Here's a hint to every artistic director in town on how to get me off your back about creating entertaining and challenging theater: Just do what I say. Pick the plays I want and cast the Dallas actors I like. There's no need to get ugly about it...but if I have to, I will.

WaterTower Theater in Addison is not part of my regular theater beat; their choices tend to be too conservative for my taste (which probably explains why they consistently sell out shows and are able to pay actors decent fees). But I tip my scoop hat to producing director Gayle Pearson and the WaterTower board for a decision that's smart but not entirely conservative: the selection of Terry Martin as artistic director. Martin is an eloquent actor of compassionate gifts who, despite having a full-time job, a long-time lover, and a house to maintain, has been seen all over town not just giving great performances but doing readings or giving feedback at them, involving himself especially with the development of new scripts.

I'm not as familiar with his work as a stage director, but I plan to be, as Martin will be directing several shows next season.

"Opportunities just don't come along like this in the theater business," Martin notes. "They said, 'Here's a multimillion-dollar institution. Here's a salary. Come play with us.' I couldn't refuse that."

In Dallas, which is always cursed with an inferiority complex, the safe move would have been to go for a New York City candidate instead of building community roots with native talent. Actually, Martin lived in New York for 11 years, taught acting, and was an associate producer and company member of a now-defunct troupe called Village Theater Company. He admits there are some things he misses, but probably not enough to return.

"Living in New York is the great equalizer," he notes. "You can live in an $800-a-month efficiency and [have] a million-dollar penthouse over your building. But both you and the other guy use the same cabs, the same subway, walk the same streets. I miss that kind of diversity of people."

But, Martin says, "I looked around one day and said, 'I'm over 30, I'm doing five shows a year, I'm teaching acting classes, and I still can't make a living.' Some people can, of course. But I realized it's possible to live someplace where I can actually have a house and a lawn and do the theater work that I love. Dallas has been good to me."

Martin knew full well that once I got him on the phone I'd bug him to use WaterTower's lovely, world-famous space for freakier work -- something closer at least to Dallas Theater Center, which is now nowhere near as out-there as it was during Richard Hamburger's first two seasons, but still has some interesting contrasts in its selections. Indeed, I wonder if Gayle Pearson and the WaterTower board realize what a prime position they are in to challenge DTC in terms of creating a truly national rep and a mecca for North Texas theatricality. They could do it using the best of Dallas talent. Terry Martin is an excellent start.

"I do want to push the envelope," Martin notes. "But I understand you can't beat people over the head with challenging work. I want to do it -- What's a good word? -- tenderly. I want to invite them in and introduce more challenging material to them slowly. We must have selections like Pump Boys and Dinettes, because it broadens the subscriber base and gets people into the theater who might have otherwise never entered it."

That's important, Martin says, because "I know people who say they're interested in plays, and then come in and see one, and realize they're going to have to participate, and dig in their heels against it. Theater is a participatory art form: It requires the willingness of an audience to work with the actors. You don't have to participate as much with films or TV."

Fairly or not, theater is generally considered to be in a weak state as a national cultural force. Should we blame that on the paralysis of the American imagination, the unwillingness to meet our arts halfway, or should we roll our eyes and remember that the paralysis of the American imagination has been bellowed about since shortly after Columbus' feet hit dry land? Or is it that commercial theater is now in the business of aping film (Footloose, The Lion King, etc.). Maybe it's a little bit of each. But Martin's no snob about his entertainment.

"It's interesting to me that in many ways, commercial entertainment like film and TV are much more daring than nonprofit theater," Martin reflects. "You'd think the whole point of nonprofit status is, 'This is not about making money, it's about taking risks.' You'd think 'nonprofit' meant protection. But you can go to a movie and see a story about gay romance or with an all-ethnic cast, and those are things that many non-profit theaters are frightened of. I'm not quite sure what that's about. Who knows, maybe it's Jesse Helms' fault."

At the close of our conversation, I warn Martin that I am now going to be in the position of bugging him in print, second-guessing his choices and attempting to push the WaterTower books into the red. Martin laughs good-naturedly: "That's what they pay you to do." And although it's unlikely that he's going to transform WaterTower Theatre into a house of the avant-garde, his philosophy seems most hopeful for a change in the institutional direction: "I'm not sure, but I think Woody Guthrie said it: Art shouldn't be good. Art should be good for something, or it's not art."


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