For nearly a decade, Dallas theaters benefited from an unlikely patron saint: Chuck Norris. With his CBS action series Walker, Texas Ranger, shot in North Texas from 1993 to 2001, Norris employed many a local actor to stand on the receiving end of his title character's faked karate fan-kicks. Regular TV work on Walker subsidized the stage careers of lots of thespians and kept them from skipping town to look for acting jobs elsewhere. By day, actors could earn a good buck portraying victims, perps and cops in front of the camera alongside Ranger Cordell Walker, more money for one episode of the TV show than they'd get in a month in a play. At night they could continue racking up serious stage roles without worrying about making rent.
Walker and two locally produced kids' series, Wishbone (on PBS 1995-1998) and Barney & Friends (on PBS since 1992), were for many years just about the only national television credits besides commercials that Dallas actors could list in their bios. Until 2006, that is, and the arrival of ongoing on-location shoots for three TV series: the drama Prison Break, now in its second season on Fox; NBC's critically acclaimed freshman drama Friday Night Lights, which casts in Dallas and shoots in Austin; and Lifetime's new cable-cum-webisode mystery Inspector Mom.
As more Dallas actors have begun to pick up work on the TV shows, theater directors trying to cast plays and musicals with top talent have had to adjust to the competition. Last May, WaterTower Theatre director James Paul Lemons wanted to hire Dallas actor Derek Phillips for a lead in the baseball-themed play Take Me Out. But Phillips had just snagged the recurring role of Billy Riggins, alcoholic older brother of one of the five main high school football jocks on Friday Night Lights. Lemons had to fly an actor in from New York for the part.
"Whenever casting comes around, we now have to be very conscious of actors who have commitments to television," Lemons says. "And if we cast them, we have to make arrangements in case those commitments make them unavailable at a moment's notice."
That's what happened at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas this fall. Four days before the opening of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, actress Stacey Oristano, cast in one of the musical's leads, had to drop out after landing a recurring part as a stripper on Lights. That threw CTD into a temporary tizzy, but the shake-up did provide a job for rising musical theater actress Jennifer Green, who stepped into Whorehouse on short notice.
The employment of so many Dallas actors on the TV shows, all of which have large casts, has caused a ripple of role-swaps at several theaters. Mark Nutter co-stars as Mitchell Street, father of the now-paraplegic high school quarterback played by Scott Porter on Lights, so he couldn't reprise his starring role in CTD's summer revival of James McLure's Lone Star. Ashley Wood got the role instead. Liz Mikel worked briefly on Prison Break (her part was edited out) and had hoped to appear again as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dallas Theater Center's A Christmas Carol, a show she's been part of for 15 years. But when Mikel's role as Corinna Williams, mother of Friday Night Lights' star player "Smash" (played by Gaius Charles), was expanded to a full 22-show run, she had to give up the Ghost, handing it over to M. Denise Lee. That left WaterTower in a lurch since director Lemons had counted on Lee to be one of five lead singers in the musical revue Happy Holi-divas. Who ended up in that one? Stacey Oristano.
Jody Rudman was cast on Lifetime's Inspector Mom, which also features Dallas actresses Ouida White, Stephanie Young and Allison Tolman. But Rudman reluctantly had to skip auditions for Prison Break and Friday Night Lights because of commitments to play a small part in Classical Acting Company's Death of a Salesman and to star in Stage West's As Bees in Honey Drown. "It is the theater that is keeping me from doing TV stuff," says Rudman. "But it's terrific having the TV shows here. I keep hearing that local actors haven't had this much TV work in a long, long time."
The boom time for actors will keep more of them around, says Dallas talent agent Regan Adair, who also acts and directs on local stages. "All of us are thrilled to have these opportunities within reach. It's strengthened actors' faith in the future of Dallas theater."
Even if theater casting is now more difficult, it's "a small price to pay to keep [good actors] in the area," says CTD's managing director Tom Sime. "The alternative would be losing them to Los Angeles altogether."
More than 60 theater companies mounted productions in Dallas and Fort Worth in 2006. Most weeks featured at least two or three openings; often there were a dozen shows running simultaneously. Quality varied widely, as it always does, but overall the must-sees far outnumbered the wish-I-hadn'ts. Here's my list of the year's 10 best:
Cloud Tectonics. Kitchen Dog Theater produced a near-perfect staging of José Rivera's dreamy play about the meaning of love and its power to change the perception of time. Marisa Gonzalez, J.R. Ramirez and Marco Rodriguez worked up combustible energy in the sexiest, most emotionally raw performances of the year.
Dangerous Liaisons. Director Regan Adair's short but productive stint running Richardson Theatre Centre hit its zenith with this lush version of the heavy-breather about lust, betrayal and revenge among French nobility. Mark Shum and Meridith Morton seethed with passion as lovers and rivals. Every element—acting, costumes (also by Adair), set design and sound—hit the (erogenous) zone.
Diaries of a Barefoot Diva: And Other Tales and Stories From the Ghetto. This new musical written by and starring Fort Worth actress Sheran Goodspeed Keyton premiered at Jubilee Theatre and knocked audiences out with its feel-good, sing-great story of a budding filmmaker struggling to pursue her dream. Joe Rogers and Aaron Petite's score combined hip-hop rhythms and bluesy ballads that suited the big voices of Keyton and her co-star, Robert Rouse.
Every Trick in the Book. Classical Acting Company should do more comedy. This flirty Feydeau farce featured the company's lead actress, Emily Gray, who was a stitch whipping her double-bustled behind between her onstage lover, played by Mark Shum, and her husband, played by Neil Carpenter.
Fat Pig. Neil LaBute's play tells of the doomed romance between a handsome guy (Ian Leson) and a lovely but overweight woman (the remarkable Christina Vela). He loves her and she loves him. But his creepy friends just won't let him get past the "she's too fat" thing. Kitchen Dog's production probably sparked more after-show discussion among couples than anything else on a stage this year.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway. The bio-musical about the country music legend, played by out-of-towner Van Zeiler, would have been just another pleasant but forgettable Dallas Theater Center import except for the phenomenal performance by Mississippi Charles Bevel, an actor and blues singer of incomparable skills. Just watching and listening to Bevel in the role of narrator Tee-Tot felt like a rare privilege.
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Pageant. It's not unusual to see men in drag among the Uptown Players, but this musical directed by Coy Covington played with the horrors of beauty pageants by having the guys play it deadly seriously, making it even funnier. Cameron McElyea was the standout as the homely and humble Miss Great Plains.
Rocky Horror Puppet Show. Collin County Community College staged one of the most lavishly designed musicals of the year with this half-human, half-puppet production featuring original creature designs ranging from oversized rod puppets to bizarre robotic contraptions. A jaw-droppingly impressive spectacle.
Take Me Out. Balls-out acting and full-frontal nudity marked WaterTower's strong local premiere of Richard Greenberg's Tony winner about a gay big-leaguer. Clay Yocum's astonishing turn as the hillbilly pitcher with a killer fastball was the acting equivalent of pitching a no-hitter.
The Women. The snappy and stylish revival at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas of Clare Boothe Luce's all-female 1930s comedy ranks among the year's best for its excellent casting of 20 of Dallas' best professional actresses, 10 of them older than 40. That's more women on one stage than most theaters cast in an entire season.