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State Of The Arts: What Does The Dallas Theater Center’s Tony Award Really Mean?


by Jerome Weeks 9 Jun 2017 5:07 PM

The Tony Award is theater’s big prize, of course, and Sunday evening at Radio City Music Hall in New York, artistic director Kevin Moriarty accepted the regional theater Tony Award for the Dallas Theater Center. Here is his full acceptance speech:

Art&Seek’s Anne Bothwell and Jerome Weeks sat down to discuss what such a prize means to the 58-year-old company.

So Jerome, we learned back in May the Dallas Theater Center won the regional theater award. And of course, they’ve been super-excited. Artistic director Kevin Moriarty told Krys Boyd on THINK about learning the news but having to keep it secret: “I screamed and jumped up and down and then experienced the worst two days of my life because I was dying to tell everybody this great news and couldn’t.”

But the regional theater Tony is not like a best musical Tony – which can make a Broadway show a hit. So what does winning the regional award really mean?

JW: Obviously, it comes with some welcome national attention. A televised broadcast from Radio City Music Hall? That’s a nice moment in the spotlight, although that moment in the spotlight is pretty much all the country’s resident theaters get in the show, despite being the originating sources for many shows these days. The Tonys are really about the commercial theater, meaning Broadway.

But speaking practically, it’s not like thousands of theatergoers across America are now going to flock to the Theater Center. The Lookingglass Theater won the regional Tony, but I doubt there’s two dozen people in North Texas who know where it is. (Chicago.)  A regional Tony doesn’t even guarantee future success. Minneapolis’ terrific company, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, won the regional Tony in 2005. It went bankrupt three years later.

In short, the regional Tony Award can mean . . . nothing much. A burst of attention. A nice accolade soon forgotten.

On the other hand, for a very good reason, every recent winning theater conspicuously touts their Tony on their websites, in their programs, in their ads. They banner their theaters with the news.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Theater Center wasn’t trying to figure a way to paint the Wyly to look like a Tony Award. It can be a big deal.

The DTC's 50th Anniversary in 2011 included a panel at the Kalita Humphreys of the living artistic directors or their relatives, including Richard Hamburger, Robyn Flatt (daughter of founder Paul Baker), Adrian Hall, Linda Gehringer (widow of Ken Bryant)

The DTC’s 50th Anniversary in 2011 included a panel at the Kalita Humphreys of the living artistic directors or their relatives, including Richard Hamburger, Robyn Flatt (daughter of founder Paul Baker), Adrian Hall, Linda Gehringer (widow of Ken Bryant) and Kevin Moriarty.

So … what you’re saying is it’s a national award but its importance is really local?

Exactly. It’s like the Dallas Symphony touring Europe and getting good reviews. They’re not going to all that trouble just to collect nice press clippings for their scrapbooks. It’s not so much about impressing people in Vienna. The tour is really about impressing us. Touring Europe and getting acclaim? That helps sell the symphony orchestra back here. “Oh, goodness, they impressed the Austrians? What are they playing Friday?”

Same thing with the Theater Center’s Tony. People dismiss it as an example of Dallas’ insecurity and snobbishness: “Oh, we’re all just so hungry for acclaim from New York. And the Tony is all about the arts group wanting the bragging rights and the trophy on the shelf.”

Yes and no. The Tony represents a confirmation, a recognition of artistic merit from outside the local politics and advocacy and jealousies of any, small-pond, art scene. It says, “Our achievement isn’t dependent on the fact your sister loves working here. Or the grudge your friend has against us. People far away, with no direct connection to us, recognize this organization as valuable.”

The DTC's Arts District Theater, designed by Eugene Lee and built by artistic director Adrian Hall in 1984 so the company would have a toehold in the brand-new Arts District.

The DTC’s Arts District Theater, designed by Eugene Lee and built by artistic director Adrian Hall in 1984 so the company would have a toehold in the brand-new Arts District.

Why is such recognition important?

One reason today is the internet. Despite what internet advocates have been proclaiming for decades, the internet hasn’t really freed us from the supposed tyranny of critics and journalists like me. Rather, it has swarmed us with opinions and judgments and ratings. People are overwhelmed and don’t know where to turn, whom to trust. There are reviews of the Theater Center on Yelp, on TripAdvisor, Yahoo Local, all over your Facebook page, your Twitter feed. Who’s got time to sort through all that? Where’s a reviewer we can to find respect? People are busy, people have kids to raise.

Well, a Tony Award cuts through all that clutter. It makes an immediate impression. People who’ve never been inside a theater know what a Tony Award is. And that impact can prove particularly helpful in an area like North Texas where so much of the audience is brand-new, we get so much turnover, so many new people moving here every week.

So, say you’ve just moved to town, and you want to know, “What’s worth seeing around here?” Well, a nice, big Tony Award helps answer that question.

The original interior of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater.

The original interior of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater.

So how does a theater win the regional award?

Theater critics.

You’re saying critics are responsible for the Theater Center’s Tony Award??

Yep. Actually, members of the American Theatre Critics Association vote for the regional Tony winner. Typically, local critics nominate a worthy theater in their own area. Back in the ‘90s, as a member of the Critics Association, I nominated the Theater Center regularly. And collectively, the association’s choice gets sent to the American Theatre Wing, which runs the Tonys. I don’t know of any critics’ choice that was overruled, but I suppose it could happen.

But then I became a book critic and no one picked up the baton to nominate the DTC until Mark Lowry did five years ago. He’s a founder and the editor-in-chief of the website, TheaterJones, and all credit to his persistence. Each year, Mark passed around his nominating pitch to the rest of the area critics so we could edit it. Naturally – ahem – I think I improved it. And then Mark submitted it and we voted for it, year after year.

So why did the Theater Center win now?

Persistence – as I just pointed out – plus pedigree. We wore them down. Actually, most members of the Critics Association have never seen the Theater Center. The last time a large number of them were here was in 1995 when the national convention came to Dallas-Fort Worth. But they do pick up on a reputation. They’re not completely isolated. They do know a serious theater history when they see one, a good pedigree.

The DTC stretches all the way back to the very early days of the resident theater movement; it was founded by visionary artist-educator Paul Baker – who influenced experimental artists like director Robert Wilson. In the ‘80s, Adrian Hall kicked it up several notches with a professional acting company that was continued by the late Ken Bryant. Then Dallas built a radical theater building, a theater like no other with the Wyly, but a theater in keeping with the ambition of its first home, the Kalita Humphreys, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. At the time when it premiered in 1959, the Kalita Humphreys was considered almost as radical as the Wyly.

So there’s a long tradition of big, bold artistic choices. And recently, artistic director Kevin Moriarty has collaborated with other companies, like the Public Theater in New York. He’s developed and presented world premieres like ‘Stagger Lee’ and he’s brought in Broadway tryout after Broadway tryout. Some — ‘Moonshine: The ‘Hee-Haw Musical’ anyone? – I wish he hadn’t.

But all that premiering and networking gets the word passed around the country – and especially in New York. The larger New York area – that means Hartford to Jersey and down to Philly – has a major portion of the members of the American Theater Critics Association. You impress them, and you’re generally in.

So I’m saying, it took decades of effort from hundreds of actors and artists (and, ahem, critics) – and all the pieces finally fell into place this year. It’s what Moriarty himself has graciously said. It’s really not his Tony. It’s a collective, cumulative award.

“This award recognizes a body of work,” he told Krys Boyd. “It recognizes every carpenter, every marketer, every fundraiser, every board member. It recognizes the folks who have passed away after spending a lifetime believing in the power of art and the youngest folks who are participating in our education programs. It represents the city of Dallas.”

The Wyly Theatre, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramos. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Sunset at the Wyly Theatre, which was designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramos. Photo: Jerome Weeks

In other words, it’s a real honor.

It’s an affirmation of sorts, yes. So let’s celebrate.

But after the congratulations are done, the important question is what’s next? Winning the regional Tony Award has been a priority for the DTC since they hired Adrian Hall in 1984 — and winning it has been perhaps the top priority since 1996 when Houston’s Alley Theatre won the regional Tony. There was a degree of civic rivalry.

But now that the Theater Center has won the award, the question is: What’s the company’s motivation going forward? What do we do with whatever boost this trophy might give? Personally, I’d like to see an expanded and better utilized acting company, so more actors might actually stay and live in North Texas. I’d like to see playwright residencies, a commitment that puts the artists at the heart of this entire effort.

But seriously, whatever it might be, the board, the administration, they need to spell it out, if they haven’t already, in terms beyond the usual platitudes of a mission statement: What is the long-term target for our largest, oldest, richest company – now that it has a Tony?

Thanks, Jerome

It’s a pleasure, Anne.

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