Marty van Kleeck, managing director of Theatre Three, said Jac Alder died early this afternoon at Baylor Hospital. The cause was respiratory failure, although Alder had long suffered from chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). He had been taken to the hospital a month ago with breathing difficulty but had returned home to his Uptown-area condominium. Van Kleeck said it was a shock when he went back to Baylor two days ago because he seemed to be doing so well.
The theater has suffered the loss of several of its longstanding talents — including music director, Terry Dobson, who died in New York at 59 last month, and Laurence O’Dwyer, the theater’s leading actor for decades, who died at 77 last year in his hometown of Knox City, Texas. Alder himself may well have been the longest-serving original founder of a professional resident theater company in the country. He celebrated his — and the theater’s 50th anniversary — in 2011.
Jac Alder was the ‘happy warrior’ of North Texas theater. He always had something of a chip on his shoulder, running the “second” theater in town after the Dallas Theater Center (which opened in 1960 — a year before Theatre Three). He frequently and proudly reminded people that, until 2003, Theatre Three was the only leading arts organization in the area that owned its facility — unlike the Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Opera, etc. — all of which receive city support and a city-owned building.
But Alder was often the politically outspoken ‘theater leader’ when it came to battles over arts funding — or other social issues including racial equality and gay rights. Theater Three was open to artists of color from the start — long before many Dallas institutions were. Alder and Theatre Three pioneered bringing socially conscious dramas to Dallas by such writers as Athol Fugard and August Wilson. Alder himself served on the Texas Commission on the Arts and was on the board of Texas Non-Profit Theatres.
It was Norma Young’s idea to establish the theater in 1961, having received a small inheritance from a great-aunt. And she convinced three others to join her: Esther Ragland, Robert Dracup — and Alder, who had met Young when she cast him in a community theater production of Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of an Author. Their theater started a seven-show season in the Sheraton Dallas Hotel ballroom — and the two would soon marry.
Young was inspired by Margo Jones, Dallas’ original theater patron saint, who championed “theater-in-the-round” when she created Theater ’47, one of the original, residential theater companies in the United States. Young liked the intimacy of the format. More than 50 years after it started, Theater Three remains a theater-in-the-round in its 242-seat space in the Quadrangle.
Alder was born in Yukon, Oklahoma — or, as he often joked, “Far North Dallas.” He studied to be an architect at the University of Oklahoma, but it was only while he was serving in the U.S. Army overseas and was put in charge of a touring theater troupe that he caught the theater bug. He moved to Dallas to practice architecture and, although he quit to run Theatre Three, he often used his architectural skills in later years when he designed sets for the theater and was also intensely involved in the re-design, upgrade and expansion of the theater’s space in the Quadrangle.
In fact, Alder did just about everything at the theater: designed, directed, produced, managed and, of course, acted. Frankly, on stage, in public under almost any circumstances, Alder was a bit of a ham — he enjoyed the attention, the laughter. But that hardly meant he hogged the spotlight; he delighted in other artists’ work, too — and could frequently be heard in the audience, cackling happily at one of his actor’s performances.
After its first season, Theatre Three moved into a remodeled car-seat factory on Main Street in Deep Ellum (above). It may have become a safe, “established” theater in recent decades, but it was actually the city’s first “off-Broadway” or “Deep Ellum” theater company — long before the Undermain. It gave such writers as Harold Pinter, Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett their North Texas premieres.
By 1969, however, it had outgrown that Main Street facility as well. It eventually leased space in what was then a brand-new development, the Quadrangle, in what had been known for decades as the State-Thomas area (named for two streets crossing there). Real-estate developers have since re-named it Uptown.
But by the mid-80s, Theatre Three faced a severe financial crisis. At one point, Alder even called a press conference to declare he would be forced to shut the theater down in a few months. He had no liquidity, no line of credit left, nothing to pay the bills to keep the theater going. He explained that back when there were Texas-based banks — back before the savings-and-loan scandal wiped out many of them or they were bought up by giants like Citibank — he could ask his local banker to let him float the theater for a month or two, to get past a tight cash-flow crunch like this. No more.
Van Kaplan — then the head of Fort Worth’s Casa Manana, now the executive producer of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera — advised Alder not to pull the plug. He convinced Alder there were still avenues he could pursue, a lot of goodwill in the community he could tap into. Instead of folding, the theater actually rebounded and — aided by its board and by the Texas real-estate recession that followed a calamitous drop in oil prices — Alder actually bought the theater’s home in the Quadrangle.
The survival of Alder and Theatre Three is all the more remarkable when one considers the company never attained high-society cachet. The company did not really attract Dallas’ big-name, multi-millionaire elite or well-established foundations to its board: You did not get your picture in FD or D or the city’s social columns simply by being a major donor to Theatre Three. The theater has had devoted, well-off supporters, but in the event of emergencies or major campaigns, Alder did not have a lot of the city’s truly deep pockets to dip into.
Over the years, Alder, Young (who died in 1998) and their theater, especially its children’s theater program run by O’Dwyer, inspired a number of notable talents — including TV star Morgan Fairchild, playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart), Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) and, in particular, playwright Doug Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife. In something of a heartfelt homecoming, Wright’s Broadway musical Hands on a Hard Body was staged by Theatre Three last year and Wright re-visited.
In 1979, Wright recalled, when he was 14, Alder cast him as a young boy in Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box. He sang “Goodnight Irene” onstage. After that, Wright said in a 2014 interview, “I did almost anything I could to stay there.”
“I spent the bulk of my childhood in these halls,” Wright said, “or in the Teen/Children’s Theater Program, as it was called, at the Dallas Theater Center. And those two institutions enabled me, as a nervous young gay kid in Texas, to survive childhood.”
As the ‘second theater’ in town, Theatre Three didn’t have the size, budget or the facilities to stage truly major shows — although the company occasionally did attempt Broadway musicals and Shakespeare plays. Instead, with characteristic pluck, Alder used the theater’s in-the-round intimacy to its advantage. He would leave the major Shakespearean works to the Theater Center and the Dallas Shakespeare Festival, as it was then known — and he championed Moliere and Shaw instead. If he couldn’t stage Rodgers and Hammerstein, he would specialize in Stephen Sondheim.
All those years ago, Theatre Three’s name was chosen because of Young’s belief that for theater to succeed, it required three essential elements: author, actors and audience. In Theater Three’s case, it’s hard not to continue the alliteration and add Alder.
Jac Alder’s mother Gladys died in 2010 at the age of 95. Alder himself is survived by two brothers and two sisters. Arrangements for his cremation are with Aria. Van Kleeck said the theater company was in the first stages of planning a celebration of Alder’s life and work. The theater’s current show, The Liar, will continue its performances this weekend.