Dallas — René Moreno, a beloved director and actor who has worked for decades in North Texas, on Broadway and in regional theater, has died from heart failure after complications from surgery. He was 57.
Moreno's last directorial gigs in North Texas were John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar at WaterTower Theatre and The Tempest at Shakespeare Dallas in 2016. He was directing a staged reading of Martin Sherman's Rose for WingSpan Theatre Company, which has three performances March 31-April 1 at the Bath House Cultural Center. The show will go on.
Moreno was born in Dallas on May 25, 1959. He attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and studied theater, dance and music at Southern Methodist University. He played piano, and wanted to be an actor. In the 1980s he moved to New York, working in regional theater, and on and off-Broadway. He landed an ensemble role in the New York premiere of Amadeus (directed by Sir Peter Hall) and in 1986, played Romeo opposite the Juliet of Regina Taylor, an award-winning actress and playwright, on Broadway, as part of Joe Papp's Shakespeare on Broadway, which also featured Moreno in productions of As You Like It and Macbeth. Estelle Parsons directed Romeo and Juliet.
Regionally he acted at Cincinnati Playhouse, Alliance Theatre, Philadelphia Drama Guild, Hartford Stage, Alley Theatre, Center Stage, Pioneer Theatre, Old Globe Theatre, and A Contemporary Theatre.
In 1991, while performing in Federico García Lorca's Yerma at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., he fell five floors out of a hotel window and was paralyzed from the waist down.
He returned to Dallas for rehabilitation, and received his MFA in directing from Southern Methodist University in 2001. His first local production to direct was Strindberg's Miss Julie at Kitchen Dog Theater in 1996. Since then, he has directed at Kitchen Dog, Shakespeare Dallas, Dallas Children's Theater, WaterTower Theatre, Echo Theatre, WingSpan Theatre Company, Theatre Three, Stage West, Amphibian Stage Productions, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Cara Mía Theatre Company, Upstart Productions, Fun House Theatre and Film, the now-defunct Classical Acting Company and others.
Occasionally he acted, playing the title role in Kitchen Dog's Richard III and appearing in Harold Pinter's Old Times at WingSpan Theatre Company and Santos y Santos and A Christmas Carol at Dallas Theater Center. On film, he acted in the Dallas-filmed Late Bloomers (1996) and Detention (1998), among others.
He was a member of SDC (Stage Directors and Choreographers Society) and an Artistic Associate with Shakespeare Dallas, as well as an Affiliated Artist with the Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre.
He won many Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum awards.
He was scheduled to direct Karen Zacárias' Native Gardens at WaterTower Theatre in June; a few weeks ago, the theater announced that David Lozano would direct the play. In the news release, Moreno stated:
"I was very much looking forward to returning to WaterTower this season to direct Native Gardens, but alas life and scheduling got in the way. I am very happy for my friend and colleague David Lozano to be joining the team and I wish him and WTT the very best on this production. I look forward to seeing the show!"
He had a gift for movement on stage, and was known for taking great care with actors—but not putting up anything less than 100 percent commitment.
In a 2010 interview on TheaterJones, he was asked how being confined to a wheelchair affected his concept of stillness when directing for the stage. He responded:
"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."
After I saw his production of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas (another critic reviewed it for TheaterJones), I was curious about his decision to cut the Germans from the play. I asked him via email, and he responded:
"I guess I have always felt the play's main story surrounds the love triangle between Shannon, Maxine, and Hannah. I find the Germans get in the way of the flow of that storytelling. For me, other than their existence pinpointing a specific place and time (and, of course, the over-the-top "evil" symbology that goes along with them), I wondered whether the German characters worked. In every production i have seen, they come off as cartoons. One might argue that was Williams' intention. I had a similar problem with most productions' handling of the Mexican boys—too two-dimensional. So, for this production, it was my intent to make all the peripheral characters as real and tangible as possible.
"There is precedence for leaving the Germans out. John Huston cut them out of the film version," he continued. "Huston's film-script was worked on and approved of by Williams. Williams himself wrote many different versions of his plays. The acting version we are using is VERY different from the academic version you will find in most libraries (the latter being almost an hour longer) All in all, it was not an e-z [sic] decision on my part. I thought about it long and hard. In the end, I had to stay true to the vision of the play I felt was most important to tell."
As an educator and guest artist Moreno lectured, conducted workshops, and taught at Southern Methodist University, KD College Conservatory of Film and Dramatic Arts, University of North Texas, University of Texas at Arlington, Collin College, University of Dallas, Booker T. Washington School of the Visual and Performing Arts, Episcopal School of Dallas, Shakespeare Dallas, and Junior Players. He had a directing assistantship with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and a directing internship with Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
Local director Akín Babatundé said "I am devastated. Renée was so loved by our theater community. I have fond memories of him serving as my dramaturg when I directed the diverse casting production of The Taming of the Shrew at Dallas Summer Musicals starring Tyrees Allen and Candy Buckley. His calming artistic presence will be missed."
"I was fortunate to work under his direction a few years ago in The Unmentionables at Stage West," said actress Wendy Welch, who attended SMU with Moreno in the 1970s. "It was like coming home to me. We spoke the same language. And we had the opportunity to share lunches and dinners together, just the two of us, and reminisce and share as old friends. This was something I treasured then, and will now treasure forever. I can't believe he's gone. He was one of the best."
WaterTower Theatre artistic director Joanie Schultz released this statement: "We at WaterTower Theatre are deeply saddened by the passing of René. He was an important artist in our WaterTower family, and directed work that impacted our artists and audiences alike. His presence is something that has marked us all and will remain with us always."
Actor Mark Oristano, with whom Moreno created a work about 9/11, said: "I think the most amazing thing about René was the way he was able to overcome the near-death experience and carve a fantastic career, while at the same time beating his drug and alcohol addiction. I was always a bit surprised, at least early on, in what he saw in me as an actor, but I learned quickly that if I trusted what he told me, the partnership would work. I will go on stage again, but in a small and very private way, it will never be the same."
Donald Jordan, founding artistic director of Oklahoma City Rep, where Moreno directed August: Osage County, The Normal Heart and other shows, said: "We shared jokes, and many, many lunches at Lucky's [in Dallas] (we tried to always meet there on Wednesdays because he loved the mushroom soup served only on that day—a culinary love we shared i confess). We just met there for lunch recently, our last time together, where we dreamed of future shows to tackle together. We shared a love for theatre and for it's power to make our world a better place. We often laughed that we were twins separated at birth, and I always felt proud, fortunate and honored to call him my friend."
On Tuesday evening, the remembrances started pouring out on Facebook.
Actor Matthew Stephen Tompkins, who was directed by Moreno in The Seafarer at Stage West, wrote: "You made all of us who had the blessing of working with you better when you directed us, better actors, better artists, better HUMAN BEINGS. I hadn't been on stage in a few years when you called me about getting back in the theatrical fray with THE SEAFARER in 2009 at Stage West. What a fantastic, singular, powerful experience that show and working with YOU, was. ...Heaven's Ensemble just had a CRACKING good Director/Actor WALK out on that Holy Stage (and, of course, immediately begin adjusting the lights)."
Lydia Mackay, whom Moreno directed in A Streetcar Named Desire at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, wrote: "You helped me find Blanche. You trusted me with big things. You always had a smile and a hug and kind words. You were an artist of the highest caliber and I loved you."
Moreno is survived by his longtime partner Charles McMullen.
» The funeral will be 11 a.m. Saturday, April 1 at Restland Funeral Home and Cemetery in Dallas. In lieu of flowers, the family asks people to make a donation to a charity of their choice.
» A Celebration of Moreno's life and work will be 1 p.m. Saturday, April 29 at Dallas City Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District.
» If you want to share thoughts about Moreno, leave them in the comments.