In the opening lines of Farewell: A Memoir of Texas Childhood, Horton Foote writes that he left his home in Wharton, Texas, when he was 16, but that “no matter how poor I was, and I was often very poor, I always managed to return for a visit at least once a year.”
He meant that in the physical sense, of course. But Foote returned home—and introduced the world to that place—countless times through his plays. Throughout his seven-decade writing career, those works revolved around the characters he created in his fictional town of Harrison, Texas, a place that he has said “chose him,” and not the other way around. You can bet that Harrison is pretty much a mirror image of Wharton.
North Texas audiences will have an unprecedented invitation into those stories in the Dallas Theater Center-spearheaded Horton Foote Festival, which includes 15 productions of his full-length and one-act plays by nine theater companies (some are doing collections of one-acts); staged readings of four others; plus films, lectures and an exhibit at Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Library.
At the first rehearsal of the Dallas Theater Center’s headlining production of Foote’s Tony-nominated Dividing the Estate, artistic director Kevin Moriarty admitted that, regrettably, he hadn’t given much consideration to Foote’s work. Not until he saw the 2008 Broadway production of Dividing the Estate. (Foote died two months after that production closed on Jan. 4, 2009.) While Foote is certainly considered one of the leading American playwrights, he is rarely mentioned in the same sentence as the undisputed greats—Williams, O’Neill, Miller, Albee—or even with the button-pushers like Mamet, Shepard and Kushner.
Unlike most playwrights with long and prolific careers, both American and international, Foote didn’t experiment much with style and form. His body of work is naturalistic, telling simple stories about people who seem all too real.
“I think the thing I’ve been most intrigued with is that Horton Foote used the same muse (Harrison, Texas and its people) for his entire career,” says Joel Ferrell, a native Texan and director of DTC’s Dividing the Estate. “Most playwrights feel compelled to find new and changing source material or ideas. Foote made no apology for continuing to spin from his own childhood, his roots, his world. It was oddly daring to continue to, as he put it, ‘write what you know’ for an entire lifetime. Instead of trying to meet trends or others’ expectations, he kept writing what he felt was true, familiar and poignant for him.”
Foote has recently been celebrated with productions of his “Orphans’ Home Cycle,” consisting of nine one-acts, in three sections, performed at Hartford Stage (2009), and off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre Company (2009-10). But DFW’s Foote Festival is unique in that it’s the arts community of one metropolitan area celebrating one writer. Similar festivals with other writers have been done elsewhere, but this is the first one in honor of Foote, and certainly the first such event for North Texas. There was a Horton Foote Playwrights’ Festival at Baylor University in Waco, from 2004 to 2009, but it wasn’t focused solely on Foote’s work. (I'd just like to point out that I blogged, suggesting such an event, in 2009, well before the Foote Festival was announced. It was apparently already in the works, though.)
Moriarty, who has been all about community-building since he took over as DTC’s artistic director in 2007, initiated the festival in 2009, and invited the area theaters to participate. Some of them couldn’t, just because he didn’t write anything that fits into their mission. He didn’t write children’s plays or musicals, for example, so Dallas Children’s Theater and Lyric Stage were out. Although Echo Theatre, which only produces plays by women, is in the game with a reading of a play by Foote’s daughter Daisy. (It should also be noted that there’s an unusually high number of community theater productions of To Kill a Mockingbird in the next few months. Foote had no involvement with the stage version of Harper Lee’s novel, but won a screenwriting Oscar for the iconic film.)
The festival was being put together in early 2009, and was announced in March 2010. During that time, some previously planned productions of Foote’s work were held back. For instance, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas had wanted to do his best-known work, The Trip to Bountiful, but rights were held so that they could do it with the Foote Festival. And that seems fine for those involved.
René Moreno, the director of Bountiful, makes the comparison that Foote has gotten throughout his career: “Foote is our American Chekhov,” he says.
“His characters are beautiful and delicate studies of human nature,” he continues. “His writing clearly defines the term tragic-comedy; you may find yourself wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. We see ourselves in his writing. His depiction of the subtleties of life’s adventures and tragedies in 20th century small-town life are his milieu. No one does it better.”
For the theaters' producers, participation in such an event, which has garnered some national attention (there's a related story in the March issue of American Theatre), was a no-brainer.
"How could we not want to participate in a festival honoring Texas’ greatest playwright?" ask Terry Martin, Artistic Director of WaterTower Theatre. "Not to mention a playwright who wrote plays for over 70 years. How many other American playwrights have left us that kind of legacy?"
Susan Sargeant, who is directing a reading of Foote’s The Carpetbagger’s Children, a co-production between WingSpan Theatre Company and One Thirty Productions, says this experience has been like re-acquainting with an old friend. “It reminded me, again, that Horton Foote’s epic body of work is native to his own experience and region,” she says. “The play is constructed with the monologues of three sisters. Both Marty Van Kleeck [of One Thirty Productions] and I felt the play was tailor-made for this kind of venue. As a Director, my focus is to honor Foote’s delicately complex language and guide the actors to trust what will bloom.”
This spring in North Texas will bloom, with the words and characters of Texas’ greatest playwright, the man who has constantly reminded us that it’s OK to go home again.
◊ A shorter version of this story was originally published in the March issue of Arts + Culture Magazine, on stands throughout town now.
HORTON FOOTE FESTIVAL: March 12-May 1
Horton Foote Festival Kick-Off Party
4:30-6:30 p.m. Monday, March 14 (Horton Foote’s birthday)
Lobby of the Winspear Opera House at AT&T Performing Arts Center
* this event by invitation only
PLAY PRODUCTIONS AND READINGS (listed in order of opening dates)
(ThaterJones is also doing a ticket giveaway for these events, here)
Talking Pictures (1990)
Stage West, Fort Worth
Directed by Jim Covault
March 10-April 3 (opening night March 12)
7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays
Dividing the Estate (2008)
Dallas Theater Center at the Wyly Theatre, at AT&T Performing Arts Center
Directed by Joel Ferrell
March 11-April 9 (opening night March 18)
7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7:30 p.m. select Sundays
The Old Beginning (1952) and John Turner Davis (1956)
Rotunda Theatre at First United Methodist Church of Dallas
Directed by Jane Farris and Karon Cogdill
March 25-April 2
7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursday March 31
The Midnight Caller (1956), The Dancers (1954) and The Land of the Astronauts (1983) (readings)
Flower Mound Performing Arts Theatre, Flower Mound
7:30 p.m. March 27 (Caller), April 3 (Dancers) and April 10 (Astronauts)
3 Foote: An Evening of One-Acts
Blind Date (1985), The Man Who Climbed Pecan Trees (1981) and One-Armed Man (1985)
Kitchen Dog Theater at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Dallas
Directed by Karen Parrish, Jonathan Taylor and Christie Vela
8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and select Wednesdays, 2 p.m. select Sundays
The Young Man From Atlanta (1995, Pulitzer Prize)
Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, Dallas
Directed by Marianne Galloway
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
The Traveling Lady (1954)
WaterTower Theatre at the Addison Theatre Centre
Directed by Marion Castleberry
April 1-May 1 (opening night May 4)
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Bhutan, by Daisy Foote (staged reading)
Echo Theatre at Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas
Directed by Pam Myers-Morgan
7:30 p.m. April 5 and 6
The Carpetbagger’s Children (2001) (staged reading)
Directed by Susan Sargeant
1:30 and 8 p.m. April 8 and 9
The Trip to Bountiful (1953)
Directed by René Moreno
April 8-May 1
7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays
The Roads to Home (1982)
Three acts: Nightingale, The Dearest of Friends and Spring Dance
Theatre Three, Dallas
Directed by Terry Dobson
April 7-May 7 (opening night 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 11)
7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Courtship (1985), The Young Lady of Property (1976) and The Dancers (1954)
Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts Theatre Department in the Black Box Theatre, Dallas
Directed by Mark Hawkins (Courtship and Valetine's), Jane Farris (Property) and Karon Cogdill (Dancers)
7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, and Friday (April 15)
“Life and Work of Horton Foote: An Exhibition”
Southern Methodist University DeGolyer Library
March 1-May 1
Open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday
To Kill a Mockingbird
Screening of movie at Studio Movie Grill, Dallas
7:30 p.m. March 17
Introduced by Gary Cogill
Horton Foote: Memories, Readings & Recollections
7:30 p.m. April 4
This event features Wilborn Hampton, author of the definitive 2009 biography Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller; Foote's daughter Hallie Foote, an award-winning actress; and actress Tess Harper, who was in the film Tender Mercies, for which Foote won his second screenwriting Oscar. They will share stories and engage in an informal conversation, interspersed with selected readings. Moderated by Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty.
The Trip to Bountiful (film)
4 p.m. April 9
Texas Theatre, Oak Cliff
Presented by Dallas Film Society International Film Festival
A night of Foote-focused TV programming to be announced
There are several community theater productions of To Kill a Mockingbird during the Festival. The stage adaptation is by Christopher Sergel, and Foote wasn't involved. But he has a connection in that he won a screenwriting Oscar for adapting the film.
Also, the 2011-'12 season for Dallas Theater Center was recently announced, and it includes a co-production of Mockingbird with Fort Worth's Casa Mañana. The Fort Worth production runs Sept. 24-Oct. 2, and the Dallas staging is Oct. 21-Nov. 20.