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Why Have a Festival for Horton Foote, Anyway?

by Jerome Weeks 11 Mar 2011 7:14 AM

Beginning this week, seventeen arts organization from Dallas to Flower Mound, Fort Worth to Addison, will be presenting the plays and films of a single writer, Texas native Horton Foote. Other festivals have celebrated Foote’s work before. So why this one?


Beginning this week, seventeen arts organization from Dallas to Flower Mound, Fort Worth to Addison, will be presenting the plays and films of a single writer, Texas native Horton Foote. Other festivals have celebrated Foote’s work. KERA’s Jerome Weeks explains why this one’s unique.

Dallas Morning News story (subs. req.)

Theater Jones story

FrontRow story

KERA radio story:

    Expanded online story:

    [crowd noise comes up] During a Dallas Film Society event last November, Robert Duvall spoke about Horton Foote. Duvall acted in four films written by him, including To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, plus two smaller films adapted from his plays, Convicts and Tomorrow (originally a William Faulkner short story).

    Duvall: “A lot of young stage actors never even heard of Horton. He perhaps is our greatest playwright, more than Arthur Miller, Williams or any of them. And I had a 50-year relationship with Horton. He and Francis Coppola, if I’d have only done the work they offered me, it would have been a wonderful mini-career.”

    There’ve been festivals of Horton Foote’s plays before this. Significantly, in 1994, the Signature Theatre devoted an entire season to his work. It sparked renewed interest in  him — in New York City, at least, which had mostly ignored Foote for three decades. It still couldn’t get him a Broadway production at the time, but the renewed interest led to a Pulitzer Prize the next year for Young Man from Atlanta (to be presented here by Uptown Players) .

    The Horton Foote Festival doesn’t mean to ‘renew’ interest so much as to broaden and deepen it.

    The festival is the largest collective project, ever, by the area’s theater companies, plus a couple of schools and a moviehouse. In addition, Arts & Letters Live, the literary series at the Dallas Museum of Art, is bringing in both Foote’s actress-daughter Hallie and his biographer, Wilborn Hampton, for a panel discussion. SMU’s DeGolyer Library is exhibiting some of its extensive collection of Foote’s personal papers (you can see some of the collection online) and it’s also printing a memorial volume, Farewell: Remembering Horton Foote, 1916-2009. The book will contain more than 60 essays by family members and colleagues (including Edward Albee, Robert Duvall and James Houghton, the artistic director of the Signature Theatre).

    One reason for such an outpouring is that Foote’s plays – as Duvall says – are still not that well known or fully appreciated. Foote first gained real attention as a TV writer in the ‘50s. His most popular play, The Trip to Bountiful (to be presented here by Contemporary Theatre of Dallas), began as a TV show, and became a 1985 film. But it’s among his most sentimental, predictable dramas. As a result, when people first encounter Foote, they may conclude his plays are quaint and dated — particularly in any stage production that doesn’t catch the sense of unexpressed feelings, the undercurrents and cross-currents in his families.

    Foote is the only author to win an Emmy Award for television writing, a Pulitzer Prize for drama and two Oscars for screenwriting, one for Mockingbird, the other for Tender Mercies. Yet even now, he’s often considered a folksy spinner of family lore — an estimation that unfortunately has been encouraged by the sub-title of Hampton’s biography, Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller.

    That’s how Kevin Moriarty initially saw Foote. Moriarty is the artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center and the man behind the Horton Foote Festival.

    Moriarty: “The plays don’t read as well as they play. When you read them, there is a simplicity at times, almost a naivete. But when you see them played out fully inhabited by actors, the flesh and blood that they bring instantly deepens and enriches them.”

    Foote’s plays do not have flamboyant starring roles; they tend to be conventionally realistic dramas, dependent on a strong ensemble of actors –which is why they’re often compared to Anton Chekhov’s.

    Moriarty: “And I think at times that made his writing seem old-fashioned or out of the mainstream. Tennessee Williams spent his whole career trying to invent a new way of making plays, and I don’t think that’s a concern that Horton ever had.”

    In fact, Foote’s plays have even shared the same complaint first leveled against Chekhov’s:  nothing much happens in many of them. His families come apart quietly. And the plays don’t call attention to themselves or to their artistry. His primary concern, Foote always said, was just getting the people and the stories right, dramatically honest and clear. (Coincidentally, also much like Chekhov, Foote is a master of the one-act; the Foote Festival will be presenting a bumper crop of 10.)

    Of course, a chief reason the Foote Festival is happening in North Texas is that Foote is a Texas playwright. Moriarty says that what marks Foote as a Texas writer are some of the traits that make him a great writer. There’s a clear-eyed testing of character, good or bad. There’s a sense of hardscrabble limitations to these lives. And there’s a steely spareness, a dryness to the dialogue that distinguishes Foote as a Texan — as opposed to a Southern — writer.

    You do not get, Moriarty says, the “poetry of a Southern writer.” The broken-down country singer Duvall played in Tender Mercies asks about marrying the woman who saved him (played by Tess Harper). This is Mac Sledge’s entire marriage proposal.

    Duvall: “I guess it’s no secret how I feel about you. A blind man could see how I feel. [Pause.] Would you think about marryin’ me?”

    Kevin Moriarty: “Buried underneath that are waves of hope or joy or resentment or desire, but it doesn’t come bursting out in big flowery expressions.”

    It’s also true that writing from a small-town East Texas perspective, Foote does not conform to many of the West Texas expectations that many people have of a “Texas” writer: no cattle drives, no ranches, no shoot-outs, no desert landscape.  At times, he does deal with race and class, however, and with oil — with the damages that a sudden, transforming influx of wealth can bring. This is essentially the story of Dividing the Estate, which the Dallas Theater Center is presenting. Given the generational-family struggle over who inherits what and the looming possibility of a new industry taking over the town, Dividing the Estate can be seen as Foote’s counter to Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’s acidic, melodramatic satire of the ‘New South’ and its nouveau riche.

    Considering his all-important Texas background, it’s worth noting that Foote did have a slender connection to Dallas — and to a Dallas theater that still stands. At 16, Foote wanted more than anything to study to be a stage actor in New York. But this was 1932, the middle of the Depression. The expense involved represented a considerable sacrifice (Horton’s father, Albert, was a haberdasher and not rich) and the Foote family didn’t know anyone in New York. Albert eventually compromised with his son and agreed to his graduating high school and then studying at the Pasadena Playhouse (where Horton had a great-aunt).

    Before Horton left for California, though, his father said Horton could visit his Aunt Laura in Dallas and take acting lessons here. He stayed in a rented house in Oak Cliff and attended a drama academy called the Woodward School (I can find no historic record of the place). Unfortunately, the classes turned out to be more like elocution lessons.

    But to pay for his tuition, Horton would hop a streetcar and go downtown, where he had job — as an usher at the Majestic Theatre. Think of that the next time you sit in those red velvet chairs; Horton Foote once tore tickets here.

    Foote’s most vital, most generative connection to Texas was, of course, to the town of Wharton, outside of Houston, where he was born and raised. Even though he eventually settled his own family in New Hampshire, he retained the Foote family home in Wharton — the house where his father died, where his brothers were born. Foote gives Wharton the name of Harrison in his plays, and he uses the town, especially in his nine-play cycle, Orphans’ Home,  to relate the story of his family, also the history of Texas from plantation to oil, and the entire range of our troubled human interactions: inheritance, marriage, disappointment, loss, redemption.

    Horton Foote died two years ago at 92. In a 2006 interview with KERA’s Lee Cullum, he spoke about his hometown:

    Foote: “Wharton is my substance, let’s put it that way. And I really strive to be honest and to cherish and to celebrate the things that are worth celebrating. And I would be lost without it. I mean, it was given to me.”

    photo image outfront: designer John Arnone’s set for Dividing the Estate at the Dallas Theater Center


    Arts & Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art: panel with biographer Wilborn Hampton and daughter Hallie Foote

    Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas: three  one-acts,  Courtship, The Young Lady of Property and The Dancers

    Contemporary Theatre of Dallas: The Trip to Bountiful

    Dallas Film Society International Film Festival, screening of a Horton Foote film, to be announced

    Dallas Theater Center at the Wyly Theatre: Dividing the Estate

    DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas: exhibition, Life and Work of Horton Foote

    Echo Theatre at the Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas: a staged reading of Bhutan by Daisy Foote

    Flower Mound Performing Arts Theatre in Flower Mound: readings of The Midnight Caller, The Dancers and The Land of the Astronaut

    Kitchen Dog Theater at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas: 3 Foote: An Evening of One-Acts – Blind Date, The Man Who Climbed Pecan Trees and One-Armed Man

    Rotunda Theatre at First United Methodist Church of Dallas: two one-acts, The Old Beginning and John Turner Davis

    Stage West in Fort Worth: Talking Pictures

    Studio Movie Grill in Dallas: screening of To Kill a Mockingbird

    Theatre Three in Dallas: The Roads to Home (three one-acts): Nightingale, The Dearest of Friends and Spring Dance

    Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas: The Young Man from Atlanta

    WaterTower Theatre at the Addison Theatre Centre: The Traveling Lady

    WingSpan Theatre Company with One-Thirty Productions at the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas: The Carpetbagger’s Children