Enter Stage Right

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

Scene 1: Enter the prince

It's the first hour of the first day of rehearsal for Dallas Theater Center's first production of its 50th season. The show is The Who's Tommy, the sprawling rock musical based on a 1969 concept album about a "deaf, dumb and blind kid" cured by spiritual enlightenment. Opening September 2, it is the first show directed here by Kevin Moriarty, who is not quite a year into his job as DTC's artistic director, only the fifth in its history.

This meet-and-greet on an early August afternoon is in DTC's Kalita Humphreys Theater, the 491-seat house inside the concrete stack of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed geometry, jutting out of a hill above Turtle Creek. Among the 75 people who have gathered are Tommy cast members, musicians and designers, plus office staff and a few longtime board members who have come in from the searing heat to Kalita's notoriously arctic air-conditioned chill. On the way into the auditorium, some grab red blankets from the stack near the lobby door.

Kevin Moriarty is only the fifth artistic director in Dallas Theater Center's 50-year history.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Kevin Moriarty is only the fifth artistic director in Dallas Theater Center's 50-year history.
"Kevin grabs your heart immediately. He seems committed to this community and its actors."
Brandon Thibodeaux
"Kevin grabs your heart immediately. He seems committed to this community and its actors."
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.
In the Kalita Humphreys Theater lobby, actor Joshua Doss (left) and other cast members look over lyrics on the first day of rehearsals for The Who's Tommy.
Brandon Thibodeaux
In the Kalita Humphreys Theater lobby, actor Joshua Doss (left) and other cast members look over lyrics on the first day of rehearsals for The Who's Tommy.
Christian Childs (center), who plays the young Tommy, has taken acting classes at Dallas Theater Center since he was 4.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Christian Childs (center), who plays the young Tommy, has taken acting classes at Dallas Theater Center since he was 4.
Cast members listen to Tommy director Moriarty outline his vision for the production. From left to right are Liz Mikel,Cedric Neal, Joel Ferrell and Ryan Agrella.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Cast members listen to Tommy director Moriarty outline his vision for the production. From left to right are Liz Mikel,Cedric Neal, Joel Ferrell and Ryan Agrella.

Location Info

Map

Dallas Theater Center

2400 Flora St.
Dallas, TX 75201

Category: Performing Arts Venues

Region: Uptown & Oak Lawn

Squeals and hugs erupt among actors who know each other. Dallas actress Liz Mikel, who's playing the Acid Queen and is one of three local performers cast in leading roles, sees Cedric Neal, who's playing Tommy, and hugs him so hard he almost disappears in her arms. They've worked together before. "I'm so nervous, I'm about to pee in my pants," says Neal, an Equity actor who will be performing at DTC for the first time.

In strides Gregory Lush, a Theatre Three star last season, who will play Uncle Ernie. He leans down to introduce himself to 11-year-old Christian Childs, who'll play Tommy as a 10-year-old. "It's nice to meet you, and I apologize in advance," says Lush, whose character does not-so-nice things to little Tommy. Childs, who has taken acting classes at DTC since he was 4, nods coolly. The young actor has caused a stir already, wearing a tight Mohawk haircut and wraparound sunglasses that he doesn't remove.

Just after 1 p.m., everyone settles into black chairs arranged around the perimeter of the stage. The thrum of conversation rises and falls. There's just one person missing from the scene. Where's the director? Where is Kevin Moriarty? Most of the actors haven't seen him since auditions in May, and this is his first time directing in Dallas. They're excited but aren't sure what to expect. Will he be stern and tyrannical, as some previous directors at this theater have been? Or will he be the artistic mentor who inspires and excites?

Suddenly he's there, bounding down the aisle and up three steps to the stage. Dressed in faded jeans, an untucked navy polo and one of his 10 pairs of Nikes, Moriarty, 42 and a slim 5-foot-6, looks like a young and wiry grad student. Working the crowd, Moriarty shakes hands and shares hugs with actors and staffers. After acknowledging several DTC benefactors and board members, he welcomes the five actors and singer-dancers cast out of New York City and the five students handpicked from Southern Methodist University's drama department.

Moriarty plants himself in front of a set of drums on the stage—they belong to Oso Closo, the five-member Denton rock band chosen to play for Tommy. "This is going to be a great adventure," he says, rubbing his palms together. "We're going to have great fun."

With all eyes now on him, Moriarty begins to talk about Tommy. Right away it's clear that low-key isn't his style, and this will be no droning director chat. "This is the dawn of an amazing new day!" he says. "We're putting a rock band center stage at Kalita Humphreys...to scare the audience!"

This draws laughs, even from the fustier benefactors.

"We've made a very concerted effort to put together a group that will define this Tommy," Moriarty says. "This is like a piece of Shakespeare, a piece of Gershwin. People have a history and connection with it. This really, really, really is not going to be your grandmother's musical...Dear God in heaven, not to be boring in the theater is the hardest thing. Better they stand up and storm out than they fall asleep. We should get some rock happening on this stage!"

Applause. The younger actors, perhaps relieved to see that their director is as pumped as they are, applaud loudest.

For the next 65 minutes, Moriarty performs a riveting one-man show, rhapsodizing, soliloquizing and filibustering on The Who, the what and the wherefore of British rock music. He describes the genesis of Tommy and his own six-month "odyssey of falling in love" with the piece he calls "a statement on child abuse, war and misbegotten religions." He takes side trips into the spiritual philosophy of the silent Indian mystic Meher Baba, who is credited as Townshend's inspiration for Tommy's title character, and weaves in anecdotes about the complicated relationships of Townshend and bandmates Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and John Entwistle.

Moriarty, who founded the MFA directing program at Brown University, acts as lecturer, evangelist and critic. Ken Russell's 1975 movie version of Tommy? Absurdly awful, he says. The 1993 Broadway extravaganza adapted by Townshend and director Des McAnuff? Better. (It's the Townshend-McAnuff libretto that DTC is using.)

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.

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.

In August 2006, Hamburger, then 55, announced his resignation and assumed the title of "director emeritus." He told the press he wasn't being forced out; he simply had lost touch with his "inner life" and needed to work elsewhere. He was at the end of his contract with DTC, and "it just felt like it was time to reassess and perhaps move on." He also told the Dallas Observer that he needed "breathing space" and that his biggest regret was that "there's an enormous amount of talent here in Dallas that wasn't tapped. In many ways I wish I'd created a company that created security and a place for actors to grow here."

Scene 3: The coronation

Running a theater requires creative spark, business savvy and enormous reserves of energy. An artistic director also must understand a theater's core audience well enough to choose plays people will want to pay up to $60 a ticket to see. And a certain amount of chutzpah is needed to lead them in new directions when they're prone to balking at controversial material, as DTC's audience can be. In 1993 an upset patron called the police after seeing nudity and men kissing in Six Degrees of Separation. In the 2004 season, there were walkouts and subscription cancellations during the run of Topdog/Underdog, a racially charged Suzan-Lori Parks drama containing streams of profanity and simulated masturbation.

A great director whose shows consistently entertain, generate buzz and sell lots of tickets not only can please the old-timers but attract young patrons and possibly make an impact on the entire American theater scene. As artistic director of San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, Des McAnuff directed world premieres of Big River and I Am My Own Wife, both of which became award-winning Broadway hits. Then he turned the story of Frankie Valli and three singing pals from Newark into Jersey Boys.

Could the Dallas Theater Center find someone who could do that?

Shortly after Hamburger's resignation, the DTC board set up a 12-member search committee, led by DTC "Life Trustee" Bess Enloe. For only the fifth time in 48 years, DTC had to hire a new leader, someone to reintroduce the institution to the city and usher it into its shiny new home. Jobs for artistic directors at LORT theaters don't open up often. The current economy is making it harder for even long-established theaters to attract donor dollars and keep seats full. Theater administrators are holding on for dear life.

DTC's annual budget of $6.5 million ranks it in the top half of the nation's LORT theaters financially. It is the second largest LORT house in Texas, behind Houston's Alley Theatre, which operates on a $10.5 million budget.

What DTC does have that many theaters its size do not is strong financial support from individual arts benefactors. More than 120 of Dallas' top-tier families donated more than $1 million apiece toward the construction of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts.

"Over 80 percent of those families had never given to cultural institutions before," says Enloe, who also was on the DCPA development team. "The reason they gave to this one is that this has become a civic project. It's more than a theater and opera house. It's completing the Arts District and redefining downtown Dallas as a cultural destination."

To lead the search for DTC's new artistic director, Enloe brought in nationally known cultural headhunters Stephen J. Albert and Thomas Hall, who recently had shifted McAnuff into the top spot at Canada's renowned Stratford Festival. In January 2007 the board and senior DTC staff attended a two-day retreat with Albert and Hall to define exactly what they were looking for. "We knew we didn't want to sacrifice any artistic excellence the theater was known for," Enloe says. "We wanted someone who would embrace the city and become a cultural leader, a civic leader. Someone with real people skills in addition to being a fine artist."

The field was narrowed from 20 candidates to three finalists. "Kevin Moriarty really bubbled to the top of the list early on," recalls Mark Hadley, DTC's managing director who handles all offstage business.

Moriarty's first interview with the committee was supposed to last a couple of hours. "At the end of 90 minutes, I said we had to rest and catch our breath," Enloe says. "Kevin just swept everyone off their feet...We really didn't have to vote after that. It was a unanimous choice."

No one at DTC or the committee had seen anything Moriarty had directed at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, where he served as associate director, or at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, New York, where he was artistic director for seven years. But in May 2007 he was offered a three-year contract at DTC with an annual six-figure salary.

"We prayed we would get him," Enloe says, "and we're lucky that we did."

And Moriarty was lucky to find a prestigious position at a theater he can vault into national prominence, says Curt Columbus, Trinity Rep's artistic director. "This is a remarkably important theater in America. Regional theaters like Trinity Rep and DTC—these came out of a moment in the 1950s and 1960s when there was this movement that said art should exist to speak directly to local audiences. We're returning to those roots."

Scene 4: The prince pays tribute to a ghost

A story passed along by actors and techies who worked at Dallas Theater Center in the 1960s says that Frank Lloyd Wright's original plans made no provision for moving large scenery pieces from the basement scene shop up to Kalita's revolving stage. Steep, narrow ramps limited set designs, so without Wright's knowledge, a freight elevator was installed. Wright visited the site during its construction only a few times. The much-repeated tale maintains that on one visit by Wright shortly before his death in 1959, sheets of plywood were placed over the elevator door to shield it from view. But he found out about the elevator and cursed it for ruining his elegant design. Since then, it's said, on late nights down in that scene shop, the spectral image of Wright's bald head can be seen floating in the elevator car.

In many ways this old theater hums with the spirits of five decades of energy exuded by extraordinary artists. Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith starred in DTC's world premiere of Paddy Chayefsky's The Latent Heterosexual in 1968. Actor-turned-playwright Preston Jones, who died in 1979 at the age of 43, wrote his now-famous Texas Trilogy between shuffling tickets and answering phones in the DTC box office. The Bryant Hall rehearsal space is named for Ken Bryant, the much-loved artistic director who preceded Hamburger. Bryant was appointed in 1990 and died suddenly the following year at 35 in a tragic mix-up of medicines after a traffic accident. Kalita Humphreys, for whom the theater is named, was an actress who died in a plane crash in 1954.

There is one other entity, however, whose spirit still flows so powerfully within the halls of DTC that even the mention of his name is enough to summon storms.

"When I first got here, I had, of course, done lots of research about this place and its beginnings," says Moriarty during an interview in his book-lined DTC office. "I asked one of the staff members about Paul Baker, and she said, 'Oh, we don't say that name around here.'"

That could be institutional guilt about how Baker was treated toward the end of his DTC career or ignorance of the circumstances of his departure from the theater he founded. No one currently working at DTC knew "Mr. Baker," as he is still known to his former students and company members. (In the interest of full disclosure, this writer was a student of Baker's at Trinity University in the 1970s.)

When the Dallas Theater Center opened in 1959 with an epic adaption of Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River, it was under the direction of Baker, a leonine West Texas native who was then chairman of the drama department at Baylor University. A maverick teacher and director whose college productions drew national press, Baker had a vision that advanced the "little theater" movement popularized by director Margo Jones in her theater-in-the-round at Fair Park in the 1940s. The movement was grounded in respect for art that arose from and spoke directly to its surrounding community. And it emphasized the education and training of young artists in professional settings.

Baker's imprint is still all over DTC. Kalita's open, curved Shakespearean thrust stage was designed to fulfill Baker's concept of bringing the action of live theater into and around the audience.

A dispute with Baylor over a production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (Dirty words! Drinking!) led to DTC aligning its in-house MFA program with San Antonio's Trinity University in the 1960s. The 1970s brought Baker's glory days. He kept Kalita busy almost year-round with an 11-show season (almost double what DTC does now) and had a second season running concurrently in the 60-seat Down Center Stage in the basement. Shows from DTC toured to San Antonio and then around the country. The theater employed a full-time resident company of 30 artists who worked in all areas, acting in a play, then directing, building sets, sewing costumes, even ushering. Preston Jones' plays arguably were the most successful Baker ever staged, but many other scripts debuting at DTC in those years were the direct result of Baker's support of art emerging from within the DTC family.

A palace coup took place in 1983 when board members touting the need for a "world-class theater" ousted Baker and brought in director Adrian Hall from Trinity Rep. Gone were the longtime DTC company members. They posed for one last group photo with a sign saying "Not-Ready-for-World-Class Players." Gone too was the graduate academic program that had drawn students from around the globe. It was suggested that Hall approach SMU's Meadows School of the Arts for affiliation. His requirement for grad students, he said, was that they shave their heads and shift scenery in the nude. SMU declined to participate.

Hall's extravagant productions drove DTC more than $1 million into debt. "He'd spend $50,000 on a chandelier for a set," a former DTC company member recalls. By 1989, Hall had returned to the East Coast for good. Then came Bryant, gone too soon. Then 15 years of Hamburger. And now Moriarty, who arrives full of energy and ideas at a pivotal moment in DTC history.

"Coming in here, it was like the Romans living on Greek ruins," says Moriarty, glancing at posters from shows staged by previous regimes. "Like there was no knowledge of the civilizations that had been here before."

He was surprised to learn not only that Baker wasn't revered for his stewardship of DTC, but that he was still alive. Baker, now 97, retired from teaching and directing in the 1980s. He lives on a ranch near Waelder, an hour outside Austin, with Kitty, his wife of 72 years.

"When I met Kevin one of the first things he said was that he wanted to meet my father," says Robyn Baker Flatt, an original DTC company member who went on to found the Dallas Children's Theater. "A lot of people say they want to meet my dad but don't follow up, so I didn't think he was serious. But he was. He called later to see if I could arrange it."

She did, accompanying Moriarty to the ranch one day last spring. Baker, who Flatt says "has good days and bad days" health-wise, was eager to meet the young director. They talked for a couple of hours.

"He told me so many stories about the actual work itself... about the acting company, about the audience, about the interaction with the board," Moriarty says. "More than anything, I got a sense of the unbelievable energy and passion he had. Still has."

The meeting left Moriarty inspired and Flatt deeply moved. "That was a very healing moment for a lot of us," she says.

Scene 5: The prince ventures outside castle walls

In his first season at DTC, Moriarty chose not to direct a show here. Instead he went about establishing relationships with the Dallas arts demimonde. He arranged one-on-one, off-the-record coffee dates last fall with the area's arts critics, asking what DTC should be doing better and making it clear he would be open and available to the press. And he started going to other theaters.

"I couldn't believe it," Dallas actor Paul Taylor says. "Backstage someone would say 'Kevin's in the audience again.' I think he saw every show at almost every theater last fall."

Moriarty sat in the audience at Kitchen Dog Theater, Contemporary Theatre, Uptown Players, WaterTower, Theatre Three, Lyric Stage, Dallas Children's Theater and others. He saw plays at SMU and met with theater faculty and students there and at DISD's Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the arts magnet Baker had been instrumental in founding in the mid-1970s. On his six-month "listening tour," as he calls it, Moriarty immersed himself in all things Dallas, going to churches, community centers, museums, bars and restaurants—and everywhere, asking questions about people's theater experiences.

One thing he learned, he says, is that Dallas needs to stop looking out of town for "world-class" talent. After seeing their work in musicals at other companies, Moriarty cast Neal, Mikel and Lush in Tommy along with Joshua Doss as The Lover and SMU student Chad Daniel as Cousin Kevin. "He made a lot of Dallas actors very happy doing that," Neal says. "He has given us a place to aspire to that we couldn't have before."

That doesn't mean imports won't still be hired as needed. For Tommy, Moriarty has brought in Broadway actors Nehal Joshi (Les Miserables and The Threepenny Opera) and Betsy Wolfe (110 in the Shade and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) to play Captain and Mrs. Walker.

In a further commitment to local talent and another nod to Baker, Moriarty held auditions for a new nine-member resident company, something DTC hasn't had in decades. Company members will act in at least two shows per season and do some teaching, but are free to work at other theaters. His first hire was Lee Trull, a 28-year-old actor-playwright who's also in the company at Kitchen Dog. Eight other company members will be named in December. Moriarty also is working to create teaching and training partnerships with SMU and the arts magnet—no head-shaving or nude scene-shifting required.

Moriarty's six choices for the 50th season include no Shakespeare or Rodgers and Hammerstein, though they are his favorites. After Tommy, which continues through September 28, comes the world premiere in October of black playwright Tracey Scott Wilson's civil rights drama The Good Negro, a co-production with New York's Public Theater that will be seen here first and then move there. After the usual holiday run of A Christmas Carol, it's another premiere, In the Beginning, a medieval mystery play co-produced with SMU and directed by Moriarty. Presented in March will be the Southwest premiere of Back Back Back, Itamar Moses' play about cheating in major league baseball. And if the adaptation rights can be worked out, the season will conclude with another premiere, a new musical version of the beloved children's book Sarah, Plain and Tall, a project Moriarty believes has Broadway potential.

From now on, says Moriarty, important new plays and musicals will start at DTC and then tour—not the other way around. He's commissioning playwrights to create scripts for his company. When the Wyly opens next year, the theater world will be watching for DTC to assert itself.

Moriarty has made other changes for his sophomore season. Some subscriptions now come with invitations to pre- and post-show cocktail parties. Promotional tie-ins with nearby restaurants and bars encourage theatergoing as a social activity for singles. And after every performance, audience members will be invited to stick around for informal conversations with directors and actors.

After all, seeing plays and talking about them is what drove Moriarty to a life in the theater in the first place.

Scene 6: Humble beginnings

Born to Goldwater-Republican parents in Rensselaer, Indiana, population 5,500, Kevin Moriarty was a kid so hyperactive, he says the "hippie nuns" at St. Augustine elementary school allowed him to leave class and run rings around the building until he calmed down. While other students studied arithmetic, Sister Donna let Kevin sing and dance to the only three LPs the tiny school owned: the original cast recordings of Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and Johnny Cash's live recording, At Folsom Prison.

Playing Oliver Twist in a school musical when he was 8 made him "happier and more at home than I'd ever felt in my life." The nuns counseled Kevin's lawyer-father and housewife-mom to encourage their son's creativity. Season tickets were ordered for the nearest professional theaters, two hours away in Chicago and Indianapolis. On long car rides home, Kevin, his three sisters and their parents would discuss what they'd seen.

"Those late-night conversations in the dark would start with 'What did you think of the play?' and then would invariably grow to be about something larger," Moriarty says. "We could talk about values or politics or people or places that were so different from my experience in this small town in Indiana."

The first gay character he ever saw was when his parents took him to a road tour of A Chorus Line. "There's a moment where the father reaches out to the gay son," he says. "I was probably in sixth or seventh grade at the time and absolutely knew that I was gay. And my parents did not know. I thought I would never act on it as long as I lived. My parents weren't homophobic. They were just homo-silent."

But their conversation in the car that night allowed Moriarty's family to talk about gay people—one of the few times they did until Kevin came out in his 20s. "They didn't respond with disgust at this character. So I felt safe," he says. "Those experiences with art in general, theater specifically, those connected me to my family and to a much broader world than Rensselaer, Indiana."

This is what theater can do, he adds. What it should do.

Moriarty, still uncertain about how to create a life in theater, studied music education at University of Wisconsin. In his first job at a public school in La Crescent, Minnesota, he was told he had to direct a play. He chose the Greek tragedy Medea, which he described to the principal as being about "a strong woman who has a lot of children," neglecting to mention she murders them. Two hundred dollars' worth of fake blood poured off the teenage actors. It was a hit, and Moriarty says he was hooked on directing, particularly shows that call for "spectacle and large gestures."

With his father urging him to apply to theater graduate school, Moriarty made his first trip to New York in 1993. He was accepted into the conservatory at Trinity Rep and never looked back, though he did leave his mark on Rensselaer. Because theater was such an important part of his son's life, Kevin's father (who died suddenly during Kevin's first year at Trinity Rep) convinced other civic leaders to organize a summer children's musical theater program. It continues to this day.

We need theater in our lives, at all ages, because it helps to see other people's stories acted out, Moriarty says. "If you see August: Osage County [this year's Pulitzer winner for drama] you're going to talk about it and how it's like your family. Those conversations—that's been the way my life has worked."

Scene 7: Triumphal march

After his high-octane opening speech about Tommy, Moriarty and his cast take a short break. Some linger in the lobby, others head out for a smoke and a thaw in the sunshine on the front patio.

Lead actor Cedric Neal rushes to Liz Mikel's side to share his impression of their new director. "He's life! He's energy! He's a breath of fresh air, isn't he?"

"Kevin grabs your heart immediately," Mikel says. "He seems committed to this community and its actors."

In this last full season for DTC in the theater that Wright built, this first big show is, says Moriarty, a tribute to the director who started it all.

"Fifty years ago Paul Baker was in his creative prime," Moriarty says. "This theater was seen as brave, bold, exciting and youthful. It was important for me to reconnect with that. It seemed to me that the first show of this season should celebrate and announce ourselves in that way. It will certainly wake up our subscribers!"

The actors are waved back inside, where they will spend their first full-fledged rehearsal practicing Tommy's finale. On chairs and stools clustered at one end of the lobby, Neal and Mikel are among the dozen actors who listen to musical director Lindy Heath Cabe go over Townshend's lyrics for the last song in the show: "Listening to you, I get the music/Gazing at you, I get the heat/Following you, I climb the mountains/I get excitement at your feet." They will sing the lines of this rock hymn again and again, syllable by syllable, note by note, late into the evening.

As the cast blends their voices in layers of harmony, Moriarty slips in quietly to observe. They don't see him, they don't hear him, but somehow they feel him. Until that first preview in front of a paying audience, these actors will perform only for him. He looks over the group. At this moment, only he knows what he wants from their performances.

The actors lean forward in their chairs, holding lyric sheets tightly. Cabe has them repeat words from the song until they're pronounced as crisply as she wants them to be. Neal and Lush notice Moriarty leaning with his back against a wall to their left. Others steal glances at him; they seem to be looking for some hint of what he might be thinking. Even at this early stage of the production, they need his approval.

Then Moriarty smiles, and with that, everyone sings a little louder.

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