Interview: Kevin Moriarty on the Dallas Theater Center’s Citywide Takeover

Last Friday the Dallas Theater Center announced the lineup for its 2011-2012 season. More than just a menu of new shows, next season will see the DTC take three bold steps: producing a new, nationally significant musical, broadly engaging the community, and launching a systematic effort to commission new work from playwrights. We sat down with artistic director Kevin Moriarty to talk about their Giant musical, the Dallas-Fort Worth To Kill a Mockingbird takeover, and the five young playwrights the DTC will take under their wing.

Let’s start with Giant. There has been some buzz about that play – in the New York Times, no less. What’s the story there?

Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson, both of whom Tony nominated writers, have written this musical that was commissioned couple of years ago in Washington DC. We’ve brought on a major, major Broadway director named Michael Greif, who’s a three-time Tony nominee for Rent, Grey Gardens, and Next to Normal – all brand new musicals, and each very distinct new musicals, very fresh voices. We brought him on board maybe six months ago, and he’s been now working with the writers to create and refine the piece. We’ve done a week-long developmental reading in New York with actors. In the spring, we are doing a three-week workshop in New York with Michael and the writers and the actors. And then in January we will produce the premiere here at the Wyly of this version, which will be a coproduction with the Public Theater in New York – so maybe six, seven, eight months later, the show will happen in New York.

It’s the biggest – both the size of the show and the budget – it is the largest show we have done in our fifty-three year history. And with a big musical like that – the size of orchestra, the size of cast, and, frankly, the size and scope of ideas: Mexican-Americans, Texas, relationships between oil versus land, ranching versus oil wealth, generational conflicts that are probably inevitable but also necessary for progress, each generation rebels against the preceding one – those are big ideas, and how to make those dramatic is challenging. But also, our love of Texas stories, important new work, and bringing artists to Dallas who, frankly, otherwise would be here – we couldn’t get Michael Greif to come and direct a production of Oklahoma. That is the centerpiece of our season.

How did the partnership with the Public Theater come about?

I flew out to DC to see the premiere, and [New York Public Theater Artistic Director] Oscar Eustis and I were speaking after that about the piece, and he was saying what he liked, and I was saying the same thing. Both of us agreed that if the writers were open and available we would provide them with the resources, which is largely time – and also the resources of productions and actors and all that. We thought it was potentially a very important musical; it is potentially a big, classic work. You never know, but it shoots high, which is different from a lot of pieces, even pieces we’ve done that have aimed to be witty, or entertaining, or diverting, or charming. Giant is attempting to really speak to big questions about values – American values. Very specifically Texas values, but whenever the nation looks at Texas they are looking at the microcosm of where we are going. Sometimes that is of deep concern, honestly, to the nation. But sometimes it is the hope of what we can be.

Another major initiative next season is To Kill A Mockingbird. What are you doing with that production?

We are doing a couple of things, significantly community-wise. We’re partnering with Casa Manana in Fort Worth – the first time in our 53 years we have ever done that. Casa is the largest theater in Fort Worth, and we’re the largest theater in Dallas, but typically there is very little overlap or relationship between the theaters. So we’ll produce the play, and the play will happen in both Dallas and Fort Worth, so we’re going to be able to blanket and it will reach a larger audience, but it also means that we are going to kind of be able to take over the Metroplex. Well, I think this more now than I would have thought when I was younger: I think you could make the argument that To Kill A Mockingbird is in the pantheon of truly great novels. I don’t think we can say Harper Lee is a great novelist because she didn’t write anything else, but the voice of the novel – I’m shocked going back to it how perfectly she captures the kind of ironic, naïveté point-of-view that Huck Finn and Catcher in the Rye does, but is so hard to get. The young character who is saying the opposite of the moral message of the play, and yet you are totally following where the moral message is.

So we are not only partnering with Casa, but we are working with the Dallas Public Library and a variety of other community partners who we are bringing together right now to do a major city-wide read of the book. The vision and the hope is that we are going to get cross-generation, so high school kids in their classrooms, but adults in book clubs all over who are going to read the book, then either go to their book clubs, or their public library, or their community centers and engage in a book discussion. Then they will come to see the play, where we are hoping the post-performance conversations will cut across the lines that naturally form. You know, typically a book club, or even your neighborhood library, or your high school are going to be people who all have a shared geographic and experiential center. So we are hoping to build those layers to say, read the book, have a personal response, engage with like-minded neighbors in a conversation like that and then have the experience where it is translated into another medium where you are in a broader public forum, and then engage in that conversation. What do these questions of race, justice, the power and responsibility of good parenting and good neighboring – it will be fun to see how those happen. We’ll probably have an academic component and we’re hoping to kind of take over the city.

I imagine then you are making an extra effort to bring students to the play.

It will be the post school-time performances that we’ve done with any play in the last ten years. It will be a major effort to reach out to young audiences, and I’m hoping that the young audiences will have the experience in engaging with adult audiences in those conversations. Because one of the things that struck me about re-reading the book is just how adult the novel is – it really is written at a sophisticated level that didn’t land on me even when I was in high school.

The new production that is taking place in the Studio Theater is Tigers Be Still by Kim Rosenstock. And you are commissioning new work from her as well?

We’ve commissioned her to write a new play for us. So when we produced Tigers Be Still it will give our audience a chance to experience her breakthrough piece that has already happened in New York. At the same time she is already writing a new piece for us so that our audience will have the same experience I’ve had. The audience will come to it with the same knowledge and experience that I’ve had. That’s something that we are going to do a fair amoynt of in the next couple of years. We have, I think it is five writers who we’ve signed or about to sign to commission, which is not something that we have done at all in my tenure. We’ve done a lot of new plays, but they are new plays that come to us.

We’re at the point now where writers will start coming to Dallas, we’ll introduce them to the community, we’ll take them to all our favorite places, our favorite restaurants, all the tourist sites, all the neighborhoods – we’ll spend a couple of days just showing them the town. We’ll have them work with our acting company, we’ll have them engage with students and the community, and then we’ll say, okay, when you’re ready, write a play about whatever you want to write about. Who knows what that will be, but you already have had some engagement with us as a community, and you know what you write will end up in front of our audience. And that’s new for us and I think has the potential to – I think it will provide a new energy.

Is that something that has been in the back of your mind, that you’ve wanted to roll out at some point?

Very much so. When I first arrived, the very first thing I thought of was we should commission writers to write plays for us, but it seemed to me that if that was the first thing I did, it would take three or four years before we got any of those projects to the stage. So I made a very conscious choice that instead of waiting, because it is hard to build excitement around three years from now, we made a conscious choice to put our resources towards immediately producing new work right away that first season – four of the five were new plays that year. So that was the goal these last few years was first to get our audiences, the critics, the writers, and the national theater community aware of the fact – which now there is a great awareness of – that Dallas Theater Center is here, we do new work, part of coming to the theater here is seeing Shakespeare in a bold, muscular way, or seeing classic stories brought to life, but part of it is also about seeing work that you haven’t seen before. So that was the first wave of those initiatives – and those will continue.

Commissioning new work, though, says something to our community and to the national theater community when we say. What a commission allows a writer to do is say I’m going to spend the next two or three months not doing another job. I’m going to take a leave of absence from my university teaching job, I’m going to not work at a school or as a waiter, or a literary manager, or an editor, or whatever that thing would be – I’m just going to wake up in the morning and write.