way you cut corners is by staging fewer shows with smaller casts," Love confirms of her own philosophy, which doesn't in and of itself mean less adventurous theater. The '97-'98 Dallas Theater Center season reflects this wisdom. But after five years of a Festival of the Unexpected, which has staged readings, works-in-progress, and some pretty "out there" fare, there will be no sixth one, and the festival's future is uncertain. Hamburger was quoted in The Dallas Morning News as saying the festival wouldn't continue because the private donor who largely funded that event had withdrawn his support. Now he qualifies his statement.

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