Deconstructing Richard

Page 5 of 7

So what is your policy on hiring local actors, Richard?
"Casting is a meritocracy. I'm not going to make any friends with any decisions I make, but I must be free to hire the people I think are best for the role. Yes, I want to employ as many local actors as I can, but I don't want to hire somebody just because they live in Dallas. Maybe it's because I've worked in so many different cities--I tend to want to broaden the search. I want to keep all possibilities open."

The Undermain's Owens, who maintains a company of exclusively local performers, lends her support to Hamburger. "I think Richard has smartly responded to the pressure by hiring more Dallas actors," she says. "But I'm uncomfortable with dictating artistic choices from outside. We get enough pressure from different places to hire actors because of this gender or that race or this promise. The artistic director must be granted the freedom to make independent decisions, even if they're unpopular."

Speaking from her own experience, Owens says, "The DTC under Richard has been much more generous. They've worked with our actors. Richard has talked about collaborating with us for a while now. Almost the entire set of The Seagull (a recent Undermain production) came from the Theater Center.

"There are many more things local artists could do to help nurture the scene besides tell Richard who to cast," she adds. "Like help push through a hotel-rental car tax that would benefit the arts."

Local press reports suggest that the annual Leon Rabin Awards, selected to honor the "best" local talent by 2,000 members of the local talent pool, have snubbed Richard as best director during the last three ceremonies. The Dallas Theatre Critics Forum, on the other hand, has cited Hamburger as best director four out of the last five years. Bias very possibly informs both extremes: Local theater people don't feel they owe Hamburger anything, while critics can be dazzled by the sparkling pedigree and high production values Hamburger brings to his work.

Hamburger insists he doesn't feel snubbed by the Leons "because they've been very generous to us, especially for our performances. And I understand that it's an award for local talent from local talent. But to tell you the truth, I'm not much into awards, period. I don't watch the national awards broadcasts on TV. That's all sort of showbiz to me. I get excited working with actors, developing plays."

Edith Love, who's been managing director of the Dallas Theater Center since October 1997, joins Hamburger for the last part of the interview. A tall woman with a smart, padded-shoulder jacket and a serious expression, she comes armed with statistics about the current financial health of the Dallas Theater Center. This imposing woman with the reputation for rigorous cost-cutting clearly does not relish giving sensitive information to a writer, though she is honest, and later in our talk relaxes and becomes quite charming.

Toward the end of her more than two decades at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, Love presided over a six-year period of debt elimination that painted her theater in the black. They were the last to receive a million-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which greatly helped balance the books. Still, what she accomplished from when she took over as managing director of the Alliance in 1985 until she left last year is eye-popping: The overall budget rocketed from $2 million to $8.5 million.

And the buzz goes thus: Love turned things around primarily by nudging it toward safer, more commercially friendly fare. The "commercial compromise" part she flatly denies, proclaiming, "The Alliance staged Angels in America in a Southern city. How much more controversial can you get?"

Indeed, the Amazon bean-counter reputation doesn't entirely mesh with the woman who commissioned and developed Alfred Uhry's Last Night at Ballyhoo, the comedy-drama that went on to win last year's Tony for Best Play. Nor does it explain her Jill-of-all-trades experience at the Alliance, from costume assistant to tech crew member to actress to director to, finally, budget savior of an ailing institution.

Still, Love's formidable accounting skills might suggest that the Dallas Theater Center is ready to rent the Kalita Humphreys for year-round bar mitzvahs. (Theater rental is indeed a major source of income now: "Having an office party? Want to rent the theater?" Hamburger interjects when we're discussing budget.)

How much money has the center lost in the last few years?
"With a budget of $3.7 million for the '97-'98 season, we're currently operating at a deficit of $1.2 million," Love says, then quickly raises a hand. "But it's important to realize that most of this debt is actually just on paper. We've established a cash reserve for lean times; $800,000 of the 'debt' is, essentially, money we already have in the bank."

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Jimmy Fowler