The Dallas Theater Center’s 2014-’15 season is now in full hindsight. Done and done. Sets gone, casts dispersed, on to the next show. Single tickets for the 2016 season go on sale to the general public in two weeks.
Yet there’s one recent performance that lingers, that still unsettles. A number of actors remain marvelous in memory, but this one has left me pondering: Sally Nystuen Vahle in the title role of Medea. I’ve been thinking about not just Medea or Vahle but wider concerns involving casting and programming at the Theater Center. And such thoughts have repeatedly led to this single question.
Why does the Brierley Resident Acting Company even exist? What’s the point?
Of Vahle’s acting as Medea, I can only echo what other reviewers have written (TheaterJones, CultureMap, Dallas Voice, Seligfilm, Front Row, Dallas Examiner, Dallas Morning News): In artistic director Kevin Moriarty’s stripped-down production, she delivered a performance of blow-torch intensity.
So intense, in fact, she threatened to incinerate the emotional framework of Euripides’ tragedy. Medea is the great stage embodiment of righteous female fury: a wife dumped in favor of her husband’s younger, more politically astute alliance. But she’s also Euripides’ instrument of criticism of his fellow Greeks. They’d throw a woman and her children to the wolves outside the city gates just so King Creon could feel safe about his daughter’s marriage to Jason, Medea’s husband.
So we sympathize with Medea as the victim: She’s the abandoned mother, the isolated ‘outlander’ from Asia Minor. Or we should. Yet one hesitated in view of Vahle’s ferocity. When she begged Keiran Connolly’s Creon to hold off banishing her — hold off for a single day — her raging supplications sounded like death threats. This sorceress, this Medea, never feared a wolf in her life.
Nevertheless, against such Colleen Dewhurst-level emotional force, my quibbles were demolished. Vahle’s Medea threatened to burst the confines of the Kalita Humphreys Theater’s basement. Big kudos, by the way, to director Moriarty for reviving the long-unused space and for employing it the way he did — pivoting the audience to face architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s curving ramp up to the regular stage overhead. The old concrete, the basement clutter, the stark lighting: This was not sun-dappled, idealized, Hellenic Corinth. It was craggy and subterranean. A place neglected or discarded — like Medea herself.
A re-established tradition
Yet the success of Moriarty’s Medea raises a question no one seems to have considered: Where has Sally Nystuen Vahle been at the Theater Center? She’s a member of the DTC’s elite Brierley Acting Company, yet she played Willy Loman’s wife in Death of a Salesman — five years ago. Then she had one of the lead roles in God of Carnage — in 2012.
And that’s pretty much it since the acting company was officially formed six years ago. There’s a very good chance you don’t remember her at all, having only glimpsed her in minor roles in Cabaret or Clybourne Park.
Vahle is one of the finest actors we have in North Texas. Without much trouble, she could have crushed the male actors in Medea. She was finally cast in an iconic role, but this only emphasized the single drawback with the basement space: Vahle’s outsized performance was tucked away downstairs in a cut-down staging. And the costumes were ungainly to boot.
This is not a Sally Nystuen Vahle issue — she’s just the most obvious, recent example. One could say much the same about Christie Vela. Or Sean Hennigan, who quit the company within a year. Or Matt Gray — who exited soon after — a major loss to the local theater scene.
Moriarty has been justifiably hailed for re-establishing a professional acting troupe at the DTC. The Brierley puts the DTC in a very small group of professional resident theaters. Plenty of theaters have ‘companies’ insofar as the organization is made up of the small group of founding actors/directors creating work for themselves. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
In creating the Brierley troupe, Moriarty re-connected the DTC to its historic commitment to local actors, a commitment that ran from founder Paul Baker in 1960 through artistic directors Adrian Hall and Ken Bryant in the ’90s. For Baker, it was a matter of training artists in his own particular approach to theater and education. When Hall took over the DTC in 1983, he brought with him his abiding faith in the fundamental need for a local acting ensemble — like the acclaimed one he created at Trinity Rep in Providence. For Hall (and later, for his protege Bryant), it was an obligation to actors as working artists.
A season-long commitment from the theater provides performers some foundation for planning their lives over the coming season. It also helps forge them as an ensemble, actors who know how to work together, elevate each others’ work — and aren’t simply jobbed in for a few weeks. Adrian Hall’s company was, and remains, a rarely realized vision in American theater, even among non-profits — partly because it’s not that easy, not that cost-effective, it doesn’t launch a theater to Broadway acclaim, which, apparently, is what the DTC wants.
Ultimately, though, one of the Brierley’s basic functions actually is a smart, long-term economic move. As Moriarty himself has said, the hope is to slow down the talent drain, to try to retain some of our better actors in North Texas. To be clear: The company hasn’t kept them here by providing financial security. Membership in the Brierley doesn’t pay actors a living wage – most of them teach or fill other jobs at the DTC to pay the bills. The incentive is really just being considered first for roles there. That bit of prestige and the chance to practice their craft at a high level for what, in the world of local theater, amounts to a decent paycheck — all of that is sufficient to keep some actors around.
Life on the wicked stage
And that’s the DTC’s seawall. That’s what stands against the riptide that pulls a lot of acting talent straight from our colleges to the coasts. Or from the stage to more consistent, more family-supportive incomes outside the arts entirely (Matt Gray left for a job in global marketing).
But what advantages does being a Brierley company member even provide these days? The question needs to be asked because the fact is Moriarty doesn’t seem to program his seasons or cast his shows with company members particularly in mind. Not for the main stage shows, at any rate.
Many of the big, attention-grabbing musicals the DTC has brought here — Fly, Giant, Give It Up!, Fortress of Solitude — are mostly pre-cast. So Brierley actors generally don’t get a shot at lead roles (Liz Mikel being cast in Give It Up! and going to New York with it has been a great exception). But such musicals have made up a sizable chunk of Moriarty’s DTC seasons — sometimes three shows out of seven.
That means, automatically, company members are mostly confined to only four or five shows per season. Those do include the DTC’s summer musicals — often light, splashy affairs like The Wiz and Rocky Horror. And if your name happens to be Liz Mikel, Alex Organ, Hassan el-Amin or Chamblee Ferguson, odds are you’ll get slotted in a couple roles somewhere in the season, although you may feel your talents aren’t being fully utilized in that glorified bit part in Act 2.
Such is the life of a working actor in a troupe — a star one week, a servant the next — and there are hordes of performers in North Texas who’d happily change places with you — just for that bit part.
Well, maybe you’re a star one week. It’s true Brierley actors have been shown off to great advantage at times: Ferguson as Prospero in The Tempest or Connolly as Mark Rothko in Red, and many reviewers cited Steven Walters’ Thenardier in the recent Les Miz. In the past, the Shakespeare productions had large enough casts that performers like Vela or Walters could get substantial roles.
It’s a fact of theater economics and stage life in general that — unless you’ve got the massive talent reserves of Canada’s Stratford Festival — a theater troupe rarely has all the actors it’ll need to fill the nooks and crannies any season requires: the old, the young, the beefcake, the villains and clowns. As a result, in America, there’s a large, loose network of performers, usually based on the coasts, with particular talents, particular looks. These actors fill those casting gaps, moving from show to show, town to town.
Many resident companies, given their budgets and schedules, tap into that network. Which is fine and often necessary. But are any main stage shows at the DTC ever being built around a Brierley actor? I don’t see that happening, but perhaps I’ve missed it. Instead, show after show, we see imported leads. And not just one or two — sometimes most of the prominent roles in a show are filled by out-of-towners. This especially blocks the mature female company members, who have fewer roles to begin with. From Sophocles to Sam Shepard, the Western canon is overwhelmingly male. But consider plays like Colossal (it’s football, so – all male actors), Oedipus el Rey (one woman – from out of town), Fortress of Solitude (about two boys growing up), The Odd Couple (six comic male actors play poker, and two pretty young things pop in from upstairs).
Against those kinds of shows, there’s a musical like Stagger Lee, which had a more balanced mix between men and women (and had in-town performers amid the New Yorkers as well). And when we look at next season, there’s Dreamgirls. But that show stands against All the Way (the LBJ Broadway drama), The Mountaintop (a Martin Luther King drama), Clarkston (a new drama about two young men) and so on. One suspects that in all this, there aren’t many major parts for Vahle or Vela. But the thing is — and I’d be happy to be proven wrong on this point — I don’t see a current male company member being cast as LBJ or MLK, either.
Casting is a complicated matter of availability, schedules, talents and physical types, and it’s only one factor among many in constructing an entire season or even a single show. Occasionally — once per season it seems — the planets aline and we get something on the main stage like Sherlock Holmes. It was a dud thriller but at least it had five Brierley members and two of them as leads. Or we have something like this season’s closer, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It featured four Brierley actors, including Vela and newcomer Brandon Potter. It also provided company member Alex Organ a chance to shine modestly as a modest fellow. Too bad it was in a spritely adaptation of Austen that reduced her novel to an utterly trivial comedy of manners. Even so, looking through the program bios, you saw — with all those company members, all those female actors (more than the males, for once) and even quite a number of SMU students and grads on hand — that this was a rare event at the DTC.
But the casting was unusual in another way: Last year, Bedlam Theater premiered this Sense and Sensibility in New York; it’s one of those multiply-cast adaptations in which only ten actors make the stage teem with the life of an entire society. But at the DTC, the cast was bulked out to 14 actors. This diminished the show’s highly theatrical conceit, lessened the number of quick-change caricatures (like Potter’s) and apparently, increased the need for importing — once again — a couple of New York-based leads.
A director’s prerogative
So why does any of this matter? When Richard Hamburger was artistic director at DTC and he cast shows regularly with New Yorkers like this, he was widely vilified and, frankly, never forgiven by the local theater community. During the entire run of the Leon Rabin Awards, Hamburger never won a single prize for directing, ever. That was unjust and unkind. Of course, Hamburger disbanded the acting ensemble, whereas Moriarty has reinstated it, so there are different contexts to explain our responses.
Moriarty has been much more open, more outgoing, doing the kinds of offstage community-building and cooperative ventures with other arts organizations the DTC should have been doing eons ago. One thing the Brierley company certainly has done, for instance, is give select SMU students their first, step-up experiences with a major resident theater. It’s the kind of symbiotic relationship between a leading theater and a nearby graduate drama program that exists around the country but eluded DTC and SMU for decades. Through such efforts, Moriarty has energetically built up a lot of goodwill and pushed some shared progress, and all power to him for it.
But back to Moriarty’s casting and programming: Years ago, Hamburger made the only persuasive and logical argument for what we’re seeing now. A director should have the freedom to cast whomever he feels is best for the role. Period. He needs to be able to follow his interpretation of the play — otherwise, what’s the point of a director? Hamburger simply did not want his artistic choices to be limited, even partially so, to a particular set of performers.
What seriously weakened Hamburger’s argument was his choice of actors. Too often, we’d see a show and think, meh. The New York guys and gals are good but they’re not exactly lifting up our sad old souls and justifying the cost of hauling them and housing them here. You mean nobody in town could fill these parts just as well? Nobody?
That has most emphatically not been the case under Moriarty. As I’ve noted in reviews of such shows as Giant, Oedipus, Cabaret and Fortress of Solitude, quite a few of the out-of-towners more than justified their presence onstage. They earned their roles and their applause. Those folks killed it.
So there is a sensible, artistic justification for a director to cast like this, and Moriarty (and associate artistic director Joel Ferrell, their visiting directors and the New York casting directors they’ve hired) have done a much better job of ‘outsource casting’ than Hamburger did. They often pick high-level performers for their shows; that’s what any good director should do. And this is how many leading resident theater companies operate.
And it’s undeniable: Whatever one’s objections to Moriarty’s choice of dramatic material, to his and the other directors’ stagings or to the performances themselves — and I’ve expressed strong objections to all of these — the DTC’s shows the past several years under his watch have been more consistent, have often achieved an impressive level of design and performance. And this has all happened in the context of the move into the Wyly and the increasing level of activity and quality in the local theater scene overall.
In short, in North Texas, we’ve been getting bigger shows, sometimes better shows, more shows, more diverse shows — and our expectations have risen as well.
So then the question returns: If the DTC is going to import actors like this, of this quality, at this rate, why maintain the Brierley company at all? If the basic purpose of the Brierley is to keep good actors here in town, why aren’t we really using these actors? When they do get juicy roles — Connolly in Red, Vahle in Medea, Vela in Fat Pig — these are often in modest productions staged upstairs or downstairs. Medea had practically half the company in the basement, seen by a few hundred at most. In a main-stage spectacular, they would have been seen by thousands.
Put another way: With such programming and with Brierley actors repeatedly cast in second-tier roles (or not cast at all), a prime reason the company exists — convincing talented performers to stay in town — drains away.
Consequently, the Brierley starts looking a lot like a public relations gesture. Give the ensemble a name and impart a certain prestige for the locals who get into it. And that’s pretty much all.
That sounds cynical, and I believe Moriarty is the farthest thing from a cynic. But a good-hearted impulse with no thoughtful follow-through doesn’t amount to much. Hall eventually built his company from ten to 15 members. After six years, Moriarty has gone from nine to ten. His company is barely growing — so what is it doing?
Whether anyone at the theater ever knew it or not, the Brierley has always been more than just a carrot to keep some decent actors around. It was a declaration. It put down a marker to whoever in this town has been paying attention: These actors — our actors — can handle the best theater we can stage. They can stand toe-to-toe with accomplished, imported talent.
That’s not just some boosterish fantasy. A former Dallas director visiting here last year saw a DTC musical, and in casual conversation, he expressed surprise at the small number of local performers in the cast. When he directed here, he said, the experience with musicals that North Texas actors had was one of their great assets — something, he admitted, he didn’t fully appreciate until he moved away. Where he works now, everyone’s done dramas and TV. Finding someone with a musical comedy background is one of the hardest casting searches he goes through.
With the Brierley resident acting company, the DTC reminds this city — which, in case anyone’s forgot, was one of the original homes of the American resident theater movement, the movement whose inspiration is to create great theater out here, theater by us, theater that speaks to us in our own voices — the DTC reminds this city that our actors should be taken seriously as working professionals. There are real artists here, not play-actors, but people who do TV shows and film work and do live, serious, paid theater.
The face of theater
Does all this sound a little high-horsey, too much like feel-good posturing for the locals? Fine. I don’t care. Because my argument rests on two hard, undeniable facts about the art of theater and about theater specifically here in North Texas.
First, this area’s acting community remains scattered and isolated in flyover country (which is actually true, to varying degrees, of many of the arts in North Texas). In this, we’re a bit like Ontario’s popular Stratford Festival. There aren’t many other professional stage jobs for several hundred miles in any direction. That’s why Stratford has a resident company. And Stratford doesn’t have four or five colleges in the immediate vicinity, as we do, graduating young actors every year. So it has to draw in talent from miles away and keep them there — because Stratford has a landscape almost as flat, empty and isolated as ours. It doesn’t offer much in the way of scenic wonders, affordable housing or working gigs to give theater folk any other reason to linger. So the festival succeeds because it attracts actors — and audiences — from a 150-mile radius that happens to include three major cities: Toronto, Detroit and Buffalo.
In comparison, a city like Seattle has a lot of home-grown, professional theater activity going on, but it also has a pipeline up and down the coast: The “I-5 Players,” they’ve been called, actors who can work in Seattle and zip up to Vancouver or down to Portland and Ashland (the big-deal Oregon Shakespeare Festival) or even San Francisco and LA. Much the same happens on the East Coast — from Washington, D.C. to Philly to New York to New Haven to Boston.
But out here on the prairie, we don’t have that luxury, we don’t have those connections. Or major nearby markets. We can barely coordinate theater careers across the metroplex. People forget just how incredibly vast, how empty this place is. In square mileage, the DFW area (9,286 miles) is bigger than all of New Jersey (7,790). Boo hoo, everybody here’s got a long commute. But imagine your temp job changing from one end to the other every few months — and what that does to your work quality. Imagine trying to make a living by piecing together bits of theater work across an area bigger than the entire state of Massachusetts (8,262). That’s what the North Texas acting community does.
All the Way — the LBJ drama next season? It’ll be the first co-production between the Dallas Theater Center and Houston’s Alley Theatre. The first ever between the state’s oldest, biggest, richest stage companies – 240 miles apart. That alone shows you how isolated we are. It’s also true there’s a small pipeline of theater students trickling up from Austin, 195 miles away. But again, as with our own local graduates, what will make them stop and stay in North Texas?
The second fact is based on how all theaters fundamentally work, how they engage their audiences. The actor is the human bridge between a theater and its community. Period. Everything else a theater needs to function — everything else: the donors, the crews, the administration, the marketing, the playwright, the directors, designers — their ultimate purpose is simply getting actors out on stage in front of a live audience. That’s all. If a theater doesn’t do that, it’s not a theater. It should quit the pretense and just start selling mortgages or hearing aids.
Moriarty has been an eager, public spokesman for this art and the DTC in particular. But it’s the actors who remain its collective face and voice, the ones who live and die in front of us, who make us laugh or ache or want to go home.
We all have been wowed by an out-of-town talent. But the next month, he or she is gone. Do they get better or worse, was this a real peak for them — who knows? We never see them again. Instead, just as we loyally follow a top-grade TV series at home, watching a Louie C.K., a Bryan Cranston or an Uzo Aduba, we come to feel a personal sense of reward with a local stage artist. Over time, we recognize the talent, we saw him or her grow, change, take risks, hold our attention, deserve every dollar, every minute we spend to see him or her. This actor-audience connection can be as ordinary as provincial pride or it can have a touch of self-awareness, a complex recognition of — by simply performing in the same room with us — they’ve expanded our emotional lives.
I maintain it’s one reason the late theater founders Jerry Russell (Stage West) and Jac Alder (Theatre Three) were beloved. It wasn’t simply the character of their theaters or their own outgoing natures that led them to establish companies and keep them going. Nor was it just that they slogged it out here in North Texas — along with the rest of us. These directors were also actors; they stepped out onstage, opened themselves up to their audiences, to us.
But let’s consider a regular actor who doesn’t happen to run his own theater company. Let’s consider Dallas performer Cedric Neal — who’s had the kind of career arc to make a hometown proud, moving from the DTC to New York to London and back for a lead in Stagger Lee, all in four years. Yet he’s the exciting exception that proves the more sobering rule about Brierley membership. Staying here definitely has its rewards. There’s something to be said for the camaraderie and stability an acting company can provide. And North Texas has a crying need for good artists dedicated to transforming this place. Meaning: A person can make a mark here. In comparison, honestly, does New York City really care if it gets another out-of-town barrista-actor?
But at the moment, one of the rewards of staying in the company — getting a chance to showcase your best acting chops in the big, demanding roles on our city’s main stage — that remains mostly out of reach.
Years ago, when artistic director Adrian Hall first announced his company, I chatted with one performer, expecting to hear her grousing about Hall’s choices, envy at the actors picked. You know, the usual. Actors themselves joke about their perennial griping: There’s simply far more of them then there is any need for them.
Instead, this actor declared, flat-out, she wanted the company to be great. They should be our local stars. The company should be something any North Texas actor would aspire to, a chance to elevate the profession on the city’s most prominent public stage, to demonstrate how fundamental actors are to a theater community, to a theater’s success, to the art form itself.
And especially, to prove to Dallas that staying here doesn’t mean settling for second-rate opportunities to create art.
But that’s not really what’s happening for the DTC company members. They’re some of the best we have, and they’re not really getting the kind of prominent roles in defining productions that push them or push us — or position the Theater Center as a nurturer of top talent.
And if the Brierley Resident Acting Company isn’t about any of that — then what in the world is it for?