I learned late Monday night that Katherine Owens, co-founder of Undermain Theatre, died at Baylor Hospital on Sunday morning following a very private battle with aggressive lymphoma. She was 61 years old, and had directed at least 100 brave, mind-expanding, heart-stirring avant-garde and classic plays, and acted in countless others.
I’d just finished a Festival of Independent Theatres review and paid household bills, and took a last look at email messages to be sure all was delivered. I read the terrible news. Crushed and sobbing and shocked, I phoned a mutual close friend and we talked into the night about Kat, about her passion for theater and vigorous lifelong commitment to her craft. About the grace and talent of her husband and artistic partner Bruce DuBose, and his courage in taking her vision forward. We talked of the numb, hollow sense of loss we shared, an ache in head and body, part grief, part fury at the effin universe for putting out a bright, beloved star.
For more than 40 years and a dozen different publications, I’ve written about the arts and theater in Dallas, and like most longtime live theater junkies in the city, I got my first fix in the concrete-pillared basement space of Undermain, where Owens and company have held forth for 35 years. In the early days, I saw plays like I’d never seen before, so full of shimmering metaphors and fat meaning they were like swimming into an underground pool of words made flesh. I loved it. I loved the poetry, the costumes, the gritty feeling of hunkering together in a pitch-dark cave with all human-made lighting. I took my friends, my college students, and everybody in my family to see the likes of Caryl Churchill’s Fen and other stark feminist dramas, and Len Jenkins’ otherworldly sci-fi humanist comedy Port Twilight. Fantastic stuff, all.
A list of playwrights introduced to Dallas audiences at Undermain over the years is a reflection of the burst of experimental theater in America: Mac Wellman, Lynn Alvarez, Erik Ehn, Jeffrey Jones, Suzan- Lori Parks (Undermain produced Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom well before the mainstream theater world knew of Parks)—and the list goes on. I saw Taylor Mac’s brilliant gender-fluid performance art, The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, at Undermain in 2010, and I totally got it and kept it. I loved Kat’s take on classics, too, especially the erotic, sumptuous productions of Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata and Easter. When Kat directed Chekhov’s Three Sisters, I saw these women in a whole new, heartbreaking way.
When I took the stairs to the basement, I knew I was in for a surprising and revealing night of theater that made the world look bigger. Kat took care of that.
Like a lot of people I know who’d spent part of their lives in West Texas, Kat could see a long way. She had that terrific depth perception that comes with seeing huge clouds of weather roll in, casting enormous shadows over a flat prairie. She also had a very long attention span, a gift she gave back to her audiences. And Kat had a way of directing a scene that wrapped all the people and the scrims and pillars and props on the stage into a single symphonic movement that included me—all of us—in the sweep of words and emotions. A whole scene was over and I could exhale. Riveting, I’d call it.
My first “spread” feature for the weekly I was writing for in 1985 was an interview with Katherine Owens about the kind of work she and her company co-founder Raphael Parry were up to in their urban-artist basement space in Deep Ellum. The photographer assigned couldn’t take his camera off the petite, stunning young woman talking about theater and strolling around the fat columns in this empty warehouse with concrete floors. They’re already polished in my memory, and reflecting her whirling figure in the space she loved. I was renovating a 1904 house in East Dallas then, and “historic preservation” and “adaptive reuse” were hot topics in our neighborhood conversations. Well, here was a smart, articulate woman with a vision for alternative theater—preserving, adapting, reusing, inventing—in this exciting alternative space. My header was written, I was smitten, and I have been a Kat fan ever since.
There are many more lovely anecdotes that come to mind as I remember Katherine Owens. I loved the fundraiser clothes-swaps she staged in the early days, when all us girls would take our dresses and belts and wraps down to the basement, where helpers hung them on rolling racks. And we’d drink champagne and talk about life and fashion and try on each other’s clothes, safe in our bras and slips, one story down in Deep Ellum.
I’m not an actor or stage designer, and my degrees are in English, not drama, so I can’t say I helped create the shows, as so many of her colleagues have done. I can’t really explain, as they perhaps can, how Kat made the serendipitous stew, so tasty and satisfying, that got served up at Undermain so reliably we all got spoiled. I can say I’m forever grateful to those many gifted artists for what appeared on opening nights. I came, I saw, I often gave it a rave. As Michael Jordan famously said of his ardent Chicago Bulls fans, “They also serve who only stand and cheer.”
RIP, Katherine Owens. Xxoos
» Read Bruce DuBose's obituary of Katherine here.
» The funeral service will be 11 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7 at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas. Flowers can be sent to the Church of the Incarnation starting Tuesday, Aug. 6; and donations in her memory to the theater where her legacy will continue can be made at www.undermain.org.