René Moreno is the most requested director in North Texas, and that's not hyperbole. Through September, he's directing six shows in Dallas-Fort Worth and one in Oklahoma City, which still leaves four months to fit more work into 2009. His string of openings begins this week with the area premiere of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer at Stage West.
No wonder the high demand. Moreno consistently elicits the best work from actors and designers, as witnessed in such unforgettable productions as Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (Theatre Three), Edward Albee's Marriage Play (WingSpan Theatre Company) and David Mamet's Edmond (Second Thought Theatre), to name a few. In his spare time, he serves as artistic associate for both Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and Shakespeare Dallas.
Moreno has an MFA in directing from Southern Methodist University, but originally planned to be an actor. He lived in New York and worked there and in the regional circuit in the '80s. His life changed during a run of Federico Garcia Lorca's Yerma at Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage in 1991. He fell out of his hotel window and down five floors, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
He returned to Dallas, his hometown, and began his directing career with Kitchen Dog Theater's 1996 production of Strindberg's Miss Julie.
He discusses his work, his loves and his dislikes with Theater Jones.
Theater Jones: Let's talk about your first projects this year, both in Fort Worth. First, The Seafarer.
René Moreno: I haven't been this excited about a show in a long time. I feel in the last 10 to 15 years, the Irish playwrights in the English-speaking language have really showed a fascination with poetic lyricism and imagery, a lot of their stuff feels very magic realism. I love the use of language and how the characters get under your skin.
I love the male bonding and camaraderie around this campfire in The Seafarer, mixed in with this otherworldly ghost story feel. There's one scene between Lockhart, who is the devil, and Sharky. Some of the arguments about what is hell and what it means to be in hell reminded me of Don Juan in Hell by Shaw. It fascinated me that these themes still keep coming back through these Irish writers, it must be ingrained in the psyche of what it is to be an Irishman. It's very existential.
TJ: And you're directing TV/stage actress Concetta Tomei in a staged reading of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own at the Modern.
RM: I knew about Concetta when I was in New York because she was in The Normal Heart, and that production was a huge mark on my gay psyche, living in New York in the '80s. I've been doing some research on the Virginia Woolf angle and reading through the treatise itself.
TJ: What kind of plays turn you on?
RM: Language plays. Quite frankly, the more difficult the better. I’m real turned on by Samuel Beckett, by Shakespeare, by Albee, the [Irish] writers. The Spanish-ness of Garcia Lorca, and the Irish-ness of [The Seafarer]. I love trying to get into the psyche of culture and trying to bring that to life.
TJ: So many shows I see are over-blocked, and that's not the case in your work. How has using a wheelchair influenced you as a director?
RM: I don't really think of it like that, but I'm sure that learning to be stationary for long periods of time maybe influences that a little bit. The great actors I've seen in New York and around the country have always understood the power of being still. Sometimes it's best to do nothing, just communicate the words that are coming out of them. I was a double major in dance and theater at SMU, and when I lived in New York I watched a lot of New York City Ballet. Balanchine was a master at spatial tension, when you have three people here and one person here, what that does to an audience's eye.
TJ: What about as an actor? You played Richard III for Kitchen Dog Theater last year, and acted in Pinter's Old Times for Wingspan Theatre Company.
RM: I knew I was going to be limited, but what I really focused on was trying to find or accept roles where I felt that the wheelchair amplified what was going on with the character in some way. That has always been the key to whether I feel I can do a role. The chair has got to be involved in some way in my head.
TJ: You mentioned that North Texas is an exciting place to be right now for theater artists. Elaborate.
RM: I envision a day when this is not seen as an artistic transient community, when actors, directors and designers are self-sufficient and able to make a living in the Dallas-Fort Worth community. Margo Jones started the regional theater movement here, and we have a legacy here that is really important. I want to be a part of that. I definitely have my feet firmly planted here.
TJ: What is your best strength as a director?
RM: I think the best directors, certainly the ones I've worked with, have been open to not being precious about their stuff. If something is not working, throw it out. My idea? So what? If an actor has a great idea and it's better than mine, it's in. I think my strength as a director is because I was an actor for so many years. What I'm most interested in are the playwright's words, communicating the story and how the actor fits into that story.
TJ: What kind of actors do you not like?
RM: Lazy. They’re not going to have a good time with me if they’re not going to work as hard as I am.
Rene Moreno's 2009 directing projects (so far):
- Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer at Stage West. Jan. 29-Feb. 22
- Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, staged reading featuring Concetta Tomei. Amphibian Stage Productions at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9
- Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth for Upstart Productions, a co-production with Project X, at the Green Zone. March 6-22.
- The musical Zombie Prom ("Grease meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers") for Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre. April 10-16
- The Merry Wives of Windsor for Shakespeare Dallas. June/July
- Preston Jones’ The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. Aug. 14-Sept. 6.
- Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, which will open Contemporary Theatre of Dallas' as-yet-unannounced 2009-10 season.