Enter Stage Right

With the curtain falling on its old playhouse,Dallas Theater Center gets its act together with a new leader

The director reveals his production's design elements. With a budget of $430,000 (roughly 10 times the amount Uptown Players spent on its Tommy three years ago), it will be one of DTC's most expensive productions ever. For Tommy, costumer Greg Robins has $40,000 to create 100 different outfits. Broadway set designer Beowulf Borritt, a longtime collaborator of Moriarty's, is flooding the stage in water and constructing a $20,000 series of "aggressive" staircases and trestles. At one point, rain will fall.

Pumping his fists, Moriarty promises his cast that "we're going back to the original Tommy. We're going to figure it out and make it as audacious, fresh, contemporary and relevant as it was in 1969. Our Tommy won't be glitzy...We will have no fake British accents. We will just be American and just be today. It's us in this room, and we're going to tell this story. We're in Dallas! And we want it to rock!"

Huge applause now. Whoops. Stomps on Kalita's 50-year-old stage floor.

This is the last full season for Dallas Theater Center in the building on Turtle Creek designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Brandon Thibodeaux
This is the last full season for Dallas Theater Center in the building on Turtle Creek designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The new $60 million Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre is a 12-level "theatrical machine" designed by Rem Koolhaas and his
Office for Metropolitan Architecture.
Jeffrey Buehner
The new $60 million Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre is a 12-level "theatrical machine" designed by Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

Location Info

Map

Dallas Theater Center

2400 Flora St.
Dallas, TX 75201

Category: Performing Arts Venues

Region: Uptown & Oak Lawn

As first-day meet-and-greets go, they should have sold tickets to this one.

Scene 2: Exit the king

Regional theater isn't all that different from sports. It comes down to recruiting strong players, putting on consistently winning performances, filling seats and winning trophies. Finding a new artistic director to take charge of an institution the size of Dallas Theater Center—mid-range among the 77 members of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT)—is something like setting out to hire a football coach who can take a professional team to the playoffs.

Before Moriarty arrived last September, DTC was in a slump. Season after season under Richard Hamburger, Moriarty's predecessor, the theater had relied on Yale and Juilliard drama grads cast in New York to star in "re-interpretations" of well-worn classics by Shakespeare, Chekhov and Molière. These weren't big-name stars anymore than local actors are, but Hamburger never showed great interest in scouting in-town talent. He was rarely seen attending shows at other Dallas theaters.

When Hamburger was being interviewed for the top DTC job in 1992, he said all the right things. He would connect the theater to the city again and court Dallas' "diverse audience." In an interview with then-D magazine writer Porter Anderson, he noted the large Hispanic community and proposed putting on a Spanish-language version of A Christmas Carol. "I want our audience to be mixed races, ethnic backgrounds, economic strata, ages. I think there's nothing provincial about the city of Dallas or its audiences," Hamburger said, adding that he planned to make DTC an "umbrella organization" that would welcome local theater artists.

With Hamburger the Scrooge to the hometown theater community, DTC was regarded in some circles as unfriendly, out of touch with the audience and out of reach for the city's professional stage artists. Several times a season, whole productions—actors, sets and costumes—were trucked in from other regional theaters where they'd originated and then plopped on the Kalita Humphreys stage. DTC became just another road company venue.

Ticket subscription numbers remained steady, about 5,000 a season during Hamburger's tenure, but didn't trend upward. (This year's 2008-'09 season is projected to reach 10,000 subscribers, the highest in a decade.) On some opening nights in Hamburger's last season, whole rows of Kalita sat empty. His directorial selections—Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Joe Egg, a Hamlet that ended with dead royalty doused in gasoline and set ablazestruck audiences and critics as depressing and inaccessible. The only family-friendly hit every year was the annual holiday staging of A Christmas Carol, which was also the show employing the most area performers, though no Dallas actor ever played the lead.

Starting in 2005, grumblings among DTC's 50-member staff began to be heard beyond the banks of Turtle Creek. Hamburger wasn't a nice man to work for anymore, some said. He yelled at underlings and made women in the office cry. Actors described him as more dictator than collaborator. Among the small cadre of Dallas actors in Hamburger productions were some who said they'd never work with him again.

Sean Hennigan, who had played leading roles, as had his wife, Dee, in DTC's acting company in the 1980s, went to the press to complain about Hamburger during rehearsals for The Substance of Fire. They found themselves shut out of future productions. Sean now says he regrets his public squabble with Hamburger. "But whether we had spoken out or not, Dee and I wouldn't have been working at the Theater Center these last years."

Hamburger could not be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts to do so by phone and e-mail.

The opportunity for a change in leadership at the theater came with the groundbreaking of the new Dallas Center for the Performing Arts in the downtown Arts District on November 10, 2005. Of the four venues at the site, the smallest is the $60 million, 589-seat Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, named for the longtime Dallas philanthropists. The Wyly will become the new home of the Dallas Theater Center and four other performing arts companies in the fall of 2009.

Hamburger had been in on the early planning stages of the Wyly, but the prospect of a new, high-dollar playhouse is, to return to the sports metaphor, like moving a team into a fancy new stadium. New stadium, new coach needed. He had never done that Spanish Christmas Carol (though he did feature works by Hispanic playwrights). His audience remained the mostly white, mostly over-50, Benz-driving patrons who had come to DTC for decades. After 15 years as artistic director, Hamburger would be out.

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