People Issue

At Dallas Theater Center, Kevin Moriarty Knows the Secrets to Success Are Passion and Comfy Sneakers

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

Under artistic director Kevin Moriarty, Dallas Theater Center has been acting like a big-time regional playhouse again. In his seven years on the job, Moriarty, 47, has launched several musicals that have gone on to become modest Broadway successes, including cheerleader comedy Lysistrata Jones (starring DTC company member Liz Mikel); a near-operatic version of Edna Ferber's Giant (co-produced with the Public Theater); and the charming Fly by Night, just closing out a run this month at New York's Playwrights Horizons. Remarkably, he's done it without sending his theater into debt. This season at DTC finishes with a healthy budget surplus.

Moriarty's thing is to mix old and new (shows and audiences), musicals with straight plays, classics by "the dead guys" with world premieres by fresh new talents. He's instituted pay-what-you-can nights and after-show talkbacks. He mingles with opening night crowds, always dressed in a crisp shirt and tie, preppy blazer over Diesel jeans and one of his many pairs of Nike sneakers, chosen to match his tie.

DTC's 2014-'15 season launches September 11 with Rocky Horror (in-the-round at the Wyly Theatre), followed by Driving Miss Daisy starring Oscar nominee June Squibb. Early next year comes Stagger Lee, a huge new musical by playwright-in-residence Will Power. Moriarty will direct Moliere's School for Wives and Euripides' Medea, staging the latter in tiny Down Center Stage at DTC's original home, Kalita Humphreys Theater.

There's a little back story to his choice of that 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, young Moriarty taught public school in Minnesota. For his first play, he chose Medea, which he got by the principal by describing it as being about "a strong woman who has a lot of children," not mentioning that she murders them. Two hundred dollars' worth of fake blood later, the show was a hit with kids and parents. Moriarty says he was hooked on directing, particularly plays using "spectacle and large gestures."

That describes this summer's mainstage offering, Les Misérables (June 27 through August 17 at the Wyly). The French Revolution will be fought in song and dance by an ethnically diverse cast, a move that could shake up some of DTC's more conservative patrons. Oh, the stories from the box office about reactions to some of Moriarty's bold colorblind casting.

"Dear God in heaven, not to be boring in the theater is the hardest thing," Kevin Moriarty said seven years ago when he came to DTC from Rhode Island's Trinity Rep. "Better they stand up and storm out than they fall asleep."

That meshes with the philosophy of DTC founder Paul Baker, with whom Moriarty spent time before Baker's death in 2009 at age 98. Like Baker, and before him Margo Jones, credited as the pioneer of the regional "little theater" movement in her acting space, still in use at Fair Park, Moriarty believes in theater that speaks to and arises from its surrounding community, even if it offends some people.

Every spring, Moriarty meets one-on-one with local theater critics, outlining plans for the next season. This year was the first time he talked like a veteran instead of the new kid trying to prove himself. He's signed another contract to stay at DTC a few more years, but seems now to be thinking legacy instead of long-term employment. "We're now at a point where, when I leave, the things I care about will continue," he said. "Whoever the next artistic director is will be embraced by the board and the theater community of Dallas."

And what three qualities are required to be a good artistic director of a theater like DTC? "First, a genuine, passionate belief that theater has the power to inspire a city to come together and join in a dialogue," Moriarty answered via email. "Second, the tireless support of a broad base of citizens from throughout the community. And third: comfortable and stylish sneakers."