The Dallas Theater Center's current production, of Geoffrey Nauffts' Tony-nominated play Next Fall, is a watershed moment in North Texas theater, in that it brings together four artistic directors of local theaters for one project.
Kevin Moriarty, the artistic director of DTC, directs the production. His assistant director is Tre Garrett, who runs Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth. And the actors playing the lead roles of Adam and Luke, who fall in love, are Terry Martin, artistic director of WaterTower Theatre, and Steven Walters, A.D. of Second Thought Theatre and also a DTC acting company member. Adam is an atheist, and Luke is a Christian.
In an email interview, TheaterJones talked to the four men about the play and working together.
TheaterJones: This might be the first time four artistic directors of local theaters have worked together on one show. Tell me what that means to you and how working on this has made you think about collaboration among local arts groups.
Kevin Moriarty: As a director I have relatively selfish artistic goals: I want to work with the best possible artists on every production I do. In this case, those artists happen to also be important leaders of vital theaters in our community. Having the opportunity to direct Terry and Steve has been such a joy. They are both always committed to acting with truthfulness and complete conviction, while also being open to the practical needs of the production: communicating the story to the audience, fulfilling the technical requirements of the roles, and contributing to the conceptual approach. Having Tre's collaborative input throughout the process as the assistant director has only made this more productive. All three of them are adept at coming up with creative solutions when faced with a challenge as a director, so I was often able to say, "We need to find a way to solve this challenge" and they'd all come up with solutions before I would! They also fully understand the need to bring themselves fully to the work. As peer directors, they know how important it is for the actors to contribute meaningfully and creatively to the process, rather than simply being "empty vessels," so they jumped into the process from the beginning with strong choices, clear points of view, and an eagerness to create, refine and deepen the work each day.
As an artistic director, and someone who cares passionately about the larger community of which DTC is a part, I think it's self-evident that arts organizations are stronger when they work together. Though each theater has its own distinct mission, vision and values, we share so much in common—the need to nurture, develop and support great artists, the search for meaningful new plays, the desire to expand and build audiences for all types of art throughout the region, and the need to be stimulated by new ideas from others so we don't become complacent in our work. One way to address these needs and build community is for us to come together as institutions in various combinations and collaborations, as we will with the creation of the Host Committee for the upcoming TCG Conference in Dallas in the summer of 2013. But an equally important thing is for us as individual artists, separate and distinct from our institutions, to have opportunities to work with each other, to learn from each other, and to experience the joy and creative spark that comes about from collaborating with skilled artistic peers.
Terry Martin: It's terrific fun to be in the rehearsal hall with all this amazing talent. There have been some amazing conversations and sharing of ideas and thoughts. On many topics, not just the play. And, it has certainly kept me on my toes! I have to make certain I am bringing my best game every single day. The collaboration aspect is wonderful of course, but frankly from my perspective, Kevin is in charge and I am happy to be following someone else's lead for a while. That allows me to focus on bringing my little piece to the table with all the concentration and energy I can muster. I hope this kind of collaboration among art groups can continue, but we all also realize how difficult that can be with our busy schedules. I think we're all just really thankful that this has worked out schedule-wise. I know I am.
Steven Walters: I've learned a lot during this process. Mainly that I'm not alone. It's comforting to know Second Thought Theatre struggles with the exact same issues as WTT, DTC and Jubilee. Our companies are very different, both in size, scope and vision, but at the end of the day, we're essentially up against the same challenges and we're fighting for the same things: to keep theater essential to our community and to keep our companies viable (and maybe to keep our jobs too).
Tre Garrett: Working on this show with the other Artistic Directors has been an amazing experience for me. It reminds me of why I love the theater, smart and creative people engaging a community with relevant, challenging and entertaining art. This experience definitely encourages me to look for more ways to collaborate with other theaters and it shows that collaboration can happen in many ways.
Is there something surprising you've learned about any of the other three artistic directors during this process, something you didn't know or expect coming into this?
K.M.: Of course it's also fun to have those moments in between rehearsals or on breaks when we can share stories and insights about the shared challenges of the work we do, swap ideas about playwrights whose work we're excited by, or suggest actors to each other for upcoming projects. These moments will continue past the actual work we're doing with this play and will translate into further opportunities not just for us and our theaters but, by extension, for artists and audiences throughout the region. And then there's just the fact that these are very entertaining and unique people. We've had a lot of laughter in the room and entertaining stories to share!
T.G.: What surprises me most is how alike we all are. We all come from very different backgrounds, which adds to the creative energy in the room, but there are times when I feel we take the words right out of each other's mouths when discussing the play or ideas about life in general. I didn't expect it to be so easy with so many chefs in the kitchen but it has been so much fun and we all get along so well, working with these guys has been easy. New bonds formed; new friendships.
T.M.: Not that I expected anything different I guess, but I've been surprised by how easy the process has been. And what great fun we've had. We laugh a lot. It sounds hokey, but the mutual respect for each other's artistry was so clear from the get go, that I think we've all been able to jump into this project without any reservation or guardedness. At least, it's felt that way to me.
S.W.: It was no surprise, but artistic directors are easy to work with. Actors don't always understand the plight of running a theater. When you're working on a play as an artist at your own company, learning your lines or blocking a scene is just a tiny fragment of what you do. You've got to keep the lights on, the audiences engaged, the board invested, the press interested, and the budget balanced. But artistic directors understand the day-to-day of running a company, and as a result, I think they have a more profound respect for the rehearsal room. The creative process is a gift, especially when the only responsibility you have is to act, write or direct. It's the reason why we do all the other work, to make theater happen in the rehearsal room and to put it on stage for people to enjoy. Watching these guys take off their "admin hats" and put on their "play practice hats" was truly impressive.
Terry, did you ever think you'd be acting at DTC? What has the experience of working there and with Kevin been like for you?
T.M.: Well, I had always hoped that the opportunity to work at DTC would present itself. I had received one offer to work there before. This was not long after I had moved here from NYC (long before I was at WTT) and it was for Enter the Night by Maria Irene Fornes, which she was directing as part of DTC's Festival of the Unexpected. Unfortunately, I had just started a corporate job and was unable to make the fulltime rehearsal schedule commitment. But over the last number of years, it has been something that I couldn't possibly consider with my schedule at WTT, so I had not even bothered to audition for anything. This time, it turned out that I was able to make it happen. As I said, I've had a great time working with Kevin, Tre and the cast, especially my work with Steven. It has been especially great, in this instance for example, in that I just have to be an actor. I don't have to worry about producing as well, which has been the case when I have performed on stage at WTT (the only place I have performed for the last 14 years). Kevin made it clear from day one that we were free to bring all of our impulses and thoughts to the table and to our performances. It has been very freeing to explore my acting craft to a fuller extent than has been practical for me over the last decade or so.
Tre, what does the assistant director do? What have you learned from Kevin as a director, being his assistant?
T.G.: The assistant director is the director's creative companion. Kevin made it very clear from our first day that he wanted me to be a creative partner in the shaping of this piece. We would mull over ideas of the play together, he often asks me what do you think about this or do you think that worked, or is this better. Sometimes he would say, "Tre you handle that." There is a lot of trust in our relationship. I think he is an absolutely amazing director and I think he is a great artistic director. He is choosing works that are challenging and provocative. It's exciting to see our similarities. The biggest lesson I will take away from working with him is to be more patient and to trust myself more, to be brave and make choices that might not always be popular, but have the potential open minds and break down barriers.
Steven, Second Thought Theatre used to be housed in the Addison Theatre Centre, where Terry runs the resident group, WaterTower Theatre. Does your friendship/professional relationship make it easier (or more difficult) to play his lover onstage?
S.W.: Actually, Terry and I have never worked together before. We barely knew each other, and we'd only interacted at fundraisers, council meetings and events. Sometimes though, familiarity can work against you in the creative process. If you know someone inside and out, you know their habits, on and off the stage. As a result, the character choices they make might not ring true to you and can potentially get in the way of forming a genuine connection onstage. But when you work with an actor whose process is new to you, it keeps you on your toes. I think that's the case with me and Terry. I was familiar with his directing work, but I'd never seen him act before, so I had no idea what to expect. But the rumors I heard about his talent are all true. He grounds the character masterfully, and approaches Adam from a place of honesty, and I have a lot of respect for that. He's a fantastic actor and I really enjoy playing opposite him.
Tre, as the new kid on the block so to speak, and the only one from Fort Worth in this situation, what has working with three Dallas artistic directors taught you about the local theater scene, and are you already starting to talk about future collaborations with any of the theaters they represent?
T.G.: It's taught me that I am in good company. I love a challenge, these guys do too, and we have the same wants and needs as Artistic Directors, to inspire, challenge and entertain our audiences. Working on this project has made the drive on I-30 feel a lot shorter, so I would anticipate that the doors are now more open to future collaborations.
Terry, what has playing the role of Adam, a gay atheist, made you think about your own religious convictions?
TM: I grew up Southern Baptist, and am quite spiritual personally, although now I'm more new age than anything strictly biblically based. That said, the pure atheism that Adam feels has been interesting for me to explore. I think what speaks to me most about Adam though, is his search. While he is definitely a non-believer, he is searching for something that he hopes can ground him and bring him the sense of peace that he sees in Luke, his very Christian partner. He is hungry for something, and certainly afraid of that hunger, but he just can't seem to find it. To quote the amazing singer/songwriter David Wilcox, it's like he's got a "break in the cup that holds love" and no matter how hard he tries, he's never satisfied.
Terry, what does the play have to say about our current American society in regards to religion and accepting differences?
TM: Certainly the story is very contemporary in nature in so much as the relationship at its center is between two individuals of the same gender. Homosexual relationships and how we as a society accept them, (or not) is obviously a big topic of conversation for our society right now. In addition, these two people talk a lot about religious faith, another big topic in our national conversation at this time. But, I feel the play speaks in a very universal way to the challenges of maintaining any long term relationship, gay or straight, especially when the two people come from completely different backgrounds, religious or otherwise. The story reflects many real issues that we all deal with in our lives; dysfunctional family dynamics, the challenge of maintaining friendships, all the things that make for the best drama. Next Fall, much like Thornton Wilder's Our Town, challenges us all to think about what is truly important to us, and how often we take each other for granted, but in this case, it also makes us laugh a lot.
Steven, any advice to straight actors about kissing someone of the same sex onstage? Any anecdotes about you and Terry rehearsing physically intimate scenes?
SW: There's plenty of kissing in Next Fall. My advice to straight actors kissing someone of the same sex is the exact same advice I'd give to any actor, regardless of their particular sexual proclivity: brush your teeth. The truth is, sexuality on stage is always a complicated thing. And it doesn't matter who you're kissing. But it's just like any other action you play on stage: you better do it like you mean it. This is the first time I've played a gay character in a professional setting. But I have to say, the religious aspect of Luke, his particular view of the world, is much more challenging to me than his sexuality.
But on the kissing front, the second day of rehearsal, I sheepishly walked up to Terry and nervously muttered, "Uh… Hey, Terry.. I uh… I'm probably gonna… you know… kiss you… and other stuff.. Is that okay?" He put his arm around me, smiled and very warmly said, "Babe. You can kiss me anytime you want." And so I did.