Videos capture Theatre Three executive producer Jac Alder during the past two years — performing on stage and doling out wisdom and wit in an interview. Alder co-founded Theatre Three and ran it for more than 50 years, longer than any other resident theater director in America. Monday night, Theatre Three will hold a celebration of Alder, who died May 22nd at the age of 80. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on Alder’s final stage performance and his last public interview.
In 2013, Jac Alder was 78, but choreographer Bruce Wood asked him to perform in a major dance piece he was developing. Last year, Alder recalled being approached by the Bruce Wood Dance Company.
“The first thing about that,” Alder said, “is I danced in college and so, when I was asked if I’d like to collaborate with Bruce, I said, ‘Oh‘ — he begins to preen his hair as if getting ready for a performance — “My gosh. I’m really not certain my extension …’ And they said, ‘We don’t want you to dance! We want you to speak!”
Alder recalled all this at a special event, a master class held in his honor last year at the Nasher Sculpture Center as part of Dallas Arts Week. It would be Alder’s last public interview. During the interview, the longtime theater leader was asked what had kept him interested in live theater? Why was the stage important to him? Alder said it wasn’t so much the plays. Plays are really just a tool to bring people together. The theater, Alder said, helps human beings create shared experiences and shared values.
“Live theater is absolutely not replaceable by anything else,” he insisted. “And God knows, we’ve got all sorts of devices. But [theater is] very high-touch in a very out-of-touch world. And it just excites me. It is where I find human joy.”
As for his collaboration with Bruce Wood, Alder said how much he enjoyed working with the dancers. But he complained, with only two performances, the whole experience was over — too soon. The dance was called I’m My Brother’s Keeper, and it would be Alder’s last live stage performance. Within a year, Bruce Wood himself would also be dead.
In I’m My Brother’s Keeper, Alder recited two monologues, culled from poems by Duane Michaels. He spoke as an elderly man who’s returned to his family home, now fallen apart. He bids farewell to the ghosts of his childhood.
Although in his poems Michaels refers to Lear and Faust and evokes Huckleberry Finn, in Jac’s moving incantation seen in the video above, one can’t help but think of Prospero bidding farewell to all his theatrical magic at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest — when afterwards, Prospero adds, “every third thought shall be my grave.”
“I, who am most blessed,” Alder intones, “with this incantation, now put this place to rest. When I was a boy here, everyone called me Sonny. Well, Sonny is gone now, with all the rest. But he still lives here,” he says, tapping his chest, “with every breath I breathe. But something is still finished. The shadows of these empty rooms have bequeathed me the reality of death . . .
“It seems a peculiar irony to me,” he adds, “that most of us must cease to be to know the real of our reality. My yesterdays are this debris, and I, alas, am 70.
“And I, alas, am 70.”
Excerpts from the April 2014 public interview
As part of Dallas Arts Week in April 2014, a master class was arranged in honor of Alder. I was asked to interview him onstage in the auditorium of the Nasher Sculpture Center. Theatre Three’s company manager and music director, Terry Dobson — who also died this past April at 59 — was asked to appear as an “illuminator.” Basically, Terry was there to provide names and dates if Jac forgot them. He never had to; mostly, he was Jac’s comic sidekick.
I began by asking Alder some basics, like why Dallas? Why did he choose to come here — when he was born and raised in Oklahoma? Jac explained he moved to Dallas to find work as an architect and ultimately met Norma Young — who would co-found Theatre Three with him and whom he’d eventually marry.
So I asked him, why theater? What was so important about the stage that kept him involved in it so long?
Over the years, Alder did everything at Theatre Three: acting, directing, producing, managing, designing sets and costumes, even writing revues. Terry Dobson had also been a jack-of-all-trades there. He said, it had been part of his plan to make himself invaluable to Jac — while Alder countered that artists should embrace all that kind of work as simply part of the art.
Which prompted Dobson to relate his favorite Norma Young story.
Given Jac’s wide-ranging experiences in running a theater and performing onstage and given his abilities to argue, to speak, to collate what he’d learned in his many years in the theater, teaching drama students seemed a natural sideline.
But when he taught at UT-Arlington, Alder said he couldn’t find a way to teach them one essential of the art.
An audience member asked Alder if working with the Bruce Wood Dance Company on I’m My Brother’s Keeper was different than working in the theater.
With Wood in the audience, Alder recalled what it was like working with the North Texas choreographer, who would suddenly die only a month-and-a-half after this public interview.
Another audience member asked Alder to describe who are the best audiences — and, for that matter, who make the best actors?
A third audience member, a musician, complained about media coverage of the arts and asked Alder if he had any advice on how it might improve, how artists might advocate for more public attention. This was a bete noire of Alder’s – the lack of respect, as he called it, from the local broadcast outlets. As for the new age of social media, Alder said we’re still “stumbling around in it” but held out hope in acquiring more access to videos and a web audience — and more arts education in public schools.
So Alder had run Theatre Three for more than 50 years — and he’d done everything humanly possible with that theater, including inspiring young people who went on to become major artists such as the Pultizer prize-winning playwrights Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) and Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife). So what did Alder want to do now?
What goals were left unfulfilled?
The two monologues from I’m My Brother’s Keeper
In Bruce Wood’s dance piece, Jac Alder performed two monologues that were compiled from poems written by the photographer Duane Michaels. Wood choreographed the full-length work around the words, individual photos that inspired him as well as haunting music, including “Nature Boy,” the Eden Ahbez song made famous by Nat King Cole.
In the monologues, Alder played a man who returns to his family home, recalls his hard-working, hard-smoking, alcoholic father, contemplates the way nature still pushes life through the rotted floor, recalls his discovery of his own gay sexuality — and confronts his own mortality.
The celebration of Alder’s life and art starts promptly at 6 pm Monday at the City Performance Hall. Theatre Three’s interim artistic director Bruce Coleman says they want to get through the songs and eulogies in an hour so they can honor Alder’s expressed wish for any such celebration to have time for “delicious food and useful libations” — and “then everybody get on with it.”
Read Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright’s eulogy to Alder — the one read at the late theater leader’s celebration.