Dallas Theater Center: Edifice Complex

"The theater center will mark the spot where Dallas once stood."

February 1973By Comments

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT HAD BRAGGED about his monument, “The Theater Center will mark the spot where Dallas once stood.” I had lived in Dallas for well over a month when I began to doubt the Center’s existence. Surely as I turned some new corner on my way to the donut shop or the grocery store the building would reveal itself to me. The Dallas Theater Center was, after all, an architectural masterpiece, located, according to rumor, in my own neighborhood. But I had decided not to look for it.

In a meditative trance late one summer evening, I reverently approached the lobby of One Turtle Creek. Its penthouse tower loomed like the pinnacle of Olympus. Oppressed by the weight of so much concentrated wealth and power, I fled across the boulevard to a lawn sloping downward to the creek bed. A concrete footbridge arched over the water. Stone steps led to a narrow path up a steep wooded bank on the far side. At the top of this ravine grew the Theater Center, a great stone tree blossoming out of the earth. If Wright’s edifice did not outlast the millenium, I felt its seedlings would sprout new growth til doomsday.

The Theater Center stands precisely two-thirds of one block from my first Dallas home near Lee Park. A curving wooded driveway connects it to Blackburn Street and Lemmon Avenue. It is, in other words, accessible. But an illusion of inaccessibility persists. Two streets away from Oak Lawn’s schlock and bustle, the theater remains secluded, remote, a gazebo in One Turtle Creek’s back yard.

Whoever thought to throw that slender span across the water to a Turtle Creek highrise knew that the Theater Center is a temple, not a mission. Worshippers carry their burnt offerings to the gates, jostling each other for position, each new gift and garment extinguishing the last in an escalation of splendor. “I’m amazed that women call me up and ask, ‘How shall I dress, are they wearing long gowns tonight?’ ” laments a staff member. “‘Just be comfortable,’ I tell them, but almost everyone dresses up anyway.”

Going to the theater is a social event in Dallas, first night, last night and always. My early ventures into Kalita Humphreys, the Center’s main theater, were exercises in ego-sheltering. “You do not look tacky,” I would say to myself, “all these people are overdressed.” I shared with the rest of Dallas a belief that theater in general and the activities of the Dallas Theater Center in particular were the prerogatives of a rich and cultivated elite.

The staff deplores this image. Several programs exist to build other bridges to the community. The Janus Players were created to provide an outlet for talented blacks and chicanos. They were to be Pied Pipers to the ghettos and barrios, piping home a new audience of loyal theatergoers from neighborhood parks and community centers. The scheme backfired. The Minority Theater could not overcome the reluctance of blacks, chicanos and working-class whites to venture out into alien country. The Players themselves protested their second-class citizenship within the theater community. They felt that the $1.50 admission price stigmatized their productions. If you charge less that means we’re worth less, they reasoned. This year the Minority Theater is charging the standard price and the Janus Players are more fully integrated into the regular program.

Building one bridge while burning another, resident actors and teachers are touring Dallas high schools this season with a production of Paul Baker’s Hamlet ESP. The troop spends a five-day week in each school visited, discussing the mechanics of production, relating the plot to contemporary life, encouraging students to participate in discussion and the re-enactment of scenes from the play. It’s a fine educational project, but it’s too early to judge yet whether Dallas adolescents are as resistent to theater as minority groups.

A Stanford study indicates that the Theater Center draws only one per cent of its audience from the wealthy enclave of Highland Park. “I think it was the season of Marat/Sade, Lillie Murders, and The Homecoming, when we tried so many bold plays, that we lost our Highland Park people,” says Lynn Trammell, resident artist and development director. “We were flooded with calls and letters. People hated Pinter.”

In 1973 the majority of subscribers live in central and far north Dallas, the dwelling place of aspiring suburbanites. They appear to be as devoted to the bland as the old rich are to the good and true. “We still run into people at cocktail parties,” says Trammell, “who’ll say, ‘Oh, I loved Lillie Mary Sunshine.‘ ” (1961 opening, restaged in 1965.)

The light, intricately plotted farce is a staple of any Theater Center season. Last year’s production of the classic School for Scandal was superb but a box office flop nonetheless. Audiences were buried under Sheridan’s avalanche of epigrammatic wit. Theater Center patrons prefer the zany romps of Georges Feydeau such as A Bug in Her Ear and this season’s Happy Hunter.

Dallas reviewers often knock the wind out of complex or clever plays with a backslap of good-buddy prose. In November The Times Herald’s Bob Porter wrote of Happy Hunter, “Fun and games about adultery (nothing really happens) that is entirely suitable for one’s maiden aunt—whose sides will probably be splitting when the curtain drops.” The most perceptive of Dallas’ established critics, John Neville of The Morning News, keeps a paternal watch over the tender sensibilities of Dallas theatergoers. “Be warned,” he wrote of a Beckett offering this season. “Endgame isn’t for everyone.” He prefaced his review of the Feydeau farce with a mini-lecture so patronizing it must have withered enlightened readers. “Farce,” Neville pronounced, “must be played seriously. As contradictory as this may seem it’s true.”

To his credit, Neville has written intelligently and sympathetically about many of the Theater Center’s less popular productions. But education is a slow process and the company feels limited by the conservatism of Dallas audiences. During the 1961 production of Joshua Beene and God, written by two Dallas playwrights, Managing Director Paul Baker said, “I feel this is what we ought to be doing. I think doing a new play is more important than bringing warmed-over stuff to town.”

A rundown of the schedule since the Theater Center opened in 1959 shows a gradual decline in the production of original scripts by local writers. Baker dreams of producing one original play a year based on the life of a famous or an obscure but intriguing Texan.

The Kalita Humphreys Theater opened this season with Paul Zindel’s Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds. Cleanly staged and directed by Michael Dendy, the play is in all ways more human, domestic and small-scaled than its cosmic title suggests. Though Sally Netzel’s portrayal lacked the tragic monster-woman dimensions of the Beatrice Hunsdorfer role, Marigolds succeeded as a quiet, perceptive drama.

The Georges Feydeau farce, Happy Hunter, was followed by Life with Father, designed to appeal to a broad, fairly undiscriminating holiday audience. To compensate, they are now staging Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. Back in November Director Mary Sue Jones began guiding her actors deep into Williams’ characters. The cast rehearsed for Summer and Smoke by improvising reactions to situations outside the script, maintaining role identity throughout imaginary childhoods and unwritten scenes. Jones is attempting to divest the characters of the stereotypes projected by the dialogue. As an antidote to Williams, a Lawrence and Lee comedy, Jabberwocky, follows in March.

Decisions made in the last few seasons crucially affect the financial and artistic future of the Theater Center. The options were evident: reach out to new audiences with bold experimental drama and risk the loss of old patrons or provide loyal theatergoers with excellent productions of safe material. The adoption of a full subscription program in 1971 opened up an avenue between the demands of artistic integrity and the threat of financial loss. In previous years season ticket holders had picked fastidiously at the season’s main course of solid drama, gorging themselves on the sweet confections of the summer schedule. Under the new system subscribers must attend each production or forfeit the price of the ticket.

Staff members disagree about the benefits of the system. Several staffers claim they’ve felt a pressure to exercise more caution in their choice of scripts since the full subscription program was initiated. Paul Baker emphatically denies this. “I think the full subscription season is the healthiest thing that’s happened to the Theater Center,” he said.

Baker admits that the Center’s more controversial plays have drawn fire but accepts that as the price of innovation. “All the things I do that I like get bad reactions. That doesn’t stop me.” He discounts audience reaction as a prime factor in his choice of scripts. “I show what I darn well please. If I see a script I think our audience should see, I do it… I don’t think they’ll like Mary Stewart (historical drama scheduled for spring) but we’re doing it anyway.”

Shouldering full responsibility for the shape and content of each season, Baker refuses to voice any dissatisfaction with the tastes of Dallas theatergoers. “If the season’s become dull, it’s because I’ve become dull.”

Daring and imagination are not the hallmarks of the 1972-1973 Kalita Humphreys season. The company redeems itself, however, with its Downcenter productions. Randolph Tallman was a brilliant Hamm in Beckett’s austere and demanding Endgame. To Be Young, Gifted and Black celebrated the talents of black playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Though exiled to the lower regions, Pinter returns in the current Downcenter production of Old Times. The staff presumes that those who ferret out the tiny 56-seat theater in their basement will be more open-minded than the “upstairs” patrons.

The Center itself is deep-rooted in Turtle Creek earth, but the repertory company it houses is a hothouse growth with a more fragile and precarious existence. The company has always striven for and has almost always achieved a high level of artistic excellence. They make no concessions in the quality of their productions.

The next few seasons should determine, however, whether the Theater Center can counteract a tendency to structure an entire season’s schedule around a hypothetical norm in order to assure the sale of next season’s subscriptions. “Season ticket holders want consistently pleasant fare above all,” says Lynn Trammell. Hopefully the Theater Center will continue to maintain its traditional devotion to first-rate innovative theater. Unless Dallas is also willing to support the company in its more imaginative and daring enterprises, however, the Theater Center may be forced to sacrifice art on the altar of Culture.

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