Tessa sits facing the audience as her older sister, Nell, expertly pulls her hair into perfect pigtails, fastening red ribbons at the ends. Nell silently weeps as her younger sister babbles on excitedly about the special occasion prompting the new hairdo: her first “sleepover” in the barn with their father. Fifteen-year-old Nell has been given the harrowing task of preparing Tessa for the evening: in reality, she is sending her sister away and can no longer protect her. As eleven-year-old Tessa admires herself in a small, handheld mirror, it will be the last time her eyes shine so brightly.
This devastating scene is culled from What We Were—a look at the aftereffects of abuse and trauma within one family that won the Ashland New Plays Festival and was a finalist at the O’Neill playwriting conference in 2018. The co-production between Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre and Dallas’s Second Thought Theatre, the play is based on Skip Hollandsworth’s 2002 Texas Monthly story about a woman named Treva Throneberry. Hailing from Electra, Throneberry disappeared from her North Texas hometown after reporting the abuse she suffered for years at the hands of her father. She then traveled the country posing as a teenager for many years, even graduating from an Oregon high school.
The play, which recently closed, asks whether there is a way to recover from trauma and how the characters process it. “Each one of us has an imagination that’s deeply colonized—by our privilege, by where we’ve been, by what we’ve seen. What must that girl have been through that would make her do this?” says Blake Hackler, a playwright and one-half of the team that conceptualized What We Were. “She had no means, she had no agency, she had no escape, and yet her humanity found a way to go on. And we can judge it, but she was just trying to survive in the best way she knew how.”
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What We Were was created by Hackler and Second Thought artistic director Alex Organ—two Texans who have been making some of the state’s most challenging theater for the past few years. The world that Hackler and Organ have forged together is as gnarled and limitless as the Lone Star State itself: One immersive scene features the Throneberry sisters listening to the drone of evening cicadas, the sound filling up the small venue. And when they bicker over a Texas sheet cake garnished with Dr Pepper-flavored icing, it’s hard not to smile.
Like everything Hackler and Organ have done together, the play is a humane, crucial, and uncomfortable story that’s rarely been seen in theater. What We Were also marked their final act as collaborators: this fall, Organ announced his departure from the company, effective in early 2020. It was a fitting note to go out on, particularly at Second Thought—a place that’s consistently producing intimate plays that ask difficult questions, with a focus on how people relate to one another in an ever-shifting world.
The small black-box theatre is tucked within the lush greenery and bamboo of Dallas’s Turtle Creek neighborhood. Located a stone’s throw from where local luminary Margo Jones introduced the “regional theater” movement in the 1940s, Second Thought, which was founded in 2003, is honoring Jones’s vision of an ongoing collaboration between theater and playwright. In its early years, Second Thought featured lesser-known works by famous playwrights like Sam Shepard, Martin McDonagh, and Kenneth Lonergan. Baylor theater alumna Allison Tolman, now of Fargo fame, was an early collaborator with the company. Second Thought is also one of several places in town, like Ochre House, Kitchen Dog, Undermain Theatre, and Echo Theatre, that have been instrumental in introducing new and experimental theatrical works for decades.
These movements have laid down the groundwork in establishing a creative ecosystem that supports and sustains nontraditional theatrical approaches, many of them from local voices. Artists in Dallas are seeing increasing support from city organizations like Dallas’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which has instituted grants for smaller upstarts. The AT&T Performing Arts Center’s “Elevator Project” launched in 2014 and is one example of support that allows smaller arts organizations to get new or lesser-known work seen (Second Thought produced a play in the inaugural Elevator Project season, Mike Bartlett’s Bull). And in 2017, the Moody Foundation instated a grant program for arts organizations with budgets under a million dollars. These kinds of spaces lend themselves naturally to more intimate work, which in turn has helped garner support for local playwrights who often write stories, as Hackler has, with smaller casts and simple sets—which in turn makes them financially attractive to theaters.
And over the past eight years, Dallas’s theater scene has exploded with new plays written by local playwrights: Vicki Cheatwood’s Ruth was produced by Kitchen Dog in 2012 as part of their own New Works Festival. Kitchen Dog was an early founder of the National New Play Network, which now boasts 30 core theaters around the country and is the largest database for new plays, with 15,000 plays by current writers. In 2014, Theatre Three produced the professional premiere of On the Eve by another local playwright, Michael Federico, which he co-wrote with Shawn Magill and Seth Magill. A local hit, it received a concert production at Joe’s Pub, in New York, in 2016. Dallas Theater Center launched a playwright’s workshop in 2013, too, which produced the likes of Oak Cliff native Jonathan Norton’s Penny Candy in 2019.
With a wealth of strong collegiate theater programs in Dallas-Fort Worth, drama graduates often settle in the area where they’ve spent time learning about the artistic landscape. Like Federico, they are often SMU theater graduates. But Baylor graduates navigated north of Waco to form Second Thought, and UNT theater alumnus Jeffrey Schmidt now helms Theatre Three. In Fort Worth, Amphibian Stage Productions was founded by TCU theater alumni.
Hackler and Organ’s collaborative relationship emerged from this shift toward hyperlocal, experimental playwriting too. Organ has a knack for understanding Hackler’s language, and their history has paved the way for work based on trust and respect. Since meeting in 2003 at the Yale School of Drama’s MFA acting program, the two have worked closely together on projects including plays written by Hackler, plays featuring Hackler as an actor, plays featuring Organ as director, and both acting in works like Dallas Theater Center’s 2019 Twelfth Night. Hackler’s plays are poetic and dreamy and often move through time in a nonlinear way. As an actor, he is precise and instinctual; he also is the head of acting at Southern Methodist University and director of Yale’s summer conservatory. As a director, Organ is deft and intuitive, giving life to complicated, messy plays with fragmented language. “There’s just not a lot that he can’t do,” Hackler says of Organ.
Hackler and Organ grew up far apart in Texas and came to theater through different avenues. Organ’s family moved from rural Louisiana to Cypress, just outside of Houston, when he was twelve. Houston taught him to drop his long Southern drawl and hard “r”s, unconsciously learning to manipulate his breath and voice into a palatable Texas accent. He saw live theater there for the first time and grew up seeing plays at Houston’s acclaimed Alley Theatre, whose resident company opened him up to the idea of one actor embodying multiple roles. “My experience of learning about theater was getting to watch the same actors for years and years play different parts,” he says. “That was the thing that really hooked me.”
Hackler’s childhood experience, in his native Amarillo, was equally formative. His parents gave him free rein to participate in the arts so long as he stayed with it. That sense of discipline stuck: He took up theater as well as violin (which he still plays). A self-proclaimed misfit, Hackler believes he was able to find a community of like-minded kids through his early exposure to a thriving arts culture. “I don’t think people would expect me to say that, but [Amarillo] was really wonderful. There is a tremendous amount of arts organizations there,” he says, including opera and ballet companies, a chamber orchestra, and even a devoted children’s theater. Through those opportunities, Hackler began to imagine other worlds beyond the Texas Panhandle too.
Hackler and Organ first met in the early aughts after they both left their home state to pursue MFAs in acting at the Yale School of Drama. Their Texas roots, upbringing in the Church of Christ, and the disorientation of starting the most intensive theater program in the country drew the two actors together and helped develop what Hackler calls their “common language” (meaning their ability to communicate wordlessly and fluidly onstage). Both joke about the “Yale Mafia,” the idea that actors from Yale only want to work with one another. But it’s also a realistic depiction of the way the program operates: there is no room for life outside of it. “You get to know them so deeply,” Hackler says of his classmates at Yale. “And it does sort of create a bond that never goes away.” There, the two collaborated on a devised piece at the beginning of the program that Hackler describes as a “trial by fire,” as well as in productions like Glengarry Glen Ross and Antony and Cleopatra, and even on a classroom assignment where Hackler played Lady Macbeth and Organ portrayed the play’s namesake.
During his time as an undergraduate at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, Hackler learned how to transform sketches of characters into living, breathing entities onstage. It also taught him the voice work that would help him manage the stutter he’d had since he was three years old. “What we did in the voice work was starting with the actual inciting impulse to speak and breathe,” he says. “And once I understood that, I could feel when the stutter was happening, and I could arrest it and correct it at the level of breath.” In his writing, he extends the idea of the breath onto the pages and is acutely aware of the in-between spaces. Like the abuse that is never directly mentioned in What We Were, Hackler allows those unspoken stories to live within silence. “I want the actors to already get a sense of how the play breathes, and it should breathe like wide-open space,” he says. “And I think that also comes from Amarillo. Geography is directly related to the tempo at which people live their lives, the shape of their bodies, the way their thoughts function, their rate of speech, their choice of language.”
By the time they met, Hackler, who describes himself as an “unrepentant homosexual,” had left the church. But Organ was just beginning to see cracks in his faith for the first time. Growing up in tight-knit faith communities in small towns, Organ felt he lacked life experience. Yale was his first exposure to a universe outside of Cypress and Abilene Christian University, where he’d studied theater as an undergraduate. At the time, Organ felt that his greatest challenge was learning how to communicate with adults who he felt had more “meat” to bring to the table. After coming to the program straight out of undergrad and as one of the youngest students in the class, Organ focused intensely on discipline and technique, pouring doubt into precision.
After graduating from the three-year MFA program, Organ moved to New York to act. He was finding success and work there, but the city started to wear on him. When he reconnected with fellow actor and Bedford native Jenny Ledel in 2007, they ultimately decided to go back to Texas together. (The two had first met in 2004 while working on a Shakespeare Dallas production of As You Like It, and Ledel had been an established actor in Dallas before New York.) They moved back to Dallas on New Year’s Day 2010 and married in 2012.
With family and friends nearby, Dallas seemed like an ideal place for Organ and Ledel to start building different kinds of theatrical careers. Opportunities also began cropping up: Dallas Theater Center had recently hired a new artistic director, Kevin Moriarty, and Organ knew that he was dedicated to revamping the theater’s acting company. Thinking of the Alley from his youth, Organ felt that Dallas might be ripe for the kind of theater experience he had always been drawn to.
Organ and Ledel worked in theaters across the Metroplex, with Ledel also building a successful voice acting career. He joined the Brierley Resident Acting Company at Dallas Theater Center. But when Hackler revealed that he was coming down to Texas to teach at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts theater program in 2011, Organ was eager to see his old friend again. “There’s already such a built-in familiarity and a built-in mutual respect for each other’s work that he immediately became one of the top people I wanted to collaborate with,” Organ says. They hadn’t worked together since Yale, and when they reignited their working relationship in 2014, with Second Thought’s play Cock, in which Organ directed Hackler as actor, it felt familiar. After that production, they went out of their way to work together as much as possible.
By 2015, Organ was a company member at Dallas Theater Center and had taken over as artistic director of Second Thought. And his reunion with Hackler gave them the ability to do particularly strong, collaborative work. They formed a fierce ensemble of local talent that included directors like Kara-Lynn Vaeni (another Yale graduate and director of Hackler’s Enemies/People) and Christie Vela, the actor, director, and Second Thought artistic associate who directed What We Were and acted in Hackler’s 2017 play, The Necessities. It also included Matthew Gray, artistic director of Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre and a prior collaborator with Second Thought, and Jenny Ledel.
Earlier this year, Second Thought also produced two plays by Caryl Churchill, the prolific British playwright. The first was Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, which portrays a couple in an abusive relationship (inspired by George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s post-9/11 partnership, though they are never named; Organ says they even steered the production a little away from that interpretation). The second play, Here We Go, is a loose, metaphysical meditation on death that’s tough to watch. It drifts between scenes from a funeral featuring an ensemble cast, with a man (Kieran Connolly) approaching his own afterlife. The final ten minutes featured nothing but two actors (Rhonda Boutté and Connolly) in a wordless, meditative cycle of dressing and undressing a dying man. This rhythmic, repetitive dirge was the most mesmerizing thing I have seen on any stage.
Second Thought announced the lineup for their 2020 season simultaneously with the news of Organ’s departure. After a six-year tenure, Organ says he felt ready to move on after growing the company’s budget and achieving status as a Small Professional Theater—a distinction allowing Second Thought to provide union-scale wages to actors, designers, and directors. Organ and Hackler will continue working together in Second Thought’s 2020 season: Hackler will direct Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Organ will direct Hackler in the season-closing Endgame by Samuel Beckett. Meanwhile, Hackler’s work will continue there and beyond: What We Were will be produced in Seattle in 2020, and an early play of his is slated for a London production.
Organ’s morality has made him an ideal partner over the years, Hackler says. But Organ notes that they work well together because they take great care with each other. “The thing that I found connected us even more than being from the same place is that we grew up going to the same church, the Church of Christ, which is a very specific upbringing,” Organ says (He’s since left the church, too). That bond has been a particularly prescient well of inspiration to draw from. “This idea of loss of faith—I find I’m so interested in stories about that because I feel like, personally and politically, we’re in an era where we’re watching people lose faith in everything,” he adds. “People are losing faith in whatever religion they grew up in. Now we’re watching people, one by one, lose faith in America, this thing that has been absolutely true or absolutely right their whole life. We’re watching people lose faith in humanity, in the goodness of humanity, under these circumstances. And I think we experience those losses in similar ways, no matter what kind of loss it is.”