Scratch that itch

Adrian Hall uses Kitchen Dog and One Flea Spare to soothe that old urge

"Because I've done so much Brecht and Shakespeare, people tend to think I'm very presentational in everything I do," Hall says. "But I came up with Lillian Hellman and Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams. Naturalism with poetic overtones was my way. It wasn't until the mid-'60s I did Brecht. Anytime you get something that tells a story with this whole thematic arc across it and the characters change by the end, you get away from the kitchen sink and absolute naturalism. One Flea Spare seemed to be one that couldn't be done too stylized. If we were going to believe the behavior, it had to have a natural environment. But Naomi presents you with problems that are not natural."

And as for guiding the actors through rehearsals, Hall insists, "The hardest thing that a director learns to say is, 'I don't know.' If an actor says, 'How do I do that?' and you don't have a clear idea, you should say, 'I don't know,' but plant ideas that'll suggest experiences real to them. If the moment isn't real for the actor, it won't be real for the audience. I can't say, 'Show me anger.' The only thing he can do is a cliché. You try to find out what his first intimate experience was, or the first time his mother slapped him or something. There is some therapist involved in the sense of digging around. Some directors are very autocratic, insisting that the actors follow him. That's not my way. I may send an actor to the other side of the moon, but it's always because I want them to follow themselves."

Naomi Wallace, a Kentucky native who first made her name as a poet and then a playwright in England, wasn't produced stateside until the mid-'90s. Her father was a socialist in the American South of the '30s, not exactly a popular position there but one he nonetheless trumpeted in public places. She shares his sense of outrage at the idea of government failing the poor and the undereducated, and often "takes a pitchfork to the rich," according to Hall. Virtually all of Wallace's scripts use real historical events as their backdrop -- the plague, the Depression, the Gulf War, a meatpacker's strike -- and, like One Flea Spare, they all share her depersonalized, poetic prose and a commitment to exploring how the common folk are vanquished or vindicated by the spiritual illusions of money and the lure of sex. The American public has always greeted the mixture of art and overt politics (especially overt leftist politics) with some suspicion and distaste, as though the sloganeering artist has just pissed in the holy water (art is pure, after all; politics is dirty). How does Hall feel about Wallace's proud biases?

Veteran director Adrian Hall requested certain features toward a functional theatrical environment in the MAC's new performance space, and he got them.
Veteran director Adrian Hall requested certain features toward a functional theatrical environment in the MAC's new performance space, and he got them.

"Truthfully, sometimes I think she stacks the cards in too specific a way. But the cards are always stacked a little one way or the other in any show that attacks serious subject matter. And Naomi doesn't pretend to be a solution solver. She just wants to write the play in as vital a way as she can, so the conflict comes through. And, as in One Flea Spare, nothing is easy with her characters. I believe she lets both sides speak. Lord Snelgrave, of course, is a pompous ass through much of the play, but Naomi allows him to reveal his humanity quite poignantly near the end." And as for theater skirting the political in the name of entertainment, Hall says with cheek, "Art will stay out of politics when people stay out of politics."

The politics of regional theater are much on the mind of Hall, whose residency at the Dallas Theater Center was bittersweet. He admits that "a resident company is not an economically wonderful thing; you do have to pay for it." (He once retained 16 actors under contract.) But the situation for Dallas actors is worse than when he left, Hall insists, because few people can eke out a living here doing what they've been trained for. He sees importing out-of-town actors -- which DTC does regularly under Richard Hamburger, and the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas will do exclusively this summer -- as part of a national weakness in which homegrown theater simply isn't taken as seriously as other cultural resources.

"We accept greatness outside New York in city governments, or skyscrapers. We accept it in orchestras: Cleveland has an enormously wonderful orchestra. But with theater, we think the standard of success is always commercial or anything out of New York. If the theater doesn't reflect where it's located, it loses half its point of being. It's got to have something to do with the people who're doing it and the people who're seeing it. We need more people to tell us a story about today. It can't just be tradition and classicism." The man who admits he may be remembered longest for his Shakespearean interpretations takes devilish pleasure in calling free summer Shakespeare a "wonderful civic duty."

Acknowledging our city's thriving broadcast commercial-industrial film trade, one of the largest in the country and part-time sustenance to the actors who reside here for however long they choose (or however long they can), Adrian Hall says, "Dallas has got it all, except the desire to provide a home for artists. They have all the means, but they don't have the desire. That sounds ugly, but unfortunately, it's true."

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