Katherine Owens, founding artistic director of Dallas’s Undermain Theatre, died in late July after a prolonged illness. She was 61 and lived in Dallas with her husband and artistic partner, Bruce DuBose.
Born in Salt Lake City in 1957, Owens was raised in Odessa, Texas, by her father and mother, Jack and Gloria Owens, and worked as an intern at Odessa’s the Globe Theatre at an early age. She started her career in the theatre after graduating from the University of Texas with a BFA in theatre in 1981, first as a visiting artist at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and then as a director for the Oklahoma Shakespeare Festival.
She soon made her way to Dallas, where in 1984 she embarked on an artistic path to hep found and run one of the most noted small theatre companies in the country, the Undermain Theatre. Joining forces with a young actor, Raphael Parry, she met in Dallas, the two excavated a basement space beneath Main Street in Deep Ellum in a building located at 3200 Main Street.
Within the year, they asked DuBose, an actor, to join them in forming a company of longtime collaborators consisting of actors, designers, directors, and writers. Initially sharing the artistic direction of the theatre with Parry, who would move on from the theatre after a decade and a half, Owens’s cultural destiny would take her and her future husband and executive producer on a 35-year journey of award-winning productions, many of them premieres, along with tours in Europe and productions in New York City, all while forging relationships with a number of experimental American playwrights. The company also went on to present reimagined stagings of classic works by writers they saw as key artistic influencers of their experimental tradition.
Said Owens of her approach, “I think there are two traditions in the theatre—the hermetic and the heroic.”
In 1989, she directed David Rabe’s metaphysical underworld gangster drama Goose and Tomtom in an award-winning regional premiere that became a turning point for her in her work and that of Undermain. Rabe himself traveled to Dallas to see the production and said, “Her production reached into the essence of the play and with superb technique had made it manifest.” This began an artistic friendship which would lead to the production of two more of Rabe’s lesser-seen works, The Black Monk and The Dog Problem.
Owens also forged a long-time working relationship with avant-garde writer and Undermain company member Len Jenkin, premiering many of his later plays. The two were admitted as fellows to the Sundance Institute Theater Lab in 2015 to develop his play Jonah, which premiered at Undermain in 2016. “The same people have run it throughout [founders Katherine Owens and Bruce DuBose],” Jenkin said of Undermain. “I don’t think that situation duplicates in any theatre in the United States. I love their work, and I think they are a great American theatre. Kat Owens is a marvelous director. She runs on a powerful combination of great theatrical instinct and a wonderfully wide and deep knowledge of literature and human nature—and she loves and understands actors and directors, which is best of all.”
Another key collaborator was Tony Award-winning designer John Arnone, who said of Owens, “She gave each of us a part of herself to develop and elevate to an art form that she herself would marvel at.”
Other design collaborators include costume designer Giva Taylor, lighting designer Steve Woods, and scenic artist Linda Noland.
Owens’s work was not exclusive to the Undermain basement. In 1996, at the invitation of the Republic of Macedonia, Owens and the Undermain company ventured to Macedonia during the siege of Sarajevo in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina to perform Goran Stefanovski’s Sarajevo for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. They performed in Ohrid in the amphitheatre of the 10th-century Orthodox church, St. Sophia, in Bitola at the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre Hereclea, and in the capitol city of Skopje in a performance attended by the Macedonian president. Owens returned to Eastern Europe in 2001 to present a performance of Judges 19 by Ruth Margraff at the Belgrade international theatre festival in Serbia.
In 1999, Owens and DuBose began producing plays Off-Off-Broadway in New York City at the Ohio Theatre, HERE Arts Center, and Soho Rep’s Walker Space, culminating in a premiere production of Neil Young’s Greendale as a rock opera adapted for the stage by DuBose and directed by Owens to a sold-out run at the Ice Factory Festival. In 2018 she directed the world premiere of Lonesome Blues, a play about legendary blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson, Off-Broadway at the York Theatre, a play created by Alan Govenar with Akin Babatundé. In all, she directed well over 100 productions in her career.
Owens received multiple awards for her directing of such notable productions as An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Young Jean Lee’s The Appeal; classics such as Macbeth, Three Sisters, and Galileo; and world premieres including Gordon Dahlquist’s Tomorrow Come Today, Len Jenkin’s How is it that we Live, or Shakey Jake + Alice, Matthew Paul Olmos’s trilogy so go the ghosts of méxico, and Lynn Alvarez’s The Snow Queen, among many others. In 2010 she brought Obie-winning and Tony-nominated actor, writer, and performance artist Taylor Mac to Undermain to perform the solo piece The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac.
Her awards and honors also include Texas Woman of Distinction, Fellow of the Sundance Theater Institute, Dallas Institute of Humanities Fellow, D magazine Best of Dallas, and the Dallas 40 influencers, multiple Dallas theatre critics forum awards for directing and ensemble performance, Dallas Observer and Dallas Morning News best of lists, the Dallas Historical Society Award for Excellence, the Ken Bryant Vision Award and the McLean-Paris Award for Artists. She was member of the SDC.
She eloped with DuBose in 2000 and they married in London in a private ceremony at Rosslyn Hill Chapel in the Hampstead Heath district. The couple honeymooned in Morocco and Spain. She is survived by her husband, her sister, Kimberley Owens, and her brother, Carl Owens.
DuBose will continue their work at Undermain as producing artistic director to lead the Undermain in accordance with Owens’s artistic vision. In addition to her directing career, she was also a painter and photographer. Throughout the Undermain’s 2019-20 season, the theatre’s lobby will feature a celebration of her work in an exhibition of her watercolor paintings, drawings, and photographs, as well as her notebooks.