Monday evening, Theatre Three held a memorial celebration in a crowded City Performance Hall for its late co-founder and executive producer Jac Alder. The evening was emcee’d by the theater’s interim artistic director Bruce Coleman. As part of the mix of songs, stage monologues and memories — which was followed by much drinking, mingling and talking — Alder’s godson, the poet Caley O’Dwyer Feagin, read a message from playwright Doug Wright. The author of Quills and I Am My Own Wife, Wright had last visited Theatre Three and seen Alder in October last year, when the theater presented his Broadway musical, Hands on a Hardbody. Wright couldn’t attend yesterday, so he sent the following eulogy.
So many people here knew Jac with a constancy and intimacy that exceeds my own, and are probably more qualified to speak about him. But I can say with assurance that he was one of the most profound, formative and enduring influences in my life. I hope a few of my remembrances resonate with you, too.
More than anything, I’ll miss receiving notes from Jac; the old fashioned kind, on stationery.
I’ll miss their content of course; Jac was always offering sly bits of wisdom, and amusing bon mots. But it’s his handwriting I’ll miss most. It was so very like him. He scripted the letters of the alphabet with flair; fat with joie de vivre one moment and willowy with grace the next.
In them, you saw his provenance as an architect and visual artist. But I think you saw a glimpse inside his heart, too. The words seemed to burst off the page with all the effusiveness of firecrackers; the calligrapher’s equivalent of a smile.
Jac was a dapper dresser; I remember scarves whose blinding colors might intimidate the less daring. Like a cheetah or a zebra, he was unafraid of bold prints. And he framed his sympathetic eyes with fabulous spectacles: tiny round ones, like Benjamin Franklin, and angular black horn rims like Buddy Holly. His cutting-edge haircuts always made me think of German philosophers like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. (Something tells me I’m not the only eulogist today commenting on Jac’s signature sense of style.)
But his affect wasn’t flashy; it was droller than that; Jac was a mash-up of Jack Benny and Oscar Wilde. He could punctuate his remarks with a deadpan look that made them doubly hilarious. In his curtain speeches, he was a seductive raconteur, coaxing the money right out of your pocket for a renewed subscription or a capital campaign. The man had charm to spare.
I first met Jac in the late 1970’s, when as a fourteen-year-old student I auditioned for a play called The Shadow Box. It was a wonderful role—a malcontented teenager—and I knew if I won it, I’d get to play the guitar and curse. For a people-pleasing adolescent with a straight A report card, those were powerful incentives.
My callback went pretty well; Jac sat across from me on a corner of the stage in a folding chair, and we read the lines together. He didn’t say “yes” or “no,” just a wisp of a grin that seemed to affirm that I might have a chance.
That evening, Jac rang my parents. I wasn’t on the line, but they told me the substance of the conversation. In the reassuring tones of a favorite uncle, he warned them that the play contained adult themes, including alcoholism and homosexuality. He went a step further, confiding in them, “The theater itself includes . . . well . . . alcoholism and homosexuality.”
He wanted to ensure that the things I might encounter onstage and off wouldn’t shock them, should they allow me to accept the part. To me, it all felt wonderfully exotic . . . like he’d offered me a personal invitation to a mysterious, intoxicating world, part Opium Den, part Island of Misfit Toys. His candor must’ve reassured Mom and Dad, because to my delight and amazement, they said “yes.”
There was something so benevolent and paternal about Jac that he inspired that kind of trust.
Soon, the green room on Routh Street became my second home. It was more than a mere kitchen; it was a veritable salon, frequented by a never-ending parade of eccentric souls, presided over by Jac himself. I remember vivid debates over the new John Irving novel, and rhapsodic descriptions of the latest Altman film. Larry O’Dwyer expounded about commedia dell arte, and I met my very first drag queen, a memorable vixen with a tongue as sharp as her heart was vulnerable. Every so often, Jack would flop down on the hand-me-down sofa to chat about Moliere, or the under-appreciated later works of Tennessee Williams. Little did I know it at the time, but I was receiving an aesthetic education like no other.
Jac was also tossing me a lifeline. As a student at Highland Park High School, where oil money and football reign supreme, I often felt like an outcast, and Jac gave me a place to belong, even excel. He did that for so many others, too. Jac had a sixth sense for the sensitive outsider, the quiet renegade. He saw the artist in each of us, often before we saw it in ourselves.
For this youngster, rehearsals of The Shadow Box were a heady experience. Jac was directing the play himself, and the cast reads like a list of Theater Three All-Stars: Jerry Haynes, Larry O’Dwyer, John Puddington, Larry Lane, Georgia Clinton, Mary Lee York, Jeanne Evans and Jac’s late wife, the legendary Norma Young.
I’ll never forget one particular night in tech. Norma had a savage Act Two monologue, full of brio and underlying pain, and she’d been avoiding it like the plague. Every time we’d reach it, she’d beg Jack to skip over it. “I’ll get to it later,” she’d say, “once the rest of the scene falls into place.”
But now the clock was against her; the first public performance was bearing down on us with terrifying speed. Jac felt she couldn’t sidestep the moment any longer; it was time to confront the demon head-on. Before running the sequence, he took Norma gently aside and they spoke in hushed, intense tones. She returned to the set, and launched into the first line of the speech.
It poured out of her with relentless fury, and a sadness that touched the very bottom of her soul; it was that thrilling moment when an actress hits some dark nerve within herself and a performance tips from good into great. When she finished, the room was silent. Then, her face white and her legs shaky, she abruptly exited the stage.
Jac rose without a word and followed her into the hall. I heard her sob, and from my vantage point onstage, I could see him fold her in his arms. Her body was shaking. Jac whispered something soothing in her ear.
I can’t pretend to know what passed between them; it no doubt had a marital dimension – how could it not? — but I remember it as something else: a moment between a consummate director and his leading lady. Jac had lead Norma to a place of fearless courage without letting her fall. When she returned to the set a few minutes later, her face bore a faintly triumphant smile. She knew she’d slayed the dragon.
As an artist, that was Jac’s gift. He could guide you –with equal parts compassion and guile – into the furthest reaches of your own heart.
Over the years under Jac’s devoted leadership, Theater Three enjoyed many successes, but The Shadow Box wasn’t one of them. It was a beautiful, finely wrought play, but dealt with an ominous topic – death – and audiences stayed away in droves.
Some nights, the house was less than half-full. I’ll never forget the fateful evening in the middle of the run, when Jac gathered us all backstage before the performance for a pep talk. His eyes twinkling with mischief, he announced, “We’ve a very small house tonight, but I’ve some marvelous news. The playwright is here!”
Our suspicions were aroused; it seemed unlikely. “Really?” asked a doubtful Jerry Haynes.
“No,” grinned Jac. “Not really.” Then his expression turned very serious indeed. “But act the play tonight as though he were. We owe him that.” He continued, a discernible hitch in his voice. “If we can move even one heart tonight, then it’s all worthwhile.”
Years later, when I became a playwright myself, I recalled those words, and I loved him all the more.
Jac broadened my horizons, to say the least. He introduced this Texas boy to the erudition of Shaw and Stoppard; to the caustic humor of Noel Coward, and the lyrical cynicism of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
But he broadened the city’s awareness too. He didn’t cater to a rarified elite. He embraced diversity, long before it became a buzzword. I’ll never forget the seismic Irma P. Hall, raising the roof not just of the theater but of the Quadrangle itself, in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. Jac was the first producing director in Dallas to give voice to the battered, majestic heroes of August Wilson. He boasted a conscience that made the theater itself an innately democratic form: by the people, for the people, and that meant all of us. His far-reaching tastes and his acute social conscience combined to make the world a simultaneously larger and much smaller place.
I last saw Jac when he produced my musical Hands on a Hardbody. It wasn’t a trendy show to mount; it lasted a very short time on Broadway. But in its tale of hard-luck Texans facing down a pitiless recession with humor and grit, he saw something worthwhile. The demands of the set were simple: a bright red pick-up truck. When that proved tricky for the theater to obtain – it seems no one wanted actors dancing on the hood of their borrowed vehicle – Jac went out and bought one. “Hell,” he told me, “after the show closes, I can drive it around town.”
That was the depth of Jac’s commitment. If he’d needed a Steinway for The Piano Lesson, or a crystal unicorn for The Glass Menagerie, he begged, borrowed or bought them, too; any sacrifice necessary for the all-important play.
We are here today because of two shared loves: Jac Alder, and the theater. How lucky we are that they nourished and challenged one another, to such thrilling and productive ends.
On a darkened stage, he took us to memorable and fantastic places. And in doing so, he leaves our beloved “Big D” an immeasurably richer place, and that age old, fabulous invalid, the theater itself, a more vital art.
July 8, 2015