René Moreno: The Tough Director

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Mark Graham. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

In the third-semester acting class he teaches at KD Studio, theater director René Moreno recently asked students to look at him and describe what they saw. "They were very polite," he says. "They called me handsome and described my shirt. And I said, no, you should say you see a Latino guy in a wheelchair. They were afraid to mention the chair.

But I don't buy fake. Honesty is what I strive for. I want them to be as honest as possible as long as it's coming from a real place."

As a director of plays -- 60 or 70 over the past decade, he hasn't kept count -- Moreno, who has used the chair since an accident more than 20 years ago, is described by actors who've worked with him as "tough," "demanding" and "exacting." The smart ones love him for making them work harder, for coaxing from them their best performances ever.

"He's a sculptor," says Pam Dougherty, who starred in Moreno's productions of August: Osage County at WaterTower Theatre this year and at Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre in 2010. "He sculpts every moment, every beat, every microsecond. Yet he completely allows for the actor's creativity."

Moreno cast prim actress Cindee Mayfield as hard-drinking cougar Maxine in Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' recent Night of the Iguana, a role typically not her "type," she says. "He challenged me to expand into unknown parts of myself and then supported and encouraged me. It was truly an unforgettable experience. He never lost faith in me." Mayfield sizzled in the part.

A graduate of Booker T. and SMU, Moreno was working as an actor until his accident. He spent a year in "deep grief" over his injury, he says, but found he could relate to rude cartoons about the disabled drawn by late quadraplegic artist John Callahan. "I was totally in on the joke."

Then came a call from Kitchen Dog Theater, asking if he'd direct for them. Encouraged, Moreno returned to grad school at SMU, earned an MFA and now books gigs a year in advance on stages here and elsewhere. He also acts when the role fits, playing Shakespeare's Richard III a few seasons back at Kitchen Dog, where scenery included ramps for the chair. "It was a great fit," Moreno says. "The chair symbolized Richard's interior insecurities."

This summer Moreno directs Coriolanus for Shakespeare Dallas, then The Understudy for Amphibian Productions, followed by The Normal Heart at Oklahoma City Rep in the fall. "I love actors," Moreno says. "I have such great faith in them. And if they have doubts, it's part of my job to make sure they learn to believe in themselves."

See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

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