Dallas — A shock wave of surprise and dismay swept over Dallas’ multi-faceted arts community in July when Katherine Owens, the brilliant and charismatic co-founder of Undermain Theatre, died at age 61 after a brief, fierce battle with cancer. Her husband, Bruce DuBose, now producing artistic director of the groundbreaking company that celebrates its 36th season this year, worked with family, the national and international arts community and the City of Dallas to arrange the funeral and memorial services honoring “Kat,” a singular woman whose vision, passion and knife-sharp intelligence seeded the ground for the work of many daring theatre companies our city now enjoys.
Did Kat have a plan? What happens next to this vibrant company, now supported by almost 6,000 patrons, that Owens birthed and nourished for so many years? DuBose, award-winning actor, musician and long-time producing partner with Owens, steadied the wave of grief with the work of keeping the iconic 90-seat basement theater afloat. With 35 world premieres in as many years, coupled with detailed productions of seminal modern classics, Undermain has established quite a legacy.
Sitting in Undermain’s Greene Room (named for longtime board member, architect Graham Greene) we posed questions, talked about art and loss, and opened the door for DuBose to speak in his own strong voice about upcoming plans for Undermain Theatre.
UPDATE: The theater has just announced that beginning Sept. 26, the exhibit Katherine Owens: Artist, Painter, Photographer/ A retropspecive collection of her life an legacy will be on display in the Undermain lobby.
TheaterJones: Did Kat have time to imagine Undermain’s future in the days before her death? What did she want most to be carried forward?
Bruce DuBose: Of course, Katherine and I had goals for the Undermain in the coming years. In fact, because we were married and working together, we talked so much about a show or staffing or funding that we had to make rules, to draw a line between work and our life at home. Sometimes, she’d say, “Let’s don’t talk about the future of the theater; I want to take a walk.” We would say to each other the Zen mantra, “This is what it is now.” That remains a good motto for me. The board and the staff and I have been taking steps to fulfill all those goals we’ve been formulating. I’m not quite ready to reveal everything right now, but they are essentially what Katherine and I and our board developed in our strategic plan.
Can you comment on whether that plan includes seeking more space or a new location?
We will not leave our Undermain space, and we have a great relationship with Westdale Real Estate, the current owners of the building. The space is part of Kat’s heritage. It’s our ancestral home, and everyone loves this basement. Running a theater in the space is like the grit in an oyster; it forces you come up with a pearl of a solution. More space is an issue for us, especially when it comes to rehearsing and building sets. Our board has formed an Ultimate Space Committee for Undermain to increase room for some of the work we want to do.
Uber is bringing a huge new office center to Deep Ellum. What do you think that might entail for the historically arts-friendly district. Does that affect your plans?
Undermain has contributed from its beginnings to the success and development of Deep Ellum as a destination for entertainment, art galleries, restaurants and a good place to live. When we first came here 35 years ago, people were afraid to come to the neighborhood. Now big corporations are looking to put their headquarters in the area. We all know Dallas is very pro-development, but we are hoping we can preserve our link to the past of Deep Ellum. Undermain is housed in a historic landmark building, so that’s some protection.
Theater exists on a calendar of seasons, so can you comment on any immediate adjustment you made to the season 2019-2020 schedule of plays? [The calendar includes the world premiere of Gordon Dahlquist’s Red Chariot; the regional premiere of The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse; Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s classic 19th century novel adapted by Adrienne Kennedy; and a series of new play readings in the spring of 2020.]
Katherine and I planned the current season together. She even chose the cast of Madame Bovary from videos of season auditions which I brought to her while she was too ill to attend in person. We’re all excited to be workshopping a new David Rabe play, He’s Born, He’s Borne, that will be the centerpiece of our Whither Goest Thou America, our festival of new American plays. [Rabe won a Tony Award for Sticks and Bones in 1972, and wrote other Broadway hits, including Streamers and Hurlyburly.] Funding for this workshop is provided in part by a grant from the TACA New Works Fund. We’re grateful that TACA is behind this project that Katherine worked on with David Rabe over the past year. This will be a true workshop production not available for review, but presented for invited audiences of donors, Undermain season pass holders, artists, journalists and parties interested in the play’s production potential. This approach enables the playwright and Undermain to explore the performance approach to an experimental play free from the pressures of openings and critical reviews. Undermain company member Blake Hackler will direct the workshop and David has asked me to perform in it. Undermain will also present the play in a subsequent season in a full production. The workshop model developed on this work will become a permanent part of our annual new play festivals. In addition to this, we have other projects in development that Katherine envisioned for future seasons.
What is a “performance approach,” and how is that different from a rehearsal or reading?
In this play, David has created a medieval world outside of human history, with its own vocabulary and terms. There are angels and an agrarian population of humans, and Death is a character. You have to work a play like that out together with a cast and director and previews to see how far you can go, to see what is comprehended. It’s not like a conventional play that’s set in a historical framework everyone instantly recognizes.
You just announced that Dr. Danielle Georgiou, known as a dance-theatre choreographer and dance professor, has signed on as Undermain’s associate artistic director. How do you see her vision perpetuating and/or changing Undermain’s mission?
Danielle is a highly qualified and learned practitioner of avant-garde and experimental performance. Katherine and I chose her together for this position and discussed the job with her for some months. She worked closely with Katherine on several productions and considers Katherine to be a mentor. I think she’ll make great contributions to Undermain. While there won’t be any change to Undermain’s mission, Danielle will be bringing to the productions her expertise in movement and dance-oriented work. For example, Madame Bovary has a very large cast of actors moving on and off the stage or performing together in some scenes. Danielle is skilled in orchestrating such complex scenes.
Could this mean that master puppeteer, musician, actor and playwright Justin Locklear, Georgiou’s partner and sometimes dance group member, might be working with Undermain?
[DuBose laughs] Justin is very committed to his work with Ochre House Theatre, but I do envision opportunities for his talents if he’s available.
Undermain is strong, both artistically and financially. Is there a magic formula for that stability that allows actors and writers and designers to work creatively and also be paid for their hours?
While I like the idea of a quote-unquote magic formula, the stability comes from methodical and consistent work with and support of a board of directors, plus donors who have complete faith in the work and vision set forth by Katherine and me. Ten years ago, we began a campaign to raise money for a development director to write grants and seek formal funding sources. We have also learned the enormous importance of cultivating relationships with people who support new experimental work. Many grants want a big educational component. Last season, we did perform An Iliad for high schools, and it was the first such live theater experience for many students. We might look to more such outreach coming up. The short answer for our success is our board, some of whom have been with us 30 years, and some 20 years. Their support gives Undermain the ability to channel those blessings to the artists and to the Dallas community we serve. Katherine and I always believed that the ability to provide a living wage for artists and to provide some access to healthcare benefits when possible are essential elements to sustaining a thriving arts ecosystem.
You’ve worked locally and internationally and had a long look at the city over the years. What do you like about this city, and what would you add to Dallas’ current live theater scene?
I’ve been pleased with the prospering, diverse and growing arts scene in Dallas and Fort Worth. When we began the Undermain there were only a handful of theater companies in Dallas and now the scene is flourishing with a terrific array of performance options. Much of it is geared to entertainment and mainstream performance, and that can be rewarding, too. Still, I take great pride in seeing an abundance of challenging, alternative, and experimental work in our theaters. I’ve always admired an aphorism put forward by Howard Barker: “You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies. After the musical, you’re anybody’s fool.” I think what we really need now is to be armed against lies, although I do enjoy a good musical, occasionally.
Does Undermain Theatre have plans for a grant or fund honoring Kat?
We do have plans to establish a lasting memorial fund honoring Kat, and I am in preliminary discussions with the board. We plan to talk about it in detail at our upcoming board meeting. As soon as a have more facts, I’ll call you first thing. Certainly, Katherine is and always will be alive in the work of Undermain.