Adrian Hall has spent most of his artistic life circumventing the conventional and steering around the taboos of his time. The provocative theatre he has created along the way has sometimes outraged the stolid and the faint of heart among his audiences and the powers that be. But Hall has made a practice of confronting and, inevitably, overwhelming his detractors. In the process he has developed an honored place in Providence, Rhode Island, for the theatre he founded there more than 20 years ago, Trinity Repertory Company.
Not entirely content to have sculpted a successful company from New England rock, in 1983 Hall returned to his native state of Texas to put his brand on the Dallas Theater Center. As its artistic director as well as Trinity’s, Hall is in a unique position—commander of two major American theatres situated some 1,600 miles apart. He divides his time flying back and forth between Providence and Dallas—but he has found that it is more than distance which distinguishes the audiences of the capital of our smallest state from those of the enterprising “prairiegalopolis.”
Hall started Trinity Rep during the turbulent ’60s, when nonprofit theatres were exploding into existence across America. Most of these theatres declared their intent to develop and maintain resident companies capable of performing work not frequently seen in the commercial theatre—important work including ancient and modern classics and new plays—but ultimately few of these theatres were able to provide for continuing companies over a span of time. Costs were prohibitive, and most theatres fell back on the commercial model of hiring a pick-up cast on a show-by-show basis.
But Adrian Hall had encouraged a group of gifted young actors to move to Providence with him, and keeping them together, he decided, was priority number one. “They became the center of the experience,” Hall would say later, and this core group matured over a period of years into an extraordinary ensemble. Hall remained steadfast to the company concept and has sustained the cooperation of his actors even during times when many of their fellows were being lured from the theatre to more lucrative jobs in other media.
The Rhode Island soil was not entirely hospitable territory on which to develop such a company. Trinity struggled for several years playing out of a church basement, a school auditorium, an old theatre. In its third season, the National Endowment for the Arts, chaired by Roger Stevens, gave the institution its first major grant, which helped stabilize the company. Hall weathered a major blow in the mid-’70s, when his board of trustees dismissed him after an especially controversial season (which included Hall’s adaptation of James Purdy’s book Eustace Chisholm and the Works, a work which offended Providence opinion leaders with its vivid depiction of an abortion and its homosexual theme). Hall was given his walking papers, his supporters argued, for artistically challenging the community a bit too much, attendant with Trinity’s ongoing financial problems. But, in an unprecedented action, Hall, in turn, fired the trustees. He persevered in remaining head of the institution, and in short order organized a new board, one that was supportive of his goals.
board of trustees to seek out Hall as artistic director. The Center, founded in 1959, was a financially successful but hidebound institution in need of a dose of new energy to bring it into the ’80s. Hall would supply the excitement, but his history of blasting away at old perceptions, his penchant for inflammatory subject matter, even his often demonstrated disregard for the conventions of how theatre space should be designed—these things made him a dangerous choice. At the same time, Hall’s belief in the importance of a stable company of actors paralleled the founding philosophy of the Center. He was a native, having been born in Van, Texas, and his theatre tutelage had begun under Dallas theatre pioneer Margo Jones.
Hall could also count to his credit some major contributions to contemporary theatre, particularly his innovative adaptations of novels and biographical literature, and his spectacular stagings of them in an eminently American style that draws from vaudeville and the circus. The far-reaching influence of this work is most evident in the scenic designs of Hall’s long-time collaborator Eugene Lee in such productions as Broadway’s Candide and Sweeney Todd. Hall’s theatrical audacity, in fact, would seem the perfect addition to a raw-boned, vigorous city not afraid to shout about its desire to become a major-league cultural oasis.
But two years after arriving in Dallas, Adrian Hall is finding that it is difficult to go home again. His long, successful battle to win over Providence audiences had not prepared him to begin the struggle again in this once-familiar environment. He views his mission with objectivity mixed with melancholv.
“I think anybody interested in theatre should be terribly interested in what’s going to happen in Dallas,” he says decisively. “It becomes a microcosm for the whole country. It is successful. It is in the public eye. It does have all the resources in the world. There’s less unemployment, and there are more people every day. It’s all there. And yet, we’re vying for the attention of 80,000 people who go to every Dallas Cowboys game—how do you say to them, ‘Have you seen Ibsen’s The Wild Duck?’ It takes a long, long time.”
Talking with Adrian Hall is like conversing with an elemental force of nature. You ask a question and then hang on as he rolls over you with the animated energy of his answer. The remarks that follow were gleaned from two interviews: the first, full of optimism and certainty, was conducted in Providence; the second, some time later in Dallas, after Hall had just recuperated from a near-fatal automobile accident. He had become more reflective, and his delivery, still impassioned and energetic, had decelerated almost to the point of normal conversation.
Why did you choose to come to Texas and take on the burden of directing two large theatres?
Dallas, Dallas, Dallas. What an extraordinary place. There’s no logical reason why I came. It’s like Tennessee Williams, who was always so afraid of being analyzed. He kept saying, “Baby, I’m afraid if I understand it, it won’t interest me anymore.” The fact that my mother is 84 years old and lives in the country about 80 miles west of here undoubtedly had something to do with it. I was sentimental about the fact that I had grown up here and that Margo Jones’s theatre had been here. I liked the idea that no one had ever run two theatres like this in separate parts of the country. It appealed to me because being an artistic director is still a mystery to everybody. It’s not as understandable as being a general manager or a managing director—they have got to have a little law, accounting experience, certain managerial skills. Being artistic just seems like offering your opinion…which it is, of course.
Very early on, I categorically said that there was no way that I was going to give up Trinity Rep because I had worked there too long and too hard. Well, the Dallas board countered with, “Why don’t you do both?” In other words, they would not take no for an answer. That’s okay. I like that kind of tenacity. I wouldn’t have survived if I didn’t have that kind of tenacity. I made them come to Providence to see several different productions. I didn’t want them buying a pig-in-a-poke. And I must say that they have gone a mile out of their way not to tread on my prerogatives.
Then the relationship has been harmonious?
There are things about me that really irritate them, I know, and eventually, they will confront me with those things. One of them is the idea that names of plays are what sell people the theatre. Already they say, “Well, it’s a lot easier marketing this thing if we know the names of the plays. We don’t want to tell you what to do, but we need to know the names.” Well, I just keep laughing and saying, “That’s all I know for this year.” I’ve worked out a system in Providence that works really well for me. We run two theatres simultaneously. We usually announce the names of plays, even new plays, up through January. Then we announce three more events again in the spring, and two more at the end. But we never get six months ahead of ourselves.
Of course at Trinity, we’re working with a 544-seat flexible space upstairs and a 297-seat thrust stage downstairs. The facilities in Dallas are quite different. One of the first things I did was to build a tin barn right down in the so-called arts district that’s being developed in Dallas. Naturally, it’s going to be the biggest arts district in the world. I realized there needed to be a theatre down there that would take in the urban core of the city. The Center agreed to build this temporary kind of corrugated tin thing. It’s quite extraordinary. So I opened that along with the Frank Lloyd Wright [the Center’s mainstage facility], and also created a space in the basement. We cleaned out a bunch of offices, and I can seat 100 to 150 in there.
What was it like at the Center before you arrived?
Entirely different. Paul Baker had founded the theatre. He was a teacher, and basically, didn’t believe in the professional world, in the sense of specialization. Everybody acted and everybody worked in the box office and everybody swept the floor and everybody designed the lights. Well, unfortunately, that’s like buggy whips. There’s no call for them anymore, you know.
What caused the board to want to change the Center?
This was an old board which had been with Paul Baker for many years. They’re oilmen and cattlemen, and they just decided that what they want—although maybe it’s not what they should have—is a theatre that gets as much attention as J.R. Ewing or the Dallas Cowboys. Well, you see, I’m not so sure that the theatre shouldn’t be more community oriented, and, basically, I disapprove of the putting together of things in a great big way so that people feel about a Dallas museum the same way people in Paris feel about the Louvre. I just don’t think that’s the approach. Despite all the work that had been done in Dallas going back to Margo Jones, despite all of the money that’s here and all the desire for culture, the atmosphere is very cynical and fast.
“The one thing you take into the rehearsal hall every day is your ability to be a virgin all over again, to be naïve, to start at point zero.”
What is your approach then, to persuade the community to your point of view?
I don’t want to change everybody. But at the same time, if the attitude continues that a production in London is highly touted but the Dallas version of that same play is considered “amateur”—if that persists, I don’t know if a theatre can be built here. What many people aspire to seems to be some kind of image they consider “big time” or something like it. There’s something not quite legitimate about making your own, which is absolutely what the theatre is about if it’s worth its salt.
I have to stay on the road that I’ve set for myself. I don’t see that I have any choice. I’ve always done a juggling act between what I wanted to work on and what was the middle of the road. I certainly try to keep throwing in Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Shakespeare. But, if you look back in my history, it’s just absolutely peppered with new work.
In your early days in Providence, that new work was frequently controversial because of language and subject matter. In 1985, do you have an idea of what the reaction would be to that same material in Dallas?
There is a group here that really, truly resents anything that in their view constitutes four-letter words. And there’s no other element, not even nudity, that is as important to them. And I don’t know what to do about that. There was no doubt in my mind that I would outlive that element in Providence. I was so young and committed and I had no place else to go. I had to survive, and I had to get into a situation where I could fulfill myself, and the only way to do that was simply not to let the moralists or the religious purists, or whoever the hell they are, take it away from me. Now down here, it’s something else again. That very strong element is right out there slapping your hand and saying, “Don’t.” Sometimes we’ve done things at Trinity that were so controversial and so shocking that everybody had cardiac arrest. But every person who walked out is a subscriber now and has been for years. They do come back. Besides, if we had not been doing it on the stage back in those days, today we would look very silly. All of the taboos, as far as I’m concerned, have to do with time and the way society changes. An artist gets hung in trying to freeze things. I get by with outlandish things in Providence because of a permanent audience. They may go out saying, “Wasn’t it terrible? I hate that writer and I hate that play…” But they come again, and there’s no lack of support. Developing that audience just didn’t happen overnight.
Nina Vance [founder and former producing director of Houston’s Alley Theatre], before she died, told me a really touching story. We were talking about a play in which a four-letter word was used. Nina said, “I couldn’t do the play here without cutting that word.” She meant in Houston, a city with one of the largest crime rates in the world—a murder every 15 minutes, practically a frontier town, a place where people carry guns on the street. She was making theatre in that setting, and she couldn’t say a four-letter word on the stage? Then all I have to say to the people who think that’s important, and morally upright, is they’re a little bit out of touch with reality. I’m sorry. If you’re going to hang back with some convention, the world’s going to move right past you.
Have you had any particular problems in Dallas?
Okay. Here we go. Fool For Love was an enormous hit in Providence. It was still playing in New York when we began the Dallas production. Our Eddie, Richard Jenkins, has always been a big hit in Providence. Don’t you know that when it came to Dallas, one of the first words out of his mouth is a shocker and, inevitably, you could see those little gray heads getting right up and heading up the aisle, sometimes in pairs, sometimes singly. Dick had a shotgun in his hands and this couple bounced right up out of their seats and started heading up the aisle—so he just swung the shotgun around toward the audience. Everybody in the house—500 people—was suddenly aware of what was happening, and he said he didn’t know what he was doing but he just kept that gun trained on them. It took 30, 40, 50 seconds for them to get up the aisle. When they got almost to the top, a voice from somewhere called out, “Pull the trigger!” The house just broke up in laughter. So, in some funny way, they’re aware that they’re being silly and prudish.
I’m impatient. I want them to understand that it’s not that we’re saying those words. It’s the end of the 20th century in America, which is a phenomenon in relationship to an ancient craft, a craft that is older than Christianity, that is basically practiced the way it was thousands of years ago. I’ve come to be very irritated by their lack of respect for it. I feel like saying, “Sugar, we were here a long time before you. Don’t start with me on morality.
What identifies an Adrian Hall work, and how do you arrive at it?
To find the essence of the theatre one has to continually look at its opposite. You never see white quite so clearly as when it’s right against black, and you never see laughter quite so clearly as when it breaks your heart. And so I try to push together very different elements, rather than just decorating with one color. Always in a production of mine you see the warts. You’ve got to see the people pissing on stage and you’ve got to see them belch and fart and eat. I like to think that the one thing you take into a rehearsal hall every day of your life, in addition to a cup of black coffee, is your ability to be a virgin all over again, your ability to be naïve, to start at point zero. It won’t happen unless you keep pushing all the elements together in ways that an explosion is going to occur—and most of the time it doesn’t. So you’ve go to be able to pick up those pieces tomorrow and try to push them a little closer to something that comes alive. If you could go through rehearsal period with me and see the things that are eventually just discarded! It’s fraught with discovery, fraught with boredom. You just drag yourself home at night. One of my favorite phrases that I use in directing is, “Can’t you pull that closer to yourself?” My company now understands it. It says to the actor that he needs to continually change the thing in order to make the right connection. You know, Michelangelo was right about Adam and God almost touching. The right connection is terribly important.
How long does this process take?
I need more time than most people. I never go into a play with less than, say, 100 or 130 hours. In rep we don’t get a full eight hours of rehearsal. Sometimes we get five hours. On matinee days we don’t get any.
The unique character of your theatre work has been your collaborations in adapting literature to the stage.
I think a writer has the same slot in a creative process that actors have. I don’t think this continual filling and pushing and punching at the form of the written material is the answer. For example, I had found Robert Penn Warren’s poem Brother to Dragons through somebody at Brown University. And Red Warren was up at Yale so I just called and said, “Can I come to see you?” Well, there began just the most wonderful collaboration I’ve ever had. I just adored Red Warren, and he was intrigued with me. William Styron is another writer with whom I worked on a play. Robert Brustein [artistic director of American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge] called and said, “Would you like to work on this play with William Styron? He’s a neighbor of mine up on the Vineyard.” Somehow fate throws you together and it works. I worked with James Reston, Jr. on a play based on Our Father Who Art in Hell, his book about Jonestown. Richard Cumming and I did adaptations for five hours of that Edith Wharton series on television. Only two of the hours were ever filmed. We were paid very handsomely, but Richard and I wanted more out of it—we wanted breakthroughs. Those kinds of projects are tremendously exciting. Material really can be moved from one medium to another.
“Must we all put on three-piece suits and comb our hair before we’re going to be able to make a living at our craft?”
You’ve had great success directing the plays of Sam Shepard and Harold Pinter. What is it about their plays that enables you to reach the heart of these works?
I like to think of that whole school of writing as simply “to the bone.” Without trim. If you are willing to work as an artist, to work to the bone and not decorate, to not let the theatrical cliché come into it—if you are really willing to do that, then Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard are the playwrights to do it with. I have been stunned at how close I feel to Pinter. And that closeness comes out of relating to his terrors. You know we all have terrors. We all have fears of being boxed in, or not belonging, or somehow not being able to quite connect. Harold Pinter has expressed those terrors. Pinter came along in that era of the angry young man—he was a cockney Jew in England, and he’s still to this day writing out of real anger at bureaucracy and organization that forces rigid kinds of stereotyped roles.
In some funny way Sam Shepard is, too. Shepard’s work is special, very much his, and it’s not at all unlike my background. For instance, Buried Child is a play that I am very close to. I grew up on a ranch, on a farm. By the time I was grown my parents were quite old, and my father died about 15 years ago, so I really do relate to the play’s idea of a way of life coming to an end. Things will never be the same as they were on that farm in Texas at that time. The urban thing is very different. But still there is great longing.
Buried Child was one of the plays I chose to take abroad to India and Syria. I sensed that if we were going to be able to make any connection with audiences in a place as exotic as an Arab country or a country like India, the material that stood the best chance of connecting had something to do with land and family. They adored Sam Shepard. We opened in Bombay to a standing ovation. The reception was just extraordinary both in India and Syria. In large part that’s because Sam is not writing plot, he’s not writing what we used to think of as character revelation. He is really writing about cerebral things, universal things that are reflections of his life and his dreams and his observations of the American landscape.
The writers that I grew up with were Tennessee Williams and William Inge and Horton Foote and that American naturalistic school. My upbringing was really with the naturalistic Stanislavsky-Freudian-oriented theatre. In the ’50s that’s all there was—there were no “interiors.” Everybody said exactly what they meant and everybody heard it and responded accordingly. More recently, I couldn’t have done Pinter’s Hothouse the way I chose to do it—without explaining anything—without my naturalistic background. It’s just like a pianist—you really do have to know those scales backward and forward, and my scales came out of naturalism.
How did you survive your famous dismissal at Trinity and manage to reestablish yourself and the theatre?
In 1975, when I had my big fight and fired my board of directors, it all came to the front. What they wanted was instant recognition for raising money—a plaque in memory of a wife, their names in the paper, silly things like that. I was hanging on to this huge company that I insisted was going to be important one day. But nobody wanted to pay for that. That was too far in the future. The board’s response was always, “Look at so-and-so. They can do it for less money.” Well, what the so-and-sos were doing was simply hiring actors when they needed them and firing them when they didn’t need them. It meant that everybody beat the path right back to New York to work at the mechanics of a career—unemployment. Well, that’s not an indigenous theatre. I had been at Trinity eight or nine years when that rather notorious moment came and they said, “You’re fired.” Then it was a question of belief in myself. I knew that I could direct plays and I know also that I could lead a company, that I had given my life’s blood to that particular organization. But I would never have had the courage to say, “No, I’m not fired, you’re fired,” if I hadn’t believed that the company would stand behind me to a man. I really believed it. And they did. They said, “No, we will never work in this theatre again if Adrian Hall is fired.” That rather threw the board. Everybody thought I had signed my death warrant. There was speculation as to whether or not they would allow me to go back into the theatre. Then the media gradually turned that around so that I became an underdog hero. A few people began to write things—Carolyn Clay in Boston was wonderful, and so was Kevin Kelly.
Theatre Communications Group was supportive, and by then I’d been around the country enough that people came out of the woodwork to defend me. People sent telegrams to the local press. The actors took to the streets. They sold things. They rang doorbells. That went on for months. We didn’t know how we would survive. Gradually, the board began to be perceived as insensitive boors who were persecuting the artists. What it looked like was that I had taken the company and they had taken all the possessions—but what they had really taken was the responsibility for the plant. They didn’t know that real estate property outside a highly commercial area is not valuable—it’s nothing but dead weight. Just getting that off our backs with the rental for $1 a year was the greatest thing that ever happened.
Is working with your company of actors in Dallas similar to working in Providence?
It has not been as easy. But I think it can be done here. The talent pool is full of chaos now because for 20 years the goals have always been to get to Broadway or to get to Hollywood. At first, I was confused about why the talent pool was so fragmented and scattered. I mean, Dallas is a very large and rich city and Southern Methodist University has a professional theatre training school. Half of the commercial theatre world in New York is from Texas—the “Texas mafia.” I really think that until I came here and began to scream and holler, it hadn’t occurred to people that nobody was growing anything here.
And you’ve been here since 1983.
Yes. One of the things I said in the beginning—a little bit pompous but I didn’t know any better—was that I would need three years to really assess the talent pool. And by the end of three years I’d be able to have a real company. I knew I couldn’t just come and find 20 actors whom I wanted to work with. I knew it was going to take some time.
Are you still as committed to the company concept as when you created the Trinity ensemble?
I think, perhaps, it would be easier not to have a company. But life would not be nearly as full. See, what I’ve done in some really selfish, very specific way is create a situation which exactly meets my needs, so that all my time can be spent just with the work. I don’t even have a key to the building, nor do I want one. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a secretary. The reason I don’t have all those things is that I really want a life in the theatre.
But isn’t it inevitable that you will eventually lose your actors or at least a sizable number of them?
I’m really always disappointed and hurt when an actor feels he has to go away, but when he does I just have to make myself go with it. When the chance came for Barbara Meek to go to Hollywood and make a lot of money, I wasn’t about to say, “No, I need you.” She was the kind of actress she was because she put in so many years with the Trinity company. It caused a little hardship for me that particular season. Okay. But she was written out of the series after two or three years, and she came back to Providence. That kind of commitment comes only if you let go when the time to let go comes. Richard Kneeland, who has been with me since the beginning, wanted to go to New York a while back and be in that Frankenstein play. He was out six or eight months. Then, of course, he was very ready to come back after that. Richard has to know that he’s not going to hurt Adrian. His going won’t end our friendship. That’s very crucial to building a company. The only reason it hasn’t succeeded with my peers, whom I respect and admire and who are so gifted, is they just get to that place where they feel, “I can’t be hurt anymore and I’m not going to be.”
Aside from the obvious difficulties of running two big theatres, are there basic differences in the theatre today as opposed to when you started Trinity?
Ah, to survive in American theatre in the 1980s! It’s tough. I despair that ours is a country where an institution has got to become middle-of-the-road before survival can even be thought about. Artists since the beginning of time have been on the outside and on the left and on the underbelly. One despairs. Must we all put on three-piece suits and comb our hair before we’re going to be able to make a living at our craft? I used to go everywhere from the state arts council to Washington with my sweater on and my hair not combed and say I need this amount of money or this is what I would like. I’d talk to them. But that was a funny time, just after John Kennedy’s death and the establishment of the National Endowment. They really tried to listen to me…to understand. But that very quickly changed. Things got slotted into managers and accountants and lawyers and people who write grant proposals. It very quickly became specialists’ time.
How would you sum up the state of affairs of the theatre profession right now?
There are only two possibilities when you’re entering the American theatre—you can either have a career or you can have a life in the theatre. I have always wanted the career to take care of itself. One of the things that seems to be prevalent is the idea that theatre should give you back instant rewards. I am astonished at university kids who talk about getting agents and doing commercials. I wish it wasn’t so easy to pick up a job for 15 minutes. I think that’s a defeating thing. I think what people like us, the old dinosaurs and crocodiles who are still left, have to say is that a life in the theatre does exist and it’s a dream that’s very possible to turn into a reality now. But don’t expect to yield up all your pearls the first time you’re on stage. It’s just too complicated. It takes years of trying and figuring out, living and fighting back and being hurt. It’s a wonderful life, and you have to know more than any lawyer in the world knows. The craft yields its rewards. But finding a way to have a life in the theatre is very hard in our country. I’m so proud of being an American, but the European tradition in the theatre and their respect for that craft is much greater than ours.
I’m always amused at the theatre ads in The New York Times. Nobody seems to have a picture made with their arms down. They’re always waving or reaching up in some kind of state of exultation. And I think, “Well, that’s not really the way I live my life.” Quite often my arms are down, and so is my head. It was not until I went to Providence and was indeed running a whole institution all by myself that I began to reach down and touch my toes and try in some gut way to say what I have to say. In the next 20 years, the question is whether or not we’re going to be able to turn these institutions into things that can be expressive in a genuine and significant way. Will our young artists take up the cudgel? Do they really know that they’ve got to fight for this? If they don’t, darlin’, we’re going to lose all the stuff we have all literally staked our lives on.
Arthur Bartow is artistic director of New Playwrights Theatre in Washington, D.C.
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