First-time Director Lee Trull Talks about Dying City and Keeping Theater Alive
The final show of Second Thought Theatre's seventh and so far strongest season is Christopher Shinn's Dying City (reviewed in this week's paper). The two-actor (Grace Heid, Rhett Henckel), three-character drama was directed by Dallas Theater Center company member Lee Trull, his first time staging a full-fledged production.
Trull's been on the Dallas theater scene for a decade, mostly as an actor--he had leading roles in DTC's recent Cabaret and Arsenic & Old Lace--but also as a playwright and collaborator for staged readings and festivals. After the well-attended "Conversation on the Future of Dallas Theater" organized by Dallas Arts District head Veletta Forsythe Lill on June 20, we had a feeling Trull had more to say on that topic. He's a man of strong opinions and as the casting director at DTC, as well as a leading actor, he's counting on continued growth of Dallas' live theater industry to provide him with a steady paycheck.
Besides prepping for a scene study class he'll be teaching at Oak Cliff's Texas Theatre soon, Trull also is directing actor Barry Nash in Dallas writer Eric Steele's new play Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self for the upcoming Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House in mid-July.
Busy guy, Lee Trull. But never too busy to talk about the business of show.
So, smart person, what's the future of theater in this town? It's a hard thing to talk about with the economy being the way it is, but we need to grow our theaters. Attention is coming to us nationally, about the city, about art happening here. It's time for smaller companies to grow and midsize companies to take a next step. It's difficult because nobody has money and the grant money is drying up. All of that is a major concern. But there is a group of younger artists poised to help grow these theaters and who can think outside the box. The city landscape and city itself are changing. It's time to start picking the brains of younger people.
Smaller theaters need to look at getting our work seen outside this city. Artistic directors at smaller theaters need to find a way to also be managing directors and executive directors. We need to be commissioning writers more. Getting our work to New York. Expanding out. We're isolated here in North Texas. We tend to think this is the world--Dallas. We're doing a lot of great work that nobody knows about.
Is there a theater company elsewhere that you think is doing all that? The Rude Mechanicals in Austin has six artistic directors. They produce only new work. They tour all over the country. They're often reviewed in The New York Times. They don't have a season or a subscriber list. They do shows when they're ready. They're like Matthew Posey's theater here [The Ochre House]. He's like, "I'm doing a show if you want to come. We've been secretly working on it and here it is." That's kind of cool. We're not hurting for experimental theater in Dallas. Ochre House is the most interesting one right now.
Our small and midsize companies in Dallas too often pick plays they don't have the ability to produce. They can't cast it. There are too many characters. Sometimes they think they need to put a big set onstage, which can cause problems for a production. Sometimes there are a lot of wonderful plays that go unproduced and overlooked here. Why has no theater here done Becky Shaw [by Gina Gionfriddo]? It's one of the best plays of the past decade. I love the taste of what Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth does. I like what Second Thought is picking. What Undermain Theater does works because it's unique and strangely them. Kitchen Dog's seasons have writers I'm eager to get into discussions about.
I want to see more resources going into a really great play with a really simple set with three or four good actors. Pay them, pay the set designer.
Which brings us to Dying City, which follows that model. What intrigued you about this play? I like to simplify things. I like to get to the core of stuff. It'll be a long time before anyone hires me to direct a musical. I'm interested in all these really great young writers who write short, stripped-down stuff. The big discussion in design meetings for Dying City was about the theater itself [the show is performed in the black box studio at the Addison Theatre Centre]. We left the walls blank. We used the mirror that was already on the back wall. We used very little furniture. That comes from working with Kevin [Moriarty, DTC's artistic director] and thinking of space. You use what you have.
What is your directing style? When I talk to designers, I talk like Kevin Moriarty. When I block the staging, I stage like [DTC company member] Joel Ferrell. When I work with actors, I'm like [Kitchen Dog co-artistic director] Tina Parker, who's tough.
What did you learn as an actor or director from being in DTC's two biggest shows of the season, Cabaret and Arsenic & Old Lace? Those were both life-changing experiences. Working with [Arsenic director] Scott Schwartz was a thrill. He's not much older than me and has worked for so long. Working with [actresses] Betty Buckley and Tovah Feldshuh was hilarious and prepared me for anything. They're wild and free and don't let you off the hook onstage. Playing Mortimer Brewster was the largest role I've ever played to an audience of that size. I felt proud of my performance.
In Cabaret, the experience...well, I've never been a part of a show that had this much connection to the audience. It was Joel Ferrell's best work as a director. He just exploded on that show. The cast was the nicest I've ever worked with. Everyone was on the same page immediately. This validates the existence of an acting company. Having Chamblee Ferguson and Sally Nystuen-Vahle, both company members, in supporting roles was truly extraordinary. Those two shows just filled me with energy.
You're in charge of casting at DTC. This makes you feared and loved by local actors, right? One day I was hanging out with everyone else and the next I had a cool job at DTC. I've had to grow up a lot. At times I can be a jerk. I do not keep my job if the best actors aren't in the shows. All I do is bring the best actors in and the directors pick the casts. I'm good at it and they listen to me.
My favorite thing about doing Dying City was getting Rhett and Grace out there in front of an audience. She has been auditioning in Dallas for two years and no one hired her. When I got a chance, I gave her a chance. She was perfect for this. Rhett had a certain size and skill level I needed for his role and he's a fresh face.
Ever want to run your own theater? I'm not as brave as those who start their own theaters. I like getting paid regularly so I can go do dinner and stuff. I can't imagine the huge sacrifices people make to run their own theaters. I have a lot of ideas and definitely have the energy to do it. And I think I actually enjoy the prospect of fundraising. I like schmoozing and talking to people and I like theater. So maybe.
And would that theater be in Dallas? I would love to be able to make a home in Dallas for my career. I'm a Dallasite. I like the restaurants, sports teams and theaters. I am itching to do a show outside of town, get to know some other people. It's important to embrace Dallas and make a home here, but it's also important to get out. The more people get involved in the art and music world--get out and see other people-that's where you get out of your theater bubble. And I think that's good.
Dying City continues through July 2 at Second Thought Theatre, 15650 Addison Rd., Addison. Box office: 214-616-8439 or www.secondthoughttheatre.org.
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