Dallas — On the morning of Saturday, April 29, Charlotte St. Martin of the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League called Kevin Moriarty on his cell phone to give him exciting news. The Dallas Theater Center, which Moriarty has led since 2007, would win the 2017 Regional Theatre Tony Award, which he will accept tonight at the Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall.
But he could not tell anyone until the official announcement two days later on May 1.
Torture for anyone, for sure. But Moriarty had just started rehearsals for his revival of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind and would see the cast and artists all weekend. To boot, he would attend the memorial celebration for Dallas director René Moreno at Dallas City Performance Hall that afternoon. In other words, he would see a lot of DFW theater people.
“I learned I can never be in the CIA because I couldn’t handle the pressure of keeping a big secret,” he says.
The announcement was to be made at 2 p.m. CST on Monday, so Moriarty and managing director Jeffrey Woodward (only he and the PR team also knew), called an “emergency” meeting for the DTC staff at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, in the middle of rehearsals for Inherit the Wind, at 1:55 p.m. They told them at 1:59 so that no one could spoil it on social media before the official press release went out.
“I work with theater people which means I work with highly emotional people,” he says, “and even to that extent, it was a very emotional response.”
Besides the people in that room, who did he tell first?
Robyn Flatt, for one. She’s the co-founder and executive artistic director of Dallas Children’s Theater, and the daughter of Paul Baker, Dallas Theater Center’s first artistic director. He also called a few trustees and others. Cedric Neal, an actor who was part of Moriarty’s original resident company before snagging gigs on Broadway and the West End (he’s currently playing Berry Gordy in Motown in London) texted Kevin. So did Doug Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who is from Dallas and started his career here.
“The staff had a big happy hour, there was a quite a bit of celebrating,” he says, “There were pockets of other folks, board members, guild members.”
There’s good reason to celebrate. It’s a big honor to be included in the company of other Regional Theatre Tony winners, from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company to LA’s Mark Taper Forum to Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center.
The award comes on a recommendation from the American Theatre Critics Association, which nominates and votes on a theater each year. That recommendation is sent to the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League, which makes the ultimate decision. For much of the award's history, only theaters outside New York City were eligible; a few years ago that was expanded to include non-profit New York City theaters, and the Signature Theatre won in 2014. You can see the history of the award on the ATCA website, here. (Note that the city with the most regional Tonys is Chicago, with five; Southern California has four; the Bay Area and Minneapolis each have three.)
Moriarty stated in the news release:
“The Tony Award is one of the most coveted honors in the American theater, and receiving it is a cause for great celebration throughout Dallas. This award is in recognition of DTC’s nearly sixty years of achievement. It’s a testament to the artistry of the theater’s previous artistic directors, Paul Baker, Adrian Hall, Ken Bryant and Richard Hamburger. It’s an honor for the many talented artists whose work has graced our stages. It’s an acknowledgement of the deep relationship between DTC and our community here in North Texas, for whom we produce plays that inspire meaningful conversations. It’s a tribute to the diversity of artists who seek to create art that mirrors the glorious diversity of our community. And it’s a validation of our city’s shared belief that a great city requires great art to bring us together, ask vital questions and inspire us to build a more perfect union.”
DTC was founded in 1959 under the artistic leadership of Paul Baker, and on the heels of the great Margo Jones, who helped pioneer the resident theater movement when she opened her Theatre ’47 in 1947 in Fair Park. (She's the namesake for the website you're reading.) Among the plays she premiered were Inherit the Wind and Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. The theater is still there and in use by emerging companies.
The Theater Center opened in the newly built Kalita Humphreys Theater, which is the only building specifically designed for theater by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Baker became known for his “Integration of Abilities” philosophy, and he built a company and school. He worked with such actors as Charles Laughton and Burgess Meredith, and directed productions of locally legendary Hamlet ESP and his own Jack Ruby: All American Boy, as well as Dallas playwright Preston Jones’ Texas Trilogy, which transferred to Broadway. Jones was also the husband of Mary Sue Jones, who had been on Baker’s team from the beginning and was another strong woman defining regional theater. (Click here to see a video interview that TheaterJones conducted with Baker in 2009; he died later that year).
Baker resisted unionization, and was ousted by the board. He was followed by Adrian Hall of the Tony-winning Trinity Repertory Company of Providence, Rhode Island. Hall made DTC a professional Actor’s Equity theater, created a resident acting company and brought in new work such as his adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. That was produced in the tin barn known as the Arts District Theater, which would later be torn down to make room for the AT&T Performing Arts Center. In the Richard Hamburger era, that space was used for a revelatory South Pacific and a Long Day's Journey Into Night that ignored O'Neill's claustrophobic intentions and was staged with the idea of expanse in mind.
(Personal note: That space was my first introduction to the Theater Center when my high school English classes went to shows there, including All the King’s Men and several years of A Christmas Carol. The image of Marley flying in from the rafters still sticks with me.)
After Hall left, Ken Bryant took over, but died within a year. The board then hired Richard Hamburger, who ran the company from 1992 to 2006. Hamburger took flak for mainly hiring artists outside of the city, but he started the Big D Festival of the Unexpected, which developed new work and collaborated with other local theaters.
There’s no question that Moriarty has had a huge impact. He brought back a resident theater company, comprised of local actors, and was the first artistic director for the Theater Center’s new home at the innovative Wyly Theatre, in which the main space can be reconfigured in myriad ways. There’s also a Sixth Floor Studio Theatre.
But Moriarty hasn’t been content with those abilities to play with space; he's always experimenting. With his The Wiz, there were moveable “audience pods” with theater goers changing perspectives throughout the show. In John Logan’s Red, he used the ninth floor sceneshop at the Wyly. For Andrew Hinderaker's Colossal, the Potter Rose Performance Hall was turned into a football stadium. His recent production of Sophocles’ Electra used four outdoor spaces in the Arts District in a promenade-style production with a backdrop of buildings still under construction, like Greek ruins.
In addition to bringing in world premieres by the likes of national playwrights Douglas Carter Beane, Lewis Flinn, Regina Taylor, Kirsten Childs, Rajiv Joseph, Samuel D. Hunter, Will Power (now a Dallas resident) and others, he has commissioned work by local playwrights Jonathan Norton, Matt Lyle and Steven Walters. The first of those, Norton’s Penny Candy, will open the 2018-19 season.
The first new musical Moriarty programmed in the Wyly, Beane and Flinn’s Give It Up!, became Lysistrata Jones and transferred to Broadway for a brief run, with local actress Liz Mikel reprising her role there. But for all the new works that have hoped for a Broadway run (the latest is Bella: An American Tall Tale, co-produced with Playwrights Horizons and currently in previews there), perhaps it would be an even bigger coup to somehow get his current production of Inherit the Wind—a boldly reimagined production of a play that premiered in Dallas—to a bigger stage. More people should see it; it is incredibly relevant to our current national disease of rampant anti-intellectualism. And his casting without regard to color or gender is important to the current conversation about onstage representation. Moriarty has been interested in that conversation since he arrived, evident in such productions as Tommy (his directing debut at DTC), Les Misérables, Death of a Salesman and last year's A Christmas Carol, in which resident company member Sally Nystuen Vahle played Scrooge.
This year, DTC was the first theater outside of New York to participate in the Public Theater's groundbreaking Public Works program, which uses community members to perform a Shakespeare play. Te first production, The Tempest in March, was inspiring and effective. Next year will bring the same program doing The Winter's Tale, with plans to keep it going every year for the foreseeable future.
Moriarty has collaborated with Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Dallas Opera, Dallas Museum of Art, Chicano company Cara Mía Theatre Company, Casa Mañana, Southern Methodist University, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts, and other local organizations. The educational Project Discovery, started in the Adrian Hall era, continues to be successful.
On a national level, under Moriarty DTC has co-presented productions with the Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, the Alley Theatre and Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Never one to sit still, Moriarty is also the current chair of Theatre Communications Group, and president of the Dallas Arts District.
Note to any theaters wondering what it takes to win a Regional Tony: Read the above. New work, innovative work, forward-thinking ideas, and substantive outreach and education are good starts. Did we mention new work? You're not going to get one by constantly reviving the same plays and musicals that everyone does all the time, and in the same way.
We had a few questions for him about winning the Regional Theatre Tony Award. (Q&A after the photo.)
Do awards matter to you?
I’m a forward-thinking person, I’m thinking about the future. I have a permanent to-do list; I’ll know it’s time to die when it slows down for me. Things like awards, the past, they don’t occupy my time. The second a play opens, not even on closing night, I’m thinking of the next one. When people talk to me about Electra, of course I’m proud of it, but I’m thinking of a new transition in Inherit the Wind or the latest revision for Hood [a musical of Robin Hood by Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn, premiering in a few weeks.]
What does winning this award mean to you?
What is meaningful for me is how it involves the community and the Dallas arts patrons. It’s been really emotional for people to reach out to share what the theater means to them. That’s true for artists, for people I’ve collaborated with, but equally for donors and city leaders. It’s a pinprick reminder to me how meaningful our theater is to our community.
How they look to the Dallas Theater Center as an important voice for art and civic pride is big. Dallas has had moments in past where it’s been overlooked. And it has had this stigma since 1963 [with the JFK assassination]. It’s powerful to me that this can help as we look forward to our future.
You’ve been at DTC for 10 years now, and have been credited with changing the sense of community in the theater scene for the better.
I will point out that what casual observers give me credit for, these are things that were rooted in our history. I’m proud of the resident company, of producing new work, and equity and inclusion in everything we do, and bold and unique use of theatrical space. Those things are all key parts of our identity. And they were key for Paul Baker, Adrian Hall, Ken Bryant and Richard Hamburger. It’s not my theater and the ideas I’ve been working off of are not new.
What changes have you seen here?
The change has been absolutely remarkable. When I look at the community as a whole, it’s amazing the to see the transformation and the caliber of work in the Arts District, with the Dallas Opera and Dallas Symphony and the museums.
In this moment when you look at Joanie [Schultz at WaterTower Theatre] and Jeff [Schmidt at Theatre Three] stepping in, there’s a new generation of leaders that are announcing seasons advancing these ideas of equity, inclusion, and embracing artists and opportunities. When I look at the growth of the emerging leaders in town, such as Christie Vela, who I’m incredibly high on, or Alex Organ as he leads Second Thought Theatre, I feel like the old man in town now.
Will winning the Tony change anything for Dallas Theater Center? Will it put you in better standing with producers and casting agents?
In the short term, it doesn’t change anything. We have a lot of relationships with producers, agents, playwrights and composers [and others in the profession] already.
I do think it changes our community’s understanding on what we do. It puts us more in the conversation in the national community and the funding community, and could affect how emerging theater artists and a new generation of artists will think of us. I think this Tony goes a long way to changing that conversation.
The Regional Theatre Tony Award has been dominated by theaters in the Northeast, West Coast and the Midwest. Only a few theaters outside those areas — Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, Houston’s Alley Theatre, Denver Center Theatre Company, Utah Shakespearean Festival — have won this award. Does this bring recognition to areas not traditionally thought of as theater centers?
What sets the United States apart from the European centers, our national theater is not houses in a single city or a single organization, it is spread throughout the country. [Areas like Texas and the South are] where people are moving and where political power is shifting. If we don’t have art in the center of the country, we won’t have art in America. Now the center of power is changing, we’re here, we’re making and celebrating art.
There has long been talk about the Dallas theater scene being part of the national conversation about theater. What does Dallas need to do to be a bigger part of that?
I think there are three things to consider.
One, we have not generated, as a city, a significant body of work by Dallas playwrights. There are great playwrights from here, going back to Preston Jones, or Doug Wright who becomes famous after leaving town [editor add: also Dallas native Regina Taylor and Southern Methodist University grad Beth Henley]. The premiere of Jonathan Norton’s play Penny Candy at the start of the 2018-19 season will be a milestone. What success would look 10 years from now would be a group of playwrights who trace their work back to Dallas.
Another thing is it’s a very diverse city; we are politically and economically important to the country. If the work here can truly reflect the demographics of our city and the organizations throughout the city.
The third would be when fully trained professional actors could make a middle-class living by performing plays in a given community other than New York. Next season we’ll have three full-time actors being paid just for the work [there are two in the current season, Liz Mikel and Alex Organ]. It would be great if [Dallas] can make that commitment to mid-career professional actors.
Below is the speech Kevin Moriarty gave at the Tony Awards on Sunday night: