Fort Worth — Circle Theatre has announced Matthew Gray as its Artistic Director—the first person with that sole title in the theater’s 37 years. Timothy Long, who began his career with Circle in the box office in the late '90s, becomes the new Executive Director, a role recently vacated by the theater’s co-founder, Bill Newberry, who is retiring. Newberry took on that title after his wife, Rose Peason, died of cancer in 2016.
Pearson had the title Executive Director, but acted as an artistic director. Pearson and Newberry met working at Fort Worth Community Theatre. In the early days of Circle—the first space was on Bluebonnet Circle, thus the name—she directed the plays, and has developed relationships with playwrights and created the theater’s aesthetic. In the late 1990s, when the theater moved into his current home in Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth, and become an Actor’s Equity Association Small Professional Theatre, she served as administrator, bringing in area directors for each of the theater’s five shows in a calendar-year season.
Matthew Gray, 47, has been part of the North Texas theater scene for nearly two decades. From 2003 to 2007, he and his wife Emily Gray ran Classical Acting Company in Plano, which produced professional stagings of works by Moliere, Feydeau, Sartre, Chekhov, Arthur Miller and other classic dramatists. He also acted at Kitchen Dog Theater, Dallas Children’s Theater, and elsewhere. When Kevin Moriarty became Artistic Director of Dallas Theater Center, Gray was one of the original members or the Brierley Resident Acting Company.
Then Emily became pregnant and Matthew realized he needed to make more money for his family. He left DTC and entered the corporate world, with several jobs that combined his business and creative acumen, including one that relocated his family to New York. They returned to DFW three years ago. Emily teaches theater at Hockaday School in Dallas, and Matthew has continued corporate work in marketing and creative strategies, while still finding time to act and direct with Second Thought Theatre (most recently as part of the ensemble in Blake Hackler’s The Necessities). At Circle, he has directed two Bruce Graham plays, Dex and Julie Sittin’ in a Tree, and Something Intangible.
Circle Theatre, which has an annual budget of between $500,000 and $600,000, depending on the season, produces five plays a season, and is the only DFW theater that serves as an Equity umbrella organization, working with Equity contracts for other groups, such as Undermain Theatre and Kitchen Dog Theater. Circle has become known for new works, although not the first production of those plays. It has fostered relationships with playwrights such as Graham, Steven Dietz, Michael Hollinger and Tom Dudzick.
Circle begins its 37th season in a few weeks with Dietz’s This Random World. One of Gray's first jobs is to find a replacement title for the previously announced title by Israel Horovitz; that was taken out of the season after sexual misconduct charges against Horovitz late in 2017. Gray says he will announce the new play in that slot soon.
We chatted with Gray about his new role and what he sees for the future of Circle Theatre.
TheaterJones: Tell me about the application/interview process.
Matthew Gray: I directed at Circle several years ago. Classical Acting Company had just closed, and Rose [Pearson] kind of joked about me and Emily taking over and running [Circle]. The seed had been planted several years ago. [Since returning from New York,] I have dabbled a bit, directed a show for Second Thought [A Kid Like Jake] and was in a show, and was getting the taste for it again.
A couple of months ago, Tim gave me a call, and said Bill would be retiring and asked if I’d be interested in the job. I went on a business trip, and thought about it alone in a hotel room. I came back and spoke with he and Bill. The more I thought about it, the more I thought what I want for my life, and the artistic hunger that hasn’t been fed for many years.
It’s a small theater that’s doing well in a community that I know well. We had a great chat with the board, and that again revved up my excitement, and I got a feel for what working at Circle would be like.
Did you have to present something to the board about what a Circle Theatre under Matthew Gray would look like?
Not formally, but it is something we talked about. Honestly, it’s not broken. Circle Theatre is in strong financial shape and has a large subscriber base. One of the things I bring is a sense of taste and collaboration, and a new voice. I want an open and safe place to work. Rose has created something with playwrights over the years and gave it her voice. We want to grow Circle; that is a goal for both Tim and I.
Circle Theatre has been an Actors’ Equity Association Small Professional Theatre for more than two decades, and its focus has always been on newer plays. With the other professional theaters in Dallas-Fort Worth, we’re seeing many of them producing at least one world premiere each season; but Circle has been known as a place for the all-important second, third or fourth production of new plays from regional playwrights. Will that change? Do you want to do brand new work?
Playwright Steven Dietz recently came to town for a table read of This Random World. It was really great to chat with him, and a pleasure for him to work with us. He said ‘there’s this weird thing that happens to these great new plays; they flounder because people forget about them. Having a theater that gives them a second or third chance is important.’
I like new work, but having said that, it doesn’t have to be something that hasn’t been produced before. That I don’t want to change. But I do want to establish relationships with playwrights, I want the existing and new relationships, I want this to be the place where they say ‘I want to work there.’
There are so many good playwrights [in North Texas], and they need a home for their plays. I’ve already talked to some about Circle producing their work.
There’s a lot of leadership change that has been happening in DFW professional theaters, notably at WaterTower Theatre, Theatre Three and Stage West. They’re all seeing audience shifts and trying to hold on to longtime subscribers. Everyone talks about finding new, younger audiences, but of course you don’t want to push out the older audiences, who buy subscriptions and donate.
There’s a gentle push for younger audiences, but more than anything, we need diversity in the audience. Ultimately the programming will win, even if it offends some people. What I want to do is diversify the audience.
You and your wife founded the Classical Acting Company, which lasted for four years. So obviously you have a love for the classics. How will that fit into your vision for Circle, which hasn’t done many classic works in the past two decades, aside from Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten and Edward Albee’s three Pulitzer Prize winners (A Delicate Balance, Seascape and Three Tall Women)?
New plays play well in small theaters because theater has become a theater of economy, with smaller casts and sets. But there are endless new translations and adaptations of classic plays that I think will work well here. Half of the plays we did [at Classical] were commissions of classic stories.
What did you learn from running Classical Acting Company?
There I had to do almost everything. Part of the appeal of Circle is having a partner I know [Timothy Long] is that I can let go of some things that I never would have let go in my Classical days; he can help with those responsibilities.
What is your immediate wish for Circle Theatre?
I want there to be a safe, open happy place to work and for people to come and see plays, and I want that important fundamental conversation to continue to happen and to grow and expand.
Does that mean growing to six plays a year?
Possibly. We’ve talked about that, although we also want to raise artist pay and look at other options before [committing to a sixth production].
Are you happy to have returned to the world of theater full-time?
The silliest thing I ever did was tell myself that theater was no longer part of me. One of the great things about theater is that you’re doing something that matters. I want what I do to matter.